Ava Episode One

Ava Episode One

Chapter 1

Leana’x

“It won’t be an issue, sir,” Leana’x said as she stood just behind the Captain’s desk, her hands clasped behind her back in a regulation pose.

Captain Chan stared back at her, one hand clamped on his jaw, the other drumming on his desk. “It better not be an issue,” he said, tone a controlled but warning growl.

Behind Captain Chan stood the recently promoted Commander John Campbell.

Though Leana’x was fresh out of the Academy, she’d heard about him. There were legends about him. And none of them – not a single one – were good.

He had a reputation for breaking ensigns – one that was way worse than Commander Sharpe’s.

Though she knew she should be cowering in front of him, she wasn’t. Not during this conversation, at least.

There were few things in life Leana’x had strong opinions on. This? Her heritage? This was one of them.

“With all due respect, sir, I’m 100th in line for the throne. It would take the complete destruction of the Artaxan Family for me to ever see the position as Prime Queen,” Leana’x said, and her voice didn’t waver at all.

Maybe it should have.

She knew what the Prime did. And though the Coalition thought it had a good enough relationship with the Artaxan Protectorate to understand their ways, they didn’t.

The Artaxan Protectorate dealt with 90% of the information resources of the Coalition. Her people had been bred for that specific task. It was what gave them meaning. To an Artaxan, dealing with information – whether it be collecting it, disseminating it, or hiding it – was what gave them purpose in life. And as for the Artaxan Royal Family? The ruling body of the entire Artaxan Protectorate? They bodily dealt with the information.

That was no colorful analogy. The Prime Queen’s entire physique had been altered on her ascendance to the throne to ensure that every single cell and every single neuron pulsed with the information of the Artaxan Protectorate.

Though it was true that the first 10 or 20 members of the Royal Family were important – and helped the Queen with her enormous task, Leana’x was the 100th in line for the throne.

The 100th. The throne line ended after her.

Captain Chan didn’t look impressed, so Leana’x cleared her throat. “Believe me, Captain, my people wouldn’t have let me join the Academy, let alone join active service, if they… cared,” she managed, and though she hadn’t intended to show any emotion in front of Captain Chan – let alone Commander Campbell – she did. Her voice wavered, if only for a second.

It was enough to piss her off.

Suffice to say, there was absolutely no love lost between Leana’x and the rest of the Royal Family. Why should there be? She was right at the end, the least important member of the Family. While that technically put her above the rest of the citizens of the Artaxan Protectorate, it put her at the absolute bottom of the Royal Family. And considering the Royal Family had a reputation for being aloof and weren’t allowed to be approached by their own people, that left Leana’x on her own.

There’d been a reason she’d joined the Academy – to get away from her people.

So she tilted her head back, let her chin jut out, and faced the Captain just as she had Commander Sharpe or any other bully who had ever gotten in her way. As the 100th, she had plenty of experience with it.

Captain Chan shrugged. “I suppose you have a point. But that’s not what I’m getting at. Though I agree that it is extremely unlikely that your position as,” he darted his eyes down to the data pad in front of him, “100th and last in line for the throne would have much of a bearing on your work here, I’m trying to warn you that any arrogant behavior will not be accepted.”

Leana’x tried to control her reaction, but it was hard. This felt like a slap. While Captain Chan didn’t know her, for God’s sake, he had her file right in front of him. It would tell him she had never acted inappropriately during her career as a cadet. Though the Artaxan Royal Family had a deserved reputation for being arrogant and elitist, as she’d already pointed out, she’d never had that luxury. Leana’x had always been alone.

She tried not to let her jaw harden too much – do that, and Commander Campbell would pick up on it instantly. His gaze was locked on her, his searching violet pupils like two targeting sensors ready to pick up her minutest movement and relay it back to the Captain.

She took a tense breath. “I think – or at least I would hope – that my service record stands for itself. There were no incidents,” she began, then she stopped with a twitch.

She’d been intending to say that there had been no incidents at the Academy during her entire tenure there, but that wasn’t true. During first year, one of the Artaxan lecturers had bowed down to her during class, before ultimately quitting because he didn’t believe he had the right to be anywhere near her. And in third year, one of the ordinary Artaxan recruits had quit for the same reason.

It was Commander Campbell’s turn to clear his throat. “Finish your sentence,” he warned.

Though her natural instinct was to stare at him exactly like you would a prowling predator – or one of the numerous arrogant princes she’d had to deal with through her life – she took a steeling breath instead. “Neither of those incidents were my fault,” she began.

“Two people quit over you, Ensign,” the Captain said.

“I didn’t ask them to.”

“But they did. And, though I specifically brought you here to grill you, you are right – I can see your service record. And on available evidence, you were absolved.”

She looked up, containing her excitement, just as she had been taught to as a child.

“But again,” Captain Chan said as he pulled his hand from his face, locked both of his arms flat on his desk, and leaned forward, “that’s not my point.”

She resisted the urge to swallow. Just as she’d dealt with arrogant, angry men like Commander Campbell before, she’d also dealt with leaders exactly like Captain Chan. Her upbringing as the 100th had given her just the skills she required to excel at the Academy. She had diplomatic and social abilities few did. But she hadn’t bothered to excel. She didn’t want to. Do that, and people would simply question her success. If she ever managed to do anything extraordinary, people would dismiss it, assuming she had cheated her way to the top because of her position as a member of the most powerful royal family in one of the most powerful sovereign states of the Coalition.

Her heritage would haunt her her entire life. If she ever rose through the ranks to become captain, let alone admiral, there’d be no respect there – people would just whisper behind her back like they’d always done.

So Leana’x’s ambitions were checked. They had to be for her own mental well-being. All she wanted to do – all she damn well wanted to do – was to become an engineer. A low-class engineer. The kind who would spend the rest of their lives crawling through tunnels, taking orders, and keeping their desires to explore the galaxy checked.

“With all due respect, sir, what is your point?” she asked. Though someone without her experience would’ve shown utmost deference, she could read the tone of the conversation.

Captain Chan looked right into her gaze. Commander Campbell? He growled, shifted forward, and locked a tense hand on the table. “You’ll speak when spoken to, Ensign. Show some respect,” he snapped.

There was that word again. One she knew she should ignore. Respect.

Could she ignore it?

No. Because from the second she’d walked on board the Hercules and endured Commander Campbell’s ‘welcoming’ of the new recruits, he’d started to rub her up the wrong way. He obviously thought she was incapable of showing respect. Which was a slap in the face.

She’d been wrong before when she’d said she had plenty of experience dealing with men like him. There was a slight difference. Though she’d been able to run away to the Academy to get away from the arrogant princes of the Artaxan Family, she would now be stuck here forever under Campbell’s command.

That didn’t stop her from standing her ground. She swiveled her gaze from Campbell back to the Captain and took a risk. “Forgive me for reading the conversation incorrectly, Captain. However, when you brought me here, you told me to speak informally.”

Campbell opened his mouth with such strength and speed it looked as if his jaw would unhinge and spring across the room.

Captain Chan raised his hand.

Though it didn’t seem possible that there would be anything in this world that would shut Commander Campbell up, let alone pull him back from an imminent attack, Captain Chan’s hand was it.

Leana’x had heard from several of the other chatty ensigns that Chan was a surrogate father of Campbell.

Campbell had lost all of his family during a Barbarian attack 20 years ago on a research facility. Chan had been in charge of the Hercules even then, and it had been the first ship on the scene to the research colony where Campbell had grown up.

Chan, as the story went, had taken a liking to the young Campbell, swept him under his wing, taken him off to the Academy, and taught him everything he knew.

Now Campbell was Chan’s own personal pit bull, not that the Captain would see it that way. Campbell, however, would. Just one look in his eyes, and Leana’x could tell exactly what ran the man – loyalty. Or at least a twisted sense of it. For it was a twisted sense of loyalty that had dogged Leana’x her entire life. It was the twisted loyalty of the third-year recruit and the lecturer at the Academy that had seen them quit, all because they didn’t want to sully her with their presence. It was the twisted loyalty of the Artaxan people as a whole that kept the Royal Family raised up like gods.

And it was a twisted loyalty she had specifically come here to get away from.

With her hands still tightly clasped behind her back and her head still tilted high with measured defiance, she took another step toward the desk. “With all due respect, Captain, you asked me here so that I could put your mind at ease. And the only way I can do that is if I speak freely.” She flicked her gaze toward Campbell just long enough to see he looked ready to explode. “My answer is this. I can’t guarantee how… other members of the Artaxan Protectorate will react to me. I can only guarantee how I will react to them. And hopefully my service record in front of you will confirm that I did not seek the resignation of either Cadet Haioco or Lecturer Jiovo. In fact, I did all I could to ensure they did not quit. I even agreed to a plan that would ensure I did not come in contact with them. I cannot… answer for my culture. I can only try to adjust my life in any way I can,” she said. Unconsciously, she started speaking in the same register and with the same diplomatic but forthright manner she’d been taught to as a child. Despite the fact Leana’x was the lowest member of the Royal Family and would never, ever, ever become Prime, she was still part of the Artaxan Family. As such, she hadn’t had an ordinary upbringing. She’d been schooled in the mannerisms of the Royal Family, even if she’d ignored them. Sometimes, despite her best efforts, they would shine through.

Luckily for her, Captain Chan looked impressed, not aggravated. He unclenched his arms from his desk, leaned back, rested them easily on the table, and looked at her evenly. “Say I believe you. Say I am willing to take your service record and your impassioned speech at face value. Tell me, Ensign, what happens if we come in contact with your own people? You must understand that you are no longer at the Academy now, and while there you could technically put in place systems to ensure that you did not run into your people, we’re in space now,” he said, voice grating down low on the word space. “It’s not impossible – and in fact, very likely – that we will be sent on missions where we will come in contact with your people. What will you do then?”

She let her gaze drift down to the table as she tried to control her expression. The last thing she wanted to do was run into members of her own race, let alone her own family – and the latter was far more likely than it seemed. While the first 25 or so members of the Royal Family were always kept on Artaxan One – the Prime world of the Artaxan Protectorate, which consisted of 10 of the most abundant planets in all of Coalition space – the other 75 members in line for the throne were deliberately spread across the galaxy. That’s why it had been so easy for Leana’x to join the Academy. The rest of the princes and princesses of the Artaxan Family became dignitaries, diplomats, important people. They were also forced to keep regular contact with the Prime. Leana’x didn’t have to. She was nothing more than a safety blanket. Or a round number, maybe – it was neater to have 100 members of the Royal Family rather than 99, right? It would take a catastrophic event of unforeseen proportions to eliminate the Prime, let alone the first 25 people in line for the throne. To kill all 99 people in front of Leana’x?

Impossible.

Everyone recognized this, except for Captain Chan and Commander Campbell, it seemed.

“What would you do, then?” Campbell snapped, voice reverberating and punching hard through his chest.

“Hopefully, sir, I’ll be safely tucked away in some engineering duct somewhere. Though you are absolutely right, and we will… statistically come in contact with my people, there’s no reason I can’t avoid them on this ship. And if,” she got there first before Campbell could snap at her once more, “I am forced to interact with my people, I will do so with the same level of dignity I have always done so. Though you may not believe this,” she specifically ticked her gaze toward Campbell, “I don’t share the same attitudes as most of the rest of the Royal Family.”

“And what’s that?” Chen pushed.

Perhaps she should’ve aimed to have ended this conversation sooner, because, despite her best efforts, she was starting to get emotional. The same twisted anger that had seen her leave Artaxan one and join the Coalition Academy in the first place started to climb up her back, wrapping around her spine until it felt as if she were being tortured by a babas – a unique information-gathering tool developed and later banned by her people. “I am 100th in line for the throne,” she pointed out, her voice defeated – but not with the fact that she would never ascend to the Prime – just the fact that she had to have this conversation at all. “I will never ascend. If anyone else before me dies, Captain, they will name new people to replace them. I will never be more than 100th in line to the throne. I am the last in the pecking order of the Royal Family. The lowest of the low. But because of their culture, I can never interact with the other Artaxans,” she said, and again she tried to control her emotion, but it was there – anyone would be able to hear it there twisting through her tone, constricting her throat, making her words breathy, sharp hisses. “If that’s a position you envy, go ahead and take it up,” she said – not to the Captain – but to Campbell as he snarled at her once more. She took a moment to compose herself before she swiveled her attention back to the Captain. “I apologize for my outburst, sir, but if that’s what it takes to make you understand my position, so be it. I didn’t ask for this life. I was given it. And though you may think it is one of privilege, let me tell you, you are sorely mistaken. Though I’ve never had to scrape for a penny in my life,” she said, borrowing a human phrase she’d heard on Earth a lot, “I have never been free. I would have preferred to scrounge for my life on a colony world than have lived in a golden cage.”

“You think—” Campbell began, and there was a particularly deadly look in his eyes. Her comment had obviously triggered something for him, but before he could explode, Captain Chan rose from his desk.

Leana’x watched him. Maybe she’d overstepped the line, maybe she hadn’t. Chan gave nothing away until he let out a sigh. “Good answer, Ensign. And though you have obviously been schooled to hide your emotions, I don’t mean to insult you, but you haven’t done a particularly good job today,” he pointed out.

Her cheeks stiffened.

“Which is a good thing. I can see you are honest. You came to the Academy to get away from your… unique solitary position,” he said, carefully saying the word solitary. “So I will answer the question for you.”

Momentarily, Leana’x was confused. She’d forgotten all about the question. Her mind was completely taken up with the exact ruddy color of Campbell’s cheeks, the exact hard line of his chiseled jaw. Though he was meant to be handsome, you wouldn’t be able to tell that now. Because now? He was angry. Seething.

What had she said? That she’d rather scrape for a penny than be a trapped princess?

Captain Chan cleared his throat. “The answer to the question is this – you will not have to actively avoid your people. You will be given warning if or when they come on board, and with Chief Engineer Barlow, we will ensure that you are… sufficiently out of sight. Do you agree to this proposal?”

Leana’x didn’t pause. She nodded vehemently, a few flecks of her ordinary hair spilling free from her ordinary bun. Though many of the other princesses closer in line to the throne were stunning, you could only just tell that Leana’x was a member of the Royal Family.

She had two lines of markings running up and down her entire body, from the tips of her toes to over her chest, to her throat, her cheeks, and her head, then down her back. They were barely there, though, and in poor lighting, you wouldn’t be able to see them.

As for the rest of her?

Ordinary.

She kept it that way, too. Though there were tried-and-true methods to play up her looks, she wouldn’t dare. There was no damn point. Ensign Subclass Leana’x Artaxan was more than happy to spend her life in the shadows.

With her hands still clasped behind her back, she nodded low, only letting her gaze flick toward Campbell once or twice. That was enough to see that he hadn’t calmed down any. The way he was looking at her? It reminded her of a rampaging Varnax bull.

Captain Chan quickly shooed her out, and Leana’x turned hard on her regulation boots, snapped a salute, and walked away.

She’d known this conversation would happen. She’d been dreading it ever since the day she’d graduated from the Academy.

But it had gone pretty well. So now Leana’x could slip back into the shadows forevermore, right?

Chapter 2

Artaxan One, Artaxan Palace

The allotted dignitaries waited for the arrival of the Coalition emissary.

Standing atop the primary palace building, they were afforded the most stunning view in all of Artaxan One. The palace was an enormous tower that reached high into the sky, one of the most ambitious structures the Artaxans had undertaken, and that was saying something. Springing from their information gathering prowess, they were some of the most skilled engineers in all of the Coalition. The tower was a modern marvel, and it was high on many people’s lists to visit, but to do so, you either had to be a member of the Royal Family, or have an explicit invitation from the Queen.

The Coalition emissary had the latter.

Though the Coalition higher ups had direct lines of communication with the Artaxan ruling hierarchy, this was a special visit.

This was a visit where they would discuss what would happen next.

A plan to prevent the oncoming invasion. An invasion few people in the Milky Way knew was coming, but an invasion that would come nonetheless.

The welcoming committee stood there in their floorlength purple robes, their green, crystalline hair shimmering under the sun.

They were members of the Royal Family, and as such, their hair became greener and more crystal-like the closer to the throne they were.

The Prime?

The Prime was a marvel.

Few ever got to see her. As per tradition, the princes and princesses next in line to the throne attended to her every need. Outsiders? They would never see her. Unless under extraordinary circumstances. For if they saw her, they would not understand.

The Coalition thought the traditions of the Artaxans to be quaint. Though they were fully aware that the Artaxans believed that their Prime bodily processed enormous streams of information, it wasn’t a story.

It was a remnant.

From those who had come before.

There were very few sovereign states within the Coalition that remembered the before times. That remembered the Force – the strongest threat the Milky Way – nay the universe – had ever faced.

The Artaxans were one of them. They gathered information, no matter the costs. Whether it be from their own people, or whether it be from civilizations of years gone by. They were some of the most accomplished historians and archaeologists in the Milky Way.

So they knew about the force.

And the Queen?

She had been specifically engineered by those who had come before to never forget.

So the visit of the emissary would be special.

Today, for the first time in Artaxan Family history, an outsider would be let into the throne room.

The princesses and princes who would form the welcoming guard chatted nervously amongst themselves. Though they understood part of the importance of this visit, only the Queen herself comprehended how key this would be.

For the Milky Way was on a precipice. And unless it acted now?

The Force would spill in from every direction and claim all.

Finally, the interplanetary sensors detected an incoming vessel. Sleek, silver, and no larger than a hand. It was of a design never before seen in the Coalition.

Rumor had it that it had been built using technology obtained from the attack on the Academy by the Circle Traders.

As the ship sped down through the atmosphere, it was only through the roving holographic panels that spread across the roof that the princes and princesses could see it. And stared they did as the ship began to shift. Gravitational waves spread across the sleek, small vessel’s surface and, before their very eyes, it grew. Like bubbling mercury, it shifted and undulated, the port side growing to 10 times its original size, only to shrink back.

Several people gasped as the ship finally came within visual distance of the roof.

The extremely sophisticated warning sensors that protected the palace went haywire, but the princesses and princes did as they’d been told – and turned them off. For this visit was expected. Demanded by the Queen. And nothing would stop it.

Little did they know the specific warning sensors that had protected the palace for centuries knew more than they did.

“Stop that,” Prince Maqx said with a snarl as he shifted his hand toward one of the roving holographic panels.

Though such technology was employed throughout most of the Coalition, this technology was different. More sophisticated. For as Prince Maqx spread his hand wide, his fingers practically creaking from the strained movement, a holographic panel split apart, momentarily becoming charged particles of light that zipped and zapped a meter in front of him. They shifted backward, propelling themselves toward one of the sophisticated control panels on the opposite side of the roof.

The electrified particles could not only be commanded to display any image Prince Maqx saw fit, but they could be redirected to perform tasks, too. Though the requisite nanobots were too simplistic to form armor or a security drone, they were more than enough to give the Prince the equivalent of a ghostly grip as he pressed his finger forward as if he were tapping the console all the way on the opposite side of the roof.

The holographic nanobots reached the security console with a zap and typed in the correct code that would eliminate the massive security field that kept the Prime Palace safe.

It was just in time as that sleek Coalition vessel undulated once, twice, then a third time. With a sound unlike anything in reality, it formed in full.

Prince Maqx had heard from Royal Family engineers that this ship would change everything. Not only could it travel through space using a fraction of the energy it would take to shift a heavy cruiser, but it was practically undetectable. It could be used for extraterrestrial and terrestrial missions. Though it could be compressed no smaller than the relatively tiny size of a human fist, that was sufficient to employ it in all sorts of covert missions on-world.

Though at first Prince Maqx shivered, soon enough, a smile spread across his lips.

Powerful technology indeed.

The ship landed without a sound.

Several of the princes and princesses around Maqx gasped at this.

They were all schooled in engineering, physics, too, and what they were witnessing should have been impossible.

As the ship touched down, it seemed to be nothing more than an apparition. For the roof did not shake, it sent no wind buffeting against them, and it did not stink of the scent of burnt up ozone that was always produced when a vessel of any size re-entered from orbit.

No… it was almost as if it wasn’t there at all, just a figment of their imaginations.

Though the other princes and princesses waited, Maqx did not.

He strode forward.

There was a smile on his lips.

Commander Campbell

He knew he should calm down. Chen had told him as such. Campbell couldn’t.

He had a deserved reputation at the Academy for being a pit bull.

When he felt somebody was going after one of his friends – testing his loyalty – Campbell reacted.

He wished it was something he could control, but it wasn’t.

Because this sense of loyalty was honestly the only thing that had kept him going, that had seen him succeed where the rest of his family had died.

And the Princess Leana’x Artaxan?

She was the new target of his anger.

He couldn’t quite get what she’d said out of his head. That the arrogant, privileged, foolish Princess would’ve preferred to scrounge for every penny rather than live the privileged life she had.

She was an idiot. Worse than that. Someone who had absolutely no clue how the rest of the galaxy worked.

Did she honestly think she would’ve preferred to have grown up on one of the colony worlds? Did she honestly think she would’ve preferred to switch lives with Campbell?

How would she feel if the rest of her family had been brutally murdered in front of her eyes? If she’d spent night after night dreaming about them, hoping and wishing that one day she would get the chance to avenge them, but knowing that that would never happen? Because the Barbarians who had torn through his colony world would be long dead, killed by more of their kind, consumed by the viciousness that was inherent in their culture.

But did that make it better? No. It made it worse. Because there would be no one to answer for the crimes committed against Campbell’s family.

There would never be an outlet for his anger. It would just keep growing.

Though Campbell had spent years trying to control his natural fire, occasionally he’d come across people who just rubbed him up the wrong way, and Ensign Leana’x was one of those people.

She was currently in the mess hall, two tables behind him as he sat at the bar.

His friend, the security officer Lieutenant Wko, was beside him, trying his best to distract Campbell.

Campbell wouldn’t have been distracted if a raging admiral had suddenly appeared. He clutched his drink so tightly, his fingers could’ve melted through the glass.

Wko gave an uncomfortable laugh. “Who’s got your goat today?” he said with the kind of long-suffering sigh that should have gotten Campbell’s attention.

Campbell focused everything he had on picking up what Leana’x was saying.

She was talking with one of the other ensigns – a medical recruit, obviously one of her friends from the Academy.

“It’s meant to be important though, isn’t it?” Ensign White commented as she tapped her hand on her drink.

Though Campbell would’ve loved to get Leana’x for drinking off-duty – considering all engineers weren’t allowed to consume alcohol unless they were off for more than a day – Leana’x wasn’t drinking anything. She didn’t drink or eat in front of anyone. For some damn arrogant reason, she only ever ate in her quarters.

She didn’t want the ordinary, lower-class people to see her do something as undignified as biologically existing.

That fit the narrative he was building in his head for her to a T.

Leana’x shrugged. “I guess.”

“I mean, this has never happened before, has it? A Coalition emissary actually meeting the Prime,” White said, a certain amount of glee in her voice.

Campbell was keeping a watch on them through the reflective panel behind the bar in front of him.

He had the ability to split his attention, and it was enough to see Wko sigh, shake his head, chuck down the contents of his drink, and shift away.

Campbell cleared his throat. “Stay where you are, Lieutenant,” he said, voice dropping down until it sounded suspiciously like an order.

Wko sniggered. “You can’t order me to drink with you. Especially when you’re being as sociable as a bulkhead. I should leave you in place to spy on your own,” he said, and fortunately he didn’t let the word spy carry.

“You make me less conspicuous when you’re there,” Campbell pointed out immediately.

This elicited a rattling snort from Wko. “I thank you, friend. That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. I have a suggestion, though. If you’re so bothered by her – don’t spy on her, go talk to her.”

For the first time, Campbell swiveled his gaze off the reflective panel and locked it on Wko. “I don’t trust her. And that’s as far as it goes.”

Wko let out another long-suffering sigh. “Though, on any other day, I would trust your instincts – because God knows they’re good, if irritating – the Ensign has been here for a few weeks. She wouldn’t have had time to do anything to get on your nerves. Even you aren’t that quick to dismiss people,” Wko said, and there was a pleading edge to his voice, not a firm one.

Campbell didn’t deign to answer.

He cleared his throat, shifted forward, and ordered Wko another drink from the barman.

Hercules had a real human barman – several staff volunteered for the position. It brought a human touch to the place. Which was one of the reasons why Campbell had never bothered serving on another vessel, despite the fact he now had a strong enough career record to apply to be a captain.

He didn’t want to, he kept telling himself. Because this place? It felt like home.

Captain Chan had this uncanny ability to bring out the humanity in most situations, and until John learned how to do that, he knew in his heart of hearts he would never have the skills to command.

So he stuck around. He also watched the captain’s back. Because although Captain Chan was an incredible leader, he had a blind spot. And John was 150% sure that the Captain had got it wrong when it came to Ensign Leana’x.

Wko let out a long-suffering sigh – his third for the night – sat down, accepted the drink from the barman, and went right back to being John’s wing man, providing him with all of the cover he needed to lock his attention on the reflective panel as he spied on Leana’x.

White kept pushing, obviously fascinated to learn anything more about the Artaxan Royal Family.

Her and the rest of the crew. After all, the Artaxans were the most powerful sovereign state within the Coalition. They held the keys to so much information, they were indispensable. Indispensable and secretive.

So, in a way, he couldn’t blame White for fixing a grin on her face, leaning closer to Leana’x, and shooting her a pleading look. “Come on, you’ve got to know something. I mean, you’re a princess, aren’t you? Haven’t you been to the Royal Palace? You know it’s the Third Wonder of the Galaxy? But so few people will ever be able to see it. You’ve seen it. You’ve gotta tell me what it’s like.”

Though Campbell wanted to tell himself that the way Leana’x looked at her supposed friend was with arrogance, some little scrap of his mind that hadn’t given away to his anger told him it was boredom.

Leana’x shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a building,” she said. “It’s nothing special.”

White looked seriously excited. “But you’ve been there. How many times? What was it like?”

Leana’x started to look uncomfortable. She also swiveled her gaze to the side in a practiced, careful move. Several other ensigns and lieutenants in the mess hall were listening in to their conversation.

“Can’t we talk about something else?” Leana’x tried.

“But the meeting is meant to happen tomorrow,” White lowered her voice in what she probably thought was a conspiratorial tone, but was one that still echoed throughout the mess hall.

Just when Campbell thought Leana’x wouldn’t answer, she lowered her gaze. She tapped one finger on the table.

It was her left index finger, and there was a ring on it. A ring that, according to her file, she wouldn’t take off. It was a symbol of her power, and that, more than anything, got John’s goat, as Wko would say.

Despite her heirs and graces, Leana’x was still a member of his team. And she had absolutely no right to think she was better than anyone else. And that ring? It stood for everything. If he ever got the chance, he was going to demand she take it off. Plus, it was probably an engineering risk. It was too bulky to permit fine work.

John made a note to chat with Chief Engineer Barlow about it later. For now, he listened in as Leana’x let out another sigh.

“Yeah, okay, it’s historic. You’re only allowed into the palace with an invitation by the Queen – even if you’re… a member of the Royal Family,” Leana’x said, and unlike White, she knew how to drop her tone so it couldn’t be heard. Though a few other ensigns and lieutenants had stopped their conversations to listen in, they wouldn’t be able to pick her up. As for Campbell? He had implants.

He was sporting a new set of bioactive armor. One that had been developed for combat specialists just like him.

It had been grafted onto his skeleton, and it gave him abilities few others had.

So he could hear, all right, hear as Leana’x gave another sigh. “Before you ask, I don’t honestly know. The Prime… she doesn’t… let people see her,” Leana’x said, and Campbell would be a fool not to pick up the tension grating through her tone. It was the kind of tension that Campbell would’ve thought belied trauma in someone else, but in Leana’x? It had to be a ploy.

White couldn’t pick it up. She leaned forward, that excited look growing all the brighter as if her pupils had been replaced with glowing supernovas. “Why not? What does she look like? Don’t your people have some kind of theory that the Prime bodily processes information or something? Is she like… hooked up to a machine or something?”

If Leana’x had been any other person, Campbell would have intervened in the conversation. Though he might see red when it came to her, White had asked a culturally insensitive question.

Though spying on Leana’x through the reflective panel would be hard for anyone else without the specifically sophisticated endoskeleton armor John had onboard, it was easy for him. Easy enough that he could see Leana’x’s lips tighten and pale just a shade whiter.

Chan had been correct – and Leana’x had obviously been schooled in how to control her emotions. She was doing a good enough job of keeping them hidden from her friend, White, but John saw the tension rising through Ensign Leana’x just as obviously as if it had been written across her forehead.

“She’s not hooked up to machines,” Leana’x said tactfully, dropping into the specific tone she’d used on Captain Chan. “But I should probably return to engineering.” Leana’x cleared her throat and stood up.

“Wait, don’t you have several hours left before your shift?” White insisted.

“I just remembered a matter I haven’t discussed with the current duty. I forgot to warn them of a problem in the neural link conduit below life-support,” she said.

What she was implying was a serious breach of duty.

John stood, turned, and looked right at Leana’x. “Did I just overhear you correctly, Ensign?” he began, voice as hard and stiff as a whip.

She did it again. Looked at him evenly from underneath her eyelashes, though it wasn’t meant to be a pretty move. It was the kind of glance that told anyone she would not be intimidated, and it, more than anything, got John’s proverbial goat.

He was used to people being scared of him. And maybe… maybe part of him realized that was a safety blanket. Because if people were scared of him, they couldn’t get close to him, couldn’t question why he was the way he was. And couldn’t ever realize what he’d lost.

But Leana’x didn’t react. “I assume you overheard me correctly, considering you have spent the last five minutes eavesdropping on our conversation,” Leana’x said evenly.

Wko snorted, swiveling around in his chair. “Ah, no, we weren’t,” he began.

John cleared his throat.

If only a few people had been listening in to Leana’x’s conversation with White before, now every single person stopped what they were doing, turned around from their drinks, and stared.

“What did you just say to me, Ensign?” John growled.

“I pointed out the obvious. I suggest next time you attempt to eavesdrop, you do so more subtly. And as for what you correctly overheard – I lied,” she pointed out easily.

“What?”

“I don’t have a critical error that I must inform the current engineering duty of. I was simply attempting to politely end this line of questioning,” she said.

Though he hadn’t had many interactions with Ensign Leana’x up until now, there was one thing he could easily tell – she had two modes. Her ordinary attitude, and the diplomatic mask she could shrug into whenever she needed to. She would control her tone, control her emotions, and it would make her look the picture of the arrogant princess he knew she was on the inside.

His lips pared back. “Do you know the penalty for lying to a superior officer?” he began, not thinking straight.

“Yes. I am familiar with the Ordinance Objective 9A. However, it fails to apply. The conversation you,” she cleared her throat, “overheard, was not directed at you. It was between two off-duty members of staff. And I retain the right to manage my interpersonal relationships as I see fit. Though perhaps it lacked… eloquence for me to attempt to end this line of questioning with a white lie,” she said, “the fact remains, it’s none of your business.” And with that, Leana’x whirled on her foot and walked out.

John wasn’t kidding – every single person in the room was staring at him.

And he knew the costs of letting her get away with sassing him.

He cleared his throat.

That would be when Wko cleared his throat too, grabbed John’s unfinished drink from the counter, and hastily shoved it at his friend. “Don’t you have to get back to work in five minutes?” he said, as loudly as he could. He was obviously trying to divert John’s anger before it exploded like a volcano.

John clenched his jaw so tightly, the muscles jerked and twitched like writhing snakes.

Though John didn’t want to be distracted, Leana’x was a fast walker, and by the time he looked up, she’d already strode out of the mess hall.

Ensign White was still there, however.

So John turned on her. “Why the hell would you choose to hang out with someone like that?” he said, and for the first time, he managed his tone, ensuring it couldn’t echo out and fill the mess hall, worsening this already ridiculous scene.

He expected White to look shocked that her so-called friend had treated her like that. She just shrugged. “My fault, really. Sometimes I push her. Who wouldn’t? She’s a bona fide Princess of the Artaxan Family. I get it. There are some things she isn’t allowed to talk about. It was my fault.” With that, White shrugged, offered him a nod and a salute, and walked out.

That was not how that interaction should’ve gone. White should be just as pissed off as him.

Wko cleared his throat again. “Don’t you really need to get to your shift? You’ve got like five minutes until it starts, right?” he said pointedly.

John didn’t start his shift for another hour, but he was calming down quickly enough to realize that Wko was offering him a lifeline. John didn’t need to make any more of a scene.

He cleared his throat, nodded, handed Wko the drink, and strode out.

John’s whole body was stiff as he moved, and he was more aware of his endoskeleton than ever. It gave strength and import to his every move. The kind of strength that told him that with nothing more than a thought, he could shove a hand into the floor, rip out a section of the plating, and chuck it at the door.

He wouldn’t do that, though.

John had never had anger like that.

His brother had. It had been the same anger that had seen John’s brother attempt to take on the Barbarians rather than hide their family. The same anger that had seen John’s family die.

So John would never let himself lash out like that.

He couldn’t stop the verbal assaults, though. Though they were justified, never random.

All XOs had reputations for being hardened. The discipline of the crew was down to them. You had to maintain a certain level of respect in order to get things done and to maintain discipline.

… But had John gone over the top?

Did he sometimes let his anger control him rather than the other way around?

It was a soul-searching question, one that always popped into his mind in the middle of the night when he had nothing else to distract him.

Though on paper John was ready to command, there was another reason he wouldn’t put his name into the hat for a new ship yet.

That reason was Chan. No, it wasn’t that John had more to learn from the Captain. It was that Chan didn’t think John was ready, did he?

Though Chan had never said it, John knew Chan didn’t like his anger.

But right now?

Right now, all Campbell could do was seethe.

Seethe, and tell himself he’d look for a way to prove to everybody what he already knew – Leana’x didn’t deserve to be onboard.

But while she was onboard? He was determined to keep an eye on her.

Chapter 3

Leana’x

“Princess, early for your shift again?” Chief Engineer Barlow said as he jumped down from the short ladder that led up to the second mezzanine level in main engineering.

The man was of solid Orang build.

The Orangs had always had a good relationship with the Artaxan Protectorate. The Orangs abutted onto Artaxan space, and the two groups had strong trading ties.

Though nobody else would call Leana’x Princess – and she would cringe if they did – she just shrugged and nodded at Barlow. “With respect, sir, I don’t have anything else to do.”

“We can find something for you, Princess,” he commented. There wasn’t exactly a note of deference to his tone, but there wasn’t a note of irony, either. The Orangs were practical people, and they knew more about Artaxan society than anyone else.

It was another reason she’d picked the Hercules. Though if the bitter John Campbell ever found out, he’d assume Leana’x had specifically asked to work under Barlow because she wanted him to defer to her position as a Royal Family Princess, that simply wasn’t the case.

Barlow would understand her where no one else could.

The rest of the engineering crew had been a little put off when Barlow had started referring to her as Princess, but it was clear that he was still the one in charge.

It was just a quirk. Of which Barlow had thousands.

The Orangs were an unusual race. It was hard for the straitlaced Coalition races to understand them, but Leana’x found it easy.

She pressed her hands in front of herself in a standard Orang greeting. “Why, thank you, Supreme Leader,” she said.

This elicited a snort.

Though several of the other ensigns paused to look at their interaction, they quickly grew busy and walked off.

Barlow clapped his hands together, his eight fingers intermeshing as his wide lips pulled out over his massive, massive teeth in a genuine smile. “Now that is a good name. You trying to win points with me by working even though it’s not your shift?” Barlow asked.

Though a lot of the other Coalition races who weren’t as familiar with the Orangs’ specific humor would’ve taken Barlow’s exact tone to be intimidating, she didn’t. Though she’d specifically never bothered to go down the diplomatic route, as most of the other members of the Royal Family chose to, as a teenager, she had been to Orang many times. She knew their specific sense of humor.

She shrugged. “I guess I am, Emperor of the Universe. Is that good enough?” she asked playfully.

Barlow snorted.

But that would be when she heard a specific person clear their throat.

She hadn’t seen him when she walked in. He was hidden by one of the bulkheads that split off propulsion and navigation systems.

She knew that tone of derisiveness, and sure enough, wasn’t surprised at all when Commander Campbell stiffly walked around the bulkhead, a snarl readying on his lips. “What did you just say, Ensign?”

“No need for discipline,” Barlow said in a no-nonsense tone. “The Ensign was merely playing on my race’s specific sense of humor,” Barlow said. And though he’d been cheeky moments before, he dropped it and looked professional. Well, mostly professional. The Orangs had a reputation for stirring up trouble. And though Barlow would have found a way to control that desire as he’d risen through the ranks and gained extra responsibilities, he’d still have it in his soul. For some reason, Leana’x got the impression that Barlow got a kick out of rubbing Campbell the wrong way. One that would work for the Chief Engineer – as his position was almost on par with Campbell’s – but it would backfire for her.

Though she usually wasn’t one to back down from a fight, she nodded in deference, clasped her hands behind her back, took a step away from the two men, and locked her gaze on the floor. “I apologize for my words, Commander. But please do not misread them. I have experience with the Orang culture, and specifically with their sense of humor. I was simply—”

“Being inappropriate,” Campbell said, voice sounding way too much like a shot across the proverbial bows. If the Hercules ran out of long-range ionic missiles, they could probably shove the Commander in one of the torpedo banks and make do.

Leana’x could see Campbell out of the corner of her eye but knew way better than to lift her gaze up and stare directly into his eyes. That would just aggravate him further. And though she knew for a fact that Campbell would think he knew how she operated, she understood him far better.

Though she couldn’t comment on his upbringing, she’d seen men like him before. They thought the only way to deal with unprocessed emotions was to push them away and turn them into anger instead. There was only so much you could use that anger for. Destruction, and nothing else. Now was exactly not the time to point out to Campbell that he was ruining his life by leaving the grief over losing his family unprocessed. Now was the time to get out of here before he exploded.

“I do not doubt you think you have a specialized knowledge of the Orang people. But what you said wasn’t funny. It was derogatory. I don’t really care where you think you’ve come from and what attitude toward command you believe you should take,” he said, stressing the word believe as if his voice were a whip cracking the word right out of the air, “you will respect your superiors under my command.”

Though this was technically where Barlow should jump in and point out that they were just playing, she could see it there – that cheeky glint in his eyes. The Orangs had a deserved reputation for pushing people the wrong way. They liked emotion – strong emotional reactions the best. And right now, though Barlow was still technically retaining a professional attitude and fulfilling his position as the Chief Engineer, he was also kicking back and enjoying the show. Which left her to manage this situation before it turned into a full-scale war.

She took a quiet breath. For the first time since the conversation had begun, her gaze darted up – but only for a nanosecond. “I apologize, Commander. I am repentant, and I assure you, it won’t happen again.”

“You don’t get to tell me how to punish you,” he snapped. “You will be working double shifts for the next week. That, Ensign, is better than just saying sorry. And before you question, yes, I have the authority to do that,” he snarled.

She didn’t react. She liked being on duty. But there was a rebellious part of her that wanted to point out she hadn’t actually started her shift yet. And though it would be impressive to turn around, walk out, and tell the blustery Commander that she would be back in an hour, she let her gaze slip back down to the floor. “Yes, Commander,” she said in an even, emotionless tone.

It did it again – pushed whatever button Commander Campbell had.

His gaze flicked down to her hand.

Unconsciously, she’d been playing with her Artaxan ring. Rolling it around and around her index finger with her thumb.

Though many believed it was a sign of her birthright – a reminder to any other Artaxans out there who she was and how they should treat her – it wasn’t.

It was more of a shackle.

She was never meant to take it off. Ever. When she hit the gel shower after a long shift, she had to keep it on. She was barely allowed to slide it up her finger to clean the skin beneath.

It was chunky, it was heavy, and just once she wanted to pull it off when she went to bed or tried to do finicky fixes in some of the more cramped neural wired consoles that ran through the belly of the ship.

But she could not take it off.

For it was far more than a symbol of the Royal Family, if the Palace was to be believed.

Just how much more of a symbol, she didn’t know.

Though Leana’x understood personally that the Artaxan Royal Family were far more mysterious than people chose to believe, she doubted this ring was anything more than a reminder to her to toe the Royal Family line.

So when Campbell’s gaze locked on it, she deliberately shoved her hand behind her back and hid it.

“Jewelry is not allowed while you are on shift,” Campbell commented with a growl.

“It’s fine. I’ve made an exception,” Barlow finally entered the conversation. His words were quick and categorical. “The Ensign is more than welcome to wear that ring.”

“It will impede her tasks. And it sets the wrong example,” Campbell said, railroading right over the top of Barlow. “This is a disciplinary matter,” he added, and though he didn’t say it, he was making it clear to Barlow that while Barlow had control over Leana’x as an engineer, Campbell did when it came to matters of discipline.

“Take the ring off. And get back to work. Double shifts for two weeks,” Campbell added.

It had been a week previously, but obviously Leana’x’s mere presence was getting on Campbell’s nerves so badly that if she stayed with him any longer, he’d put her in the brig.

“Come on, now,” Barlow said.

He stopped.

Campbell shot him a look. “This conversation is over. Take the ring off and return to work.”

Despite the fact she’d been ear-bashed in front of every single member of the crew in main engineering, Leana’x hadn’t been bothered by the conversation until now.

Take her ring off?

In public?

There was… something violating about that. Something private. It was almost like Campbell was asking her to take her clothes off and do a dance.

She had two options, didn’t she? Number one was to point out to Campbell that she was allowed to wear this ring. It was on her file. In fact, it’d been a condition of joining the Academy. It was a condition of every single Royal Family member venturing from Artaxan One to explore the rest of the galaxy that they did not take off their symbol of office.

It was right there on her file. That’s all she had to say. She could even point out that she could take this right to the top and ask Captain Chan if he agreed with Campbell’s punishment.

… She didn’t.

Though her stomach twisted in a way she’d never felt, Leana’x still brought up her right hand and latched her thumb and index finger on the ring.

She felt a thrill. Nerves maybe. Shame possibly.

“Do you really want to try my patience by wasting my time?” Campbell growled.

Leana’x sighed.

She pulled her ring off.

Though she wasn’t meant to take her ring off, she had on several occasions previously. Just experimentally. In the dark usually, on her own, in her room. Somewhere private.

It was a game in her head, see. A game she could never truly win.

Because on the few occasions Leana’x had taken off her ring, she’d attempted to tell herself she finally felt normal. That without it, she could pass as an ordinary citizen of the galaxy. She could do whatever they did, enjoy whatever problems they had, and, most importantly, be free. Free to make her own mistakes, to scrounge for her own existence, and to be away from the dogmatic, dictatorial forces of the Artaxan Royal Family.

Back then, when she’d slipped her ring off for several seconds in her room, it hadn’t lasted.

Because that feeling that she could be free? Was nothing more than a feeling.

No matter what she did, she would never get away.

But this time? With everyone’s eyes on her?

Leana’x felt… empty.

For the first time in her life, she slipped the ring off, and it felt like nothing more than a ring to her.

She even took a sigh, as if some weight had been removed from her shoulders.

She also darted her gaze up and locked it right on Commander Campbell, for the first time lacking the deference that had marked her interaction with him through this entire conversation. “It’s off. I request permission to return it to my room.”

“Just leave it in main engineering until your shift’s over.”

Barlow cleared his throat. “Let her take it back to her room,” he said, and the exact note of his voice was one of controlled anger. “You’ve got what you want, Campbell. Plus, I don’t want that thing hanging around. That thing gets lost on my watch, and I’m as good as dead. Worth more than a small moon,” he commented under his breath, ensuring none of his words could echo past her and Campbell.

Though Campbell still looked immeasurably annoyed, he conceded with a shrug. “Return it to your quarters and then come back here. You have five minutes,” he snapped.

Though Leana’x shouldn’t do it, she still maintained eye contact. She also bowed, slowly. “As you wish.”

It was a remembered move. One she’d given on many occasions.

As 100th, she’d been ordered around more times than she could tell. If other members of the Royal Family hadn’t wanted to do something, they’d given the task to her.

You’d think she’d be bitter. She wasn’t. She was smart enough to know that when you dealt with a bully like Commander Campbell, you gave them what they said they wanted – but only what they wanted. You complied with their orders but nothing more. You never, ever gave them your fear.

So it wasn’t hard at all for Leana’x to turn around, let her gaze drop from Campbell as if it were a glass of wine she no longer wanted to drink, and walk from the room.

Her ring was still off, still clutched in her hand, and for some damn reason, she got the desire to never put it on again.

Prime Palace, Artaxan One

Everyone was excited. More excited than they should be. It wasn’t as if the Artaxan Family were forging a new alliance – their connections with the Coalition were blood deep. The Artaxans had formed the backbone of the Coalition for centuries.

But the visit of the emissary was different.

For the first time ever, the Artaxans had agreed to release their most secret information. The true facts of the old war. All of the archaeological data they’d scrounged over millennia about the Force and its armies.

The emissary was human. Tall, broad-chested, handsome, and the youngest admiral in the fleet.

James Jones. He had a reputation as the best diplomat out there.

He was also unshakable.

He would need to be to visit the Queen in her throne chamber.

The princes and princesses attending to him were impressed, though. Because Admiral James Jones went beyond unshakable. His mannerism was of somebody who already knew all the facts. Of somebody with a cast-iron will. Of somebody who was here for one purpose, and would never be deviated.

The emissary strode through the halls of the Prime Palace, and he did not let his attention slip once, did not let his gaze tick toward the astounding artwork that rimmed the hallway. Artifacts from every single race in the Milky Way. Some of them the only ones of their kind. If the Archaeological Institute of the Academy had access to them, they could potentially change the understanding of fundamental historical facts.

There were items of unchecked value, too. Items that could be sold to buy whole planets, let alone cruisers.

The emissary stared directly ahead, gaze locked on the imposing massive crystal doors that would lead to the throne room beyond.

Even from here, he could feel it. Hear it, too. This subtle pulse and hum that echoed through the palace, that grew louder with every step he took.

He was dressed in the full regalia of an admiral – his white, trim, black-rimmed dress-uniform glinting under the strong light. The insignia of the Coalition shined on his shoulder – a metal pin that caught the light, even when there wasn’t any.

Jones didn’t blink.

One by one, the princes and princesses attending to him stopped as they lined the hallway. Only the Second and Third in line to the throne were allowed entry into the throne room.

They shifted forward, locked their palms against the crystal door, and waited for the living organism within to recognize them.

For it was living.

The doors were made up of the same substance that ran through the Prime Queen’s blood. The same substance that had been engineered by the original ones to retain the information the galaxy so desperately needed when the Force returned.

The doors hesitated, as if, for the first time ever, they were having trouble recognizing the Second and Third.

Jones stopped a meter in front of the doors and waited.

He hadn’t blinked since he’d arrived on the roof of the Prime Palace in his experimental ship. And he wouldn’t close his eyes until this was done.

The doors finally opened. They did not creak. They sang as they swung inward to reveal the Prime Queen of the Artaxan Protectorate.

Chapter 4

Commander Campbell

Barlow had complained to the Captain.

Figures.

Barlow’s race loved pushing people’s buttons. Though Barlow was usually professional, that still hadn’t stopped him from dobbing Campbell into the Captain.

Captain Chan sat back at his desk, his hands rested easily in his lap.

His expression?

Was anything but easy. “It was unnecessary, John. That is all I want to say about it. I should also tell you it contravenes information on her file.”

“I did what I thought was necessary, Captain,” Campbell said, jaw stiff, words hissing through his clenched teeth. “We don’t allow jewelry to be worn on shift. Allowing her to wear it would set precedents.”

“What exactly bothers you about this woman?” Chan said, ignoring Campbell’s point.

Campbell stiffened. He’d been prepared for an ordinary disciplinary meeting with the Captain, but not for a personal one.

“From the moment she got onboard, you’ve had her in your sights, haven’t you? And though you usually have good intuition, why do I get the feeling you’re picking on Ensign Leana’x for personal reasons?”

Campbell twitched, his gut clenching uncontrollably. “I’m not… picking on her, sir,” he managed.

“It certainly looks that way. I have heard what transpired in the mess hall, and now this. If I didn’t know any better, I would say you deliberately went to engineering to get your revenge. Is that true?”

Campbell couldn’t have been more uncomfortable.

He’d fought and scrounged and done everything he could to be promoted to Commander, even though there’d been those in the Academy higher ups who’d told him to apply for captain instead. He had an exemplary combat record. And though he was heavy-handed, he did keep the crew in control. There were never any disputes on the ship when Campbell was around.

But this? Being accused by his captain of singling out and bullying an ensign for no better reason than the fact she irritated him – this was the type of thing that could send his career spiraling backward.

Captain Chan still rested in his chair easily, his hands drawn against his knees. “You’re not on parade, John. Tell me the truth – what bothers you about her?”

“You heard,” Campbell said, finally letting his hands unclamp from behind his back, “she lived a life of privilege, a life where she could get other people to quit by her mere presence, and yet she had the audacity to look into my eyes and tell me that she would’ve preferred to scrounge for every penny and fight for every moment of her existence? She grew up in one of the most protected, wealthy places in all of the Coalition, and yet she had the balls to say she would’ve rather grown up on a colony world?”

“Those were not her exact words, nor do I believe that was her sentiment.”

“Yeah, Captain, well on that we disagree,” John said before he could catch himself.

Fortunately Chan didn’t react. This conversation had begun as a captain disciplining his second in command, but it’d subtly shifted to a surrogate father teaching his son a much-needed lesson.

“You know this is the reason, don’t you?” Chan said out of the blue.

Campbell’s brow descended with a flick. “The reason for what?”

“The reason you’re not ready to be a captain,” Chan said flatly.

Campbell tried to stop himself from reacting, but he couldn’t. His cheeks stiffened.

When Campbell had been told to apply for positions of captain, he’d told Chan. John had expected Chan to be encouraging. Chan hadn’t been. He’d always changed the conversation. Though Campbell had suspected that Chan didn’t think he was ready, Chan had never outright said it. Until now.

It felt a heck of a lot like being slapped. “Her behavior was unjustified,” Campbell tried.

“Perhaps. Perhaps my character assessment of Leana’x is wrong, and she really is the arrogant, elitist monster you make her out to be. Perhaps she’s not. Perhaps she’s somewhere in between. But perhaps,” Chan’s voice rang all the way down low, sounding like a warning blast from a gun, “that is irrelevant. You are her commander. All you need to concern yourself with is keeping discipline when discipline is required,” Chan stressed the phrase when it is required. “You must ensure a healthy respect for the chain of command, without enforcing fear,” he said, stressing the word fear, too. In fact, the exact way he looked into Campbell’s eyes on the word fear told Campbell it was key. “Though perhaps you are correct in ensuring that Ensign Leana’x did not informally address Commander Barlow, asking her to remove her ring was inappropriate. You knew full well she has leave to wear it on her file. And asking her to do it in public? That’s a little too much like hanging her on the gallows, don’t you agree?”

John had to search his memory, but eventually he realized what Chan was referring to. The old barbaric human tradition of killing people in public to enforce the letter of the law.

Campbell stiffened even further. “That’s not what I was doing. This isn’t the first time Ensign Leana’x has gone against my command. I couldn’t let her do it again. And, as you have already conceded, nor should I have let her inappropriate interactions with Barlow continue.”

“You and the Chief Engineer share the same authority,” Chen pointed out. “If Barlow thought it was inappropriate, it would’ve been up to Barlow to alter and correct the Ensign’s behavior.”

Though Campbell tried to stop himself, he snorted. “You know his sense of humor.”

“Yes, I do. It seems Ensign Leana’x does as well. The Orangs abut Artaxan space, and looking at Leana’x’s file, before she joined the Academy, she spent quite a lot of time in the Orang Empire. So perhaps we can trust that she has a better understanding of Barlow than you permit.”

“It’s still inappropriate. Just because she thinks she understands Barlow’s people better, does not allow her to cheapen his command. He may have an odd sense of humor, and he may be comfortable with it—”

“But we are not. And you are in a position where you must be responsible for the overall discipline of this crew. I am aware of that, Campbell,” Chan said, his tone a patient one. “And as I have already said, I agree with your initial assessment. I, however,” he began, lips stiffening around the word, “do not agree with the punishment. A simple verbal rebuke would have been enough.”

Campbell took a breath. The pit bull in him wanted to keep fighting, but the man in him realized this battle wasn’t one he could win. And the reasonable man in him? Realized it wasn’t one he should win.

Chan was right.

For the first time since the conversation began, Campbell deliberately broke eye contact with the Captain, choosing to stare out of the massive window to his side, instead.

They were currently traveling at several times the speed of light, heading through one of the major Coalition transport routes that cut through the central spiral. The lines of light dashing past the window could have distracted him, but Chan cleared his throat.

He also rose from his desk. “You have it in you, you know,” Chan began.

He was never one for a segue. Chan was famous for starting conversations with random observations or questions which he would only later explain.

This one made Campbell’s back stiffen.

He had no idea what Chan would say next.

For some reason, for some reason Campbell thought Chan was talking about John’s anger. And the comment that Campbell had it in him? It was about his brother, wasn’t it? That anger. That unchecked arrogance. That violent rage that would see one ignore risk, ignore family, and pick a fight simply because he didn’t have the emotional skills and rational control to back down.

Campbell needn’t have worried.

Captain Chan strode around his desk, clenching his hands tightly behind his back as he angled his head toward the window. “You have it in you to be captain,” he noted quietly, “a great captain,” he said, stressing the word great. “But first you need to learn how to walk in other’s shoes.”

This time Campbell didn’t need to search his memory to understand that phrase. It was Chan’s favorite saying.

“You took offense at Ensign Leana’x’s comment that she would rather have scrounged for her life on a colony world than grown up on Artaxan One. You chose to interpret that as arrogance. But have you bothered to walk in Leana’x’s shoes?” Though Chan had been keeping his gaze locked on the light streaking past the window, he swiveled his attention over to Campbell.

Campbell swallowed. “Why would I want to?” he began, voice forceful, the anger rising through him again.

Chan paused.

And it was a pause that was meant to give Campbell time to control himself.

So John came to a point. He’d done this on many occasions before. It felt like mentally coming to a branch in a road. To the left, he could follow his anger to wherever it would lead. And that anger, properly channeled, made him one of the best combat officers in the Coalition. It was the sole reason he had – out of the entire Coalition fleet – been given the honor of having the first fully automated endoskeleton. But on the other side of the road? The other branch? It led to soft reason. The kind of reason that could easily be shifted and changed simply by observing other people’s lives. The kind of reason that Captain Chan thought Campbell needed so much.

Campbell took a breath. “There’s nothing I can learn from her,” he said.

“On the contrary, I think the last lesson you need to learn before climbing the ladder to captain rests with Ensign Leana’x,” Chan said opaquely.

John’s gut twisted. It wasn’t exactly anger – it was something else. Before he could interrogate the emotion, he shook his head. “What does that mean?”

“That you have glorified the position of captain. The reason you are not ready is not simply that you fail to walk in other’s shoes. It is that you have not yet appreciated that with every position higher in the chain of command, you become more trapped.”

Campbell hadn’t been expecting this, and he unashamedly shook his head. “What?”

“You think I’m free, John?”

John had no idea how to answer. He opened his mouth, but his lips simply hung open.

“Do you think the Admirals are free? What of the President of the Coalition? Do you think she is free?”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“You do. With every single rank higher in the chain of command, your responsibilities increase, and the expectations of people beneath you will narrow your world. The higher you climb, the lonelier you get and the more trapped you become.”

“… You’re saying you regret being captain?”

“Not at all. I understand being captain just as you must understand being captain before you can be promoted. To do that, I suggest you try walking in her shoes.” With that, Chan kept his hands behind his back, whirled around, and walked toward the door that would lead back to the bridge. “Oh, and Commander?”

“Tell her she can wear her ring again?” Campbell got there first. And though there could have been anger in his voice, it’d all melted away.

“Indeed. Though you believe she wears that to remind others of her position, perhaps it is to remind her of her position,” he said opaquely.

“I don’t know what that means,” Campbell said evenly.

“Then attempt to find out.” Captain Chan walked out of his ready room and onto the bridge.

Campbell should have been fuming.

He knew that. Several years ago before he’d managed to get a better handle on his explosive anger, he would’ve been fuming.

Now?

He sighed.

Did he want to find Ensign Leana’x? Tell her she could wear her ring wherever she damn pleased, even if it got in the way of her engineering duties?

Hell no.

Worse than that, did he want to walk a single day in her shoes? Let alone a minute? No.

Because Chan was wrong. Though academically Campbell could understand that as you rose through the ranks, you had more responsibility, Chan was missing something – you also had more power.

Leana’x might have said that she would’ve rather grown up on a colony world, scrounging for her existence, but she was a fool. She’d been safe, well-fed, and protected. Yeah, maybe she’d been trapped. But it was a golden cage.

And yet? … It was still a cage, wasn’t it?

The part of him that recognized that was small now, but despite Campbell’s best efforts, it would grow.

Chapter 5

Coalition Academy, Earth

“Where the hell did you get the sample from?” Chief Scientist Frank said as he shifted back in his chair, a confused expression crumpling his brow.

“One of the techs said they found it in the sub-filters on level II. Why?”

“Inside one of the sub-filters?” Frank slowed his voice right down, his tension clear.

Though his assistant, Marianne, had been calm up until that point, her lips pulled into a tight frown. “Yeah, what of it?”

“This is biological,” he said. “Now you sure that’s where the tech found it?”

Marianne gave a tight nod. “How the hell is that possible, though? This was found in the third substrate filter. Nothing biological would have been able to survive the two other filters,” she said, picking over her words slowly as she tried to dismiss the concerned expression growing in Frank’s old eyes.

Though Frank was from a race that rarely liked to stand up, it was a testament to the seriousness of the situation that he reached one of his two-fingered hands forward, locked it on the desk, and rose. “Call security.”

“Why?” Marianne said, though her tone wasn’t one of dismissiveness, just tight worry.

Frank was a great scientist, and he never jumped the gun. He was also never easily flustered.

“I think we have a murder on our hands,” he commented as he walked for the door.

Leana’x

Her shift went pretty well, even though it was a double. But as she’d already said, she quite enjoyed work. It distracted her from things. The more menial, the better. As long as she was out there on her own in some lonely, cramped tunnel, dealing with an easily fixable problem, she could pretend the rest of her life didn’t exist. The Royal Family was nothing more than a faraway fact.

But as Leana’x shifted out of the cramped tunnel, butt first, she heard someone clear their throat out in the corridor.

Great.

Though she kept telling herself she had plenty of experience dealing with men like Commander Campbell, he was truly starting to get on her nerves.

Unconsciously, she clenched her left hand, immediately snapping it behind her back as she straightened, turned, and faced him. “Campbell,” she said before she technically laid eyes on him.

“Either you can recognize me clearing my throat, or you have eyes in the back of your head,” he said.

Maybe she was misreading the situation. That, or his tone was lighter than usual.

Or hell, maybe he was simply baiting her.

Though Leana’x was usually pretty good at hiding her emotions, it took a heck of a lot more effort this time.

It wasn’t because he’d made her remove her ring. In public.

She didn’t hate him for that.

Because the last few hours tinkering around in that tunnel without that goddamn heavy ring weighing down her finger and consciousness had been… good.

For the first time ever, she’d started to let herself believe that her life aboard the Hercules – away from Artaxan One – would be just that. Life.

That didn’t mean she’d forgiven him for being a bully.

Campbell hadn’t done it for her. He’d done it for him. Obviously he had a problem with people like her – people he thought had easy damn lives and no troubles whatsoever.

So forgive her if her expression was stiff.

“There might have been a time a few hours ago when that look would’ve gotten you in trouble,” he commented, and again his tone was a lot gentler. Not completely gentle, mind you – it still had that undercurrent of the pit bull shining through.

She didn’t know how to reply to that – which was unusual for her. She had been taught since birth how to respond to every situation, no matter how grievous.

With her hand still tightly clenched behind her back, she shifted her fingers in and out. Though she wanted to hide the move, it was too tense, and unavoidably shifted the muscles of her shoulders.

Campbell’s laserlike gaze darted toward her shoulders, then down to her stomach. He wasn’t staring at it, though – his gaze ticked toward her elbow. Her left elbow.

Just before she could start to feel uncomfortable, he got there first.

Commander Campbell, the Hercules’ attack dog, cleared his throat, and there was an awkward edge to it. One that lingered as he brought a hand up, clutched his jaw, and shifted it from side to side as if he were checking that it still worked.

“Checking to see if you can still talk?” she said.

Crap.

Though there was a place for sarcasm in her head, that place was very much not in front of Campbell.

He let his hand drop. Slowly. And at the same time, as if it were a counterweight, his left eyebrow twitched up. “What was that—” he began, tone now ticking up to the full anger she was so very used to.

She winced. “Nothing, sir. Just a slip of the tongue.”

He opened his mouth, and forgive her if her eyes locked on the joints of his jaw. They seemed like vices that could hold a heavy cruiser in place, let alone crush her flat.

Maybe he caught her staring at his jaw, because he got an unreadable look. And again, he darted his gaze to the side. “I’m not here to get you in trouble, Ensign.”

She opened her mouth, about to say the first thing that came to mind again – but she stopped herself in time.

Campbell kept his other eyebrow raised. “You were about to comment that that was a first, right? That me being here in a capacity other than to punish you is new, right?”

She tried to smooth a diplomatic expression over her face, but for some damn reason, she found it hard in his presence. It was her turn to clear her throat.

This seemed to amuse him, but only for a second. Then he went right back to staring to the side of her. “Look, Ensign… I’m sorry,” he said, all at once, cramming I’m sorry out so quickly, the words could have been blasts from a gun.

Forgive her if she lost control of her expression as her nose scrunched up high and her eyebrows practically disappeared above her hairline. “About what?” she said, tone informal.

Again Campbell could have reacted to it, but he chose not to. “The incident earlier.”

She shrugged dismissively. “It’s natural, Commander. Everybody in the Coalition is intrigued by my… people. You weren’t the only person listening in to that conversation,” she said easily.

He cleared his throat again. “Not that incident. As you say…” he shifted his jaw, “I have no need to apologize for that,” his words were staccato as if he were having to use every single muscle in his body to push them out rather than swallow them back down.

A confused expression crumpled her brow. “Then what exactly are you sorry for?”

“The incident in main engineering. You’re not making this easy for me, are you, Ensign?” he said, and though his tone was trying, it wasn’t in the same explosive way she was starting to get used to.

Again she had trouble controlling her expression. “You did what you saw fit. There’s no need to apologize.”

“You’re really not making this easy for me,” he commented under his breath.

Though his hands had been resting by his sides earlier, now it seemed he didn’t know what to do with them. He clamped them tightly behind his back.

And though Leana’x had slackened her grip on her fingers, the exact tension to Campbell’s shoulders suggested he was now gripping his hands like a man holding on for dear life. “It was inappropriate for me to tell you to… remove your ring of… office,” he said, and again it sounded like he had to use all his damn strength to push the words out.

She could have asked him to repeat – considering his tone was garbled – but she didn’t need to.

She shrugged. So the Captain had gone to him, ha? Didn’t surprise her. Barlow would’ve told the Captain that Campbell had gone over his head, and the Captain would have intervened.

“It doesn’t warrant an apology,” she said, speaking her mind. “You fulfilled your role as the disciplinary officer of the ship,” she said, tone neutral, voice quick and practiced as she repeated the line every cadet was taught at the Academy. The XO of a ship was, in many ways, the most important role of all. While the Captain leads, the XO ensures they can lead. The XO maintains discipline, keeps order, and ensures the crew acts as a crew. You were warned at your first year in the Academy that you would never get on with your XO – and you were never meant to. You toed their line. You did what you could to manage their personality, and, more than anything, you respected their rule. Even if you didn’t agree with them, the XO was the glue that kept the ship together.

Though before this conversation she would’ve happily told anyone that Campbell was a seriously disruptive glue – and even a space gnat would be able to do a better job – now she wasn’t so sure. Like she’d already said, the last few hours without her ring had been… freeing.

Campbell hadn’t been making eye contact with her until now – at least not for more than several seconds. But now he allowed his thick brows to clamp hard over his eyes. “You want me to say it, don’t you?”

It was her turn for her eyebrows to compress low over her eyes. “Say what?”

“That I was wrong. That I picked on you,” he said, voice shaking on the word picked but gaze still as strong as ever. With a sigh, his shoulders deflated, but he didn’t unclench his hands from behind his back. “I guess… you’re right. I shouldn’t have said what I said, especially in front of your colleagues in main engineering. You can wear your ring again. I won’t ask you to remove it.”

She looked at him. “You were right,” she said, and though she hoped she was controlling her expression – doing everything she could to ensure her cheeks were flat, her lips spread just wide enough, and her gaze even – there was something raw about her voice she couldn’t hide.

It got Campbell’s attention as his flat eyebrows descended even harder until his eyes were hooded in shadow. “Sorry?”

“It was never my choice to wear that ring. You may choose to believe that or not. However, it is the truth. I’ve never had the courage to take it off. I guess… I was waiting for somebody to tell me to do it.” What was she saying? Why on earth was she being so honest?

This was Campbell, for God’s sake. If she wanted to have a heart-to-heart with someone, she could pick her friend, Belinda White.

But Campbell?

Opening up to Campbell was an invitation to get punched in the jaw.

That being said, he didn’t sock her in the jaw. He just looked confused. “You were?”

“I know you don’t want to hear this, but despite my privilege – or at least my perceived privilege – my life isn’t a simple one. So as I said before, Commander, you do not need to apologize. Perhaps you provided me with an opportunity I’d always been seeking.” With that, with her hands still clamped behind her back, she nodded in the formal way she’d been taught, “I thank you.” Without another word, she turned on her foot and walked away.

Better to end it now.

She’d lost control of her emotions, and she really didn’t need to reveal any more of her vulnerabilities in front of the Commander. He was being consolatory now – considering the Captain had probably told him off – but she knew very well that Campbell would snap back into being the bully when he was given the opportunity.

Campbell cleared his throat. “Ensign,” he began, but his voice trailed off.

She paused, waiting for him to call her back, but when he didn’t, she strode away.

Unconsciously, she rubbed the spot on her left hand where her ring had been.

Had been, being the operative phrase.

Commander Campbell

As he’d walked through the ship, trying to find Ensign Leana’x, he’d told himself he already knew how the interaction would go.

He told himself that the second he apologized, she would lord it over him.

Except… that wasn’t how it had gone.

Despite the fact he had powerful anger, John also liked to think he was good at reading people. That, in part, was what made him such a good combat specialist. He could make snap decisions, and most of the time, they were right.

And those same intuitions told him that Ensign Leana’x hadn’t been lying to him.

All of the… vulnerability she’d just shown had been real.

It shouldn’t have been there, but it had still been real.

Don’t get him wrong, she hadn’t been crying on his shoulder or anything. Different people showed vulnerability in different ways. And during that conversation, if only for a few seconds, Leana’x had looked… empty.

The specific way she made eye contact with him, the pale touch to her lips, and, more than anything, the way she’d run her thumb back-and-forth over her left index finger – it’d been the look of somebody who had something missing.

The only reason John was so damn good at recognizing that look was because he saw it in his own expression every time he looked in the mirror.

He could have called her back as she walked away, and he tried, but then he stopped.

Because there was no point in going further.

He’d apologized – that was all he had to do.

As for Ensign Leana’x Artaxan? She probably wanted to get the hell away from him.

Which was a mutual desire.

Now he’d apologized and told her she could wear her ring, he’d satisfied the Captain’s demands. If Leana’x Artaxan chose not to wear it, that was up to her, wasn’t it?

Right?

Campbell stayed there until she was out of sight. And as she walked away, even if she wasn’t aware of it, she kept rubbing her thumb against her index finger, as if she were trying to rub away whatever trace remained of the ring.

… Could he walk a day in her shoes?

Unbidden, the Captain’s words popped into Campbell’s head, and he clenched his teeth and tried to push them away, but they could not be pushed.

Though John was very practiced at ignoring his emotional triggers, for some reason, he was having a heck of a lot of trouble ignoring this one. The question kept revolving around his head like a spinning atom.

Could he walk a day in Princess Leana’x Artaxan’s shoes?

All that privilege, all that money, all that authority.

And yet, as soon as he thought the word authority, his lips twitched. Because she didn’t have any authority, did she? If she was to be believed, she was the lowest of the low as far as the Royal Family went, and she had precious little to do with the rest of her race.

No. You don’t actually believe that. He told himself. She was still a member of the Royal Family. She still had authority, not because she’d earned it – not because she’d gone through the requisite lessons to use it properly – just because of her birthright.

John tried to let that fact settle in, but it felt hollow, somehow.

He turned on his foot, but before he could walk away, he turned over his shoulder once more, as if he expected her to come back to finish the conversation. She didn’t, and for some damn reason, his gut kicked down in disappointment as he finally shifted around, walked off, and tried to put her out of his mind.

Chapter 6

Coalition Academy, Earth, Security Division

“There is no way we can figure out who those cells came from,” Security Officer Val said as he turned around hard, one hand clutched into a tight fist.

Admiral Sung, who was now in charge of security on campus, shook his shaggy mane. “If we’ve got a murder here, we need to know who was murdered, or we don’t have a case. Let alone a chance of figuring out who did this,” he said, teeth clenched so hard, they glinted like a diamond.

It was an expression shared by every member of the security team who stood in the lab.

“We have to find some way to figure out what happened. Considering recent events,” he said, voice strained, “from the Circle Trader incident, to the incident with the spacers, we cannot allow our security to slip.”

Everyone present nodded hard.

Except for Frank.

He was still hunched over low, manipulating several controls on his portable science console, his eyes never blinking.

“Frank, have you got something?” Sung said. He came from a race who were keen readers of emotion. They often knew what you were feeling before you did.

Frank darted his three eyes over to Sung. “I think I might have something.”

“How?”

“Though whoever murdered this unknown person obviously shoved their body through the subatomic particle filters to completely degrade the physical remains and remove all evidence, they didn’t account for one fact,” Frank said.

Sung took several loud, resounding steps toward Frank’s desk. “And what fact would that be?”

“I’ve been derelict in my duties,” he said with a shrug.

Though Sung should have taken the opportunity to jump down Frank’s throat, he didn’t. “Explain.”

“I haven’t maintained the filters properly on that level for a few months.”

Sung raised an eyebrow.

Frank got there first and brought a hand up. “I know, I know. Haven’t had time. Too busy cleaning up after the Circle Traders,” he pointed out.

Sung shrugged his shoulders. Frank had a point. It’d taken a hell of a lot of maintenance to get the Academy back up and running after the Circle Traders’ debacle.

“The subatomic filters are important, let’s face it, but removing every single holographic emitter from the Academy grounds was more important. I’ve been keeping an eye on them, though.”

“Explain,” Sung said, voice ticking down an octave lower as excitement rushed through his chest.

“I wrote an algorithm to check for any large changes in filter outlay. It was meant to warn me if the filters started running at below optimal, or—”

“If they encountered an event,” Sung filled in the gaps.

“That’s it.”

“Assuming the destruction of this unknown body was an event large enough to be registered by your algorithm, why wasn’t it picked up before?”

“Because the assumption’s wrong – it wasn’t an event large enough to be picked up by my algorithm.”

“So what’s your point?” Sung said, voice becoming even once more.

“My point is that my algorithm still tracked activity. The destruction of the body wasn’t sufficient to warn me—”

“But you still have a log of it,” Sung said.

There was now total silence in the security room as everyone waited with bated breath. Frank started concentrating once more, his two fingers darting so quickly, they were practically a blur.

Sung didn’t say anything. He waited.

His stomach? It sunk. Nerves cascaded over his back, too. And his three hearts beat harder.

Not only were his race known for their ability to read other’s emotions, they felt them exquisitely, too. That, in part, was what made them such good counselors. When they encountered emotions in others, they were reflected in their own bodies.

And right now? Sung felt dread. A keen, deep kind of dread he hadn’t felt since the Circle Trader incident.

It was dread that was matched in Frank’s face as he shifted back from his desk, his usually ruddy red cheeks paling.

“What is it?” Sung demanded.

It took a second for Frank to tear his eyes off the console. “We have… a fragment of DNA. Whoever… whoever pushed that body into the subatomic filters wouldn’t have appreciated that my algorithm had a pattern buffer.”

“You have a fragment? Can you recreate the string? Can you run it through the Academy’s biobank to see if there are any matches—” Sung said.

It took Frank a moment to make eye contact with Sung. “I already have. We’ve got a match.”

“And who is it?”

“Admiral James Jones.”

Sung didn’t have time to react. Not emotionally. He had to push that away as he turned on his feet and flung himself toward the door.

Leana’x

Leana’x was working her double, even though she didn’t have to; Campbell had backed down on that punishment.

Though she didn’t think it was honestly possible, she must’ve rattled him during their last conversation. And though she really, really didn’t want to think it was possible, Campbell seemed to be changing his attitude to her. Maybe… maybe under that brusque, bitter exterior was a kind man. Or at least, if not a kind man yet, somebody on their way to being compassionate.

It didn’t matter.

Leana’x wanted to throw herself into work at the moment, anyway.

It was a distraction.

From what?

She couldn’t tell anymore.

She hadn’t put her ring back on.

She swore the crew reacted to her differently when she didn’t have it on. Maybe, for a fraction of a second, as they saw her walking past, they forgot who she was.

She liked that.

If she saw Campbell again, maybe she’d have to thank him once more. And maybe she’d only do that to see the confused look in his eyes. There was something about catching him off guard that… never mind.

She was walking along one of the lower decks, an engineering kit in one hand as she stared at the floor and thought.

She couldn’t help but smile to herself as she thought about Campbell – and she didn’t know why. But seeing confusion in the usually keen gaze of Commander Campbell was… distracting.

Like the entire man, her mind added before she could stop herself.

She pressed her teeth together and blew a breath out of them, bringing a hand up and neatening her bun as she did.

There were a few hairs sticking out of the base, and though there would’ve once been a time that she would’ve stopped immediately and neatened them, she didn’t care anymore.

Because no one else cared, right? And though it may be a requirement on Artaxan One to always look her best, she wasn’t on Artaxan One anymore.

She wasn’t on Artaxan One anymore, she repeated to herself as she half closed her eyes and continued walking forward nonetheless.

She shifted around a corner, but she had the requisite skills to hear someone appear in front of her.

He cleared his throat. “Why are you walking through the corridors with your eyes closed?” Commander Campbell said.

She wanted to tell herself that the bitter Commander was back, but as she blinked one eye open, his expression was even, not volcanic.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I intended to open them again when I saw something important,” she said.

This brought a confused smile to his lips for half a second. Then he cleared his throat. He nodded down at her engineering kit. “Didn’t your shift end six hours ago?”

“I’m working a double,” she commented.

“… I did remove that condition from your file,” he began.

“I know. Doesn’t matter. This gives me something to do,” she commented.

He opened his mouth. And from the exact quality of the confused look on his face, she had no idea what he was going to say. A part of her… a part of her honestly thought he was going to invite her out for a drink. If she had nothing to do, she should socialize with the crew, right?

But Campbell quickly shook his head. “Still not wearing your ring?” he commented, his voice much lower this time, and far more careful, too.

That’s right, careful. She wasn’t making it up. She had no idea what Captain Chan had told Campbell, but ever since their conversation, Campbell was… acting like a man, not an angry robot.

Though there would’ve been a time she would’ve hidden her naked finger, she looked down and shrugged. “It’s heavy, you know,” she commented, intending to make her observation innocent, but it came out… wrong.

“Oh,” he said.

That’s right, just oh. He could’ve pointed out that it was only a ring, and that she was a trained ensign. She should be able to pick up more than a ringlet of metal.

Nope.

Just oh.

She was over-sharing again, wasn’t she?

She started to feel uncomfortable, and she tapped one of her fingers on her engineering case. “Well, I should go back to work,” she said.

Campbell shifted back and forth on his feet awkwardly. Which was crazy, right? Now Leana’x had been on this ship for several weeks, she’d heard all of the stories – of which there were thousands – about the pit bull Commander Campbell.

He was not the kind of man who ever got awkward. He was the kind of man who punched awkward in the face, dragged it to the bridge, and shoved it out the airlock.

And yet, she wasn’t wrong.

He rocked back and forth on his feet once more, until he realized she was watching him, then he stopped. “I—” he began.

“Ensign Leana’x. Ensign Leana’x?” someone called her name.

She turned over her shoulder to see one of the other ensigns who’d come on board at the same time as her.

She didn’t know him. He hadn’t been through the Academy at the same time she had.

Half human, half Creyole. He was a seriously powerful build, and it was a source of confusion for her why he’d joined the engineering division and not security.

Ensign Fa’ll ran up to her side, his towering form coming to a stop beside her.

“What is it?” she asked, tone quick but calm.

“The Chief needs you to redo your work in Internal Tunnel 22A. You made a mistake,” Ensign Fa’ll said. As he spoke, he slowly slid his gaze toward Campbell.

… Was there an excessively watchful quality to the move?

Though the last thing Ensign Leana’x should want was to be told off for making a mistake in front of Commander Campbell, she brought up a hand and scratched the side of her face. “Really? I made a mistake? But I already called in the job, and it was signed off. Is there a problem with system sensors?”

“You made a mistake,” Fa’ll said in a no-nonsense tone, again surreptitiously looking to the side at the Commander. “You need to fix it, and I’m here to help you,” Fa’ll pointed out. “I’ll check on your progress and report back to the Chief.”

“Oh,” Leana’x managed, though she really wanted to push.

If Commander Campbell hadn’t been there, she would’ve pushed.

Because she hadn’t made a mistake.

She wasn’t the world’s best engineer, but she was good enough. She’d checked her work. She’d run an integrity scan, and it hadn’t picked up any errors.

Either her scanner was off, or—

“We don’t have the time,” Fa’ll pointed out, again letting his gaze slip toward Campbell.

Though John had been standing there the entire time, he finally cleared his throat. “I’ll be seeing you around, Ensign,” he said as he turned on his heel and strode off.

… Really?

He’d just passed up the perfect opportunity to point out that she was an arrogant princess who thought she knew better than the rest of the engineers. One who was a liability to the crew and clearly couldn’t do her job.

Commander Campbell didn’t say a thing, though. He just walked off.

… And his lack of bullying threw her. Threw her enough that she didn’t question as Ensign Fa’ll led her forward toward one of the tunnel accesses several meters to the left.

She should’ve questioned. She should’ve relied on her training. Because Ensign Fa’ll?

His movements were too quick, his tone too tight. It looked as if he were pressured for time. As if he had to get something done right now.

But Leana’x was in another world. And that could very well kill her.

Commander Campbell

… That had been… odd.

Though a part of him should be gleeful that Ensign Leana’x had made a mistake – one big enough that Barlow had sent one of his crew to come hunt her down to have it fixed immediately – Campbell wasn’t feeling satisfaction. Just confusion.

Though he hadn’t met many human and Creyole crosses, they were usually a lot less hurried. They were a massively solid race, they were also to a T warriors, not engineers. And though Campbell had had precious little to do with Fa’ll, that fact had always confused him.

Campbell couldn’t put it out of his head, even though there were a lot of other things to do, and that was saying something.

Usually, Campbell trusted his gut instinct. It’s what had kept him alive on so many occasions. It was also the only natural throttle on his anger.

And right now, his intuition was telling him something was up.

It was enough that as he chanced upon Chief Barlow striding through one of the corridors, he cleared his throat. “Barlow, I’ve got a question.”

Barlow rolled his eyes. “Of course you do. What is it this time? Do you want me to shove Ensign Leana’x out an airlock?”

“No,” Campbell said quickly. “I’m just intrigued as to why you sent Ensign Fa’ll to track her down. Couldn’t you just have called her from engineering? It couldn’t have been that serious, could it?”

Barlow shot Campbell the kind of look that told him he had no idea what he was talking about. “Have you had one too many drinks?”

“Of course not. I just came across Ensign Fa’ll, and he relayed a message to Ensign Leana’x from you,” Campbell began, his words slowing down as that feeling started to rise through his gut. That feeling that told him something wasn’t right here.

“Ensign Fa’ll is off-duty. I wouldn’t get ensigns to relay my messages, anyway. There’s this little thing called the communications network. You should try it sometime. With the press of a button, you can talk to anyone in the entire ship,” Barlow said flamboyantly as he brought a hand up and made a circle.

Campbell’s face stiffened. “So why did I just see Ensign Fa’ll—” he began. He stopped.

His intuition was burning brightly. So brightly, he couldn’t ignore it.

He turned on his foot hard and threw himself forward.

“What is it?” Barlow began.

“You better not be playing with me, Barlow.”

“What the hell are you playing at, Commander?” Barlow snapped back.

“Call security, get them to meet me in Tunnel 22A.”

“Why?”

“Because Ensign Fa’ll is after Leana’x,” Campbell blasted back.

He had no reason to think this. Maybe he was jumping to conclusions. Maybe Fa’ll was up to something else. But his gut instinct? It told him Leana’x had minutes.

Leana’x

She kept looking over her shoulder as she crawled forward through the tunnel, Fa’ll always maintaining the exact same distance behind her. If she slowed down, he slowed down. If she sped up, he sped up.

“We’ve already passed the spot where I did maintenance,” she pointed out for what felt like the 50th time.

“Just up here,” he kept saying.

She didn’t need to be a genius to know that he was distracted. He also kept jerking his head down and checking his wrist device.

“Shouldn’t I just contact Barlow and sort this problem through with him?” she suggested, tone careful as she half turned over her shoulder to stare at him.

“No. You need to learn the proper respect for the chain of command, Ensign,” Fa’ll growled, sounding eerily like Campbell.

No. She corrected herself just in time. Fa’ll didn’t sound like Campbell. He sounded….

Her hackles started to rise.

Something about this didn’t feel right.

It wasn’t impossible that there would be people out there who wanted her dead. An ordinary member of the Artaxan race wouldn’t do it, but what about her own people? What if someone else terribly wanted to be position 100?

It sounded stupid, if they had serious ambitions on the throne, they could work their way through the others on the throne line, couldn’t they?

No. Madness. Nobody would want to kill her. There was no point.

So why… why was Fa’ll acting so weirdly?

Leana’x controlled her emotions. She wouldn’t dare let her suspicions show. She also innocently brushed her hand toward her wrist device, beginning to type a message to Barlow. That would be when she hesitated – just when she was about to select who to contact. For some damn reason, her fingers wanted to skip straight over Barlow’s head and go to Campbell.

Campbell might hate her, but she’d seen his service record, and it spoke for itself. Plus, he’d been warming to her – unless that was her imagination.

She did it. Went with her gut instinct and selected Campbell.

She didn’t know what to type to him, though. A quick help me? Maybe a message to check in with Barlow to figure out what the hell Fa’ll was doing?

She didn’t have much time to think. But as she jerked her gaze toward her wrist device, her stomach sank.

Because there was no signal.

There was only one place on the ship where there was absolutely no signal considering the sophisticated communications network of the Hercules – and that was inside the engineering cores, because nobody could get in them when they were on. That would be a recipe for being split apart at the sub-molecular level.

So why… why was there no signal in this tunnel?

“What are you doing?” Fa’ll asked, his tone bridling with anger.

“Just checking the time,” she said, again keeping her voice even. Though she had a peculiar inability to control herself around Campbell, she knew she was doing a good enough job that she wasn’t raising Fa’ll’s suspicions.

But he was still there, still corralling her forward toward a mistake she’d apparently made, but one he was being particularly noncommittal about. She’d already asked him what she’d done, but he’d just shoved her into the tunnel and said he’d show her.

He was… agitated. She could feel it from here, even though she didn’t dare stop and turn to stare at him.

“What’s taking them so long?” he whispered. It was low, utterly quiet, and she only picked it up because all of her senses were locked on him.

A thrill of fear raced hard up her back.

She had two options, didn’t she? Confront him and keep going in the hope that she would… what? Run into some other poor engineering team crawling through these tunnels? Unlikely, but she may be able to come across an actual communications panel. And while communications seemed to be down in this section, if she could access a panel, she could simply piggyback a message through the service system.

… She couldn’t actually believe she was thinking this. Fa’ll was just being… weird, right?

Wrong.

And though it would have been tempting to confront him about it, she knew two things – he was agitated, and he was much, much larger than her.

“You came on the ship about the same time I did, didn’t you?” she asked, again ensuring her tone was light and conversational.

“What of it?” he snapped.

“I was just wondering where you served before you came to the Hercules? What exactly… attracted you to this ship?” she wondered out loud.

There was a tense pause. “Career prospects,” he snapped back.

“You must get this question a lot, but… considering your heritage and build, why did you go into engineering and not security?”

“Better life prospects,” he snarled. “This is no time to chat, Ensign. You should be contemplating what you’ve done,” he snapped, and the way he said what you’ve done seemed to suggest she’d made the worst mistake in the world. Far from accidentally incorrectly calibrating one of the service drives, it sounded as if she’d sacrificed the Coalition.

If the least she could do was gather information on this man, then that was exactly what she was going to do.

“There’s no need to be like that. I was just being conversational. I am sorry for what I did,” she said, speaking slowly, making herself sound repentant, even if it was the last thing on her mind.

Though Leana’x often did a good job hiding her fear, it was rattling through her chest, and with every shuffling, crawling step she took, it was wrapping around her throat like hands.

Several times she brushed her wrist device, pretending she was simply adjusting it as she checked for a signal.

She still had Commander Campbell’s contact details stored on her device, and all it would take was a single click to contact him – as soon as she got in range.

As soon as she got in range….

“Exactly how far are you going to take me through these tunnels? Surely we’ve reached the correct panel by now?” she commented.

“I told you to shut up,” he said, and there was no denying the anger in his tone. Stress, too. It seemed to be eating away his control like acid to metal.

Ensign Fa’ll was exactly the same class as Leana’x, and basic decency aside, he had no right to be ordering her around.

No, something was going on here.

And Leana’x? Leana’x was trapped.

Admiral James Jones

He strode in front of the Queen, or at least what was left of her. She was holding on remarkably well, for AVA was holding on. The intelligence.

It was attempting to protect what remained of the Queen’s body, but even it couldn’t fight against the virus Jones had uploaded into her crystal matrix.

The Prime Queen of the Artaxan Protectorate was part biological, part other. That’s how the Originals had made her. Back during the First War – between the original inhabitants of the Milky Way and the Force – the Original races had realized the knowledge to fight the Force would be required once more. For until the Force was destroyed completely, all the Milky Way could hope for was time.

And it was time that was running out. Being whittled away, faster and faster with every second as the Queen jerked and convulsed on the floor.

She had masses of green crystalline hair. That was where AVA connected to her body. That was where it melded its mind with hers.

In many ways, the crystal was beautiful. In many other ways? It was the most detestable thing he’d ever seen.

Jones had been striding in front of her, deliberately stepping on the filaments of her green hair, despite the fact it caused her to writhe in pain and gape her mouth open. He stopped, letting his dress-uniform boot crush several filaments of crystal, taking satisfaction as they were crushed under his tread.

He turned, clutched his hands behind his back, and looked at her. “Only a few more seconds now, Queen. Then you’ll be replaced.”

She tried to speak, but there was honestly too little left of the biological side of her body. AVA?

AVA could not speak. AVA required a biological form to communicate through. And as the Queen’s biological form was torn out from beneath it, cell by cell, bone by bone, AVA was breaking down.

Not fully. AVA couldn’t be destroyed. Not until every last member of the Royal Family was hunted down and replaced by Prince Maqx. Not, of course, that Prince Maqx was of the Royal Family. He was a Replacement, just like Jones.

Jones retained most of the information and knowledge of his original host. He was a perfect body copy of Admiral Jones. Nearly every memory, nearly every belief – all of them subsumed under the Replacement.

It was the same for Maqx.

“Won’t work, won’t work,” the Queen managed to say, AVA’s voice shining through.

“It will have no option but to work. You will cease to exist without a host.”

“She will not be pushed into your Replacement,” she said, the Queen’s voice now arcing up high as the woman used the last of her strength in a final act of defiance.

“AVA will have no option. My assassins are in place throughout the galaxy. They will kill your brood. There’ll be no other member of the Royal Family left. Though you won’t want to, you will have to form a union with Prince Maqx.”

“He is a Replacement. We recognize that form. We will not meld.”

“Aren’t you listening to me, AVA? You have to. You’ll have no one else. You can’t allow yourself to die, can you?”

“We will die,” AVA said, the green filaments of the Queen’s hair suddenly bursting with light. But it was a quick blast, like the dying flicker of a candle as it caught a last wisp of oxygen before it was snuffed out.

Jones chuckled. It was a hollow, mirthless move, his lips instantly curling and pushing high into his cheeks. “You have no choice. You’re honor-bound to help the members of the Royal Family. And though Maqx is a Replacement – you’ll still have nowhere else to go.”

“Won’t help you,” the Queen gurgled, blood as blue as an ocean splattering over her lips.

“You’ll have no choice.”

With that?

Jones pulled the regulation Coalition blaster from his hip holster, lined up the shot, and shot the Prime Queen right through the center of her head.

She gasped, her eyes opening wide, blazing with a green light that was not hers and rather belonged to AVA, the spirit of information the Originals had left for all.

The key to unlocking the Originals’ history and to unlocking the only weapons that could win the oncoming wall with the Force.

Jones still didn’t let himself blink until the Queen slumped down in front of her broken throne.

He paused for a single second until he brought up his wrist, yanked back his sleeve, and tapped a quick finger on the screen of his wrist device. “It’s done. Enact the plan,” he ordered.

Through Prince Maqx’s replacement, Jones had already removed all of the security precautions in place around the palace that would have stopped Jones’ communication from getting out.

He had no fear that his communication would be sent all the way throughout the galaxy and his plan would be enacted in full.

Right now, no matter where they would be, every other member of the Artaxan Royal Family would be murdered. And then AVA would have no choice but to inhabit the Replacement Prince Maqx.

And then?

It would begin.

Chapter 7

Commander Campbell

He quickly found a hatch that only he could access with his level of security clearance – even though it was meant to be kept closed unless there was an emergency.

Hang it, he’d face the consequences later. If there were any.

He could not deny one fact – his fear as it kept climbing through him, as it kept wrapping around his organs as if it would squish him flat.

Fear for someone he told himself he hated, but someone he’d been growing to understand, even if he didn’t want to.

And a woman, if his gut was anything to go by, who was in deadly trouble.

Campbell didn’t know what Barlow had done with this information. Maybe the Chief honestly thought Campbell had been drinking too much. Then again, despite Barlow’s eccentricities, he was a professional man.

So security would be on their way.

But Leana’x wouldn’t have time, would she?

The communications relay for this entire deck had been switched off. But Barlow hadn’t done it, Campbell hadn’t done it, and it would have been a seriously finicky piece of work.

Despite the fact Campbell had all sorts of privileged access provisions as Commander, he couldn’t reroute the system.

Worse?

The scanners were off.

Transporters, too.

So he had to rely on one damn thing. Instinct.

He came across a fork in the path. One side would lead him down the tunnel, and one side would lead him up.

If his pounding heart was anything to go by, this decision would be key.

Left or right?

Without hesitating another second, he chose left.

It seemed apt for some reason.

He reached a section of access tunnel that was larger than the rest, taller too. It was a backbone that connected many of the other smaller, shorter tunnels which you had to crawl through.

This one at least was tall enough that John could run freely. And freely he ran until he reached one of the smaller hatch doors that would lead to one of the many offshoot tunnels.

“Come on, come on,” he said as he reached forward, unconsciously using some of the strength of his endoskeleton and practically wrenching the hatch door open.

It was in time to see someone spill through it.

If he hadn’t had the onboard sensors of his exoskeleton to rely on, he might have jerked back in fear. But they told him one thing. The person was small, female, and Artaxan.

Leana’x.

She spilled out of the tunnel, moving as fast as she could, throwing herself forward.

Instantly, Campbell brought his arms up and around, catching her before she could face-plant the floor.

“Leana’x?” he began.

“Shit,” Fa’ll said. He was right behind Leana’x, his hand hovering close to something by his side.

“What the hell is going on here?” Campbell demanded, still keeping an arm locked around Leana’x’s back as he shifted her to the side and protectively covered her with the bulk of his form.

Campbell felt it again – his rage. This time?

This time it was justly directed. “Fa’ll, what the hell are you playing at?” Campbell blasted.

“There’s something wrong with him,” Leana’x began.

“Shit,” Fa’ll snapped once more. Then he did it – brought something out of his holster.

At first, it looked like an engineering tool.

Then? Before Campbell’s very eyes, it changed. The metal bulged and shifted, looking like bubbling mercury.

In several seconds, it became a long, pointed gravitational gun. One that was pointed right at Campbell. “You shouldn’t have interfered, Campbell. This isn’t your business.”

“It is now,” Campbell growled.

He didn’t have time to do anything.

Because Fa’ll acted. With a deadly, satisfied sneer spreading across his face, he fired right at Campbell.

Campbell had already twisted to the side, protecting Leana’x with his back. But Campbell had more to rely on than simple flesh and bone.

In an instant, before the red bolt of the gravitational gun could slam into John, he called on his armor.

His endoskeleton could do two things. It could produce a fine mesh over his body that acted exactly like ordinary combat armor but was far more flexible and far more resilient. Or it could just create the most sophisticated shield in all of Coalition history over his body.

All it took was a single unconscious thought.

And it was enough.

Just as the bolt from the gravitational gun slammed into John, his body was encased in a powerful shield. It was more than enough to deflect the blow.

Though ordinary armor sets couldn’t have a hope against gravitational weaponry, there was a reason this endoskeleton was a prototype – a reason the Coalition had been building it in secret, too. To fight against the growing number of critical security incidents spreading through Coalition space – to give the Coalition the hope they so desperately needed.

The bolt from the gravitational gun deflected off John’s shield and slammed into the bulkhead behind him, tearing chunks off it.

It dissipated with an almighty crack, blue waves of energy crackling over the insulated metal floor.

John thrust forward. Though his instinct was to protect Leana’x, he knew in order to end this fight, he had to get to Fa’ll as fast as he could. And right now John could get anywhere as fast as he damn well pleased in this armor.

He threw himself into the mouth of the tunnel in a split second, grabbed the muzzle of Fa’ll’s gun, and twisted it to the side.

It was hard, even for John’s armor – this gun wasn’t made of ordinary matter. It resisted the move, but as John used the power of his shield and the force of his endoskeleton to crush the metal, it shorted the natural power source running the gun. The thing crumpled.

Fa’ll?

Terror pulsed through his gaze for half a second, then he grunted and threw himself at John.

Fa’ll was massive – and all Creyoles, even if they were half human – were formidable warriors indeed, even for someone possessing armor.

But John?

He was angry.

Just as Fa’ll went for John’s head, John shoved his foot forward, slamming it into Fa’ll’s knee. There was a crunch, and his knee buckled, jerking to the side.

Fa’ll screamed. John took the opportunity to dart backward, form a fist, and slam his force-field covered hand right into Fa’ll’s face.

There was a crack as the massive man’s jaw broke. And Ensign Fa’ll fell backward, unconscious.

John didn’t take any chances.

He instantly fell down to one knee, considering he couldn’t exactly stand in this cramped tunnel, and he slammed a hand over Fa’ll’s face, deliberately flattening his palm against Fa’ll’s forehead. John sent a directed blast of energy slamming into Fa’ll’s brain – calculated precisely by his armor to ensure it shut down but did not fry the man’s consciousness.

Then?

Commander Campbell shifted backward. He climbed out of the tunnel, and he faced her.

Leana’x was sitting there, crumpled where he’d dropped her.

He reached out a hand to her, fingers spreading wide of their own accord, gaze even wider. “You okay?”

She looked at the hand, looked at him, closed her eyes, and pushed herself up. “Did he… did he just try to kill me?”

“I think it’s called assassination when you’re a dignitary, but yeah. He tried to kill you,” Campbell said.

Leana’x locked a hand on her chest, drew in several deep breaths, then let the hand drop, composing herself. Which was damn quick considering the fact she’d almost died at the hands of this bastard.

“What just happened? I… I don’t know F’all. Why would he—”

“Tell me exactly what happened,” Campbell demanded.

She shook her head. But again, it didn’t take long until she shifted her chin up and looked at him directly. “He seemed to be… waiting for something.”

Campbell’s brow scrunched down low. “What?”

She shook her head again, and though there was clear fear playing in her eyes, there was just as clearly control as she took a forced breath. “Maybe that was just the impression I got, but he kept muttering to himself about how much longer it would take. But… I don’t get it… if he was… if he was trying to kill me, why wait?”

“Not if, Ensign,” Campbell said, tone dropping down in a growl, one that wasn’t directed at her, “he did try to kill you. But I don’t know why he would wait. Do you—” Campbell began.

She froze.

There was no other way to describe it. Every single muscle contracted as if she’d been injected with smart concrete.

“Leana’x?” he snapped, reaching a hand toward her.

She couldn’t breathe, and her eyes were wide. He started to see the symbols on her face. The ones that purportedly ran all the way around her body.

They began to glow, right there before his eyes, as if there were lights trapped under the skin.

He jolted forward and caught her arm as her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she fell backward.

“What the hell is happening?” Campbell snapped, fearing the worst. Though he thought he’d gotten to Ensign Fa’ll in time, the bastard could have injected Leana’x with some kind of drug. One sophisticated enough that Campbell’s armor couldn’t pick it up.

“Shit, I have to get you out of here,” Campbell bellowed as he attempted to pick her up.

But that would be when she started to shake.

Back-and-forth, her whole body convulsing like an earthquake.

“Goddamnit,” Campbell spat, realizing it was too dangerous to move her until he figured out what the hell had happened.

He placed her down on the floor, her usually neat bun snagging on a section of the buckled plating that F’all’s gravitational gun had destroyed.

That would be when he noticed her hair was starting to… grow. Right there before his very eyes. It was changing color, too. Turning from an ordinary, kind of drab brown-green to crystalline, stunning green. The kind of crystalline stunning green that reminded you of an emerald lit up under full sun.

“Jesus,” he snapped, and though an ordinary person’s gut instinct would’ve told them to shove back from the sudden, unexplained sight, he shoved forward. He locked a hand on Leana’x’s shoulder.

He didn’t bother calling her name – she was way past understanding him.

Her hair was growing faster, until it spilled all around him. It sure as hell wasn’t hair anymore. Though the onboard sensors of his endoskeleton were going haywire – picking up way too many signals to be able to figure out what the hell was happening to her – one thing was clear. Her hair was some kind of sophisticated crystalline filament that wasn’t on the database.

“What the hell is happening?” Campbell spat, voice bellowing through the enclosed tunnel.

He had to get help. At the same time, he couldn’t risk leaving her alone.

Though F’all had attempted to kill her but had failed, that didn’t mean there weren’t other assassins out there.

“Shit,” Campbell spat once more, balling up a fist and striking it against the bulkhead to his side.

Leana’x kept shaking, her hands shivering, her eyes rolling about in the back of her head as her chest punched forward and back like a bellows that couldn’t suck in enough air.

“Shit, I have to get you help – just hold on,” John spat as he turned on his heel to run away.

He didn’t get far.

The ship lurched to the side.

It came out of nowhere – no warnings. No technical alarms . Nothing. And whatever the hell hit it was enough to compromise internal gravity.

He was thrust to the side, his shield still on and protecting him as his shoulder rammed against the buckled bulkhead that had been virtually split apart by the shot from F’all’s gravitational gun.

John’s tactical experience told him that a massive shift in internal gravity like that meant the Hercules had just been hit by an ionic missile – one that had somehow managed to get past the shield in one go.

Dread assailed him from every direction.

He waited for the alarms. For the blaring klaxons that told every single member of crew what was happening.

But there weren’t any alarms.

Then he finally heard the Captain’s voice as every single console throughout the ship – regardless of whether it was in range of the wireless communications network – started relaying the Captain’s warning. “We have been hit by some kind of… energetic wave,” the Captain said. “It has passed the shields. However, structural integrity scans reveal no damage. We are at yellow alert. All crew to report to stations.”

Hit by some kind of… energetic wave? What the hell did that mean? The Hercules had some of the most sophisticated sensors in any Coalition vessel. If those sensors couldn’t define what had hit them better than “energetic,” they were in serious trouble.

Campbell didn’t have time to question.

Something started to seep through the walls and floor – something that centered on Ensign Leana’x.

It was a green smoke, and instantly her hair reacted to it.

When the ship had lurched, he’d been thrown from his position next to Leana’x. He shoved forward, again ignoring his gut instinct that told him to get the hell away from her.

He went with his heart. It made him reach a hand out and lock it on her shoulder again. It made him bat fruitlessly at the green energy that continued to seep into her body, that continued to set the green filaments of her hair glowing like candles.

“What the hell is happening to you? “ Campbell asked, even though there was no one to reply.

The green energy seeped up from every crack, and within a minute, had entered her entirely.

Her skin had changed, her eyes, too. He caught glimpses of them every time she bucked back and forth, her eyelids opening, her eyes rolling back and forth into her head. Her eyes were glowing. If he needed one more scrap of evidence that what was happening to her was extraordinary, this was it.

Though he’d been determined to run for help before, he no longer needed to. At that exact moment, the communications jam in the corridor lifted.

“Hey, is anyone down there?” he heard Barlow snap. “You better tell me right now why you’ve been jamming my signals.”

“Barlow,” Campbell snapped. “Where the hell is my security team?”

“Dealing with the yellow alert. Didn’t you hear? Are you still in those tunnels looking for Ensign F’all? Get the hell out of there. I don’t care what he’s done, we need you—”

“No, I need you,” Campbell said, and though he prided himself on never showing fear, he had no option but to let it rule him as it shook through his chest, sent sweat slicking across his brow, and made his eyes pulse as wide as they possibly could.

“What the hell is wrong?” Barlow said after a pause. A pause where he obviously realized that Campbell wasn’t playing games.

“I have no freaking idea. Ensign… Ensign Leana’x. Something… happened to her.”

“What?” Barlow said. It was a testament to Campbell’s sheer lack of control that Barlow didn’t snap once more that there was a yellow alert, and whatever had happened to Ensign Leana’x could wait.

“I’ve got no idea. Something…. Look, I just need a full medical detachment, a full security detachment, too.”

“Why?”

“Because Ensign F’all tried to assassinate Leana’x. I barely stopped him. He had some kind of gun I’ve never seen before. Give me that team, now.”

“We’re busy with the yellow alert, Commander, but I’ll do what I can—”

“Stuff the yellow alert. What the hell was that energetic wave that hit us, anyway?”

“I’ve got no idea. Our sensors can’t recognize it. It scrambled them somehow. Didn’t do any damage, though.”

“Yeah, not to the ship,” Campbell spat, teeth clenching together as hard as they could.

“What does that mean?”

“It… did something to Ensign Leana’x. Just get me that team, now,” he bellowed.

Barlow wasted no more time.

Campbell jerked his attention back to Leana’x.

She was still twitching, her mouth now opening periodically, her lips jerking around as though they were trying to form words, but no voice could be heard.

And her eyes?

They would open with a snap, her green pupils darting from left to right as if she were in a dream. Then they would close again, she would shiver, and she would go back to muttering in an unheard voice.

The skin along the back of his neck was itching, his hair stood on end, and Campbell was feeling a dread more exquisite than any he had ever experienced.

But he could do nothing. Nothing but sit there and wait until finally, finally he heard a team come toward him.

He hadn’t told Barlow a thing, which was probably a mistake, because as the security team approached, they froze.

Campbell wouldn’t blame them.

They would never have seen anything like this, even in the crazy training exercises the Academy set you on, where they deliberately tried to imagine the weirdest things space could chuck at you.

This?

This was way beyond anything the twisted minds of the Academy could cook up.

Ensign Leana’x’s hair was still glowing, and it had spilled throughout most of the tunnel. It had to be longer than 20 m now.

As for the Ensign herself, the symbols across her skin were still glowing, and her eyes were still rolling around in the back of her head.

“What the hell is happening?” Security Officer Lieutenant Brown said as he paused at the lead.

Campbell knew he was as pale as brand-new snow, and he made no attempt to regain his control. He pointed a stiff finger toward the tunnel beside him. “Ensign Fa’ll is in there. You take him to the brig. You do it now. And you tell me as soon as he has woken up. Now where’s the medical team?”

“Here,” he heard someone behind the security team.

He was seriously disappointed to only see two medical techs, and not the CMO herself. He held onto his nerve just long enough not to snap at them that he needed a real doctor, not trainees.

As the first tech shifted past, his heart sunk as he realized the second tech was Ensign White.

She took one glance at her friend and looked as if she was going to hurl. “What… happened to her? What happened?”

“You tell me.” Campbell made absolutely no attempt to control the pitch of his tone, no attempt to control himself at all.

He was still there down on one knee, one hand pressed on Ensign Leana’x’s shoulder.

He was trying to use the onboard scanners of his endoskeleton to keep a lock on Leana’x’s bio signatures – but it wasn’t working. What the hell was happening to her? Whatever green energy had… possessed her was confusing everything.

Lieutenant Brown was the first to pull himself into action, the first to tear his gaze off the astonishing sight that was Leana’x. He shifted into the tunnel and saw Ensign Fa’ll.

“You put F’all on proper guard. I have no idea what kind of weapon he used on me, but I can guarantee he has more somewhere. You treat him like a top-level enemy spy, got it? “ Campbell growled.

Brown turned around and didn’t bother to reply. He waved his men forward, but it took several seconds for them to shift past Ensign Leana’x. To do that, they had to walk over her hair, and he could see their confused expressions as they stared down at it.

Neither of the medical techs were moving.

Not good enough.

Campbell jerked his head up. “Pull out your medical scanners, now. And you go get the CMO.” He pointed a finger at White. Though his tone was harsh, and his order harsher – suggesting she didn’t have the skills to deal with this situation – he was doing this for her benefit. She shouldn’t have to witness whatever the hell was happening to her friend.

White wouldn’t move. Her black skin was sallow. “But—”

“Move, Ensign,” Campbell snapped, his snarling words echoing through the tight tunnel.

It was enough to see White turn around and shoot forward.

As for the other medical tech, with a shaking hand, they grabbed the medical scanner from their hip holster and fumbled with the controls.

Though Campbell had the desire to reach forward, wrench the device off them, and do this himself, he waited.

He clenched his teeth, and he waited.

To be honest, he didn’t know what the medical scanner could do that his armor couldn’t. And his armor was too confused to figure out what the hell was happening to Leana’x.

That would be when he heard Barlow. He heard him, even though the Chief Engineer wasn’t speaking, because Barlow was heavy. His race was dense – and no, that wasn’t a pun. They were solid, built for shifting things around. And as Barlow jogged toward them, the entire tunnel shook as if a speeding elephant were coming their way. “What the hell is happening—” Barlow stopped as soon as he saw Leana’x. “Oh,” he managed.

Campbell could’ve punched him. “Oh? What the hell—”

Barlow brought up a hand. It was a quick, stiff move, and it was clear he wanted silence.

Campbell afforded him several seconds until his fear caught up to him again. “Do you know what the hell is happening here?”

Barlow pursed his lips and pushed a long slow breath through them, his usually ruddy cheeks paling. “Oh,” he said again. It wasn’t a dismissive comment. The exact tone? It was one you very rarely heard with an Orang. It was fear mixed up with complete surprise.

“Barlow, what the hell is happening?”

“Something must’ve happened on Artaxan One,” he said, and there was a distant kind of quality to his tone. He looked distant, too, and for a man who Campbell thought would never show fear, it was there – right there in Barlow’s eyes, right there in his stance as his shoulders deflated, as his cheeks became sallow and slack.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean… that’s the new Prime Queen,” he said as he jerked up a hand and slowly, slowly extended one of his fingers toward Leana’x.

“What?” Campbell spat.

Barlow eventually swiveled his gaze over to Campbell. “You need to call the Captain. Now.”

Campbell didn’t have to.

At that moment, his wrist device beeped. Though he had the ability to receive communications through a neural link, considering his endoskeleton, he didn’t use that ability in public. Few knew about his endoskeleton, after all. That was the only reason Ensign Fa’ll had attacked Campbell so stupidly. Had the Ensign been privy to the top secret of what Campbell was wearing, that fight could’ve gone down differently.

“Commander, what’s going on down there?” Chen said, and for the first time in Campbell’s life, he could hear true fear in the Captain’s tone.

“Never mind that,” Barlow snapped. “What happened to Artaxan One?” You would be a fool not to see the undercurrent of stress playing through the Orang’s eyes. It stiffened his face, made his voice come out as nothing more than a long spitting hiss.

“How do you know that?” the Captain demanded.

“Something’s happened, hasn’t it? What about the Orangs? What kind of incident—”

“Artaxan One is intact. There has not been a planetary wide incident. The borders are secure.”

“Then tell me what the hell happened,” Barlow bellowed. Though Barlow was pretty free with how he treated Commander Campbell, he never raised his voice at the Captain.

He did today.

Because today everything had changed.

“We are receiving reports,” Captain Chen began, voice halting, unsure, and yeah, fearful.

“Reports about what?” Barlow snapped.

“There has been… a diplomatic incident.”

“Just cut to the chase, Captain,” Barlow snarled.

“The Coalition emissary,” the Captain breathed, “to the Artaxan Protectorate has assassinated the Prime Queen.”

Barlow stiffened. Everyone stiffened. At the revelation a member of their own – the Coalition emissary – had assassinated a Galactic leader? Yeah, they all paled, they all stiffened, and they all stood in complete shock.

Barlow still managed to split his lips open. “What about the rest of the Royal Family?” he asked, never letting his gaze drop from Leana’x.

“We are receiving reports – it seems… the rest of the Royal Family were assassinated in coordinated attacks. What of Ensign Leana’x?”

For the first time, Barlow pulled his gaze off Leana’x and settled it on Campbell. “She’s alive.”

“That is good,” Chen said with relief.

“I don’t know if you’ll agree when you see her,” Barlow said, his tone unreadable.

“… What does that mean?” The Captain paused before asking.

“That not only did the Coalition kill the Prime Queen, but now…” he let his gaze cut back to Leana’x, “you’ll be responsible for keeping the next Prime safe.”

Chapter 8

Admiral James Jones

“I don’t understand, why didn’t it work? Why didn’t it work?” the Replacement Admiral James Jones bellowed down the communications line as he faced Prince Maqx. Though Prince Maqx was still technically in the palace, he was on one of the lower levels. And that was saying something considering this tower was so tall, it practically spanned a mile.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” the Replacement Maqx said, words garbled as they ripped from his tense lips. “All I know is I was not inhabited. You killed the Queen, didn’t you?” the Replacement Maqx bellowed.

Though both Jones and Maqx were Replacements, they were not on equal footing. Jones was the one in charge. A fact he showed as he pared his lips all the way back and growled like a wild animal. “I am standing amongst her bloodied remains. Are you standing in front of the vault where I told you to wait?”

“Yes,” Maqx said desperately. Though, technically, the Replacement could see things from a detached point of view if he wanted to, he was still tied down to a body, and could still feel terror as his biological heart beat and the breath became trapped in his chest. “There’s only one explanation,” Replacement Maqx hissed.

Admiral James Jones growled. He didn’t need Maqx to point it out. It was a possibility he’d already broached in his own mind. A fact that made him bring up his gun, twist it around, and fire off another needless shot into the Queen’s dead body. The green had disappeared from her hair now, the filaments having turned to dust that covered the throne room floor. As for her body, it jerked lifelessly as he fired two more rounds into it for no other purpose than to alleviate his mounting frustration. “One of the assassins failed. I’ll find out who it is. I will kill them and whichever member of the Royal Family they failed to assassinate. Then AVA will have no choice but to inhabit you. Get ready,” James snapped.

“I was born ready,” Maqx replied. Which was true. Both the original Prince Maqx and the Replacement were born for a specific task. Though most of the members of the Royal Family did not appreciate this, they were not ordinary Artaxans. From birth, not only had they been schooled to uphold the principles of the Artaxan Royal Family, but their genetic makeup had been altered, too. Altered so that, if it was one day necessary, they could house the greatest artificial intelligence in the Milky Way. AVA.

Jones brought up his gun once more as he let another blast sink into the dead Queen’s body. Her legs twitched as electrical discharges played over her lifeless skin.

Jones could feel the anger and hatred climbing through him, strangling him, making him want to reach out and pound the dead Queen’s body with his fists.

You see, as a Replacement, though technically he should be able to control his anger, it was becoming harder. For Prince Maqx, too. It’d been millennia upon millennia since the Force had used the Replacement technology in the Milky Way to craft Full Clones. And the races in the Milky Way had changed genetically since then. There were still kinks to iron out. And one of those kinks was Jones’ anger. An anger that he heard matched in Maqx’s tone.

It shouldn’t matter. It would be ultimately irrelevant if the Replacements had a tendency toward anger – a tendency toward violent, destructive, uncontrollable rage. It would be better. It would see them complete the Force’s mission quicker.

Commander Campbell

He’d been reluctant to leave Ensign Leana’x’s side. Hell, he’d been reluctant to pull himself up from his knees and yank his hand off her shoulder. Though it sounded nuts, his hand pressed there had felt like it was keeping her whole, keeping her alive. And somehow… it almost felt as if he were connected to her by more than his stiff palm and white fingers, as if a strange kind of connection was opening up between them with every second.

She had undergone… a total transformation.

And if it weren’t for Barlow, no one on board would understand what was going on.

Campbell was currently in the Captain’s ready room, undergoing the first proper briefing since the incident. It was now clear from sensor readings that whatever strange gravitational wave had hit the Hercules and compromised internal gravity had been something to do with whatever had happened to Leana’x.

Barlow cleared his throat. For the first time ever, he looked truly uncomfortable. And that was saying something, considering Campbell had served with Barlow for several years. Orangs always knew exactly how to respond to any situation.

But right now, Barlow looked thrown. He was also standing at the front of the table, his back rigid as he locked his hands on his hips.

“Though ordinarily I would allow you time to get your thoughts in order,” Captain Chen began, voice low but words quick, “we do not have time. I need to inform the Coalition that we have… as you say, the new Artaxan Prime onboard.”

Though Barlow had looked distracted before, he ticked his gaze toward the Captain and let out a snort. It wasn’t a dismissive one, just hollow and distracted. “It’s not ‘as I say’ – trust me, that’s the Prime.”

“And how exactly would you know that? Though I don’t know that much about Artaxan history, isn’t it all but forbidden for outsiders to see the Prime?”

Barlow let his hand drop from his hip. He wasn’t calming down. There was still so much tension running through his form that he’d need an engineering outfit to unscrew his muscles. “We Orangs have always had a good relationship with the Artaxans.”

“Undoubtedly. But as I said, tradition dictates –” Chen began.

Barlow brought up a hand. “We still spied on each other, though,” he said flatly.

Chen raised an eyebrow.

“My father was a spy on Artaxan One. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t after industrial secrets, weren’t there to destabilize the government. Just to keep… an eye on things. The Artaxans are mysterious, after all,” Barlow said, and it was a fact that was truly starting to sink in.

Campbell hadn’t known that much about the Artaxans before Leana’x had come onboard, and frankly, since… the incident, he hadn’t had the time to learn more. But though that was an oft repeated line in the Coalition – that the Artaxans were mysterious – he was only starting to appreciate how mysterious they were.

“So you are saying that you can definitely confirm that she has… become the Prime,” Campbell said, speaking right over the Captain, not intending to, but having no option as emotion charged through his chest like a bull.

Barlow swiveled his gaze over to Campbell. “Yes. It’s her damn hair. They call it the AVA crystalline matrix,” Barlow said, bringing a hand up and twisting it to the side.

“And what is it, exactly?” Chen asked.

“This is where it gets tricky,” Barlow said, letting out a tense breath.

That was not what Campbell wanted to hear, and at the exact tone of Barlow’s voice, let alone the tension that kept locking him to the floor like a soldering iron, Campbell straightened in his chair. “What do you mean, tricky?”

“Despite the Artaxan’s secrecy, we know a little bit about this AVA crystalline matrix, enough to know it’s meant to house some kind of massive artificial intelligence.”

Campbell shook his head. “Sorry?” Maybe he was unconsciously taking control of the conversation, but Chen didn’t pull him up.

“While my people have managed to figure out what the Prime looks like, information on the AVA is scarce. The greatest secret in Artaxan history. It is, presumably, the reason for their strict tradition of a separation of society between the Royal Family and everyone else.”

“So the Royal Family have kept this… AVA crystalline matrix a secret from the rest of their people?” The Captain clarified.

Barlow nodded emphatically. “The rest of the galaxy, too.”

“So what can you tell us about this artificial intelligence?”

“Not much. Old legends of my people say it has been with the Artaxans since the Original times,” Barlow said, and his cheeks slackened as he spoke. It was an unmistakable move of tension for his race. It sent nerves pounding through Campbell’s gut.

Campbell clenched his hands on the table and shifted closer, his cheeks paling until he looked dead. “The Originals are the origin myth for your race, aren’t they?”

Barlow arched an eyebrow. “Cultural insensitivity, Commander. It is not a myth. It’s the truth. We Orangs like to think we have our heads screwed on right, and we didn’t forget what came before,” he said, voice dropping down all the way low on the phrase came before. Though Campbell usually prided himself on keeping his nerve – he didn’t have any nerve anymore, and it was all too easy for Barlow’s warning tone to shake right through his gut.

“But you call it what you will,” Barlow continued. “According to my people’s legends, the AVA was left over from the Originals. Some kind of… insurance against the greatest enemy the universe has ever faced.” As Barlow spoke, he did so with a low affect. Not the kind of twisted humor of someone who was lying. He didn’t have that cheeky glint in his eye that he usually did when he was pulling John’s chain, either. No, just a dead straight even tone and an even visage. It told everyone he was being serious.

Though Campbell wanted to dismiss what the Chief Engineer was saying, he made the mistake of flicking his gaze toward Chen, and at the mention of the greatest enemy the universe had ever faced, Chen stiffened. It wasn’t a trick of the light – wasn’t just due to the narrow perspective Campbell had as he sat next to the Captain. No. The man Campbell trusted most in life – and the same man who was as unflappable as a steel sheet – winced. And that sent a whole new charge of nerves shaking through Campbell until he felt the need to stand and run from the room.

He managed to keep locked in his chair. “… Okay. Putting that aside for now, how the hell does that help Leana’x? Why is she,” Campbell suddenly lost the ability to speak as his mind was bombarded with the sight of Leana’x lying there in access Tunnel 22A, her eyes rolled into the back of her head, her body jolting, her lips jerking back and forth as she muttered something in an unknown language.

“That I can’t help you with. Though my people managed to spy on the Artaxans, and we know more than the rest of the Coalition….” Barlow either didn’t want to or couldn’t finish his sentence as he shrugged, bringing his hands up tensely. It was a saddened move. Despite the fact Ensign Leana’x had only been aboard for three weeks, Barlow had taken a liking to her.

“Fine, is there anything else you can tell us, Barlow?” the Captain said, failing to refer to Barlow by his rank.

Barlow shrugged. “If we’re right – and it seems like we are – and this was a coordinated assassination attack on every single member of the Artaxan Royal Family, then there will be another,” Barlow said flatly.

The Captain’s expression became grim. It took him a few seconds to respond. “Yes, I think on that we can agree. We are continually receiving reports of assassinations on the Artaxan Royal Family. Though not all 100 have been accounted for yet, presumably,” Chen said as he lifted a hand up and gestured toward the back of the ship – toward the direction where Ensign Leana’x still lay in her fugue, “if the 100th in line for the throne… ascended, then the rest must be dead.”

It was a sobering thought. A crushing one, too. There had been many critical security incidents across the Coalition recently – but this was different. This was a coordinated attack on the sovereign leaders of one of the most powerful empires in the Coalition. An empire who, according to conservative estimates, ran almost 90% of the information resources of the entire Coalition. If the Artaxans were compromised…. John shook his head just thinking about it.

What was worse? Oh, what was damn worse was Coalition officers had done it. As the reports kept flocking in, it was clear that every single assassination on every single member of the Royal Family had been committed by Coalition officers.

The Artaxans were in disarray. But without a working leadership, they couldn’t respond.

The rest of the Senate could respond, and though the Coalition were trying to keep a lid on the incident for now, those in the Senate who had been privy to the incident were calling for immediate investigations into the Coalition Army as a whole. James Jones going rogue would’ve been horrendous but manageable. 100 other Coalition officers going rogue?

That was a conspiracy.

John kept playing that moment over and over again in his head. The moment where he’d decided to run after Ensign Leana’x. The moment where he’d decided to go with his intuition as opposed to his anger.

If he hadn’t?

She’d be dead and the entire Royal Family would have been expunged in a single minute across the Milky Way.

“We need to figure out how to respond to this,” the Captain repeated.

No, responding to the assassination attempt could wait. Even calming the Artaxan people could wait. Right now they needed to fix Leana’x, stop whatever strange state was happening to her.

She was still down there in Tunnel 22A. No one was bold enough to move her. Not only did the CMO think it was a bad idea, but Barlow had vetoed it.

Those crystalline filaments that looked like hair?

They couldn’t be scanned. But one thing was clear – they’d already connected with the Hercules’ computer cores.

Pulling them out could kill Leana’x.

Shit.

This morning he’d woken up thinking today would just be another ordinary day.

Now he was wondering if there would ever be another ordinary day again.

“We need to keep looking into a way to assist the new Prime,” Chen said diplomatically, nodding at Barlow. “Even if you have to… shall we say, rely on information gained by your race in a less than diplomatic manner – do it. Call on every resource we can.”

Barlow nodded. “I already called my old man. He’ll see what he can do. But the honest truth is, I don’t think there is anything we can do. All reports we ever received confirmed that the Prime never leaves the throne room. If I’m right, it probably has some kind of information buffer that helps her filter the ongoing stream of data coming from the AVA matrix.”

Words. Just words. Though Campbell honestly had the requisite intelligence to understand what Barlow was talking of, Campbell’s brain was shutting down.

He was starting to… suspect something.

This niggling little thought that kept dancing in and out of his consciousness.

He got so distracted that he started to stare at his hands and tuned out of the conversation.

Chen cleared his throat. “Did you hear me, Commander?”

“Sorry?” Campbell looked up.

“I want you in charge of security. Though it saddens me to say this as the captain of this crew, I need you to vet everyone. Especially new ensigns. Don’t allow anyone near her who doesn’t have top security clearance. Even then, use only the people you trust.”

Campbell nodded, but there was still a distracted quality to it.

“Commander?” Chen said.

Campbell looked up sharply. Unconsciously, he started playing with his left index finger.

“What?” Barlow said, looking right into Campbell’s eyes.

“Maybe… maybe there’s something we can do,” Campbell said, a twinge of excitement climbing high through his gut as he pushed up from the desk and stood dramatically.

Though Chen shifted back in his chair to watch Campbell, he didn’t tell the Commander to sit down until the conversation was all over. “Do what you need to. I’ll call the Coalition, gather as much information as they have right now.”

“Have you told them about Leana’x yet?” Campbell snapped.

“Not yet. On Barlow’s insistence,” Chen said as he nodded Barlow’s way, “it seems it would be apt not to reveal that Leana’x has survived her assassination plot until we’re sure just how far this rot has run.”

With that, the Captain dismissed the meeting, and Campbell rushed out of the room.

Though he’d been in plenty of desperate situations in his life – and his combat record spoke for itself – this wasn’t like an ordinary combat situation. This was a lot damn harder. He didn’t have a target at the moment – no convenient enemy to shoot.

He just had a whirling mess of questions that seemed to be pulling at the strings of his sanity.

That didn’t stop him from running, not toward Tunnel 22A, but toward Leana’x’s quarters.

He brought up his wrist device several times, confirming the security detail was still guarding her door. Though the security team had already gone through her quarters, in case there were any clues that could help the current situation, there was one thing John hadn’t tried. One thing his instinct told him could be key.

Her ring.

Barlow had admitted it was worth more than a small moon, so it had to be a heck of a lot more sophisticated than the simple metal it appeared to be made from. What was more, it was clear from her interactions with Campbell after she’d admitted she liked keeping it off that there was considerable pressure from the rest of the Royal Family to wear it. What if it could somehow help her now that this AVA crystalline matrix had… inhabited her, as Barlow had creepily put it?

John couldn’t think. Fortunately, he didn’t need to. He just had to put one foot after the other as he sped toward the priority elevator at the end of the hall. Though two other lieutenants were headed toward it, he marched past them, snapping, “Priority business.”

They didn’t question. He had the authority to do what he needed now.

Though the relatively short several-second trip down to the accommodation deck shouldn’t have felt long, it seemed to drag on for years. It gave him pause enough to wonder what the hell was going on here.

More than that, where the hell it could possibly end.

Leana’x had stood there in front of Chen only three weeks ago and promised she was absolutely insignificant when it came to the Royal Family, promised she would never, ever ascend to the throne. Which told John one thing – she wouldn’t be ready. If they could somehow find a way to filter her consciousness through this Original artificial intelligence, would Leana’x even know what to do?

He wasn’t downplaying her skills as a diplomat – he’d seen those. No, John was questioning if anyone would be able to stop what was about to happen. Though the Coalition had tried to keep a relatively good handle on it until now, the truth would get out. 100 officers of the Coalition Army had turned on 100 Artaxans. It would be chaos when the Galactic news got hold of this information.

The Artaxan Protectorate was so damn important to the Coalition….

The elevators finally pinged open, and John shoved out before they had the chance to slide into the recesses in the wall. His shoulder brushed against the metal and he felt his endoskeleton react. For the last several hours – ever since the incident with Leana’x had begun – he’d been more aware of his endoskeleton than he ever had in his life. Though he’d only been wearing it for the past two months, he’d barely used it. Now… now it felt different somehow, and he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Nor did he have time. Using a blast from his endoskeleton to run as fast as he could – though not so fast that people would become suspicious – he finally reached Leana’x’s door.

There was a guard in front of it, and she frowned hard at Campbell’s approach. “What is it, sir?”

“Move aside. There’s something I have to check,” Campbell said, voice garbled as he forced his words out all at once.

This better work. This better work – because if it didn’t? There would be no fallback.

If they couldn’t pull Leana’x out of the semicomatose state she’d fallen into, wasn’t she as good as dead? Yes, John had technically saved her life, but she was no good to anyone if she couldn’t even be removed from Tunnel 22A, let alone woken.

So this had to work.

John felt it again – a kind of dread mixed with terror he’d never endured before in his life. No, that was a lie. He had felt it before – long ago, back when he’d been a kid. But back then he hadn’t been able to recognize what it was.

Now he felt every sensation as his jaw locked, as his chest seemed to tighten like a vice, as his breath wheezed out of a constricted throat.

The security guard stood aside and didn’t need to key John in – as soon as John locked a hand on the door, it read his biometric data and allowed him access.

Though ordinary doors didn’t have bio scanners built into them, this was no longer an ordinary door. The Chief had been very careful to set up sophisticated bio force fields around anything that had to do with Ensign Leana’x, which meant only people who had been specifically keyed into the system would be able to get past them.

John was one of those people, and the force field around the door fizzled off with a click.

The door opened, and again John couldn’t wait – he plowed into the room as if he intended to attack it, as if he wanted to pull the walls down, upend her bed, and tear through every last belonging until he could find the ring.

He didn’t have to look far, though.

Her ring was sitting right there on the bedside table.

Though he approached it quickly, he stopped just as quickly, skidding, his regulation boots grating over the tread of her carpet.

He brought a hand out, then hesitated, his fingers shifting toward the ring.

There was precious little information on her file about it, other than the fact that she had leave to wear it and never take it off. What if it somehow reacted to people who weren’t of Artaxan Family blood? If you’d suggested that before this morning, John would’ve laughed. Now? Christ, he didn’t know what was possible anymore.

He hesitated for one more single second until he overcame his fear, let his hand drop, and pulled the ring up.

… When it didn’t bite his hand off, he let out a tense sigh.

Then he whirled on his foot and thrust forward.

He didn’t even bother to say goodbye to the security guard as he pushed out of the room and headed back to the priority lifts.

Several passing ensigns shot him confused looks – though most of the crew knew something was going on, only a privileged few knew exactly what was happening. The more they could keep this information from spreading, the better. But they wouldn’t be able to stop it completely. People were freaked out. And though Campbell prided himself on being a competent Commander, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop that fear from spreading. As it did, so too would the rumors.

So he needed to get this sorted now.

As he reached the privileged lifts and threw himself in, his wrist device buzzed. “Yes?” he snapped.

“Has your harebrained scheme worked yet?” Barlow demanded. “What have you got planned, anyway?”

“It’s just a hunch,” John said as he reached forward and stabbed his finger into the button that would take him to Deck 22. That whole deck had now been shut down, security placed at every single tunnel entrance that could lead to the deck. As for the lifts, only senior staff with designated access would be able to take them to that deck. Anyone else who requested it would be reported to the Captain.

It wouldn’t be enough, a voice in John’s head said. Though Ensign F’all had made a mistake, he would have still been equipped with some seriously sophisticated weaponry. He hadn’t yet woken up in the brig – the neural blast John had given him had been a strong one. But when F’all woke, John knew one thing – F’all wouldn’t talk. F’all would look for a way to get out of there and complete his task.

Though John still had questions so numerous, they could fill an ocean, he was starting to put things together.

Though F’all had been large, well-equipped, and well-trained – he wasn’t perfect. Yes, John had gotten lucky – but good assassins don’t allow other people to get lucky. No, if John was any guess, whoever had orchestrated this mass attack on the Royal Family hadn’t bothered to send a particularly sophisticated assassin after Ensign Leana’x. Why bother? She was 100th in line. Though some of the other members of the Royal Family closer to the throne would expect an attack, the conversation Leana’x had had in the Captain’s office was evidence enough that she would never be expecting it.

And it was the only reason she was still alive. Luck combined with the fact F’all hadn’t known about John’s armor.

But that luck would run out.

John doubted that a group with enough power, resources and coordination to go through an attack like this would stop now.

“Hey, Commander, answer the question,” Barlow barked.

“Sorry, got distracted.”

“What’s your plan?”

“Her ring,” Campbell said, and for some damn reason, his voice was all constricted.

Barlow paused.

John’s heart leaped up into his throat. “What? You don’t think it will work? You yourself said it is extremely expensive. And she said members of the Royal Family aren’t meant to take them off. What if it’s more than some emblem of office?”

Barlow continued to pause, and every second he didn’t answer, John felt tenser.

Finally the lifts arrived on the right deck, and the doors pinged open.

John threw himself out.

Which was a mistake, as there were two security guards waiting right there in front of the lifts.

Their guns were half raised, and they didn’t drop them even as they saw Campbell.

They referred to their bio visors – visors embedded with powerful medical scanners that could recognize John on the molecular level.

John reluctantly came to a grating stop until the security scan was complete.

Both security officers stepped out of his way and snapped salutes.

John didn’t bother to return them.

“Barlow, is it a good plan? Do you think it will work?” John insisted.

“I think right now we don’t have the option but to try everything,” Barlow said ominously. “I’m currently in main engineering, but you call me—”

“If anything happens. Got it.”

With that, John hooked a right and arrived at the tunnel that would lead straight to Leana’x and her entourage. John caught himself thinking about her security detail as an entourage just in time. He no longer had the luxury of thinking of Leana’x as some privileged brat who didn’t understand the real world. Because if Leana’x didn’t understand the real world – and, more importantly how to calm down her people and the rest of the Senate – then there very well may no longer be a real world by the end of the week.

There was another security detail at the mouth to the tunnel.

This time, John underwent a far more thorough security check, one that was handled by the CMO’s second-in-command.

John hated the fact that the woman had a grim expression on her face.

“No change, then?” he asked, again his words harsh and garbled.

She didn’t answer – just shook her head.

There was a knot forming in the pit of John’s stomach. A hard kind of knot you could easily confuse for someone having just punched you in the gut.

It made him unconsciously hold Leana’x’s ring tighter.

It had… a strange kind of weight to it.

As he clutched it, even if he didn’t intend to, his endoskeleton began to scan it. It had been scanning it ever since he’d grabbed it from her room. And scans were inconclusive. He had no idea what the metal was, even though it looked like an amalgam of vana ally and gho alloy.

Just another mystery, ha? Well, there would’ve been a time when John would’ve been a bulldog in tearing the mystery apart to find out what lay at its center, but right now, his mind was only focused on one thing.

He rushed down the tunnel as fast as he could. Not only were there numerous security and medical checkpoints – but after a while, he ran into her hair.

If you could continue to call it that. Barlow had referred to it as some kind of crystalline matrix – the basis of an Original AI.

John wanted to shake his head just thinking about it.

He stepped carefully around the hair. They’d had to erect several hand holes and footholds in the wall of the tunnel to get around it. According to medical scans – though they couldn’t do much for her condition – treading on her hair caused Leana’x pain. So he was damn careful not to do it.

Eventually, he reached her.

The CMO stood to the side of the widened tunnel, her expression just as unreadable as it had been when John had seen her last.

He rushed up to her, opening his mouth, but she got there first, extending a hand his way and opening her fingers with a pulse. “Nothing has changed, Commander. Not a damn thing. Our scanners aren’t working, and Leana’x is… continuing to undergo whatever she is undergoing.”

“Well… I might… I might have something that could help,” he began.

As the CMO’s eyes lit up with hope, his stomach twisted.

Because this was nothing more than a guess. There was every damn reason it wouldn’t work.

It was just a ring, after all. And even though his armor couldn’t technically tell him why the ring was so heavy, that didn’t mean it had the ability to… what? Filter the so-called AI that was now inhabiting her?

Just push it out of your head and try, he told himself.

So he did. “Is it okay to touch her?” he asked the CMO.

She shrugged. “As far as we can tell, it does not have any lasting effects to any of the crew.”

That’s not what he meant. He wanted to know if touching her would do her any damage, not him, but he didn’t bother to point that out.

John’s stomach tightened.

He tried to get as close to Leana’x as he could, gently pushing away a few strands of her hair as he kneeled beside her.

She twitched.

He winced.

“What are you doing?” The CMO asked.

“Going out on a limb,” John realized, his gut sinking at the prospect this had absolutely no chance of working.

That didn’t stop him. He carefully plucked up her left hand, paused, re-gripped the ring in his now sweaty fingers, and finally put it on her finger.

Yeah, he didn’t need to point out it felt weird – kind of intimate, like he was marrying her.

But then?

Leana’x stilled.

It happened in an instant. Her mouth went from jerking around as she muttered in some unknown language to being perfectly still. And her eyes? They stopped darting to and fro as if she were in some crazy form of REM.

John was down on his knees, and he didn’t need to jolt forward to get any closer to Leana’x. The CMO, however, took a quick step toward Leana’x, plucking the medical scanner from her belt so quickly, she could have chucked it down the tunnel.

“What happened to her?” John spat.

“She’s calming. From what I can read of her biological readings – she’s finally stabilizing,” the CMO said, taking a breath that echoed down the tunnel.

It was one John shared. The kind of anchoring breath that allowed his shoulders to sink down for the first time in several hours. “How long until she wakes?” he asked.

“I have no idea—” the CMO began.

Leana’x’s eyes opened. She gasped, jerked her hands up, and tried to clutch her stiff fingers around her throat.

“Easy,” John said instinctively as he grabbed her hands and tried to pull them down.

“Don’t touch her,” the CMO snapped. “Get back.”

It was murder for John to try to shift back. He didn’t get the chance, though.

Leana’x latched out a hand and snatched it around his. Her eyes pulsed as wide as they could. “What… what… what happened? What happened? Where am I?”

“Easy. Easy,” John said, trying to pry his fingers back from Leana’x’s, but every time he got one loose, she would just snatch hold of his hand harder.

Eventually, he stopped trying altogether and clasped her hand with reassurance.

He jerked his head toward the CMO.

She was keeping her distance, her attention locked on her medical scanner, her gaze darting from Leana’x back to the scanner so quickly, it could’ve popped her eyeballs out.

“What’s happening? Is she okay?” John demanded.

“Where am I? Commander, where am I?” Leana’x’s eyes darted from left to right.

She’d called him Commander, and that was good. Unbelievably good. The kind of good that allowed his shoulders to deflate even further. “So you know who I am?” he tried.

“Of course I know who you are. You hate me. But why am I in this tunnel? Why can’t I move? And what’s this… thing?” she said, spitting the word thing out with such vehemence, it shook his hand.

“Leana’x… just take it easy. Take a breath and listen. You’ve been in,” Campbell cut his gaze toward the CMO, waiting to see if she would stop him from telling Leana’x anything, but the woman was too distracted and John just went with his gut instinct anyway, “an accident.”

“Accident? What kind of accident?”

“You… you….” He had no idea what to say next.

“You’ve ascended to Prime,” someone said as they strode forward through the tunnel. John immediately recognized the sound of their boots.

Barlow.

Leana’x froze. If it weren’t for her solid grip around John’s fingers, he would’ve suspected she’d gone back into her trance state.

John jerked his head back and shot Barlow an angry look as he came into view. Leana’x had just woken up – she didn’t need to be bombarded with information.

Barlow ignored the look. “Leana’x, the rest of the Royal Family is dead. You’ve ascended. You’re Prime.”

Her face was ashen – and it made the green glowing symbols along her cheeks all the brighter. “What?”

“You’re not going to have time to process this. So I’m only going to repeat it once more. You’re now Prime. The rest of your family is dead.”

“Barlow,” Campbell snapped, “have a heart.”

“They’re not her actual family, Campbell. And she doesn’t have time. Have you got a handle on it yet, Prime?”

“… A handle on what?”

“The thing in your head. Was Campbell right? Did that ring help you start… to process?”

Barlow obviously knew more than he’d told the Captain, and though that made Campbell’s blood boil, right now he’d rather stay right by Leana’x’s side than jump to his feet and knock Barlow out. “Barlow, what are you doing?”

Again Barlow didn’t even bother to look Campbell’s way. He locked all of his attention on Leana’x. “You don’t have time, Prime.”

Though she’d appeared frozen when Barlow had pointed out that the rest of the Royal Family were dead, now she twitched. Her grip around John’s finger twitched, too, tightening as if she were holding on for dear life.

“For God’s sake, Barlow, give her some time—”

“Time, Commander, is something none of us have anymore.” There was a truly grim quality to Barlow’s tone.

Campbell expected Leana’x to recede, close her eyes, try to get away. She didn’t. Instead, she tried to pull herself up.

“Hold on, stay still,” Campbell tried.

“Get up,” Barlow spoke right over the top of Campbell, his voice loud enough to cut through a crowd. “You need to address your people, calm them down.”

“Barlow—” Campbell began, intending to end this interrogation now.

That would be when Leana’x managed to pull herself up. Using her grip around John’s hand, she managed to find the muscular strength from somewhere to sit, despite the significant weight of her hair.

“Try to keep still,” Campbell tried.

“How did this happen?” Leana’x looked right at Barlow. “There were 99,” her voice wavered as she took a stuttering breath, “there were 99 other people in line for the throne before me. How did they all die?”

“A coordinated assassination attack across the entire Milky Way,” Barlow pointed out without pulling punches.

Campbell’s gut twisted as if Barlow were insulting a family member. But again he didn’t get the chance to snap at Barlow—

As if sensing Campbell’s growing anger, Leana’x put a hand up. Though the move began shaky, there was still a stiff kind of regality to it that could not be ignored. If Ensign Leana’x had dared use a move like that on John several days ago, he would have flipped. Now he stopped.

“Who killed them?” Leana’x asked.

“Coalition assassins. Some kind of conspiracy. The top brass is looking into it. But the assassins are still out there,” he added with a growl.

Though her cheeks paled, she didn’t let her head drop. “What did they want?”

Barlow shrugged. It wasn’t an easy move. It looked like he was about to shunt his shoulder blades into his ears. “I have my theory.”

“Which is?”

Barlow plucked a stiff hand off his hip and pointed at her mounds of crystalline green hair. “AVA.”

Leana’x didn’t react. “What?”

Barlow’s cool cracked. “Don’t tell me you don’t know what that is. What the secret of the Artaxan Royal Family is.”

She opened her mouth, looked down at the hair, momentarily appeared freaked out, then managed to shake her head. “I’ve seen the Prime before – seen… hair like this, but I don’t know what this AVA is. And how do you—” she began.

“Because I was personally a spy on the Artaxan Royal Family for several years before I joined the Coalition,” Barlow revealed.

All eyes were on him, none more so than Campbell’s penetrating gaze. “What?” he growled. “You told the Captain that your father was a spy.”

“So I did,” Barlow said, never wrenching his dead gaze from Leana’x. “But I’m feeling a little more honest right now.”

Leana’x didn’t appear to react to the revelation that Barlow had spied on her people. She let her gaze drop to her hands – which were now completely covered by those glowing symbols – then she took a breath and faced Barlow once more. “What is this AVA?”

“Why don’t you know?” Barlow asked without answering her question.

“Because I was 100th,” Leana’x said, showing the first true exasperation she had since she’d woken up, “and this wasn’t meant to happen.” She had to spit the word this out as her lips clenched together as if they were being held by an ionic bond. “They don’t bother sharing top-level secrets with anyone past 50th in line for the throne.”

“Then we’re all screwed,” Barlow said flatly.

Campbell bridled at his tone.

Leana’x darted her gaze over to Campbell, her expression unreadable. She brought a hand up, appeared to want to clutch it over her eyes and hide behind it, but then stopped. With a resolute breath, she let the hand drop into her lap. “Barlow, as per the unique diplomatic authority invested in me as Prime Queen of the Artaxan Protectorate, I extend full immunity to you as long as you share with me every fact you have learned about my people, no matter how you managed to find it out. This immunity will extend to the Orangs as a whole.”

The switch happened quickly. Leana’x went from sitting there looking overcome, to looking like a competent Queen, all in the blink of an eye.

“No one else knows you’re Prime, yet,” Barlow pointed out. “But I’ll still share with you what I know. It isn’t much. Though we Orangs have only been spying on your people for 100 years—”

“You are a particularly resourceful race, and I expect that information to be of quality,” Leana’x answered for him.

Though Campbell had no idea how this situation should pan out, he knew it shouldn’t be like this. Not only should Leana’x be a mess considering what had just happened to her, but she should be angered by what Barlow had just revealed – coordinated espionage on her race that had spanned over a century.

Leana’x simply kept her chin held high. “Contact your people,” she told Barlow. It wasn’t a suggestion. Leana’x may have only been an ensign and Barlow a chief, but it was damn clear from the look in Leana’x’s eyes that she was no longer part of the chain of command. “Extend my offer of diplomatic immunity for the immediate exchange of all information relating to this,” she momentarily broke eye contact, staring down at her hair before jerking her gaze away from it, “situation.”

“It isn’t going to be that easy,” Barlow warned.

“Why not?” Leana’x controlled her tone, and though to anyone else it would have seemed that she was still in control, Campbell was close to her – close enough that he could see her jaw twitch and tighten with tension.

“Because few people know what has happened yet. The Coalition have to keep a lid on this until they know where this conspiracy came from.”

“Though it’s been a long time since my lessons on the Galactic Senate and the procedures relating to lockdowns, key members of each race in the Coalition would have been notified by now. Even if the entirety of the Orang government does not know what transpired on my home world, find somebody who does, and extend my offer to them.”

Barlow took several seconds to look at Leana’x, and Campbell would have given anything to know what the Chief Engineer was thinking. “I’ll see what I can do. But there’s more you need to be aware of,” he said.

She stared at him evenly. It was a distracting move, more than distracting enough that everyone in the tunnel looked at her face, not her shoulders as they deflated an inch. “Of course there is.”

“You now have the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in the history of the Milky Way inhabiting your mind. You’re going to need to learn to access it sooner rather than later. I know you’ve already said that you do not know what AVA is, but your people can’t be that stupid. They must’ve told you something. There would be no point in having the redundancy of 100 people who could assume the throne if they hadn’t prepared those hundred people in some way. It’ll be there in your head somewhere, Prime – and you’re going to have to find it. Though my people have been spying on yours for 100 years, we’re not going to have any idea how to control AVA. You’re going to have to figure that out on your own.”

Campbell was close enough to Leana’x that he could see her expression and body language better than anyone else. More than close enough to see as a new wave of tension and fear marked her brow before disappearing as she controlled herself once more.

Though she was doing an admirable job of looking composed, no one could be composed in a situation like this. She’d gone from being a normal crewmember aboard the Hercules to holding the fate of the galaxy in her hands in under several hours. Now Barlow wanted her to figure out how to control this AVA without any help at all.

It would be torture.

The CMO cleared her throat. “I don’t get it. Surely this knowledge is back on Artaxan One. Surely all we need to do is take the Ensign back there.”

Barlow didn’t bother to dart his gaze over to the CMO. He snorted derisively. “That would be a great way to hand the Prime back to Admiral James Jones and whoever the hell else helped him perpetrate these mass assassinations. For now until we know the exact details of how this occurred and that everyone involved has been hunted down, she can’t afford to go anywhere near her home world, let alone any member of her race.”

What Barlow was saying started to sink in for Campbell. The fact that Leana’x had woken up was amazing, but the real hard work? It was still ahead.

“My people will be in disarray, Chief, and I must address them.”

“I’m not sure that that’s a good idea,” the Chief said. Though he would be Chief for now, after Campbell spoke to the Captain, hopefully Barlow would be put in the brig. It was now clear he’d known more about this situation than he’d shared, much more, and something told Campbell Barlow wasn’t done with the secrets yet.

“Why?” Leana’x asked simply.

“Under my instruction, Captain Chan has not yet informed the Coalition that you survived your assassination attempt, let alone that you have ascended to Prime.”

Leana’x looked at Barlow evenly. “You think if I address my people, let alone confirm that I’m aboard the Hercules, the assassins will come after me again, right?”

Barlow reached up and crossed his tensed arms, his muscles rippling like a stone thrown in water. “Yes, yes I do. And right now, considering the enormous amount of uncertainty we are under, we cannot afford to invite more. One thing is for sure, Prime, whoever orchestrated this mass assassination intended to kill off everyone in line for the throne. Though it’s a guess, it’s a pretty well-educated one –”

“What guess?” Leana’x demanded.

Barlow let his gaze drop until he flicked it back and locked it on Leana’x with all the force of gravity clamps. “That the group who murdered the Royal Family were after AVA,” Barlow stated.

“Couldn’t they just be after the destabilization of my people?” Leana’x asked quietly, her heart not really in the question.

Barlow shook his head. “If they were just after destabilization, they wouldn’t have needed to assassinate every member of the Royal Family at the same time. My guess is they needed to kill you all at once to ensure AVA went to the next designated host.”

“Though I don’t know anything about this… AVA,” she managed through a tight swallow, “I do know the traditions of the Royal Family. And it is only a designated member who is in line for the throne who can ascend to Prime. And assuming you’re… right, and this AVA intelligence exists, then I imagine it’s handed down through the Primes.”

“Like I said – it was just an educated guess. And until we find out what the people behind this conspiracy want, I suggest we act as if they want AVA.”

“Your suggestion has been taken on board,” Leana’x said after a pause. “But my priority right now is my people. I have to address the Senate to calm them.”

“You don’t have to, Prime,” Barlow pointed out quickly.

She lifted her head and looked at him evenly. “You are correct – I choose to,” she said, and there was a final quality to her voice on the term choose to, one that made her sound exactly like an admiral giving out an unconditional order.

Barlow let out a heavy sigh, but he didn’t contradict her again.

“Help me up,” Leana’x said to Campbell, and though there’d been a forceful edge to her voice as she’d conversed with Barlow, now it was soft.

Campbell shook his head. “We shouldn’t move you,” he tried.

“I can’t stay in this tunnel forever.”

“The Commander is right,” the CMO finally intervened. “We shouldn’t risk moving you until we know your condition has stabilized.”

“My condition is now irrelevant,” Leana’x said, again speaking with that unmatched authority. If Campbell had been in a cynical mood, he would’ve pointed out it was an authority he’d always known Leana’x had had – and arrogance, too. But John wasn’t in a cynical mood, and God knows he couldn’t afford to question Leana’x right now. Because the mere fact she wasn’t falling apart, despite what had happened to her and her people, could be the difference between the galaxy falling apart or it remaining together.

With that, she tried to lift herself up. She gripped John’s hand as tightly as she could, and he didn’t dare shove her off. She tried to lift to her feet, but she couldn’t seem to shift past her mounds of hair.

“I don’t think you can move,” Barlow pointed out. “The Prime never leaves the throne room on Artaxan One.”

Leana’x didn’t stop attempting to stand. She did swivel her gaze over to Barlow. “Though I do not question your people’s ability to spy effectively, on that, you are wrong. Could everybody please ensure they are not standing on my hair,” Leana’x asked politely.

People shifted back, though it was damn hard to find a place that was free from those crystalline filaments. Everyone had to retreat further back down the tunnel, and John shouldn’t need to mention that it was murder to leave her side.

“Please give me a little privacy. Retreat from the tunnel system, and I will meet you in the hallway,” Leana’x said with authority.

Though Campbell snapped his mouth open to tell her it was too dangerous to leave her side, she shot him a look.

Again, it silenced him. It shouldn’t silence him, for so many reasons, not only that despite the fact she was now technically the Prime, he was still the Commander of this vessel.

But that look did more than silence him – somehow, it asked him to trust her.

And he did.

Everyone retreated. All the way back to the primary hallway.

John didn’t retreat completely, though, and kept the sensors of his endoskeleton primed on Leana’x’s position, ready to pick up any untoward activity that would suggest someone was attacking her.

Then he heard her footsteps.

They were heavier than usual, ungainly, too, but within a few seconds, Ensign Leana’x appeared.

Her hair was still there, but it was coiled tightly at the base of her neck. Despite the fact that when it had been loose, it had covered the floor of the tunnel, now it somehow looked manageable.

“How did you do that?” John couldn’t contain his surprise.

She was a little unsteady on her feet at first but seemed to redirect all her energy into strengthening her posture and aligning her balance. She looked at him. “Thank you… Commander,” she managed. “You… saved my life, didn’t you?”

Campbell’s cheeks reddened. He was very much not the kind of man who took stock of assumed authority. Though the Coalition was a relatively democratic place, some of the sovereign states that made it up weren’t. The Artaxan Protectorate was an example of that. And though Campbell would’ve told you until he was blue in the face that he wasn’t the kind of man to get ruddy cheeks at the prospect a princess was paying him attention, tell that to his cheeks.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Are you sure you can walk?”

“Surprisingly, it’s a skill I learned in the first year after birth, and I assure you, I haven’t forgotten it,” she said, attempting humor.

To be honest, the last thing John wanted to do right now was laugh. But laugh he did. Just a soft chuckle, just a slight shake of his chest. Just enough to lift a little of the dread that had settled over his shoulders since Leana’x had collapsed.

“Is there some way I can get to the bridge without using the main hallway?” Leana’x asked as she strode toward the lifts at the end of the deck. “I don’t want anyone to see me like this yet,” she admitted, voice becoming quiet momentarily.

“And we can’t afford to have anyone see you like this,” Barlow reminded her as he put on a burst of speed and strode alongside her. Even Campbell wasn’t prepared to do that. There was something too regal about her. If Barlow saw it, it didn’t seem to bother him. “We can redirect this lift to the Captain’s ready room. It’s that or transporting, and I really, really don’t want to try that. Who knows how the AVA will react.”

Though Campbell was keeping several steps behind Leana’x, he could still make out the side of her face, and he saw enough to notice as her cheeks stiffened.

Campbell couldn’t… couldn’t begin to imagine what she was going through. If she was being honest – and he had no reason to believe she was lying – then there was something in her head, a massive artificial intelligence she had no idea how to control.

How was she keeping it together long enough to speak, let alone stride toward the lifts with her head held high? Maybe this was what had bothered him about Ensign Leana’x ever since she’d come on board. Not the arrogance he believed he’d seen in her, but a competency under pressure he would never be able to match.

They reached the lifts. Barlow paused as he reached out a hand, wrenched off the panel covering the controls, and started to manipulate the wires.

Leana’x took the opportunity to half close her eyes, her balance swaying. That was enough to break the spell that had entranced John. Enough to see him jerk forward and let a hand hover by her shoulder. “Are you all right?” he demanded in a strangled voice. For some reason, ever since she’d awoken, it’d felt as if someone had wrapped their hands around his throat.

Leana’x took a moment to compose herself, then darted her gaze up and locked it on his. “I’ll be fine, Commander,” she said in that quiet tone. The same quiet tone she only seemed to use on him now.

He got the crazy urge to blurt out that he didn’t hate her, not anymore. He’d been a fool for bullying her, too.

He didn’t get the chance.

Barlow stood back, a satisfied smile spreading his lips for half a second until they twisted into a tight frown. “No time to waste. Prime,” he said as he nodded his head in a deferential move toward the lifts.

Leana’x didn’t hesitate. She strode in.

She could have looked ridiculous with her glowing skin, bright green eyes, and massive crystalline bun. Suffice to say, her regulation Coalition uniform didn’t match her look. Instead, she looked… alluringly powerful.

The CMO peeled off as she reached the lifts. “I’m going to head back to the med bay and run some in-depth scans on the data I collected,” she told John in a low tone. “Let me know if you need me.”

It was one John returned as he shifted around and jerked into the lift, shifting to the back until he was one step behind Leana’x. No, it wasn’t where he thought he belonged. He hadn’t taken one look at the transformed Ensign Leana’x and decided he wasn’t good enough for her. It was just easier to keep watch on her this way. Captain Chan had given John the task of keeping the new Artaxan Prime safe, and even if Chan hadn’t given John that task, he would’ve taken it up himself.

Maybe this was a subconscious reaction to the fact he’d bullied her – a way to make up for it. Maybe it was just doing his duty as a good Coalition soldier. Or maybe it was something else. The point was, it didn’t matter. For John Campbell had a reputation all around the Milky Way. When he gave you his loyalty, it counted.

Would it be enough to keep her safe? No, but it would be a start.

Chapter 9

Leana’x

She had to control herself. Not because she couldn’t find the strength to stand. But because for some insane reason she wanted to take a step back, reach out, and clasp John’s hand. When she’d woken from her trance state, his grip on her fingers had been the only reason she hadn’t freaked out. And now her body longed for that comfort once more.

She couldn’t allow herself to reach around and pluck up his hand, though.

It would be wildly inappropriate. It would also show unacceptable fear. Fear that God knows was climbing her back and shaking her heart, but fear she would never be allowed to show again.

Leana’x was… she was now all her people had. An unprecedented attack on the Artaxan Protectorate had occurred, and unless Leana’x could push away her self-interests and lead, the Artaxans would….

She pushed that thought away as quickly and as hard as she could, clenching her teeth until the stiff move distracted her.

She didn’t know what kind of hack Barlow had performed on the lifts, but it had to be considerable. Though she’d only been an engineer aboard the Hercules for several weeks now, she appreciated that while there were lifts that could head to the Captain’s ready room, the lift that serviced Deck 22 was not one of them.

Barlow had to continually manipulate the open control panel before him, obviously redirecting all other lift traffic in the Hercules as he charted a path through the extensive shaft system toward the Captain’s ready room.

He didn’t say a word. Which was good. Because it seemed that every time he opened his mouth, he would throw another proverbial spanner at her. First it was the admission of what had happened to the rest of the Family, then it had been the revelation of AVA.

Every time he mentioned AVA, let alone every time she dared to let herself think about it, a strange thrill escaped up her back. It was a sensation that had never been matched in her life. Part excitement, part dread.

For there was one fact she could not deny. There was something in her mind. This… presence. It felt like a shadow to her every thought, like a doorway right back there at the edge of her consciousness that led to a mind far, far larger than hers could ever hope to be.

She tried to take the minutes it was taking for the lift to arrive to compose herself.

She had to be strong. Forthright. The Captain, like Barlow, would probably suggest that she shouldn’t contact her people until they knew who had perpetrated the assassinations.

But the Captain, just like Barlow, was no longer in a position to give Leana’x demands. Though she hadn’t technically resigned her position as an ensign aboard the Hercules, it was incompatible with her role as Prime. No leading member of a sovereign state could be directly affiliated with the Coalition Army. Plus, though this really wasn’t the time to see irony, she doubted she would be able to accept many engineering shifts as she tried to pull her people back from the cliff this shadowy conspiracy was attempting to push them over.

She took a deep, resounding, but hopefully hidden breath as the lifts finally arrived.

Fortunately, the doors didn’t swish open to reveal a security detachment with their guns raised. After all, it was only the Captain who could use the lift that serviced his ready room.

Instead, she faced the Captain and his third in command – Commander M’Wae, head of security.

Though Leana’x had only had a few brief interactions with the Captain, it had been enough to conclude that he was a well-controlled man. Not only was it a requisite of being a leader aboard a Coalition vessel, but it was something she would need right now if she had any hope of diffusing this situation.

The Captain nodded down low. “It’s good to see you on your feet,” he began.

Before he could refer to her as ensign, she cleared her throat. “Captain Chan, I respectfully inform you that I am now withdrawing from the Coalition Army and all the service that entails immediately. I hope this causes no inconvenience,” Leana’x said, retreating into the formal speech she’d always been taught to use in times of stress. There was something powerful about hiding behind complicated language, and right now, she really needed something to hide behind. And as crazy as it sounded, if she could choose, she would choose Commander Campbell. He was doing a brilliant job of staying by her side but just out of sight. It made her want to constantly swivel her head to check that he hadn’t disappeared.

Though this wasn’t the time, she wanted to point out to herself that was insane. Campbell had gone from being a man who’d been her number one nemesis on board to being her only safety blanket.

“That was to be expected,” Captain Chan said as he bowed low in a formal greeting. “I’m sure you have many questions.”

“I do. But first, I have a demand. I need to contact the Senate,” she said, using everything she had to ensure her voice was even, even though it wanted to crack like glass shot by a gun.

What was she doing? She had never contacted the Senate before. And though Leana’x could try to hide behind her words and assumed position in front of Captain Chan, facing the Senate would be different. Though Leana’x had undergone the requisite training of a Princess, due to her position as last in line for the throne, that training hadn’t been nearly as extensive as it would need to be if she had any hope whatsoever of controlling the Senate and not coming across as a weak fool. For that was a very real risk. Though she felt an obligation to attempt to calm her people, if she couldn’t control her own fear, let alone incompetency, her plan would backfire. The fact she had survived her assassination attempt would mean nothing if she was not fit for rule.

Chan pressed his lips together and appeared to think. “I’m not sure that is a judicious decision, Prime Queen,” he said, nodding in deference.

“Perhaps you are correct. But unfortunately we are not in a position to wait around for a perfect plan. Though there may be unintended consequences of me addressing the Senate, I can guarantee you that leaving them in the dark will be worse.” Though she sounded forthright, she really wasn’t. She was shaking on the inside. She couldn’t… couldn’t begin to comprehend how much was ahead of her. Worse, she would have no help. None at all. Even if she could attempt to return to her home world, there wouldn’t be anyone there who would know how to assist her in growing as the new Prime. All that knowledge would have been killed with the rest of the Royal Family. It had never been written down. And the only people allowed to attend on the rest of the Royal Family were the Royal Family themselves. Though there were staff members in the palace, their roles were kept to a minimum and they were not allowed to have any access to Royal Family secrets.

No, Leana’x was facing the very real possibility that the secret traditions of the Royal Family had died with the Royal Family.

Which meant she may never learn how to control the… thing in her head.

“If that is your decision, Prime Queen, then I am obliged to help you as the new ruler of the sovereign state of the Artaxan Protectorate. Though I would offer you a word of caution. As soon as you address the Senate, even if you ask them to keep this situation under wraps until we can find more information, it will be leaked to the press. Addressing the Senate will be tantamount to addressing the galaxy. And this situation… I should not need to tell you this, but it could undermine the Coalition as a whole. Once it is revealed that 100 officers within the army turned on your people, this will lead to a period of significant instability.” There was no hesitancy to Chan’s tone. He did not suggest that it might lead to a period of instability – he stated it flatly as he looked just as evenly into her gaze.

She held his stare. “You’re correct. It will lead to a period of instability. But keeping this situation in the dark may very well lead to something worse. Though I can’t begin to imagine who perpetrated this attack, I am… reluctant to believe that Chief Engineer Barlow is correct.”

Chan looked questioningly from Leana’x to Barlow. “Correct in what?”

“In assuming that the perpetrators were after the…” she wanted to say thing – couldn’t imagine another way to refer to the presence in her mind, but she controlled herself just in time, “AVA intelligence.”

Chan briefly looked at Barlow then back at Leana’x. “So you can confirm that the AVA exists?”

Leana’x didn’t want to answer. She could play the game of diplomacy with Captain Chan all she wanted, but at the mention of the thing in her mind… it started to erode her control.

Though Campbell hadn’t said a word and hadn’t shifted from behind her until now, he cleared his throat and took one solid, determined step forward. She could feel his eyes dart toward the side of her face before they shifted back to the Captain. “Sir, the Ensign,” he began before he stopped abruptly, “I mean Leana’x, I mean,” he stiffened his jaw, obviously having trouble spitting it out.

She watched him. Even if her eyes had been hooked up to cruisers at light speed, she wouldn’t have let her gaze deviate as she locked it on him for all she was worth.

Though his gentleness since she’d woken up had told Leana’x that John had changed, maybe she was kidding herself. Maybe he still couldn’t allow himself to believe she was anything more than arrogant.

But that would be when she saw the particular look in his eyes – the confused surprise. The confused surprise she should be feeling, too. And maybe it was a reaction to the fact she wasn’t showing it that Campbell was showing it all the more.

Campbell took a harsh breath and composed himself. “The Prime Queen of the Artaxan Protectorate needs to go to the med bay.”

“I have to address the Senate,” she replied, suddenly incapable of holding his gaze.

Because he looked too… raw. And the rawer he looked, the more it reminded her that she should be feeling the same. That pushing away the shock of this situation and getting on with it for her people was all very good, but at some point she would have to sit down and process this monumental shift.

“No, Leana’x,” he said, and this time he didn’t correct himself and refer to her new title, even though someone in his position should never forget diplomatic formalities, no matter the situation, “you need to go to the med bay to confirm that you’re alright. Though I… accept your decision to talk to the Senate, and I agree,” he stated, and though she hadn’t been able to face him seconds before, she couldn’t stop her gaze from darting up to his now, “the last thing you want is to collapse while addressing the Senate.”

She opened her mouth automatically to disagree, but unfortunately, he had a strong point.

“And though I do think it is a good idea to address the Senate and to tell them exactly what’s going on, even if that will spread to the Galactic news,” he said with a stiff jaw, “I would say a time-stamped, authorized holographic message from you would be a lot smarter at this stage than addressing the Senate live.”

The last thing Leana’x wanted to do – and her training told her she could do – was show vulnerability. But she couldn’t stop herself as her eyes widened slightly. “I can do that?”

John took a moment to look at her, then nodded. Though she could fool herself into thinking his gaze was judgmental, it wasn’t. It was soft. Leana’x had just proven she didn’t know how the Senate really worked, despite appearances, but the last thing John looked like he wanted to do was point that out to anyone.

He gave another soft nod. “Yeah. You can. There’s an accepted method to timestamp and verify incoming messages to the Senate. It’s fool-proof,” he added, saving her from having to ask that question and revealing more of her ignorance. “The Hercules has the technology to timestamp to the Senate’s standard. I suggest the Captain contacts the Coalition and the Senate, tells them that you’re alive, hands over the recording, and states that you cannot appear live in front of the Senate until the CMO clears you.”

“No,” she said immediately, and was surprised to see a somewhat crushed expression cross John’s face. “I mean, though I agree with your plan,” she said quickly, “we can’t tell them that the reason I can’t appear in front of them is because I’m being checked by the CMO. We can’t afford to show any weakness,” she explained, voice quiet.

“It isn’t weakness,” he pointed out while the Captain remained silent. “It’s the truth. And didn’t you say that’s what you wanted to reveal?”

She couldn’t look at him. “Yes, I think it’s important we tell people what’s happening. But… we shouldn’t show weakness,” she defaulted to saying, using the same practiced tone she’d been taught.

Though like every other member of the Artaxan Royal Family Leana’x had undergone diplomatic training during her childhood and teenage years, hers had been basic compared to everybody else’s. Just facts, just suggestions, nothing more. If Leana’x hadn’t been Leana’x, and hadn’t been 100 in line for the throne, Campbell wouldn't need to point this out. All of the other members of the Royal Family had stood before the Senate at some point in time. With Leana’x, they hadn’t bothered.

John took a tense breath. “Fine, if you don’t want to show weakness – even though this isn’t weakness – what excuse do you suggest we use?” His tone was hard, and again she could have fooled herself into thinking that the bully was back, but that wasn’t true. John simply looked tired.

She was suddenly struck by the fact that not only had he saved her from F’all, he’d barely left her side since her transformation had begun.

Wait – how did she know that? No one had told her that. And yet, she got a clear impression of John kneeling by her side, holding her shoulder, telling her it would all be all right.

The impression came from nowhere, and it brought with it a searing pain as if Leana’x’s head was a cup someone had just tried to overfill.

She jerked her head hard to the side, brought up a tensed finger, and locked it on her temple.

“Leana’x,” John snapped as he jerked out a hand toward her, latching it on her shoulder. Though it was forbidden for people outside of the Royal Family to see the Queen without invitation, it was utterly forbidden for them to touch her unless she touched them first. Even then, it wouldn’t happen. For the Queen was a truly solitary position.

Leana’x didn’t immediately snap at Campbell to unhand her. His flat palm against her shoulder was all she needed to distract from the searing pain in her head. Plus, it was exactly what she’d needed since she’d managed to pull herself up from the floor of the tunnel.

The confusion swamping her mind felt easier to handle when John was touching her.

“Are you okay?” John demanded.

Leana’x let her hand drop, forcing a controlled mask to set over her face. “I’m fine; it was nothing,” she added before he could ask.

“Like hell it was nothing, and like hell you’re fine. You’ve got a searing pain in your head, and you need to go to the medical bay now.” There was no lightness to his tone. It was an order, plain and simple. And while such an order would have been appropriate for Ensign Leana’x, it was wildly inappropriate for the Prime Queen. She didn’t point that out. She stared at him as confusion rumpled and marked her brow. “How do you know there’s a searing pain in my head?” Her tone wavered with surprise.

As soon as she asked that question, she got her answer. Just not from John. An image struck her mind with all the force of a tsunami flowing into shore. She saw John fighting F’all, saw the moment when a force field had jumped over John’s skin from nowhere.

“Leana’x.” John latched his hand on her shoulder tighter now, as if he expected the whole universe would try to wrench it off. “I’m taking you to the med bay now.”

Before he could haul her away, she let her hand drop and she looked at him. It must’ve been a pretty invasive stare, because his eyebrows clunked low over his narrowed eyes. “What are you doing?”

“You have… you have some kind of endoskeleton, don’t you?” she suddenly blurted.

Though Campbell had been determined to drag her to the med bay seconds before, he froze. “How do you know that?” Suspicion marked his tone.

The truth was, she didn’t. The… presence in her mind did. Because that was what was feeding her these sudden flashes of memory, wasn’t it?

The searing pain in her head continued, and she locked a flat hand against her temple.

All John’s suspicion melted away as he shifted behind her, clutched both of his hands on her shoulders, and started marching her toward the Captain’s lift, though his moves were gentle.

She could have protested that she didn’t need to go to the med bay – that she had to record her message for the Senate first, but she didn’t bother.

Though she didn’t want to admit this, she was starting to trust John. And there was something deep about that trust – much deeper than their short interactions to-date should have allowed for.

Leana’x didn’t have the time to wonder what was happening to her, but she should have taken the time. For what was transpiring between her and John Campbell would be key.

Chapter 10

Admiral James Jones

“I don’t care how risky it is for you, you kill her now, you understand that?” Jones snarled into the holographic link in front of him, bringing his white, pared back lips so close to the hovering, flickering hologram, it was like he was going to eat it whole.

Lieutenant Fisher receded, his cheeks pale. “There’s so much security around her – I’m not going to get a chance—”

“Then you make a chance. You know the Coalition is on the line, don’t you? You know how many people’s lives are at risk, don’t you? You know what will happen to your family, to your world, to your galaxy if you don’t go through with this, don’t you, Lieutenant?” Jones said, and with every question, his voice punched out with such rattling fury, he could’ve brought down the palace.

Not that there was much that could bring down the palace. And that was the point. Jones’ anger was increasing by the second, let alone by the minute. He didn’t have the time to waste. One of the 100 members of the Artaxan Royal Family had survived – Leana’x Artaxan. He knew where she was – aboard the Hercules. And he already had replacement assassins aboard that ship, and if they didn’t work, he had other assets he could turn. And fortunately, Leana’x was it. Jones’ coordinated assassinations throughout the Milky Way had gone off with only one single hitch – Leana’x. Jones had miscalculated the assassin he’d sent after her. After all, she was 100 in line for the throne and should have been so damn insignificant and easy to kill.

But according to Lieutenant Fisher, Commander John Campbell had intervened. Fisher could tell Jones a lot, but he was incapable of telling him just how Leana’x had been saved and just how Ensign F’all had failed. F’all had been equipped with a multiuse gravitational weapon – one that, in the right, well-trained hands, could be used for anything. Select the correct command codes, and it could turn into a short range weapon, a long-range weapon, a security drone, a shield, or directional armor.

And yet, F’all had still failed. He’d either been incompetent, or Campbell had been a better asset to begin with. Jones had briefly thought of turning Campbell to the cause when he’d canvassed the Hercules for assassins, but Jones had picked the half human half Creyole instead.

A mistake.

Jones brought his snarling face as close as he could to the flickering holographic image once more. He could feel the heat reflecting onto his tensed cheeks and pale lips. “You have one chance, Lieutenant. Because we all have only one chance. The Force is pushing into the Milky Way. Every last major incident in the past several years has been caused by them. If we have any hope of saving our civilization and this great galaxy, we must act now. And the only hope we have is to get the secret knowledge and weapons of the Artaxan Royal Family. They have sat upon these weapons for millennia. They have never shared their knowledge. Despite the number of people who have died, they have simply sat back, assured that they alone are safe. We cannot let this continue any longer. We must act. You must act,” Jones said, voice punching down low on the word you.

Fisher’s face stiffened. Though at first Jones could tell it was with patriotic fervor, there was doubt in his eyes, too.

Before Fisher could voice that doubt, Jones got there first. “She will turn into the Prime, body and soul. Maybe you know this Ensign Leana’x, maybe you think she will voluntarily share this knowledge with us now she has ascended to Prime, but you are wrong. She has blue blood,” Jones spat, lips like harsh whips around the move, “and it runs deep. The only way to ensure the Coalition can access the full knowledge and armory of the Artaxan Protectorate is to take it. So do whatever you can.”

Fisher took a step back from the holographic receiver in his quarters with jerked force, and Jones could see the young Lieutenant’s cheeks suddenly pale. “Someone’s coming,” he managed.

“Leave. Report when you have killed her.” With that, Jones forced himself to take a step away from the holographic receiver. Though all the burning anger in his gut wanted to do was spit and hiss and shout and bellow at this Lieutenant Fisher until the dumb pawn understood the severity of the situation, Jones couldn’t afford to be found out.

Fisher snapped a salute, stiff, smooth, and practiced.

Jones did not return the salute. “Just get it done and give us a chance,” he ordered.

“Yes, sir,” Fisher whispered through a breath. Then, with a darting movement, he turned off the holographic feed.

For several seconds, Jones stood there, staring at the holographic particles as they disassembled and reset against the floating panel device. The Artaxans possessed technology few others within the Coalition did, and that was why they were such an important target.

“Any news yet?” Jones received a sudden communication from Prince Maqx. The man’s anger rattled down the line. Though it was becoming increasingly hard for Jones to control his rage, Maqx was twisting faster. It would be a quirk in the replacement process – a genetic abnormality that hadn’t been picked up.

If Jones had had the option, he would have slaughtered Maqx and tried again. But there wasn’t the time.

“Contain yourself,” Jones said, voice a low, rattling order. It was the same voice the real Admiral James Jones had learned to perfect in his years of leadership. The same voice with a twist. A dark one that grew with every second as Jones clenched his teeth together and pulled his lips back in a jerking movement. “Have you managed to find a way through the vault yet?”

“Of course I haven’t. It’s impossible without the Prime’s access codes. We need AVA. We need her now,” Maqx spat, his voice garbled as if someone had hands around his throat. No, that wasn’t quite it. His voice didn’t sound as if he were being strangled – it sounded as if the only way Maqx could keep himself sane was to strangle another.

Jones took a breath to resettle his own rage. “Wait. Our asset aboard the Hercules will kill her soon. Just wait.”

Jones heard a scream over the line and a dull thump, probably the irate Prince Maqx slamming a fist into the vault door. It would do nothing against that megalithic crystal structure. Even a blast from several ionic torpedoes wouldn’t be able to rip through it. It was made of a smart, ever-changing subatomic lattice that could adapt not just to the environment, but to the thoughts of those around it. That was the true power of AVA. A power that if the Force could harness, they could use to tear a hole right through Coalition space. And if they couldn’t harness it? Simple. They would destroy AVA and the Artaxan Protectorate completely.

“Just wait,” Jones forced himself to say, swallowing his own bridling anger as it forced him to clutch a fist, as it begged him to slam said fist into the roving holographic panel emitter that still bobbed in front of him.

He contained himself for now. But there would be a cost for that control. For every single time Jones was forced to contain his rage, it grew, seething in his gut like a volcano getting ready to explode.

The next time he was permitted to use that rage, his violent outburst would be unstoppable.

Admiral James Jones’ Replacement whirled on his heel and stalked out.

Chapter 11

Commander Campbell

At least she wasn’t arguing with him. Which, if John had had the time to pause and wonder about, he would’ve realized was surprising. Fair enough, he’d saved her life, but there was still a lot of bad blood between them, right?

Wrong. Leana’x seemed a lot freer around him than anyone else. For as soon as they both entered the lift and the doors closed behind them, she let out a massive sigh and pinched the bridge of her nose. “This shouldn’t be happening,” she muttered under her breath, showing the weakness she’d already said she should not show.

He just watched her out of the corner of his eye until she let her hand drop and she faced him. “I guess I was wrong, Commander,” she said out of the blue.

His stomach twitched as his nerves told him she was reassessing him. Maybe she was going to go right back to thinking he was the bully he’d once been.

She shook her head. “I stood in front of you and Captain Chan and told you both that this could never happen.” As she said the word this, she brought her hands up and stared at them, her green, luminous eyes darting between the symbols that were emblazoned along her skin.

“You couldn’t have predicted this,” he said, about to call her ensign but stopping at the last moment.

Her gaze darted off her symbols and locked on him.

“Prime,” he added after a significant pause.

Surprisingly, she snorted. It was an undignified move for an ensign, and way worse for the leading ruler of one of the most powerful states in the galaxy.

It made one half of his lips curl as he realized Leana’x was still in there under that green luminous crystalline hair.

“You don’t have to call me Prime, Commander,” she said, a weary note to her tone.

“I can’t very well call you ensign anymore – you just quit.”

“Call me Leana’x, Commander,” she said with a casual shrug.

“Then call me John,” he said before he could stop himself.

… They shared a moment.

She took a solid breath and opened her mouth, an odd look in her eyes, but whatever she was about to say was interrupted as the lift arrived.

Though John longed to pause and figure out what she wanted to tell him, his back stiffened as he saw crew casually walking along the corridor that led several meters to the med bay. “I thought I called ahead and asked them to lock this down?” he muttered. “Stay here,” he began, holding a stiff hand out to her, his fingers spread wide. “I’ll get rid of them.”

John took a step half out of the lifts.

That would be when Leana’x took a quick step toward him, flattened a hand on the back of his, and pushed it down. “No need, John,” she said.

Either it was his armor malfunctioning, or her touch caused an electric jolt to shift up his wrist and hard into his shoulder.

Leana’x took a breath, shifted her chin up, half closed her eyes, and walked out toward the surprised crew.

John wanted to dart a hand forward and grab hers as he pointed out this was a seriously bad idea. There was a reason the Captain had been trying so hard to keep Leana’x’s secret from the rest of the crew. If the news spread—

“There’s no need to worry,” she said as she faced several surprised looking ensigns.

“What… what happened to you?” one of the ensigns stuttered, his gaze locking on her hair and then darting over her face.

Though Leana’x had always had… an unusual quality about her, her appearance hadn’t been particularly stunning. Now? For God’s sake, her hair had turned into crystalline strands that stored up the light and her eyes looked like two pale green supernovas.

The male ensign couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

Leana’x smiled and nodded her head low in deference. “I’m the new Prime of the Artaxan Protectorate,” she said, voice even. Several seconds ago in the lift, she’d been clutching the bridge of her nose and bemoaning what had happened to her. Now? She looked as if she’d been born as the Prime.

John’s back unavoidably stiffened. He wanted to hiss at her that she had to stop, that she simply couldn’t parade through the corridors and tell everybody what had happened to her. But then again, John didn’t have the authority to order her around anymore. Neither did the Captain. Leana’x had to play things as she saw fit, and it was damn clear she was going to do just that.

“What the…?” the flustered ensign managed.

Leana’x was starting to draw a crowd – every passing crewmember stopping and staring in confused wonder. They would all have known that something had happened to the ship, and some of them privy to senior-level secrets would understand that there’d been an issue in the Artaxan Protectorate. But none of them would have been able to imagine this – that the new Prime of the Artaxan Protectorate was now on board.

Leana’x could have looked flustered – should have looked flustered at everyone’s surprised attention, but she didn’t. She simply clasped her hands in front of herself in a practiced, easy move that gave away none of her underlying tension. She also smiled genuinely.

“What happened to the Artaxans?” the female ensign who wasn’t as blown over by Leana’x’s appearance asked through a worried, strangled stutter.

Leana’x didn’t react to the ensign’s terror. She simply smiled with yet more warmth. And that’s what it was – the exact quality to her curled lips, bright eyes, and firm stance was warmth, not arrogance. Confidence, mind you, but one measured with reason. “While it’s true that something has occurred in the Artaxan Protectorate,” Leana’x said, tone completely neutral, giving nothing of the severity of the situation away, “we are looking into it. The Coalition and the crew of the Hercules will do everything they can to sort this situation out as soon and as efficiently as possible,” she said smoothly, technically giving the crew of the Hercules an order, even though she had no right to. But it was a technicality. She wasn’t ordering the startled male ensign and his female friend to bow down and kiss her feet. No, Leana’x was just giving them a path out of their fear.

“In the coming hours and days, you will start to hear rumors from my people. Don’t believe them. The Galactic media will try to convince you that we are all falling apart. As you can see, we aren’t. If you have any questions about the situation, please feel free to contact me. Good luck,” Leana’x added, and with that, she bowed her head down low in a move of true deference, strolled past the ensign and the rest of the growing crowd, and headed for the med bay.

As soon as they walked in and the doors closed behind them, John couldn’t hold in his questions anymore. “Why did you do that? It’s safer for you to keep as far away from the crew as you can.” John whispered, though he needn’t have. The med bay at least had been completely cleared, and the CMO and her senior staff were on the other side of the room.

Leana’x took the time to turn slowly and face John. “Because it starts now, whether I like it or not.”

“What starts now?”

“The fight for peace. It’s not going to be won with ionic missiles and cruisers, John. It will take hearts and minds. I don’t know who went after my people – I don’t know… how many in the Coalition want me dead,” she said, and for the first time since she’d exited the lift, there was a true note of despair in her tone, though it was one she quickly swallowed. “But I do know that our best chance of getting through this isn’t with secrecy. The assassins are going to know I’m still on board – I doubt F’all was the only asset on the Hercules. And even if he was, whoever orchestrated this attack will figure out where I am sooner rather than later, especially when I address the Senate. I can’t fight on every front at once, and neither can you. Even if we could, that’s not going to be the real battle. The true war will be to keep the galaxy calm. You can keep me safe all you want, but I am insignificant compared to the stability of the Milky Way. And I wager that’s the real target… AVA aside. And the only way to win that war is to show people we’re not afraid, is to spread the truth wherever we can,” she said, voice defiant, expression powerful.

And John? He just listened. He could’ve fought her, pointed out this was an unacceptable risk, but he didn’t. Because she had a point. And more than that, she had… a power behind her John had always suspected but had never truly seen until this moment.

He opened his mouth to say something, maybe stupidly, idiotically to point out that she was incredible and he’d always been wrong about her, but he didn’t get the chance.

The CMO rushed over to them. “What happened?”

John cleared his throat and pushed his inappropriate thoughts away. “Leana’x needs to go through a thorough medical examination, sooner rather than later. She’s been complaining of severe pain in her temples.”

The CMO swiftly shifted her attention to Leana’x, and there was still an awed, slightly confused quality to it. But the CMO was a hardened professional, and she pushed past that confusion as she started to wave to members of her staff. John walked with Leana’x as they took her to one of the sophisticated single room medical labs at the back of the med bay.

“We’ve got this, Commander,” the CMO said quickly. “I imagine you’re needed on the bridge. If you’re worried about security, we’ve got a contingent already.” The CMO gestured over her shoulder to three guards who were standing in the back of the generous room, regulation rifles in their hands.

When John didn’t immediately leave, the guard in charge – a Lieutenant Fisher – cleared his throat and took a step forward. “We’ve got this, Commander,” he said, words quick.

John stood there, torn. Technically though John was senior to the CMO, this was her med bay, and he had to follow her orders. But on the other hand, he couldn’t leave Leana’x. It wasn’t just that he didn’t want to, it was that suddenly it was as if his limbs didn’t belong to him anymore, as if they were mutinying against the CMO’s order.

The CMO shot him an angry look and snapped her mouth open as she had to dart around John’s form to get to Leana’x.

“He’s staying,” Leana’x said, and her tone was even and forthright. It was an order, not a request.

The CMO hesitated, opened her mouth, then didn’t appear to know what to do.

“Though I may be a little rusty on the Coalition Army’s rulebook when it comes to offering transport and protection to sovereign members in the Senate, I’m relatively certain that it is up to those sovereign leaders to assign their own protection should the situation dictate it. And I believe this situation dictates it.”

Leana’x’s tone and mannerisms suggested there would be no conversation about this. If he’d ever been looking for evidence of her arrogance, here it was. She was going over the head of the CMO, for God’s sake, and more than that, she’d just selected John to be her personal bodyguard, and though she was correct, and she could assign herself protection, picking the second in command was over the top.

But did John point that out?

Hell no, he just took a step closer to Leana’x, lifted his chin up, and looked directly at the crew.

The CMO sighed, shrugged, and got back to what she was doing.

Fisher? Fisher stiffened. Christ, was it John’s imagination? Or did the man’s hand slip further down his rifle.

There was a fact about this situation that John hadn’t yet had the time to address. When Leana’x got a clear bill of health and finally addressed the Senate to calm the galaxy, John would have to look into the crew. His crew. The same crew he was responsible for disciplining and keeping in line. Because a member of his crew had attempted to assassinate Leana’x. He’d failed to sniff them out. Worse? What was categorically worse was that there could be more out there.

John knew the worst thing you could ever do for crew morale was to start looking for traitors. It would turn everyone against each other and replace trust and loyalty with paranoia. But John couldn’t push that same paranoia away as he locked the sensors of his endoskeleton on Fisher.

Because sometimes paranoia was justified.

Chapter 12

Leana’x

As stupid as it sounded, she couldn’t trust anyone else on board. Though some part of her wanted to point out that she could hardly trust John – that part was quickly pushed away. Because the trust she had in John wasn’t intellectual anymore.… it was physical. It was this connection that had built up between them and only them since she’d woken with his hand on her shoulder.

Unconsciously, as Leana’x sat on the edge of the bed waiting for the CMO to start her scans, Leana’x brought up her hand and tentatively brushed her fingers over the spot where John had comforted her.

The CMO instantly swiveled her attention to Leana’x. “What is it? Is your shoulder hurting you?”

Leana’x shook her head and reluctantly let her hand drop to her lap.

After several seconds, she darted her gaze up to see if John was looking at her. He’d been doing such a good job of keeping her in his sights since she’d woken up, after all. But John wasn’t looking at her. Though it appeared as if he was staring straight ahead, she could tell that he had the sensors of his endoskeleton locked on one of the security officers – the one at the lead – Lieutenant Fisher.

Wait, how could she tell that? How did she know John had an endoskeleton? Let alone where he was training its sensors?

As soon as she questioned that thought, a searing, blinding pain exploded behind her eyeballs. Leana’x gasped and almost fell backward against the bed, clutching at her face as if she thought her skull would be split apart.

“What is it?” John was the first to react, the first to swoop toward her. To do that, he diverted his attention from Fisher.

A mistake.

Because as quickly as he possibly could, Lieutenant Fisher raised his gun and fired right at Leana’x’s head.

She didn’t have the time to react.

But the bullet never reached her.

Because something pushed out from Leana’x – the connection that had been forming between her and John. A connection that was far more than loyalty.

Just as the shot from Fisher’s gun reached Leana’x so too did John’s shield. It erupted over his flesh and encased the two of them in a blast of light, one that was more than enough to withstand the shot from Fisher’s rifle.

“Stop him,” the CMO bellowed as she shoved toward Fisher.

He didn’t get a chance to squeeze off another shot. The two other security guards beside him turned on him and de-armed him with swift blows.

Leana’x couldn’t move.

Terror and shock held her to the spot.

Then she felt something, a second before it happened.

Just as Fisher’s comatose body struck the floor with a thump, John began to jolt forward and backward, the shield that had encased both her and him flickering off.

“John,” Leana’x screamed, reaching toward him just as John Campbell fell unconscious. With a convulsion as if a thousand volts had just plowed through his body, he fell against her, crumpling into her open arms.

As soon as her skin touched his, pain exploded through her head. Pain the likes of which she’d never felt. She didn’t have the time to scream, to breathe, to beg for help. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head. She fell backward, John’s body crumpling against hers as the world blinked out.

The last thing she was aware of was that door in her mind – the pathway to that thing – to AVA. She felt it being thrust open and shared.

Want to keep reading? This series is complete, and you can buy all four episodes today. You can buy Ava Episode Two from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo


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