The Eye of the Gods Episode One

Prologue

Special Commander Jake Trace

“No, Vivian, hold on, please.” Jake crumpled over the sparking controls of the cruiser. Though he had to lock his attention on their ship’s chaotic flight path as they flew right through the heart of a light storm, he could see her out of the corner of his eye.

Her white-knuckled hand clutched her chest. Her fingers pulled in so tightly, one of her nails perforated the fabric of her medical gown.

Her eyes were starting to become sightless.

“No, Vivian, dammit—” he went to pull away from the controls to get to her.

The ship jerked. It lurched to the side, and he only just managed to hold onto the controls. A damage report flashed on the screen, and it told him that if they sustained another hit like that, they would die.

Vivian looked like she was dying anyway.

“Viv, just hold on. Please. We’re almost through the light field. Just hold on.”

“I don’t think I can, Jake.”

Horror filled him. His eyes opened wide, his brow slicked with sweat, and as shock dragged his cheeks down, his brows rose to meet his hairline. “You can’t. You can’t—”

Something struck the ship again. He was forced to tighten his hands around the piloting controls.

He was down on his knees. The command seat had come off its runners and smashed into the wall long ago.

“Come on, computer,” he spluttered with heart-destroying desperation. “Dammit, how long until auto navigation is fixed?”

“Automatic navigation has been disabled. Manual piloting is the only way to ensure the ship safely traverses this unknown light field.”

Tears started to mix with the sweat draining down his face. He went to jerk his head over his shoulder to stare at her again, but those flashes of light continued to assault the ship from every angle.

The whole vessel shuddered like a hand holding some impossible weight that was getting ready to break.

“Dammit,” he spat with all his vocal force.

Out of the corner of his eye, Vivian smiled. It was distant.

It was like she was smiling at something he couldn’t see.

Terror pulsed through him. “Vivian.” He yanked one of his hands off the piloting controls and reached out to her.

She was slumped against the wall, but thankfully the ship was small enough that she could reach over. She rested her deathly cold grip in his.

There was no life left in her hand. There was none left in her eyes, either, as she laboriously pulled them up and locked them on him. “Just take my body back to Coalition space. Promise me that.”

“Vivian, no.” His voice became hoarse as he screamed with all his might.

Something struck the ship, and he was forced to yank his hand off hers. He got control of the vessel again, dodging more blasts from that light field. When he reached out to her, her hand wasn’t there.

She slumped against the deck.

As horror sliced through his heart, it told him she was dead.

“No. Vivian. Vivian?” he screamed louder and louder.

He pulled himself away from the controls.

He couldn’t take it anymore. If this was it and she was dead, screw this ship and him with it.

He got down to his knees just as something smashed into the ship. He wrapped his arms around Vivian’s cold, dead shoulders.

The ship lurched one last time.

He closed his eyes as he waited for them to be torn apart.

There was an eerie beep followed by silence.

Though his head was buried alongside her cold, lifeless face, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the view on the main screens change. It no longer showed a chaotic light field. No. It showed….

He pulled his head away from her pale face. He tilted his terrified gaze up.

There in front of him was another galaxy. He could no longer be in the Coalition anymore. Before him stretched the empty hulls of massive ships that could swallow whole planets. And within them, glowing cities and civilizations grew.

It was the most fantastic sight he’d ever seen. It looked as if someone had taken the belly of a whale, thrown it down to the ocean floor, and waited for a multitude of sea life to settle in its bones, building something new from something old.

“Where the hell am I?” His voice shook.

“Based on analysis of the stable visible stars, you have entered the Scarax Galaxy,” the computer informed him.

He shook his head.

He stared at Vivian. He was a long way from home, and he was all alone.

He crumpled forward, burying his head against her cold face. He cried. It’d been the first time in years. Once upon a time, his life had been founded on loss. Then he’d joined the Coalition and rebuilt it. Now everything he knew – and once had – would be taken from him.

Chapter 1

One day ago, Earth
Vivian Bond

Vivian crossed her arms and took a step back from the gallery wall. Clucking her tongue, she rocked back and forth on her heels.

“So, do you like it?” the squat Fenc alien asked. He clapped his hands together, sliding his two thumbs back and forth until the sound of his ragged, lizardlike skin grating filled the silent gallery.

“Not sure. Then again, it’s not up to me. The question is, will the son of Francis Walters like it?” She chuckled to herself. “He likes nothing. And his father is even harder to please.”

“Bribe, then?” The Fenc smiled knowingly.

Vivian bristled. “Sorry, bribe? It’s padding for a deal,” she snarled. She tapped her heel hard against the polished stone floor. If she was an expert – and to be frank, she was – the stone wasn’t from Earth. It looked and felt as if it’d come from one of the Fendi Belt asteroids. They contained rare minerals not seen anywhere else in the Milky Way – well, unless you were fond of mining in Barbarian space. They were luxurious, and importantly, they stored up the light like glistening gems.

They were what you had if you were ostentatious, and this gallery on the outskirts of the capital of Earth was as ostentatious as they came.

“You call it padding,” the alien spoke in his broken tongue, “we call it a bribe.”

“You give bribes to corrupt officials.” She flattened a hand on her chest. “I butter up the heads of corporations to gain funding for philanthropic activities.”

“Phil-atrophic?” the alien tried, mangling the word. His three eyebrows peaked together, looking as if someone had grabbed his head and scrunched it.

“Charity,” she explained with a polite smile. Well, technically it went through all the required movements to be classed as a smile, but there was no warmth and generosity there.

Vivian just had to get this done.

Mark Walters, Francis’ son, wanted this painting. She’d found that out through a contact.

If she showed up at their function tonight with it, she would guarantee that they would respond with the appropriate amount of cash.

“How much is it?” She cut straight to the bone.

“3,500 Galactic Credits,” the alien said, a calculating smile spreading his perpetually open lips, a few slicks of saliva collecting at the edges.

Others would stare. Vivian didn’t.

She’d never cared what people looked like.

Others said that, but it often wasn’t true. Humans had select beauty standards ingrained in their biology, and it took someone of character to supplant them.

Though a lot of people didn’t choose to believe Vivian Bond had character, she did.

She smiled. “Deal.”

The Fenc looked surprised. The price he’d just asked was way too high. She’d looked up the going rate on this artist this morning, and it should be half that. Obviously this alien had taken her to be a mug.

That was just a matter of perspective.

This painting could be worth 18 times that to Vivian and her business.

She reached out a hand.

The alien accepted it warmly.

He had a good deal, and she had a good deal. To Vivian, that was a good day.

Once the deal was done, she brought up her wrist device and tapped several things on it. Unlike most wrist devices, hers was sleek and top of the range.

When it wasn’t in use, it was nothing more than an attractive silver cuff around her left wrist. When she wanted to interact with it, all she had to do was run her thumb over the inner middle section of the device, and a holographic panel as large as her hand would appear. “I’m transferring the credits now. Please check that you have received them.”

The Fenc wasted no time. He tapped his ear device, and a grin spread over his open mouth. He bowed. “Will you be taking it with you today?”

“Yes. And I’ll require a certificate of full ownership.”

“It has already been sent to you.”

Vivian’s wrist device flashed. “A pleasure doing business with you.” She waved and turned to walk off. “Please have it delivered to my cruiser on your helipad.”

“It will take 10 minutes.”

Vivian walked away. She stopped just before she left the main section of the gallery. She turned, and she stared at the painting one last time.

She hadn’t looked at it before – not really. She’d ascertained it was the piece Mark Walters was after, and that had ticked her every box. Now, and especially from this distance, she saw it in its true light. Maybe it was something about the way the sun streaming in through the 20-meter-high windows behind her hit it – perhaps it was something else.

She found herself drawn into it.

It was a black medium painted on a special type of holographic gauze. It meant that you saw something different from every angle.

Up close, it had been this odd, shimmering, chaotic collection of colors and shapes. From here, she swore she saw something aligning. She tilted her head to the side until her black trestle locks slid over her shoulders and her expensive suit.

… It looked like a path. Like an endless journey through space. For a fleeting moment, she swore she saw stars flashing past her, then nothing but the vast empty tracts of emptiness that separated the galaxies. And finally, a blast of light.

The moment ended, and she lost the specific angle she’d been staring at. She tried to re-create it, but she couldn’t find it again.

Frowning, she brought up her wrist device and checked the painting’s name.

“The Eye of the Gods,” she muttered out loud. One last time, she tried to catch a glimpse again.

She couldn’t.

So she walked away.

As she made it through the long, art-lined corridor beyond the main gallery, she saw another patron approaching.

The guy came marching up the engineered, sophisticated floating steps that led to the gallery. The gallery itself was cut right into the side of a hill. Sorry, she meant cliff. It had a stunning view through plateglass windows down into a ravine and the capital city beyond.

To get to it, you either flew your private cruiser to the helipad on top, or you used the directional floating stairs that led from the top of the ravine above.

As Vivian got ready to walk up to the helipad, she frowned at the man.

There was something about the way he held himself.

He might have been in civilian clothing – a relatively common tunic, pants, and shoes that were trying to look more expensive than they were – but that didn’t hide his underlying musculature, nor the way he held himself. It took precisely no time at all for Vivian to conclude one thing.

“Coalition soldier,” she muttered under her breath as she tore her gaze off him and continued to walk down the hall.

She tried not to let the sight of him affect her. More than anything – that one little word.

If you could believe it, once upon a time, Vivian Bond had been a recruit of the Coalition Academy. In fact, she’d almost finished her training. She’d been two years away from graduating. Then her father’s business had run into trouble after his sudden death, and Vivian had been forced to quit.

In doing so, she’d seen a side of the Academy she hadn’t known. Not a single one of her friends had supported her. She’d had no choice – but to them, she was running away. To them, you never quit the Coalition. You pushed through every one of your problems and stayed loyal to the cause.

The world didn’t work like that.

As soon as she’d pulled her head back out of the clouds and left the Academy for the real world, she’d seen how insular it was.

All that chest-thumping star-spangled loyalty was nothing more than a myth fed to every recruit to keep them in line.

She didn’t have a single friend from her days at the Academy. They’d ditched her as fast as a dead weight from a cruiser.

Vivian tried to put it out of her mind as she climbed to the top floor of the building. She approached the airlock door that led out to the helipad and her private cruiser. She itched to get inside.

Now this deal was done, she just had to attend the dinner tonight, butter up Mark Walters, and see how much money she could get out of him.

It would have to be a lot.

Her father was long dead, and the business he’d lovingly created had long changed. Back in the day, it had been a medical robot, prosthesis, and apparatus supplier. Her father had poured his heart and soul into it. A doctor himself, he’d understood the importance of democratizing medical help. While Coalition soldiers might always be assured of appropriate medical attention, many of the workers and battlers in the outer colonies weren’t. Doctors were few and far between. Adequate supplies and medical robots were often the only thing standing between them and injury or death.

The business had changed. It had been forced to. It wasn’t, by nature, profitable. To run it, she needed funds. To do that, she had to procure them from somewhere. While there were genuine philanthropic institutions throughout the Coalition, if there’s one thing Vivian had learned about the inner workings of the Coalition, it was that nothing came for free.

For the first two years after her father’s death, she’d tried to keep his business alive based on grants. It hadn’t worked.

Facing the end of his dream, she’d called on a different skill set.

Some called it hustling, others called it bribing – she always chose to call it buttering up her clients.

Vivian sold dreams. She courted the rich and famous, told them of her plight, and waited for them to cough up charity. When they inevitably didn’t, she found out what they wanted, and she procured it for them.

That was the real side of this business.

Back in the Academy, Vivian had never been that appreciated. Her skill set hadn’t fit with the one desired by her peers. She’d been passing, but that was it.

According to the report she’d illegally procured after her departure, she’d lacked the get-up and go to be a true Academy asset. She’d never understood real loyalty, and it had been better off that she’d quit when she had.

She curled a hand into a fist just thinking about it.

“Open,” she commanded the airlock.

Her gaze flicked to the side and locked on the electronic panel beside the airlock. A circle of diodes illuminated once, then twice, then the airlock wheel disengaged.

“Weather shields are in place,” a sophisticated electronic tone told her.

“Thank you,” Vivian bothered to say.

She had a different approach when it came to robots of any shape or size. Growing up with her father who’d been obsessed with creating the perfect medical bots capable of not just saving their patients, but doing so in a compassionate way, she’d never had pets; she’d had prototypes.

Hell, to this day, her best friend was her pacemaker. It was a quaint thing to call it. Ancient humans called medical devices that assisted in the beating of one’s heart pacemakers. The technology had come a long way. The fact remained, one was beating in Vivian’s chest.

It had a neural link with her and could communicate whenever needed to relay information about her physiological status.

It couldn’t read her mind, but it could read her emotions based on her heart rate.

It was no surprise, as she walked out onto the calm, warm deck, that it vibrated to get her attention. “Miss Bond, you are bothered by something.”

She chuckled.

Long ago, she’d learned the subtle art of communicating with Paci – her chosen name for her heart assistance implant – without a soul picking it up.

It would’ve been a real asset at the Academy – and very much illegal. All neural assistance units had to be registered – hers wasn’t. She hadn’t had Paci back then, anyway. She’d acquired him when she’d almost died six months after leaving the Academy.

Now Paci was her constant friend.

“Correct, Paci – there’s not much that can be kept from you,” she chuckled as she brought her hand up and waved dismissively at her personal cruiser.

It wasn’t top-of-the-line. It was middle-of-the-line. Could she afford the top? Technically yes. She kept most money for her father’s business, though. What she didn’t need for her ever-growing funds to butter up her clients – that was.

“Are you feeling guilty?” Paci asked.

Her nose scrunched up so much, she could’ve pushed it into her hairline. “Guilty? About what? I acquired a painting for a client. That in turn will ensure a significant grant from Walters Corporation which will keep my father’s dream alive.”

“Your tone is fluctuating. Critically, your heartbeat has just increased by a factor of four percent.”

She snorted. “You control my heartbeat, Paci.”

“Incorrect. I assist to modulate it based on information coming from your nervous system.”

She groaned. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d been in conversations like this with Paci. Sure, he was technically her best friend, but he was a heck of a lot more perceptive than your average buddy. Wired right into her nervous system, he knew exactly what she was thinking.

She scratched her arm distractedly as her private cruiser opened, a hatch appearing in the side. She walked up it, sure to balance on her heels until she could grab a handy railing. She paused and turned to the side.

The view from up here was stunning. Right down below her she could see the ravine. It made sense for a gallery like this to perch itself on the side of a cavernous ledge. It added to the mystique. It also, presumably, allowed the art gallery to ship things in unseen.

Two years ago when Vivian had been forced to drastically alter her business model in order to keep Bond Robotics alive, she’d taught herself about the real Coalition. It might be shiny on the top, but it was just a veneer. Even here on Earth, right under the noses of the primary Coalition Academy, illegal actions were still being undertaken. She might like to think she’d never crossed that line, but you needed to know exactly where the line was in order not to cross it.

This gallery was clearly using jamming technology of some description. And based on its unique position, it would be able to use the natural topography of the ravine and the iron-rich mountain behind it to hide what it did not want to show.

If she were a good little Academy cadet, she’d run off and tell them the gallery owner was doing something dodgy.

Instead, she waited there as she let her gaze sweep back around until it locked on her ship.

She pushed up and into it.

“I am still sensing guilt,” Paci insisted.

She groaned. “I’m really not in the mood.” As soon as she walked in and the doors started to close behind her, she kicked off her heels. She was a little too enthusiastic, and one lodged itself under the command console.

This was only meant to be an Earth cruiser – though you could technically take it into space. It was as small as she could get away with. The bridge was her sleeping quarters, her mess hall, her engineering bay, and life-support. It was only one open room.

While there were storage cupboards and compartments, she rarely used them.

Though she technically had an apartment in the capital, she rarely used that, either.

She worked. All day every day. So she lived in here.

You could tell.

Clothes were everywhere.

This wasn’t the first time she’d effortlessly kicked off her heels after a deal, and there was one lodged between the navigational console and the view screen.

It was gathering dust.

She snorted as she planted her hands on her hips and stretched her back. “I should probably clean up in here one day.”

“Unlikely to ever occur, Mistress. But I must go back to the fact that your nervous system—”

“Just give it a rest, Paci. It’s not guilt. Trust me.” She patted her chest. She dug her fingers in as she massaged her sternum in large, firm sweeps.

Paci kept her alive, and she was thankful for that, but she was also chronically aware of the fact that without him, she would die.

“You are thinking of your near-fatal heart attack, aren’t you?” Paci asked perceptively.

She snorted. “How do you know?”

“Because you are rubbing your chest. I assure you, I will never let your heart stop again, Mistress.”

His sincerity warmed her.

Others wouldn’t call it sincerity – they would call it preprogrammed emotion. A robot could not be compassionate – just as the sunshine warming your back was not an act of generosity. Both were the emotionless creations of inanimate systems.

She chose to believe what she wanted as a smile spread her lips. “Thank you, Paci.”

She closed her eyes.

“I recommend you open them,” Paci said quickly.

“Why is that?” She stretched her back as she stood there and planted her feet against the messy, dust-covered deck plating. She’d vacuumed approximately zero times since buying this cruiser two years ago.

“Because you are likely to remember your incident.”

Incident. Yeah.

She’d had a fatal heart attack at home in her father’s lab. There had been no one around.

She’d died. Died right there on his laboratory bench.

But she hadn’t stayed dead.

Her father had always programmed the robots in his office to respond to medical emergencies. Unlike a lot of the Coalition assisted medical devices – they didn’t need masters. When they saw somebody down, they helped.

As her heart had failed and she’d lain there on the cold bench, doom filling her as she choked through her last breath, Paci had emerged from the side of the room.

He wasn’t just a pacemaker. He was the distributed AI her father had built. He inhabited most of her father’s personal devices.

Paci had saved her life, diagnosed her problem, and selected a prototype pacemaker her father had been working on before he’d died.

By the time she’d woken up, she’d been a different person.

Until then, she’d been ready to do what she could to save her father’s business. After then? She hadn’t stopped. She’d understood what her father had always proclaimed: it was a right of everyone to obtain medical assistance when required.

“You’re thinking of it,” Paci warned in a patient tone. “Your physiological conditions—”

She sighed, opened her eyes, and flopped down in the command seat. She had to push off her nightgown. It was old and covered in holes. It was also Academy issue. Well, it was Academy paraphernalia. She’d bought it with her own money in first year. Fortunately, it didn’t have the Coalition insignia on its breast. It was comfortable. And it was hers.

“How long until the painting is delivered?” She scratched her fingers under her tight, formfitting collar.

“I have made contact with the gallery administrative staff, and it is being delivered as we speak.”

She clapped her hands together, arched her shoulders, and fidgeted back in her seat. “I’m hungry.”

“Then I suggest you eat. I will accept the painting when it arrives.” Paci’s voice suddenly reverberated out loud, no longer coming from her mind but coming from the robot crumpled neatly in the corner beneath the navigational console. He unwrapped himself to his full height, which was two meters tall.

He had a sleek, silver body. Unlike a lot of the medical devices you got these days, he wasn’t modular and didn’t look like a stack of floating balls.

He resembled old Earth impressions of what the future would be like. Her father had been obsessed with old Earth movies, and he’d styled Paci on them.

“Thank you,” Vivian muttered as she leaned over to the side and accessed the food modulator built into the base of her command seat. When Paci had suggested that modification, she’d hooted. How good was it to have a food synthesizer right in your favorite chair?

Scratching her neck again, she started to unbutton her uncomfortable blouse as, from touch alone, she programmed a snack.

She got halfway through before there was an unwanted beep that echoed through the ship.

“What’s that?” A frown marched across her lips as she planted a hand on the seat, turned around, and faced Paci as he opened the hatch.

“It is a communication from the gallery.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.” She jumped to her feet. “What do they want?”

“They have informed us there is a higher bidder for the painting.”

“Like hell,” she spat.

She shot out of the cramped bridge and rocketed up to Paci.

“You are not wearing shoes,” he pointed out.

“Don’t need them.” She jumped down out of the hatch, easily absorbing the force of the meter fall as she threw herself forward.

“Do you require my assistance?” Paci called after her.

“Your legal recommendations, sure. Throw everything we have at them. We have the full certificate of ownership, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s give them hell.”

She stalked up to the airlock.

It opened, and that sweet electronic voice said, “Welcome to the gallery.”

If Vivian were a lesser character, this is either where she would ignore the simplistic AI, or spit at it.

She did neither. “Thank you,” she said in all honesty.

The honesty – and politeness – ended when she hit the corridor.

She ran down it.

She only came to a stop when she reached the main gallery.

“Mistress, your hair is messy, and the first two buttons of your dress suit are undone,” Paci warned her.

“I’m done with looking nice. Do you have the legal defense ready?”

“The petition is already filed,” Paci said.

Vivian walked in.

There, standing beside the fawning gallery owner was the man she’d seen from before.

The Coalition soldier.

He didn’t turn to her as she walked in. He was clearly aware of her, though. She could read it in the way his neck muscles tightened, and he inclined his head a centimeter to the side, obviously picking up her footfall. She might not be in heels, and she might walk lightly, but to a soldier like him, that wouldn’t matter.

The gallery owner’s face stiffened at the sight of her. She’d gone from looking like the second coming as a chump willing to pay 3,500 credits for something worth half that, to looking like trash that didn’t belong.

“I see you got my message,” the alien said. He brought his hands up, but he didn’t lock his thumbs together. They were open, almost as if he was physically asking for more money. It was clear by bringing her here that he wanted to start a bidding war.

Like hell.

She came to a stop beside the soldier, though just a step behind him. She planted a fist against her hip and started to tap her other fingers on her thigh. She looked right at her painting. “Yes, I got your message. Perhaps you’d like to explain?”

“We have another bidder. Perhaps,” the alien used her exact tone, “you would like to increase your bid.”

She laughed. “Bid? On what? It’s my painting.”

The alien’s face stiffened. “The painting has not been released—”

“The certificate of ownership has.” She stared at her nails and pushed down her cuticles. “I’m going to let you know that I have just filed a legal complaint against you. If you don’t release this painting to me within the next five minutes, the police will be called. I have an excellent legal defense,” she added as she stopped looking at her nails, let her hand drop, and slid her gaze slowly over to the alien. “You would be violating,” she paused and waited for Paci to tell her, “approximately five federal statutes for failing to release this painting to me. You would be violating a whopping 15 for lying about the fact it’s still for sale, trying to initiate a bidding war, and attempting to rescind the deal.”

Though Vivian could have played this differently, she wasn’t in the mood.

She needed the Walters’ grant to fund a new shipment of medical bots out to the Casi colony worlds. They were without medical assistance. The last doctor who’d been servicing three planets had been killed by a Barbarian raid. With job prospects like that, no one had put their hand up to replace him.

The alien went from looking all soft and gooey like the lizard version of a teddy bear, to being all teeth. Literally. He spread his open lips. Unlike a human, he could pull them all the way back until she could see that teeth took up half of his face.

She was unmoved. “Paci,” she thought to him. “Contact the gallery with our legal defense.”

“Human is aggressive,” the alien spat. “She is also—”

She put up a finger. “I wouldn’t say that I’m lying,” she warned. “Don’t make this worse for yourself.”

The alien somehow opened his lips even wider. According to what she’d heard, his species could be vicious when they wanted to be.

This was probably where Vivian should back off. Instead, she took a step forward. That brought her in line with the Coalition soldier boy.

She hadn’t seen his face properly as he’d marched down the light steps to the gallery – just his clothes and body. Now, out of the corner of her eye, she saw it all.

He was handsome. That meant nothing.

He had the strong, chiseled kind of jaw you could use to model a Greek statue on. That also meant nothing.

He had piercing sharp eyes – and they were locked on her. That meant everything.

He was clearly her competition for this painting.

Her mind worked on fast forward. She doubted that a Coalition golden boy – even one who looked as competent as him – would be using his hard-earned credits to buy unnecessary artwork.

Which meant he had to be buying it for someone. The mere fact this alien was so excited at initiating a bidding war meant this idiot Coalition boy had obviously offered something stupid.

Which meant he had a financial backer. The only one that made sense was the Coalition itself.

All these thoughts and more tumbled through Vivian’s head. If she were a smart woman, they would tell her to back down.

She just took another step forward and planted a hand on her hip. “I take it you have received my formal legal complaint by now,” she snapped at the Fenc.

He tapped his ear implant, and slowly, his lips drooped over his teeth. It looked like a clenched fist someone had been threatening to punch you with, but had instead pulled back into their sleeve.

“Yes,” the gallery owner spat. There was mild defiance in his tone, but it was more than made up for by the fact his back slumped forward with defeat.

“So you will release the painting to me now?” Vivian demanded.

The alien swiveled his longing gaze over to the Coalition soldier. It wouldn’t be the man specifically the alien was after but his sweet Coalition credits. Ah well. You couldn’t win every day.

Vivian demonstrated that fact as she walked up to the painting. “Release its locks,” she commanded.

The alien sighed. It tapped something on its wrist. “You may damage the painting if you take it off the wall. Unskilled—”

“Believe you me, I know how to look after expensive items,” she shot back. Carefully, only touching the painting lightly from its sides, she pulled it off the wall.

As she did, she caught that glimpse again. It stilled her to the spot.

It made her feel as if she was traveling through the galaxy and far beyond.

She could see stars flitting past her, constellations, vibrant, powerful color and light exploding all around her. Then nothingness – blackness that swamped her until far in the distance, she saw a single speck of light.

“Mistress,” Paci snapped in her mind, “I am registering a strange change in your nervous system. I am increasing your heartbeat.”

As promised, her heart started to pound. Maybe it was the way it thrummed through her neck, or maybe it was the fact she tilted her head hard to the side, but she lost that glimpse. Again, the painting became nothing more than chaotic shapes and colors.

She slowly relaxed her back, took a step away from the wall, cradled the painting carefully, and turned.

The alien wouldn’t stare at her. The Coalition soldier? He was all eyes – and precision attention. The kind of focus that told you he wasn’t your ordinary grunt. One look into his baby-blue irises, and she could easily imagine them hunkering behind a sniper rifle, tracking prey for hours, if not days.

It unsettled her stomach. Or maybe that was just the aftereffects of the strange vision the painting had given her. No – it wasn’t a vision. It was a holographic work. She’d seen enough of them to know that from certain angles, it sometimes looked as if what you were seeing was happening in your head, but that was very much not the case.

She made brief eye contact with the Coalition soldier. “Before you ask, I’m not interested in making a deal.”

With the painting in hand, she strode back to her cruiser.

She was aware of the fact that the Coalition soldier turned and stared at her until she was out of sight.

That impression rang in her mind one last time – he was the kind of soldier that would track his prey until he caught it.