Braxon Torr was floating in zero gravity several feet above his favorite chair as he reviewed the latest data from the long-range scans on a wall monitor. The observation lounge was one of the few rooms on the ship big enough to allow him to stretch his wings, which made it his current favorite place to work.
His attention was drawn away by the sound of the only other being onboard stomping up to the door to the lounge, each boot fall landing in time to a litany of decidedly unprincelike curses. Being away from court had been good for Tyran, even if the boredom was slowly driving them both a little insane.
“Braxon! How many times do I need to tell you to quit switching the qarfing gravity orientation in the corridors? I just slammed my head on the ceiling, again.”
“Sorry. I forgot to switch it back after I was done.”
“Done what? Why did you need to be walking on the ceiling? And why are you floating? Something wrong with the furniture?” Tyr stood in the doorway and gestured to the unused chair below Braxon. He was suffiently annoyed that his skin was a brilliant shade of silver. For anyone else, that would have been a warning to step carefully, but Braxton had been the prince’s anrik, his blood-bound companion and protector, since Tyr was ten years old. He knew he had nothing to fear.
“There’s nothing wrong with the furniture. I was just looking for a change in perspective.” The only thing wrong with the furniture was that he’d seen it every day for more than three months. In that time, Braxon had explored every inch of the ship. There wasn’t a chair, bed, or room he hadn’t spent time in. When he had agreed to Tyr’s suggestion that they escape the Vardarian Imperial Court and go on this scouting mission, it had sounded exciting. Finding a new world to colonize would be an adventure. Only they had yet to find a single inhabitable world, and instead of adventure, they faced a daily grind of dull routine.
“As for what I was doing that required me to flip the gravity, I was repairing a power conduit. It was easier to swap gravity than find a ladder.”
“Next time, change it back. There’s nothing fun about stepping into a corridor only to discover up and down have been reversed.” Tyr rubbed the top of his head, making his short, black hair stand up in unruly spikes.
“It depends on your point of view. To me? That’s funny. I’m sorry I missed it.”
“In that case….” Tyr gestured with one hand, and Braxon dropped out of the air like a stone.
He landed in a sprawled heap of wings and limbs across the chair he’d been floating over. “Bakaffa. That was uncalled for.”
Tyran snorted with laughter. “I thought it was funny. Must have been my point of view.”
Braxon flicked two of his fingers up in an obscene gesture before retracting his wings and arranging himself more comfortably in his chair. “Point taken. Next time I’ll put it back.”
“Thank you.” Tyr entered the lounge, and Braxon took note of the fact his friend was wearing one of his more formal garments. The sleeveless vest had a ring of gemstones affixed to the collar, and the flowing fabric was dyed green and black, the traditional colors of the Varosa royal family.
“Did you find anything of interest on the scans?” Tyr claimed a seat near one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that gave a breathtaking view of the galaxy outside.
They were currently light-years from any star system, surrounded by the velvet blackness of deep space. The stars gleamed like distant gems, and in orbit around one of them had to be the planet they were searching for. If they found it, they could escape the demands of the imperial court and the Vardarian empress, Tyran’s twin sister, Neha.
“Maybe.” Braxon visualized the data he wanted and the nanites within his body linked to the ship’s computer. A hologram of the area where scans had shown something out of the ordinary appeared in the air in front of him a second later.
“What am I looking at?”
“A map,” Braxon retorted.
“I can see that. What’s so special about this area of this map?”
Braxon reached up and manipulated the image, expanding it and then zeroing in on a sector. “The scans are picking up some kind of signal from this area. It could be more cosmic noise or a natural phenomenon, but the computer projects a sixty percent likelihood it’s not naturally occurring.”
Tyr leaned forward, his hands on his knees as he stared at the display. “Sixty percent?”
“it could be another pulsar or a star nursery, but it’s the strongest lead we’ve had in weeks. If there’s intelligent life over there, I vote we go find them. I’m dying for a conversation with someone I haven’t known for most of my life. You already know all my best stories.”
“Agreed. I caught myself having a long, in-depth conversation with one of the servo-droids this morning. Let’s go see what’s making all that noise. Where there’s life, there have to be life-supporting planets.”
“That’s the theory.” Braxon took another look at his friend and frowned. There was something more bothering Tyr than just a bump on the head. “I know that look. And that outfit. You’ve spoken with your sister, haven’t you?”
He nodded. “Neha wants me to stop this ‘frivolous pursuit’ and return home.”
“You’ve been at her side her entire life. She doesn’t understand why you’re not there, now, giving her your counsel and support.”
Tyran shook his head, and the light in his blue eyes dimmed for a moment. “Neha relies on the counsel of others too much. She rules by committee, which is no way to run an empire. So long as I am at court, she’ll never come into her own.”
“And the longer she listens to those vipa she calls her counselors, the harder it will be to wrest control away from them,” Braxon added. Tyran’s twin sister might be the eldest by a matter of minutes, but she had always relied on her brother’s support and advice. Now she had ascended to the Imperial throne, she still continued to look to Tyr, and it was causing unrest and confusion at court. Treasonous whispers had circulated more than once, suggesting Tyran would make a better ruler.
“It’s time for me to step away. Neither of us would be happy spending the rest of our lives at court, and if I am not there, no one can try to put me on a throne I do not want.”
“She still doesn’t suspect what we’re trying to do?”
“No, but we’re running out of time.”
“Did she order you to return?”
“Not yet. But she will, soon.”
If they returned without finding what they were looking for, they would never get another chance. Declaring a diaspora and leading a group of colonists to a new home would allow them both to live free. For Tyran, it meant escaping a life of court intrigue and the expectations that came with his rank. For Braxon, it meant being away from those who would judge him for his ancestry.
He wasn’t a pure-blooded Vardarian. Anywhere else in the empire, that was the norm. Their species had scattered across the stars centuries ago, finding new worlds to inhabit, new alliances to forge, and occasionally finding races genetically compatible with them. But Braxon lived on the Vardarian homeworld, where everyone was judged by their lineage instead of their actions.
Tyr got to his feet and walked over to the hologram. He touched the location with one finger, and a set of coordinates appeared about it. A moment later, the ship’s main engines powered up.
“We’re going right now?” Braxon asked.
“Why not? This might be our last chance. We’ll make the journey in three or four jumps. That should give us time to stop and assess as we get closer.”
“And if the computer’s right and there’s someone out there?”
“If they’re friendly, we start first contact protocols. If they’re not…”
Braxon grinned. “If they’re not, then you steer and I’ll shoot.”
The Vardarian empire was relatively peaceful, but that didn’t mean they were pacifists. Their ship, the Santar, was a royal cruiser equipped with enough firepower to protect itself and its occupants. By approaching in a series of jumps they’d have time to gather information and begin the process of translating any new languages into Vardarian. If this weren’t another false reading, they’d be ready by the time they arrived at their destination.
Please, don’t be another false lead.
Phaedra stared into her cocktail glass and tried to banish her bad mood. This wasn’t the day for reflection and regret. Today was the best day of her best friend’s life, and she should be celebrating with Alyson and the others. They had so many reasons to celebrate. The corporations were finally being held accountable for their past choices. Arrests had been made, and more would be coming. The remaining cyborgs had been freed, and the station where they were being experimented on had been shut down. The good guys were winning.
Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling their winning streak wouldn’t last. There were still too many unknowns. Too many nameless players with stakes in a secret game Phaedra and the others were only just started to figure out. Vic and Ward, the two cyborg assassins once known as the Reaper, were still working to retrieve their memories of who had taken them, and where they’d been held. They were still here on Astek station, but they didn’t socialize with anyone other than their batch brothers, Jaeger and Toro. The corporations were still destroying lives, and it haunted her that she couldn’t do more.
As happy as she was for Alison and her three new husbands, her head was still full of dark memories she simply couldn’t shake.
She had left the Drift full of hope and determination to save the cyborgs still held prisoner. Save. The word made her laugh, now. Freeing the cyborgs they had found had been relatively easy. The Reamus research station was already abandoned by the time the IAF ships had arrived. Someone had tipped them off, and the bastards running that hellish place had already vanished, taking all their data and most of the evidence with them. The only thing they had left behind were their test subjects – the cyborgs they had come to save. Only, it wasn’t as simple as showing up and declaring them free. Saving them…she didn’t know how to do that, and no one else seemed to have any ideas, either. So here she was, brooding instead of dancing and celebrating her friend’s wedding day, her only companions a steady supply of drinks provided by the Nova Club staff. Since she currently lived in the residential area above the club, they knew her preferences well.
The bar had been transformed for the reception, full of flowers and the flickering light of a hundred or more holographic candles. Even the fight cage had been decked out in garlands of flowers. That had to be Zura’s idea. If anyone else had tried to put so much as a ribbon on those bars, the owners, Kit, Luke, and Cynder would have torn it right back down. Zura’s pregnancy was advanced enough she was showing, now. Her small frame expanding to accommodate the twins she carried. Her husbands, Kit and Luke, didn’t let her out of her sight. Not that Phaedra could blame them.
Zura’s babies were unique in all the galaxy because she was the first non-cyborg to ever carry medi-bots. Her children would be the first to be born with nanites running through their bloodstream, repairing any damage and keeping the children healthy for the rest of might be very long lives. They represented the change coming to the human race. A change the corporations had tried to prevent by any means necessary.
Her musings were interrupted by an upbeat male voice. “I’m going to ask you a really stupid question right now, but I swear it’s not a pick-up line. Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Phaedra turned and was about to offer up an acidic comment, but one look at the man standing there with a drink in his hand and smile on his face made her stop. He was cute, with dark skin, a mischievous grin, and hazel eyes that did seem familiar. Okay, she did know him, but from where?
“Uh. Maybe?” She eyed his dress uniform, noting the silver, five-pointed star that marked him as a member of Nova Force. The only IAF soldier’s she knew on sight had been part of the mission she’d returned from three days ago, and there hadn’t been any Nova Force officers onboard.
He caught the direction of her gaze and chuckled. “I think we crossed paths before I joined up. My name’s Eric Erben.”
The name sounded familiar, but she still couldn’t place him, and she didn’t feel like sorting through her onboard data stores to figure out who he was.
“Sometimes I went by Magi. In those circles, you were known as Phreak, right?”
“Magi? Holy fraxx, I didn’t recognize you! What the hell are you doing in the IAF? The last time we cross paths we were…” she trailed off before saying anything incriminating. She and Eric were cyber-jockeys, their bodies and brains wired with tech that allowed them to interface with computers on a level no other being could match.
“We were doing what we do best.” He winked and claimed the seat next to her.
“Looks like you changed sides, though,” she pointed to his uniform.
“Not long after I saw you last, I screwed up and got caught. I was given two choices: sign up, or go to prison with a total ban on access to all technology.” He shuddered. “Can you imagine?”
“That’s a fate worse than death,” she agreed.
“What about you? This isn’t your usual crowd, or your usual look, either.” His gaze dropped to the sapphire blue bridesmaid gown the brides, Alyson and Lieksa had cajoled her into wearing for the occasion. It was backless, strapless, and she’d only agreed to wear it once the brides gave in to her request to wear her favorite pair of boots with it. She’d buffed them to a high shine, and they were a whole lot more comfortable than high heels.
“One of the brides is my best friend. I wouldn’t miss her big day.”
Eric’s eyes widened. “Which one?”
“Alyson. The one who just married the galaxy’s sexiest triplets, lucky girl.”
Eric burst out laughing. “How the hell did you end up best friends with Triple C’s little sister?”
Eric pointed across the bar to a handsome blond man drinking at the bar. “Lieutenant Crispen Caldwell. He’s the reason I’m here. Cris is a teammate and he scored us all invites to the reception.”
“Small galaxy. I went to college with Alyson. She called in a favor a while ago and had me look into some corporate shenanigans.”
“Holy fraxx, that was you!” He glanced around and lowered his voice. “I know what she’s been involved in. The cyborgs, the corporations, the stolen DNA. If you’re part of that, then I’m betting you’re the one who hacked the IAF and found out about the Vault of the Fallen.”
“How do you know about that?” she hissed.
“My team was sent to investigate the thefts. That’s where I got these.” He pushed up his left sleeve to show her a freshly healed set of burn scars that surrounded one of his data ports.
“Whoa. That had to hurt. How did it happen?”
“Buy me a drink, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
She waved a server over. “Hey, Echo. When you’ve got a moment can you bring me another Sunsprite’s Delight and grab my friend here a– what are you drinking?”
“Something with the word sin in it. Red. Tasty. Packs a punch.”
“You’re drinking Cynfuls? Remind me to introduce you to the lady that’s named after later tonight. She’s one of the owners.”
Echo laughed and gave Eric an appreciative glance. “Don’t even think about it. Her husbands would kill you…if she didn’t end you first.”
“I don’t want to be ended. I’m too young to die.”
“Too cute, too.” Echo flipped her blonde hair over her shoulder, winked at him and left to fetch their order, leaving them alone again.
“Alright, then. Our drinks are on the way. You tell me how you got those scars, and I’ll tell you what I can about how I went from hacking the IAF to going on a mission with them.”
Eric nodded. “You have yourself a deal, Phreak.”
“Since we’re in the land of the normal, why don’t you call me Phaedra?”
Meeting Eric turned out to be the best part of her night. The time they spent catching up and talking about their various adventures helped to remind her that she had made a difference before, and she would do so again.
She wasn’t a norm: a cyberpunk classification for anyone who lived by society’s rules. She operated outside the rules for the most part, living by her own personal code of honor and fighting the battles no one else could. Veth, she fought battles no one else even knew about. Without her help, no one would have known where the cyborg DNA had come from, or that the IAF had inadvertently been involved in a war effort they swore they had no part of.
The party was winding down by the time she hugged Eric good night. He caught her hand in his and kissed it, bringing the data ports in their wrists together long enough to send her a brief data burst with a message.
Don’t be a stranger. I need at least one non-norm in my life.
Along with the note was a few lines of code that included a way to contact him whenever she was jacked into cyberspace.
She scanned the information before they’d even finished their hug and sent him a brief message back.
Same here. You’ll be hearing from me.
“I could walk you home,” he offered as she moved away.
“I am home. I’m staying here at the Nova Club for now.” She leaned in and whispered. “And if you leave with me, Echo will never give me another free drink. She’s waiting for me to go so she can tell you that while Cynder unavailable, she is very single.”
He grinned. “Yeah?”
“She’s very selective who she flirts with, so I’d say you’ve got a shot. Go on, tell her she’s pretty and then offer to show her your heroic scars.”
He stiffened. “You think she’ll still think I’m cute when she sees the data ports and the scars? Norms don’t really go for our kind, you know?”
Phaedra nodded. She knew all too well that their kind didn’t fit in with the average citizens. “She’s not a norm, though. Echo is a cyborg.”
Eric’s eyes widened. “She is? But she’s so…”
“If you say the word normal, I’m going to call you a hypocrite and kick your ass.”
“I was going to say gentle. Most of the cyborgs I’ve met have been big, glowering mountains of muscle, like your friend’s new husbands.”
“Fair enough. Compared to them, Echo is a delicate flower.” She nudged him in the direction she’d last seen Echo. “Go. Have fun. And keep in mind that if you piss her off, she can break you in half with one arm.”
Eric’s grin broadened. “Sounds like a good time.”
“Anyone told you that you have dangerous taste in women?”
“More than once.”
They parted ways, and Phaedra spent a few minutes saying her goodbyes to the staff and remaining guests. By the time she was done, she was only a few feet from the private door that led to the back rooms of the club, and to the elevator that would deliver her to her simple but incredibly secure room. She had slept better in the last few months than she had in years. The club was one of the most secure places she’d ever seen, and once she’d added a few of her own modifications, it was damned near impenetrable.
She had transferred her access code from the key card she’d been given to her internal systems, and a quick wave of her hand over the keypad opened the door. It was so much easier than trying to remember to bring her hey key card with her everywhere she went. Of course, she had added a few extra levels of access to her implant in the time she’d been staying here. Thanks to her visits to her friends at Corp-Sec, the Drift’s version of law enforcement, she had managed to give herself access to every door, communication system, and even some of the surveillance cams on the station. How could she keep herself and her friends safe if she didn’t know what was going on?
She stepped through the door, and a half-second later a siren started to wail and whoop. For a moment, she thought she’d set off some kind of alarm, but a quick look around made it clear it wasn’t for her. Judging by the hurried departures of several IAF officers, something serious was happening elsewhere on the station.
She ducked down a side corridor and headed for the back door – the one club employees used to bring in fresh supplies of booze, food, and licensed pharma. If something interesting about to happen, she wanted to be there. Even if she hadn’t been invited.
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