A Look Inside "Empire Uprising"


The second book in the Taran Empire Saga is almost here! This installment picks up seven Taran months after the end of Book 1 and dives into the dealings of the shadow faction causing problems in the Outer Colonies.


Empire Uprising will release on August 20, 2021. Buy on Amazon or read it in Kindle Unlimited!


And now, an exclusive look inside the first two chapters of the book...



 

CHAPTER 1



They could only skirt the issue for so long, and Wil Sietinen had exceeded his patience. “I’ve made the case for the mutual benefits. All I need is your agreement.”


When he’d called the meeting with Celine Monsari, he had expected her to jump at the offer to have MPS manufacture the new power core design provided by the Erebus. The TSS needed a long-term production partner, and the MPS made the most strategic sense. After all, the company was the preeminent supplier of such equipment, so maintaining a monopoly was in their best interest.


However, the disinterested look Celine gave Wil from across the glass conference table did not instill him with confidence that they were about to strike a deal. We need this to work. It would solve so many problems.


Celine squinted at him, her tawny eyes calculating and suspicious. “Why are you coming to us now?”


To offer you a lifeline, you ungrateful witch. He forced a friendly smile. “I know it’s delayed, but the TSS wanted to vet the technology before we put any manufacturing plans in place. We’ve spent the last seven months testing the core prototypes in DGE ships, and we are confident that they are safe. So, naturally, we thought MPS would be in the best position to scale up production.”


“We already have a line of power cores.”


Yes, and you’re running out of the material to make them. Wil bit back the snide retort. “Your legacy products have been a mainstay of Taran civilization, but there is no denying that this new design offers improved functionality.”


Celine leaned back in her seat, studying him. “You aren’t being entirely forthright with me.”


“All right. Shall we drop the pretense and speak freely, then?”


She inclined her head.


“In that case, Celine, what is the state of your voydite mine?”


“Whatever do you mean?”


“I think you understand the question perfectly. My suspicions started when we discovered that the Andvari had been running salvage for you—along with who knows how many other ships. Then your reluctance to provide power cores for planetary shields for the Taran worlds outside the Empire. And now every single conversation where you hedge. MPS has almost exhausted its voydite supply, hasn’t it?”


She kept her expression impassive. “Why would voydite be relevant?”


You have to be foking kidding me! Wil was finding it increasingly difficult to not outright yell at the woman. “Because voydite is a critical material for the manufacture of your current power cores. If you run out of voydite, MPS will no longer have a product. Without MPS, the Monsari Dynasty would no longer be relevant. Do I need to spell out the rest, or can we have a real conversation like we agreed?”


Celine finally pulled her gaze away, focusing on her hands splayed on the tabletop. “You have no idea what it’s like. You just abdicated your position so you didn’t have to deal with inheriting a mountain of shite.”


Now they were getting somewhere. “I had my own messes to deal with, but I am intimately familiar with the burden of cleaning up others’ mistakes.” His entire career in the TSS ultimately stemmed from correcting the Priesthood’s past atrocities; few knew that truth, though the information was becoming more widely known.


“It’s weak leadership that led us here,” Celine huffed. “Now everything is falling apart.”


“There’s a breaking point for everything. Sometimes it comes down to bad luck.”


She scoffed. “The infuriating thing is that they saw this coming generations ago. Each useless fool after another kept pushing off responsibility to the next poor sap in line. By the time I stepped in, there was little I could do.”


He nodded. “Natural resources have a lifecycle. But when there’s something new—”


She laughed. “Wait, you thought I was talking about the voydite?”


“Of course. That’s—”


“You have some nerve to think I’d discuss private Dynasty business with the likes of you.”


It took a moment for Wil to gather himself. “Excuse me?”


“Your family caused this mess. Preaching that the ‘Gifted’ should be allowed in civilized society. It’s been a steady decline since your father took over Sietinen, slowly running the Empire into the ground.”


Wil stood up. “Well, Celine, I wish I could say it’s been a pleasure. Good luck.” You’re going to need it.


Without waiting for any reply, he left the conference room.


For a minute there, she actually had me thinking she’d come around. They’d had their differences of opinion for as far back as he could remember, but at least they’d feigned civility. To insult him and every other Gifted person to his face was uncalled for. With her at the helm, Monsari deserves whatever fate might befall it.


He didn’t like to wish ill of anyone, but that particular family line had failed to adapt to the changing times. More than that, they epitomized everything that people disliked about highborn—out of touch with normal people, using wealth as an excuse to forego decency. As long as that kind of elitist thinking persisted, there wouldn’t be a sustainable balance of power within the Empire. If either Celine or her successors didn’t open their eyes to the present reality, Taran civilization would move on without them. Though, perhaps that would be for the best.


Still fuming from the conversation, Wil stormed from the conference room and headed toward the port where his shuttle was waiting. Various administrative and security personnel watched him from a distance as he exited the manor and took the path eastward through the Monsari Estate’s lush gardens.


Situated on the inner curve of the crescent-shaped Second Region, the cool air of Tararia’s northern expanse was a fitting accompaniment to the chilly mood of all the staff he’d encountered during the brief visit. Wil looked forward to getting back home to TSS Headquarters—the one place he truly felt he belonged.


The entire mission had turned out to be a waste of time. Granted, five hours of transit in each direction made it a day-trip, but there were plenty of other things he could have been working on back at TSS Headquarters.


Returning to a more productive frame of mind, Wil ran through a mental checklist on what he could work on during the return journey.


They were in the midst of sorting out the training paths for the next Agent cohort. With the TSS’ continuing trend toward academia in addition to specialized military training, they needed to expand the organization’s training facilities and curriculum. Most of that fell under Saera’s purview as Lead Agent, but Wil was serving in an advisory role as High Commander. Truthfully, they were in desperate need of others to help with the effort; Wil recognized that both he and his wife were too military-minded, and they were lacking a civilian viewpoint on the project. Unfortunately, no one had yet stepped up to assist them.


The most urgent task, however, was reviewing the latest reports from around the Rift.


The Erebus had been mostly quiet and distant since the encounter at Tararia. Though the TSS and Taran High Council had received a handful of communications during the intervening months, there had been no other indications of the Erebus interacting with the spacetime dimension. Wil wanted to believe that no signs of an impending attack was a good thing, but he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that the transdimensional aliens were gearing up for a bigger assault.


And then there’s the matter of who can manufacture these new power cores. Another wave of annoyance surged through Wil as he reflected on the conversation with Celine. We’ll figure out a way forward without MPS.


As soon as he was beyond easy earshot of the manor and there was no one in sight, Wil called his father on his handheld. He kept it voice-only for ease while walking.


“Hi, Wil, how’d it go?” his father greeted.


“Hey. It was not the cordial, productive chat I’d envisioned.”


Cris sighed. “I was afraid that might be the case. The way Monsari has responded to the Erebus’ presence hasn’t given me the impression that they want to play nice.”


“I’m afraid we’re back to open hostility. I genuinely don’t understand how Celine thinks this is a smart way to navigate our relationship.”


“Are you still at the estate?”


“Heading to my shuttle now.”


“We can talk further once you’re somewhere more private. I have some thoughts on the matter.”


“Sounds good. Thanks, Dad.”


“We’re prepared for this contingency. Forget Celine. Monsari has decided its own fate.”


“I hate to condemn an entire family over the act of one individual, but she’s made it difficult for me to separate the two.”


“You’re right,” his father said, “we shouldn’t write them all off. Doing so would be no different than the Erebus punishing all Tarans for the actions of a few rogue criminals.”


“I always try to find redeeming qualities in a person, but something— I don’t know, it doesn’t feel right. The way she was so dismissive of the offer doesn’t make sense. Why turn down an opportunity to…”


Wil faded out as a tingle rippled down the back of his neck—an instinctual alarm of both his training and Gifts. He raised a telekinetic shield around himself.


The blast hit only a moment later. The charge diffused as it struck his shield, rippling in waves from the point of impact.


The fok? He spun around to face the direction of the attack, looking for the perpetrator. “Someone just took a shot at me!”


“What?!” his father exclaimed.


“I’ll call you back.” He ended the call and slipped his handheld back into the inner pocket of his TSS uniform’s black overcoat.


Wil’s senses were on high alert. He reached out with his mind to feel for anyone in the area. When he found no one in the immediate vicinity, he expanded the search radius. A hundred meters out, he felt someone watching him. They were preparing to make an escape.


That was a big mistake.


Wil gripped the man in a telekinetic hold from afar, lifting him from the ground and pinning his limbs so he would be unable to flee.


He ran over to where the man was suspended behind a hedge. As Wil came around the natural barrier, he lowered the man to the ground but still held him in a firm telekinetic grasp.


The captive’s eyes darted from side to side with terror. The young man was dressed like a grounds worker in green coveralls. Only the plasma rifle at his side gave away his murderous intentions.


“Did you really think you could take me down so easily?” Wil asked. Another traitor had successfully landed a near-mortal shot on Wil, but he had been a mere teenager then. For anyone to make an attempt now on the TSS High Commander—let alone a Sietinen heir—was either insane, foolish, or getting paid a lot of money to take the risk.


“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The young man hung in the air, immobile and his mind open.


“Who do you work for?” Wil demanded.


“What do you mean?” the man stammered. All of the answers to Wil’s questions were right there in the man’s mind for the taking, but it was almost like that’s what he wanted Wil to do. Such an invasive telepathic action might be justifiable in an interrogation after an official arrest, but not like this.


Wil glared at him. “Who put you up to this?” His heart pounded in his chest, more from anger than fear. Was this Monsari’s doing? Was this entire meeting a trap?


“What’s going on here?” a stern male voice demanded from behind Wil.


Wil wheeled around to face the approaching man, who was dressed in the distinctive gray uniform of a Guard officer.


Good, we can settle this properly. Wil addressed the officer, “This man just attempted to shoot me in the back. That’s a hefty criminal offense of both attacking a military officer and a highborn heir.”


“And what evidence do you have of this alleged infraction?” the officer asked.


Wil hesitated. That wasn’t the kind of response he’d anticipated. “I’m sure your surveillance footage will provide an adequate illustration of the events.”


“I’m afraid our visual monitoring system is currently offline for maintenance.”


A quick telekinetic survey of the surrounding area confirmed that the security system was powered down. The predicament crystallized in Wil’s mind. This was a setup.


Wil thought over the geography of the incident. Even his shuttle wasn’t in sight, which meant its onboard cameras wouldn’t have witnessed the incident. The perpetrators had picked a perfect location where Wil would only have his word about what had transpired.


What do they hope to gain? Was this really an assassination attempt, or something else? Wil looked between the face of his assailant and the officer. “I can offer no additional witnesses to the encounter.”


The officer shrugged—far too casual a gesture for the nature of the situation. It was almost like he was trying to taunt Wil. “Then I’m afraid it’s your word against his.”


The heat rose in Wil’s chest. He was probably watching the whole thing. He’s in on it.


“You do not appear to be injured,” the officer continued, looking Wil over, “nor is there any evidence of a shot being fired in this vicinity. Please, release this man.” A smirk tugged at his lips.


Oh, that’s it. They’re trying to get a rise out of me—to bait me into action. Well, this isn’t over yet. Wil took a calming breath. “If you examine this rifle,” he gestured to his assailant’s weapon, “you no doubt will find it has been recently fired. How do you explain that?”


The officer glanced at the rifle. “You just came from the target range, right, Tony?”


“Yeah. Got a great pattern, too.” The assailant nodded—about the only action he could take while still in Wil’s grasp.


“I’m not seeing the issue here,” the officer said. “Please, sir, I need to insist that you release him or I’ll be forced to escalate this issue.”


That’s exactly what you want, isn’t it? For me to use my abilities to force the truth out of him, so you can declare how unstable I am and abusive of my power. Wil schooled his expression, unwilling to give the men the satisfaction of seeing him angry. “I see.”


Reluctantly, Wil released the shooter.


The assailant shook out his limbs and flashed Wil a smug sneer. “It appears this has all been a misunderstanding.”


“Oh, I think we understand each other perfectly.” Wil met his gaze.


After several intense seconds, the officer cleared his throat. “Then it’s settled.” Without another word, he spun around and strode back along the path.


The shooter glanced between his weapon and Wil. From the twist of his lips, he wanted to say more, but to make any comment might be incriminating.


Wil stared back levelly. Yeah, we both know that would have been a clean center-mass shot if I hadn’t blocked it. Don’t think I’ll forget. The very notion that the man had been willing to take the shot said everything Wil needed to know about him.


The shooter gave a final nod and then followed the officer toward the manor.


Un-foking believable. Wil watched him go. That’s it?


The entire encounter was bizarre. He had expected them to press him further—to make him take action against them that they could then warp to fit their own narrative. Instead, they’d simply walked away.


Was this just a warning? He didn’t know what to make of it.


Wil took another minute to clear his head before he went to his shuttle, much more aware of his surroundings this time. As a precaution, he kept a shield up around himself, though he doubted they’d try the same assault twice.


On his way, he sent a quick text to his father, knowing he must be worried about the abrupt end to their call: >>I’m fine. I’ll fill you in later. No one in Monsari can be trusted.<<


As much as he valued his father’s council, it was more critical that he alert the TSS about Monsari’s transgression. As soon as he strapped into one of the private passenger seats in the central body of the shuttle, he called Saera.


She appeared on the screen of his handheld. “Hey, how’d it go?”


“Not good. First, the easy part: MPS isn’t interested in manufacturing.”


Her jade eyes widened with surprise. “Really? That seems like a terrible business decision.”


“That’s my assessment, too. I don’t get it. I would have thought she’d jump at the idea.”


A low rumble vibrated the deck underfoot as the small ship powered up and lifted from the ground.


His wife frowned. “Is it possible we’ve misread the situation and they aren’t in as dire straits as we think? Why else would Monsari decline such a generous offer?”


“Well, it might have something to do with them trying to shoot me.”


“Stars, Wil!” Saera exclaimed. “They shot at you? Are you okay?”


“Yes, I’m fine. It’s not like this was the first time.” In many ways, the hyper-awareness born from the trauma of his past experience had helped keep him safer in the years since.


Saera’s expression immediately shifted to matter-of-fact professionalism. “I’ll contact the local Agents to provide backup for an arrest.”


He held up his hand. “That won’t be necessary. We can’t make any arrest now.”


“Why in the stars not? Did you not locate the shooter?”


“Oh, I spotted him right away. I think I was supposed to. The problem is, the security system was out—conveniently—and I didn’t see him take the shot. Extrasensory perception isn’t grounds for an arrest.”


She frowned. “Agents use it all the time.”


“Tararian local law is different. They haven’t yet rolled back all of the regulations the Priesthood put in place during their rule.”


“There has to be something we can do! Please don’t tell me you’re going to shrug this off.”


“Absolutely not. However, there’s little we can do about the situation at the moment. It’s my word against his, and any attempt to throw around my authority is likely to do more harm than good.” The more Wil talked through what happened, he saw just how brilliant a setup it was. Either he had to let Monsari get away with the entire thing, or he’d need to overstep the scope of his position in order to respond to the assault. They were clearly counting on him seeking vengeance no matter what.


She scowled. “This isn’t right.”


No, it’s not. He fought against the anger welling in his chest. “Justice will be served. Have faith. And patience.”


“It’s never a good sign when you’re the one telling me to be patient.”


“Just taking turns, my love. We’ll get through this like we have everything else.”


“Meanwhile, an assassin is running loose.”


Attempted assassin,” he said. “Right now, I’m more concerned about whoever put him up to it—whether it was Celine or someone else.”


Saera scowled. “Monsari is obviously involved. But was it a temporary collaboration of convenience, or is it part of a longer-term strategy?”


“Given how things tend to go for us, I suspect this was a tiny piece of a much bigger scheme.”


“To what end?”


Wil shook his head. “I’m not sure, but it was all a setup, Saera. They wanted me to read their minds—I could feel it. And it would have been so easy to get all the answers, but this bomaxed code of ethics is here to keep us from becoming the monsters people like Celine think we are. I would never give into that trap.”


“I trust you, more than anyone, to respect those lines.”


“I can’t think of another reason why they would have reacted the way they did. They had to have known I would be able to identify and deflect a single blast like that. It was intended to piss me off, not hurt me.”


“Devious.”


“And shows they don’t know me well at all.”


She nodded. “Even if you had gleaned information, anything you learned via surreptitious telepathy wouldn’t be considered proof outside our immediate circle.”


“To have a solid lead, though…” He sighed. “But we can’t go down that path.”


“No. And we also can’t waver. This event underscores that we’re up against powerful adversaries.”


“Our options are becoming more constrained.”


“Though new opportunities may yet open,” Saera replied. “I’m anxious to see where Raena’s investigation into Earth leads. There’s mounting evidence that there’s something significant on the planet.”


“I don’t want to get my hopes up.”


“Me either. We still need to figure out a production strategy for the Erebus power core; that single item can do more for us than anything else—and I’m now doubly eager to no longer be reliant on Monsari and MPS.”


Wil nodded. “I agree wholeheartedly.”


“It’s time to take another tactic. The right strategic manufacturing partner would send a strong message.”


“What are you thinking?” Wil asked.


“One option is to keep it in-house within the TSS, but that goes against our mandate to be a neutral party.”


“We can’t cross that line.”


She leaned closer to the camera. “That leaves two alternatives, both with pros and cons: either we pick an existing corporation and elevate their status, or we establish a new corporation, which would position them as a new powerhouse—pardon the pun—to take the mantle from MPS.”


Wil frowned. “We shouldn’t be the ones making that decision.”


“Do you really think the High Council will be equitable about it? I love our family, but even they couldn’t approach this without bias. Your dad would say SiNavTech is happy to take it on, Ryan would jump at the opportunity to expand DGE, your uncle would make the case that VComm already makes their own micro power cells for handhelds, so they know the market. It’d start a messy bidding war, at best.”


I wonder if that’s what Dad was going to suggest? Wil agreed with Saera that keeping the High Council out of it was for the best; hopefully, his parents would agree with the reasoning.


“What, then? We quietly hand it off to the person or group of our choosing?” he asked his wife.


“You’ve selected plenty of candidates for important positions in the past. You understand how to pick individuals who’ll act in the best interest of others rather than themselves.”


He groaned softly. “And I hate having that kind of responsibility—especially in situations with galactic-scale implications.”


“I respect your judgment, just like the Aesir do.”


He tilted his head. “Now, there’s a thought.”


“Hmm?”


“The Aesir. We could hand it over to them.”


Her face scrunched. “You think they’d go for it?”


“It’s worth a conversation.”



— — —



“What do you mean ‘they took a shot at him’?” Raena Sietinen exclaimed, nearly jumping out of her office chair.


Her grandfather had passed on the news in a tone which was entirely too calm. He evaluated her over the viewscreen, still cool and collected. “I must admit, I didn’t expect Monsari to make such an overt move.”


How is he not furious? Raena felt the flush in her face. “Was it Monsari directly, or were they simply turning a blind eye?”


“Does the distinction matter?” Cris asked. “Either way, this amounts to a declaration of civil war.”


Raena’s heart dropped, and she sank back into her chair. “I hope you mean that as hyperbole.”


Her grandfather looked away from the camera as he folded his hands on his desktop. “Conflict with Monsari is nothing new. However, an act of physical aggression changes things.”


“Why would they do it? Doesn’t it make Monsari a target?”


“Lines are being drawn,” he said. “Whatever they hope to gain, they consider this action worth the risk. Or, perhaps, it was simply a test.”


“To see how Dad would respond?”


“To see how we all will. The event won’t make the news, but word will get around. In the right circles, someone willing to take a shot like that might be celebrated. There’s a lot of clout to be gained.”


“In other words, Monsari is gearing up for a larger political move.”


Cris nodded. “That’s my suspicion, based on what little information we have.”


Raena’s stomach lurched. “What does this mean for us?”


“That you must continue your work with Earth. Right now, the ancient sites on that planet have the best chance of uncovering information about our past that could reveal a new path forward.”


“None of that will do us much good in a political battle against another High Dynasty.”


“Perhaps not, but my greater worry remains the Erebus.”


She took an unsteady breath. “What if we can’t figure out how to fight them?”


“Positive visualization, Raena. We will find a way.” He paused. “Still, we must be cautious. Danger is closing in on all fronts. There will come a time when we’ll discover who truly supports us and those who never did.”


“We’ll always have our family, if no one else.”


Cris smiled. “That’s all we really need. Anyone who stands against us picked the wrong side.”


Raena gave a resolute nod, pushing down her nerves. There wasn’t room for worry or doubt. “No matter what happens, I’m ready.”





CHAPTER 2


As Jason Sietinen reviewed the latest TSS threat assessment report, he was again met with nominal accounts on most fronts—only a handful of civil demonstrations under the purview of the Tararian Guard. But everything is not okay. What are we missing?


The peace was an illusion. In the seven months since the Erebus appeared, Jason had been waiting for the tentative truce to shatter. The timing on the Taran calendar made it the better part of an Earth year, but the losses at Alkeer Station were the kind of tragedy the TSS wouldn’t ever forget—not to mention the personal nature of that loss to him. For the sake of maintaining the tenuous alliance with the aliens, the TSS pretended publicly to have set aside any hard feelings against the Erebus. But Jason knew he wasn’t alone in his resentment. Wrath would be dealt when the time was right.


For now, everything was suspiciously quiet. Something was brewing beneath the surface; he sensed it. It wasn’t a matter of if the Taran Empire would be plunged into chaos, but when.


A knock sounded on his office doorframe, and he looked up to see his mother. “Come in.”


Saera slipped inside and closed the door behind her. “There’s been an incident.”


Jason braced for the news. If she was coming in person, it was no doubt serious. “What happened?”


“While your father was leaving the Monsari estate, someone took a shot at him.”


“What?!”


“He deflected it—no need to worry—but obviously there are… implications.”


“Shite.” Jason deflated in his seat. “I take it the negotiations didn’t go well.”


“It appears they only accepted the meeting as a pretense to get your father there. Our suspicion is that they were trying to provoke him into taking unbecoming actions that they could use against us.”


“The TSS or the Sietinen Dynasty?”


“Probably both. As well as all Gifted, most likely. Since they consider us to be ‘dangerous savages’, and all that.” She crossed her arms and leaned against the wall.


So much for the peace and quiet. Jason ran his hand through his hair. “I can’t believe they’d make a move like this now.”


“Clearly, they saw an opportunity.” Saera’s brows were pinched with concern.


He hated seeing his mother like that. They’d been through plenty of tense times in their professional lives together, but she was still the stalwart mom who’d comforted him when he was scared or hurt as a youth. Witnessing her be so openly worried hit deep.


“It’ll be okay, Mom,” he told her.


The words sounded hollow to his ears, but Saera straightened and gave a confident nod. “I know it will. Thank you, Jason. I’ll keep you apprised of further developments.”


“All right.”


She gave him a half-hearted smile and departed.


Jason returned his attention to the minor TSS incident reports on his desktop. None of this scratches the surface of the real issues.


He closed out from the reports and pushed back from his desk with a sigh. The attack on his father was just one more item to add to his growing concerns.


The absence of the Erebus wasn’t all that surprising. After they’d dropped their ‘gift’ in the TSS’ lap, they’d closed up their micro-rifts and disappeared behind the dimensional veil. They were no doubt still watching Tarans’ actions, but with everyone on their best behavior, there was no reason for the aliens to intervene.


What was far more concerning was how uneventful things had been on the surface in the Outer Colonies for months. The botched siege on Duronis had been the last incident of any significance, with only a handful of smaller demonstrations in the intervening time. However, since the original perpetrators hadn’t been apprehended, it simply meant that their planning had gone underground. What had become clear, though, is that the Coalition’s network was large and very well-funded. Unfortunately, the people behind it were also very smart and had covered their tracks with expert precision.


Jason regularly scanned the public news reports about the sector around Duronis. There was absolutely nothing useful—all headlines perfectly manicured to avoid discussion of the real issues within the Taran Empire.


Yet here he was, stuck at Headquarters away from the action. Sure, teaching passed the time, but he wanted to stand up to the Erebus or apprehend criminals. Knowing there were now would-be assassins running around made it that much worse.


I need to know what’s really going on out there. We can’t afford to be caught by surprise again.


The TSS was counting on him to be in regular communication with their undercover operative, Kira, who was working inside the Sovereign Peoples Alliance with her fiancé, Leon, and their informant, Lexi. Kira had struggled to embed herself deeply enough into the Alliance to learn anything incriminating about the larger Coalition. The nature of the assignment made regular check-ins difficult, much to Jason’s consternation. Technically, the Alliance didn’t like its members talking with anyone outside its membership; yet, the organization’s leaders also recognized that enforcing a no-outside-contact rule would create more issues than it solved. This left a small opening that they had exploited over the past several months.


However, Jason hadn’t heard from Kira for two weeks now, and they were past due for her latest report from the field. For those check-ins, Kira would call Jason on a throw-away handheld, used only once.


It’s been too long. What if something happened to her? He wasn’t typically one to worry, but with the Alliance, the concern was valid.


The organization had a history of disappearing people, and they had every reason to make sure Kira was never able to report what was really happening within the organization. Even if she hadn’t been found out, it was possible they were keeping too close a watch for her to get out a message.


He tapped his fingers on his desktop. I need to make sure she’s okay.


Jason only had one option to get in touch. They’d set up an encrypted account for Kira that could receive text messages and files, which she could access remotely. Using coded phrasing, they could send notes to each other that would come across like a casual interaction that shouldn’t raise alarms if anyone happened across their communications.


If everything was okay, she would be checking it regularly. It was better than him being stuck in ‘wait and see’ mode.


Jason opened up a new text message to send via their established covert protocol: >>Hey! Wow, how time flies, huh? Things have been quiet around here. Mom and Dad keep asking about you. I figure you’re busy, but just wanted to say hi and make sure all is well.<<


Once the message was sent, he tried to turn his attention to other tasks. He wouldn’t be able to rest easy until he heard from her—not when he knew the Alliance was capable of such terrible things. Please, reply soon, Kira. I don’t know what I’d do if you disappeared, too.



— — —



Lexi twirled a section of her brunette hair with one hand while she anxiously drummed her fingers on her desktop. Her patience for acting like she cared about the Sovereign Peoples Alliance had worn through a long time ago, so keeping calm enough to maintain her cover brought out every nervous tick she’d ever expressed.


In a moment of clarity, she realized that her foot was also rapidly jerking back and forth, in addition to her fingers taking on a life of their own. She made a conscious effort to sit still.


What is it that Leon wanted to talk about?


She hadn’t been able to concentrate on her mundane work tasks since breakfast. Kira’s fiancé, Leon, had made a passing statement about hearing something interesting the night before, and she was dying to learn the details.


Maybe he finally got information about where the Coalition is based so I can leave this shiteshow behind. It could be wishful thinking, but she needed to believe that the end was in sight.


The days of working at the Alliance office had long since blurred together. She used the term ‘work’ loosely since activity had seemingly ground to a halt since the failed cargo ship takeover during the attempted coup on Duronis. The Alliance’s shift to keeping a low profile had worked to her advantage at first, with the organization having been unable to conduct a thorough investigation into the control room cave-in she’d caused. The entire incident had been written off as an ‘accident’, just like she’d hoped.


However, after spending the better part of the year with little to do, she was getting antsy. The one saving grace had been having Kira and Leon around the office.


Lunch was fast approaching, fortunately, so she had social time to look forward to—and, with any luck, an opportunity to hear about what Leon had learned.


Unable to focus on her tedious administrative tasks, Lexi spent the remaining fifteen minutes until lunch looking over the morning’s news reports. There hadn’t been any major incidents reported on the galactic broadcast streams, but she’d been hearing rumors around the office about new demonstrations happening on Duronis and the surrounding planets.


Recently, the messaging she’d seen on Duronis ranged from ‘independence in the Outer Colonies’ to ‘down with the Central Planets’. However, it lacked any kind of cohesive argument about why. That was by design. The Alliance’s entire purpose behind fueling that messaging was to create disruption and dissent in the public consciousness. With a vague enough rally, people would fill in their own reasons to be upset and add fuel to the larger movement. It was on a simmer now, building their following in preparation for an explosive boiling over when the Coalition was ready to make its move.


That move was coming soon—the energy around the office had shifted again, just like before the last big revolt.


Except, she was frustrated to not have any details about what that move might be. They’re being even more secretive than last time. You’d think with two telepaths we could learn more!


At 13:00, Lexi locked down her desktop and went to the cafeteria where everyone gathered for lunch. A quarter of the tables were filled by the time she arrived. She spotted Kira and Leon among those seated, easily recognizable from a distance by Kira’s vibrant red, pixie-cut hair.


Lexi waved at them before grabbing a plate of bland fare from the buffet line; like the second-hand nature of the furnishings throughout the Alliance’s building, the food was subpar. The menu was frequently various forms of mush that were more ‘nutrition’ than ‘cuisine’, but on the rare occasion there was something solid, the once-fresh items were noticeably nearing their expiration date, almost certainly purchased at a discount.


Today’s sampling happened to be one of the trademark gruels, this one beige.


Great.


Lexi set her tray down on the table with a sigh and took a seat across from her friends.


Kira scooped up a mound of the beige mush on her spoon and watched it dribble back into the gelatinous mound. “I need a real meal.”


Next to her, Leon shoved his tray away from him, a look of disgust twisting his handsome features. “I second that.”


Though his fair complexion wasn’t what Lexi would typically go for, she found his unique violet irises quite mesmerizing. She’d never said as much to Kira, but she could see why the other woman had fallen for the guy.


“Hey, at least the food is free.” Lexi used her spoon to play with the mush until her growling stomach’s demands overrode the lack of visual appeal. Once she got past the first bite of the slimy texture, the vaguely nutty flavor wasn’t too bad.


After running from planet to planet without a proper home to call her own for most of her life, one thing Lexi did appreciate about the Alliance was that it had offered her a measure of stability over the past year. They fed her. Housed her. Gave her tasks she could pretend were meaningful employment. Though it wasn’t a great life, her situation could be a lot worse—or so it seemed on the surface.


Just when she started to think it wasn’t so bad, she’d remember that the Alliance had been willing to kill innocent children in the name of ‘independence’ and that they’d disappeared her closest friend. Perhaps not all the people in the Alliance were bad, but there was an evil undercurrent in the organization.


They need to be taken down. She reminded herself that it was best to keep that thought front and center at all times—regardless of how they’d made her feel like part of a community.


“Well,” Kira said, a mischievous sparkle in her hazel eyes, “I have credits to burn, and I need to get out of here for a while. What do you say to an offsite happy hour?”


“I don’t think ‘happy’ or ‘fun’ are even in Oren’s vocabulary,” Leon replied.


Lexi smiled and took another bite of her meal. Leon was one of those quiet, cerebral types who consistently caught Lexi by surprise with spontaneous displays of dry humor. Not that she thought the guy was uptight, it was just never clear when he was listening to them or when he was lost in thought ideating about whatever it was super-smart people contemplated.


“Lucky, then, he’s not invited,” Kira replied.


Leon nodded. “I’m always up for a good chat.” He made brief eye contact with each of them, giving a subtle indication that it would be an opportunity to expand upon his breakfast comment.


“Besides, I’ve been out of touch for too long,” Kira added. “I need to check my messages.”


Lexi recognized the phrasing to mean that Kira needed to touch base with her TSS handler. She hadn’t been privy to the conversations directly, but what little Kira had said about the matter was that her undercover mission had come directly from the top of the organization. It had taken months to get even that much out of her—not that Lexi blamed her for being cautious. Though Lexi had solicited the help to investigate the Alliance’s dealings, it could have easily been a setup. She’d needed to earn Kira’s and Leon’s trust, but she now proudly called them her friends.


“All the more reason to go out tonight,” Leon reiterated.


Stars, that does sound good. Despite her desire to get outside the office and speak freely for a change, she was well aware how important it was to not draw attention to herself by rule-bending. “Go for it. Have fun.”


“Come out with us,” Kira urged. “It’s been too long since we had a change of scenery.”


The phrasing made it sound like a friendly offer, for the benefit of anyone who might overhear the conversation. However, as she spoke, Kira made eye contact with Lexi and initiated a telepathic link.


“You’ll want to hear what Leon has to say,” she said in Lexi’s mind.


“What if we get caught?”


“We won’t.”


Lexi broke eye contact and shook her head. “As much as I’d like to, I don’t need Oren giving me another lecture about my ‘commitment to the cause’.” He was the most infuriating manager Lexi had ever dealt with, not even taking into account his psychopathic tendencies. She did everything she could to avoid crossing the man, fearing retribution.


Kira waved her hand dismissively. “It’s just for an hour.” She caught Lexi’s gaze again, “We’ll say we’re going to scope out new recruits or something. It’s not like we’re never allowed to leave the building.”


Lexi wanted to protest. She knew it was a risk to leave, even for a short while, on non-Alliance business. Yet, she was curious about Leon’s information, and her nerves were frayed from being cooped up for too long.


“All right,” she yielded.


The other woman beamed. “Excellent. Let’s head out at 17:00?”


“Sounds good.” Normally, it would have been delivery pickup time, but there weren’t any on the schedule for the rest of the week.


Kira smiled. “Great! It’ll be a fun time.”


It really might be. Lexi was relieved to not feel alone anymore.


Kira had quickly become a good friend, and Leon was the kind of level-headed person who was easy to be around. None of her other relationships within the Alliance had offered any kind of meaningful social connection, and she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed having real friends. She’d been on her own for a long time, aside from Melisa, but that didn’t mean she liked being a loner.


After finishing her lunch, Lexi returned to her desk to finish up the remaining administrative tasks for the day. Having the evening outing to look forward to helped pass the time, and she soon found it was approaching the planned departure time.


She met up with Kira and Leon at the office’s back access door and slipped outside into the shadowed rear alley.


Kira breathed in deeply, despite the slightly foul air wafting over from the nearby dumpster, and smiled. “Oh, it feels good to be out!”


“I’ve been going a little stir crazy,” Leon admitted. He tousled his light-brown hair. “When are we going to do something?”


“This is what it was like before you joined up,” Lexi told them as they walked away from the office. “A whole lot of nothing, and then the, uh… incident.”


They nodded, catching her meaning. She couldn’t explicitly talk about the attack on the space station or attempted seizure of the supply ships.


“People are getting restless. It doesn’t take anyone special to see that,” Kira said.


Lexi tilted her head questioningly. “And what might a more perceptive person pick up?”


“That pieces are moving. The wait is almost over… though, whatever is going on is happening at a higher level than us little cogs.”


“The question is, how does one ascend to that higher level?” Lexi asked.


Kira gave her a confident smile. “Leave that to us.”


Kira’s abilities largely remained a mystery to Lexi. She knew the other woman was some kind of telepath, but she wasn’t Gifted in the usual sense. It made her a great asset to extract information—assuming she got access to the right person—and also prevented her from being detected. However, it also meant Lexi was unable to read the woman in the way she would other people.


She trusted Kira, for the most part, but she wasn’t entirely sure where she stood in Kira’s eyes. Lexi wanted to think she was one of the team, working on the inside of the Alliance to help the TSS. Yet, she might just as easily be an expendable tool who the TSS would only keep around so long as she was useful.


Regardless, aligning herself with Kira was Lexi’s best—and, really, only­—play at the moment. She needed answers about the Alliance’s operations, and what may have happened to her missing friend, Melisa.


I wish I could be more help. When I called in the TSS, I thought we’d be able to get in deeper by now. The whole mess with the aborted revolt had shut down the Alliance’s activities, leaving their mission at a standstill. They couldn’t press the issues without leaders like Oren getting suspicious about their impatience, so they’d been keeping their heads down.


Though the waiting was annoying, and it was frustrating that they couldn’t talk openly about their real purpose for being in the Alliance’s ranks, it set Lexi at ease to know that she had two allies who viewed the Alliance as the bad guys. Too many others around the office seemed eager to swallow whatever propaganda the Alliance was spewing as their flavor of the day.


The group stuck to the back alleys as they put distance between themselves and the Alliance office. A kilometer from the building, they transitioned to the main streets.


Kira looked around them, as though checking for a potential tail. “I think we’re good to go.”


“Should we chat before you do your check-in?” Leon asked.


“Yeah, let’s find somewhere to talk.”


They spotted a moderately busy pub a couple blocks away and ducked inside. The buzz of conversation made for the perfect background noise to have a private conversation in plain sight. One of the back corner tables was available, so they grabbed draft drinks at the bar and then settled in.


Kira dramatically motioned toward Leon, as if making a big reveal. “Take it away.”


He placed his elbows on the table and leaned in. “I may finally have a lead,” he said, barely above a whisper. “I’ve started hearing rumors about a big project they’re working on offworld.”


Lexi perked up. “Where’d you learn that?”


“I overheard a group of researchers talking early this morning. They were making plans for a new lab.”


“Were you able to get any more specifics?” Kira asked.


“Based on their specializations, it’s related to something biological… and nasty. It sounds like they picked this new site because it’s remote.”


“An uninhabited world, then?”


“I got the sense there was some kind of existing settlement on the planet. It’s difficult to start up a research operation without any resources, so that’d make sense.”


“A heads up on where would be really nice to pass onto our friends on the outside,” Kira said.


He nodded. “Secret research on remote worlds rarely bodes well. Whatever they’re planning to work on can’t be good for the rest of the Empire.”


“It’s like their goals have completely changed,” Lexi mused. “They were focused on that plan to isolate Duronis, but then… nothing.”


Kira swirled the beer in her glass pensively. “The shift happened right when the Erebus showed up.”


Lexi stared at her. “Stars, you’re right! But why would that impact their plans? You’d think they’d want to take full advantage of that distraction to push things forward.”


“Unless that revelation opened up a new, better opportunity.”


“Such as?”


“I don’t know. The whole thing has me worried. They’re recruiting all these people, and no one is doing anything.”


“It’s like they’re gathering troops,” Leon said.


“An army to activate and direct when the moment is right.” Kira shook her head. “What in the stars are they up to?”


Leon shrugged. “This information about the planet might offer some clues. I’ll ask around, find out what I can.”


“I’ve never been so happy to get bad news.” Lexi let out a satisfied sigh. “It’s a lead. Finally!”


Kira raised her glass. “Cheers to that.”


Lexi clinked her glass with the others. All the waiting is paying off. Now our hunt can begin.



- - -


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