At last, the second book in the Verity Chronicles co-authored by T.S. Valmond and A.K. DuBoff is almost here! "Divided Loyalties" continues the adventures of Iza, Joe, and crew as they try to keep the mysterious sphere out of enemy hands.
About the Book
No good deed goes unpunished when you’re a crew of criminals.
Agent Joe Anderson finds a home on the Verity among the crew, but staying true to his TSS mission gets harder every day. Caught between his relationship with Captain Iza Sundari and stopping a plot to overthrow the Taran government, his loyalties are tested when he's forced to choose between his heart and his duty.
All Captain Iza Sundari wanted was freedom on her own ship. Instead, she ended up with an eclectic crew of misfits, an alien artifact with unknown origins, and a contractual engagement all competing to ruin her life. When her android friend, Trix, contracts a mysterious virus, she finds herself in a race with time to find a cure, but she can’t do it alone.
Things only get worse when the alien artifact places Iza at the center of a political race for power. She must come to terms with her unresolved feelings for Joe, save her ship, and her friends from destruction, while solving the mystery of the artifact and her past before everything she’s always wanted is lost.
Divided Loyalties will be released on May 29th!
For the fifth time that morning, Iza wondered why she’d allowed so many people on her ship. All she needed were a couple of non-sentient androids to help Trix carry heavy loads when the time came. What she had instead were complications, expenses, and liabilities.
She tried to block out Braedon’s and Cierra’s bickering as she scooped up more hay to toss around the makeshift pen in the back corner of the cargo deck. “Can we get there any faster?” Her question echoed off the large domed room as she called out to Trix working on the opposite side of the room.
Trix’s pale skin hid her non-organic components, her brunette hair hanging past her shoulders in neat waves as she bent over to move more crates of hay into the cargo hold in preparation for their next job. The Lynaedan android could pass for any woman delivering news in the Sensationals, but her artificial frame could lift five times her body weight and her advanced processing core could complete computations impossible for anyone of flesh and blood. Of all Iza’s crew members, Trix was the one she could trust to be drama-free and focused on the task at hand.
Trix scrutinized Iza. “We are almost to our destination now, and the route was plotted in accordance with your instructions to minimize transit fees. Specifically, you said,” she switched into an exact copy of Iza’s voice, “ ‘We’re not made of money, so get us there on the cheap. This boat is already costing me too much as it is. I refuse to give those bomaxed officials another credit.’ ”
“Yeah, yeah.” Iza’s mouth twitched as she held back a smile. Trix had no idea she was so funny.
Owning a starship meant having the credits to take care of minor things like repairs and transit fees, so she needed to be smart about her expenditures. In some cases, taking a little longer was worth the savings gained by traveling through normal space rather than using the SiNavTech beacon navigation network for subspace jumps. At least her next job was a done deal; she only had to pick up the haul and drop it off on a nearby colony. It was so easy she could do it in her sleep. Too bad she wasn’t getting any.
Strange dreams continued to disrupt Iza’s rest. She blamed the mysterious artifact she’d found under the stairs in the cargo hold a month and a half prior. The metal sphere remained in its box within her nightstand, humming. Whatever its origins and purpose she couldn’t blame the sphere for her annoying guests. Nor was it the cause of her current dilemma with Jovani Saletas or her fake engagement to Karter Hyttinen.
Above, Braedon and Cierra erupted into another round of shouting about natural cooking and Braedon’s unappreciation for holistic living.
Iza sighed. “I miss it being just the two of us,” she said to Trix.
The android shook her head. “You do not mean that. You are the happiest now that you have been in the many years I’ve known you.”
Maybe I am, but for how long? Iza didn’t reply out loud. She hadn’t even been able to tell Trix about the true nature of her arrangement with Karter. When Jovani learned the engagement, she had no doubt it would devastate him. She’d tried to keep her distance, but she could only make so many excuses.
She vented her frustration through the hay-tossing. As if the interpersonal drama wasn’t enough, she could never escape the mysterious sphere’s infernal humming emanating from the nightstand drawer in her cabin decks above. It didn’t matter where it was, the hum followed her everywhere. Iza still found it strange that no one else heard it. Other people would probably laugh and assume she was crazy if she told them the truth about what she’d found in that hidden little box.
Iza and Trix completed the preparations for receiving their cargo, and they headed for the flight deck. She wasn’t keen about their pickup from Galminus, but it paid well. The last time she’d been on the planet, the local Enforcers had falsely accused her of transporting stolen goods. This time around, she didn’t want to risk any delays or complications.
Jobs never came easy. Iza had to haggle, debate, and persuade the people she worked with that she had the capacity and honesty to get products delivered on time. With all the underhanded dealings and disreputable crews out there, the Taran Empire needed sharp-witted and honest haulers. She was up for the challenge, provided the universe was willing to give her a chance.
The Verity dropped out from subspace shortly after Iza arrived on the flight deck. She stared out the viewport at the world’s familiar green and red land masses where the dry northern hemisphere met the wet southern one.
“How are we on timing?” Iza asked.
“We are on schedule for the pickup,” Trix replied from where she stood at the center of the flight deck. “I should note, however, that there was a slight hesitation during our last entry to subspace. I will run a diagnostic on the jump drive.”
“Thanks, Trix. I want to stay ahead of any problems. No more getting stranded due to poor maintenance.”
Along the port side of the room, Jovani was at the tactical station. Iza couldn’t recall offering him an official place on the crew, but she couldn’t argue with the skills of the former TSS Agent. “Just a heads up, there’s a chance that we’ll have trouble at the border.”
“Why?” Iza asked. Jovani had a knack for sensing potential issues; that’s why she liked him at tactical, even though his presence tended to cloud her head. “Aren’t the clearance codes working? Our documentation is legitimate.”
“No, it’s something else.” His eyes narrowed as he pored over information on his console. “All ships are being stopped at the border and questioned. It appears there was an incident earlier today.”
“Why bother with the inbound ships?” she asked.
“In case they’re arriving to aid an escape, I suppose.” Jovani shrugged.
Iza made a tsk of annoyance. It was the last thing she needed today, but she remained calm and put on what she hoped was her most charming smile. Enforcers loved a friendly smile.
“Trix, open a comms channel to border patrol.”
The holodisplay went black and then white as the vid displayed the Enforcer sitting in front of a white background.
“This is Captain Sundari of the Verity. We’re here on a standard haul.”
“Just checking your credentials, Captain. We had some trouble this morning.” The local Enforcer seemed annoyed to have to repeat his story.
“What kind of trouble?” Iza asked. Despite his annoyance, she wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to get as much information out of him as she could.
“It’s all over the local news. Several of our top scientists went missing from the lab in the Upper West End at the start of the workday. It seems they were just going about their business when someone snatched them.”
“Is there a shortage on scientists in the colonies?” Iza asked in an attempt to lighten his mood.
“Not that I’m aware of,” he replied, missing her intended humor. “All of them were average folk with families. If you hear or see anything out of the ordinary, we’re asking that you report it to the Guard immediately.”
“Will do,” Iza acknowledged with a small salute. “Any leads yet on who took them?”
“No, but if you’ve got a scientist on board, I suggest you keep an eye on ’em.” His image disappeared, and the viewport once again showed the stars with the planet in front of them.
“Was that his idea of a joke?” Iza asked, but neither Trix nor Jovani responded.
Missing people weren’t altogether uncommon in the outer reaches of the Taran colonies. The authorities didn’t like to admit that more and more criminal elements were taking root throughout the border worlds. Though those organizations weren’t new, the recent shift in governance on Tararia had provided a prime opportunity for power-plays. She hated to think what might be in the works if scientists were being abducted. No doubt, it was to craft tools of war rather than for anything altruistic.
While Iza was trying to think of another witty comment, Braedon entered. He sat down in the pilot’s seat, his shoulders slumped forward in defeat. His last bout with Cierra hadn’t gone his way, it seemed. Anyone with eyes saw the connection between them, but their differences seemed to outweigh everything else. Braedon started mumbling to himself.
“Something wrong?” Jovani asked.
“I don’t get it. I do everything I can to make her happy, but it’s never enough. How am I supposed to improve when she runs away from me or shuts down?”
Jovani gave Iza a significant glance that made her pulse quicken before turning back to Braedon. “Women are a mystery and we may never fully understand them, but trying and getting it right five times out of ten makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
“Braedon, run a check on the local broadcasts to see what we can find out about the scientists that were abducted.”
“Abducted scientists?” Braedon’s fingers tapped the smooth screen of the console for a moment before he turned back to Iza. “Ah, looks like there was an official statement from a local governor about the abductions and the information in that is just being repeated everywhere else. The governor didn’t seem overly concerned about the kidnappings. He must not be into science.” Braedon shrugged. “I’ll keep checking, maybe dive into the Sensationals for more news.”
“You’re not going to find any real news there, don’t waste your time,” Iza said with a wave of one hand. “Trix, once we have the all-clear, put us back on course for the pickup coordinates and let’s get our haul.”
They parked the Verity on the outskirts of town. It was still a remote, dusty area that hadn’t yet been developed beyond a rudimentary ship port and related services.
“What are we picking up today?” Braedon asked, standing up from his seat.
“Sheep?” Jovani tilted his head. “I guess that explains the hay.”
“Yes, there’s a breeder on Beurias who needs good stock. The sheep will be quite the haul, since they’ll be live cargo. That’s extra credits for the crew. Once the sheep are on board, it’s going to be noisy and messy down there. So watch your step.”
“Got it. And will there be some time to handle necessary business while we’re here?” Braedon rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
“I won’t stop you if you’ve got stuff to do. Trix and I can handle the sheep for now, but stay out of trouble. If you get yourself arrested by Enforcers and thrown onto Sarduvis again, I promise I won’t be waiting around.”
“It was just the one time. When are you going to let that go?” Braedon shouted and then grabbed Jovani by the arm. “Don’t leave without us. Jovani’s cute to look at, but what would you do without me?”
“We do not need another pilot,” Trix said. She seemed annoyed he would imply they needed him at all.
Iza rolled her eyes and smiled back at Jovani, who grinned at her.
“Bye,” Iza sang as Braedon dragged Jovani off the flight deck. “Trix, adjust the temperature controls. I swear Braedon has been playing with them again lately; it’s blazing hot in here.”
— — —
Joe followed Braedon down the metal ramp from the Verity’s cargo hold into the warm sun. As he stepped into the red dirt, his handheld signaled a message from his TSS commander, Ian Mandren. Joe ignored it, making a mental note to report in later once he had something useful to pass on. Trouble at the border and missing scientists weren’t exactly breaking news for the TSS. Maybe he could investigate a little more after Braedon revealed his latest scheme.
He took a deep breath of the fresh air before he spoke. “So where are we really going?”
Braedon gave him a sly smile and then rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. “I can’t keep anything hidden from you. Are you always reading my mind?”
“No, reading you doesn’t require that much work. I know you well enough. If you have an agenda different from what you’ve told Iza, it’s best I’m made aware of it ahead of time.”
Braedon pouted in annoyance before he shrugged and kept walking. “You’re right. Guess, I better work on hiding my feelings. Maybe that’s my trouble with Cierra. Though I think she actually is reading my mind.”
He easily kept up with Braedon’s brisk pace. “Braedon, where are we going?” he asked, grabbing Braedon by the front of his shirt.
The teenager sighed. “All right. I’ve been monitoring my father’s activities, and he’s been attempting to hire several high-ranking scientists.”
“Do you think your father is involved in these disappearances?” Joe released his grasp.
“I dunno, it’s possible. When it comes to that artifact, he’s obsessed. Let me put it this way: if this is related to that thing, he wouldn’t lose any sleep over abducting a few people.” Braedon waved him forward. “I have an idea. I’ll tell you more on the way.”
Joe thought hard about that as they trudged along the road leading into the city. Braedon’s father, Victor Arvonen, had proven himself a real threat to Iza and the Verity in the past. He was prepared to fire on the ship and his own son in pursuit of the artifact. If the artifact gave the man more power within the Taran Empire, there’d be plenty of reason to report it to the TSS.
They passed from the pasture lands and onto the more spacious and populated transportation roads. Perhaps he’d have a chance to make a call in private.
After four kilometers in the heat, Jovani’s shirt was sticking to his back and he cursed the planet’s large sun. Braedon, his hair dripping with sweat, hired the first available transport. He didn’t even protest the price, which Jovani thought was exorbitant. The small shuttle craft sat four comfortably and blew cool air on their seats while the driver sped past residential buildings. The neighborhood transitioned into a commercial district, and the buildings grew taller and more ostentatious the closer they got to the city center.
“There were several well-known scientist types that I grew up with. They know my father and will have seen his requests in the Sensationals. If they can help us figure it out, I can ruin his plans,” Braedon explained.
Joe gave him a sidelong look. He’d been wanting to investigate on his own. Once again, his connection to Braedon turned out to be much better. After they had gathered proof against Arvonen, the TSS would have the justification they needed to move against him. “When did you first realize you were the son of a megalomaniac?”
Braedon squinted his eyes and laughed. “When he pulled me into his office and told me that power was the only thing that mattered. He said, ‘It’s our birthright, Son. It’s our duty as a family to acquire it at all costs.’”
Joe raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah, I was five years old and he’d missed my latest accomplishment. Later, I found it was almost an exact quote from a VR game I was into at the time.”
“Wow, you handled it well, considering.”
“If by ‘well’ you mean setting fire to my home. Then gambling away my inheritance, before disappearing in a stolen ship of my father’s, then yeah. I’ve adjusted pretty well to being raised by a selfish and power-hungry man.”
“Okay, maybe the fire was a little over the top, but otherwise,” Joe said with a smile that made Braedon laugh.
The city bustled around them as the shuttle zipped in and out of traffic. Joe spotted a grouping of six large buildings designed to look like they were twisting into the sky at nauseating heights.
Braedon pointed up at one of the tall, twisted buildings. “That’s where we’re going.”
The shuttle let them out near the building entrance, and they entered the airy lobby, passing through the building’s security checkpoint.
“The labs here are where the top scientists work on innovative new technologies,” Braedon explained. “I have a friend in the astrometric lab who might know what’s going on.” He ambled to the elevator and ran a hand through his hair.
“What’s her name?” Joe asked.
“What makes you think it’s a girl?”
“You’ve touched your hair no less than three times since you caught sight of your reflection coming into the building. Once just before you pressed the call button.”
Braedon laughed as he looked down at his shoes. “It’s not like that, she’s not interested in a gamer like me. Besides, I’ve got my eyes on someone else at the moment.”
“Yes, yourself,” Joe said punching him in the arm.
“When did you realize you were in love with Iz?”
Joe felt the punch in his chest whenever he thought about her. His TSS training kept his features neutral. “I’m not sure I’m in love with her yet, but my feelings for her aren’t shallow.”
Braedon nodded as if he understood. Considering his current situation with Cierra, it was possible.
They reached the eleventh floor of the building and Joe immediately noticed a change in the ambient energy intensity. A palpable shift in the air.
“Something’s wrong,” Joe said as he kept his back pressed to the wall, scanning the halls for activity.
“What? What’s going on?”
“They’re already here,” Joe said.
“Your father and his people, at the end of the hall. We need to move quickly.” Joe sprinted ahead.
He held up a hand for Braedon to wait as he drew his pulse handgun and peeked around the corner. He didn’t spot anyone, but he could sense them coming.
“Stay back. They’re coming,” Joe said.
A moment later, a man and woman dressed in white lab coats came running in their direction. Their pursuers, presumably the men Arvonen sent, appeared from around the corner, closing the distance fast. Both were a head taller than Joe and wore fitted navy suits with masks over their faces.
Against Joe’s instruction, Braedon peeked around to get a look at the corridor. “We have to help them!” he pleaded.
Without hesitation, Joe used his telekinetic ability to push the masked men away. They flew backward, as if caught in invisible wind, and then collapsed on top of each other in a heap on the floor.
Braedon reached out, grabbing the female scientist as she reached out to him, her blue eyes wide with panic.
“We need to get out of here fast,” Joe said. “Any ideas?”
“I’m resourceful, remember? Follow me.” Braedon held tight to the woman’s hand as he ran to the closest stairwell.
“Thank you,” the male scientist said as he followed.
Joe groaned. “Where are we going? Those guys are going to be right behind us.” Joe dashed down the stairs behind them. While he could easily disable the pursuers, he was already close to violating the TSS code of ethics by using his telekinetic abilities to slow them down. Considering the thin ice he was treading with the TSS, he didn’t want to push his luck.
Braedon continued forward, undeterred. “We’ll get to someplace they’ll stand out and we’ll blend in.”
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