Shadows of Mallachrom, Book 3: Starblue 2 covers

Shadows of Mallachrom, Book 3: Starblue by Michelle Levigne

Far on the edge of settled space, the colony world Mallachrom is mostly wilderness. Years ago, during an invasion by the alien Talroqi, many adults were killed while most of the children vanished, spirited away to safety by the sentient canines known as Shadows.

 

Those children came back from the wilderness changed, bound to the planet in ways they can’t, or won’t, explain. Called the Taken, they live on the edges of civilization. The new government on Mallachrom fears them enough to want to exterminate the Shadows and claim the Taken are dangerous–under the corrupt influence of Shadows.

Shadows of Mallachrom, Book 3: Starblue 2 coversStarblue Ash, daughter of Rhianni Day and Petroc Ash, is well aware of the burden of her heritage. She has sworn never to join the Rovers or leave Mallachrom. Blue learns the hard way that swearing never to do something just challenges the universe to work against her.

Her two closest friends are the twins, Neona and Keegan Creed, children of Nureen Keala and Tedrin Creed. The three have shared a psionic bond since childhood. The twins are Rover pilots. Commander General Day of the Rovers is determined to make Blue a Rover, because she is the last of their family line. If he has to use her friends against her, he will.

Fate intervenes when a team of Rovers discovers a world inhabited by creatures uncannily similar to the Shadows of Mallachrom. The Creed twins’ duty takes them to this world, to investigate. Neona is entranced by the creatures, called Shades. When the Shades make mental captives of Neona and other Rovers, the bond between the twins is stretched to the point of breaking. Blue’s bond with the twins might be the only hope they have of freeing the prisoners.

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GENRE: Science Fiction (strong romantic theme)     ISBN: 978-1-925574-92-0    ASIN: B098LX5KN4    Word Count: 102, 208

Chapter 1

 

Starblue Ash shivered, despite knowing she wasn’t cold. The air felt warm, on the verge of turning thick with humidity, just as she liked it. When she lucid dreamed, the dream world was hers to command. Despite the best attempts of her teachers, the strongest Taken minds on Mallachrom, no one could wrest control away from her when they entered her dreams.

Problem: she hadn’t chosen to come into this dream world at this particular moment.

Question: was this her dream world, or had someone pulled her into theirs, just like she could be pulled into the Merger when there was need?

Familiar laughter coming out of the green-tinted shadows drove away the chill settling into her marrow. Blue turned as the blur of colors and hinted shapes took on definition, like a long-range lens focusing on an object. Her favorite river clearing resolved into solidity around her, the light shimmering silvery-gold tinged with green just before dawn burst through the thick canopy of trees.

“We did it, we did it!” Neona Creed shouted, and burst through the foliage on the other side of the river, to leap over the water and land on the bank next to Blue. Squealing as if they were both a good ten Standard years younger, they flung their arms around each other and spun in circles.

Keegan, Neona’s twin brother, came through the same gap a few seconds later. His shipboard fatigues shifted to the ragged shorts he had worn on his last visit to Mallachrom, two seconds before he slid down into the water and waded across. His shirt vanished altogether, revealing a smooth-skinned, gently muscled chest covered in the olive-toned skin that was a heritage from both their parents.

Blue’s laughter caught in her throat and she fought against the complaint that had become too common lately–they were all growing up too fast. She was nearly nineteen Standards, and the twins had just celebrated their seventeenth birthday, and suddenly they weren’t children any longer.

“Don’t you dare tell anyone, not even our parents,” Neona ordered as she let go of Blue and they settled down on the long lozenge of rock that thrust out over the deepest spot in the river, right at the bend.

“Tell them what?” Blue asked, glancing at Keegan for explanation.

Despite being officers in the Fleet–fully trained pilots for the Rovers as soon as they were tall enough to reach the controls–Neona often acted as if she were ten. Keegan was the reliable, sensible one. He could always be depended on to explain what his sister forgot to say, or talk her out of the more ridiculous stunts and adventures she dreamed up for the three of them. When he thought something was possible and wouldn’t get them in too much trouble, he could always figure out how to accomplish the goal. Blue suspected he only became a pilot because Neona wanted to follow their mother’s footsteps and he had to keep her out of trouble.

“Duh!” Neona spread her arms wide, taking in the dream world clearing. “If anyone finds out, they’ll yank us out of piloting and make us enter the Psionics Corps for sure. No thanks!”

“We’re still a good five days of travel away,” Keegan explained, settling down on the rock so he put Blue between him and his twin. “We’re getting stronger with our twinbond. Strong enough to call through to you, get you to come meet us here.” He looked around, where some of the details of the clearing were still solidifying. “I bet most of this is from you, though.”

“Hmm. Maybe.” Blue refused to kill Neona’s proud glee. Keegan grinned and looked away, shrugging.

That the twins had been able to join minds, break through the barrier that kept them from fully accessing their twinbond, was a major feat. Maybe they just needed to mature more before they could break through whatever mental walls penned them in. Some of Blue’s teachers believed the twins needed to spend more time on Mallachrom, under the influence of the Shadows, to awaken their latent psionic talents. That wasn’t going to happen, though. They were Fleet babies, raised on board starships, with the stars in their blood. Between their father, Commodore Tedrin Creed, and their mother, Nureen Keala-Creed, one of the top Fleet pilots, the chances of Neona and Keegan spending more than two moons at a time on Mallachrom were so low as to be non-existent.

While Mallachrom was essentially under interdiction and no one was allowed down on the planet’s surface without special clearance, that didn’t apply to the Creed family. Nureen, who had grown up with Rhianni, Blue’s mother, had been welcomed on Mallachrom during her pregnancy. The twins had been born dirtside.

“Wait a minute.” Blue shook her head. “You’re five days away? As in coming for a visit? How long?”

“Ask your uncle,” Neona said, ending on a prolonged groan, and flopped backwards on the rock behind them. She giggled as thick, crimson, spicy-scented moss appeared and covered the surface half a second before she hit it.

“Great-uncle,” she muttered. She looked at Keegan, questioning, unwilling to speak the usual suspicions whenever Commander General Choran Day of the Rover Corps came up in conversation.

He nodded and shrugged again. That pleasant shiver brushed over her skin like always when it seemed Keegan could read her thoughts. Sometimes it seemed like they were the twins–they looked it when they were younger, with the same tanned skin, dark eyes, black curls, and lean, athletic figures–and Neona their younger sister.

“Better warn your mother,” Keegan said.

“Oh, don’t be a numbwit,” Neona whined. “He knows he can’t drag Aunt Rhianni back into the Corps. He’s after Blue, and he’s using us to trick her. So help me, sometimes I feel like quitting the Corps.”

“Never happen. You’d die without your machines.” He winked at Blue and got to his feet. “Sometimes, I swear she’s got lubricant for blood and spy-bots for eyeballs.” Stretching his arms over his head, he dove.

“Just because I’m better at tinkering than–” She let out a shriek when Keegan curled into a ball before he hit the water, splashing them.

“I do need to warn Mum.” Blue stood. “Sorry.”

“That’s why we came–not to play.” Keegan kicked a few times to propel himself to the opposite bank. “See you in five days.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

The thick wall of trees behind her flattened, seeming to turn into a thin paper screen that split apart, letting her slide through. Everything turned to blue haze around her, and for a moment she considered staying here in the Merger. Blue knew better. She needed to be awake, solidly based in the real world, when she warned her parents that the campaign to get her to accept Commander General Day’s vision of her heritage in the Rover Corps resumed.

 

***

 

Lt. Danil Ash studied the images sent by drone one last time. Nothing had changed in the last three Standard days since his team’s orders came from Rover Command. Still, gut instinct insisted something was odd about this planet, a discord in the depths of his spirit. He was second generation Taken, and he had been taught to listen to his instincts, even when he couldn’t put into words what he sensed. After all, that was why the Taken were so valuable to the Rovers. Their sensitivity, beyond what the most sophisticated sensors could provide, would help clear worlds for colonization and avoid dangers and pitfalls that had plagued earlier colonies and cost countless lives.

He sometimes sensed the whole galaxy watched him. Not only was he the leader of the first Taken Rover team, but he had been top of the first class of Taken to take Rover training. Even more important, he was the son of Petroc Ash and Rhianni Day-Ash, the leaders of the rebellion that had saved the galaxy from an insidious, generations-long plan of the Talroqi. That was a heavy history to live up to. Even his growing record of successes didn’t take the pressure off his shoulders.

Karyl, Security Chief for the team, leaned in through the open door of Danil’s cabin and studied him for a few moments. “You know, if you could just talk your sister into coming with us–”

“She’s not about to leave home for anything.” Danil snorted at the image of his little sister voluntarily climbing aboard a starship, let alone traveling through five jump gates past the rim of explored space. “Not even my nerves.”

“Come on, stroke her ego. She’s three times as sensitive as any of us. Talk her into joining us–civilian expert.” He grinned. “Tell her to get off the planet before all those hormone-driven idiots start pressuring her to pick one of them for lifemate.”

“They can’t pressure her if she doesn’t even realize they’re around.” Danil grinned back at his friend and finally gestured with a tip of his head for him to come in and sit down. “Blue isn’t pretending she doesn’t notice the difference between boys and girls–she really is oblivious.”

“Could be she’s already bonded with someone, but both of them are still too immature to realize it,” Karyl offered as he pulled out the desk chair along its tracks and settled in, hooking his left ankle around the chair leg to anchor himself in freefall.

“Could be.” He thought about the Creed twins. Nothing would make him happier–along with his parents and the Creeds–if Blue paired with Keegan, but as a full-fledged, fully trained pilot, he was bound to the stars. How could his sister take a lifemate if the young pilot only came to visit Mallachrom for a few moons every three or so years?

“We could really use her sensitivity.” He snorted and hunched over, resting his chin on his arms crossed on the back of the chair, which made talking hard. “Every time I see you, you’re going over that report. What’s wrong with D-PX-3?”

“Besides the fact that it needs a name?”

“That’s what we’re for. Get our boots muddy, breathe the air, look for indigenous life forms–”

“There aren’t any, according to the probes and drones.”

“That they found,” Karyl pointed out. “No matter how sophisticated our tech gets, they’re still going to give off vibrations and energy that some life forms can sense from far off. Who’s to say the animals on this world don’t go into hiding hours before the drones get there?”

“What? They’re all burrowing creatures, able to go so far underground they escape sensor range? All anybody has found are some aquatic life forms, three distinct species of what we can call trees, and lots of moss and grass. There’s not enough variety.” Danil thumped the side of his bunk with enough force to raise himself off the surface. He caught hold of the net he had been sitting on to pull himself back down. He wanted to toss his tablet across the room, as if a good solid thud against the wall would make it tell him what was wrong with the planet his team would shuttle down to in less than two hours. “I want to say it’s a terraforming experiment that went bad, but there’s too much variety.”

“How many terraformed worlds have unraveled?”

“That we know of?” Danil shrugged. “If this is another Gen-Tek experiment gone wrong, there should be some debris. Some signs of machinery. Hopefully remains of their laboratory ships, creating an asteroid belt around the planet.”

“Bloodthirsty, aren’t you?”

“Blame the Rover side of the family.” He snorted, waiting for Karyl to remind him he was Rhianni’s son by adoption, no blood connection.

Commander General Day had latched onto Danil when the Rovers landed on Mallachrom in the aftermath of the Talroqi destruction. He had taken advantage of the little boy’s fascination with the Rover Corps and filled his mind with tales of adventure, danger, and glory. Petroc and Rhianni hadn’t realized what her uncle intended for Danil until he had been indoctrinated, determined to be a Rover when he grew up.

Danil didn’t regret it, not even when he had been gone from Mallachrom so long that deprivation threatened. Usually he managed to get home before physical deterioration began. There was always the chance, for him and every other Taken who left Mallachrom, that they would need cold sleep to survive until they could return home.

“Could be part of it,” Karyl said instead. “That monotonous, rolling landscape. Lots of shallow rivers. The ocean is so shallow it barely counts as an ocean. Typical of the earliest terraforming experiments, when all they wanted was farmland. They didn’t realize they needed wider variety to influence the weather and rain drainage patterns.”

“Look who’s been doing extra study.”

“Not much else to do while we’re waiting to get out of this metal coffin of ours and breathe natural air and get our boots dirty.” He hunched his shoulders, then sat up straight, arching his back. “What I really need–part of your problem, too–is to find some place it’s safe to go barefoot, run in the rain, shed our uniforms, get dirty, and not worry about alien microbes.”

“You’re probably right.”

“Of course I’m right. That’s why I’m Security–to think of the things you miss. We’re all due for a long furlough back home.” He reached for the doorframe to pull himself out of the cabin. “Put away the pretty pictures–”

“Ugly pictures,” Danil retorted, ending on a snort. “Everything’s dull, putrid green and muddy brown. Even if I was going into deprivation, I wouldn’t go barefoot in that kind of a world.”

“Then let’s get this expedition over with and head home. I thought you were the smart one.” Karyl snapped off a salute and pulled himself out into the ship’s passageway.

Danil shook his head, grinning. The grin faded as he felt the change in vibrations as his ship, Sentry, slid into orbit. His friend was right. The sooner they explored this world, filled in the missing pieces that the probes and drones and exploration programs couldn’t provide, the sooner they could leave.

 

***

 

The same rolling landscape that seemed so monotonous became a problem when choosing a landing spot and setting up camp–finding flat, even ground to set up a base, with enough height to look out over the surroundings. The Sentry orbited the planet six times before sensors located a suitable landing spot. Enough room for two shuttles to land at any one time, and a shallow plateau, for want of a better word, where the first team could establish sensor/repulse fields for protection until they built walls and shelters. Danil decided the first order of business was to build a tower for security to survey the landscape.

Cloud cover wasn’t thick enough to promise rain, but the atmosphere held enough unidentifiable debris that light from the distant sun always had to penetrate a haze. Danil looked upward the moment he stepped out of the first shuttle to land and shivered, hating the contradictory messages between his brain and his body. The overcast told him rainy weather approached, but the air smelled dusty and felt dry. It made him think of a ship that had been in spacedock for years, the air stale, dead, nothing left in it to support even mold or basic bacteria.

“Usually we say the pictures don’t do a place justice,” Shelbi, the team medic said four hours later, as Danil approached the central tent that would shelter all of them this first night. She held out a plate of stew made entirely of supplies from Mallachrom.

“That smells good enough to make deprivation set in,” he said, thanking her with a nod and taking the plate.

“Don’t remind me.” She grinned and walked over to the trestle table with her own plate. “No, this place is even uglier than the drone images. Why does it all feel wrong? Not artificial, but…well, not sick, either. I don’t know. We joke sometimes about something triggering deprivation, but if any alien world could do it, this one could.”

Several others overheard her remarks as they came over to join them, so dinner conversation naturally focused on how long their team had until biology required them to return to Mallachrom. The second generation of Taken were able to leave the planet and stay away for as much as two years without the deterioration and death that had stricken the original Taken. They were always on the alert for the first signs of physical trouble, and Danil was grateful that all medics assigned to them were Taken themselves, because they were more prone to believe and understand the complaints the soldiers brought them.

“Have any of you noticed anything unusual, since we set up camp?” he asked, once the conversation turned to their surroundings.

“Other than it being the ugliest world we’ve seen yet?” Fyster said from the far end of the table, putting a whining, nasal tone in his voice that earned laughter from the others. “No. Why?”

“I’m just looking for things to show Blue next time we talk.”

“Scare her away from joining the Corps altogether,” Karyl said. “Not that she needs any help.”

“There are bets going constantly, how long it’ll take the Commander General to brainwash her into joining up,” Sammel offered.

“I hope none of you are betting against her. My little sister is ten times as stubborn as he is.” Danil grinned, thinking of Blue’s distrust of their great-uncle. The Rover Corps was only for those who wanted to be in space. Just because she was the last vestige of the Day bloodline, that didn’t mean she was obligated and fated to become a Rover.

“Why take up data storage space to show her all this?” Shelbi asked.

“Oh, I won’t. I’m going to contact her with Merger energy–as soon as I can calculate the time on Mallachrom. We both need to be asleep for it to work.”

“We’re too far away to reach the Merger back home.” Karyl shook his head. “Convenient if we could.”

“That’s a big secret, and if the Commander General ever learns about it, I’ll know who to hunt down and how many throats to slit,” Danil said, looking up and down the length of the table. “This doesn’t go beyond us, understand?”

“Then why are you telling us at all?”

“In case something goes wrong. Blue and I have been able to mentally link since before she was born. Something about the overload of power in the Merger, when the Shadows took over and burned out the Talroqi. Ma was only a few days pregnant with her, and I was the nearest child and…who knows? Every time I reach a new planet, further away from home, I try to contact her, see what the limit is to our link. I can’t reach anyone in the Merger back home, but I can always reach Blue.”

“What could go wrong?” Shelbi said. “You’re thinking that eventually, you’ll overreach and you won’t be able to wake up?”

“There’s a chance,” he said with a shrug.

“I get it.” Karyl grinned. “You figure if you’re making all the effort to talk, you might as well have something to show her?”

“And show our folks. Better than relying on vid clips.”

“Definitely keep this a secret,” Sammel said. “There’s a lot about being a Taken that we have to tell Command, to protect us. This is something they don’t need to know.”

 

***

 

Before Danil climbed into his sleeping bag, exhausted from the strain of being in gravity for the first time in nearly three moons, he had his calculations. This planet’s rotation was three hours shorter than that on Mallachrom. His sleeping cycle wouldn’t overlap with his sister’s this night, but tomorrow night he would be able to establish a link while she was asleep.

Before the barely noticeable lightening of the constant gloom, to signal the coming of day, Sammel came to nudge Danil awake. In socks but no boots, shrugging his shirt on, he followed the other man to the perimeter of the camp. Karyl stood looking toward the horizon and the disappointing sunrise.

“Felt movement out there before the sensors,” Karyl explained in a whisper barely louder than his breath.

“What kind of movement?” Danil licked his thumb and held it up, expecting to feel at least a little bit of air movement. If he remembered correctly, there were some patches of tall grasses–that could explain whatever they were picking up, if there was wind.

No wind at all, according to his senses and the equipment that scanned the surrounding landscape for more than two kilometers.

However, the sensors picked up warmth and movement, and as the minutes turned into an hour, the movement resolved into life form readings–mass and temperature, and then biological traces. Something that breathed, something carbon-based, with iron in its blood. Several somethings, big, more than a hundred kilos in weight each.

Karyl had two probes drop down from observation height to approach the oncoming life forms and give them visual readings from different angles. Danil made out vague shapes among the dark mass. He looked back and forth between the two screen images from the probes, trying to resolve what he saw, while the hairs on the back of his neck stuck straight out.

Shelbi swore. Danil looked at her as she backed away from the monitors. Most of the camp was awake by now, gathered under the security equipment canopy. The medic turned to look toward the oncoming life forms, a visible blot among the dull greens and browns. She shook her head and took another step backwards.

“Can’t be,” she finally said, and met his gaze. “The Shadows would tell us if there were more…out here. Away from home.”

Danil stared at the screens again, then turned to look at the dark mass, which was close enough now he could make out heads, tails, elegant hindquarters, and a soft, dull blue glow that seemed to come from their eyes. Many eyes. He wouldn’t be surprised if there were at least twenty of those…whatever they were…heading for his camp.

“It’s a trick,” Karyl said, keeping his voice low. “Where were those–those things–whatever they are–when there were probes landing and digging up samples and drones flying overhead for moons, doing analysis? How could they hide their life-signs from our best tech?”

“We’re too dependent on tech,” Sammel said with a sour chuckle. “We’re Taken, remember? Before we’re Rovers. Those things…if they’re what we think they are…well, they have the intelligence and ability to hide themselves and only come out when they want to talk, right?”

“Whatever they are,” Danil said, “those things can’t be Shadows.”

Please, All-Maker, don’t let them be Shadows.

 

***

 

Only two things could get Blue to climb aboard a shuttle to visit the orbital platform where Taken trained to become Rovers–Keegan and Neona Creed. She tried not to grumble as she boarded the shuttle, because any chance to meet with her childhood friends while they were on leave from Rover duty was a treat. Besides, sulking was for children.

“With all the people wanting permission to come dirtside and not getting it, how come the ones with permission don’t use it?”

She didn’t care that she had spoken aloud. Blue was the only occupant of the shuttle cockpit for the moment. Who would hear her? Yes, the Shadows could hear her very thoughts, but she didn’t mind. Sometimes it seemed all the Taken watched her, because she was the child conceived to protect her mother, Rhianni, the chosen weapon used to destroy the Talroqi. They expected big things from her, too.

However, there was a vast difference between being watched and being spied on. She knew the difference. The people who did it made the difference. That, and their motivations for intruding on her life since before she was born. The main culprit was on the orbital platform right now, and the most likely reason why Keegan and Neona weren’t coming dirtside.

“A little eager, aren’t you?” Rhianni said, interrupting Blue’s seething as she stepped into the open cockpit doorway.

To Blue’s delight, her mother swung up into the cockpit and pressed her hand against the security sensor panel. The shuttle whined, switching from hibernation to ready status.

“Aunt Nureen is here, too?” She almost blurted that Keegan and Neona hadn’t told her their mother was coming. Of course her mother knew the twins had warned her about their arrival, but they were sitting in a Rover shuttle, after all. She wouldn’t put it past the Commander General to have the craft programmed to record every word she said. What kind of a friend would she be to betray the new strength and distance in the twins’ sporadic mental link?

“If only.” Rhianni grimaced as she swept her gaze over the control panel. “Uncle Chor is here, trying to boost recruitment.” Her gaze flicked sideways at Blue as the hatch doors slid into place and snapped closed.

“He knows I’d come up for Kee and Nee when I don’t come up for him. He’s definitely trying to snag me solid this time, isn’t he?”

Blue considered being angry at this confirmation of her suspicions. Her parents fully supported her desire to stay on Mallachrom, even if the second generation of Taken were able to leave without getting sick. However, the head of the Rovers had no respect for either Blue’s wishes or her parents’. She swore he considered her a babe in a safety harness because she loathed going into space and especially freefall. What Rover hated freefall?

The image of giving the interfering, opinionated old man a good solid boot in his backside, detaching his safety cable, and sending him spinning out of control in freefall cheered her immensely. She wouldn’t cut him loose out in open space–he was family, after all–just inside the training cage where recruits learned to navigate in freefall.

No, she decided in that split second of changed humor, she would have fun, frustrating her great-uncle’s continuing attempts to make her a Rover. The Day clan had created the Rovers, and he insisted she had an inborn duty to become a Rover. He wouldn’t listen when Blue insisted just as vehemently that she wasn’t a Day, she was an Ash, and she was tied–gladly–to Mallachrom for the entirety of her life.

“Oh, he can try, but that’s no guarantee he’ll succeed.” Rhianni tugged on her safety harness and nodded to her daughter.

“He succeeded with you, Mum.” Blue kept busy with her harness, but she didn’t need to see her mother’s face to see the lines tighten around her eyes and mouth, and the sparks of blue fire in her eyes. She wasn’t quite sure if she was grateful her mother came uptop to run interference, or she resented the implication that she might not be up to holding her ground.

Yeah, and how can you hold your ground when you’re up in the air?

“He didn’t succeed with me.” Her mother punctuated her words with a slap on the control panel that made the lifter thrusters roar into life. “Your father and Mallachrom were calling me home. I came back here for them, even if I didn’t know it. Not Commander General Day.”

“Tell him that.” A snicker escaped her. That got an answering chuckle from her mother.

“You know the saying, as old as the Corps.” She reached across the gap between their seats and gripped her daughter’s wrist. “You can always tell a Day, but you can’t tell a Day anything.”

Not a Day, Blue repeated, multiple times, as the shuttle streaked up through the atmosphere. She held her breath as the light thinned and turned pearl gray, then melted into the starshot brilliant black of space.

“You can always get him back,” Rhianni said, as the shuttle did a roll, so the planet’s peach and green curve was over their heads and they spun outward in orbit to get to the training platform.

“I’d have to talk to him to get him back. Or get within arm’s reach. The Shadows have taught me how to fight pretty good, but Uncle Chor cheats. He’ll use a stunner on me if he has to.”

“Not like that.” She tipped her chin, gesturing at the platform now within view. “Keegan and Neona might be whiz kids when it comes to piloting, but they were born on Mallachrom, and they have the right to come dirtside and stay as long as they want. Forever, if they want.”

“Talk them into leaving the Corps and become dirtsiders?” Blue snickered, as all the tension tying her muscles into knots released with an almost audible springing sound. “Mum, you’re brilliant.”

Not that her friends would do such a thing. They were born to be pilots, like their mother. They might pretend to consider leaving the Corps, however, just to torment her great-uncle. The children of Commodore Tedrin Creed could play mental games with the Commander General with impunity, and get away with it.

“Not entirely my idea.”

“You and Da?” She tipped her head back, finally able to enjoy the approaching sight of the orbital platform, like a giant blue and silver jewel shining in the light of Mallachrom’s sun. Yes, she could imagine her father would come up with such a devious plan. Petroc Ash had organized the Taken and led them for years, surviving prejudice and unreasonable fear.

“My idea was to send you out with a team of explorers, see what’s beyond the Knife River, maybe explore the Razor Ridges. Let you get yourself lost for a few years.”

“Nobody gets lost on Mallachrom, Mum.”

“Lost in terms of Rover tech and trackers,” Rhianni corrected. “Roc and I talked so long about it…” She sighed, the sound turning into a bubble of laughter. “We decided it was so much fun, we’d just do it ourselves. So we had to think of something else to frustrate Uncle Chor and his nefarious plans for a while. Then your Da suggested you invite the twins to come dirtside for some extended leave, and that turned into threatening to convince them to leave the Corps–or at least the Corps among the stars–come down dirtside and be in charge of training. And that got us thinking… Well, we can leave that for later. When we get to the station, I’ll distract the old bouthra while you find the twins and learn if he’s been putting any pressure on them to pressure you. Then we’ll figure out what to do next.”

“Thinking about what, Mum?”

“Hmm?” Rhianni focused on the control panel. Her movements turned jerky, just enough for Blue to know she had touched on a tender subject.

She knew, as if a Shadow had slipped an image into her mind. Coming from the Rover pilot Kealas on their mother’s side, and with Tedrin Creed, the hero of the Battle of Maktai for their father, the twins had been in the Corps since they were born. They got their certification as pilots when they were still in primary schooling. They were JGs, lieutenants junior grade, at seventeen, when most recruits were just starting basic training. Blue didn’t doubt Commander General Day had been pressing the Creed twins about their duty to carry on their bloodline, just as he had been pressing her since she turned sixteen.

Definitely, she had to get to her friends and start plotting. Maybe she would propose they run away, after all. With the help of the Shadows, the three of them could vanish into unknown territory, beyond satellite reach. Even if they had subcutaneous tracking implants, the Corps would never find them.

 

***

 

“Creed.” Commander Day beckoned from the upper deck of the observation dome of the orbital platform.

For a tenth of a second, Keegan considered looking around for his sister and asking, with the innocent mask and tone they had perfected at age three, “Which one, Sir?”

They had only been two days on their journey to the orbital station at Mallachrom when he realized the head of the Rovers had focused on him. Deciphering the reason for the increased attention might just save his life, but Keegan’s gut instinct told him he wouldn’t be happy when he did untangle the puzzle. Neona told him it probably had to do with another attempt to get Blue to join the Rover Corps. His sister was usually right, but an odd look in her eyes when she said it told Keegan she suspected something she didn’t want to tell him. Neona only hid something from him when she knew it would make him uncomfortable or angry. Keegan was willing to leave the subject be. For now.

From the somber expression on the Commander General’s face, he was about to find out what this special task entailed. Muffling a sigh, Keegan bent his knees, giving an extra kick to detach his magnetic boots from the decking, and glided up to the next level. He caught the railing with his right hand and reached for the loop on the wall with his left, swung up and over, and settled into place with a soft click of the magnetic plates catching.

“Sir?”

“What compelled you to join the Corps, son?”

“Sir?” Keegan swallowed hard. Suddenly, the Commander General seemed to tower a good meter over him, which didn’t make sense because he was almost at eye-level with the man. “I wasn’t pressured, Sir. My parents made sure of that. They knew that with our heritage, we might feel like we had to join. Neona and I joined because we wanted to. Because there’s no place better for us in the universe. Sir.” His face warmed and he suspected he sounded like the green, too-eager dirtsider who was still working on his entrance speech for the Corps recruiters who had signed him up half a year ago.

“Exactly. Your Keala blood and your Creed blood. A double whammy, as we used to say when I was your age. My brother and I had uniforms when we were in diapers. Or so our mother said. It’s in the blood. No place you’ll be happier. The same for my family line.”

Keegan stayed still and silent, sternly holding his expression calm, while a dropping sensation shot through him–as if a gravity wave had suddenly struck the platform and yanked it out of orbit. So this was why he and Neona had been granted leave, after their transport had “conveniently” been assigned to the re-supply and training route that would take them to Mallachrom.

He should have asked harder to go dirtside, maybe filed for leave time with Blue, Uncle Petroc, and Aunt Rhianni. When Blue realized that he and Neona were ordered to convince her to join the Corps, she would never forgive him. At least if he went dirtside, Commander Day wouldn’t be there, watching over his shoulder.

“Sir, Blue knows you want her to join the Corps. If she wanted to, she would have done so by now,” he offered.

If worse turned to worst, and he got demoted or even discharged from the Corps for being a smart-mouth, telling the Commander General what he didn’t want to hear or acknowledge, Keegan figured he could transport down to Mallachrom and apply to join the exploration corps. He could always claim sanctuary. He had been born there. He might not like living without his twin–Neona would stay in the Corps because she lived to be a space jockey–but Keegan would endure.

At least Blue would be there. She might even feel like she owed him something. She might even look up to him for a change, instead of him having to look up to her.

The thought of being alone with Blue Ash without Neona around, making their usual threesome, sent a funny, unbalanced, kind of tingling feeling through him. Keegan’s gut told him he didn’t want to think about the reasons behind that reaction. Not yet, anyway. Not when he needed a clear head to verbally joust with Commander Day.

“Hmm, yes. But what if it isn’t up to Starblue? What if she’s suffering some undue influence to avoid her heritage?” the Commander General mused, his voice softening so it was a rumble that seemed to bounce off the clearsteel dome.

“What kind of influence, sir?” Keegan thought the only undue influence Blue might suffer would come from the Rover Corps’ leader, from space, and not from anyone or anything on Mallachrom.

That suddenly alert part of him whispered for him to say that, and see what happened. It wouldn’t be so bad being stranded on Mallachrom, would it? Blue would be there.

“You’re good friends with Starblue, aren’t you?”

“My sister is better friends with her, sir.”

“Hmm, yes. And if I had thought of it sooner, I would have depended on your mother’s close bond with my niece…but I think the time has passed for using that tool. You have a different kind of influence, Creed.” His mouth softened into a hint of a smile.

Keegan felt like an icy claw tickled up his back, chilling him, threatening to rip the skin off his flesh if he made one wrong move.

“I don’t think so, sir. I’m like a brother to Blue. We’re not–we’ve never–it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other. She’s probably already linked with someone else in that way. Taken bond with their mates even before they’re ready–Sir, using–” Keegan swallowed hard to keep from choking. It wasn’t a good reaction for a hotshot Rover pilot to squeak. He couldn’t let himself choke like a gawky, pimply adolescent. “Sir, using sexual attraction to influence Blue into joining the Corps, that doesn’t seem ethical. If you don’t mind my saying so.” He muffled a groan when he heard his own words and voice. He prayed he wasn’t as stiff and gawky as he felt and sounded to himself.

“Not just to get her to join the Corps, son.” That smile widened just a little more. The Commander General’s voice sounded almost amused.

That was a warning sign. Keegan’s father had warned him that the Day men had a nasty habit of sounding amused, lulling their victims into relaxing, before flaying them, mind, soul, and career, with mere words.

“Sir?” He loosened his grip on the loop, ready to run for it. To the Netherhells with dignity.

“I’m an old man, son. I’m allowed to think of things like combining bloodlines, providing for the next generation. A child with the heritage of the Days, Kealas and Creeds…that’s a child that could save the universe without breaking a sweat.”

“The universe is already saved, sir. The people of the alternate dimension my parents fell into aren’t about to come through and attack. And the Talroqi are gone. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“The Gen-Teks are down, but they aren’t out. There will always be something to threaten the universe. We just haven’t gotten our first clue about it yet. People like us, we have a duty to provide for the future.”

“I think Blue has some say in that. Sir.”

That was lame. Keegan wished he had the strong mental bond with his twin that Blue had with her big brother, Danil, and the Shadows. He would have called her to come rescue him before getting this far in the conversation. Their twinbond was usually strongest when they were down on Mallachrom, and he suspected the Shadows were part of the reason for that.

“She thinks she does. I have the advantage of the long view, and several lifetimes of experience.”

“If you’re ordering me to seduce Blue, sir–”

“Not seduce.” He chuckled, and the chill up Keegan’s back turned his guts into coils of ice. “I’ll personally send any man who seduces a woman of my bloodline out the nearest airlock. No, I want you to court her. Talk to her about the advantages of being in the Corps. With you. Get close to her, so neither of you can live without the other. That’s all.”

“Respectfully, sir…discharge me right now, because I won’t take the assignment. Blue is my friend, and I’d never do that to her.”

To his dismay, a full-fledged smile lit up the Commander General’s face. He nodded and clapped Keegan on the shoulder.

“Glad to hear that, son. You’ll do. You’ll do very well.” He nodded, dismissing Keegan, and turned back to looking across the icy vacuum to the stars beyond Mallachrom.

“You are in deep trouble, twin,” Neona told him, when he shared the conversation with her a short time later in the habitat section of the orbital platform. “What are you going to do?”

“Warn Blue.”

 

***

 

When the shuttle docked at the orbital platform, Blue opened the hatch into the cargo compartment and slid down the narrow aisle through the crates and bags of supplies. She didn’t think her absence from the cockpit would fool the Commander General for long, but it would be a long enough delay for her to get out of the dock and into the general areas of the orbital platform. While she crouched in the shadows, waiting for the crew to open the cargo hatch, she thought about the irony here. Keegan and Neona had been born on Mallachrom, and had lived on the orbital platform until they were three years old. Their mothers had been determined that the children would be best friends, so Blue had taken as many trips into orbit as her friends did dirtside. Other than spending time with the twins, she avoided the orbital platform whenever possible. Maybe it was something the Shadows had put into her subconscious, warning her not to go up there. Not that the platform was dangerous to her health and safety. If it were that, they would warn all the Taken never to go up topside.

Her ears blocked for a second as the air pressure shifted, then the cargo hatch banged and groaned and pivoted up. The trill of a boggy bird echoed through the crowded cargo compartment and she grinned at that signal of a friend’s presence. Her mother had thought of everything. Blue scooted forward, into the waiting hands of Shim, a friend from home. In a matter of moments, she slid magnetic clogs onto her soft leather boots to help her walk and not float in the quarter-gravity. Then she helped Shim carry a bulky but light crate, probably full of pod fiber for uniforms, out of the docking area and into the supply station. She was free and clear before Commander General Day appeared in the hatch of the shuttle bay.

Keegan and Neona would be waiting for her–but if they knew the Commander was waiting for her, would they be at the regular meeting place, or the secondary? Blue sighed and wished she had a link with her friends like she did with Danil, when he was home. She hurried down the corridor, plotting the path she would take to avoid all security optics.

“Blue,” Neona whispered, from the shadows of a maintenance corridor hatch, in the gravity-activated half of the station. Blue glanced in all directions, looking for a security optic that might catch her movements. She could dash across the corridor to the hatch, and risk being spotted. Or she could go to the next intersection and double back, staying out of the pickup range by hugging the walls.

“Scorch it,” she muttered, and dashed across the corridor. The lights even felt like a solid weight on her.

“Triple red alert. Nova strength,” Neona whispered, as she scurried down the maintenance tunnel with Blue on her heels.

Blue flashed back to one of the first times they had used the labyrinth of maintenance tunnels and hatches and grids to get around the platform outside the eyes, ears, and sensors of officers and parents. Neona was the tech whiz. Sometimes she seemed to understand machines better than people. She could track their crystalline synapses with her mind, like Blue could track thoughts of others in the Merger. Neona had figured things out long before Keegan or Blue would have thought of accessing the platform’s construction plans. Neona was half-machine–except Blue didn’t feel that revulsion for her that she felt for most people who preferred machines to humans.

“All clear,” Keegan said, when Neona slid into an intersection of six maintenance tunnels. Three folding stools, cloth seats and supra-light polymer legs, were already set up to one side. Keegan knelt over a supply tray that held sealed drink cups and grass-paper packets, and a small flatscreen that projected a holographic image of the platform.

“Let me guess. Uncle Choran went after you two, tried to order you to recruit me on this visit? Is that how you managed to wangle this leave time?” Blue dropped onto the stool nearest to the tray. A whiff of curing spices came to her in the thin swirls of air circulating through the intersection, and her stomach rumbled in response. She snatched up the first grass-paper packet she could reach, and found it full of shreds of grounder jerky.

“Pretty much spot-on,” Neona said.

“Pretty much?” She caught the momentary glare and tiny shake of the head Keegan sent his twin. “What else?”

Then she knew. Maybe there was a link between the three of them, like she had always wished, but she could only access it in extreme stress conditions. Or extreme danger.

This moment certainly counted.

“He’s on the posterity kick again, isn’t he?” she said with a groan. A shred of jerky caught in her throat. She snatched up one of the sealed cups and drank before she choked.

“Worse.” Neona reached past her for another packet and pulled out two fruitpaste sticks. “The food alone is reason enough to come here.”

“What’s worse?”

“Genetics. Breeding. Whatever you want to call it,” Keegan said. He held out his hand for the packet of jerky and Blue gave it to him.

“What do you mean, genetics?”

“He was talking about how he wants a Rover with Day, Keala and Creed blood.” He met her gaze, his expression stony.

Cold waves interspersed with scorching spilled over her as comprehension hit her with all the force of a battlecruiser crashing into a moon.

“Uh huh,” he said. “Guess you never want to see me again.”

“Kee–you’re like–like my brother. Why would I want to–” Blue felt like the gravity fields had died while she tried to do a complicated tumbling maneuver and sent her careening around wildly with no control. She hated freefall, the few times her father and brother had teased her into trying it. Her inner ear went haywire. She could feel all the elements inside her ear detaching and spinning around, which created a mental image that upset her normally solid, calm stomach. She had eaten raw meat on a survival training mission where she wasn’t allowed to bring food with her, and she hadn’t felt queasy. Not like freefall made her.

However, in those few seconds when her brain seized up, warmth in her belly collided with the queasies and seemed about to win. The same warmth she felt when she nearly tripped over some newly married friends who couldn’t seem to keep their hands and mouths off each other. Their senses–and common sense–got scrambled by the first scorching euphoria of mating, and they were rolling around in the thick, dew-heavy grass near the riverbank when she went down to the water to bathe one morning.

Her–and Keegan?

Part of her shrieked a loud, eager “yes!”

“Mum is going to go nova when I tell her.” She shoved away the image in her mind before it coalesced into something that might send her hormones haywire. That would change her scent so every Taken within a kilometer of her would know what she had been thinking about. There was a reason why the tradition had been started when Danil had hit puberty, to take adolescent children out camping in the wilderness and send them through a rigorous survival training trip with just their parents of the same gender.

“You’re both idiots,” Neona said, tiny snorts of muffled laughter escaping her.

“Nee.” Keegan filled his mouth with more jerky and slouched as far as he was able on the backless stool.

“It’s not your fault,” Blue said, and silently chanted, Not Taken. Can’t sense it. Not Taken. Can’t sense it.

Maybe later she would appreciate the irony that her largest complaint, that her best friends weren’t Taken, was now her out-clause and rescue.

“We need to work together to really frustrate the Commander. Big time,” Neona said. “I mean, it’s silly. We’re too close. You never thought about each other that way. It’s too late for you to think that way now.”

“According to my Da, you’re never too old to get your brains scrambled by hormones.”

Neona was wrong, though. Blue had felt some distinctively hormonal attractions and heated interest focused on Keegan when she was going through adolescence. Despite the fact he was almost two years younger than her, and he wasn’t anywhere near Mallachrom at the time, didn’t change any of that. His lack of reaction toward her when he hit puberty reinforced what well-meaning adults had told her–Keegan Creed, even though he had been born on Mallachrom, was not a Taken and would never enter the Merger. He wasn’t a suitable mate.

Blue had been searching, sporadically, through the Merger, and there didn’t seem to be anyone out there for her. Not someone chosen for her by the Shadows, and not someone seeking her in return. Whoever her perfect mate was, he wasn’t strong enough to seek for her, to find the matching resonance that her parents described. Or maybe he had found her before she sensed his presence, and he resisted the force that drew them together because he didn’t like her, or want her.

Just like Keegan didn’t want her. He was probably nauseated by the idea of the two of them matched together for Commander General Choran Day’s genetic engineering dreams.

What was wrong with her, that Keegan wasn’t interested, even in a purely physical, male, hormone-driven way? According to her friends, especially the ones who had graduated from basic Rover training, ordinary Human males were always ready to flame into full-fledged heat. Common sense and considerations like intellect and basic hygiene had no bearing on their choices.

Get your brain on another path before you get into trouble.

Meaning her body, especially her hormones, would follow where her imagination led.

Neona came through, like she always did, and changed the subject to their last assignment. She passed along some verbal messages from Danil, whom they had met up with before their piloting assignment took them to another sector.

Blue was grateful for Neona changing the subject. She tried not to think about the whole ugly problem presented by her great-uncle’s games. Still, it was hard not to let her imagination drift over to Keegan–kissing him, mating with him, forging that mind-and-soul bond–especially with him sitting there in front of her, a little more quiet than usual, but not looking or smelling upset. Maybe that bothered her the most. He wasn’t upset. He wasn’t amused. He wasn’t interested.

Maybe, for the first time in her life, she was angry with him?

Uncle Chor has ruined everything, she decided. Why did that domineering, stubborn old man have to interfere and jam up their smoothly functioning friendship?