Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reformation: Chapter Forty

Notes: Only a happy reunion to go, I think. Because of course I've got to draw this out! Enjoy some political machinations and people knowing things they shouldn't. And by people, I mean Garrett.

Title: Reformation: Chapter Forty

***

Chapter Forty



“There’s fighting in the Senate.”

“What a shame.”

“Open fighting. Just fists so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone pulls a weapon or sets their bodyguards on another senator before the morning is done.”

Garrett shrugged. “You can’t expect me to be bothered by any of this, Sigurd.”

Admiral Liang’s sharp, knowing gaze stayed fixed on him. “I wondered if you had any idea how far you wanted to see things fall, in the end. Political chaos is inevitable, now that Alexander’s demise is being broadcast on every holo station.”

“And evidence of his perfidity,” Garrett added. “You’re the one who helped me dig that up and make it public. Everything they’re reporting on about the dark fleet, the money laundering, the attacks on the Fringe—that’s all coming directly from your investigation. If you were really all that concerned about instability, you would have waited until someone else had consolidated power to release that information. I wouldn’t stop you either way.”

Sigurd inclined his head. “I know. And timing-wise, if we’re going to prevent another regime from springing up among the former president’s followers, it had to be now. But you can’t simply run away from the mess you helped make.”

“Watch me.”

“Settling back on the Fringe isn’t a long-term plan, Garrett, especially not now that the planets’ legal status is unclear. There will almost inevitably be power plays made out there that the fleet can’t respond to. There will be interplanetary war, every pirate or Drifter with enough people and ships making a play to increase their status, not to mention conflicts between the planetary governments themselves.”

“It’s a good thing that what’s left of the Fleet is out here already then, isn’t it?” Garrett drawled. Jonah snickered next to him, and he resisted the urge to smile. “And that they’ve got you as their commander in chief.”

“I don’t command the entire navy.”

“But you do have ultimate authority over the Academy and its cadets, who are doing the patrolling out here. The rest of the fleet might be powerful, but it’s scattered. You’ve got a nexus of power recovering at Pandora, and better yet, you’ve got the children of people in positions of power. Nobody’s going to move against you with this kind of leverage, and while Alexander’s dark fleet might have been a trial for Federation forces, no real pirates or municipal navies will be able to muster anything like that level of offense. You’re the king of the Fringe.”

“I don’t believe in monarchies.”

“Well, I hope you believe in a benevolent dictatorship, at least for a while, because that’s what I’m putting you in position for.” Admiral Liang’s gaze narrowed, and Garrett hastened to explain himself. “It’s got to be you. You already know that. There’s nobody else in the entire government who comes close to your level of trustworthiness, and your reputation is unassailable. And so are you. You have no family, no children.” And I know why. “Your work is your life. You want the best for your cadets. Well, that’s going to be whatever treaty or reconciliation you can hammer out of those hardheads in the Senate, and you need to act fast, while they’re panicked. Their fortunes are falling, their lives are chaos, and who knows if they even have any legal authority anymore? They’ll listen to you. They have to.”

“Perhaps for now. By next week I could be dodging assassins of my own.”

“You’re not that easy to kill.” It was the closest Garrett could come to being totally blunt, and he appreciated Sigurd’s simple nod of acknowledgement.

“And why should I let you fly off into the sunset and leave me to fix this mess without your help? You have a lot of influence here. You’re the architect of this dismay. You should have a hand in cleaning things up.”

“I can’t.” He couldn’t be any more honest. “I—I can’t. I almost lost everything already, I don’t even know if—” He couldn’t say it. “I’m not saying I’ll be gone forever,” Garrett said. “But I can’t stay right now. I have to be with my family, I have to make sure they’re okay and get them somewhere safe to recover.”

“Where do you have in mind?”

“Somewhere beyond the reach of the Federation, diplomatically speaking.”

Admiral Liang’s eyes widened slightly. “Perelan? Will they accept your presence?”

“They will if their ambassador has anything to say about it. They’ve already got Claudia and the girls. It won’t be permanent, but it’ll give us space to breathe and recover.”

“I suppose it will.” The admiral sighed. “Go, then. Take your well-earned rest, but I want you to maintain a channel with me. If you vanish off the face of the universe, I’ll assume the worst and come after you, even if it causes an interplanetary incident.”

“I understand.”

“Then good luck, Garrett. Tell Cody I’m disappointed he and Tiennan won’t be attending classes any longer, but that I understand.”

“Well, I’m not sure that Ten—”

I am.” He cut the connection, and Garrett sat back in his chair with a loud exhale.

“Well. That went better than it could have.”

“A lot better,” Jonah agreed. “Wouldn’t have surprised me if he kept a few ships in reserve just to send after you and escort you back to help him deal with this clusterfuck.”

“Sigurd Liang is an expert at dealing with clusterfucks, he doesn’t need my help.” Garrett’s eyes unfocused a little bit as he thought about it. “I managed to track him. Did I tell you that? Found evidence of him throughout the centuries, new names and new jobs after his wipes, but a lot of it’s the same. He’s always a stand-up guy, and he’s always competent at whatever he puts his mind to. He’s dealt with rebellion, revolution—hell, he’s led a few of them himself. He might not remember the details, but so many years of experience will come through for him. He’s going to be all right, and whatever he hammers the Federation into after this, it’s damn sure going to be better than the mess we had before.”

“Is there anything you can’t plan for?”

“Too much.” Garrett checks his comm again—it doesn’t matter that he would have heard it going off and dropped Liang’s call in a hot second if it meant getting through to Pandora—but there was nothing. He was in his private ship, and the comm system didn’t come with the bells and whistles that would get him more immediate contact with Pandora. From his official quarters, he would have been patched straight through to Jezria. Without them, he was one of what was probably a very long queue, especially since it looked like the Fleet really was using the planet as a place to refit, and taking up most of their bandwidth at the same time.

Garrett sighed. Soon. He’d be there soon, and then all this waiting would be over and he’d know whether or not it was worthwhile for him to keep…going. He was so tired. Fuck, he was so tired of everything, and he still didn’t know what he needed to. His husband, his son, his father—were they even alive? Odds were good that at least someone had survived, but Garrett wasn’t sure that someone would be enough for him at this point. It had to be everyone. He needed everyone, or else he might as well fly his ship into the nearest star with no one but his hallucination for company.

“No, darlin’.”

“No what?”

“No, you’re not gonna do that.”

Fuck, I forgot he’s not real. He can actually read my mind. Garrett chuckled. Because he’s all in my mind. Only in my mind. “How would you stop me?”

“I’d find a way. For now, though? You need some sleep. When you wake up, you’ll be that much closer to Pandora.”

That was a good thing. So why was he dreading it so much? “Okay.”

“Good.” Invisible hands helped Garrett over to his bunk, the autopilot keeping everything on the ship running smoothly. “It’ll be all right. Promise.”

“You can’t promise.”

“How ‘bout you let me worry about what I can and can’t do?” Gentle lips pressed a kiss to his brow. “Sleep, sweetheart. Sleep.”


Garrett did.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reformation: Chapter Thirty-Nine

Notes: Aw, some father-son bonding time. Only Jonah might not be thrilled to hear exactly how Cody and Ten got to Pandora. Maybe, just possibly, not thrilled.

Almost done!

Title: Reformation: Chapter Thirty-Nine

***

Chapter Thirty-Nine



Jonah had never thought that being rescued would feel anticlimactic, but that was before he got a handle on exactly what his only child had been doing for the past few weeks.

They were rescued before the night had finished, and his conversation with Cody had been put off out of necessity—the kids had been tired, they’d needed to sleep, and Cody had been beside himself about Lacey while Ten had grilled Lt. Reyes about their friends. But now they were back in The Box, sitting in the hospital waiting room to get an update on Lacey’s condition as soon as her surgery was done, and it was all Jonah could do to keep his voice from bouncing off the rafters of the damn place once his kid started speaking.

“You what now?”

“Snuck on board the Drifter ship,” Cody repeated, looking a little nervous. “Only we didn’t really sneak, Jack helped us out.”

“Of fucking course he did.” And Jonah was gonna have some words with Jack, that was for damn sure, and the man better be damn happy they were separated by a million miles of space when they did because otherwise Jonah would punch him in the fucking face. “And then you…what, disabled it?”

“Disabled its hygiene systems, really. That’s all,” Ten said, like that made it so much better.

“You disabled a ship with thousands of residents—”

“Only two thousand and fourteen,” Ten offered.

“Like I said, thousands of residents, in hostile space, while a battle was going on, so you could fly down to a storm-covered, besieged planet on a modified—” Jonah had to force himself to say the next part “—hovercycle. A fuckin’ hovercycle.”

“But the design was sound.”

“Obviously, or the two of you wouldn’t be here, and Ten?” Jonah took a deep breath and looked at his son’s significant other. “I need you to either be quiet right now, or go take a walk. What happens next is between me and Cody, and he needs to speak for himself.”

Ten frowned. “You should be nice to him. We came here to rescue you, after all.”

Jonah made himself nod. “I get that. I know both of your hearts were in the right place. But that doesn’t mean that what you did was okay, and again—this part of the discussion doesn’t concern you, so actually?” He stood up and held his hand out to Cody. “We’ll take the walk. You stay and keep an ear out about Lacey.”

“It’s fine,” Cody said softly, and only then did Ten finally relax. On any other day, it would have made Jonah smile to see them looking out for each other like that. Today was not any other day, though.

Jonah spread his fingers, and after a moment, Cody reached out and took his hand. He led the way down to the hospital greenhouse, its plants wan after days without light or water, and manually locked the automatic door behind them.

“I know I shouldn’t have come, but I was worried about you and Garrett wanted to ship me off someplace safe instead of letting me help look for you, and I knew I’d never get a place with the other cadets in the fleet,” Cody started before Jonah could get a word in edgewise. “And Jack was there, and he was willing to help and so was Ten, and so I did it. And we made it safe, and you’re all right and I’m all right, so everything is fine!” He sounded a little desperate. “Isn’t it?”

Jonah sighed. “Let’s unpack that a little. You were upset because Garrett wouldn’t let you come to Pandora. Did he tell you why?”

Codys jaw tightened. “He said it was political.”

“Right. Because like it or not, we married into a family of politicians, people tryin’ to make the ‘verse and the Federation a better place for people on the Fringe. So he told you that, and you got upset. What did you do next?”

“I found Jack and—”

“No, bucko. What did you do next with your father?” Jonah was pushing a little hard, he knew it, but a push was what his kid needed right now. Cody was young and clever and he’d gotten so incredibly, amazingly lucky, but he was also a natural and a political target. He could be the breaking of their family, if Jonah let him get away without thinking about consequences.

“I told him…I wanted to come and find you. Be part of the fleet, and he said no. Even though Darrel and Grennson—”

“Who are MIA for now,” Jonah interrupted. “As is your grandfather, Miles. But yeah, keep going. Even though your friends got to come.”

“And he said…I was too important.” Cody’s voice had gone quiet.

“Uh-huh. And you said?”

“I said that…that you should be his first priority, and that you’d want to know we cared enough to look for him.”

Oh, Cody, really? “And he said?”

“That you’d want me to be safe, and that he was sending a shuttle for me.”

“And?” Because Jonah knew his husband, he knew how his coms usually went.

There were definitely tears in Cody’s eyes now. “And he said that he loved me.”

“And what did you say?”

“Goodbye.” Cody bit his bottom lip. “I didn’t tell him I loved him back. I should—I should have done that.”

“Yeah, bucko.” Jonah felt like his heart was splitting in half just listening to it secondhand. How much had it affected Garrett? And then sending a ship, and learning that his son had run away… 

“Probably.”

“But I wanted to be with you! I had to make sure you were safe!”

“And you know I always want you around, and I’m so happy to see you it hurts. But what hurts worse is knowin’ that your daddy—the one who helped me raise you, not the one who abandoned us when you were a baby and didn’t give a shit about either of us for years—knowin’ that he looked for you, and he couldn’t find you. And he was lookin’ for me, and he couldn’t find me. And then Miles was sent away, and so were the boys, and there was nothin’ he could do but keep working, all alone, and hope that all of us were still alive.” Jonah shook his head. “You think that felt good to him?”

Cody had a hand pressed to his eyes now. “No.”

“You think that maybe he’s the one who felt abandoned? You had Ten, you’ll probably always have Ten. I had Lacey, even when she wasn’t wakin’ up, and I had other people to handle after a while. Miles had Darrel and Grennson, but Claudia and the girls weren’t with Garrett. Wyl and Robbie weren’t with Garrett. Nobody was with him. Nobody’s with him now.

“And we still can’t raise the interstellar coms,” because it took a while to get the generators back up to full capacity, and coms for people who weren’t in charge were low on the list of priorities, “so he doesn’t know we’re okay. He doesn’t know we’re safe. He’s got a whole lotta nothin’ but hope and fear right now, and I hate that he’s got to deal with it alone.”

Cody’s shoulders were shaking with the force of his quiet sobs, and Jonah unfolded his arms with a sigh. “C’mere, bucko.” He held his son and kissed the top of his head and tried to make sense of everything he was feeling, the good and the bad. There was joy there, pure joy at having his boy with him and safe, at Lacey being fixed up, at the battle being won. But there was worry too, and sorrow, and anger, anger at circumstance and fate and even at his son, for leaving Garrett swinging like that. Jonah knew his husband, he knew him well, and if Garrett was getting through this completely fine then Jonah would eat his damn boots. “I love you. I know you thought you were doin’ the right thing, and who knows? Maybe that’s what it’ll turn out to be. But I wish you’d trusted your dad a little more.”

“He’s going—to be—so angry at me—”

“Nah, probably not.”

Cody shrugged helplessly. “Maybe he should be an-angry with—with me!”

“Maybe, but he won’t be. He’ll be happy you’re okay. And that I’m okay. And that’s all he’ll say about it, which is why I’m the one talkin’ to you right now, son.” Jonah pulled back just far enough to tip Cody’s chin up. “Because you’re part of a family, and it goes beyond you and me. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good.” Jonah squeezed his kid tight again, then let him draw back. “How about we open the door before Ten decides to hack it, and you can tell me some more about your time on the ship. Did you remember much of it?”

“Not really.” He shrugged. “But Grandma was still a raging bitch.”


“Well, time can’t change everything.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

Happy Day!

It's my birthday, so I want to tell you all real quick: thanks for being awesome! You keep me writing and give me something to look forward to, and I hope for another happy year of interacting with you. And next year will be a weird one, what with the kiddo coming, so...yeah. Thanks for being there, one of the best gifts I could have is knowing you all :)

It's also Pride weekend in Denver, and Father's Day weekend here in the states, so...omg. Lots of celebrating going on!


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reformation: Chapter Thirty-Eight

Notes: We're so close to the end! This one is a little bittersweet, but that's what happens when you wage intergalactic war. Next time, we'll bring some people together instead of tearing them apart.

Title: Reformation: Chapter Thirty-Eight

***

Chapter Thirty-Eight



It was satisfying for Garrett, in a rather dark and shadenfreudian kind of way, to see every single one of his official lines of communication absolutely clogged with people wanting to talk to him. Senators, lower-level politicians, interplanetary business leaders—Garrett went down the list of pending contacts and took great pleasure in ignoring all of them. He didn’t have to care, not right now. He’d done just about all the caring he was capable of. With the news coming in that the siege of Pandora had broken, that the pirate fleet was completely destroyed, and that—tellingly—President Alexander was on his way off of Olympus for a distant sightseeing tour, well…it all added up to a whole lot of pandemonium. And that was what Olympus deserved, after the advantages they’d entrenched for themselves for so long.

“Oh, stocks are plummeting,” Garrett commented, full of faux-sympathy as he watched the indicators. “Incidents of direct and indirect rebellion on Fringe planets are worrying Central System lawmakers. Confidence in the office of the president is at a fifty-year low. Shocking. So shocking.”

“You ain’t fooling anyone, darlin.”

“I’m not trying to,” Garrett said, not glancing at his hallucination. “This is what you reap when you sow so many seeds of distrust in governance. It’s time for the Central System to realize just how much they’ve been taking advantage of the Fringe planets, and how hard that’s going to be once the veil of administrative secrecy is pulled back. They had a long-term plan for either getting rid of them or putting them into positions of abject servitude, and they’ve failed. Ha ha ha.”

“Maybe you’d better take your meds now, honey.”

“No.” No, he couldn’t do that yet. Jezria had communicated to him, just once, letting him know that she had no news about Jonah yet. His father was missing as well. If Garrett lost the little comfort he got from his friendly, imaginary sweetheart and had nothing to fall back on, he’d lose it. He knew it; end of ability, end of mind, end of heart. It was bad enough he still had no clue where their son was. He wouldn’t be able to take it. He just wouldn’t. “Not yet. Not until we know something certain.”

“This isn’t good for you, Garrett. You know that. It’s been too long.”

“It won’t be much longer.” He spared Jonah a smile. “I promise. Things are happening fast now. Look.” He enlarged a hologram and projected it into the air. “That’s Raymond’s personal ship. He’s about to take off. Run, run, as fast as you can,” he whispered. “Fly away. You’ll be hounded out of the entire civilized galaxy once more of your towers start to topple.” He watched as the ship lifted out of its landing bay, engines flaring as it fought to escape the thick, cloudy atmosphere of Olympus. It was a powerful ship, and moved smoothly upward.

“What’s that?” Jonah pointed at the far side of the screen.

“It’s a…huh.” Garrett looked closer. “Space debris? Some sort of unauthorized spacecraft?”

“But look at its trajectory.”

“Oh.” Garrett’s eyes widened. “Oh, hell. What?”

“It’s on an impact course with the president’s ship.”

“He’ll evade.” Garrett watched the screen raptly as the ship shifted trajectories, then felt his jaw drop when he saw the unidentified object do the same. “Oh. Oh.”

“It’s following him.”

“It’s…more like modulating its fall into him.” Garrett ran scenarios in his mind even as he watched the ship continue to waver in its course, trying to find a way out from under the shadow of its ever-nearing impact. “What the hell is that?” Whatever it was, it had some complex and very complete shielding. If Garrett couldn’t get a read on it, then he wasn’t sure the capitol’s sensors could either. “What am I overlooking?”

“Someone who wants to kill President Alexander, I suppose.”

Jonah’s comment hit Garrett like a fist between the eyes. He frantically opened a private channel and sent out a call. Nothing…nothing…finally he got recognition, voice only. “Berengaria, what the hell are you doing?”

“I’m finishing this,” she said. She sounded perfectly calm—if anything, she sounded satisfied. “Raymond has to go away, permanently. Isolating him and tearing him down from his seat of power isn’t enough; he’ll only rebuild, especially with no clear heir or opponent. And you’re not planning on sticking around, are you?”

“No, but—”

“Then this is for the best.” She laughed a little. “He kept me like a fly in a web, like a sylph in a glass cage. But I made this cage my own, and now I’m going to show him what it feels like to have all choice in your future taken away.”

“What about your other brother?” Garrett pressed. “What about Kyle? He’s out there somewhere, and when he comes back he’s going to need family around him, someone to support and care for him.”

“The best thing Kyle could do for himself, and our family, is never return.” Her voice rang with sincerity. “I never believed in curses, but if any bloodline carries one, it’s ours. He needs to create himself anew, not rely on stale dogma and poisonous family connections. And if he does come back, I refuse to be a burden to him. I failed him—”

“You tried to save him.”

“But I failed him instead. You saved him, Garrett, you and your family, your friends. And I love you for that, but I can’t be of any use to him now, or to you. I refuse to be made into someone else’s pawn, no matter how much love they feel while doing it.”

Garrett clenched and unclenched his hands, desperate for something to do or say that could convince her otherwise. “You can still save yourself. Make a new life for yourself, take on a new identity. You can escape this!”

“I don’t want to.” She chuckled a bit. “I want to be with my brother. I haven’t seen him in person in nearly two decades, did you know? But I’ll see him now. And he’ll certainly see me.” A rising alarm sounded in the background of her feed. “Excuse me, I need to take his call.”

“Berengaria, please—”

“Be well, Garrett.” She ended the transmission. Garrett watched, helpless, as the ships moved inexorably toward each other, Raymond’s doing its best to evade but, ultimately, unable to escape. Less than a minute later, there was an explosion.

Less than a minute after that, the pressure on Garrett’s lines of communication tripled.

“We have to get out of here,” Garrett said quietly. His hands were twitching, but he could still make them work. He waved away the holoscreen. “Before they don’t let us leave.” He’d been counting on a vacuum of power in which to make his escape more felt, but not one quite this sudden or severe.

“Where will you go?” Jonah asked.

“Pandora.”

“You won’t be able to stay there, if you really want to be done with this. The Senate will call you back, you know they will.”

“I know.” Fortunately he had a backup plan. It was temporary too, but it would safeguard him and his family for a time…whatever was left of his family. “Come on. Let’s go while we still can.”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Reformation: Chapter Thirty-Seven

Notes: Shorter chapters as we careen towards THE END of this one! It's been a long haul, but the universe is changing and our darlings must change with it. A few more weeks and then...we'll see!

Title: Reformation: Chapter Thirty-Seven

***

Chapter Thirty-Seven



Jezria had settled into her chair to watch the battle play out between Federation and pirate forces with as close to a sense of equanimity as she was capable of. There was nothing she could do to help in any way—apart from keeping the Box’s shields up, which would at least ensure the pirates focused on the fleet and not civilians. Dr. Sims had worked miracles to keep the shield powered for as long as she had, up to and including sacrificing everything powering the city with the exception of the hospital. Over fifty percent of the population had withdrawn to shelters, and those would be self-sustaining for a time, but the people who had stayed were the ones that needed the most help. And there was nothing to be done for them but wait, and hope, and pray that the Federation fleet carried the day.

The fight was tense. More than once, someone else in the control room began to swear, their breath fluttering and their feet skittering nervously against the floor. Jezria dismissed them immediately. She didn’t have time to coddle anyone, least of all anyone on her staff. In the end, it was just her and Steven who stayed to see it out to the bitter finale.

And what a strange finale it was.

The fight had been back and forth, sledgehammer against scalpel, cat versus mouse for so long. Jezria watched as ships flickered out of existence, as pods careened to the surface of the planet, most but not all of them landing safely—not nearly all of them. She watched as the progressively-ferocious remainders of both fleets moved against each other, cold and clear-headed tactics going by the wayside as their captains became more desperate. And then—

There had been at least ten pirate ships less, she was sure of it. Her monitoring system’s designations weren’t as crisp through the shield, but they had done a decent job of tracking who was who. When half of the ships left in the sky suddenly vanished, no lingering flickers of power indicating a drain on their resources, just bam and gone in one brief burst of light, Jezria was initially suspicious.

“What just happened there?”

Steven was already looking into it. “I’m not sure. Our system is working fine, there’s no technical error. It appears as though they’ve been destroyed.”

“By what? What would take that many ships out in such short order? If the Federation had weapons capabilities like that, they should have deployed them before they lost half their fleet!”

Steven spread his hands. “I can’t say, ma’am. They’re just—they’re gone.”

Jeslyn pursed her lips and thought about it for a moment. She thought, and thought, and then all of a sudden she chuckled. “Oh, I never thought that bastard’s paranoia would play so nicely in our favor!”

“Ma’am?”

“What we have just witnessed, Steven, is the sealing of a potential hole in someone’s overarching plan. Of course he did it this way, of course he did. He would never send out a group that could potentially be turned against his interests.” Jezria’s mouth twisted slightly. “I hope the person in charge of those pirates had time to appreciate his master’s betrayal before his ship exploded out from under him.”

“Sabotage?”

“Sabotage.” Jezria nodded decisively. “How delightful.” The communications light was glowing, signaling a call from one of the ships above. Jezria had ignored all attempts at contact between her command and the pirate vessels, but perhaps this was someone with a new song to sing. She answered it. “Jezria Dowd here.”

“Madam, this is Captain Obede of the Federation flagship Endurance. We request permission for our remaining ships to land in your port so we can begin repairs and send out search parties for our surviving crewmembers.”

“The Endurance is a Skyblazer, from what I understand. That’s not a typical flagship,” she noted.

“The Endurance is the biggest ship up here now, madam, and I’ve been in command for the past five hours.” And he sounded it, the poor man, exhaustion underpinning his voice. “We’re holding together, but we need some ground time. Can you accommodate us by lowering your shield?”

Jezria felt Steven tense, and she patted the back of his hand. “Prove to me that you’re on my side and I will.”

“That fight wasn’t proof enough?” Jezria let her silence speak for her. “Listen, I understand that you have reason to be suspicious. None of this has gone off the way it should have. Forces should have arrived to support you sooner, we should have come in greater numbers, and we should have done a better job of identifying ourselves when we first arrived, but we appeared in the middle of a war zone, madam. Our flagship was the Triumph, and her captain was General Miles Caractacus. After he went down—”

“Wait, Miles is here?”

“We think he escaped in a pod after his ship was destroyed, madam. All the more reason for us to get down as soon as possible and mobilize search parties. We’ve got a lot of people to pick up and the weather doesn’t look like it’s getting any better down there.”

Well, that was different then. “Transmit the frequency for your escape pods’ emergency beacons and I’ll begin sending out rescue shuttles immediately while you coordinate your landing, Captain.” After a deep breath, Jezria entered the code that would turn off the shields. “Welcome to Pandora.”

“Thank you, madam. I’ll be seeing you shortly. Obede out.” The connection broke, and Jezria turned to look at Steven, whose eyes were wide and curious.

“What does it mean, that Miles was leading the fleet?”

“It means that Garrett was out-maneuvered back on Olympus. He would never have approved his retired father leading an expedition like this.”

“Well, then what does it mean that the pirate ships were destroyed by someone on the inside?”

Jezria let herself smile now. “It means,” she said with a calm she didn’t really feel, “that Garrett got his revenge in some way. I can only hope that whatever our foe has planned next, he’s doing it a long way away from Garrett Helms.”

“Do you really think he’d abandon his position on Olympus, where he’s consolidated all of his power?” It was a bit foolish, discussing Raymond Alexander in such oblique terms when both of them knew exactly who was behind the attack on Pandora at this point, but Jezria knew that it paid to be safe.

“I think he probably doesn’t have a choice, at this point. Otherwise he would have rendezvoused with his protection. No, I imagine some very interesting things are happening back on Olympus. See what you can find out.” She pressed up from her chair with a low groan—lord, how long had she been sitting? “I’ve got to get ready to meet Captain Obede. Let Dr. Reynaud know we’re going to need emergency procedures at the hospital, and get everyone with a hint of medical training there to assist.”


“Understood, ma’am.”

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Reformation: Chapter Thirty-Six

Notes: Who needs a break from all the violence? Me me me! Have a happy chapter of Reformation. Don't worry, it'll get vicious again soon.

Title: Reformation: Chapter Thirty-Six

***

Chapter Thirty-Six



Cody didn’t shut his eyes during their descent.

He probably should have. As good as the shielding was around the bike, it wasn’t tinted, and his eyes didn’t naturally protect themselves against brightness like a normal’s did. He was going to be seeing spots when the fire finally burned itself out, but for now he couldn’t bear to look away. It was all he could do to keep breathing, calm and steady, for Ten’s sake when he really wanted to scream with sheer joy.

This, this was what he wanted in life. Not to be coddled or gentled or taken care of, although sometimes those things were nice too. But Cody wasn’t built for that, and he didn’t know where the urge came from—both his biological fathers were pretty conservative about risks—but he wanted to push himself right to the edge and then stand there, toes hanging over it, take a deep breath, and then think about falling right off.

And now he was falling, plummeting through the sky like a meteor, so shrouded in flames it seemed like it must have consumed him, it must have, because how could anyone live through something like this? Something so beautiful, and so impossible?

Superior engineering, you idiot, he heard Ten say in his mind, and Cody let himself blink for just a second, patted the back of Ten’s trembling arms around his chest and reminded himself that he was still alive, this wasn’t a dream, and he’d better be prepared to handle their landing because it was clear that Ten wasn’t in any condition to.

He watched the numbers fly by on the altimeter, and as the flames finally began to give way to dark night skies, Cody punched the activation for the antigrav drive. It sputtered, electronics probably confused from extreme cold and extreme heat, and didn’t light up. Cody punched it again. Glanced at the altimeter. Did it again. Primed it with oil direct from the engine, dangerous to do but they were under five thousand meters now, and punched it again.

This time the power caught and held. The bike slowed and came to a trembling stop a thousand meters above the roiling sea, its batteries hovering at around five percent. Not good. The shields had drained them more than Ten had anticipated they would. Cody squinted—yep, still seeing stars—and pulled up a map of the surrounding terrain with his implant. Their calculations should have brought them down near the coastline, less than twenty miles away from Pandora City…

There was the coastline, and the great fuzzy blur of energy his implant was showing him in the distance had to be the city, protected from incursion by its own shields. Originally, the plan had been to drive the hovercycle straight to the edge of the city and enter on foot, but even as he watched, the battery went from five percent to four. It wouldn’t recharge until it spent some time in the sun, and there wasn’t going to be any of that on this side of the planet for at least another nine hours.

“We’ve got to set down early.”

hmsmnggle.

Cody patted Ten’s arms reassuringly. “It’ll be okay, we’re fine, we’re just low on charge. We’ll make it to the Box tomorrow once we get a little sunlight.” Ten’s solar battery design was ten percent more efficient than the kind that was commonly commercially available, and Cody had seen it in action before. “A few more minutes and we’ll be on the ground.”

mnfsjppser.

“Yeah, baby.” Cody aimed them for the coast and increased their speed. Thankfully the sky was pretty clear tonight—hopefully that would last through the morning and a recharge, and they could sleep outside with some of the survival gear he’d packed, although it wouldn’t be comfortable…

But wait, no. Weren’t there bunkers set up along the edge of the cliffs? Cody was almost positive that he’d heard Garrett mention them before, failsafes dating back to the expansion period that had never been decommissioned, just kind of forgotten about. One of those would be perfect. He set his implant to scan for habitable enclosures, and two-point-five seconds later, it outlined a squat, round shelter in his head. Less than a mile away. Excellent.

Getting there was easy. Getting Ten to let go of him long enough to actually dismount from the bike was significantly harder, and involved a lot of petting and promises before Ten could even lift hir head. Cody twisted around in his seat and kissed Ten softly on the mouth. “Okay now?”

“Oh…okay, yes, of course I’m okay.” Ah, that was more like the Ten that Cody knew and loved. “I’d be more okay if my ass wasn’t half asleep and we were inside that bunker instead of out here in the wind and the cold like—” Hir voice broke off for a moment as ze stared quizzically at the bunker. “But this one is already inhabited.”

“What do you mean?”

Ten rolled hir eyes. “I mean the door is cracked open, there’s a dim glow coming from inside, and this close I can actually hear voices murmuring. Did you stare at the fire for too long?”

“No,” Cody protested, not about to confess that maybe he was still seeing a few flashes of light here and there. There was a bit of a glow around the right side of the bunker’s door, but he’d dismissed it as an afterimage. And he didn’t have Ten’s hearing modifications either. “Do you think it’s someone from a Federation ship?”

“Maybe. The only other option is that it’s someone from a pirate ship.”

Oh, and wouldn’t that just be perfect? To get all this way only to fall victim to a pirate once they were on the fucking planet.

They didn’t get the chance to debate it any further. A second later, a cylindrical object emerged from the crack in the door and steadied itself in their direction. Cylindrical…it was weird, but Cody was almost sure that was a—

“Gun!” Ten hissed. “Whoever’s in there is pointing a gun at us! Get the shields back up, now!”

“We don’t have enough power to raise them again!”

“Well, we better have enough power to fly away, because—”

“Identify yourselves!”

That—wait. Cody shook his head. That voice… but no. It couldn’t be.

“Identify yourselves now or face the consequences!”

It had to be. It was impossible, but it had to be. Cody had heard “face the consequences” in almost that exact tone more times than he could remember. He cleared his throat, but his voice was still scratchy as he managed to say, “Dad?”

The gun wavered. “Names, now.”

“Dad, it’s me.”

After a whispered, furious conversation inside the bunker, the door opened far enough for Cody to get a good look at who was behind it. All he could see was the man’s silhouette thanks to the flashes in his vision, but that was all he needed to see. He’d know that person anywhere. “Dad!

“Cody? What the hell—” As astonished as Jonah sounded, though, his arms were open and ready for Cody when he practically fell into them a moment later. “Oh my god.” His dad’s hand carded through his hair, pulling him in as close as Cody could get. “Oh my god, kid, what are you doing here? I thought you weren’t with the rest of the fleet.”

“’S a long story.” Cody felt almost drunk with relief. But… “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you inside the city?”

His dad laughed weakly and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “That’s a long story too, son. That Ten with you?”

“Yeah.”

“Of course it is.” He didn’t sound mad, though. Mostly pleased. “You two need to come inside and get warm. The tales will have to wait.”


Under the circumstances, Cody definitely agreed.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

An excerpt, because this day.

Hi darlins,

For various reasons, I wasn't able to get the next part of Reformation done today. I know, cliffhangers and winding things up, I'm sorry! I'll be extra generous with words next week. For today, though--I'll give you an excerpt from a novel I've got coming out with Dreamspinner later this year. I posted the first chapter a while back, but it's been months, so I'll post it again and continue it. So, nice long story post for you, just not the story you were looking for. *sad sigh*

And audiobook winners, I'm tackling you next. No, I haven't forgotten, I've just been slammed.

***

Chapter One
Ward
You couldn’t sneak up on a werewolf.
It wasn’t possible. Everyone agreed on that, from a million pop culture references to the people who actually ran ops with the real ones. Werewolves had hyperdeveloped senses, and they were incredibly protective of their territory and their pack. You could trap a werewolf, you could trick a werewolf, you might even be able to bargain with a werewolf―I was banking on that―but you couldn’t sneak up on one. They could tell where you’d stepped almost before your foot hit the ground.
So why was I standing outside a chain-link fence in the snowy twilight, slowly freezing to death while waiting for someone to notice I was there? I’d been counting on being found quickly; I really hadn’t packed for the snow. My bad―Davis had told me I needed more than a sweater and a jacket better suited to a California winter than a Colorado one, but I’d been too frantic to listen to him.
If I died clinging to a fence in the middle of nowhere, Davis might bring me back to life just so he could kill me again for being such an idiot.
“Avoid the guardian,” he’d said, thin lips terse as he’d handed me the map. An actual physical map, not GPS—nothing I could program into my phone. “You can’t take the obvious road without getting stopped, so you’ll have to hike in to another part of their preserve. And burn that map when you’re done with it. I’m fuckin’ serious, Ward. If that’s found by the wrong people, it could cause a domestic terrorism incident.”
“I’ll destroy it,” I’d promised hastily, glancing at it before I stuffed it in my pocket. At that point, my daughter Ava had been gone for three months. At least she hadn’t been missing, not anymore. Davis had located the pack she’d been sent to. I’d just had to find it, get the nearest werewolf to ask questions before shooting or biting or whatever appealed most at the time, and persuade them to let me stay.
Well, at least I’d managed the first part of it.
“Don’t you people have cameras?” My lips were so cold I could barely articulate the words, but the act of speaking seemed to break through the layer of ice that had chilled my anger ever since I’d started hiking.
I’d gone seven miles through the snow after abandoning my car, the pale winter sun doing little to warm me as I trudged along, hoping against hope for a sign that I was going in the right direction. Finding the fence had felt like a godsend at the time, but I’d been here for over an hour now, waiting for anything and getting nothing at all. My breath rasped in my thin chest, and I’d had to stop and use my inhaler twice. Much more than that and I’d be courting real trouble, so I kept my breaths shallow and my scarf pulled across my mouth.
“Seriously,” I went on. “What wolf pack doesn’t have cameras covering every part of their territory? How can you not have seen me yet? If you’re not as goddamn paranoid as I was led to believe, I’m going to be so pissed.” Also probably deceased, but that was my problem, not theirs.
Actually, no, I was going to make it their problem too.
“I will climb this fence,” I announced to the growing darkness in front of me. “I’ll climb this fucking fence, and I’ll get all snarled in the barbed wire at the top, and then you’ll wish you’d found me while I was still alive, you assholes, because you’ll be untangling me for fucking hours!” I don’t think I’d sworn this much since my brother’s funeral.
Okay, I was angry, but I was also being serious. Someone should have seen me on camera by now. Davis had been very clear about that. Maybe the one I was closest to wasn’t transmitting—I needed to move, then. I needed to pick a path and go, because if I didn’t start walking now, I might not be able to before long. Right or left? Which direction had the road that passed the guardian been on, again? I’d already burned the map, shit, shit….
I went right. If I hit the road, at least the guardian would probably keep me alive if they  found me. I wouldn’t be able to help my daughter if I was dead. My feet felt dangerously numb, and my nose might’ve been blue by now. The wind made my eyes water, and tear tracks froze on my cheeks. I clung to the fence, using it half for guidance, half for support. “I’m gonna find you, baby.” I would. “I’ll find you.” I had to. I wasn’t going to sit back and let the government take her from me just because she’d turned out to be a werewolf.
The mutation had been around since the early forties, when a super-soldier experiment resulted in men that, instead of having all the heightened senses of wolves, actually turned into wolves. They escaped the confines of Pine Camp in northern New York, crazy with fear and adrenaline, and went on a biting spree. Most of the bitten died after turning into wolves.
A few of them managed to turn back into people, though.
The government took responsibility for their mistake and divided the surviving werewolves into packs. Hollywood loved them, scientists wanted to study them, and bigots wanted to kill them, but for the most part, real werewolves stayed firmly out of the spotlight. The only exception to that rule was when someone turned unexpectedly. Someone like my Ava.
The bite didn’t manifest in lycanthropy for everyone bitten. Some people, a tiny percentage of those exposed to the mutation, were simply immune to the shift. They could carry it, though, and they could pass it on. For Ava, the gene must have come from her mother. Carriers were almost always incredibly healthy, and I was far from a model of vitality. It was just as well I wasn’t usually attracted to people who could get pregnant.
Every now and then, maybe half a dozen times a year, a child would shift. Usually it didn’t happen until puberty, or some other time of extreme stress. For my daughter, it was her first day of preschool.
“Daddy, nooo.”
I could still hear her voice from that morning in my head. I’d been running late, stressed by the start of a new semester and the challenge of trying to get my daughter dressed, fed, and into her car seat before eight in the morning. She’d been clingy, more than usual.
“I want to stay with you!”
“But you’re a big girl now, sweetheart. Big girls go to school. You’ll have so much fun and make so many new friends.”
I’d gotten the call about her change at lunch, right after dismissing forty freshmen from my Physics 101 class at the community college where I’d taught. I hadn’t recognized the number at first―I’d almost let it ring through to my voicemail. “Hello?”
“Mr. Johannsen?” The woman’s words had been almost too warbly to make out. She’d cleared her throat. “It’s Maria Kostakis. Ava’s teacher.”
“Oh, boy.” I’d sighed and sunk down into my chair. “Is she okay? She’s not sick, is she? She was pretty unhappy this morning, but she wasn’t running a temperature back at the house.”
“She’s….” I’d never had a professional trail off like that with me. It made my heart beat harder in my chest.
“She’s what?” I’d snapped. “What?
“She’s turning.” Those words seemed hard to get out, but once she’d managed them, Ms. Kostakis had continued faster and faster. “She told me at snack time that her hands hurt, and when I looked at them I saw—there were claws coming out the end of her fingers, and her palms were changing color. I got her to the nurse’s office before things got much worse, but our school doesn’t have the sort of containment facilities needed to handle a shift, so—”
“Containment facilities?”
“It’s standard procedure, Mr. Johannsen. If a child shifts in a public environment, they have to be contained immediately so they can’t infect others. The nurse called the police, and when the SWAT team arrived—”
“A SWAT team? She’s four years old!” I knew the basics of dealing with an unexpected shift—I worked in public education—but SWAT seemed excessive.
“A four-year old werewolf. The danger she put our entire school in, I just….”
“She’s a kid, not a bomb!”
“She might as well be a bomb!” Ms. Kostakis had shrieked at me.
It had taken longer than I’d wanted to get the rest of the chain of events out of her. SWAT had come, ushered my baby girl into a cage, and taken her to the nearest government facility equipped to deal with werewolves. By the time I’d gotten there, Ava had already been transported again. And this time—
“We can’t tell you where she’s gone, Mr. Johannsen.”
“The hell you can’t.” I’d never been so angry in all my life. Never: not when I’d been laid up in the hospital for weeks at a time, not when Rick and Davis had enlisted, not when Ava’s mother left us. “She’s my daughter. I’m her parent, her legal guardian. You can’t just take my child from me.”
The state official behind the bulletproof glass had weathered my outrage without batting an eye. “Actually, under the Safety in Isolation Act of 1946, we can. Your child is a member of a protected but dangerous species, and the best place for her is in a pack where she’ll get proper care and oversight. Werewolves need to be in packs in order to be mentally and emotionally stable.”
“How will ripping her away from everything she’s always known make her emotionally stable?” I’d demanded. “Ava is an only child―she just started school this morning! I’m all she knows, and she needs me. We need to be together.”
“Werewolves adapt differently to change than humans, and Ava is very young. She’ll do better in her new situation than you’re giving her credit for. Regardless, Mr. Johannsen, you’re not going to be allowed to see her.” Cool eyes had regarded me dispassionately. “It’s best if you accept the government’s transition payment and forget you ever had a child.”
“I refuse.” I’d stood, furious enough that I barely had any energy left for standing. My breaths had been so shallow I was light-headed, but I’d be damned if I showed any weakness in front of a soulless bureaucrat. “You can expect to hear from my lawyer.”
“If that’s how you want things to go. You won’t get anywhere with it, though.”
“Fuck you.”
I’d left full of righteous indignation, enough to drown out my fear. Eventually the tables had turned, though, and fear replaced confidence as I learned that the official was right. No lawyer would take my case. The law was ironclad: werewolves weren’t classified as human. They were a dangerous subspecies, and they were the property of the government. Any attempt to locate my daughter would result in my imprisonment, which I’d have risked if I could have gotten anywhere, with anyone.
In the end, the only person who would help me was Davis, and I still didn’t know everything he’d had to do to get the information he did. I’d asked, but he wasn’t sharing his sources. I didn’t care as long as he was right. His information had led me here, to Middle Of Nowhere, Colorado, where he said I’d find Ava.
God, I was so cold. And when had my feet stopped moving? I glared down at them through my frozen lashes, willing them to get going again, but they refused. How far had I come from where I’d first found the fence? Was there another camera? My arm felt as heavy as an anvil, and it was so hard to keep holding onto the fence when all I wanted to do was rest. Just for a moment. Just….
“Hey.”
Pressure so light I barely felt it against my hand made me turn. There was someone on the other side of the fence—an actual person. Hallucinations might be able to talk, but I wouldn’t feel them, right? She was mostly concealed by a hooded fur-lined parka, but I could see the top half of her face. Her eyes looked worried.
“Please,” I croaked. The cold had ripped my voice to shreds. “Let me see her. I need to see my baby.”
“Who are you talking about? How did you get here?”
“Ava. My kid. She―I know I’m not supposed to be here, they told me to just forget about her, but she’s all I have. Please. I’ll do anything to see her.” Anything at all.
Her mittened hand gripped mine harder. “What’s your name?”
“Ward Johannsen.”
“How did you find us?”
“Please.” I was so cold, and my hand was so heavy. It fell from the fence, even though she was trying to hold onto it. My knees collapsed, and I heard the woman cry out. “P-please.” I leaned my head against the unforgiving metal links, the only things that were keeping me from pitching into the snow. She knelt down on the other side of the fence and stared at me.
“Mr. Johannsen. Mr. Johannsen! Ward!” I blinked at her.
“Shit.” She glanced away for a moment. “Henry’s going to kill me.” She looked back at me. “Fuck it. I’ll be to you in two minutes, Ward. Do you understand? Don’t lie down.” She shook the fence for emphasis. “Do not lie down! Say you understand me.”
“I….”
“If you lie down, you’re not going to get to see Ava. You hear me? Ava needs you to stay awake!”
My baby needed me. “I’ll stay awake.”
“Good.” She pushed to her feet. “Two minutes, Ward. I’ll be right back.” I heard the crunch of her footsteps vanishing into the dark, and I pressed my forehead hard to the fence.
Two minutes. I could do that.
As long as I didn’t die first.


Chapter Two
Henry
By the time I arrived at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, I’d been in the sky for over twelve hours. Twelve hours was long enough for the stench of my rescue unit’s fear to gradually give way to shivering, sweaty relief. Lo and behold, I hadn’t killed anyone. Not anyone they’d seen, at least.
None of these kids had experience working with a werewolf, and their ignorance showed in the furtive glances and whispered conversations that they clearly didn’t realize I could hear. Probably none of them had ever wanted to work with an operative like me―they weren’t curious or bold enough to ask me any questions. That didn’t stop me from asking them some, back at the beginning of their escort mission.
“What happened to the rest of my squad?”
“They were recalled before they could make their rendezvous with you, sir.” At least the lieutenant managed to look me in the eye while parroting things to me.
“Any casualties taken?”
“None that I’m aware of.”
“I need a line to my commanding officer to verify.”
“He informed me you should check your personal messages, sir.”
Personal messages. Classified data was being left in my goddamn inbox now. That alone told me how pissed off Colonel Hill was at me. I’d made use of the secure phone in the cockpit of the C-17, a completely excessive aircraft given it was transporting just five men, and checked in.
“You returned without the package, beyond the acceptable time table, and almost gave your presence away behind enemy lines. Consider yourself grounded until you get a better handle on your capabilities, Major Dormer.” Click.
Well, fuck. Not that I hadn’t been expecting that, but it was going to make life more complicated for me and my pack. More complications were the last things I needed right now, but at least my original team was all right.
My nervous nannies finally delivered me back home, and that was all that mattered. I needed food, rest, and the presence of my pack to ground me. I needed time, just a little more time. Things would be fine.
They had to be.
Getting out of that plane was a relief. I breezed through my verification and debrief―the on-site special ops director was well-used to dealing with me―and got a ride to the gate, where my sister Samantha was waiting for me in her familiar red 4Runner.
No, scratch that. Her husband Liam was the one who got out of the car as I approached. Tension I barely even recognized I’d been releasing sprang back into my frame, tightening my shoulders. Liam seemed to notice, if the worried furrow of his brow was anything to go by.
“Henry.” His voice was low and clear, just the barest hint of a Quebecois accent evident in his pronunciation of my name. “Welcome back.”
“It’s good to be back.” He extended a hand and I took it, then drew him into an embrace, pressing my nose against the crook of his neck. Humans might see two grown men hugging the life out of each other in a parking lot and wonder, but for me, this greeting was as traditional as a handshake. Liam was pack―new pack, barely pack―but he carried my sister’s scent on every inch of his skin, and the scent of my wolves beneath that.
Liam scented me in return, and I could tell he didn’t like what he smelled. I hadn’t had a chance to clean up, and I still felt bathed in blood, dust, and death. It was no different than a dozen other missions, the price I paid as La Garita pack’s alpha, but Liam had grown up sheltered. I sensed his distaste and pulled back before I caused him any more discomfort. It was enough to have the smell of home in my head again. Soon the ache in my heart would ease.
I threw my duffle bag into the back seat in silence. Liam offered me the keys, but I waved them away. “I’m tired. I might want to nap a little on the way home.” It was a four-hour drive from Colorado Springs, plenty of time to be awkward with my new brother-in-law. God, I hope I slept.
“Of course.” He got into the driver’s seat, started up the car, and turned on the heat. The radio was set to NPR. Naturally. No heavy metal or hard rock for Liam. I was lucky we weren’t listening to fusion jazz or French pop.
“Samantha wanted to come.”
Oh good, so we were going to talk about it. “And she didn’t because?”
“The littlest pup, the new one. Ava? She isn’t doing so well.”
Fuck. “What’s Tennyson’s diagnosis?”
Liam sighed. “Failure to thrive. He can’t find anything medically wrong with her. Her shift isn’t noticeably out of alignment, no impingement on the heart or lungs, but she’s completely listless.”
“Failure to thrive.” I shook my head. “He’s got to hate that.”
“He does, very loudly,” Liam agreed. Tennyson was another of the newer arrivals, a transplant from a disbanded pack on the East Coast. He was one of the few werewolves with medical training for both the human and the animal parts of us, and after what had happened to his last pack, he was edgy as hell. I should have been there for him. I should have been there to ease the way for both of them.
The timing of my latest mission couldn’t have been worse. Three new arrivals in under a month: one who’d just lost his pack, one who was marrying into mine, and a child stuck in her pup form who had howled endlessly, so despondent that she’d refused to eat for almost a week. I was the alpha of La Garita pack. It was my job to welcome new members, to help them integrate and feel like they were becoming part of a new whole. That was what pack was: a sense of wholeness, the anchor for a soul living in an unstable body. It was family, or that was what it aspired to be.
Tennyson had been settling in, his walls still high but his reluctance to socialize ebbing. Liam and Sam had come back from their honeymoon even more ridiculously in love than when they’d left for it, which made it a little easier for me to deal with the fact that I had to share my sister now. Even Ava had finally stopped crying, willing to take food directly from my hand. She was a strong-willed pup, completely adorable, and I had three different couples vying to welcome her into their homes once she shifted back to human. Then I’d gotten the call.
Almost a month later, here I was: returning home without the success that would sate my handlers, wiry and strung out from too much running and not enough sleep and with my own sense of pack so strained it was almost like I didn’t have one at all.
Sam would ask me about that. I knew she suspected, but she’d been too happy to really dwell on it before. I’d have to work at my lie this time if she was going to buy it.
“I’ll go and see her when we get back.” Maybe spending the night with Ava in my other form would comfort her some.
“Samantha has been with her every day since you left. She’s doing everything she can.”
Was that censure in his voice? “I know that,” I said with deliberate slowness. “I’m not accusing my sister of anything.”
“There was much to deal with, while you were gone. Some that was difficult for a human.” Making Sam the acting head of the pack while I was gone was nothing new, but Liam didn’t understand the way we ran things yet. Sam might be human, the only human there, but no one dominated her. If she’d been born a werewolf, I was pretty sure she would have ended up the alpha, not me.
Given the work I did for the military, I was glad I’d taken on the responsibility instead.
“Sam knows how to handle things when I’m away.”
“She would be in trouble if a fight broke out.”
I could feel my jaw begin to creak. That was almost always where my shift began, and the last thing I needed right now was to alpha out on my new brother-in-law. “Did a fight break out?”
“No, but—”
“Wouldn’t you have been there to assist her if a fight had broken out among my wolves?”
“Of course I would.” His voice was soft now, deferent. He knew he’d overstepped—I could smell the faint sourness of his apology—but my easy mood was gone.
“You’ve never really been part of a pack like ours before, Liam.”
My pack was—”
“Your last pack was a bunch of lone wolves loosely associated because your government didn’t know what else to do with you.” The vast majority of werewolves were American, but the gene had spread to a few other nationalities. There were enough carriers in Canada to form something of a pack in the Laurentian Mountains, but they hadn’t been raised together, hadn’t spent their whole lives together.
“La Garita pack is different. My mother was the alpha before me, and her father was the alpha before her. He was one of the original soldiers infected with the mutation. Our pack is firmly established, and most of our members have been a part of it their whole lives. They know us. They wouldn’t endanger Sam, but if you think she doesn’t have fail-safes in place for her own protection, then you don’t know her very well.” I let my irises bleed from blue to gold. “Don’t disappoint my sister by underestimating her.” Or else, my alpha glare added.
If Liam could have shrunk any deeper into his seat, he’d have been under it. “I won’t.”
“Glad to hear it.” It took more effort than usual to get my eyes to change back. Too much time spent shifted lately. I needed to get home, see my sister, settle in with the new pup, and rest. God, I needed to rest. I felt so tired now that I was back on somewhat friendly ground that I could barely hold myself upright. I leaned my head against the cool glass of the window and shut my eyes. I wouldn’t be able to sleep with just Liam in the car, not after our little altercation, but at least I could spare myself the trouble of making any further conversation with him.
Apparently I was more tired than I’d thought, because the next thing I knew I went from dreaming I was hunched and quivering on all four feet over a body to suddenly waking up with a gasp, snapping my half-inch fangs in the direction of the disturbance. Liam had already pulled his hand back from my shoulder, apprehension clear in his face.
My jaw was distorted, painful in the aching, grinding way that always came with a partial shift. I forced my teeth back to human and got my bearings. “Ah.” It was dark now, but the 4Runner rumbled to the beat of washboards in the dirt road, and above the trees I could just make out the edge of familiar, moonlight-limned mountains. We were almost to the guardian’s home.
“I thought you’d want a moment to collect yourself before speaking with him.”
“Thank you.”
“Henry….” I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to say it, but Liam collected himself and pressed on. “Are you all right?”
I wanted to snap at him. Fuck that, I wanted to actually nip him, draw a little blood and put him in his place, but Sam would chew my head off if I did. And he was family. I needed to make an effort, even if it was harder now than I could ever remember it being. “It was a rough mission.” Understatement of the year. “I just need a little time to reacclimatize. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” I could hear the doubt in his voice but didn’t have the time to pursue things—we were already pulling to a stop by the guardian’s home. John Parnell was waiting for us by the road, scowling as usual. His house was well-lit, and I could see the silhouette of his daughter moving around the living room, probably cleaning up plates after another TV dinner. Things had been different for the family since his wife Clara left last year, and not in a good way. John had been our guardian for over two decades, but that didn’t mean he liked us.
He did his job, though. “Fuck, it’s colder than a witch’s third tit out here,” he grunted as I rolled down the window. He passed me a sheaf of handwritten papers. We could have transmitted all this information digitally, but the government was understandably wary about werewolf networks getting hacked. Information isolation was a necessary part of keeping the pack safe. “Upcoming delivery dates, incident reports, and the maintenance log. Camera nine is malfunctioning.”
“Another one?” I frowned as I glanced through the papers. “Last month it was Camera six.”
“They’re not really built to withstand the weather, and your infrastructure’s getting old. You should ask for a system overhaul.”
I snorted. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.” I wouldn’t get any favors from my handlers until I gave them a successful mission. I’d already pushed things, lobbying for and getting the new blood.
“Oh really?” John raised a bushy gray eyebrow. “Interesting times abroad?”
“You could say that.”
“Huh. Well, not to heap more damage on you, but you should know that there’ve been sightings of a large white ‘dog’ outside of Monte Vista. Nobody’s caught it doing anything wrong yet, but the weather’s just going to get worse over the next month. If it’s looking for food….”
Fuck. “I understand.” I couldn’t bring myself to think about “stray dogs” right now. Wilson had kept his head for the past fifteen years; he could handle himself for another winter. He’d be all right.
“I hope you do.” He slapped the side of the truck. “It’s out of your hands for now, at least. Don’t let it fuck you up too much. Welcome back, Alpha Dormer.”
“Thanks, John. Say hi to the kids for me.”
“I will.” He wouldn’t. He walked back to his house, and I rolled the window back up. We were almost there. The sense of disruption I’d been feeing ever since I left was finally ebbing away. My home was waiting for me. My pack. My family. It would be all right.
When we got to the fence, Liam opened a program on his phone and typed in a code. The gate slid open for us, automatically closing once it got to its apex. The compound was a little less than a mile ahead. I could already see the lights through the trees.
The first cabin at the end of the road was ours, in front of and slightly apart from the rest of our little town. It was larger than most of the other houses, a throwback to when our family had been more numerous. Dark logs and a tile roof gave it almost a Bavarian appearance, and the porch light glowed brightly. I was out of the truck almost before Liam stopped it, heading toward the front door at a jog. I was home, I was finally—
Wait.
I inhaled deeply, scenting the air just in front of the door. There was a smell here that I didn’t recognize. A person here that I didn’t recognize. Trespasser.
I almost ripped the door off its hinges getting inside. Liam was right behind me, and I followed the smell of the intruder into the living room, feeling the shift pull at my face again, readying my fingertips to burst into claws that would—
“Henry, stop!” Only here was Sam, right in front of me, smelling just fine. A little stressed, but healthy. Her long blonde hair was pulled into a disheveled bun on top of her head, and she was wearing one of my college sweatshirts. She smelled like us. She smelled like home. “It’s okay,” she said, and I wanted to melt onto the floor, collapse with my relief. “I’m fine. Everything is fine.” She smiled at me, broad and happy, and held out her arms. “God, I’m so glad you’re back.”
I hugged her, and it was almost perfect. Almost perfect. The scent of the intruder still lurked in the air, stronger than ever now, and even though I wanted nothing more than to relax at last, I couldn’t. I looked over her shoulder at the couch.
A man sat curled into a ball on the far right cushion, bundled up in what looked like every blanket in the whole house. His hands, clutching a tepid mug of hot chocolate, looked painfully red, and I heard an unhealthy-sounding rasp in his chest with every breath. His thin face peeked out from beneath lank, straw-colored hair, but his expression was blatantly defiant.
He was also completely, utterly human. Not a werewolf―he didn’t even smell like a carrier. He had no place here, in my home.
“Who the hell is that?”