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Elemental Conflict

Copyright 2017 J C Steel. All rights reserved.

Published by J C Steel at Smashwords.

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Cover design by Joshua Jadon.

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Table of Contents



Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVIII

Chapter XIX

Chapter XX

Chapter XXI

Chapter XXII

Chapter XXIII

Chapter XXIV

Chapter XXV

Chapter XXVI

Chapter XXVII


About the Author

Other books by J C Steel

Connect with J C Steel



I’ve been heard to joke that a lot of my best edits were caused by losing files to ancient file storage methods and having to re-write. To some extent that is also true of Elemental Conflict; back when I first started writing this series, the fourth book was something quite different. Its manuscript now occupies pride of place in my elephants’ graveyard pile of manuscripts. That pile is a great reassurance to me. I flick through it and realise that yes, I have learnt a few things since I was fifteen, and that while some things are best left buried, there are some stories that someone, somewhere out there, just may enjoy after all.

Much of my day-to-day entertainment while I write, both now and then, is owed to my cats, who steal my pens, prey on my rough paper, stroll across my keyboard, and, yes, pounce on parts of my anatomy when I’m trying to figure out plot holes. Without their help, writing would be a much lonelier (and less heart-attack-prone) endeavour. Thanks are also due to any number of my colleagues, who still make encouraging noises and don’t run away backwards when I start honking on about my latest book.


Nightmares meant you’d survived. It was one of the first things they taught, in basic training; so early that it was one of the very few memories she’d kept from the months before everything else had happened. Before the gaping hole in her memory, and before her next memories after it, of another waking. That one had been in Senja Ventiva’s care, about to learn exactly how much her freedom was worth to her.

Nearly ten orbits later, Khyria lay still, looking up at the dark ceiling of the sleeping room in her quarters on Corina, waiting for her pulse to slow and her breathing to even out, trying to remember what had sent her startling into wakefulness.

All she got for her efforts was an echo of phantom pain between her temples. She swore under her breath, and swung her legs out of the bunk. She’d had just under a watch to sleep when she finally went to bed; it seemed very unlikely there was enough of it left to make trying to go back to sleep worthwhile.

Between the console status lights and the main door controls, the outer room never got fully dark to Cortiian vision. Khyria paused at the dispenser, not bothering to turn up the lights. A brief glance at the display glimmering over the main door confirmed her guess about the time. It would be watch change in less than an hour, and her command would be officially on leave.

She ordered faran, the familiar scent of the hot stimulant going a long way to send the nightmare, and the memories, back where they belonged. As assignments went, her last one, assisting a Federated Planets Alliance team to evaluate a recently-discovered civilisation for membership in the Federation, should have been little more than an extended leave. Certainly nothing to provoke nightmares.

Off the record, between two very different sets of orders and keeping her source of information on-planet alive, it had proven surprisingly challenging. Not to mention, if her theories about her final encounter before leaving the planet were even partly accurate, the nightmares she couldn’t remember might have some basis. It wasn’t a comforting thought, and she took another mouthful of faran.

She’d gone into that final meeting under orders, and under very few illusions about the danger. Three months on the planet had provided her with enough fragments of information to be well aware that the planetary religion had a hells of lot more influence than appeared on the surface—and likely numbered every person on the planet with any trace of an extrasensory Ability in its ranks.

Even so, she hadn’t expected what she’d met. An Elemental Chief Priestess had proven to match or possibly exceed her own strength, and the Elemental Order had demonstrated a disquieting knowledge of Ability links. Without the presence of a witness who neither of them wished to cripple, the attack might have been more damaging. The wire-thin tendril of pain in her head momentarily tightened at the memory.

If they were all very lucky, the Elemental priesthood would become the responsibility of the Interspecies Extra-Sensory Regulatory Organisation in short order. If they were even luckier, the Satai whose power underlaid the IESRO would be able to contain it. The grim thought came unbidden, and once in her mind, refused to be dismissed.

Khyria grimaced, and dropped the rest of her drink into disposal. Prodding at those memories again was going to get her nowhere. She`d wasted more than enough time since returning trying to confirm exactly what the priestess might or might not have done to her, and got nothing for it.

A little under half an hour later, freshly groomed and uniformed, she left her command’s corridor, headed for the outer layers of the Base and six months’ accumulated leave. The automated ID check on the hangar passed her without argument, all the authorisations pre-cleared last night, and she strode down the central aisle, cradled hulls bulking huge to each side.

The hangar housed every type of craft from atmosphere flyers all the way up to deepspace-capable ships like the one she was heading for. Unlike the man she was due to meet here, and unlike most of the rest of her command, it wasn’t new territory for her. Space had been her refuge, when she needed one, for a long time, and she’d qualified deepspace pilot early in basic training.

She laid her palm on the console at the foot of the cradle. “Khyria Ilan, KI534786, Cortiora Derian Wildcat Cortia.”

The only response was the silent arrival of the lift platform, and she stepped onto it, aware that a small, sour smile was pulling at her mouth beyond all her ability to stop it. Going on leave with her most junior commander was going to be the topic of all the usual speculation across Base, and destroy his very useful nonentity. Unfortunately, neither of them had seen any better options, and the speculation, in this case, was still better than the truth.

The airlock smelt of the chemicals used to sterilise the interior of the ship after wherever it had been last, and the familiar smell of a newly-started enviro system. Khyria moved up the centre corridor between the closed bunk pods, through the main cabin, and entered the cockpit, enjoying the brief solitude. Lined with displays and inputs, the piloting cabin of a Canta-class like this one offered the option for a second pilot to handle weapons and recon at need, and the two acceleration couches took up most of the floor space.

Main piloting was a position familiar enough to banish what remained of the miasma of waking, and she began the pre-flight checks, her hands working without much need for conscious thought as the displays came alive.

Cold start-up, in a Base hangar and with no emergency in the offing recommended an arsenal of system checks, and she was nearly halfway through when a jolt of adrenalin that wasn’t hers caught her attention off the feeds. She paused.

“Control, hold,” she said, and the voice on the other end of the comm link went quiet. “Five minutes to checklist restart.”

“Asra, Cortiora,” the other acknowledged neutrally, and the comm cut.

Khyria made her way to the base of the cradle, moving unhurriedly, and a few seconds later, Anst came into view, his amber-stranded hair gleaming as he passed under the overhead lights. Identically dressed in the deep black of Cortiian uniform, his hair and insignia were the only points that picked him out of the background.

He offered her a perfect, regulation bow as he approached, both of them well aware of the surveillance. “Cortiora.”

She acknowledged it, turning back to the cradle lift. Behind his carefully expressionless face and locked-down mental shields, the highly illicit Ability link between them was alive with an uneasy mix of apprehension and anticipation, the whole shot through with a wry sort of humour.

The lift platform was small enough that they were shoulder to shoulder, and she saw his nostrils flare, picking up the chemical scents from the ship on her clothes and hair. The airlock sealed behind them, and she glanced at him.

“Regrets, Cantara?” she asked, and got a half-snort, half-chuckle. As the link between them gave her his reactions, it also gave him hers, effortlessly bypassing any of the standard mental defences that Abilities used to screen each other out.

“Not yet,” he said, and the touch of wryness she’d felt in the link came out strongly in his tone.

“Then let’s get on with it,” she said.

He followed her to the cockpit, soundless on her heels, and she felt his slight shock of surprise when he realised she hadn’t run all the feeds through her boards. Because it was Anst, and because he was as aware as she that until one of them ran down the bugs aboard, they were still under Councils surveillance, none of it showed in his expression.

“Take weapons and scanner checks,” she said. “The sooner we’re done, the sooner we leave.”

“Asra, Cortiora.” The acknowledgement sounded as if he’d spoken from sheer force of habit, and she raised an eyebrow at him as he eased his way into second pilot’s position, activating the comm.

“Wildcat one, second pilot Anst an Nabat, requesting clearance.”

It would register him officially as her co-pilot on the flight logs, among other things. She noticed the slight, surprised pause before Control acknowledged. She flew often enough that anyone unfortunate enough to spend a lot of duty time in the Base hangars knew perfectly well that she usually flew alone. It underlined the reaction this trip was likely to get once the news went public—which would be minutes after their departure was registered in the Base databases.

The half-smile that thought evoked was edged, and she opened her own link, running through the remaining systems, very aware of Anst’s voice working through his own checks beside her.

“Wildcat one, systems go,” Control finally acknowledged, and she powered the drives, feeling the familiar, half-heard, half-felt tremble of power as they came to life. The edgy adrenalin in the link, this time, was only partly Anst’s reaction.

“Drives are go,” she responded. “Wildcat one, requesting final clearance.”

“Departure recorded and time-stamped, showing Cortiora, Wildcat Cortia as pilot, and Cantara quequai, Wildcat Cortia, second pilot.” The comm cut, and she turned her head enough to meet Anst’s stare.

“So logged,” she said, hearing the sardony in her voice, and guided the ship up and out of its cradle on a whisper of power, nosing towards the dilating exit ahead of them. “Enjoy the last moments of your anonymity.”

Chapter I

The unexpected is not always merely bad planning.’

From ‘Open Eyes in a Closed Society’, by Danan an Tarrag

Khyria stretched in the pilot’s seat, running a final check on the displays. Every system showed green. She’d been sitting there long enough, accelerating out-system from Corina’s busy orbit to drop into deepspace, that the cabin’s air felt cold against her back and shoulders as she moved, unclipping the heavy straps.

Anst turned his head at her movement, the light of the displays setting odd colours in the lighter strands of his hair. He’d stayed there long after the initial lift from Corina, watching her navigate without a word, his only absence the time necessary to search out and destroy the various surveillance devices planted aboard. It hadn’t taken him long, but then again, Anst was one of the people in her command she was willing to believe was highly proficient at both planting and finding surveillance devices. He was far too well-informed for it to be otherwise. It occurred to her, with a shiver of ironic laughter, that she was becoming entirely too complacent about his competence, and she pushed it down with an effort.

He swung his legs off the couch when she rose, angling his head to avoid one of the overhead displays. The cabin was small enough that standing brought them forcibly close, and she turned to the narrow access corridor, heading aft for the main cabin and the dispenser. That early-watch beaker of faran had been half a day ago, and without the ship occupying her attention, she was hungry.

It felt more than odd, sharing a ship with someone else, and she exhaled, settling at the mess table with her food. Half an orbit had proven, inescapably, that neither time nor most of a galactic arm between them had had the slightest impact on the Ability link they were saddled with. If word of it ever got to the Councils that commanded the Cortii, she and he would remain alive a great deal longer than they wanted to. She harboured no doubts that being able to adapt that kind of link commonly among the Cortii was something the Councils would commit much worse than murder for.

It would also, as they were slowly finding, eradicate any possibility of rebellion against the Councils. If she and Anst, a few months in, were effectively unable to deceive to one another, the Councils would use that to ensure that their authority over every member of the Cortii was absolute. It wasn’t a prospect she was willing to contemplate.

Therefore, a ship, and six months to try and figure out how, or if, they could learn to hide the results. Since, among other side-effects, the link was slowly but inexorably melding their Abilities, it was already becoming noticeable.

Anst caught her gaze from across the table, fiddling with the beaker of faran between his hands. “Control sounded as if they knew you,” he said after a moment.

It was such a carefully neutral question that she almost laughed. It was also a reminder that despite a recent, accidental, and apparently unbreakable Ability link, she’d had very little to do with her command over the seven orbits they’d spent in basic training. Anst’s knowledge of her was derived from the two years since then, and the brief interlude before that she barely remembered. Her own memories of those brief early months in the Cortii were a kaleidoscope of shards, punctuated by a gaping hole. She’d spent seven widely-rumoured years trying not to think about what that gulf in her memories might contain.

“My other vices are better discussed,” she said dryly, acknowledging it. “I fly often enough that most of the people on regular duty there know I rarely take company. Certainly not when signing out a ship for half an orbit.”

Anst nodded. If he’d caught the flash of wariness she hadn’t been quite fast enough to suppress, he didn’t comment on it. “How difficult is it to sign out a ship for leave?” he asked after a moment.

The slight but genuine curiosity pervading the link startled a laugh out of her. Of all the things he could have picked to ask, that at least was one she was willing to discuss. Given Anst, it was likely no accident; discreet investigation a little over an orbit ago had revealed he had a surprising range of people happy to talk to him. It made him one of the more effective information brokers in the Cortia.

“Given the qualifications to pilot it, and the credit to run it, very simple,” she said, and shrugged. “Most people with the credit would rather spend the time on a luxury liner.”

The beaker of faran in his hands turned, and turned again, the steam drawn up from the surface of the thick liquid into the nearest vent. “Believe it or not, I spent a couple of orbits wishing I had mainline Abilities,” he said after that pause. “Aside from telepathy, almost everything I can do is unclassifiable. I learnt to work around it. Now...” he shrugged, the movement sending shards of light from the great Wildcat cloak brooch at his shoulder.

Now, as he hadn’t said, chances were looking better and better he was going to have to learn to control her overpowered triad of empathy, kinesis, and telepathy, and in such a way that it wasn’t immediately apparent to any other Ability within a kilometre of him that his ratings in the mainline Abilities he didn’t have were expanding. If it continued the way it had been, then he might well be going to end up at her level: one of the small minority of humanoid Abilities eligible for registration with the Interspecies Extra-Sensory Regulatory Organisation. It wasn’t something easy to hide.

“How dangerous is your wild Ability?” Khyria asked, watching that tendril of steam coiling up past his head. Anst’s uniform bore two Ability markers; one in the blue of telepathy that anyone who made Derian rank in the Cortii would carry, and the other a deep translucent purple large enough to nearly match her own. It wasn’t an idle question, and the jolt of consternation that ran through that nebulous sense of him in the back of her head argued that he realised it. Anst survived too well for it to be completely harmless, not to mention she was well aware that at least one facet of it was more than enough to send any Ability into a frenzy of shield-slamming.

“It’s beginning to manifest in your Abilities, as yours are in me,” he said. It was less a question than a statement, and she didn’t bother to answer it. After a moment, he drew a harsh breath and looked up. “It’s mutable.”

That flat statement made all too much sense. Even if it hadn’t, the sense of him in the link made it clear that he was telling the unadorned truth. It seemed increasingly likely that neither of them would be able to truly lie to the other if they tried. So far, it hadn’t been an issue. She took another sip of faran, trying to wrestle her reaction to that thought down where it belonged. If either of them were driven to start fighting the link in earnest, the results would more than likely be fatal to both of them.

“How mutable?” That wasn’t an idle question either, given the power of her triad, and Anst’s laugh had a bitter edge.

“Mutable enough that I can’t answer you. Half the time when I find myself doing something new, I have no idea how to replicate it, and the other half...” he looked away. “That trick of cozying my way through shields is a fair example. I have no idea how it may manifest in you. I wish I did.”

Fringes of adrenalin combed through her, far more effective than the faran. Whatever little Base Med had been able to map of his wild Ability had resulted in a function rating far above the usual wild Ability rank. It more than explained why he’d taken the risk of hacking into a Councils database to make certain his evaluation files hid anything more damning.

She half-raised her faran. “To living in interesting times,” she said sardonically, and for the first time since they’d left the cockpit, the line of his shoulders abruptly relaxed as he laughed. He’d expected something else. She noted the reaction, and forced her attention away from the link. It was dangerously seductive to keep a mental finger on it, gauging reactions and emotions, and she had no desire to feed it. From everything she’d discovered about Ability links, they only got stronger with use.

“At some point we’re going to need a planet,” she said after that moment, and his attention jerked to her. She raised an eyebrow at him. “I do a lot of stupid things, but teaching someone to use and control high-function kinesis on a spaceship in deepspace seems to me like an unnecessary risk.”

After a second, he smiled, some of the shadows in his expression easing. “I’m not used to having enough kinetic power to be considered a risk,” he said. Khyria glanced at the deep purple stud exposed at his collarbone, and the smile faded into something more cynical.

“Wild Abilities and precognitives are usually only a danger to themselves,” he said. “It’s a useful fiction, most of the time.”

* * * * *

The ship was equipped with two holosuits. It was a welcome discovery, given how very little there was to do aboard a ship in deepspace otherwise. With no immediate sign of Khyria in a bunk or the main cabin, Anst set up a sparring program, hoping to work off some of the bone-deep restlessness that had been dogging him ever since he’d approached his commander for help.

So far, she’d proven to be a far less nerve-racking companion than he’d half-feared, especially given their reason for being here. He wondered, behind the heaviest shield he could hold, exactly how much of that was deliberate. Khyria, on Corina, was a capricious figure, and the rumours that regularly made the rounds about her changed as the winds blew. Here and now, she was far more the person he’d caught glimpses of, occasionally, when they’d had reason to work together; less volatile, highly focussed—impenetrably shielded.

He moved into the training patterns, blocks and strikes more than half-automatic. Given those damned mental shields she was so good at erecting, her empathy was surprisingly hard to avoid. Whether the insidious draw he kept reacting to was merely the fringes that evaded her control, or a deliberate broadcast to see what he would do, he hadn’t yet managed to decide. Either way, it was a fraction of the power she could wield. He was very well aware that the Ability rankings she displayed on her uniform were about as accurate as the ones on his.

Given that widely-discussed public persona, and given the much more concrete whispers that said it had been the current second-in-command, Taiva Zarlan, who had forced her back to command Wildcat, he’d been more than surprised that she would lift a finger when Taiva started to spiral into madness. Khyria’s first public acknowledgement of her Cortia in seven orbits had triggered a series of attacks, not all of them direct. Taking the command had made her life anything but simpler, to the point where he’d have laid substantial credit against her risking her neck to save Taiva. Instead, she’d come to him, well aware of at least some of what his wild Ability could do, and convinced him to help her save Taiva’s life. A permanent and irreversible Ability link wasn’t an outcome either of them had considered.

His simulated opponent rapped his ribs, and he shook off the distraction with an effort. The idea behind the exercise had been to forget why they were here for an hour or so, and trying to figure out his commander and train was going to end badly.

“You should stop underestimating yourself,” a very familiar voice said lazily, and he cursed in surprise, rolling out of range of the sparring program. Khyria strolled into the simulated practice room, a half-smile on her face, stripped down to uniform trousers and rib-hugging half-top much as he was, and he came to his feet, feeling the blood running warm under his skin. The holosuits had basic Ability disruptors fitted. Clearly, as far as Khyria was concerned, they were about as effective as a Nasdari border treaty. “You were broadcasting,” she added.

“I...” he cast his mind back, most of his attention firmly fixed on her.

“You’re used to less power in telepathy,” she said after a moment, and shrugged, holding his gaze. “Let’s see if you can shield and fight.”

He made her a fluid bow, some of the considerable sarcasm in the gesture momentarily widening that slight, nasty smile.

* * * * *

Khyria’s idea of sparring had left him wishing that Canta classes came with an actual, liquid shower. Hot water, unlike the facilities which he did have access to, would have helped unkink some of his abused muscles. Instead, he settled into one of the couches in the main cabin, watching the star chart display she was working on.

A system abruptly pulsed red, and as if his attention had attracted her notice, she glanced at him. “This is where we’re headed. Site of a solar collision, projected within the next standard month. Approximately two weeks in deep space from Corina system, give or take a few hours. It’s on record as our reason for requisitioning a ship; our last nav point in realspace bears out that we left for it. All that’s missing from our cover is re-entry in the correct area, and some radiation markers on our hull. If we vanish without trace after that...” Mockery suddenly lit her expression. “I doubt anyone will be surprised.”

The entertainment was irresistible, the slight smile on her face echoed by the tenuous sense of her in his head, and for a disquieting second Anst knew the curve of his mouth perfectly matched hers.

He wrenched away from the shared amusement with an effort, his heart suddenly hammering.

“How long do you plan to spend at the collision site?” It was a welcome relief to find his voice was level. That moment of perfect understanding had hit a little too close to home, waking all the fears he’d tried to bury about the link. It didn’t help to realise that Khyria had most likely spent many of the same hours wondering if they would be able to keep any individuality, in the end. Fear and anger were a potent mix, and he inhaled, forcing them down.

If she’d noticed his reaction, she ignored it, her attention ostensibly focussed on the chart. “I doubt that’s going to be up to me.”

The remark was odd enough that he reached over and pulled up the information on the system. The point of light gained a halo of data, most of it densely technical and related to navigation. He ran his eyes down it until he hit the pertinent point, and slowed, reading through the security precautions—and the small fleet that the FPA had apparently detached to enforce them.

“We’re not registered to be there,” he said. “You expect them to run us off.”

It got him a view of her trademark, gorgeously false smile through the lights of the holo display. “I plan to let them. Fascinating as I’m sure the show will be, I don’t feel a pressing need to be there for it. What I do need is somewhere we can disappear without trace.”

Anst stared into the chart, mentally inserting the subtext. Somewhere off the beaten track, where Abilities were rare or non-existent. Somewhere with breathable atmosphere, given what Khyria had implied about fledgling kinetics and complex circuits. Somewhere a Cortiian ship could make planetfall either without being seen in the first place or where no one would care, and finally, somewhere that wouldn’t take weeks of travel to reach. He abruptly completely understood why the display encompassed the better part of three Galactic sectors.

They were going to be close to the edge of FPA-controlled space by the time they re-emerged. He noticed it consciously for the first time on the large-scale chart, where the detailed data turned to sparse entries and restricted boundaries. Somewhere in that restricted area, Khyria had spent much of the past few months, on a planet being considered for admittance for the FPA. He’d seen some of her memories of that assignment, when he’d pushed her about what had happened to her, and what little she remembered of her encounter with the dominant religion had been unsettling, to say the least. He forced his attention back to the chart.

“Given the outer systems, there must be a semi-habitable planet somewhere where the population is too scattered to notice or care if we land,” he said slowly.

“You’d think,” Khyria muttered, and gestured abruptly, shaping air. The chart dissolved, a long section of the border sliding to dance in front of him, another in front of her. “Wherever we end up, we’re going to need at least a month. Maybe a little less if the link works for us, maybe significantly more if it doesn’t. The kinesis is what concerns me. You’re unlikely to blow a system working on empathy or shielding.”

“You think you can teach me everything I need to know about kinesis in a month?” It slipped out of his mouth, perhaps because it was open. Unexpectedly, Khyria chuckled.

“No. I can teach you enough to make you aware of what you’re doing in a month. You’ve done basic, after all. The fine detail can come later; what we need right now is to find out to what extent we can control and hide the changes in our ratings.” She paused, and her green eyes met his. “If we can’t, we’re going to need a new and very convincing plan.”

It struck like a physical blow, stated openly for the first time, and he stared at her, thinking about it, and all the reasons why Khyria might be considering trying to desert the Cortii. He’d been trying to avoid thinking past the immediate problems, but the tenuous, unavoidable sense of her in his mind made any argument she might have made for her. He exhaled, the chill running through him. If they couldn’t find some way to disguise what was happening, and seamlessly, going back to the Cortii would be a risk to far more than just their continued existence.

“Desertion,” he said very quietly. “We’re going to need a lot more than good planning to survive that, Khyria.”

He could think of several desertion attempts, one even during his time in service, but no successes. The Councils had a long reach, and their methods were ruthlessly effective. The other option, which would be far more merciful than the end the Councils reserved for deserters, would be a self-inflicted shot to the head. He didn’t bother asking if that, too, figured in her plans. There was too much at stake for it not to.

Chapter II

Ignorance may be worse than the question:

but the answer may be worse than the ignorance.’

From ‘Universal Truths’, by Jahira Suran

His hand rose to touch his earlobe, and he jerked it down, irritated, as he realised it. “How the hells did you do that?”

Khyria had her boots propped comfortably on the mess table, an uncharacteristically relaxed pose, and she glanced up at him when he spoke.

“Force of character,” she said, and half-smiled at his look. “You were expecting empathy, so I used telepathy instead. More or less.”

Anst shifted his shoulders, trying to dislodge some of the tension that half a watch had set in his shoulders and neck. Matching up Abilities against Khyria had started out fascinating, hit frustrating in very short order, and made him realise that the visceral understanding he’d got of her Ability levels during their merge was only half the story. Some of what she was demonstrating, he knew, was illegal as the hells, not to mention frighteningly effective. He’d thought he was reasonably impervious to Ability-based suggestion, less than three hours ago.

“And if I can learn how to use it as effectively as you do, you think it’ll help cover up any slips we may have on Base.” The thought came to him whole, the ruthless neatness of the plan so irresistible that he didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t something that would have come that naturally to him, less than an orbit ago.

A black eyebrow arched, across the mess table, and she didn’t deny it. “The thought had occurred to me.” Her stare pinned him. “Shocked, Anst?” she asked softly. There were edges in her voice, barely disguised by that deceptive quietness.

“Surprised,” he said. It was the truth. At some level, he found he increasingly did understand her, frequently disquieting as that understanding was. He would have preferred it if he could have been certain whether or not that was only the link, and buried that thought as fast and as far down as possible. “You’re trusting me with a lot,” he said, on the heels of that odd thought-sense, and suddenly the clinging sense of danger faded like smoke from between them.

“Or I’m gambling,” Khyria said calmly. “Betting that your interest in learning what I can teach you will strengthen an alliance, at least until you’re certain you have everything there is to know; betting that self-interest in staying alive means you’ll keep whatever I teach you to yourself.”

It was the logical conclusion, the utterly practical one. In any other situation, it would have had more than an element of truth. He realised, as the shock danced through him, that he’d assumed that that the odd, instinctive sense of her that had unfolded in him at some point in the last two orbits was mutual.

He realised, belatedly, that she was smiling, and forced himself to lean back in the heavy seat, the blood still stinging through him. Being expertly played by Khyria wasn’t something he’d expected or even considered, suggesting this trip, but that slender, edged smile suggested that he’d just given her exactly the reaction she’d been aiming for.

“Keep your enemies where you can see them, Cortiora?” he asked, and the small smile momentarily widened.

* * * * *

She watched him realise that she’d been baiting him. Like anyone who survived Cortiian basic training, Anst had good self-control; very little showed in his expression. Without the link, just possibly, it might have been good enough.

“What had you heard about Ability links that made you think that a merge might succeed?” she asked conversationally. The adrenalin-fuelled jolt elicited by that question came through the link crystal clear, and she left him the silence to gather whatever response he might choose to make.

“Your power behind my wild Ability was the only way I could see either of us being able to get through one of Taiva’s shields without damaging her,” he said at last, all the inflection drained from his voice. “I thought...if anyone would know how to initiate a merge, it would be you.” The silence drew out until the near-inaudible hum of the drives sounded loud between them. “True Ability merges were little more than a rumour to me, at that point.”

She spent a second wondering if she would have been as willing to try it, had she really thought it was likely to work. Like Anst, she had known very little about the practice—very little more than he, if she were being honest—but the likelihood of two Cortiians trusting each other to the extent necessary for a merge had seemed safely remote at the time. A temporary merge had been the most she’d expected to come of it; maybe enough to get them through Taiva’s defences. It had been a last-ditch attempt in any case, with her second in command’s telepathy turning in on itself and effectively muting her, to reverse the process and possibly save her life.

Those memories were clear and sharp-edged, suffused with heat and the dust that had got into everything, standing in Anst’s cramped room in the FPA command post and weighing exactly how far she was prepared to go to save Taiva’s life. The urge to turn and walk away had been almost overwhelming, a pattern become familiar over the orbits. It had been Taiva who had pulled her back to command her Cortia, and, in the end, Taiva to whom she’d felt enough of an obligation to try something as reckless as a merge.

The wryness tugged at her mouth, and she glanced up, meeting an echo of her expression on Anst’s face. The reaction as they realised it struck through both of them, and after a long moment he shrugged and rose, keying another order into the dispenser and sliding one container to her elbow. It took an effort to ignore it. The thought of drinking the problem into temporary abeyance was almost overwhelmingly tempting. Those unsettling moments of identical reaction were coming more often, and on some instinctive level, it was as frightening as the hells.

Anst dropped back into his seat, moving with much less than his usual grace, and met her stare. “By the course you entered, we have the better part of two weeks in deep space,” he said. “According to everything I was taught, if anything goes wrong in deep space, we’ll never know about it and we’ll never be found. If we’re going to end up in chemical oblivion, now sounds like the best time for it.” He turned the small container between his fingers, the movements betrayingly tight. “Here’s my suggestion. Neither of us is much given to sharing information. So...truth for truth, any topic, and if either of us hits a question the other doesn’t want to answer, he or she takes a drink instead.”

The sheer effrontery of it struck a chuckle from her, some of the tension draining away like water through a crack. His posture relaxed as she watched, and she deliberately pulled her awareness away from the ephemeral sensation of the link. It was too present, with the two of them at arm’s length, alone in the ship.

She raised the small container, considering it. He hadn’t been joking; whatever he’d chosen, it smelt as if it should have evaporated at cabin temperature. At some point they were going to have to get past ingrained wariness; she knew it and he knew it, and just possibly making a drinking game of it wasn’t the worst way of doing it.

“I accept,” she said, and looked at him across the expanse of the mess table. “What made you agree to help me, that night? I’ve never had the impression that you and Taiva were allies.”

One corner of his mouth quirked, but he didn’t look away. “That’s very nearly two questions,” he noted. “I didn’t agree to help her. I agreed to help you.”

The truth in that struck through all her efforts to get some distance from the link; truth, and the effort that that honesty cost.

“Why did you agree to try a merge?” he asked, and instinct slammed her mental defences hard into place. She took a deep breath, consciously loosening them. They were remarkably little use against Anst in any case.

“I didn’t think it would work,” she admitted, and his chuckle was strained but genuine. He raised his drink in a silent toast, waiting for her question.

“I abandoned the Cortia nine years ago,” she said at last, the words deliberately brutal. “Why cooperate with me?”

Anst’s smile took on a decidedly sardonic cast, and he drained the small container. “Your point,” he said. His voice was hoarse from the alcohol, and he rose to order another, speaking as he went. “Reliable rumour has it that Taiva is the reason you ended up back in command of Wildcat. It hasn’t been an easy ride, from what I’ve observed. Why save her life?”

It stopped her cold, and she watched him at the dispenser for a long moment, coherent thought suspended, before draining her own drink. The alcohol was strong enough that she barely tasted it, but alcohol was all that was in there. She hadn’t seriously suspected that Anst was liable to try to drug her, but the check was instinctive, unlike the uncharacteristic trust that had prompted her to actually drink it.

He handed her another when she moved to join him at the dispenser, his fingers cold against hers. She tilted it, watching the lines form and fall on the inside of the container.

“You ran an extensive information network through most of basic training,” she said after a moment. “You cut almost every tie you had less than a month into the Crossing. Why?”

His shields rose into place so solidly that it was an almost physical sensation in her head, underscoring the growing power behind them. “I didn’t think you knew about that,” he said quietly, and raised his head to meet her eyes. “I was being asked for information about my unit, and for the first time I found some information I wasn’t willing to sell.” He didn’t look away. “They were asking about our hostage to the Councils’ whims, to be specific. Jack. It seemed to me he had long enough odds against his survival. When did you realise that he was your genetic brother, Khyria?”

The knife was half-drawn before she slammed it back into the sheath, her pulse thundering in her ears. The Cortii never knew where their genetic material came from—until someone had found a lever to force the Councils of Corina to permit an outside observer to witness the Crossing of Wildcat Cortia. The Councils, in a fit of pique, had chosen the brother of her genetic original to be that expendable observer.

“Lords of the hells, Anst.” That question had been perfectly set, proof that she had less to worry herself about where it concerned Anst’s survival ability than she sometimes feared. She would have been just as happy if he hadn’t demonstrated it on her. “I suspected as soon as I walked into his settlement. I was certain before we left his house.” She ordered another container to replace the one lost to her reaction, buying time to force her control into place. “Rather than asking the obvious question about why you chose to kill every alliance you had to keep that piece of information close and watching you get drunk—what made you sure of the relationship?”

That shot got her a half-laugh. “I saw you and he side by side,” he said quietly. The silence drew out for a moment. “And then I screened some of his hair, and I was certain.” The dispenser slot was full, and he turned away, moving some of the order to the table, most of his attention apparently on not spilling any of the liquid. “What did it feel like, to come face to face with your genetic family?”

The light in Jack’s bedroom had been shaded orange from the lights outside the window, but bright enough to show her damning details. She clamped down on the memory, well aware that he’d caught at least some of her reaction through the link, and emptied her drink, following him to the table. She slid the remainder of his order onto the table with kinesis, aware of his eyes following the containers as they moved.

“What, in all that, made you so certain I could be trusted that we managed an Ability merge?” she asked finally. She half-expected to get no answer, given the pattern of his responses to date, but his hand hesitated halfway to the containers of waiting alcohol, and he shot her a twisted smile.

“I’ve been asking myself that,” he said, half to himself. “Because you never asked me for trust, I think. You’ve never asked me to take a risk that you weren’t taking. You challenge me, give me part of the information, and expect me to be good enough to keep up.” He shrugged. “Not much of an answer. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know. Why did you let Taiva drag you back to command Wildcat?”

It was the question none of her command had ever asked, in all the time since, not even Taiva. Khyria found herself watching the still, clear surface of the unemptied containers, and pulled her attention back to Anst, still and silent across the smooth, dark surface of the table. Oddly enough, she suspected that if she refused to answer, he would let it lie, and the certainty inclined her to speak.

“I won a charan challenge,” she said. Her tone sounded rough, even in her own ears. “Taiva...tracked me down, and I took her with me to a meeting of the hareni. I knew what she wanted. She hadn’t been very subtle about trying to find me. I had a personal wager riding on the match, that night—that if I survived the charan, I would give her what she wanted, and stop running. I didn’t, frankly, expect to survive the experience.”

Anst’s eyes were dark, the gold and amber shadowed. “I’d heard whispers about charan matches,” he said finally. He hadn’t expected her to answer. The link was a swirl of muted surprise, spiked with shards of consternation, and she wrenched her focus away from it.

She smiled at him, deliberately, the smile she’d learnt in Senja’s circle. “My question, I believe. Why was Jack’s survival worth almost every alliance you had?”

“I hate unanswered questions,” Anst said after a moment. “Like why the IESRO took such an uncharacteristic interest in our Crossing as to demand a witness, and why the Councils chose to give them one. Jack seemed like a key piece to that code.” He paused. “How sure are you that the IESRO, or rather, the Satai, can control the priesthood?”

Khyria, thrown back to the dire thoughts of that early awakening before they left Corina, hesitated. “I’m not,” she said finally. “If the priesthood really has a number of Abilities in the same league as the one I encountered, and if they are expert in Ability merges, none of the usual guarantees apply.”

Chapter III

Avoidance requires continuous effort.

Confrontation merely requires standing still.’

Quoting ‘Universal Truths’ by Jahira Suran

The shin impacted her ribs at almost bone-cracking force, and she rolled with it on sheer muscle memory, hands going for her weapons. For a long, disorienting moment, she couldn’t remember where she was, or why she was fighting, her head full of the aching loneliness, an almost physical pull to...somewhere.

Familiar black matting underfoot and glaring lights pulled her the rest of the way back to the present, and she realised that Anst had broken off his attack, standing well out of range and watching her. His face was carefully unreadable—so much so that the depth of unease in the link came as no surprise.

“Khyria?” His tone was too neutral.

With little else to do until they hit realspace, they’d spent a lot of time in the holosuits, working on almost every hand-to-hand fighting style they both practiced. Given that, and given one of the most observant people in her command as her opponent, clearly, yes, he had noticed something amiss. The rage and fear roared up in her throat, and she turned away, not trusting herself to keep her reaction off her face.

She’d been trying to tell herself that the abstraction was nothing more than tiredness. It hadn’t been a particularly effective stop-gap, especially once the effects had gone from mere blinks of time to entire stretches of blankness. She ran her fingers through her hair, damp strands tangling around her hands.

“Did I say anything?” she asked after a moment.

Anst’s response was barely audible. “No. You stopped reacting. And you were looking at that band around your wrist.”

She glanced down reflexively. Stripped down for sparring, the intricate pattern of greens and blues and grays shimmered under the skin of her right wrist. It showed no alteration from the first morning she had woken up to find it there and the priestess vanished, but as it sometimes did when she thought of it, the skin prickled. The urge to swear was nearly overwhelming. It wouldn’t be the least effective thing she’d tried over the past few weeks.

“You asked me, once, to let you view my memories of that encounter with the priestess,” she said at last. “I am no longer sure that those memories are accurate.” It was difficult to expose the vulnerability. She forced the words out. “If you will, I need you to use the link. Go back in. Ignore the memories, and see if you can find any traces of what the priestess may have done. There are more and more periods, recently, when I do what you just saw—more and longer each time.”

The risks in that, given their lifestyle, didn’t require elaboration, and she saw a muscle jump at the angle of his jaw as he thought about it.

“Contact would make it easier,” he said abruptly. “Holo, off.” The training room went dark around them, and she was back in the confines of the suit, the light pressure vanishing as the unit opened.

She scooped her cloak off the decking and swung it around her, heading for the main cabin, more grateful than she cared to admit for the lack of questions. Anst’s Abilities were gaining power, and the link should even the score further, but he was right: direct physical contact would only help. Depending on what traps the priestess had set in her head, he might be going to need all the advantages either of them could give him.

Anst came around the end of the table, moving with less than his usual grace. Without the link, gaining ground in the back of her mind, the set expression on his face would have done more to cover the wire-strung tension singing through him. As it was, it took an effort of will not to turn and watch as he moved around behind her chair, his footsteps silent on the flooring.

She stiffened involuntarily at the light, warm touch of his fingers on her scalp, and he paused, giving her time, the direct contact making the sense of him inescapable in her head. It made it all too clear what she was asking for, and it took her a long moment to relax against the back of the heavy seat.

For a second, the hands bracketing her head were Satai hands, any resistance she might have made to the contact with two members of the galaxy’s most powerfully telepathic species utterly futile. The flashback faded, and she pulled in a breath. It would be humiliating if it turned out that she was the one lacking the willpower to go through with the favour she had asked for, and at this point, Anst was the only one likely to be able to get close enough to have a chance of figuring out what the priestess had done.

The link flared in her head, inescapable. Consciously using it was something the priestess had shown her, and Khyria had demonstrated it exactly once, the experience nothing that either of them had been eager to repeat. It killed the urge to knock Anst’s hands off her and leave; it stopped every thought dead, irresistibly, as she felt someone else in her head, inside her shields, fully merged.

She struggled to find where she ended and he began, the concept of two entities, rather than one, slipping out of her grasp. On some disjointed level, she knew that was dangerous, but she couldn’t muster the control to do anything about it, and it felt like both an eternity and no time at all before the contact broke. She came slowly back to herself with an ache in her hands where they’d been clenched on the arms of the seat, watching Anst walk, cautiously, as if he were less than certain of his balance, to the nearest chair.

It took him a moment to speak, his gaze fixed on his hands. “She covered her tracks well,” he said finally, his voice rough. “I can’t undo what she did. I’m not even sure I found all of it.” He pushed a strand of hair back from his face with a hand that was slightly unsteady, and drew in a short breath. “Maybe if we knew more about how this link works. As it is, I can tell you that something about that band on your arm will draw you back to the planet. Or to the cult, specifically. It wants to return to its own place, whatever that means. In case that failed, she reinforced it.” He paused, and slowly raised his head, his eyes shadowed. “I don’t think it will fail, Khyria. I don’t know how you’ve held it off this long. It’s not just decoration, the creature she showed you. Somehow.”

“My Med scans were clean,” she said. It sounded numb. The numbness was better than the revulsion crawling through her, revulsion perfectly mirrored in the hard set of his mouth. For once, the knowledge that he could pick up on her emotions so easily was almost reassuring.

“There’s more,” he said. “She wants you, Khyria. Whatever that prophecy may have said. She thinks you would make them unassailable.” He drew a breath. “They already have some very powerful Abilities on that planet...and I think many of them are linked in those Abilities.”

The urge to drop her head into her hands was irresistible. To the table: “It can’t have been easy. Thank you.” Her voice sounded odd in her ears, further away than it should have, and her palms felt almost feverishly hot against her eyelids.

The familiar smell of faran surrounded her, breaking through the distance. It didn’t do anything for the instinctive, animal panic that rose every time she considered the kind of multiple link Anst described, closing her throat and sending her pulse racing out of control. Fringes of something else, something older, moved in her memory at the unfamiliar sensation, something that vanished again with a flash of searing pain when she tried to access it.

Anst’s voice was calm, forcibly so. “The cult may have some way to undo whatever the priestess did.”

It struck through to her, as she vaguely thought he must have intended, and she raised her head. “Going anywhere near them risks giving them both of us.”

His face was very pale. “If they get you, Khyria, and from the look of that it’s only a question of time, then sooner or later they will have me, anyway. If we go now, while we still have a choice...” he shrugged.

“We might be able to find or create a weak link.” The steam from the faran curled between them in the ringing silence, and she met his eyes, shutting her own reaction away. “Let’s get the difficult part over with. If it comes to it, your only escape route goes straight through me. Can I trust you to kill me if it comes to that?”

It was Anst’s turn to look away, and she gave him the time and silence. It was a long wait, and eventually he swore harshly. “I would lose to you in a fight,” he said finally. “If you stood still for me...” the silence dragged out. “There are people I would prefer to kill,” he said at last.

* * * * *

Khyria was in the cockpit. It was as much privacy as they could easily give each other on the ship, and Anst was momentarily viscerally grateful for it. The bulkhead felt solidly reassuring against his forearm, a point he could be certain of in a situation that was rapidly gathering complications.

Objectively, he knew some of the shock lashing through him was hers. Having spent the better part of an hour throwing everything he had at the tangle of compulsions the priestess had left in Khyria’s head, some of it was also his. Right now, leaning his head on his arm at least helped suppress some of the shaky nausea trying to beat its way up his throat. In a moment, he would start moving, start thinking, clean the sweat of the workout off himself and find some options. For the moment, the bulkhead was about as much as he felt competent to deal with.

After a few more seconds, he pulled in a breath and pushed himself upright. Time and privacy for a mental breakdown was a luxury. The black humour of the thought broke through some of the fugue, and he made it the rest of the way into the small sanitary unit. Time would help. Routine would help. Finding some solutions would help more. He shut his eyes and held his breath as the sanitiser ran, aware once again of the uncharacteristic longing for a water shower.

Two hours later, in front of the big mess table console, he was willing to admit to himself that he hadn’t expected that the files on the planet where Khyria had been assigned would be quite so sparse. Aside from her debriefing, the basic information he expected to find, like star system, geography, major cultures, weather, was all missing, reminding him forcibly that the planet was restricted and apparently the FPA was doing an uncharacteristically efficient job of keeping the files secured.

He’d gone through Khyria’s debriefing twice, mentally filling in the gaps in her account and cursing inventively under his breath, when the access to the cockpit opened and she came through. Whatever she might have been doing up there for the better part of a watch, her face and shields were again the impervious façade he was accustomed to. It was oddly reassuring.

Khyria propped one hip on the edge of the mess table, looking at the files he was shuffling through on the table console. He didn’t bother to hide the frustration. It seemed highly likely that she was already fully aware of it.

“I can fill in some of what you’re looking for,” she said. “The Akrushkari team debriefing me took the understandable view that the base files would either be made public very shortly or could be easily otherwise acquired if needed.” She pulled up a star chart, centred it on their next realspace point, and then pulled up a system a short deepspace hop past the boundary where FPA space ended. “Intelligent Life Found, 276/5346. The fourth planet is in the habitable zone. It’s also going to be an interesting ride in.”

She’d covered the excessive security in her debriefing. “At least one battle platform,” he said, and she gave a minimal shrug.

“The FPA tends to tread very cautiously around the unknown. I know there was one there five weeks ago.” She enlarged the hologram, focusing on the small, neutral placeholder where the fourth planet orbited, conspicuously devoid of any data, or distinguishing marks. “Where there was one, I would place at least two, to ensure uninterrupted visibility of the planet surface. If I were feeling particularly paranoid, I might have five or more ships in orbit, besides the usual exploration hulls.”

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