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 All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Galactic Coalition Academy Series

Ava

Episode One

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos: licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com



AVA

EPISODE ONE


The Force are coming, and this time, there may be little the Coalition can do to stop them.



They’ve hatched a plan to destabilize the Artaxan Protectorate - one of the most powerful sovereign states of the Milky Way. The Artaxans claim they hold the key to history. Information specialists, their empire is built on trading and storing data. The Coalition wouldn't run without them. But now, the Artaxans are in turmoil.



Ensign Engineering Subclass Leana’x is a member of the Artaxan Royal Family. She's hardly a princess, though. She's 100th in line for the throne. It would take the complete destruction of the Artaxan Family for her to ever see the Royal Palace, let alone take up the vaunted role of Prime Queen. Leana’x wouldn't want the role, anyway. The Prime must bodily process the constant, immense information stream of her people. Ensign Leana’x is happy tinkering in the engineering bay and taking orders.



Lieutenant Commander John Campbell will be an exacting XO. He's just received a promotion, and he has no intention of disappointing his surrogate father, Captain Chan. Campbell toes the line, and he expects others to, regardless of complaints. His nickname in the Academy was Pit Bull, and if he gets you in his sights, he won't let go.



When the Artaxan Protectorate is attacked, Leana’x and Campbell are thrown together in a fight for survival that will span the galaxy and change it all....

...

Tune in for the 6th installment in the Galactic Coalition Academy Series. A four-episode epic space opera, it's sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell's Betrothed.

Chapter 1

Leana’x

“It won’t be an issue, sir,” Leana’x said as she stood just behind the Captain’s desk, her hands clasped behind her back in a regulation pose.

Captain Chan stared back at her, one hand clamped on his jaw, the other drumming on his desk. “It better not be an issue,” he said, tone a controlled but warning growl.

Behind Captain Chan stood the recently promoted Commander John Campbell.

Though Leana’x was fresh out of the Academy, she’d heard about him. There were legends about him. And none of them – not a single one – were good.

He had a reputation for breaking ensigns – one that was way worse than Commander Sharpe’s.

Though she knew she should be cowering in front of him, she wasn’t. Not during this conversation, at least.

There were few things in life Leana’x had strong opinions on. This? Her heritage? This was one of them.

With all due respect, sir, I’m 100th in line for the throne. It would take the complete destruction of the Artaxan Family for me to ever see the position as Prime Queen,” Leana’x said, and her voice didn’t waver at all.

Maybe it should have.

She knew what the Prime did. And though the Coalition thought it had a good enough relationship with the Artaxan Protectorate to understand their ways, they didn’t.

The Artaxan Protectorate dealt with 90% of the information resources of the Coalition. Her people had been bred for that specific task. It was what gave them meaning. To an Artaxan, dealing with information – whether it be collecting it, disseminating it, or hiding it – was what gave them purpose in life. And as for the Artaxan Royal Family? The ruling body of the entire Artaxan Protectorate? They bodily dealt with the information.

That was no colorful analogy. The Prime Queen’s entire physique had been altered on her ascendance to the throne to ensure that every single cell and every single neuron pulsed with the information of the Artaxan Protectorate.

Though it was true that the first 10 or 20 members of the Royal Family were important – and helped the Queen with her enormous task, Leana’x was the 100th in line for the throne.

The 100th. The throne line ended after her.

Captain Chan didn’t look impressed, so Leana’x cleared her throat. “Believe me, Captain, my people wouldn’t have let me join the Academy, let alone join active service, if they… cared,” she managed, and though she hadn’t intended to show any emotion in front of Captain Chan – let alone Commander Campbell – she did. Her voice wavered, if only for a second.

It was enough to piss her off.

Suffice to say, there was absolutely no love lost between Leana’x and the rest of the Royal Family. Why should there be? She was right at the end, the least important member of the Family. While that technically put her above the rest of the citizens of the Artaxan Protectorate, it put her at the absolute bottom of the Royal Family. And considering the Royal Family had a reputation for being aloof and weren’t allowed to be approached by their own people, that left Leana’x on her own.

There’d been a reason she’d joined the Academy – to get away from her people.

So she tilted her head back, let her chin jut out, and faced the Captain just as she had Commander Sharpe or any other bully who had ever gotten in her way. As the 100th, she had plenty of experience with it.

Captain Chan shrugged. “I suppose you have a point. But that’s not what I’m getting at. Though I agree that it is extremely unlikely that your position as,” he darted his eyes down to the data pad in front of him, “100th and last in line for the throne would have much of a bearing on your work here, I’m trying to warn you that any arrogant behavior will not be accepted.”

Leana’x tried to control her reaction, but it was hard. This felt like a slap. While Captain Chan didn’t know her, for God’s sake, he had her file right in front of him. It would tell him she had never acted inappropriately during her career as a cadet. Though the Artaxan Royal Family had a deserved reputation for being arrogant and elitist, as she’d already pointed out, she’d never had that luxury. Leana’x had always been alone.

She tried not to let her jaw harden too much – do that, and Commander Campbell would pick up on it instantly. His gaze was locked on her, his searching violet pupils like two targeting sensors ready to pick up her minutest movement and relay it back to the Captain.

She took a tense breath. “I think – or at least I would hope – that my service record stands for itself. There were no incidents,” she began, then she stopped with a twitch.

She’d been intending to say that there had been no incidents at the Academy during her entire tenure there, but that wasn’t true. During first year, one of the Artaxan lecturers had bowed down to her during class, before ultimately quitting because he didn’t believe he had the right to be anywhere near her. And in third year, one of the ordinary Artaxan recruits had quit for the same reason.

It was Commander Campbell’s turn to clear his throat. “Finish your sentence,” he warned.

Though her natural instinct was to stare at him exactly like you would a prowling predator – or one of the numerous arrogant princes she’d had to deal with through her life – she took a steeling breath instead. “Neither of those incidents were my fault,” she began.

“Two people quit over you, Ensign,” the Captain said.

“I didn’t ask them to.”

“But they did. And, though I specifically brought you here to grill you, you are right – I can see your service record. And on available evidence, you were absolved.”

She looked up, containing her excitement, just as she had been taught to as a child.

“But again,” Captain Chan said as he pulled his hand from his face, locked both of his arms flat on his desk, and leaned forward, “that’s not my point.”

She resisted the urge to swallow. Just as she’d dealt with arrogant, angry men like Commander Campbell before, she’d also dealt with leaders exactly like Captain Chan. Her upbringing as the 100th had given her just the skills she required to excel at the Academy. She had diplomatic and social abilities few did. But she hadn’t bothered to excel. She didn’t want to. Do that, and people would simply question her success. If she ever managed to do anything extraordinary, people would dismiss it, assuming she had cheated her way to the top because of her position as a member of the most powerful royal family in one of the most powerful sovereign states of the Coalition.

Her heritage would haunt her her entire life. If she ever rose through the ranks to become captain, let alone admiral, there’d be no respect there – people would just whisper behind her back like they’d always done.

So Leana’x’s ambitions were checked. They had to be for her own mental well-being. All she wanted to do – all she damn well wanted to do – was to become an engineer. A low-class engineer. The kind who would spend the rest of their lives crawling through tunnels, taking orders, and keeping their desires to explore the galaxy checked.

“With all due respect, sir, what is your point?” she asked. Though someone without her experience would’ve shown utmost deference, she could read the tone of the conversation.

Captain Chan looked right into her gaze. Commander Campbell? He growled, shifted forward, and locked a tense hand on the table. “You’ll speak when spoken to, Ensign. Show some respect,” he snapped.

There was that word again. One she knew she should ignore. Respect.

Could she ignore it?

No. Because from the second she’d walked on board the Hercules and endured Commander Campbell’s ‘welcoming’ of the new recruits, he’d started to rub her up the wrong way. He obviously thought she was incapable of showing respect. Which was a slap in the face.

She’d been wrong before when she’d said she had plenty of experience dealing with men like him. There was a slight difference. Though she’d been able to run away to the Academy to get away from the arrogant princes of the Artaxan Family, she would now be stuck here forever under Campbell’s command.

That didn’t stop her from standing her ground. She swiveled her gaze from Campbell back to the Captain and took a risk. “Forgive me for reading the conversation incorrectly, Captain. However, when you brought me here, you told me to speak informally.”

Campbell opened his mouth with such strength and speed it looked as if his jaw would unhinge and spring across the room.

Captain Chan raised his hand.

Though it didn’t seem possible that there would be anything in this world that would shut Commander Campbell up, let alone pull him back from an imminent attack, Captain Chan’s hand was it.

Leana’x had heard from several of the other chatty ensigns that Chan was a surrogate father of Campbell.

Campbell had lost all of his family during a Barbarian attack 20 years ago on a research facility. Chan had been in charge of the Hercules even then, and it had been the first ship on the scene to the research colony where Campbell had grown up.

Chan, as the story went, had taken a liking to the young Campbell, swept him under his wing, taken him off to the Academy, and taught him everything he knew.

Now Campbell was Chan’s own personal pit bull, not that the Captain would see it that way. Campbell, however, would. Just one look in his eyes, and Leana’x could tell exactly what ran the man – loyalty. Or at least a twisted sense of it. For it was a twisted sense of loyalty that had dogged Leana’x her entire life. It was the twisted loyalty of the third-year recruit and the lecturer at the Academy that had seen them quit, all because they didn’t want to sully her with their presence. It was the twisted loyalty of the Artaxan people as a whole that kept the Royal Family raised up like gods.

And it was a twisted loyalty she had specifically come here to get away from.

With her hands still tightly clasped behind her back and her head still tilted high with measured defiance, she took another step toward the desk. “With all due respect, Captain, you asked me here so that I could put your mind at ease. And the only way I can do that is if I speak freely.” She flicked her gaze toward Campbell just long enough to see he looked ready to explode. “My answer is this. I can’t guarantee how… other members of the Artaxan Protectorate will react to me. I can only guarantee how I will react to them. And hopefully my service record in front of you will confirm that I did not seek the resignation of either Cadet Haioco or Lecturer Jiovo. In fact, I did all I could to ensure they did not quit. I even agreed to a plan that would ensure I did not come in contact with them. I cannot… answer for my culture. I can only try to adjust my life in any way I can,” she said. Unconsciously, she started speaking in the same register and with the same diplomatic but forthright manner she’d been taught to as a child. Despite the fact Leana’x was the lowest member of the Royal Family and would never, ever, ever become Prime, she was still part of the Artaxan Family. As such, she hadn’t had an ordinary upbringing. She’d been schooled in the mannerisms of the Royal Family, even if she’d ignored them. Sometimes, despite her best efforts, they would shine through.

Luckily for her, Captain Chan looked impressed, not aggravated. He unclenched his arms from his desk, leaned back, rested them easily on the table, and looked at her evenly. “Say I believe you. Say I am willing to take your service record and your impassioned speech at face value. Tell me, Ensign, what happens if we come in contact with your own people? You must understand that you are no longer at the Academy now, and while there you could technically put in place systems to ensure that you did not run into your people, we’re in space now,” he said, voice grating down low on the word space. “It’s not impossible – and in fact, very likely – that we will be sent on missions where we will come in contact with your people. What will you do then?”

She let her gaze drift down to the table as she tried to control her expression. The last thing she wanted to do was run into members of her own race, let alone her own family – and the latter was far more likely than it seemed. While the first 25 or so members of the Royal Family were always kept on Artaxan One – the Prime world of the Artaxan Protectorate, which consisted of 10 of the most abundant planets in all of Coalition space – the other 75 members in line for the throne were deliberately spread across the galaxy. That’s why it had been so easy for Leana’x to join the Academy. The rest of the princes and princesses of the Artaxan Family became dignitaries, diplomats, important people. They were also forced to keep regular contact with the Prime. Leana’x didn’t have to. She was nothing more than a safety blanket. Or a round number, maybe – it was neater to have 100 members of the Royal Family rather than 99, right? It would take a catastrophic event of unforeseen proportions to eliminate the Prime, let alone the first 25 people in line for the throne. To kill all 99 people in front of Leana’x?

Impossible.

Everyone recognized this, except for Captain Chan and Commander Campbell, it seemed.

“What would you do, then?” Campbell snapped, voice reverberating and punching hard through his chest.

“Hopefully, sir, I’ll be safely tucked away in some engineering duct somewhere. Though you are absolutely right, and we will… statistically come in contact with my people, there’s no reason I can’t avoid them on this ship. And if,” she got there first before Campbell could snap at her once more, “I am forced to interact with my people, I will do so with the same level of dignity I have always done so. Though you may not believe this,” she specifically ticked her gaze toward Campbell, “I don’t share the same attitudes as most of the rest of the Royal Family.”

“And what’s that?” Chen pushed.

Perhaps she should’ve aimed to have ended this conversation sooner, because, despite her best efforts, she was starting to get emotional. The same twisted anger that had seen her leave Artaxan one and join the Coalition Academy in the first place started to climb up her back, wrapping around her spine until it felt as if she were being tortured by a babas – a unique information-gathering tool developed and later banned by her people. “I am 100th in line for the throne,” she pointed out, her voice defeated – but not with the fact that she would never ascend to the Prime – just the fact that she had to have this conversation at all. “I will never ascend. If anyone else before me dies, Captain, they will name new people to replace them. I will never be more than 100th in line to the throne. I am the last in the pecking order of the Royal Family. The lowest of the low. But because of their culture, I can never interact with the other Artaxans,” she said, and again she tried to control her emotion, but it was there – anyone would be able to hear it there twisting through her tone, constricting her throat, making her words breathy, sharp hisses. “If that’s a position you envy, go ahead and take it up,” she said – not to the Captain – but to Campbell as he snarled at her once more. She took a moment to compose herself before she swiveled her attention back to the Captain. “I apologize for my outburst, sir, but if that’s what it takes to make you understand my position, so be it. I didn’t ask for this life. I was given it. And though you may think it is one of privilege, let me tell you, you are sorely mistaken. Though I’ve never had to scrape for a penny in my life,” she said, borrowing a human phrase she’d heard on Earth a lot, “I have never been free. I would have preferred to scrounge for my life on a colony world than have lived in a golden cage.”

“You think—” Campbell began, and there was a particularly deadly look in his eyes. Her comment had obviously triggered something for him, but before he could explode, Captain Chan rose from his desk.

Leana’x watched him. Maybe she’d overstepped the line, maybe she hadn’t. Chan gave nothing away until he let out a sigh. “Good answer, Ensign. And though you have obviously been schooled to hide your emotions, I don’t mean to insult you, but you haven’t done a particularly good job today,” he pointed out.

Her cheeks stiffened.

“Which is a good thing. I can see you are honest. You came to the Academy to get away from your… unique solitary position,” he said, carefully saying the word solitary. “So I will answer the question for you.”

Momentarily, Leana’x was confused. She’d forgotten all about the question. Her mind was completely taken up with the exact ruddy color of Campbell’s cheeks, the exact hard line of his chiseled jaw. Though he was meant to be handsome, you wouldn’t be able to tell that now. Because now? He was angry. Seething.

What had she said? That she’d rather scrape for a penny than be a trapped princess?

Captain Chan cleared his throat. “The answer to the question is this – you will not have to actively avoid your people. You will be given warning if or when they come on board, and with Chief Engineer Barlow, we will ensure that you are… sufficiently out of sight. Do you agree to this proposal?”

Leana’x didn’t pause. She nodded vehemently, a few flecks of her ordinary hair spilling free from her ordinary bun. Though many of the other princesses closer in line to the throne were stunning, you could only just tell that Leana’x was a member of the Royal Family.

She had two lines of markings running up and down her entire body, from the tips of her toes to over her chest, to her throat, her cheeks, and her head, then down her back. They were barely there, though, and in poor lighting, you wouldn’t be able to see them.

As for the rest of her?

Ordinary.

She kept it that way, too. Though there were tried-and-true methods to play up her looks, she wouldn’t dare. There was no damn point. Ensign Subclass Leana’x Artaxan was more than happy to spend her life in the shadows.

With her hands still clasped behind her back, she nodded low, only letting her gaze flick toward Campbell once or twice. That was enough to see that he hadn’t calmed down any. The way he was looking at her? It reminded her of a rampaging Varnax bull.

Captain Chan quickly shooed her out, and Leana’x turned hard on her regulation boots, snapped a salute, and walked away.

She’d known this conversation would happen. She’d been dreading it ever since the day she’d graduated from the Academy.

But it had gone pretty well. So now Leana’x could slip back into the shadows forevermore, right?

Chapter 2

Artaxan One, Artaxan Palace

The allotted dignitaries waited for the arrival of the Coalition emissary.

Standing atop the primary palace building, they were afforded the most stunning view in all of Artaxan One. The palace was an enormous tower that reached high into the sky, one of the most ambitious structures the Artaxans had undertaken, and that was saying something. Springing from their information gathering prowess, they were some of the most skilled engineers in all of the Coalition. The tower was a modern marvel, and it was high on many people’s lists to visit, but to do so, you either had to be a member of the Royal Family, or have an explicit invitation from the Queen.

The Coalition emissary had the latter.

Though the Coalition higher ups had direct lines of communication with the Artaxan ruling hierarchy, this was a special visit.

This was a visit where they would discuss what would happen next.

A plan to prevent the oncoming invasion. An invasion few people in the Milky Way knew was coming, but an invasion that would come nonetheless.

The welcoming committee stood there in their floorlength purple robes, their green, crystalline hair shimmering under the sun.

They were members of the Royal Family, and as such, their hair became greener and more crystal-like the closer to the throne they were.

The Prime?

The Prime was a marvel.

Few ever got to see her. As per tradition, the princes and princesses next in line to the throne attended to her every need. Outsiders? They would never see her. Unless under extraordinary circumstances. For if they saw her, they would not understand.

The Coalition thought the traditions of the Artaxans to be quaint. Though they were fully aware that the Artaxans believed that their Prime bodily processed enormous streams of information, it wasn’t a story.

It was a remnant.

From those who had come before.

There were very few sovereign states within the Coalition that remembered the before times. That remembered the Force – the strongest threat the Milky Way – nay the universe – had ever faced.

The Artaxans were one of them. They gathered information, no matter the costs. Whether it be from their own people, or whether it be from civilizations of years gone by. They were some of the most accomplished historians and archaeologists in the Milky Way.

So they knew about the force.

And the Queen?

She had been specifically engineered by those who had come before to never forget.

So the visit of the emissary would be special.

Today, for the first time in Artaxan Family history, an outsider would be let into the throne room.

The princesses and princes who would form the welcoming guard chatted nervously amongst themselves. Though they understood part of the importance of this visit, only the Queen herself comprehended how key this would be.

For the Milky Way was on a precipice. And unless it acted now?

The Force would spill in from every direction and claim all.

Finally, the interplanetary sensors detected an incoming vessel. Sleek, silver, and no larger than a hand. It was of a design never before seen in the Coalition.

Rumor had it that it had been built using technology obtained from the attack on the Academy by the Circle Traders.

As the ship sped down through the atmosphere, it was only through the roving holographic panels that spread across the roof that the princes and princesses could see it. And stared they did as the ship began to shift. Gravitational waves spread across the sleek, small vessel’s surface and, before their very eyes, it grew. Like bubbling mercury, it shifted and undulated, the port side growing to 10 times its original size, only to shrink back.

Several people gasped as the ship finally came within visual distance of the roof.

The extremely sophisticated warning sensors that protected the palace went haywire, but the princesses and princes did as they’d been told – and turned them off. For this visit was expected. Demanded by the Queen. And nothing would stop it.

Little did they know the specific warning sensors that had protected the palace for centuries knew more than they did.

“Stop that,” Prince Maqx said with a snarl as he shifted his hand toward one of the roving holographic panels.

Though such technology was employed throughout most of the Coalition, this technology was different. More sophisticated. For as Prince Maqx spread his hand wide, his fingers practically creaking from the strained movement, a holographic panel split apart, momentarily becoming charged particles of light that zipped and zapped a meter in front of him. They shifted backward, propelling themselves toward one of the sophisticated control panels on the opposite side of the roof.

The electrified particles could not only be commanded to display any image Prince Maqx saw fit, but they could be redirected to perform tasks, too. Though the requisite nanobots were too simplistic to form armor or a security drone, they were more than enough to give the Prince the equivalent of a ghostly grip as he pressed his finger forward as if he were tapping the console all the way on the opposite side of the roof.

The holographic nanobots reached the security console with a zap and typed in the correct code that would eliminate the massive security field that kept the Prime Palace safe.

It was just in time as that sleek Coalition vessel undulated once, twice, then a third time. With a sound unlike anything in reality, it formed in full.

Prince Maqx had heard from Royal Family engineers that this ship would change everything. Not only could it travel through space using a fraction of the energy it would take to shift a heavy cruiser, but it was practically undetectable. It could be used for extraterrestrial and terrestrial missions. Though it could be compressed no smaller than the relatively tiny size of a human fist, that was sufficient to employ it in all sorts of covert missions on-world.

Though at first Prince Maqx shivered, soon enough, a smile spread across his lips.

Powerful technology indeed.

The ship landed without a sound.

Several of the princes and princesses around Maqx gasped at this.

They were all schooled in engineering, physics, too, and what they were witnessing should have been impossible.

As the ship touched down, it seemed to be nothing more than an apparition. For the roof did not shake, it sent no wind buffeting against them, and it did not stink of the scent of burnt up ozone that was always produced when a vessel of any size re-entered from orbit.

No… it was almost as if it wasn’t there at all, just a figment of their imaginations.

Though the other princes and princesses waited, Maqx did not.

He strode forward.

There was a smile on his lips.

Commander Campbell

He knew he should calm down. Chen had told him as such. Campbell couldn’t.

He had a deserved reputation at the Academy for being a pit bull.

When he felt somebody was going after one of his friends – testing his loyalty – Campbell reacted.

He wished it was something he could control, but it wasn’t.

Because this sense of loyalty was honestly the only thing that had kept him going, that had seen him succeed where the rest of his family had died.

And the Princess Leana’x Artaxan?

She was the new target of his anger.

He couldn’t quite get what she’d said out of his head. That the arrogant, privileged, foolish Princess would’ve preferred to scrounge for every penny rather than live the privileged life she had.

She was an idiot. Worse than that. Someone who had absolutely no clue how the rest of the galaxy worked.

Did she honestly think she would’ve preferred to have grown up on one of the colony worlds? Did she honestly think she would’ve preferred to switch lives with Campbell?

How would she feel if the rest of her family had been brutally murdered in front of her eyes? If she’d spent night after night dreaming about them, hoping and wishing that one day she would get the chance to avenge them, but knowing that that would never happen? Because the Barbarians who had torn through his colony world would be long dead, killed by more of their kind, consumed by the viciousness that was inherent in their culture.

But did that make it better? No. It made it worse. Because there would be no one to answer for the crimes committed against Campbell’s family.

There would never be an outlet for his anger. It would just keep growing.

Though Campbell had spent years trying to control his natural fire, occasionally he’d come across people who just rubbed him up the wrong way, and Ensign Leana’x was one of those people.

She was currently in the mess hall, two tables behind him as he sat at the bar.

His friend, the security officer Lieutenant Wko, was beside him, trying his best to distract Campbell.

Campbell wouldn’t have been distracted if a raging admiral had suddenly appeared. He clutched his drink so tightly, his fingers could’ve melted through the glass.

Wko gave an uncomfortable laugh. “Who’s got your goat today?” he said with the kind of long-suffering sigh that should have gotten Campbell’s attention.

Campbell focused everything he had on picking up what Leana’x was saying.

She was talking with one of the other ensigns – a medical recruit, obviously one of her friends from the Academy.

“It’s meant to be important though, isn’t it?” Ensign White commented as she tapped her hand on her drink.

Though Campbell would’ve loved to get Leana’x for drinking off-duty – considering all engineers weren’t allowed to consume alcohol unless they were off for more than a day – Leana’x wasn’t drinking anything. She didn’t drink or eat in front of anyone. For some damn arrogant reason, she only ever ate in her quarters.

She didn’t want the ordinary, lower-class people to see her do something as undignified as biologically existing.

That fit the narrative he was building in his head for her to a T.

Leana’x shrugged. “I guess.”

“I mean, this has never happened before, has it? A Coalition emissary actually meeting the Prime,” White said, a certain amount of glee in her voice.

Campbell was keeping a watch on them through the reflective panel behind the bar in front of him.

He had the ability to split his attention, and it was enough to see Wko sigh, shake his head, chuck down the contents of his drink, and shift away.

Campbell cleared his throat. “Stay where you are, Lieutenant,” he said, voice dropping down until it sounded suspiciously like an order.

Wko sniggered. “You can’t order me to drink with you. Especially when you’re being as sociable as a bulkhead. I should leave you in place to spy on your own,” he said, and fortunately he didn’t let the word spy carry.

“You make me less conspicuous when you’re there,” Campbell pointed out immediately.

This elicited a rattling snort from Wko. “I thank you, friend. That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. I have a suggestion, though. If you’re so bothered by her – don’t spy on her, go talk to her.”

For the first time, Campbell swiveled his gaze off the reflective panel and locked it on Wko. “I don’t trust her. And that’s as far as it goes.”

Wko let out another long-suffering sigh. “Though, on any other day, I would trust your instincts – because God knows they’re good, if irritating – the Ensign has been here for a few weeks. She wouldn’t have had time to do anything to get on your nerves. Even you aren’t that quick to dismiss people,” Wko said, and there was a pleading edge to his voice, not a firm one.

Campbell didn’t deign to answer.

He cleared his throat, shifted forward, and ordered Wko another drink from the barman.

Hercules had a real human barman – several staff volunteered for the position. It brought a human touch to the place. Which was one of the reasons why Campbell had never bothered serving on another vessel, despite the fact he now had a strong enough career record to apply to be a captain.

He didn’t want to, he kept telling himself. Because this place? It felt like home.

Captain Chan had this uncanny ability to bring out the humanity in most situations, and until John learned how to do that, he knew in his heart of hearts he would never have the skills to command.

So he stuck around. He also watched the captain’s back. Because although Captain Chan was an incredible leader, he had a blind spot. And John was 150% sure that the Captain had got it wrong when it came to Ensign Leana’x.

Wko let out a long-suffering sigh – his third for the night – sat down, accepted the drink from the barman, and went right back to being John’s wing man, providing him with all of the cover he needed to lock his attention on the reflective panel as he spied on Leana’x.

White kept pushing, obviously fascinated to learn anything more about the Artaxan Royal Family.

Her and the rest of the crew. After all, the Artaxans were the most powerful sovereign state within the Coalition. They held the keys to so much information, they were indispensable. Indispensable and secretive.

So, in a way, he couldn’t blame White for fixing a grin on her face, leaning closer to Leana’x, and shooting her a pleading look. “Come on, you’ve got to know something. I mean, you’re a princess, aren’t you? Haven’t you been to the Royal Palace? You know it’s the Third Wonder of the Galaxy? But so few people will ever be able to see it. You’ve seen it. You’ve gotta tell me what it’s like.”

Though Campbell wanted to tell himself that the way Leana’x looked at her supposed friend was with arrogance, some little scrap of his mind that hadn’t given away to his anger told him it was boredom.

Leana’x shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a building,” she said. “It’s nothing special.”

White looked seriously excited. “But you’ve been there. How many times? What was it like?”

Leana’x started to look uncomfortable. She also swiveled her gaze to the side in a practiced, careful move. Several other ensigns and lieutenants in the mess hall were listening in to their conversation.

“Can’t we talk about something else?” Leana’x tried.

“But the meeting is meant to happen tomorrow,” White lowered her voice in what she probably thought was a conspiratorial tone, but was one that still echoed throughout the mess hall.

Just when Campbell thought Leana’x wouldn’t answer, she lowered her gaze. She tapped one finger on the table.

It was her left index finger, and there was a ring on it. A ring that, according to her file, she wouldn’t take off. It was a symbol of her power, and that, more than anything, got John’s goat, as Wko would say.

Despite her heirs and graces, Leana’x was still a member of his team. And she had absolutely no right to think she was better than anyone else. And that ring? It stood for everything. If he ever got the chance, he was going to demand she take it off. Plus, it was probably an engineering risk. It was too bulky to permit fine work.

John made a note to chat with Chief Engineer Barlow about it later. For now, he listened in as Leana’x let out another sigh.

Yeah, okay, it’s historic. You’re only allowed into the palace with an invitation by the Queen – even if you’re… a member of the Royal Family,” Leana’x said, and unlike White, she knew how to drop her tone so it couldn’t be heard. Though a few other ensigns and lieutenants had stopped their conversations to listen in, they wouldn’t be able to pick her up. As for Campbell? He had implants.

He was sporting a new set of bioactive armor. One that had been developed for combat specialists just like him.

It had been grafted onto his skeleton, and it gave him abilities few others had.

So he could hear, all right, hear as Leana’x gave another sigh. “Before you ask, I don’t honestly know. The Prime… she doesn’t… let people see her,” Leana’x said, and Campbell would be a fool not to pick up the tension grating through her tone. It was the kind of tension that Campbell would’ve thought belied trauma in someone else, but in Leana’x? It had to be a ploy.

White couldn’t pick it up. She leaned forward, that excited look growing all the brighter as if her pupils had been replaced with glowing supernovas. “Why not? What does she look like? Don’t your people have some kind of theory that the Prime bodily processes information or something? Is she like… hooked up to a machine or something?”

If Leana’x had been any other person, Campbell would have intervened in the conversation. Though he might see red when it came to her, White had asked a culturally insensitive question.

Though spying on Leana’x through the reflective panel would be hard for anyone else without the specifically sophisticated endoskeleton armor John had onboard, it was easy for him. Easy enough that he could see Leana’x’s lips tighten and pale just a shade whiter.

Chan had been correct – and Leana’x had obviously been schooled in how to control her emotions. She was doing a good enough job of keeping them hidden from her friend, White, but John saw the tension rising through Ensign Leana’x just as obviously as if it had been written across her forehead.

“She’s not hooked up to machines,” Leana’x said tactfully, dropping into the specific tone she’d used on Captain Chan. “But I should probably return to engineering.” Leana’x cleared her throat and stood up.

“Wait, don’t you have several hours left before your shift?” White insisted.

“I just remembered a matter I haven’t discussed with the current duty. I forgot to warn them of a problem in the neural link conduit below life-support,” she said.

What she was implying was a serious breach of duty.

John stood, turned, and looked right at Leana’x. “Did I just overhear you correctly, Ensign?” he began, voice as hard and stiff as a whip.

She did it again. Looked at him evenly from underneath her eyelashes, though it wasn’t meant to be a pretty move. It was the kind of glance that told anyone she would not be intimidated, and it, more than anything, got John’s proverbial goat.

He was used to people being scared of him. And maybe… maybe part of him realized that was a safety blanket. Because if people were scared of him, they couldn’t get close to him, couldn’t question why he was the way he was. And couldn’t ever realize what he’d lost.

But Leana’x didn’t react. “I assume you overheard me correctly, considering you have spent the last five minutes eavesdropping on our conversation,” Leana’x said evenly.

Wko snorted, swiveling around in his chair. “Ah, no, we weren’t,” he began.

John cleared his throat.

If only a few people had been listening in to Leana’x’s conversation with White before, now every single person stopped what they were doing, turned around from their drinks, and stared.

“What did you just say to me, Ensign?” John growled.

“I pointed out the obvious. I suggest next time you attempt to eavesdrop, you do so more subtly. And as for what you correctly overheard – I lied,” she pointed out easily.

“What?”

“I don’t have a critical error that I must inform the current engineering duty of. I was simply attempting to politely end this line of questioning,” she said.

Though he hadn’t had many interactions with Ensign Leana’x up until now, there was one thing he could easily tell – she had two modes. Her ordinary attitude, and the diplomatic mask she could shrug into whenever she needed to. She would control her tone, control her emotions, and it would make her look the picture of the arrogant princess he knew she was on the inside.

His lips pared back. “Do you know the penalty for lying to a superior officer?” he began, not thinking straight.

“Yes. I am familiar with the Ordinance Objective 9A. However, it fails to apply. The conversation you,” she cleared her throat, “overheard, was not directed at you. It was between two off-duty members of staff. And I retain the right to manage my interpersonal relationships as I see fit. Though perhaps it lacked… eloquence for me to attempt to end this line of questioning with a white lie,” she said, “the fact remains, it’s none of your business.” And with that, Leana’x whirled on her foot and walked out.

John wasn’t kidding – every single person in the room was staring at him.

And he knew the costs of letting her get away with sassing him.

He cleared his throat.

That would be when Wko cleared his throat too, grabbed John’s unfinished drink from the counter, and hastily shoved it at his friend. “Don’t you have to get back to work in five minutes?” he said, as loudly as he could. He was obviously trying to divert John’s anger before it exploded like a volcano.

John clenched his jaw so tightly, the muscles jerked and twitched like writhing snakes.

Though John didn’t want to be distracted, Leana’x was a fast walker, and by the time he looked up, she’d already strode out of the mess hall.

Ensign White was still there, however.

So John turned on her. “Why the hell would you choose to hang out with someone like that?” he said, and for the first time, he managed his tone, ensuring it couldn’t echo out and fill the mess hall, worsening this already ridiculous scene.

He expected White to look shocked that her so-called friend had treated her like that. She just shrugged. “My fault, really. Sometimes I push her. Who wouldn’t? She’s a bona fide Princess of the Artaxan Family. I get it. There are some things she isn’t allowed to talk about. It was my fault.” With that, White shrugged, offered him a nod and a salute, and walked out.

That was not how that interaction should’ve gone. White should be just as pissed off as him.

Wko cleared his throat again. “Don’t you really need to get to your shift? You’ve got like five minutes until it starts, right?” he said pointedly.

John didn’t start his shift for another hour, but he was calming down quickly enough to realize that Wko was offering him a lifeline. John didn’t need to make any more of a scene.

He cleared his throat, nodded, handed Wko the drink, and strode out.

John’s whole body was stiff as he moved, and he was more aware of his endoskeleton than ever. It gave strength and import to his every move. The kind of strength that told him that with nothing more than a thought, he could shove a hand into the floor, rip out a section of the plating, and chuck it at the door.

He wouldn’t do that, though.

John had never had anger like that.

His brother had. It had been the same anger that had seen John’s brother attempt to take on the Barbarians rather than hide their family. The same anger that had seen John’s family die.

So John would never let himself lash out like that.

He couldn’t stop the verbal assaults, though. Though they were justified, never random.

All XOs had reputations for being hardened. The discipline of the crew was down to them. You had to maintain a certain level of respect in order to get things done and to maintain discipline.

… But had John gone over the top?

Did he sometimes let his anger control him rather than the other way around?

It was a soul-searching question, one that always popped into his mind in the middle of the night when he had nothing else to distract him.

Though on paper John was ready to command, there was another reason he wouldn’t put his name into the hat for a new ship yet.

That reason was Chan. No, it wasn’t that John had more to learn from the Captain. It was that Chan didn’t think John was ready, did he?

Though Chan had never said it, John knew Chan didn’t like his anger.

But right now?

Right now, all Campbell could do was seethe.

Seethe, and tell himself he’d look for a way to prove to everybody what he already knew – Leana’x didn’t deserve to be onboard.

But while she was onboard? He was determined to keep an eye on her.

Chapter 3

Leana’x

“Princess, early for your shift again?” Chief Engineer Barlow said as he jumped down from the short ladder that led up to the second mezzanine level in main engineering.

The man was of solid Orang build.

The Orangs had always had a good relationship with the Artaxan Protectorate. The Orangs abutted onto Artaxan space, and the two groups had strong trading ties.

Though nobody else would call Leana’x Princess – and she would cringe if they did – she just shrugged and nodded at Barlow. “With respect, sir, I don’t have anything else to do.”

“We can find something for you, Princess,” he commented. There wasn’t exactly a note of deference to his tone, but there wasn’t a note of irony, either. The Orangs were practical people, and they knew more about Artaxan society than anyone else.

It was another reason she’d picked the Hercules. Though if the bitter John Campbell ever found out, he’d assume Leana’x had specifically asked to work under Barlow because she wanted him to defer to her position as a Royal Family Princess, that simply wasn’t the case.

Barlow would understand her where no one else could.

The rest of the engineering crew had been a little put off when Barlow had started referring to her as Princess, but it was clear that he was still the one in charge.

It was just a quirk. Of which Barlow had thousands.

The Orangs were an unusual race. It was hard for the straitlaced Coalition races to understand them, but Leana’x found it easy.

She pressed her hands in front of herself in a standard Orang greeting. “Why, thank you, Supreme Leader,” she said.

This elicited a snort.

Though several of the other ensigns paused to look at their interaction, they quickly grew busy and walked off.

Barlow clapped his hands together, his eight fingers intermeshing as his wide lips pulled out over his massive, massive teeth in a genuine smile. “Now that is a good name. You trying to win points with me by working even though it’s not your shift?” Barlow asked.

Though a lot of the other Coalition races who weren’t as familiar with the Orangs’ specific humor would’ve taken Barlow’s exact tone to be intimidating, she didn’t. Though she’d specifically never bothered to go down the diplomatic route, as most of the other members of the Royal Family chose to, as a teenager, she had been to Orang many times. She knew their specific sense of humor.

She shrugged. “I guess I am, Emperor of the Universe. Is that good enough?” she asked playfully.

Barlow snorted.

But that would be when she heard a specific person clear their throat.

She hadn’t seen him when she walked in. He was hidden by one of the bulkheads that split off propulsion and navigation systems.

She knew that tone of derisiveness, and sure enough, wasn’t surprised at all when Commander Campbell stiffly walked around the bulkhead, a snarl readying on his lips. “What did you just say, Ensign?”

No need for discipline,” Barlow said in a no-nonsense tone. “The Ensign was merely playing on my race’s specific sense of humor,” Barlow said. And though he’d been cheeky moments before, he dropped it and looked professional. Well, mostly professional. The Orangs had a reputation for stirring up trouble. And though Barlow would have found a way to control that desire as he’d risen through the ranks and gained extra responsibilities, he’d still have it in his soul. For some reason, Leana’x got the impression that Barlow got a kick out of rubbing Campbell the wrong way. One that would work for the Chief Engineer – as his position was almost on par with Campbell’s – but it would backfire for her.

Though she usually wasn’t one to back down from a fight, she nodded in deference, clasped her hands behind her back, took a step away from the two men, and locked her gaze on the floor. “I apologize for my words, Commander. But please do not misread them. I have experience with the Orang culture, and specifically with their sense of humor. I was simply—”

Being inappropriate,” Campbell said, voice sounding way too much like a shot across the proverbial bows. If the Hercules ran out of long-range ionic missiles, they could probably shove the Commander in one of the torpedo banks and make do.

Leana’x could see Campbell out of the corner of her eye but knew way better than to lift her gaze up and stare directly into his eyes. That would just aggravate him further. And though she knew for a fact that Campbell would think he knew how she operated, she understood him far better.

Though she couldn’t comment on his upbringing, she’d seen men like him before. They thought the only way to deal with unprocessed emotions was to push them away and turn them into anger instead. There was only so much you could use that anger for. Destruction, and nothing else. Now was exactly not the time to point out to Campbell that he was ruining his life by leaving the grief over losing his family unprocessed. Now was the time to get out of here before he exploded.

I do not doubt you think you have a specialized knowledge of the Orang people. But what you said wasn’t funny. It was derogatory. I don’t really care where you think you’ve come from and what attitude toward command you believe you should take,” he said, stressing the word believe as if his voice were a whip cracking the word right out of the air, “you will respect your superiors under my command.”

Though this was technically where Barlow should jump in and point out that they were just playing, she could see it there – that cheeky glint in his eyes. The Orangs had a deserved reputation for pushing people the wrong way. They liked emotion – strong emotional reactions the best. And right now, though Barlow was still technically retaining a professional attitude and fulfilling his position as the Chief Engineer, he was also kicking back and enjoying the show. Which left her to manage this situation before it turned into a full-scale war.

She took a quiet breath. For the first time since the conversation had begun, her gaze darted up – but only for a nanosecond. “I apologize, Commander. I am repentant, and I assure you, it won’t happen again.”

You don’t get to tell me how to punish you,” he snapped. “You will be working double shifts for the next week. That, Ensign, is better than just saying sorry. And before you question, yes, I have the authority to do that,” he snarled.

She didn’t react. She liked being on duty. But there was a rebellious part of her that wanted to point out she hadn’t actually started her shift yet. And though it would be impressive to turn around, walk out, and tell the blustery Commander that she would be back in an hour, she let her gaze slip back down to the floor. “Yes, Commander,” she said in an even, emotionless tone.

It did it again – pushed whatever button Commander Campbell had.

His gaze flicked down to her hand.

Unconsciously, she’d been playing with her Artaxan ring. Rolling it around and around her index finger with her thumb.

Though many believed it was a sign of her birthright – a reminder to any other Artaxans out there who she was and how they should treat her – it wasn’t.

It was more of a shackle.

She was never meant to take it off. Ever. When she hit the gel shower after a long shift, she had to keep it on. She was barely allowed to slide it up her finger to clean the skin beneath.

It was chunky, it was heavy, and just once she wanted to pull it off when she went to bed or tried to do finicky fixes in some of the more cramped neural wired consoles that ran through the belly of the ship.

But she could not take it off.

For it was far more than a symbol of the Royal Family, if the Palace was to be believed.

Just how much more of a symbol, she didn’t know.

Though Leana’x understood personally that the Artaxan Royal Family were far more mysterious than people chose to believe, she doubted this ring was anything more than a reminder to her to toe the Royal Family line.

So when Campbell’s gaze locked on it, she deliberately shoved her hand behind her back and hid it.

“Jewelry is not allowed while you are on shift,” Campbell commented with a growl.

“It’s fine. I’ve made an exception,” Barlow finally entered the conversation. His words were quick and categorical. “The Ensign is more than welcome to wear that ring.”

“It will impede her tasks. And it sets the wrong example,” Campbell said, railroading right over the top of Barlow. “This is a disciplinary matter,” he added, and though he didn’t say it, he was making it clear to Barlow that while Barlow had control over Leana’x as an engineer, Campbell did when it came to matters of discipline.

“Take the ring off. And get back to work. Double shifts for two weeks,” Campbell added.

It had been a week previously, but obviously Leana’x’s mere presence was getting on Campbell’s nerves so badly that if she stayed with him any longer, he’d put her in the brig.

“Come on, now,” Barlow said.

He stopped.

Campbell shot him a look. “This conversation is over. Take the ring off and return to work.”

Despite the fact she’d been ear-bashed in front of every single member of the crew in main engineering, Leana’x hadn’t been bothered by the conversation until now.

Take her ring off?

In public?

There was… something violating about that. Something private. It was almost like Campbell was asking her to take her clothes off and do a dance.

She had two options, didn’t she? Number one was to point out to Campbell that she was allowed to wear this ring. It was on her file. In fact, it’d been a condition of joining the Academy. It was a condition of every single Royal Family member venturing from Artaxan One to explore the rest of the galaxy that they did not take off their symbol of office.

It was right there on her file. That’s all she had to say. She could even point out that she could take this right to the top and ask Captain Chan if he agreed with Campbell’s punishment.

… She didn’t.

Though her stomach twisted in a way she’d never felt, Leana’x still brought up her right hand and latched her thumb and index finger on the ring.

She felt a thrill. Nerves maybe. Shame possibly.

“Do you really want to try my patience by wasting my time?” Campbell growled.

Leana’x sighed.

She pulled her ring off.

Though she wasn’t meant to take her ring off, she had on several occasions previously. Just experimentally. In the dark usually, on her own, in her room. Somewhere private.

It was a game in her head, see. A game she could never truly win.

Because on the few occasions Leana’x had taken off her ring, she’d attempted to tell herself she finally felt normal. That without it, she could pass as an ordinary citizen of the galaxy. She could do whatever they did, enjoy whatever problems they had, and, most importantly, be free. Free to make her own mistakes, to scrounge for her own existence, and to be away from the dogmatic, dictatorial forces of the Artaxan Royal Family.


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