Book 2 of the Crow series, Crow – The Betrayal. In Book 1 we left off with Steven discovering who he was. In Book 2, he has to come to grips with his new reality. Complications include the majority of a vast alien civilization hating and fearing him for being a deviant Gatekeeper, a secret organization on Terra that covets his abilities, a divided alien team on Terra pushing and pulling him in different directions, and an anomaly in his very nature that threatens to usurp everyone’s plans for him and threatens the Earth itself.
Here is Chapter 1. It has endured a several revisions and a thorough editing process, and will be treated to more editing as the book is refined until it is ready. I hope you enjoy…
“Asherah, I broke it. I broke the Earth.” Steven fumbled with something as Asherah approached him from behind. He looked over his shoulder at her, his expression full of fear. “Help me, please! I can’t keep it together.”
Something fell on the floor as Asherah reached him. It wasn’t big, but the whole room seemed to shake when it landed.
“Steven, it’s a dream. This is a dream.” She put her hand on Steven’s shoulder and knelt down beside him. “You’re having a nightmare.”
“Pick that up.” Steven pointed. Asherah looked down and saw what looked like a chunk of a sphere. She picked it up, turned it over, and saw what appeared to be a continent on the rounded portion, complete with moving clouds. Steven grabbed it from her and put it back into the sphere he was holding in his lap. “I broke it. I’m trying to fix it. But,” he looked at her, panicked, “I can’t keep it together. It won’t stay fixed!”
“It’s not real. This isn’t real, Steven.” Asherah sat down next to him.
“Not real? That’s the Earth! Asherah, I broke a planet!” Steven yelled. He fumbled a little and yelped as another couple of chunks fell out of the shattered sphere. Asherah picked one up and handed it to him and he frantically placed it back and pointed at the other. “Please, Asherah. I didn’t mean to. I have to fix it. People lost their homes.”
Asherah wiped her eyes as she picked up the other piece. “It’s my fault, Steven. I wasn’t there to comfort you. Your nightmare went out of control. But I’m here now.”
“Then help me hold this. It keeps falling apart.” Steven fidgeted, trying to keep the shifting pieces from falling to the floor. “They’re suffering because of me.” He looked up and squinted, looking past Asherah. “Go away!”
Asherah looked around and saw Steven’s nightmare wolfman and vampire. “Steven, Migalo and Lohet are your friends. They shouldn’t even be in your nightmare.”
“They hate me.” Steven looked down at the planet. “I know it. I can feel it. They won’t stop looking at me with their…like I’m some sort of insect.” Steven looked up sharply. “They won’t leave me alone. I’m trying to fix things and they keep coming back to pester me.” He nodded in their direction. “They blame me.” Steven sighed and looked at the Earth. Asherah put her hand on the globe as it shifted. He looked away. “Why don’t you?”
“What?” Asherah looked at Steven.
“Why don’t you blame me?” Steven licked his lips, looking at the soft fur on her hands. “I’m a monster, Asherah. I’m not even human.”
“Neither am I,” Asherah said softly. “That’s never bothered you before.”
“You’re an Elf. Full of life and joy.” Steven took in a deep breath as he looked at the world that sat in his lap. “I’m a monster. People were, people were…” He closed his eyes, trying to control his emotions.
“This is a dream, Steven. You must wake up,” Asherah said. “Please.”
“This is real!” Steven yelled, half standing up. The globe abruptly fell to pieces and Steven cried out as he scrambled around in a frenzy, trying to gather the pieces together. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” Steven looked around and grabbed up more pieces, but they kept multiplying. “Please, help me!” Steven looked at Asherah as she reached out for him. But she was fading.
“Asherah!” Steven cried out, sitting up. He looked around and down at Asherah who lay looking up at him from their sleeping mat. He felt a presence and looked at the door of their room. Lohet was standing in the doorway looking at him impassively. After a moment he turned and left. Steven blinked and looked down at Asherah as she gripped his arm. He relaxed a little and lay back down next to her. “Another nightmare. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I was there,” Asherah said as she caressed his face.
“You really should stay out of my dreams.” Steven looked at her. “They’re a mess.”
“Who else will help you?” Asherah kissed his hand.
“It felt so real.” Steven wiped his eyes. “No matter how weird it is…” He looked at Asherah. He was telling an alien Elf how weird his dreams were. The irony wasn’t lost on him.
Asherah grinned, seeing his thoughts. “You never thought I was weird in the meadow.”
Steven sighed. “Five years. You were so perfectly normal to me.” He rolled on his back. “But, you still are. That’s the weird part.”
“Get some sleep, Steven. They’re coming to examine you in the morning and you need to be rested.” Asherah patted his hand and snuggled next to him.
“Sure. Examine me. That’s going to help me sleep well.” Steven looked at her sideways. But sleep deprivation was taking over and he found himself falling asleep. Asherah wiped her eyes as she watched him doze fitfully. It did seem that everyone thought he was a monster. But she didn’t.
The Gatekeeper’s Chamber was one of the few cavities within the collection of giant trees forming the Temple that remained largely unmeddled with and fully naturally formed. Every other part of the Temple trees were precisely trained into a unified, vast Gatekeeper’s hub that provided access to the thousands of worlds and their respective Temples in the Cooperative. Maran took in a deep breath, enjoying the coniferous aroma in the room. He looked up at the diversity of creatures that sat on, hung from, or crouched under the various seemingly random growths and branches that protruded from the walls. All of them were Gatekeepers and all were focused on maintaining the thousands of gates that were open in the Temple.
“You have returned to Legracia.”
Maran looked around and grinned at a brilliantly white man sitting on one of the several branches that crossed the chamber. “Guildmaster Orin? You sound surprised. I am human after all.” He jumped up onto the gnarled branch and crouched next to Orin. “You haven’t been to Toros in a long time. I thought Keratians made pilgrimages frequently.”
Orin scowled as he leveled a cool glare at Maran. “You return empty handed.”
“I am thinking that Toros reminds you of your family.” Maran nodded, ignoring Orin’s comment. “Which is odd, because they perished on Rholling.”
“Attempting to divert blame does not alleviate the severity of your failure, Maran,” Orin said quietly. “Your failure to dispatch the deviant has created chaos in the Cooperative.”
“Yeah. I’m still getting grief over that. How long did the Rholling issue stick to you? Or, how long did it take for people to stop pestering you over your endorsement of the Elder?” Marin sat down on the branch and glanced around at the other Gatekeepers. He could tell that they were paying close attention to their discussion and grinned. “A couple of pretty severe mistakes and yet you remain a stalwart pillar of the Cooperative.”
“The Elder’s condition…” Orin hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “I will not get sucked into any more of your diversionary tactics, Maran. You know as well as I do that the Elder fooled all of us.”
“Before my time. I’m only a few hundred years old.” Maran smirked and swung his legs back and forth over the edge of the massive branch. “But I am old enough to know that your anger is misdirected.”
“You gated out on the landing rather than at an optimal…”
“It was surrounded by people, Orin,” Maran interrupted. “Chasers, too, in case you have forgotten.”
“Their failure as Chasers does not lessen yours as a Chaser Guildmaster,” Orin grumbled. “Its termination would have put an end to this, and we would have had our team back. Now…”
Maran nodded, thoughtfully. “If we terminate the deviant now, the team will be stranded on the Forbidden Planet.”
Orin pursed his lips as he regarded Maran critically.
“I am not dismissive of how complicated things have become, Orin. However, rather than focusing on the setbacks, I have been seeking a solution.”
Maran sighed and looked around the room then back at Orin. “Aradia and Tor’eng have proven disruptive. Their petition to have the deviant reclassified has gained enough momentum as to break unanimity in the Council. Sending a Chaser team in to finish the job now could be even more divisive.” He sighed again. “Which is too bad, because the deviant has no Venda defending it.”
“I am well aware of this.” Orin held his arms out. A black mist formed around him and coalesced into strips of fabric that in turn melded together to form a loose robe that draped over his shoulders. He stood up and Maran followed.
“What you may not remember is Lelana’s condition.”
“She was healed,” Orin said as he jumped off the branch.
“She could still have passed that on to the deviant. It may yet make it less stable. Enough to, say, bring the Council back into agreement?” Maran grinned, keeping up with Orin.
Orin looked at Maran for a long moment, then nodded slowly. “It doesn’t matter if she was healed or not. The perception…”
Maran laughed. “I’m such a bad influence on you, Guildmaster Orin.”
Orin looked at the human sideways. “What do you propose?”
“Give the deviant reason to lose its cool.” Maran held out his arms as if that was obvious. “And it has to be public.”
“It is bonded to an Elf,” Orin said thoughtfully.
“Two Elves.” Maran held up two fingers. “One is a Chaser who would happily share that connection with the Cooperative.”
Orin smiled, flashing his canines. “You have reminded me why I made you my second, Maran.”
Maran shrugged. “I have my moments.” He closed his eyes for a moment then rubbed his temples. “Did you get that broadcast?”
Orin nodded, looking to the side as if listening to something unseen. “She has done it. Foolish woman.”
“Perish that you criticize the Huntress.” Maran looked askance at Orin. “She may finish this for us once and for all.”
“Send a Selkie to the Huntress’s life-mate. Broadcast her experience to the Council.” He stopped and looked thoughtful. “Connect her to the Council directly. She must not cease to be reminded of her duty and what waits for her back home,” Orin said, scowling.
“You really doubt her?” Maran cocked his head stopping at the entrance of the chamber.
“She’s an Elf.” Orin leveled a cool glare at Maran. “Huntress or not, that does not bode well for her mission.”
“You truly have no faith in people, do you?” Maran called after Orin as the Keratian Gatekeeper walked off.
“I have faith in you, Maran. Stay close to them. If she fails, we need you to be involved.” Orin stopped and looked back at Maran. “You are less obvious than I am.”
Maran grinned. “If you keep complimenting me, I might get a big head, Orin.”
Orin raised an eyebrow, then abruptly vanished. Sighing, Maran walked back to the branch and jumped back on it, picking a spot next to a colorful Selkie woman.
The Selkie looked at him as Maran closed his eyes and prepared to lend a hand maintaining the gates. After a moment, he absentmindedly activated a computer interface around him as he began coordinating the Council’s involvement with the Huntress. He glanced at the Selkie and smiled briefly then got back to work. “Ooh, I got the Mori’te gate. Was that the one you had?” He looked back at her. The Selkie nodded. Maran smiled as he closed his eyes. “Excellent. I like Mori’te.”
The Selkie’s eyes went black for a brief moment, and a wave of chrome washed over her colorful skin as she stood up and jumped off the branch. Before she landed, she vanished. Maran opened his eyes and looked around, then returned to his meditations.
“Yeah, I caused the earthquake. But I didn’t do it on purpose!” Steven insisted, trying his best to convince the Elvin Gatekeeper that he wasn’t dangerous. The instant he said that he realized just how bad it sounded. He grimaced and looked down at his hands. “I didn’t know. You’ve got to believe me.”
The interview wasn’t going very well. Accidentally causing earthquakes was frowned upon. He was still having trouble wrapping his head around the actual cause of the global tremor and how it was related to him. He was just a kid. A bit of an odd kid, but still just a teenager. And he was accused of causing an earthquake? However, he had traveled to an alien world before, and was now discussing this with an alien, so that sort of put the earthquake thing into a familiar context of outlandishly and ridiculously implausible. Aliens.
Steven blinked and looked at the Elf who sat there frowning sternly at him. Her attitude was uncharacteristic according to his limited experience with Elves. Normally they were bubbly with a heavy dose of sultriness and grace. But she appeared to be ready to pounce on him at any given moment. It reminded him of how terrified he was when another Elf, Penipe, was chasing him not long ago. The Elf squinted at him. “This bothers you, the earthquake?”
“Well, duh!” Steven blurted out. He stopped and glanced at his life-mate as he tried to subdue himself. All of this was for her, after all. Asherah smiled at him tentatively. Steven swallowed and looked at the inquisitor who had been grilling him mercilessly for the larger part of the day. “I mean, yeah. It bothers me.” He shook his head, unable to restrain himself. “Just what kind of stupid question is that?”
Steven scratched his arm nervously as he felt himself shrinking under her withering glare. He was tired. But she was still an alien who apparently didn’t understand him. He looked back at Asherah, an Elf who was, for all intents and purposes, his wife. Or, as they called it, life-mate. There was no divorce for them. She, too, was an alien. But when he looked at her, he didn’t see an alien, in spite of her soft fur, large eyes, and canines. He had to mentally assent to see her alien attributes. Steven shook his head. He was surrounded by aliens. He felt out of place in his own home.
“Penipe said you wanted to visit the Cooperative. In that light, there are no stupid questions, deviant.” Her tone was chilly and firm. Steven licked his lips and looked down.
“Asherah wants to visit. I really don’t care,” he said, subdued.
“She can visit any time she wants.”
“Not without Steven!” Asherah interrupted defensively.
The Elf barely acknowledged her. Just the briefest flicker of a glance before she returned her attention to Steven. After all, Asherah was the foolish young Elf that had bonded with the deviant. They weren’t pleased with her either. But she was Penipe’s daughter, so they decided to focus on Steven first. “Your life-mate will not interfere with this investigation or she will be removed.”
Steven nodded. He squeezed Asherah’s arm and she relaxed a little. Steven looked at her, remembering the days of the meadow. Asherah grinned at that memory. Their shared thoughts seemed to flow back and forth as he focused on a time where everything made sense for both of them as he tried to ease his life-mate’s consternation. Oddly, easing her tensions helped ease his own. Their bond’s feedback. He was still getting used to that.
The newcomer seemed to be following his thoughts too, even though he had no bond with her. Steven wondered if she could really read him. It felt to him as if her unwavering gaze pierced deep into him, and Steven couldn’t help but shiver involuntarily. The Elf noticed his unease and almost smiled. Almost.
Steven coughed and looked at her. “You don’t have to be rude. Why all this trouble? I answered all of your questions. The search for my parents, the secret agent people. Nightmares. Asherah. What more do you want?” Steven knew the answer. But he didn’t understand it in his case. It should be an easy decision for them. He was just a kid.
“Deviants are not allowed to survive, much less visit the Cooperative.”
“Yeah, I kinda gathered that. But are we really that bad?” Steven winced. “Okay, bad question. Am I? You’ve been with me all day. Do you still think I’m going to…whatever it is that deviants do?” Steven remembered the memory Penipe had shared with him. He glanced up at Asherah’s mother who sat on the roof of the house quietly nibbling on a mushroom. It was a horrible memory, full of devastation. An entire world reduced to roiling magma. The world of the Faeries. But he couldn’t imagine even remotely doing anything like that, much less conceptualize actually being able to do that.
“You are an anomaly.” The Elf leaned forward on the other side of the picnic table and squinted at him. “You are aware of us.”
“Really? How could I not be aware? Furry, walking, big-eyed kitties, huge skulking wolfmen and Mr. Vampire dude over there?” Steven waved his arm around at the aliens that were steadfastly trying to avoid their discussion.
The Elf shook her head. “It’s not that. There would be none of this discussion taking place. A deviant does not acknowledge life. Only insatiable hunger.”
Steven’s stomach growled and he looked down, embarrassed. The Elf cocked her head.
“Well, I am kinda hungry. We’ve been doing this all day!” Steven said defensively. He looked back up at the Elf. “Not even a snack?”
Steven sighed. It was like she wanted him to be uncomfortable. He shook his head and looked at her, trying to make sense of just what angle she was coming from. He had snuck some figs from the bowl in the kitchen before the meeting and was sorely tempted to take them out of his pocket and eat them just to spite her.
But she didn’t appear to be the type to be trifled with, even casually. She had arrived with their first shipment of supplies that afternoon, this ancient Elvish Gatekeeper. From what Steven understood, the Elf was his biological parents’ boss and was several centuries old, though she appeared little older than he was. She seemed to emanate authority that made Steven uncomfortable. He felt like he was in the principal’s office. It struck him just then that she was his parents’ boss. Perhaps it was time for him to start grilling her. “You knew Mom and Dad.”
“You did not consume your mother.”
That was not the response Steven was expecting. He gaped for a moment then closed his mouth. “I hope that isn’t something you aliens do?” He looked at Asherah questioningly, appalled.
“Lelana still lives,” Penipe said quietly. Steven heard her in his head as much as with his ears. But she wasn’t speaking to him.
The Elf glanced at Penipe, then returned her guarded attention to Steven. “Interesting. She will be the first.”
“The first what?” Steven said, finding it hard to stay seated. She knew things about his parents that he desperately wanted to learn.
“The first to survive giving birth to a deviant.”
Steven slumped, not sure how to respond to that.
“Deviants are born with an awareness of the entire universe but no way to frame that awareness. Your inclination is to grasp the closest anchor point, which would naturally be your mother. Given your nature, that is always fatal.”
“I would never, ever hurt my mother,” Steven interrupted loudly as he looked intensely at the Elf. “Or my father.”
The Elf didn’t look convinced as she crossed her arms.
Steven rolled his eyes. “They’re missing because of this stupid mission you gave them! Not me! You sent these aliens here to spy on the Sadari. To get trapped. And you’re here judging me about my weirdness?” Steven stammered then stopped. “I don’t want this, I really don’t care. I’m home. I just want to please Asherah. That’s all this is about. And I want to find my parents. My parents,” Steven said, irritated at what was starting to look like a wasted day.
“You exist because of this stupid mission we gave them. And without this stupid mission, the Sadari would not be contested in their plans which would likely render this planet a dead wasteland.”
Steven licked his lips. “I…” He had no suitable retort. He was supposed to be a tool to achieve an end, then be discarded. The Elf had confirmed as much. “The only enemy I see right now is sitting in front of me,” Steven said quietly as he looked at the wood grain of the table.
“Perhaps you are right. You were supposed to be terminated the moment you opened the gate.”
“Yeah, well, don’t look so disappointed,” Steven grumbled. Asherah clasped his hand, and he sighed and looked up at Penipe, who remained sitting cross legged up on the roof of Steven’s adopted parent’s cob and timber-frame home. She returned his gaze without expression. He felt no hints from her either. He was going to have to get through this on his own.
Everyone was so serious all of a sudden. Even Sirel, the ever effervescent and mischievous Faerie, sat upside down under the eve of their home, quiet and sullen. She looked like a perfectly normal barely adolescent girl, though she was many thousands of years old. Yet even with her age, she retained the joy and typical playfulness of a child. While her gravity defying capabilities were still disconcerting to Steven when he looked at her, she was always so cheerful and positive. Except for now. And Lohet, the Keratian, also remained aloof from their discussion. He pretended to focus on a discussion he was having with Asherah’s father about supplies and logistics. But Steven could tell he was paying close attention to the interview.
“They have been instructed to not interfere.” The Elf had noticed his wandering attention.
“I can tell,” Steven said, sour. They may have been the aliens of his nightmares at one time, but suddenly he wished they would interfere.
Asherah sat apprehensively next to him, still leaning against him. He could feel his life-mate’s nervousness through their bond and it was disquieting. He knew she was trying to set him at ease, but at the same time she was fearful as well. “Asherah? Who is this woman?” he thought to her. Asherah looked from the newcomer to Steven and attempted a weak smile and held his hand.
“She is the one who interrogated me when I first told my father about you. Lorei Sarali Teningsin Solory Fahele Syagria,” Asherah thought to him.
Steven nodded, glancing at Lorei who appeared to be following their conversation. “Can she hear us?”
“No. But she knows we’re communicating.” Asherah looked down.
“She can stuff a red pepper in her ear and dance on the table for all I care. Who is she?” Steven flashed anger and Asherah gripped his hand tighter, calming him.
“She’s the Huntress. A Chaser. They hunt deviants,” Asherah thought to him. “But it wasn’t bad. She’s not a bad person. I just hope she likes you.”
“But, I’m a deviant,” Steven said to her out loud, alarmed.
“For the rest of this interview I will have to mute your bond,” Lorei said coldly as she looked at Steven and Asherah. Steven grimaced, feeling guilty about his outburst. He didn’t want to imagine what muting meant. His first impression was that they wouldn’t be able to hear each other’s thoughts and feelings. “Is this acceptable?” the Huntress asked, watching him intently as she gauged Steven’s response.
“No,” Steven said impulsively. Lorei raised an eyebrow as she sat straighter. He gulped. Asherah squeezed his hand again and they met each other’s gaze. It was important to Asherah that Steven gain Council acceptance, and he knew it. The Council governed the Cooperative, and getting their approval was the only way they could visit without him being a target for termination. He was almost terminated the last time he was there. “I mean…” Steven started, then shook his head vigorously. “No! No. What? You want to…she’s part of me. How can you even suggest that?”
Lorei leaned forward, the faintest glimmer of empathy showing on her face. “It will be just like Asherah is asleep.” She leaned back, looking perplexed as she watched Steven process this. He was already surprising her by his reactions.
“Well, unless I entered her dreams,” Steven said sarcastically. They dreamscaped often. It was like they were awake, but their bodies remained asleep. However, most of the time when she was asleep he enjoyed just feeling her presence while resting, much like a lover would look down lovingly on his mate while she slept. It was a calm break from the frequent nightmares he would have, and it was soothing as he basked in the peace of her slumber. Asherah looked at him and he could have sworn she blushed a little under her fine and short fur. Steven blushed back. Yeah, he liked watching the love of his life sleep. Who doesn’t?
“This is important, Steven,” Asherah said softly. Steven scowled and looked around. Lohet averted his gaze when he tried to look at him. He also got no response whatsoever from Penipe and Sirel just sat there, upside down and staring at him.
Looking at Lorei, Steven sighed and shrugged. “Whatever.”
The Elf got up, walked around the picnic table, and sat on the bench beside Steven with her back to the table. As with Asherah and Penipe, every move she made was measured and not a little titillating. Gracefulness seemed to bow at the feet of Elves when they moved. Steven looked at her and was at once lost in her eyes as she sat down and looked intently at him. Elves’ large eyes seemed to see more than light, and for Steven it was truly a window to their souls. He saw something else in her eyes, however. Veiled fear? Was she afraid of him?
She held up her hand to his face and hesitated for a moment. Steven cringed a little, and Asherah’s grip on his hand tightened. Then Lorei appeared to steel herself and touched his cheek with her hand ever so gently, and he instantly felt her in his head. Steven mentally recoiled at the stranger’s presence, seeking Asherah as he took a sharp breath. But Lorei was right. It was as if Asherah was asleep. Asherah’s grip on his hand tightened even more as she gasped a little. She could still see his thoughts, but she knew he no longer saw her. The lack of that feedback was as uncomfortable for her as not being able to experience her thoughts was for him. Suddenly Steven felt alone and scared. The Chaser looked into his eyes with wonder as she probed deeper into his memories, gasping as she trembled a little. It was the first real emotional reaction Steven got from her.
“Impossible,” she whispered, her eyes wide. He could feel her fear as her mind tickled his thoughts. Terror even. But also a spark of something else. No one had ever been in the mind of a deviant before. Except Asherah and Penipe, of course. But now Lorei was in there and she was apparently not seeing what she expected to see.
Steven fidgeted, suddenly wanting to run away. He hated the spotlight, and even more so now that someone was poking around inside his head. Asherah squeezed his hand again and he looked at her. The silence was unnerving, but he took comfort in her presence nonetheless.
“So much compassion,” Lorei whispered almost imperceptibly, bringing Steven back from his meandering thoughts. She looked back and forth at Asherah and Steven. “Penipe reported this to Lohet. But we couldn’t comprehend it.”
“Yeah. I heard that was supposed to be unusual.” Steven felt a little sheepish. He loved life. All life. How was that unusual? But he had never really known another deviant.
“It is impossible, Steven,” his interviewer stated quietly, still trembling. “You shouldn’t be.” She looked up at Penipe, who still sat nibbling on her mushroom up on the roof. His bond-mother returned the gaze, still showing no emotion. Lorei was suddenly at a loss. She had to see it personally. “The earthquake.” She looked back at Steven. “Lives were lost.”
Steven fidgeted. It wasn’t from the actual weak global earthquake he accidentally generated, but from the unzipping effect that the earthquake caused, resulting in many much stronger earthquakes around the globe as faults slipped. Nonetheless, he was the trigger for that. “It was just a nightmare,” Steven said quietly.
“It was more than a nightmare. The orbit of this planet’s binary companion was even shifted,” Lorei said as she pulled away and looked at her fingers.
Steven looked at her blankly, then understood. “The moon?”
“You care about the deaths.” Lorei ignored Steven’s question.
Steven grimaced. “I try not to think about it.”
“You think about it all the time,” Lorei corrected. She had been looking into his memories after all.
“I didn’t say I didn’t think about it!” Steven said defensively. He sighed, looking at the ground beside the table. “I dream about it, and the…the others.” The memory of the deaths he witnessed while being chased intruded into his consciousness and dreams frequently.
“We shall go see for ourselves then.” The Gatekeeper closed her eyes briefly then grabbed Steven’s arm and suddenly the two of them were standing in the middle of a refugee camp somewhere in the East.
“I thought you couldn’t gate on Earth because of the Sadari,” Steven said, shocked at the sudden change of scenery. A faceless and immensely powerful enemy called the Sadari had corrupted the fractures around Earth, depriving access to Gatekeepers. But not even they could block a deviant. Steven marveled at how his companions had tiptoed around that fact when they shared that with him. They were afraid he would get a big head, Steven surmised. It didn’t matter, however. He simply couldn’t conceptualize that much power, much less get arrogant over it. When Asherah bit his arm playfully, it still hurt. He felt normal. He felt human.
“I can’t gate on Terra. But you can,” Lorei said to him coolly. She had used his ability with but a touch. “This offends you?”
Steven cocked his head, looking at her. “Why would it offend me?”
Lorei just looked at him, expecting something, but not receiving what she expected. Steven shook his head, bemused, and looked around. There were hundreds of tents around them, all tightly packed in a small clearing beside a large dump. The day was just starting and there were already a number of people heading towards the various food trucks that were starting to filter in. Recent rains had rendered the terrain a muddy swamp and it stank of sewage. Steven covered his mouth as he beheld the putrid scene around them, horrified. His first reaction was to attempt to return to the homestead but Lorei grabbed his arm, anchoring him there. He looked at her and felt her terror. She knew that she couldn’t stop him. No one could. Not even the illustrious and powerful Sadari. But he still reluctantly cooperated, remaining with her.
“Please. I don’t like it here,” Steven said, trembling as he looked around.
“Why?” Lorei asked as she struggled to maintain her composure. Steven could feel that she was extremely anxious, fearful of his reaction or of what she may trigger in him. Her fear made him nauseous. No one should be afraid of him. He felt ashamed that she was.
Steven didn’t really know the answer to her question. He couldn’t put it to words. But he knew the camp was a direct result of what he had done. The people there had homes at one time. There was a time when they had lives and families and bright futures. Now they had squalor and suffering, hunger and cold, disease and death, and it was breaking Steven’s heart. He looked at Lorei as he wiped his eyes. “I didn’t mean to! I really didn’t!” Steven didn’t know how to process what he was seeing, what he was responsible for. He looked at her pleadingly, all but begging to be allowed to leave.
Lorei cocked her head, looking at him. She put her hand on his face again, trembling a little as she entered into his tormented thoughts. She bit her lip as she dug deeper, trying to see if his guilt was genuine. Steven grit his teeth, trying not to withdraw from her. Until her own memories betrayed something that shocked him.
“You were ordered to kill me!” Steven stepped back from Lorei’s touch, alarmed. She raised an eyebrow as she pulled her hand back. He had read her as easily as she was reading him. She doubted she was strong enough to totally block the deviant but was surprised at how effortlessly he had cracked through her resistance. His power was intoxicating and terrifying at the same time.
“Very perceptive.” Lorei leveled a cool gaze at Steven. “I’m still being ordered to kill you even now. What is your reaction to that?”
“Reaction? Really?” Steven was almost speechless at that question. Almost. “You have orders to kill me and you want to know how I feel?”
Lorei crossed her arms, saying nothing. She had forfeit her life by committing herself to the mission to evaluate Steven and had not expected to survive the encounter with the deviant in the first place. Even so, she was yet again surprised at his reaction to her and to the threat she represented against him. The idea that this deviant was an anomaly was a massive understatement.
Steven looked at her, dumbfounded, then around at the refugee camp, trying to think. “Well, I’m not very happy about it.” He nodded at that, then shook his head. “Not happy at all.”
Steven took in the stark squalor around him. He couldn’t imagine hurting any of those people on purpose. He couldn’t even kill the man who had tried to kill Asherah and him.
Something occurred to him. “You’re not going to do it, are you?” Steven asked as he squinted at her.
Lorei grinned devilishly, “Not yet.”
A child ran between them and stopped, staring at Lorei, then ran off. Lorei looked at the child then back at Steven who stood transfixed by the child. Mystified, she pulled her hood over her head to avoid undo attention. Elves were not exactly a common sight on Terra. “Come with me.” She slipped her arm under his and they walked together through the camp.
As they walked, they passed a tent where Steven saw a young boy cooking a meager portion of rice for himself and his younger sibling in a discarded tin can. There were no adults with them. Steven only saw a single sleeping mat of cardboard that was barely big enough for the two of them, and the ramifications of it struck home. They were orphans of the tragedy. His knees got a little weak as he saw the fruit of his mistake trying to subsist without their parents.
He knelt down before them and sat on his heels, crying as he looked at them. One spoke to him in an Asian language he only barely remembered from his linguistics classes. They were worried that they wouldn’t have enough rice for him. He found it hard to breathe as he looked at them, then remembered the dried figs he had stuffed into his pocket and pulled them out for the kids. “This is all I have,” he said to them in their language as he held the figs out for them. They looked at him, then took the figs eagerly. They were obviously starving.
Steven looked up to Lorei. “How can I make this right? I don’t have enough for them. I killed their parents.” He was wracked by waves of guilt as Lorei tried to pull him to his feet. He hardly noticed her as he numbly reacted and got up. The kids watched him walk away with her and waved when he looked back. If they only knew, would they wave at him then?
Suddenly they were back at the homestead and Steven collapsed into Asherah’s arms sobbing as she cried with him. She had seen everything but had not been able to comfort Steven because of the muting. She glared at Lorei who also sat down hard on the bench, dumbfounded. Lorei looked at Steven and touched his leg and suddenly he could feel Asherah again. Asherah reached out, trying to pull his sorrow from him, but he stopped her. “That’s mine,” he whispered, gazing into her eyes through his tears. He felt he deserved no less.
“It’s ours,” Asherah said as she caressed his face, sharing in his suffering anyway.
“I can’t stand to cause more suffering, especially not yours, Asherah.” Steven closed his eyes, unable to get the kids out of his mind. Another wave of guilt washed over him as he realized that the two orphans were just two of a great many at that camp. And how many similar camps were there? Tsunamis had caused havoc along most of the coasts. How could he let her suffer with him when it was all his fault?
“I choose to, Steven,” Asherah thought to him as she put her forehead against his. There was a song in his head. She was singing to him as she sat there comforting him, sharing in his agony.
“You’ve bonded with a monster,” Steven whispered.
“A monster would not care,” Asherah retorted firmly. She looked at Lorei who still had her hand on Steven’s leg. Lorei had been listening all along to their interaction and was also crying.
“Satisfied?” Asherah asked angrily. Her tone was accusing. “He’s not sleeping most nights because of this. Now it’ll be worse and even harder for me. You didn’t have to do that.”
“We had to know,” Lorei said, standing up. She looked up at Penipe who still sat cross legged on the roof with her hands clasped in her lap. After a moment, Penipe stood up and jumped off the roof, landing lightly on the ground. She gracefully walked over to her daughter and Steven, sitting next to him, opposite her daughter, and embracing the both of them.
“You could have just looked into my memories, Lorei,” Penipe said. Lorei opened her mouth to speak, then closed it. She sat back down and put her hand on Penipe’s cheek. Penipe held her gaze defiantly as the interrogator delved into her memories and experiences concerning the deviant. She saw how the deviant had stopped fleeing from Penipe when rubble fell on her, threatening her life. He saved her even though she had been a threat to him. Then saved her yet again when rubble fell on him instead of her. She also saw Steven intercepting the toxic dart intended for Asherah, trading his life for Asherah’s without hesitation.
Penipe maintained her glare at Lorei, her irises flashing yellow with indignation. “He is different.”
Lorei pulled her hand back, looking at Steven. “He still has all the power of a deviant.”
“But not the heart of a deviant,” Penipe responded coldly as she pulled him and her daughter closer. “The bond is genuine. You saw it. She almost died with him. It is a true bond.” Penipe caressed Steven’s hair. “And you know deviants can’t form bonds.”
Penipe looked around at Lohet. He was no longer trying to ignore the interview now and stood as if waiting for a command. Licking her lips, she returned her attention to Lorei. “You’ve felt the depth of his pain over what has transpired with him. The sadness over the people who have been harmed by those hunting him. What deviant feels for the dead and injured?”
Lorei said nothing. The calls to execute Steven were no longer raging through her consciousness as the rest of the Council were silenced by what they had witnessed through her.
“What is he?” Lorei asked finally, looking at Steven in wonder.
“Something new, Lorei.” Penipe put her cheek against Steven’s head as he remained lost in his grief while his consciousness revisited the disaster areas, the refugee camps, witnessing the suffering. He was totally oblivious of the conversation going on about him.
Lorei stood up and knelt down before Steven. She reached out and touched him again. The overwhelming grief abruptly washed away and Steven breathed in sharply, his eyes wide as he was pulled back from his mental travels. Lorei looked at him with a new appreciation. “I’m truly sorry, Steven. We had to see. All of our lives are at stake and we had to know.”
Steven looked around, suddenly with them again. He took a shuddering breath as he tried to regain his composure. He leveled his gaze on her. “You could have just asked.” He was sullen and knew that wouldn’t have been good enough. But he wasn’t expecting what she had just put him through. He was still unable to process what had happened, or how he could make it right. But he realized that it could never really be made right, and Steven shivered with extreme guilt. “You people think I’m going to go on some rampage and destroy your worlds. That’s ridiculous, Lorei. All of this is just ridiculous.”
Sirel stood up and pushed off from beneath the eve of the house, inverting so her feet touched softly on the ground. She skipped over to the table and hopped on it, sitting on the edge so her feet hung behind Penipe as she played with the Elf’s hair. Little electrical discharges danced around Penipe’s hair and Sirel giggled. She looked over at Lorei. “Asherah asked you a question.” She leaned toward Lorei. “Are you satisfied?” She grinned, flashing her shark-like teeth. Lorei glanced at her then looked back at the others.
“No. No, I’m not,” Lorei said after some contemplation. Sirel giggled at her. Penipe looked up at her friend then over to Lorei as Lorei sat down next to her. Asherah appeared alarmed as she pulled Steven to her protectively. Lorei smiled sadly. “No, I will not kill him.” She looked at Steven then back at Penipe. “How did you know?”
“I know him,” Penipe said. “The deviant is my bond-son after all.” She glanced at Steven, smiling wryly.
Lorei looked at her for a long moment then turned to Steven. “The evaluation is far from over.”
Steven gulped and looked at Asherah, wondering if he made the right decision. Today was bad. How much more would she need?
“So you’ll teach him?” Penipe asked. Steven looked at Penipe, confused.
Lorei looked down. “The Council is highly divided on this. But he has Syagria on his side, thanks to today.” She looked in Steven’s eyes and quivered involuntarily. “This is amazing, Penipe. He’s really real.”
“What does that mean? What’s going on?” Steven asked, looking around, getting perplexed as he wiped his eyes.
Sirel giggled and mussed his hair. “It means the deviant has a master.”
“Ah.” Steven looked around at her. “That explains everything.” The sarcasm wasn’t lost on Sirel who smiled and bopped him on the back of the head, sending little sparks flying out. Steven winced and tried to glare at her, but the Faerie was impossible to stay angry at. Steven took a deep breath, still aching from what he had just gone through and feeling exhausted all of a sudden. He thought about what Sirel had said. He had a master?
Steven looked at Asherah who shrugged her shoulders. She was as confused as he was, and for once that actually comforted him. She was usually the one holding his hand on things that seemed trivial to her. As smart as he was, the learning curve had been exceedingly high.
Penipe leaned into Steven. “If you are to be accepted into the Cooperative, you need to go through the same sort of training and indoctrination that any Gatekeeper goes through. During that training, they’ll see that you are not the monster they thought you were.” She looked at him expectantly and Steven fidgeted. He looked at Lorei then back at Penipe.
“But, I just want to be able to visit. I’m not asking to move there or anything. I like it here.” He looked around the homestead. “This is my home. And for the first time, I see Sally and Jonah as my real parents.” He looked through the window of the house and watched as Sally worked in the kitchen. Until recently, she was just Sally to him. She’d been Sally to him since early on when he learned he was adopted. They were his godparents, sworn to care for him in the absence of his biological parents. But they were also his adoptive parents and they gave up everything to care for him. Sally glanced out and saw Steven looking at her. She waved. Steven smiled sadly. “I’m not going to leave them.”
“I’m not asking you to move, Steven,” Asherah said softly.
“Steven, you have no idea how paramount this is,” Lorei said, almost breathless. He felt her fear melting away as she put her hand on his. “Penipe asked for me to be the one to examine you for a reason. I didn’t know why until now.” She glanced briefly at Penipe then peered deep into his eyes. “I came here to die, Steven. My life-mate has already gone through the preparations. No one expected me to live. You are a deviant. I was to be the proof of your deviancy that would end all discussion concerning you. But your bond-mother knew something that we couldn’t begin to believe, something I now understand. You are so incredibly special, Steven.”
“She’s a teacher, Steven, and a Guildmaster,” Penipe told him. “A family friend as well.” She looked at Lorei. Lorei nodded and looked at Steven. He no longer saw the stern and intimidating Elf that had come to judge him. He now saw someone filled with renewed hope and invigoration and a fair amount of childlike wonder. It offended him to the core that she had considered her life in peril because of him and quivered at the thought.
“Will you have me as your master, Steven?” Lorei asked as she held his hand, trembling a little with excitement. Her thoughts had gone from defeated surrender to a new tomorrow and Steven could tell she was mulling over ideas and possibilities even as she awaited his response. She was already working on his curriculum. Steven blinked, feeling like he was being rushed into something he had no knowledge about.
“Master? What does that even mean?” Steven didn’t like the word ‘master’. He fidgeted and looked at Asherah. Being enslaved was not something he had in mind when he thought about visiting Syagria. Just how high of a price was he to pay?
“It means until the evaluation is complete, you belong to me and my sole responsibility is your training.” Lorei looked at him earnestly, still touching him. “Steven, as your master, every breath I take is to be for your benefit.” He detected no deceit from her and that she firmly expected an affirmative answer from him, as if it should be an easy decision for him. He could tell she had gone through this many times before. From what he saw through her memories, it was considered a great honor to be selected by her. She had a name in the Cooperative. The Huntress. Steven didn’t know what that meant, but it made her some sort of celebrity in a society that normally didn’t have celebrities. For her, a negative answer from him would be inconceivable.
Steven looked at Asherah, who smiled at him. He felt the same reticence from her that he was feeling, but he also felt a willingness to push forward. This was new to her as well, but she trusted her mother. He licked his lips and looked down, struggling to gather his thoughts. Suddenly everything seemed to hit him at once. He was just trying to find his parents. “All of this isn’t what I expected. None of it. Aliens, Gatekeepers, people chasing me, and now aliens wanting to teach me about alien stuff?”
Asherah didn’t respond. Neither did Penipe. Steven licked his lips again and wiped his mouth. He knew what they expected, what they hoped for. But he was just now getting his life back.
He sat back, a little irritated that no one else was responding. He rubbed his aching temples then glanced at Asherah. “I am just now working out what it means to be bonded.” Asherah smiled weakly at him. Steven sighed. “You know everything has changed for me and I am so lost. And I’m supposed to make a life decision like this in all of that?” He looked at Lorei. “You’ve been in my head. You know just how confusing things are for me. And you still want to be my master?”
He wanted to get up and flee into the forest. To go to his tree house and hide. He wanted to resume his search for his parents. “Can’t you just give me a passport or something?”
Lorei waited, looking at him. Steven saw fearful hope in her eyes. She didn’t try to reason with him or convince him. This was a decision for Steven to make on his own.
Steven sighed. He knew if it was required of him, he would do it. Over thinking things just got in the way. He scratched his head and looked at his life-mate. As he looked at her, he realized that he would do anything for her. For the both of them. There never was a choice after all. Asherah looked at Lorei and nodded on Steven’s behalf.
Lorei visibly relaxed and looked at Steven, wondering what she was getting herself into.
“Bond with him,” Penipe said.
“That’s not required,” Lorei said. She looked at Steven, then at Penipe. “Penipe, that would change everything. Bonding with a deviant?”
“So be it.” Penipe remained resolute. “There’s no other way. We discussed this.”
Steven looked at the two of them. “Um, I’m still here.”
Lorei looked down at her hand for a long moment. Taking in a breath, she reached out and tenderly touched his cheek again. Steven resisted recoiling and closed his eyes as he felt her in his head. It was much more welcoming this time, but still incredibly intimate. He actually felt her smile as the last tendrils of her own fear faded away. Steven winced as her thoughts and experiences abruptly washed into him and he breathed in sharply. Lorei pulled her hand away, but she remained in his head. Steven heard her, saw her in an entirely different light. He saw Syagria and felt her immense relief at being alive to see it again. He saw her life-mate celebrating her survival with family friends. Part of him hurt at the idea that anyone thought he would have killed her. He could never have killed her and he balked at the idea. Lorei caressed his cheek again and he felt her bless him with peace.
“Oh, great. Another person in my head.” Steven blinked hard and rubbed his temples. Asherah was there, of course. She was the center for him, the deepest bond possible. Penipe was there but was more peripheral rather than Steven’s center, a familial bond as Asherah’s mother and now his bond-mother. And now this woman he had just met and now pledged himself to as her student. Another familial bond similar to Penipe’s. He wondered if there was enough room in there. Lorei smiled and Steven remembered that she was still watching him and following his thoughts. For that matter, so were Penipe and Asherah. He looked around at them. He was convinced he would never feel lonely again.
But as Steven’s soul was laid bare to these Elves, it all seemed peculiarly normal to him, as if a puzzle piece just slipped into place. Perfectly natural. Steven had led such a private and secretive childhood for so long and now everything he was, his very essence, was utterly exposed to scrutiny to at least three aliens, and he couldn’t fathom just why it felt okay to him. He looked around, perplexed that he was more anxious over the fact that it felt natural than the actual profound loss of privacy itself. He felt Asherah giggle in his head as she squeezed his hand. He looked at her. “I’ve bonded with Lorei like you and Penipe. She is part of me now, and you all know what I know, what I’m seeing and thinking and it’s perfectly okay to me. Why?”
“The fact that I was able to do that cements things for you, Steven.” Lorei looked at him kindly and he wasn’t sure if she spoke that or thought it. “Bonding requires submitting. Deviants cannot submit.”
“Cool?” Steven was still trying to process the new presence in his head. But he felt his mind already adjusting and accommodating. Asherah caressed his hand, feeling with him how things were starting to settle in. “This is really weird, Asherah,” he thought to her, feeling a bit of vertigo.
Lorei stood up, smiling. “It’s weird for me, too.” Steven looked at her and realized that it wasn’t the bond she was referring to, but the bond with a deviant. She squinted at him and grabbed his chin, turning his head to the side. “I still don’t understand why you don’t have fur.”
Steven coughed and blinked, looking sideways at Asherah as Lorie scrutinized him. “Sorry?”
“You have an Elvish skeletal structure. Inside you’re an Elf. But, your eyes don’t quite fill their sockets. And you don’t have fur.”
Steven rubbed his eyes. “My eyes are fine! They look fine.”
“For a human.” Lorie pursed her lips. “Elvish genetics always dominates in a mix with humans. You should be full Elf. Meruk is just human. But it looks like Meruk had…” She hesitated then shook her head and sighed. “You are a puzzle, young one.”
Steven shrugged and rubbed his chin as Lorie released it. “I feel normal. I mean, right?” He looked at Asherah again. “Right?”
Lorei glanced over at Lohet and Tor’eng. They had completed bringing in supplies and were standing by, waiting. “Lohet, you head up his tactical training.”
“What?” Steven looked at Lohet, who walked over to stand next to him. Steven still couldn’t get the image of a walking marble statue out of his head as Lohet stepped ever so silently until he was standing over him. His black robe seemed to flow around him, apparently ignoring the pull of gravity. He put his hand on Steven’s shoulder, and it felt like a piece of industrial equipment had just grabbed him. His touch was strong, cold, and as hard as stone, and Steven was amazed that the alien could move so fluidly in spite of that. His vampire friend that wasn’t a vampire.
“Lorei and I are a team back at the Cooperative. We’ve been doing this together for over seven hundred years, Steven. I’ve been training Gatekeepers for much longer. And we have Chased together.” He sat down on the bench and Penipe got up to give them room to discuss things. Steven looked at Penipe and noticed she was just barely containing her joy.
“You killed deviants?” Steven asked, incredulous.
Lohet didn’t answer as he regarded Steven with the typical Keratian coolness.
“Asherah?” Steven thought to her.
“I’m as surprised as you, Steven,” Asherah said, looking at her mother, then at Lohet.
“Asherah, since you are bonded with him, you are part of the training too.” Lohet looked at her, and she was now the one to fidget as she looked at Lohet like a deer caught in headlights. Steven put his arm around her, trying to grasp what just happened. He should have known. The aliens there were essentially a military team and he was, for all intents and purposes, a new recruit. They needed his access to the Sadari networks. But he had other skills that they needed, too. Skills that only a deviant would have. He only barely understood them. “On the job training,” Steven muttered.
Lohet nodded. “This is unorthodox, Steven. But necessary for us, and for you.”
Steven had no idea what to expect when the interviewer arrived. He thought she was going to ask him some questions and rubber stamp some sort of passport. Instead, he was tormented, then inducted into some kind of training program. Asherah played with the hair at the nape of his neck and he could sense her mirroring his opinion in her thoughts. Her fingers felt soothing, however, and he sighed as he sensed his growing comfort causing her to relax, too. They had gotten in sync far faster than most bond-mates do, which is ironic since Steven didn’t even know what it was when he was first bonded. Her thoughts about the situation mirrored his from her own perspective. They were both nervous about what they had just gotten themselves into. Steven pulled her close, wondering just how deep the rabbit hole went. And he still couldn’t shake the thought that it was all a weird, twisted dream.
“What do we have?” Jacob asked as he walked through the computer room and peeked over the shoulders of the analysts. With the confirmation of the alien intrusion, and the loss of the Order’s Seattle base because of them, his analysts had been working nonstop trying to learn all they can from the one alien they had been able to conclusively identify – namely, Steven Crow.
“Everything. Basically,” Jorge said, looking up. He crossed his arms. “We have his adoption papers, education transcripts, college. Did you know he has never been to the doctor?”
Jacob looked at him. “From our scans, that’s not surprising.”
“They’d have freaked over his heart,” Jorge nodded. “We’re still sequencing the DNA samples we took. But, Mr. Bradley, it is most definitely not human DNA. It’s like the old samples we have in storage. That kid is as alien as they come.”
“Is he, was he modified to look like us?” Jacob asked.
“No. His looks are legitimate.” Jorge pulled up what data they had so far on his genetic information. “There. Black hair, humanoid configuration, it’s all there. But that is where it ends. Inside, even his organs, let’s just say there’s no donor list he’ll qualify for,” Jorge nodded. “This right here could cement our fixation solution once and for good, Jacob.”
“What’s that?” Jacob squinted.
“That would be human segments mixed in with the alien segments. How they work together is giving us a lot of information for our own modification teams.” Jorge grinned. “Our latest batch of treatments are using a modified form of fixation thanks to this already.”
“Our alien modifications would stick better.” Jacob understood. “And we had him,” Jacob sighed.
“It would be good if you could get him back again. A live specimen would help us interpret the hard parts a lot faster.”
Jacob shook his head. “The kid escaped a hyper secure base of the most powerful military organization on the face of this planet. And he defeated one of our top field agents. A live specimen may be a tall order to fill.”
“Perhaps he’s had training?” Jorge said. “Nothing we have indicates that but he did spend a lot of time out in the forest.”
“He certainly had help from the aliens,” Jacob nodded.
“His paperwork is flawless. He definitely had help.”
“Well, Sally and Jonah would have been able to do that. They were that good back in the day. Match their digital signature to that hack and verify that,” Jacob mused. He looked at Jorge. “The samples Laurence brought back? From that furry woman?”
“Spectacular. The alien genetics, they are really close to Steven’s. I’d say identical if we were further along in our analysis. But I can pick out the human segments in his which has given us a significant edge in interpreting hers.” Jorge closed a window and opened another one. “It’s incredibly dense, like his. But we’re still processing it. Jacob, it’s like we were given a Rosetta stone here.”
Jacob smiled. “You remind me of Tracey, Jorge.”
“He’s the reason I got into this field,” Jorge said, grinning.
“The furry aliens can teleport too?” Jacob said, raising an eyebrow.
“That is an unknown. Laurence had one captured and restrained, so I would hazard a guess to the negative.”
“Steven never teleported and yet he was able to.”
“Laurence’s intelligence indicated that Steven was unaware of his abilities until recently,” Jorge said. He looked at Jacob. “You saw the video. He and his alien friends just disappeared. And the seismic anomaly stopped the instant he was gone.”
“They were chasing him,” Jacob said as he looked up at a larger video screen. There were looping videos of Steven in the forest being chased by the aliens. And yet another video of Steven rescuing one of them in their old base. “Perhaps they wanted his teleporting ability, too.”
“He is the only one we have documented as having this ability. And get this,” Jorge grinned as he reached for a controller to activate another screen, “we have detected spectacular bursts of energy during periods of time when he teleported. Like an explosion of exotic particles that put our colliders to shame. The entire region around Seattle, and even here, our granite bedrock didn’t block any of it when he teleported from the base. It’s like an aurora borealis opened up on half of Washington.” Jorge nodded to the screen as he hit a button on the keyboard. “There…”
“He’s causing all that?” Jacob gaped at what looked like a massive light-show that covered hundreds of square miles.
Jorge nodded. He glanced at Jacob. “You have to admit, teleporting has been largely theoretical up until this, and even the theoretical energy requirements were immense. There it is, right in front of us.”
“Can we use that to track him?” Jacob still gaped at the video. It was like watching solar prominences. “Can we refine it to narrow the range?”
Jorge shrugged. “This right here, he was here when this happened. But we haven’t found any pattern yet. He’s not centered, and not even in the strongest part.”
“Find a way,” Jacob said sharply, looking at Jorge.
“Already got a team trying to crack that.” Jorge fidgeted, glancing furtively at Jacob. “We’re not having a lot of progress just yet.”
“This boy can do that without any technology,” Jacob said, dumbfounded. “His scans didn’t give us any hints of this energy.” He shook his head. “He took me to Iceland, Jorge. And there were no theatrics or anything. I was just suddenly there, then suddenly back in my office.”
Jorge moved another window on his screen and looked at the larger screen. “Here are more concise results of your scans.”
“Nothing.” Jacob frowned.
“We did find volcanic ash in your lungs and on your clothing. You were definitely there.”
“I want that.” Jacob looked at Jorge. “We need that. Especially…”
“…since four aliens and a child brought down one of our bases?”
Jacob glared at Jorge. “That is not going to happen again. We know what to expect now. How far has R and D come in their development of a response?”
“We’re incorporating energy weapons and hypervelocity weapons into our drones,” Jorge nodded.
“What about lightning protection?”
“They already have that. We found scorch marks on our last drone but it survived the static discharge. It’s really not an issue unless they’re grounded.”
Jacob nodded. “What about hand weapons?”
Jorge shook his head. “We’ve simulated the alien resistance to everything in our mobile inventory and there is nothing.”
“I suggest we replace our inventory with something that will work then,” Jacob snapped. “Our bellies are bare and we’re the only ones even aware of the threat.”
“Yes, sir,” Jorge nodded. He looked at his logistical database. “I’ll allocate more teams on that. Rome and Chicago have the most expertise.”
“Not good enough,” Jacob said. “Make this a Priority One mission. I want everyone involved.”
“The Board needs to approve that, sir.”
“Leave that to me.” Jacob scowled as he looked at the video of Steven reacting to the wolfman that had invaded the base. He hated the politics of the Board and would have rather faced the wolfman than the stuffy bureaucrats. “Something is up and it’s going to happen soon, Jorge. I can feel it in my bones.”
He glanced at Jorge. “How far have the profilers come?”
“They have a pretty exhaustive analysis of Steven’s characteristics, his associations and habits. We can predict his reactions pretty accurately now.” Jorge smiled.
“Excellent. It’s time to put that data to work.”
Tor’eng sat down next to Chaser Guildmaster Orin and Lohet after bringing a couple of large mugs of Rodan blood for his Keratian guests. Orin nodded as he sipped his warm meal while Lohet moved his out of the way, continuing to work with the data he had collected over the past twenty years. Tor’eng pointed at the intelligence data that Lohet had collected so far and moved a data block to the side out of the way. “That looks like the coverage they had at Rholling.”
Lohet looked at it and nodded, sober. He had seriously underestimated the golems there. What they had discovered during their stay on Terra was terrifyingly similar. Orin zoomed out on a representation of Terra. The former Cooperative Defenses Commander crossed his arms as he looked at the sphere critically. Lohet glanced at him then looked at Terra more closely. Orin scowled and zoomed in. “There is one big difference between Rholling and Terra.”
“No indigenous space presence,” Lohet said, mirroring his thoughts.
“The Sadari clearly have superiority over Terra,” Orin said, nodding.
“We have yet to find their carrier. We have been unable to leave Terra without our cloaking technology becoming compromised,” Lohet said, scratching his arm. “We have scoured the system remotely. There are a few places where we need to look closer.”
“The solar corona and the radiation belt of…Jupiter? Is that what they call that planet?” Tor’eng asked, pointing.
Lohet nodded. “Those are two candidates. However, we will need to probe their superiority better before sending teams to investigate.” He rubbed his arm where Steven had singed him a few weeks ago. It was technically healed, but it still itched a little. “Another optional location is simply on the opposite side of their star from Terra.”
“Would they hide in that obvious of a location?” Orin said, scowling.
“They have superiority in space and have shut down the fractures. However unlikely it may seem, it’s still a distinct possibility,” Lohet said. “I will have Steven visualize that region of space.”
“Using the deviant is risky, Lohet,” Orin said. “It was to be terminated immediately. Our law is clear on that.” Orin looked at the information hovering in the air between them. “This does not clear you of this bad decision.”
“True. However, at the moment he is lucid and cooperative,” Lohet said.
“For how long?” Orin challenged, raising an eyebrow.
Lohet looked down. “I am not entirely sure, Orin. However, he has been sentient since he was born and that has not changed. He expresses none of the hunger that a regular deviant suffers, and is distinctly a pacifist.” Lohet looked down. “He has not exhibited any of the habits of the Elder, either. Not yet.”
“It burned you.” Orin nodded at Lohet’s arm. It had long since healed but the memory of the burn remained fresh.
“Unintentionally. He has control over that now. And we are watching him very closely,” Lohet said. “The Council is debating his status even now.”
“I do not require Council approval to order its termination.” Orin glared at Lohet.
“His status as a deviant could change,” Lohet said, subdued.
“Your report indicates that it still has nightmares. Nightly even. I propose it may be more similar to the Elder than you have stated,” Orin said. He sipped his drink thoughtfully as Lohet looked down.
“Yes. He does. Sometimes things get broken. But, they’re not incidents. Not like before,” Lohet said.
“They could get worse. They could become incidents again,” Orin said.
“True. However, his bond-mates are reinforcing him every moment he is awake. He is never alone. And he is responding surprisingly well to that,” Lohet said frankly. “The Elder did not have that luxury.”
He glanced at Tor’eng then back to Orin. “I agree with your concern. What we are doing, it is extremely heterodox to our policies, Orin. He is absolutely unique. And thanks to him, Lorei has access to the fractures there. Between the two of them, we may be able to track down the Sadari carrier and facilitate a final solution.”
Tor’eng nodded. “Our fleet is nearly complete. The Ordan have an upgrade to our weapons, too. Not the old modified mining tools we used last time.”
“He also cracked the Sadari network,” Lohet reminded Orin.
“Using work that Lelana and Meruk performed,” Orin countered dryly.
“No. They never made the connection that he did. And he didn’t have access to their work directly,” Lohet said. “He just knew they were interested in the chips and he tried to replicate their experiment without really knowing what it was or what to look for.” Lohet looked down. “He learns, assimilates information, and processes it extremely rapidly. You’ve seen our reports of his work on the Terran networks.”
“That makes the deviant an even greater danger,” Orin said quietly.
“I agree.” Lohet sighed. “He was able to elude Penipe in the trees. He matched her climbing skills then surpassed them when he had the need. He was able to combat a soldier of the Order.” Lohet shook his head. “It’s like he just absorbs what you know but then does it better.”
Orin looked at Lohet, scowling.
Lohet sighed and picked at his robe. “It is risky, but he is controllable, Orin. He has what we need. He is the key.” Lohet looked up. “You’ve been there. You’ve actually been to Axis. You’ve seen the Sadari home. You were actually on one of the enormous Sadari motherships. One of those is in the Terran system right now. You know Aradia cannot face them alone, not even with our fleet.”
“I also know that they have plans for the deviant,” Orin stated. “Anything we do, it simply has to be something they already considered. Using it will only hurt us.”
“They couldn’t have planned his physical nature. Orin, he is bonded to three Elves, two of which are experienced Chasers. How can that be helpful to the Sadari?”
“Its relationship with the Elves,” Orin looked at Tor’eng who averted his gaze, “is the only thing that is saving the deviant at the moment. You will stress test it, Lohet. We need to know what it is truly like when it is under extreme duress.”
“I concur.” Lohet nodded as he took a sip of his meal while keeping Orin in his sight. “That is already in the plans.”
Orin glared at Lohet, clearly displeased. “I suggest you stop making Steven central to your plans, Lohet. Terra may be forbidden, but we may yet send Chasers after the deviant. So keep it peripheral and rely on Aradia’s fleet and resources. Our Gatekeepers are already probing the limits of the jamming and are working to set up bases outside the Terran system.” Orin stood up. “And Lohet, I should not have to remind you that Steven is more than expendable. You may be working under Aradia, but you are a Chaser, too. If it should prove necessary, the deviant must be put down without hesitation. Am I understood?”
Lohet nodded, sober. Tor’eng looked down, clearly thinking about his daughter who was bonded to the deviant. His death would mean her death thanks to their bond. He was still uneasy about the whole thing, and even more so now that Steven’s future was still balancing on a razor’s edge.
Book 2: Crow – Acceptance is still under revision and editing, however Book 1: Crow – The Awakening is available at…