The air raid siren shook the walls of the wide rotunda, rattling the transpara-shield dome above the tiled floor. The politicians below it glanced upward at the noise, but when the t-dome didn’t flicker or spark, they continued their conversations and idle walks.
“Everyone meander for your lives,” Ash muttered. She didn’t bother to look at the comm-cuff looped around her wrist to see if the siren was a false alarm. Like the politicians she was assigned to protect, she knew it wasn’t worth a single tap on the cuff screen.
This assignment wasn’t worth a tap on the cuff.
“You going to move, Ashdyn?” The terse question came over the voice-link hooked over her ear. Ash’s gaze traveled across the rotunda to where Hauch, one of her new teammates, stood guard. His big body blocked off the entrance to the subterranean conference corridor, an underground complex that was the most secure meeting place on Meryk. And inside one of those rooms—the Werth Room, though Ash wasn’t supposed to have that intel—the most powerful individual in the Coalition sat at a data-table plotting a course of action that would decide the future of the Known Universe.
The minister prime had been plotting that course for a full standard month.
Ash bounced on her toes. It was the only way to expel the sudden burst of energy that urged her to run. The alarm hadn’t caused it. This damn assignment did. Her skills and training were wasted here. There wasn’t one telepath among those politicians. And even if there had been, Ash couldn’t guarantee she’d detect them.
This was not the best way to preserve and protect the Coalition.
“Answer me, Ashdyn.”
Ash’s nostrils flared at the use of her full last name. Hauch didn’t know her. No one on this new team did. And she didn’t care to know them. The only names that mattered to Ash were now laser-carved into Merykian granite in a memorial on the other side of the city.
Ash exhaled, unwilling to let that pain back in. “Give it two minutes. They’ll announce the false alarm.”
She shifted in her too-tight body armor. Her custom-fitted armor had been confiscated after the disastrous mission to Chalos II, and since her financial accounts were still locked down, she hadn’t been able to purchase a new set.
“It’s not your job to anticipate false alarms. It’s your job to clear the rotunda.” The look Hauch gave her said he blamed her for this assignment. From the beginning, he’d been the soldier most resistant to her presence on the team.
No, that wasn’t true. Ash was the soldier most resistant to her presence. If she’d put in the effort, she could have proved she belonged. All she would have had to do was run a few of her typical stunts. Then she’d earn their acceptance.
A loud laugh bounced off the rotunda walls. More politicians. They looked important in their light-trimmed suits. Their expensive comm-cuffs glittered beneath the artificial lights, and assistants trailed them as if they were centers of gravity, pulling worlds into their orbits.
“If you don’t move your ass,” Hauch said, “I’ll have you assigned to sanitation duty with the bots.”
“That shit would be more entertaining than this.”
“What did you say?”
The threat in Hauch’s voice didn’t faze her. She’d spent a year training under the most intimidating man in the universe. She’d resisted Rykus’s influence, his interrogations, his accusations. And then, after she’d proved her innocence and found her sanity again, she’d resisted his attempt to put light-years between them. Instead, they’d spent four days together on a tachyon capsule that bent space and time to bring them to Meryk.
To Meryk. Where Rykus had been taken in for “questioning” and they were separated.
“You heard me, Hauch.” It might have been unfair to take her frustration out on the other soldier, but Ash was pissed the prime wouldn’t tell her anything about Rykus’s whereabouts. And she was pissed she couldn’t find him on her own. All she knew was that he’d left Meryk. It had taken her hours to uncover that information, but she’d found his name hidden beneath layers of security on the manifest of a capsule that left the star system two days after they’d arrived. The capsule had six destinations, and so far, Ash hadn’t found Rykus listed on any of the debarkation reports.
She stepped away from the wall where she’d stood for the past two hours. Hauch looked like he was about to leave his post too, but not to clear the rotunda. No. He wanted to leave his post so he could rip her head off.
“I’ll meet you halfway,” she said.
When he stepped away from the door, she knew he’d taken her words for what they were: an invitation to fight. Ash would take the heat for the altercation, probably get demoted and transferred to a team not half as skilled as this one, but hey, Ash had been blamed for worse.
She should do it. Stretch her muscles, bruise some skin, get kicked off the team. At least then Hauch and the others could get a real assignment.
“The rotunda.” Hauch’s tone contained enough rage to melt that door behind him.
Ash’s gaze focused on that door. Well, why not?
She strode across the rotunda, carving a straight-line path through the crowd.
None of the politicians paid attention to her, and she didn’t pay attention to them. I only have eyes for you, Hauch.
When she was five paces from him, he took another step away from the door. “Clear the famginn rotunda!”
“Reverting to your native tongue? That’s unprofessional.” Soldiers adapted to Coalition common speech, dress, customs, pretty much everything unless they were in a high-stress situation or on leave. That vein popping out of Hauch’s forehead told her exactly how high his blood pressure had spiked.
Not high enough yet. She needed him pissed off a little more, just enough to move another centimeter…
He stepped into her personal space, his height and broad shoulders practically blocking out the t-dome above them.
A leg sweep and a hard hit to his chest sent the big man to the ground.
The attack didn’t keep Hauch down. He was back on his feet and reaching for her more quickly than she’d expected, but a twist of her arm and a careful jab to his throat had him choking long enough to tap her comm-cuff and send her clearance key to the door’s security panel.
It opened. She darted over the threshold, started to seal the door, but Hauch was up again. This time he locked his hand around her wrist and wrenched her arm into a Hraurkurian Hold, a grappling position that would keep even a strong man restrained for a good while.
But Hauch didn’t know Ash was an anomaly, that she was smarter, stronger, faster and much more skilled than the average person. And like most men who weren’t assholes, Hauch was trying not to break her.
Ignoring the sharp pain in her shoulder, she angled her body toward Hauch as far as her ill-fitting armor would allow, then she funneled all her strength into her legs and jumped. When Hauch’s strong arms brought her back down, she kicked the side of his knee.
It popped in a way that guaranteed he’d be limping for a few days, and Ash was free. While he was off-balance, she gave him a hard shove backward.
But she still didn’t have time to get the door shut. Hauch stretched his injured leg over the threshold. A sensor registered the object, preventing the door from sliding shut, then her teammate was up and lunging forward.
“Stay down, damn it.” She barely dodged his attack. Her counter was sloppy, but Hauch put his weight on his injured leg, and the knee didn’t hold him. He tried to push through it, to make it work. Ash respected the effort—her teammates weren’t amateurs—but a damaged joint was a damaged joint. He went down, and she was able to leverage his weight over her hip and deposit him back on the opposite side of the door.
“I’m doing this for you, pal.” She tapped an emergency closure command into the keypad beside the door. It slammed shut in Hauch’s face.
“Hauch to Trident Team.” His words grated over the voice-link hooked over her ear. “Ashdyn’s lost it. She left her post and is in the secure corridor. Intent undetermined.”
“You don’t waste time, do you, Hauch?” She started running. The emergency closure code she’d used on the door also contained a lockdown element. It secured all doors in and out of the underground complex. But since it was easy for her to implement, it would also be easy for her teammates to override it. She had three, maybe four minutes.
“Ashdyn, unlock the doors.” That was Liles, her team lead, who’d been guarding a different entrance to the underground for the past two hours.
“Sorry, boss,” Ash said. “Already committed.”
“Team, switch comm channel to the one we used on the Gamden Raid.”
“Not fair.” Ash’s halfhearted protest didn’t draw a response. Her voice-link clicked as Hauch and Mandell, her third teammate, followed Liles’s order and switched channels. It was definitely possible Ash might end up back in a cell after this.
It didn’t matter. One way or another, she was done with guard duty.