In this snippet, Valerie and her Elites head to Sslake’s Manor and learn a little about the stakes they’ll be fighting for in this book.
Let’s go to snippet three!
Planet Tol: Sslake Manor
The Bandian’s former house had been completely transformed into a hub for the new government. While the old system had relied heavily on one person getting his way by instituting terror through his death games and soldiers, Sslake wasn’t having any of that.
Under his rule, the other main houses—he refused to refer to them as warlords—were each taking on roles. Palnik, because he was powerful but couldn’t really be trusted, had been given the role of special advisor, and his men oversaw basic street security. Everyone knew it was a slap in the face, but Palnik stood tall, refusing to let on that he knew it too. Based on what Valerie understood of him, he was probably biding his time until he could make a move. He had been given extra men, some of whom were plants to keep an eye on him.
Others were given roles that hadn’t previously existed, and one of the Norrul who had helped in the fight against the Bandian was helping with race relations. Valerie’s head hurt thinking about this, since it hadn’t been a thing back on Earth. Not in her lifetime, anyway, unless you counted discrimination against vampires and Weres—which made sense, considering how many were murderous bastards.
Not that she’d liked it, but she’d understood it in that context. Here though, everyone was different, and even the few shifters she had met weren’t all bad. Some certainly were, and they had been thrown into the prisons along with the now-crippled Bandian.
What this attacking force wanted with him she couldn’t fathom, but that was what they were here to discuss, after all.
Valerie checked in, having let Robin and Garcia off the hook at Palnik’s former residence. That had now been turned into a barracks for the higher ranked members of the new military and included, for the time being, quarters for Valerie’s Elites. Robin had never been into political talk and hated dealing with aliens like Palnik, who was bound to be there, and Garcia had been tasked with working with the troops to further investigate the attacks and look for more wounded.
When Valerie had finally entered Sslake’s office, she wasn’t surprised to see the various heads of houses arrayed around a table. Sslake had up an image of a series of planets around a star, one highlighted in particular, on the display wall.
“How nice of you to join us,” Palnik said with a sneer.
“Did I make you wait?” she asked. “Maybe if you had been helping the injured with me I’d give a damn what you thought.”
The looks that statement earned her made her instantly regret her words, but she wasn’t fond of dealing with the injured or dead just to have idiots like these—the type who never got their hands dirty—look down on her.
“Valerie,” Sslake said with a glance at a nearby chair, “your timing is impeccable.”
She took the seat and leaned back, looking at the display. “What’d I miss?”
“You all heard the message,” Sslake stated, “but what you likely didn’t know was where it came from. We have some theories.”
He pointed to a moon on the display, one that, based on its location and what Valerie understood about star systems, was orbiting Tor. Other planets weren’t far off, but she thought this moon was close enough to be in Tor’s gravitational pull.
“A species on the moon?” she asked.
Sslake clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Not a moon, exactly. A space station, built by them for them.”
“For…whom?” Valerie asked.
“The Aranaught, a group of exiles, cybernetic experiments that were connected to an artificial intelligence meant to help them better function as a group but… it took over their minds and went haywire. We couldn’t destroy it, because it was in each of them and they were too powerful.”
“So you removed them from the Tol?” She nodded, assessing the distance to the space station. “And now they want this Bandian. Why?”
“It’s more complicated than Sslake lays it out to be,” Palnik interjected. “There might have been some…changes in the Bandian’s later years.”
Judging by Sslake’s raised eyebrow this was news to him too. Half the room leaned forward and Palnik smiled, enjoying his moment of power.
“You all don’t know, do you?” He turned to the door and shouted for his followers, and a moment later the door opened and two shifters entered, carrying the crippled Bandian with them. They plopped him down in a chair and then stood back.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Sslake demanded, eyes wide as he stared at first the Bandian, then Palnik. “You had no authority to remove him from the prisons.”
“And yet we have no choice otherwise,” Palnik countered, then slowly turned to the Bandian. “Tell them.”
This former leader wasn’t only physically crippled—it was clear his mind was suffering too. His eyes had a wild look as they darted around the room, and his lip a twitch in the left corner that seemed to hit every five seconds. When he attempted to point to the display his hand shook so badly he was forced to slam it down on the table, where he then clutched at the smooth wood.
“Out with it!” Sslake demanded.
“You all…” the Bandian began, struggling with the words, “are…fucked!” He leaned back and cackled a laugh, then slammed both hands on the table again. The laugh was replaced by a sneer. “They want me so I can complete— FUCKNOSE MOUNTAIN LICKER!” He struggled, pushing through as a spasm took him. “Complete…what I began.”
Valerie shook her head at this pitiful former leader. The prisons and his defeat had done a number on him—that was clear.
Sslake apparently had a similar view, because he waved at the guards and said, “Get him out of here.”
Skulla appeared and dragged him out, renewed laughter echoing down the halls as he went.
“Well, Palnik?” Sslake asked. “Explain.”
“The wind brings me stories,” Palnik started, a smile tickling his lips. “It seems our mentally-departed friend there was starting to connect with the AI again, working with them to enhance his weapons, build a new army.”
“That’s what the base was,” Valerie said as it hit her. “Out in the jungle, with all those robotic parts and whatnot.”
Palnik nodded, though he refused to look at her. “Precisely. That’s why they were able to get past our defenses and attack us from the inside. My best guess is they want him to put some final piece on this, make the connection permanent. They have hostages now, and we can be damn sure that if we don’t meet their demands those hostages will die.”
“Hostages—a means to attack us without our ability to defend.” Sslake shook his head, then turned to Valerie. “As a representative of the Etheric Federation, I’d think this falls right into your area of responsibility, and we’re prepared to make the job official.”
“What…job…is that, exactly?” she asked.
“They need to be stopped. The Aranaught must be taken offline permanently. If we don’t, not only will you lose an ally, as they’ll surely wipe us out if given the chance, but it could also mean a potential threat to the Federation. Who knows how strong the Aranaught has become, or how far their reach has spread?”
“That’s the first question we’ll need addressed,” Valerie replied, mind racing with reasons for and against this mission. “If we do this, I only see one way through it. Bring the Bandian to them as bait, figure out the threat, and neutralize it.”
“You’re talking about bringing them the very key to their victory over us,” one of the other heads of house stated, standing from her seat. She wore a purple cloth draped over one shoulder, the light-blue dress beneath patterned to match the tattoos that circled her ears on the shaven sides of her head.
“I’m talking about baiting a monster,” Valerie replied, “and then destroying it.”
The others stared at her for a moment, then slowly began to shift their eyes to Sslake. He sat for a moment with fingers steepled and gaze on the display, but finally he turned to her and nodded.
“Very well, see that it’s done.”
“Sir,” Palnik said, “we should investigate the Valley of Alloy. See how far it’s gone.”
All eyes at the table went wide, except for Valerie’s, since she was at a loss. “’The Valley of Alloy?’”
“The wind whispers of a change since last we were out that way,” Palnik went on, not bothering to explain it to Valerie. “The enemy may be closer than we believe.”
“It would be purely a recon mission,” Sslake said, eyeing Valerie. “To answer your question, the valley is a place where early robots and failed cyborg experiments were dumped.”
“Only,” Palnik butted in again, “I now have reason to believe it’s become much more than that. Evidence was found at the Bandian’s base pointing to communications with others—with them. It’s larger than we could ever imagine, or I’m greatly mistaken.”
“Maybe both are true,” Valerie interjected, happy to get a jab at him in for all his attitude lately.
“Be that as it may, he’s right,” Sslake noted. “Are you up for the task?”
Valerie sat up straight, lips pursed, and nodded.
“Then I’ll have Palnik and one of his guards accompany you.” Sslake rose to indicate that the meeting was over.
“Me?” Palnik protested. “I… I have a job here, I have—”
“What you have, sir, is a responsibility to your people. You will go, understood?”
Palnik glared, then stormed from the room.
“Why him?” Valerie asked when the others had gone.
“Because he knows too much, and I always assume everything is a trap.”
“Probably why you’re still alive,” Valerie noted. She felt an odd sense of déjà vu at the words, as if she had heard the two phrases put together by someone she had known. Blowing off the feeling, she smiled and said, “Smart to keep those you’re not sure about close, but if he jeopardizes the mission?”
Sslake furrowed his brow. “Kill him.”
“I’m only kidding, but…serious too, maybe?” He shrugged. “If he gets out of hand, dumping him in the valley wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen, and nobody would question it.”
“I hope you’re not giving me reason to doubt my faith in you, sir,” she stated. “What you’re saying… It’s kind of on the gray side of the moral line.”
“When you’ve lived as I have you see everything as gray,” he replied, “but you’re right, of course. If he’s out of line, let him throw you into a trap and then let him win. Why not?”
She chuckled. “I’ll just tie him up and bring him back here for the cells.”
At the reference to prison, Sslake winced slightly, likely an effect from his time on the prison ship, she thought. Maybe making references to that so soon weren’t in her best interest.
With a nod, she stood and said, “I’ll brief my team, sir,” before heading for the door. Flynn and Garcia were likely itching for action. The two always were, and Robin… Well, Robin didn’t feel at peace with having left her loved ones on Earth unless she was fighting for justice and Earth’s survival.
So as far as they were all concerned, heading into the mouth of danger was welcome. Tearing off its jaw would be frosting on the cake.
That’s it for this one. We’ll have one final snippet before the book comes out. See you then!