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.
If you missed them, here’s a link to snippet one and snippet two.
Let’s go to snippet three!
Planet Tol: Sslake Manor
The Bandianâ€™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 wasnâ€™t having any of that.
Under his rule, the other main housesâ€”he refused to refer to them as warlordsâ€”were each taking on roles. Palnik, because he was powerful but couldnâ€™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 hadnâ€™t previously existed, and one of the Norrul who had helped in the fight against the Bandian was helping with race relations. Valerieâ€™s head hurt thinking about this, since it hadnâ€™t been a thing back on Earth. Not in her lifetime, anyway, unless you counted discrimination against vampires and Weresâ€”which made sense, considering how many were murderous bastards.
Not that sheâ€™d liked it, but sheâ€™d understood it in that context. Here though, everyone was different, and even the few shifters she had met werenâ€™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 couldnâ€™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 Palnikâ€™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 Valerieâ€™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 Sslakeâ€™s office, she wasnâ€™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.
â€œHow nice of you to join us,â€ Palnik said with a sneer.
â€œDid I make you wait?â€ she asked. â€œMaybe if you had been helping the injured with me Iâ€™d give a damn what you thought.â€
The looks that statement earned her made her instantly regret her words, but she wasnâ€™t fond of dealing with the injured or dead just to have idiots like theseâ€”the type who never got their hands dirtyâ€”look down on her.
â€œValerie,â€ Sslake said with a glance at a nearby chair, â€œyour timing is impeccable.â€
She took the seat and leaned back, looking at the display. â€œWhatâ€™d I miss?â€
â€œYou all heard the message,â€ Sslake stated, â€œbut what you likely didnâ€™t know was where it came from. We have some theories.â€
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 werenâ€™t far off, but she thought this moon was close enough to be in Torâ€™s gravitational pull.
â€œA species on the moon?â€ she asked.
Sslake clucked his tongue and shook his head. â€œNot a moon, exactly. A space station, built by them for them.â€
â€œForâ€¦whom?â€ Valerie asked.
â€œThe Aranaught, a group of exiles, cybernetic experiments that were connected to an artificial intelligence meant to help them better function as a group butâ€¦ it took over their minds and went haywire. We couldnâ€™t destroy it, because it was in each of them and they were too powerful.â€
â€œSo you removed them from the Tol?â€ She nodded, assessing the distance to the space station. â€œAnd now they want this Bandian. Why?â€
â€œItâ€™s more complicated than Sslake lays it out to be,â€ Palnik interjected. â€œThere might have been someâ€¦changes in the Bandianâ€™s later years.â€
Judging by Sslakeâ€™s raised eyebrow this was news to him too. Half the room leaned forward and Palnik smiled, enjoying his moment of power.
â€œYou all donâ€™t know, do you?â€ 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.
â€œWhatâ€™s the meaning of this?â€ Sslake demanded, eyes wide as he stared at first the Bandian, then Palnik. â€œYou had no authority to remove him from the prisons.â€
â€œAnd yet we have no choice otherwise,â€ Palnik countered, then slowly turned to the Bandian. â€œTell them.â€
This former leader wasnâ€™t only physically crippledâ€”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.
â€œOut with it!â€ Sslake demanded.
â€œYou allâ€¦â€ the Bandian began, struggling with the words, â€œareâ€¦fucked!â€ He leaned back and cackled a laugh, then slammed both hands on the table again. The laugh was replaced by a sneer. â€œThey want me so I can completeâ€” FUCKNOSE MOUNTAIN LICKER!â€ He struggled, pushing through as a spasm took him. â€œCompleteâ€¦what I began.â€
Valerie shook her head at this pitiful former leader. The prisons and his defeat had done a number on himâ€”that was clear.
Sslake apparently had a similar view, because he waved at the guards and said, â€œGet him out of here.â€
Skulla appeared and dragged him out, renewed laughter echoing down the halls as he went.
â€œWell, Palnik?â€ Sslake asked. â€œExplain.â€
â€œThe wind brings me stories,â€ Palnik started, a smile tickling his lips. â€œIt 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.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what the base was,â€ Valerie said as it hit her. â€œOut in the jungle, with all those robotic parts and whatnot.â€
Palnik nodded, though he refused to look at her. â€œPrecisely. Thatâ€™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 donâ€™t meet their demands those hostages will die.â€
â€œHostagesâ€”a means to attack us without our ability to defend.â€ Sslake shook his head, then turned to Valerie. â€œAs a representative of the Etheric Federation, Iâ€™d think this falls right into your area of responsibility, and weâ€™re prepared to make the job official.â€
â€œWhatâ€¦jobâ€¦is that, exactly?â€ she asked.
â€œThey need to be stopped. The Aranaught must be taken offline permanently. If we donâ€™t, not only will you lose an ally, as theyâ€™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?â€
â€œThatâ€™s the first question weâ€™ll need addressed,â€ Valerie replied, mind racing with reasons for and against this mission. â€œIf we do this, I only see one way through it. Bring the Bandian to them as bait, figure out the threat, and neutralize it.â€
â€œYouâ€™re talking about bringing them the very key to their victory over us,â€ 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.
â€œIâ€™m talking about baiting a monster,â€ Valerie replied, â€œand then destroying it.â€
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.
â€œVery well, see that itâ€™s done.â€
â€œSir,â€ Palnik said, â€œwe should investigate the Valley of Alloy. See how far itâ€™s gone.â€
All eyes at the table went wide, except for Valerieâ€™s, since she was at a loss. â€œâ€™The Valley of Alloy?â€™â€
â€œThe wind whispers of a change since last we were out that way,â€ Palnik went on, not bothering to explain it to Valerie. â€œThe enemy may be closer than we believe.â€
â€œIt would be purely a recon mission,â€ Sslake said, eyeing Valerie. â€œTo answer your question, the valley is a place where early robots and failed cyborg experiments were dumped.â€
â€œOnly,â€ Palnik butted in again, â€œI now have reason to believe itâ€™s become much more than that. Evidence was found at the Bandianâ€™s base pointing to communications with othersâ€”with them. Itâ€™s larger than we could ever imagine, or Iâ€™m greatly mistaken.â€
â€œMaybe both are true,â€ Valerie interjected, happy to get a jab at him in for all his attitude lately.
â€œBe that as it may, heâ€™s right,â€ Sslake noted. â€œAre you up for the task?â€
Valerie sat up straight, lips pursed, and nodded.
â€œThen Iâ€™ll have Palnik and one of his guards accompany you.â€ Sslake rose to indicate that the meeting was over.
â€œMe?â€ Palnik protested. â€œIâ€¦ I have a job here, I haveâ€”â€
â€œWhat you have, sir, is a responsibility to your people. You will go, understood?â€
Palnik glared, then stormed from the room.
â€œWhy him?â€ Valerie asked when the others had gone.
â€œBecause he knows too much, and I always assume everything is a trap.â€
â€œProbably why youâ€™re still alive,â€ Valerie noted. She felt an odd sense of dÃ©jÃ 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, â€œSmart to keep those youâ€™re not sure about close, but if he jeopardizes the mission?â€
Sslake furrowed his brow. â€œKill him.â€
â€œIâ€™m only kidding, butâ€¦serious too, maybe?â€ He shrugged. â€œIf he gets out of hand, dumping him in the valley wouldnâ€™t be the worst thing that could happen, and nobody would question it.â€
â€œI hope youâ€™re not giving me reason to doubt my faith in you, sir,â€ she stated. â€œWhat youâ€™re sayingâ€¦ Itâ€™s kind of on the gray side of the moral line.â€
â€œWhen youâ€™ve lived as I have you see everything as gray,â€ he replied, â€œbut youâ€™re right, of course. If heâ€™s out of line, let him throw you into a trap and then let him win. Why not?â€
She chuckled. â€œIâ€™ll just tie him up and bring him back here for the cells.â€
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 werenâ€™t in her best interest.
With a nod, she stood and said, â€œIâ€™ll brief my team, sir,â€ before heading for the door. Flynn and Garcia were likely itching for action. The two always were, and Robinâ€¦ Well, Robin didnâ€™t feel at peace with having left her loved ones on Earth unless she was fighting for justice and Earthâ€™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!