This chapter includes the beginning of the final fight. If you need something a little more chill after the horrific news out of New Zealand, then feel free to head over to my (slightly updated) recommendations page to find a book that sounds good, and then come back to this when you’re ready.
An hour after Valentin drifted back to sleep and left me with more questions than answers, I received a message from Finlay, the owner of Blind and my newest information source. It was flagged urgent and he claimed to have a lead on Adams. Two soldiers with plasma wounds had been brought to a back-alley doctor yesterday afternoon. That wasn’t so unusual in itself, but no one had seen them before, they spoke with Quint accents, and they were cagey.
That still wouldn’t have been too strange, but when news of the attack hit the wire, Finlay had put two and two together, and had them followed when the doctor released them early this morning. A grainy picture was included that had been cropped to only show a single headshot. Commander Tony Adams wasn’t looking directly at the camera but there was no mistaking his identity.
I transferred a small mountain of credits to Finlay’s identity and told him the other half was coming when his information proved reliable. I asked for any other information he could give me about the squad, location, and surrounding area.
His response came back far faster than I anticipated. Either he had been waiting for my message or he was super eager to lead me into a trap. He said it looked like the crew was lying low with people rarely leaving the building.
His informant had gotten a peek inside and counted five people, but Finlay warned there could be more. He’d told his man to stay put in a good vantage point and promised updates if the team moved. If this wasn’t a trap then Finlay had more than earned all of the promised credits.
I approached Imogen first because I knew she was going to be the hardest to persuade. She wasn’t happy until we’d talked through every detail, every alternative, and every fallback. Even then I wouldn’t call her happy—more like begrudgingly resigned.
I talked to Myra next because I needed backup to go up against a squad of soldiers, even if Luka had whittled their numbers. I’d rather have my own people at my back, but I didn’t have time to wait for them arrive. A loyal, cohesive squad of either Imperial guards or Kos soldiers would be more trustworthy than an unknown unit of mercenaries hired at the eleventh hour.
Myra wasn’t enthusiastic about committing her people, but when she realized I was leading the charge from the front, she reluctantly agreed. She promised me a squad of nine, but she warned that she would give their commander autonomy to ignore my orders if it seemed like I was going to get them killed. It wasn’t ideal, but I worked with what I had.
By the time Valentin awoke for the second time, my plan was set. No one was entirely happy, but we all agreed that it was the best we could do, given the current information. Without knowing exactly who wanted Valentin dead and who they had in their pocket, we had to limit the information to the fewest number of people possible.
This time Valentin was awake enough to talk using the microphone built into his face mask. Junior, Myra, and Luka all crowded around the med chamber, peppering him with questions.
“Why haven’t you gotten in front of the rumors of Queen Rani’s treachery and my death?” he demanded, his voice hoarse.
“We tried,” Myra said into the resulting silence. “No one believed us, not when much juicier gossip was spreading like wildfire.”
“Let me out of here so I can make a statement.”
“Absolutely not,” Junior said. “You haven’t healed enough. You’ll reopen the wound and injure yourself even more. Your shoulder blade was shattered. Bone takes time to mend.”
“You could do a spoken announcement,” Myra said. “It won’t be as powerful, but I’m with Junior—you can’t leave the med chamber yet. You nearly died.”
“Save your statement for after I leave medical,” I said. “It will be more powerful if I’m somewhere else, not in here influencing you or pretending to be you, or whatever else the rumors say I’m doing.”
“You should’ve already left Koan,” Valentin said. “You’re not safe here.”
There were lots of ears listening, so I said, “You’re not safe when I’m here. I can disappear into the city until the heat dies down and everyone else can work on killing the rumors and proving you’re alive and well.”
I linked Valentin while the others argued over what I should do. When he accepted, I said, I know where Adams is. I’d debated keeping the secret, but I couldn’t ask him to be more open with information and not do the same.
Do not go after him alone. Please wait until I can go with you.
I’m taking Imogen and a squad of Myra’s finest. With the rumors spreading, I’m afraid he’s either going to leave or plan another attack. Time is of the essence.
Tell me where he is and I’ll send two platoons.
Will they get there before someone leaks the information and he moves?
Valentin remained stubbornly silent. I knew he was trying to find a reason to prevent me from being the one to go, but we both knew I was the best person for this particular job.
Wear combat armor. I know Sakimoto didn’t win any points with her stunt before, but I believe she is loyal. She can get you the armor and go with you. In fact, her squad is one of the best trained palace squads.
I might dislike combat armor, but even I could see the advantage of being able to move about while invisible. Do you think her squad is loyal?
He hesitated a beat too long. It might be best if they didn’t know who you were. I will arrange it. I know you can take care of yourself, but please, please, please be careful.
I will be. You focus on healing so you can get out of there when I return victorious.
When Imogen and I casually strolled out of medical, we caught the guards by surprise. Luka slammed the door behind us and locked it, so retreat was no longer an option. I smiled and tossed a wave at the guards’ incredulous faces, then turned and sprinted for the hidden exit. Valentin had made me memorize the route and he had locked down access to just us, so if we could make it to the first door, we’d be in the clear.
He should be in the middle of ordering the guards to stand down, but I didn’t wait to see if it would take. We slammed into the exit tunnel and the door locked behind us. We exited the palace and disappeared into Koan, taking a convoluted route to our rendezvous point with Sergeant Major Natalie Sakimoto.
I mourned the supplies I’d had to leave behind in my suite, but I’d given Myra and Valentin a detailed list to give to Natalie. She would either show up with what I asked for or with a squad of Commander Adams’s soldiers. I hoped for the former and planned for the latter, though we only had Imogen’s two guns between us.
We should be ahead of Natalie, but we circled the building twice before entering. The storehouse was big and deserted. Inside, crates were stacked high, but the front quarter of the building had a decent amount of clear space where we could gear up.
Imogen climbed the nearest aisle and found a good place to cover me. I moved so I had protection at my back and I was hidden from the door. We settled down to wait.
Noon came and went and still Natalie did not arrive. Valentin and I had agreed to limit communication to emergencies and this didn’t qualify—yet. I checked the news. Rumors were still flying fast and furious, but now people were speculating about where I had gone, if I had somehow brainwashed the emperor, and if I was planning to try to take the Kos Empire for myself.
It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.
A little after one, someone tapped on the door in the agreed upon sequence. That just meant I wouldn’t shoot first. The door opened and Natalie Sakimoto came through, pushing a cargo sled. The door closed immediately behind her, but that didn’t mean a couple of troopers in armor hadn’t snuck through with her. I wish I had thermal imaging equipment.
“Samara?” she called.
“Are you alone?”
She immediately turned my way despite the bad acoustics in here. She had some sort of hearing augment. “I’m alone. Sorry I’m late. The palace is in chaos and it was difficult to get some of the things on your list. Some were impossible. I brought what I could.”
“Did anyone follow you?”
I eased out of cover. No one took a pot shot at me, so maybe my day was looking up. “What did you get?”
“I brought you a combat rifle and an electroshock pistol, but I couldn’t get a sniper rifle without a lot of explanation that I figured you wouldn’t want. Also, I brought combat armor for you and your guard. I brought breaching charges and stun grenades, but no explosive grenades. My squad is going to meet us here in an hour for what they think is a training exercise. Are there really Quint soldiers in Koan? They’re not Rogue rebels?”
“Kos could wipe the Rogue Coalition out of existence without breaking a sweat. Rogue rebels attacking the emperor makes exactly zero sense. But I have to admit, that Quint pinning it on us was a stroke of genius. Rumors don’t need to make sense to grab attention if enough people start repeating them.”
“Where is your guard?”
“She’s watching to ensure you don’t try to kill me.”
Natalie glanced around at the tall stacks of crates. “That’s smart.”
“I try,” I said drily. “Once I’m suited up, I’ll bring her out.”
There was no elegant way to get into the stretchy base layer that went under the combat armor, so I didn’t even try. I shimmied and hopped my way into it while Natalie did the same with hers. Once I had the armor on and a combat rifle in hand, I called Imogen down. She climbed down from her perch while I kept an eye on our surroundings.
Once we were all in armor, Natalie went over the features, including, most importantly, how to activate the active camouflage that would render us invisible.
“Can you shut down net connections while soldiers are in the suits?” I asked.
“No, but I can monitor when connections are being made. Why?”
“Someone is betraying Valentin and they have many eyes and ears. I want to know if anyone connects out.”
“You think one of my soldiers is a traitor?” There was a dangerous edge to her voice.
“No, I don’t, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But I want everyone on lockdown and if someone starts making connections, I want to know.”
She nodded once. We went over the plan three times before she was happy with it. Either Valentin or Myra had gotten the building’s blueprint and we discussed the various points of entry. She didn’t love breaking into an unknown building, but time wasn’t on our side.
I had considered trying to lure Adams to me, but there were too many unknowns. A straightforward surprise attack would be our best bet. I hoped to catch Adams in an afternoon lull. Finlay had kept me posted and no one had left the building. They were either hunkered down because everyone was looking for the supposed rebels or because they were planning something new.
Or they were waiting for me to show up so they could murder me. I guess we’d find out soon enough.
When Natalie’s team arrived, she told them to disconnect from the net before she explained the mission. Her squad had been with her a long time and didn’t bat an eye at the somewhat unusual request. They shot my closed visor a few glances but no one asked about me or Imogen. Perhaps they weren’t just used to guard the palace.
Natalie broke her squad into four two-person teams. We would hit the building from all four sides. It meant we had to be careful about the field of fire, but it gave Adams’s squad less opportunity to escape. Our goal was to capture rather than kill whenever possible.
Plan set, the squad closed their visors. My visor’s built-in display outlined everyone in the squad in faint green. Thanks to the transponders, our armor could recognize friendlies. Natalie also had gold around her form and Imogen was outlined in purple. I couldn’t see my own color, but I should also be outlined in purple. Natalie had explained that the colors were to help the squad keep track of us.
Natalie gave the order to activate our camouflage. One by one, soldiers disappeared. The faint markers remained, and when we activated thermal imaging, the red blobs representing the invisible soldiers were outlined in green, gold, and purple. There was also an option to overlay the soldier’s name on their form, but since I wasn’t used to the visual distraction, I’d left it off.
We took a nondescript transport that dropped us off around the corner from the target building. The three teams hitting the far sides of the building left to get into position. One team stayed with us, bringing our total to five. We were going to hit the largest entrance. Natalie stacked me next to last in line despite my protests.
Natalie counted down and then I heard the breaching charges echo from the other doors before our own door blew open. If my information was bad, I’d just committed ten people to death.
The building was setup like a typical mercenary headquarters: office in front, bunks in the middle, and an open area in the back for storage and gearing up. Adams had been in the open area with crates of gear in the expanded photo Finlay had sent me.
My team hit the door that opened directly to the storage area. The space was large with a high ceiling and smooth plascrete floors. Windows high on the walls let in plenty of light. Towers of dusty crates made for poor visibility, but also gave us a little bit of cover.
Natalie led with quick steps. I scanned the tops of the crates. When a red blob appeared high on our left—sans green outline—I shot instinctively. The electroshock pistol shorted out the combat armor’s camouflage and a soldier popped into view.
Unfortunately, it also stunned the soldier inside the armor and they toppled off the crate. “Heads up!”
The warning was unnecessary because the soldiers in front of me had already followed my shots to their target. They moved aside and the falling soldier hit the ground with a sickening splat. There was no time for regret. We kept moving.
One of the other teams stunned two soldiers in the bunks and had them restrained. I was working on the assumption that we were dealing with around a dozen soldiers, plus Commander Adams. More than that and secrecy became questionable. Fewer and he wouldn’t have been able to attack as often as he had. Four died in the attacks and now three more were down. Five could be left which wasn’t an insignificant number in close quarters like this.
Natalie poked her head around the corner and pulled back with a curse as a plasma pulse slammed into the wall next to her. “Four invisible protecting one visible with a hostage.”
“Come out and drop your weapons or I’ll blow his head off!” Commander Adams demanded.
“And give up your only bargaining chip? I doubt it,” I called back before Natalie could respond.
I moved up next to her and peeked around the corner. Sure enough, Adams stood in a circle of hidden soldiers. He wore combat armor but had the visor open. He moved slightly and I got a good look at his hostage. My breath caught. The man in his grip looked strikingly like Valentin. Same dark hair, same good looks, but this man was a few years older and lacked Valentin’s musculature. Nikolas.
Nikolas looked scared. Was he actually being held as a hostage or was he working with Adams and this was their fallback escape plan? I couldn’t tell, which meant I didn’t know if Adams was serious about his threat to kill him. It didn’t really matter because none of the other Kos soldiers knew that Nikolas had potentially betrayed Valentin, so I would have to negotiate for Nikolas’s release or be branded a traitor myself.
“Ah, the Scoundrel Queen,” Adams greeted. He must’ve recognized my voice. “We meet again. I should’ve known you’d be here. Come to rescue the other brother, have you?”
I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on Nikolas, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a rescue, more like an inquisition. I peeked again. I could hit the two front soldiers before they got shots off, but I couldn’t hit all four and Adams. And Adams was no fool—there wasn’t a clear shot at him without taking out his guard.
“Help me!” Nikolas shouted. Adams shook him into silence.
“Adams, you’re surrounded. How do you think this is going to go?”
“You’re going to let me leave and I’m not going to bring the building down on our heads. When we’re good and far away, I’ll let this one go.”
Natalie swore under her breath again. “Marlow, Guerra, find the explosives,” she murmured. “Stay out of sight.”
“No can do, I’m afraid,” I replied to Adams. “Surrender and tell us who you’re working with and I’ll plead for clemency for you.”
His laugh was not nice. “I’ve seen your brand of clemency. I think I’ll pass.” He raised his voice so that all of the Kos soldiers could hear him. “I have the emperor’s brother and heir, Nikolas Kos. If anyone moves, he’ll be the first to die. And the Quint Confederacy will offer asylum and pay a million credits to whoever brings me Samara Rani’s corpse right now.”
If you like TQA, perhaps you would also like my debut novel, Polaris Rising. Available now: