It’s Election Day, US friends! This is your very last chance to make your voice heard, so get out there and vote! Vote for leadership, and kindness, and hope.
And while the presidential election is incredibly important, all of the down-ballot races are important, too, so do your research (The League of Women Voters always has an excellent guide) and vote for your local officials as well.
Today and this week are going to be stressful, so here’s a chapter to help take your mind off of it. And HEAs are guaranteed in my worlds, so don’t stress too much as we creep closer to the final battle. :)
I froze even as my heart raced. What did you say? I demanded, certain that I’d heard them wrong. Adams didn’t have the ships or support to summon an armada. Right?
Which part of ‘fucking Quint armada’ is giving you trouble?
“What’s wrong?” Valentin asked.
“Sawya says a Quint armada just showed up. Check the news.”
The group all started asking questions, but I waved them away and returned to my conversation with Sawya. Has Chairwoman Soteras been in contact? Are they truly backed by the Quint Confederacy?
Regretfully, I’ve been a little too busy dealing with a fucking Quint armada to make any social calls, Sawya shouted across the link. There was a long pause, then they continued, their tone calm and deadly, Friends we may be, but I will not risk the station for you. Turn yourself in and I will do what I can for you. If you make me find you… don’t make me find you.
Open the airlocks and I will turn myself in.
You are in no position to make demands.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before I snapped out something that would get us all killed. I am making a request. There is no emergency in Block 19. The people here don’t deserve to be trapped, and it was already devolving into to violence right after the lockdown. People will die if it continues.
“I left a message for Soteras because she was unavailable,” Valentin said. “I would like to believe she’s not behind it, but if Adams doesn’t have her support, then he is attempting a coup.”
“Sawya wants me to turn myself in.”
“No,” Valentin said, his voice hard.
“I’m with Valentin,” Ari said. “We’re not turning you over.” Stella, Imogen, and Eddie also nodded. Even Luka looked like he was on my side for once.
I appreciated their loyalty, but my mind was made up. “I’ve already agreed, assuming they open the airlocks.”
“I won’t let them hand you over to Adams,” Valentin said. His hands clenched into fists. “I refuse.”
I laughed without humor. “Adams is demanding you, too, so maybe you’ll get to join me.”
“I can have my fleet here before Sawya lays a finger on you, and I will give the order without regret.”
I considered it, then shook my head. “Having a battle so close to the station is not a good idea. I’m sure CP57 is already readying their own ships. We don’t need to add to the chaos quite yet. But maybe send your advisors a heads-up.”
I held up a hand as Sawya resumed the linked conversation. I could technically handle both conversations at once, but it would be better if I could give Sawya my full attention.
The airlocks will open in ten minutes, Sawya said. They sent me an address in Block 6. Meet me there once they do. Bring your entourage.
I will turn myself in, but I won’t lead the others to their deaths.
Sawya snorted. Don’t be so dramatic. No one will die. Yet. Don’t give me a reason to change my mind.
They cut the link before I could demand more information.
I debated not telling the others, but I wouldn’t be able to slip away with nearly a dozen people watching my every move. “The airlocks are opening in ten minutes and then I’m supposed to meet Sawya in Block 6.”
“If you insist on going, then we’re going with you,” Ari said. Everyone nodded.
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Well, that’s convenient because you were explicitly invited.” At her frown, I clarified, “I was told to bring my entourage.”
As promised, the airlocks opened. Despite the announcements that the block was safe, a massive crowd still waited to exit. We joined them, cloaked and hooded, with Ari, Stella, and Valentin hidden in between us.
Our extra teams had left and headed for another exit. It was a thin hope that Sawya didn’t already know about them, but I didn’t need to drag all of my citizens on CP57 into the fire—taking the people I cared about most was bad enough.
The address Sawya had given me turned out to be a very posh private building. The door opened as I approached, despite the fact that I hadn’t lowered my hood. Point to Sawya. A thickly muscled man in a dark suit held the door open. The empty foyer beyond didn’t give me much insight into what kind of situation I should expect.
I stepped through the door with Valentin right behind me. The guard did not try to stop him, even though he still wore combat armor with the visor open. Valentin would be monitoring the local neural links for signs of betrayal. Using the ability drained him, so I needed to keep this meeting short.
The foyer was huge and tastefully decorated with marble and stone that must’ve cost a fortune to ship. A discreet security desk was tucked away on the left side, but the security guard was missing. Straight ahead, past a bank of elevators, a wide door stood open with another of Sawya’s guards standing next to it. He gestured us inside.
I crossed the foyer, my boots whisper quiet on the beautiful floor. I lowered my hood, but the guard at the door did not ask me to remove my weapons. Valentin, Stella, and Ari were also admitted. At least Sawya’s boundless confidence hadn’t changed.
The room inside was clearly a waiting room, albeit a very nice one. Plush carpet, ornate furniture, and soft lighting gave a sense of cozy luxury. Two long sofas faced each other across a low glass coffee table. Other small groupings of chairs and tables were scattered around the room.
At least a dozen guards lined the walls, half in dark suits and half in fatigues. All bristled with visible weapons.
Sawya rose from their seat on the far sofa. They looked perfectly put together even though it was stupidly late. They wore a finely tailored navy suit with a crisp white shirt and striped tie. Their curly blond hair was slicked back into a severe style and their face was devoid of makeup. Their expression was cool and guarded.
“Sit,” they said, pointing at the opposite sofa. It was not a request and they did not smile.
Valentin, with me, I said across the group link. The rest of you, spread out behind us.
I perched on the edge of the sofa, and Valentin stood beside me. I had coached everyone on the way over, so we all waited in silence for Sawya to make the first move.
Sawya sat with deliberate carelessness, sprawling back on their sofa and taking up space. If they were bothered by Valentin looming over them, they didn’t show it. “I wasn’t sure you would come,” they said at last.
“I told you I would.”
They inclined their head. “So you did.” They studied Valentin with casual intensity. “And you, why did you come?”
“I go where Samara goes.”
“What if I told you that you could walk away with your life, and the lives of your friends, right now, but only if you leave her behind?”
Valentin’s smile was quick and sharp. “I would politely decline. And then I would caution you against making threats that serve neither of us.”
I held my breath until Sawya laughed.
They met my eyes. “I wasn’t sure the little emperor had a spine. I’m glad to know that I was wrong.” Their expression turned serious. “He’s going to need it.”
“Have you been able to contact Quint?” Valentin asked.
Sawya shook their head. “I’ve sent urgent messages, but I haven’t received any response.”
“Same,” Valentin said. “But my battle fleet is ready to tunnel in whenever they are needed.”
I had to give it to Valentin, the threat was delicately delivered. A smirk touched Sawya’s mouth. “And if the net unexpectedly goes down?” They snapped their fingers and my net connection died.
One of the guards made a low sound and Sawya frowned at them. The poor guy must be new, but he wouldn’t last long if he kept drawing Sawya’s attention.
Valentin remained outwardly relaxed. “Then I hope it is fixed promptly or the fleet will arrive earlier than expected,” he said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
Sawya watched Valentin for a long second before grinning. “Touché.” They waved a hand and the connection came back.
The tech to selectively and surgically take down neural connections was hideously expensive and ridiculously illegal. It hadn’t surprised me that Sawya had it in their office, but to be able to set it up here on such short notice was impressive.
“What does Adams want?” I asked.
“He says that he wants you two delivered to his ship.”
“What does he actually want?” Valentin asked.
“Oh, I’m sure he wants you two—that wasn’t a lie. But he didn’t need to bring two battle cruisers, a quartet of destroyers, and a half dozen corvettes for that.”
That was a lot of firepower, considering Valentin’s fleet had downed Adams’s destroyer and supporting ships during the battle in Arx. Where did Adams find so many new ships, especially in such a short time? “You think he’s planning to take over the station?”
Sawya’s eyes narrowed. “He’s welcome to try.”
“He’s staging for an attack on either Arx or Koan,” Valentin said. “After he’s done with CP57.”
“Arx doesn’t have anything worth the time,” I said.
They both looked at me, and I rolled my eyes. “If he makes it to Arx, it’ll be because I’m dead, so that won’t be his motivation.”
“I’m so glad you offered your life,” Sawya said. “It saves us so much time.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” I said. “If I’m going down, I’m going down fighting. Can you get me to Adams’s ship without being noticed?”
A whole chorus of muttered curses came from behind me as the rest of the group tried to follow my advice and stay silent, but they clearly weren’t happy about it.
Sawya considered it, then shook their head. “He’s on Implacable, one of the destroyers. They will spot anything we have. And while I would offer to escort you in a transport shuttle, I don’t think my presence would make Adams less likely to blow it up.”
I glanced at Valentin. “Could Ardia do it?”
A muscle in his jaw flexed. He didn’t want to answer, but I waited him out. “It’s possible,” he finally ground out. “But even if you get there, what are you going to do? Take out a whole destroyer by yourself?”
“I won’t have to if I’m stealthy,” I said, giving him a significant look.
“If you’re talking about this delightful new armor,” Sawya said with a wave at Valentin, “then do go on. I’m all ears.” Their eyes flickered over my shoulder to Stella and Ari.
I huffed out a half laugh. “I thought you weren’t all-knowing.”
Sawya’s smile was thin and self-satisfied. “I’m not, but I do know quite a lot. And the Kos Empire hasn’t exactly been leakproof lately, has it?”
Valentin cursed under his breath. “I don’t suppose you know how Adams got his hands on our proprietary armor?”
One corner of Sawya’s mouth tipped up, but they said nothing.
“Figures,” Valentin muttered. He turned back to me. “Even in armor, we can’t hope to take on the entire crew of a destroyer, and they’ll know as soon as we try to dock.”
I noticed he’d switched to including himself in the attack, but I didn’t bother arguing yet. “I just have to be faster than they are, and that should be easy enough because they won’t be expecting me. Then I will hold long enough for you to get some soldiers to me.”
“It’s suicide,” Valentin snarled.
“You two are a delight, but time is wasting,” Sawya said. “Adams was quite adamant about having you found and delivered. And he doesn’t seem like the type of person who would be too torn up about civilian casualties.”
“If time is so critical, you could help,” I said pointedly.
Sawya heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Must I do everything?”
I rubbed my temples and fought for patience. “Unless you want a battle on your doorstep, yes, you should do everything you can to prevent it.”
Sawya’s expression iced over. “If I recall correctly, you promised to take care of this problem for me. Instead, now I have enemy fleet outside, threatening my station. Tread carefully, darling.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, dipping my head in apology.
Their expression thawed slightly. “If you have a ship that can get to Adams’s destroyer, then I can assist you in taking control of it.”
“How?” Valentin asked.
“Soldiers. Information. Distraction. Take your pick.”
Valentin’s eyes narrowed, and I jumped in before he could say something rude. “How many soldiers can you spare?”
Sawya spread their arms. “How many can you haul?”
“How will we get past the airlock?” Valentin asked. “We can force the outer hatch, but the inner door won’t open without authorization as long as the bridge remains active. If we blow it, the ship will go into emergency lockdown and we’ll never make the bridge.”
“Leave that to me,” Sawya said.
“I thought you’re weren’t going with us,” Valentin said.
“Oh, I’m definitely not,” Sawya said with a shark-like smile. “But I don’t have to be there in person to finesse a door open, not when I have such a capable thief available to help, isn’t that right, Mr. Tarlowski?”
Eddie swallowed when Sawya’s gaze landed on him. “Ships were not my specialty.”
Sawya waved him off. “Not to worry, I have faith in you. I have the tools and the codes you’ll need. I just need you to have a delicate touch and the ability to follow directions.”
Eddie glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, and I nodded. “I can do that,” he said. “What will I need to do?”
I listened with half an ear as Sawya explained. Eddie kept nodding, so apparently it made sense to one of us. While they were busy, I linked Ari. Have the teams move all of our supplies from your ship to Ardia.
This is a bad idea.
Do you have a better one?
Let Valentin’s fleet deal with him. Or CP57’s.
Because that worked so well last time. Move the supplies. I disconnected the link before she could argue.
“Adams will retaliate as soon as he realizes we’re breaching his ship,” Valentin said. “Is your fleet capable of defending the station?”
“The station can defend itself,” Sawya said, “but our fleet will draw his attention.”
“If the station can defend itself, then why do you need us?” Valentin asked. “Blow him up and be done with it.”
“Or I could hand you over and be done with it,” Sawya drawled. “And that option would be less risky, too.”
They let that sink in for a moment before continuing. “As I’m sure you’re aware, defenses have weaknesses, no matter how well they are designed. And weaknesses mean innocent people die. If you attack from inside while I attack from outside, perhaps we can keep those deaths to a minimum.”