Excerpt from Crown of Fire

Crown of Fire

by Kathy Tyers




Absently smoothing a wrinkle in her snug black pants, genetics technician Terza Shirak pressed her forehead to her scanner and examined a sixteen-cell human morula. She could not allow one microscopic imperfection.

Fortunately, all the visible chromosome divisions proceeded normally. Cytoplasmic proteins were also within tolerance. Terza reached around and carefully returned that culture dish to incubation, then drew the next tiny zygote from its sloshy growing place.

Recently graduated from pre-adult training, Terza worked long hours overseeing these womb banks and embrytubes. Her supervisor, Juddis Adiyn, served the city’s new Eldest as a personal advisor. She hoped to be introduced to the Eldest soon, for a vital reason. At her graduation, less than a year ago, they finally told her that Three Zed colony’s new administrator, Modabah Shirak, was her own gene-father.

Terza had wondered, during training, if she might be Modabah’s offspring. She had his abnormally fair skin, black hair and eyes, and the sharp chin of her half-brother Micahel. She was tall, too, just under 180 centimeters. Still, no sub-adult conceived in this laboratory knew her parents. The parents never knew her, either, unless she survived training. That objectivity freed the colony to continue its 240-year experiment in genetic engineering. As a named adult, Terza hoped to contribute to Three Zed’s strength. To humanity’s future.

In such a scheme, there had to be casualties. Many of these zygotes malformed and died. A high percentage of sub-adult children were culled in training, and recently, Micahel destroyed a Federate city.

Terza stared at the next zygote, then frowned. One chromosome division had stalled, and a delicate chromosomal fibril, which should’ve divided, dangled through an incomplete cell division instead. The embryo would develop malformed. Absently she inserted a flash probe and vaporized the culture, then removed its entry from her catalog. This no longer bothered her.

Next, she turned to her weekly fertilizations. Fewer than ten percent of zygotes survived to adulthood, culled as malformed embryos or imperfect-response infants, pronounced untrainable at the settlements where they were raised, or killed in training.

As she reached for her touchboard, a barely perceptible temblor shook the ground. Her ancestors had built the Golden City inside an extinct, plugged volcano. The world itself had not quite died.

The tissue-bank list contained her orders for the day, and the first ovum to be fertilized carried the TWS-1 designation. That was her own code—this would be her first fertilization! She sat up straight and flicked black hair out of her face. The odds said this offspring would perish before adulthood, but this was an honor. Her supervisor ordered gene crosses according to hereditary talents and his mysterious ability to predict future events.

Was the cross with Dru Polar? she wondered. The colony’s late Testing Director had been abnormally strong in Ehretan talents. Just last night, her hall-mates on Third South had regaled each other with shivery tales about the trainer who culled so many of their peers. Polar had been found dead twenty days ago, hideously killed, beside Terza’s masterful grandfather and another City resident, Cassia Talumah.

Terza grasped her lower lip between her teeth and glanced across the screen, checking her guess. Was it Polar?

No. The ordered fertilization’s paternal designation was not Polar’s DLP, but the cryptic BDC-5X.

BDC—Brennen Daye Caldwell? Terza clenched a hand. She personally cloned that prisoner’s skin cells, several days before he escaped—but Shirak males made a sport out of thinning his family! According to zealots among his people, a Caldwell would eventually destroy her world.

Terza’s people had sacrificed one planet, their home world, to save themselves. Recently, they’d taken a city off the Sentinels’ adopted world. They would neutralize the Caldwells if necessary, and create more craters, because the timing was urgent. Soon, they would be able to offer humanity a gift it wanted at any price: immortality. One world at a time, Terza’s people—the unbound starbred—would craft a new human race in a more durable image.

Fortunately, Terza hadn’t been involved in selecting the first planetary population to be modified.

She refocused her eyes on her orders. BDC-5X: this would be a female child, with Caldwell genes, but one who wouldn’t carry the allegedly messianic Carabohd name.

This, at least, made sense. Before Dru Polar’s interrogations and research ruined him, Caldwell had shown prodigious psionic talent. Maybe her supervisor wanted to create a pool of Shirak-Caldwell embryonic cells. He could tease apart that breeding stock to create a quick second generation.

Whatever he wanted, she must exceed his expectations. She keyed the stasis unit to deliver appropriate cultures. Within moments, the BDC-5X dropped into the micro-injector on her examining cradle.

Because of its dermal origins, the gamete had no whip-tail. She confirmed with a glance that it carried the requisite X chromosome, then injected the gamete into the TWS-1 ovum, creating her own first offspring. Instantly, the smaller cell’s nuclear membrane started to dissolve, releasing its genetic contents. Flattening her lips, she transferred the new zygote into a dish of nutrient medium.

Maybe her father hoped to duplicate Caldwell’s abilities in his own gametic descendants, the ones who might live forever. Or maybe Terza’s lab supervisor meant to test her, to see if she’d obey a distasteful order—this one—or else destroy her own fertilization late in its term. Terza did hate culling late fetuses, whose features looked almost human. Gene technology was dangerous work for a woman secretly more sensitive than most of her fellows.

And this one will carry my genes. Half of all I am.

Appalled by the tug of that new sensation, Terza reminded herself that it would also carry the genes of an enemy. She checked her screen for the next prescribed fertilization.

That day’s final order sent her to her supervisor’s apartment, several levels beneath Three Zed’s basaltic surface. Stocky and small-eyed, Juddis Adiyn looked more like a dark-flour dumpling than a leader of the unbound starbred. He slumped in a brocaded wing chair, clasping stout hands in his lap. Adiyn was old enough—152, by the Federate calendar—to need ayin treatments to preserve his waning abilities. That was one reason her telepathically skilled elders normally spoke aloud. “By now,” he said, “you are aware of your primary fertilization. An outcross with the Carabohd-Caldwell line.”

Terza rocked from one foot to the other. On the near wall, a glasteel case displayed jeweled offworld trinkets against a frothy lava backdrop. Across the ceiling, red, blue, and green threads of light snaked and writhed. Terza found them mildly hypnotic, and she avoided staring at them.

“You’re displeased?” Adiyn asked.

Of course, Terza sent silently. A young underling generally subvocalized, speaking mind-to-mind on her epsilon carrier wave. I would have preferred not soiling my father’s line with Thyrian genes. But this seems appropriate, considering my profession in genetics.

“Have you made any guess? Any rationale?”

Something to do with Tallis’s announcement, she suggested, taking a shot without a targeting beam. Yesterday, the Federates’ regional capitol had claimed that the Sentinels had developed a new technology. They threatened to use this RIA weapon against her people, in revenge for Three Zed’s preemptive strike against the Sentinels’ world.

The Federates had good reason to be afraid. Terza was glad to be employed in reproduction, so she would miss the coming horrors.

“You’re close,” Adiyn said. “It has more to do with your father’s scouting trip to Netaia, and with bringing Caldwell back to face justice.”

Terza raised her head. Her father gave the fertilization order? She did hope to meet him before the colony moved elsewhere, after a century on this sterile planet. As for Caldwell, he and his Lady stood accused of assassinating her grandfather, the previous Eldest … and possibly Dru Polar and Cassia Talumah. No witness to their deaths had survived to testify. A summons had been sent, but no one expected Caldwell to return voluntarily.

Ironically, his people shared her genetic heritage. Because of those psionic abilities, this colony had superb defenses. It had little else, though. Modabah would leave in a few weeks to inspect the chosen planetary system. Netaia had rich assets, estimated at a quarter of the Federacy’s. It could be seized relatively easily, by altering a few nobly born minds and destroying only one, or maybe two or three of its cities. Its top-heavy government made it charmingly vulnerable to such a simple approach. There, Terza’s people would launch the next phase of their grand experiment. She wanted a pivotal position in that program.

“I assume you’ve heard that General Caldwell and Lady Firebird will also be traveling to Netaia.”

Nudged back to the here and now, Terza nodded and responded, Some sort of ceremonial.

“And naturally, your father wants Caldwell back in custody.”

She shrugged. Call it justice, or call it vengeance. Eshdeth and Polar had been powerful leaders, poised to destroy the Sentinels’ fortress world—

Adiyn raised a hand, cutting off her thought. “Your father prefers to start any operation with several options. If the unexpected occurs, he can be ready.”

How true. Down on Third South, her father’s love of options had been the subject of some cautious derision.

“Among his options for Netaia,” said Adiyn, “is to lure out General Caldwell, preferably in bereavement shock, since he will be there anyway. Modabah requests your assistance.”

Terza raised one eyebrow. Bereavement left Sentinels mentally and physically incapacitated, easily seized or dispatched in the following days, because they bonded with their mates at the deepest level of consciousness. But—

Lure him out? she demanded. A man almost legendary for his ethics? He wouldn’t want illicit power or pleasures.

Adiyn’s little eyes focused over Terza’s shoulder, toward the ceiling and those eerie light threads. She’d heard that he used them to read the future. “Your primary role will be as messenger, regarding the new Caldwell offspring.”

She avoided scoffing, because Adiyn would sense it. Sir, Caldwell knows we could make him a hundred offspring. A thousand. If we really want to trap him, we should offer him a full case of embrytubes—

Adiyn raised a gray eyebrow. “Don’t display your ignorance,” he said tightly.

Terza crossed her ankles. She compressed her lips.

“Sentinels,” Adiyn explained, “carry their own young. Apparently, breeding like animals fulfills some kind of psychological need in them.” He waved one hand in front of his face. “Caldwell couldn’t ignore an embryo that was carried by a woman, particularly a woman highly placed among his enemies. He would try to get her into custody.”

Carried by a woman? Custody? “I beg your pardon.” Terza spoke aloud this time, dispersing an outer cloud of epsilon static. Normally, she used it to shield her emotions.

“No, we wouldn’t let you be kidnapped. We want this offspring for further research and breeding, to say nothing of your own value to your people.”

An insubstantial iron band tightened around Terza’s chest. He still hadn’t explained carried. “Sir, you can’t mean—”

“If you are unwilling, your father will gladly set you aside and choose another.”

The iron band tightened further, and she struggled for her next breath. In colony parlance, “set aside” meant the cold-stasis crypts. There was no escape from that frozen prison, except to a short life as an experimental subject. Modabah wouldn’t hesitate to stase one rebellious gene tech, even if she was his own offspring, any more than he would hesitate to order another Federate city destroyed.

Respectfully, sir, she sent, grasping at the first argument that occurred to her, and I am not saying I am unwilling … but if we arrive on Netaia, and circumstances change, the Eldest might not even decide to lure Caldwell out that way. He always has half a dozen options. That would waste … my effort … She could barely imagine the embarrassment, not to mention the discomfort, the blood and pain—

Adiyn clasped his hands again. “Then call it part of your education, Terza. Your contribution to our pending expansion.”




“And then this is the Codex simulation,” said Occupation Governor Danton. “The Electorate sent it down yesterday, demanding that we act.”

Firebird pushed long auburn hair back from her face as she leaned forward. Governor Danton’s wood-paneled office had two broad, darkened windows and an antique desk, all chosen to set Netaia’s Federate conquerors on equal footing with a snooty nobility. She sat in a comfortable brownbuck chair across from the Governor.

Above the media block on his desk appeared an image she would’ve known from any approach vector: Citangelo, the heart of royal Netaia and its two buffer systems. Between the broad sideways Y formed by Etlason and Tiggaree Rivers, Sander Hill wore a broad green ring of noble estates, while south of the Y, the central city thrust up ancient towers and shining new constructs. The Hall of Charity stood like a gold-banded cube at the junction of two long green swathes.

Out of mid-air, a fiery projectile plummeted.

Danton had just shown them an actual recording of the Sunton disaster, on Thyrica. Firebird could hardly bear to watch this simulation, but she didn’t blink as the projectile—representing a trio of piloted fighters, diving from orbit—plunged into the city’s southeast quarter, near the new Federate military base. It sank through buildings and soil into bedrock. Around it, the city heaved like water into which a stone had been thrown. As the crater blasted deep, buildings, greenery, and people—everything flammable—coalesced in fire ….

“Enough,” Firebird muttered, turning away. Muirnen Rogonin, Regent Until the Majority of Her Majesty Queen Iarla, owned the Codex newsnet service. Naturally, he’d sent this to the Governor’s office, as a greeting to Firebird and Brennen.

Governor Danton stroked something on his desktop. The windowfilters opened, and Firebird took a short step backward. She glanced out at a heartbreakingly familiar view. An ancient arch framed three distant housing stacks and the central-city towers. Closer at hand, a cluster of tinted glasteel terminals had risen phoenix-like out of Citangelo Spaceport’s ashes, evidence of its Federate conquerors’ rebuilding program. Webs of gravidic scaffolding surrounded a partly finished ten-meter projection dish that was probably part of the new planetary defense system.

Still intact. Still home.

Governor Danton shook his head. “No one actually knows where they’ll strike next?”

Firebird’s husband, Field General Brennen Caldwell, sat in one of Danton’s luxurious office chairs, lacing his fingers, looking just as sober as Danton. A small, whitening scar marked his left cheek, external evidence of his recent captivity. Brennen had taken terrible injuries at Three Zed. In the weeks since they escaped, he’d struggled to convalesce. “I’m afraid not,” he answered. “That is the real reason we’ve returned.”

“I don’t understand,” said the Federate Governor.

Firebird pointedly picked up a kass mug she’d left on Governor Danton’s desk. She forced down a bitter sip, hating the taste but needing the mild stimulant. With her day cycle shifted eleven hours, this was all that was keeping her awake. Her gesture also cued Brenn that she would rather let him answer.

He set down his own mug. “The Federacy asked us to accept the Assembly’s invitation,” he said. “When Firebird was asked to return and be confirmed as an heiress of House Angelo, we both wanted to refuse.”

Firebird nodded. She wanted that made plain.

“But we found good reasons to accept,” Brennen said. “Regional command asked us to make the strongest possible statement that the Federacy supports local governments and their customs.”

Danton nodded. “No surprises so far.”

Brennen pressed one finger to the scar on his cheekbone, a gesture he’d picked up in recent weeks. “This is the crux, Lee. No one knows where the Shuhr will attack next, and my people have no intention of sending an agent back to Three Zed.”

Not after what they did to you,
Firebird reflected. Vengeance belonged to the One, but in retrospect, she was glad it’d been necessary to kill Dru Polar to escape. He’d tortured Brennen, then tried to force him to kill her—

“They know Firebird and I will be here in Citangelo for the next six days,” Brennen went on. “The Sentinel College has publicized the fact that I was injured and reduced in Ehretan abilities. We hope to draw out a Shuhr agent, take a prisoner, and interrogate.” He glanced at his bodyguard, the rather dashing Lieutenant Colonel Uri Harris. “We need to find out their plans before they can strike again,” Brennen finished.

“That’s why you’ll be staying in the palace?” Danton asked. “You’ll try to take your prisoner there?”

Firebird nodded and said, “That’s plan one. Besides, I’m supposed to show that having accepted Federate transnational citizenship doesn’t make me any less a Netaian, or less an Angelo.” She managed a smile, despite her queasy reaction to the Codex image. “One Shuhr agent might be foolish enough to think we won’t be adequately guarded there.”

Brennen, recently reinstated into Regional command’s Special Operations force, had just sent twelve of his fellow Sentinels to infiltrate palace staff. Sentinel Uri Harris, his bodyguard, was an access-interrogation specialist, as Brennen had been before Three Zed. Firebird’s own bodyguard was a weapons instructor at the Sentinel college.

As the Shuhr continued to step up their raids against military craft, Regional command could draw only one conclusion. The decades-long standoff between Brennen’s kindred and their renegade relatives was about to fly apart into open conflict.

Regional command had ordered Brennen’s team to find out where the Shuhr planned their next major attack, and to prevent it. He carried sealed orders, to be opened if they could get one Shuhr in custody for interrogation.

Firebird’s confirmation gave Brennen’s team its opportunity. Confirmation was only a formality, and if she did stay here long enough to go through with it, it would convey no actual power—but Netaia had thrived on spectacle for centuries. In one carefully choreographed alternate scenario, Firebird and Brennen planned to walk up the aisle of Citangelo’s great, cubical Hall of Charity … as bait for the trap.

“And the new RIA technology?” Danton’s voice dropped a little farther, and he drummed his fingers on the desktop. Regional command had announced RIA just over forty days ago. Half the Federacy was now screaming for the Sentinels to use it, to attack Three Zed before the Shuhr could destroy one more city. The other half demanded that all trained Sentinels be surgically disempowered, rather than let them dominate the Federacy.

Danton raised one eyebrow and stared at Brennen. Firebird was willing to bet the RIA announcement disturbed him.

“I promise you,” Brennen said firmly, “Remote Individual Amplification poses the Federacy no threat. We will only use it against the Shuhr.”

Firebird emerged from Governor Danton’s inner office into a narrow lounge. Prince Tel Tellai-Angelo sprang up out of a chair. She hurried forward to greet him.

Tel, widower of Firebird’s sister Phoena, was their only ally among Netaia’s noble class. Flamboyant in a maroon shirt and knickers, he whisked off a feather-brimmed hat. “Firebird,” he murmured. “I just arrived.” He turned to Brennen. “Caldwell, welcome back to Citangelo. Are you all right?”

Brennen laid a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. “I’m fine,” he said, hastily turning aside.

Firebird sensed his sudden shortness of breath. Ever since Three Zed, narrow spaces like this lounge unnerved him. “Shel,” he said, “Uri, this is Prince Tel. He’s on the short list.”

Uri Harris maintained a cultured air, even when walking behind Brenn at full attention. Keeping closer to Firebird, Sentinel Shelevah Mattason was 170 centimeters of feminine power, with pale blue-gray eyes. She rarely smiled.

Tel raised a black eyebrow. “Short list?”

Firebird threw her arms around Tel and translated, “You’re not a potential threat. These are our bodyguards.”

Tel pulled away, glanced at Uri and Shel, and said, “Good. I hope there are more where they came from.”

Two burly men in Tallan ash-gray emerged from Danton’s inner office. “Yes,” Firebird answered. She couldn’t tell Tel about the team infiltrating the palace—not out here, where she might be overheard. “And Governor Danton assured us there’ll be extra security, plain-clothes. One team will follow us to the palace now.”

Brennen led down a passway lined with windowed doors. Firebird hung back with Tel, who leaned down toward her. “How is he, really?”

Firebird pursed her lips. “As well as we can hope.” Brennen had done the damage himself, creating amnesia blocks to keep his captors from learning Federate military secrets. Eight weeks had passed since their return from the Shuhr, and he seemed calmer, better able to accept his losses. Besides memory gaps, he no longer had the fine epsilon control that had made him a Master Sentinel. That resulted in a shattering loss of status. The College had asked him to give up wearing his eight-rayed Master’s star. His Ehretan Scale rating, once an exceptional 97, had restabilized ten points below the Master’s requisite ES 93. “Solid but no longer exceptional” was the new prognosis.

She’d seen him powerless and stammering at Three Zed. She was thankful he’d restabilized with this much strength.

She glanced up at Brenn’s well-muscled shoulder, at the new four-rayed emblem. While this mission lasted, he was masquerading as even more dramatically disabled—an ES 32. If the Shuhr thought he was virtually helpless, they might be more likely to try and strike.

Almost everyone he met, these days, looked first at his new shoulder star. He’d told Firebird how plainly he sensed their relief. On the pair bond that joined them, she felt his pained attempts to turn embarrassment into genuine humility. He often succeeded.

Firebird quickened her steps to follow him across the new base. It had a sterile feel, bare of trim and almost surgically clean. As they passed an observation window-wall, she could see little of the aging, dignified spaceport she remembered, nor the vast military installation nearby. Bombed to slag under the Federates, she realized.

Would the Shuhr try to do even worse here, or had they set their sights on another world? Lenguad, or Caroli, or even Tallis?

“How are the babies?” Tel asked, pacing alongside her.

Firebird pictured four-month-old Kiel and Kinnor, asleep on their warming cots back at Hesed. “Wonderful,” she said. “Active. They’re changing so quickly, we’ll be hard put to catch up when we get back.”

Tel touched her arm. “Sixteen more days.”

Yes. If this trap caught no one, then at least she might return quickly. It would take six days to finish her electoral business, then ten to travel back across space.

On the other hand, if the trap caught a Shuhr as they hoped, then ten days on a different vector would take them back to Three Zed and battle. Brennen’s people were determined not to let the Shuhr blast one more crater or slaughter another innocent twelve-year-old and her family in their home.

Firebird glanced at the small black duffel in Brennen’s left hand, sent to Hesed by Regional command, and the sealed message roll inside. Before he could even open it, they had to catch a Shuhr.

“It’s not quite that simple,” she told Tel.

They emerged at the command building’s main entry. Damp winter air pierced her to the bone. She tightened the belt on her woolen coat, a gift from Sanctuary Mistress Anna. A monstrous indigo groundcar stood nearby, its side trunk open, their luggage automatically stacked inside. Uri walked to the trunk and drew a scanning device from his belt. Shel slid into the car, brandishing a similar scanner.

Beside the front door stood a squat man in indigo-and-black Tellai livery. Tel positioned himself alongside the car, then beckoned Brennen closer. He pulled off his hat and offered it to Firebird. “The height of this year’s male couture. What do you think?”

Nestled inside lay two tiny handblazers. “I think it’s ridiculous,” she said firmly, pocketing one weapon. She would prefer to carry a non-lethal shock pistol, but it felt good to be armed again.

Brennen laughed, a hollow attempt at good humor. “I’ve seen worse,” he said. Firebird didn’t see the other blazer leave Tel’s hat, but when Tel centered it again on his black hair, it rode lightly.

Brennen stared past Tel’s vehicle. Returning to this base felt eerie. Danton’s office had looked vaguely familiar, but the long hall was utterly strange, full of foreboding.

He did not regret creating the amnesia blocks. He’d saved vital military secrets and brought down two of the Shuhr’s most dangerous leaders, saving Hesed House from destruction. He had to believe that some day, he would fully understand why the Eternal One let him be disabled.

He’d returned with irrational fears that were clues to the memories he’d lost. Bladed weapons, anything made of gold—he understood why those things stole his breath. He’d returned with a knife scar on his chest, and in accessing Firebird’s memories of Three Zed, he’d seen long golden corridors.

But why did he fear flashing red lights? He remembered little from that place, with one terrible exception. For three generations, a Shuhr family had pursued his own. A Shirak murdered his great-uncle. That man’s son killed his uncles, and the grandson …

In a black-walled conference room, surrounded by hostile observers, Micahel Shirak had admitted slaughtering Brennen’s brother, sister-in-law, and their children. He forced Brennen’s mind open and poured in a memory Brennen wished he could forget.

Brennen clenched a hand. This would be a dangerous double game, to protect Firebird Mari while hunting down a Shuhr. He hoped he might catch Micahel Shirak. That cruel braggart ought to feel the anguish of being probed for secrets that might bring down his own people. Micahel’s family still threatened Brennen’s children, and their children, and theirs. Micahel might have brothers, or cousins …

Brennen frowned. If only he could remember! The Shuhr tri-D summons, demanding he return and face justice, showed only Micahel, sitting at an obsidian desk, promising further destruction if Brennen didn’t return. Regional command hadn’t publicly released that summons.

Laying a hand on the car’s fender, he stared at the metal-spiked energy fence surrounding this parking zone. He caught an odd epsilon savor at the edge of his new, limited range. Something felt wrong, almost hazy, as if someone were epsilon-shielding their own presence.

Brennen clung to his masquerade, resisting the urge to react. He had to convince the Shuhr he’d lost more ability than he actually had. He’d planted disinformation in the Sentinel College’s records, rating himself barely psi-competent. No ES 32 would notice that vague presence. Hardly daring to hope his trap would bring in a Shuhr this quickly, he gripped his duffel strap and forced himself to play the concerned but unaware husband, depending on Shel and Uri for protection. They knew the real extent of his injuries, of course. Special Operations agents had to trust each other.

Firebird leaned close to Tel, speaking softly. The slight young nobleman was half a head taller than Firebird, and her plain gray traveling suit was an elegant contrast to his gaudy outfit.

Shel grabbed her sidearm. Uri hit an alarm on his belt at almost the same moment. They must have finally sensed the intruder.

Brennen curled his hand around Tel’s small defense blazer. A brilliant green energy bolt splattered on the door arch behind him, and a foul presence slid into the edge of his mind. He couldn’t resist the probe without compromising his masquerade, and so—as planned—he let it take his arm muscles. Controlled from a distance by a lawless stranger’s epsilon power, his own arm swung toward Firebird. His thumb slid against his will toward the firing stud.

He seized his right wrist with his left hand and choked, “Get in, Mari.” That was his private name for Firebird. If the Sentinel infiltration team was still in the area, this could be their chance—

Where were they?

He forced his rebel fingers open. Tel’s little blazer clattered to the pavement.

Uri, Shel, and the plainclothes guards fanned out. As Firebird scrambled into the passenger compartment, Brennen rose onto the balls of his feet and looked around. From some distance away came a pulse of gloating, of shields dropped to reveal epsilon power, a Shuhr agent tossing down a gauntlet. In that instant, Brennen saw himself through other eyes as an easy mark.

He kept anger out of his surface thoughts, where the Shuhr might sense it, but deep in his heart he answered the challenge. No. This time, we will take you. Ingrained habits, such as that confidence, proved how deeply he had relied on his own powers, instead of the One he served.

Uri covered a spot near the gate with his own blazer. No one’s close enough to assist, he subvocalized into Brennen’s mind.

“Who was it?” Firebird demanded. On the pair bond, he felt her tension as she peered out the car’s second door.

“Can’t tell,” he muttered, scooping up the small blazer. “Uri, Shel. Recognize him?”

“No,” Uri answered. “We’ll see if we can get him to follow.”