Chapter 1

The Vovokan transport ship was only a little larger than the Iridar had been. The mobile sand had been removed and replaced with a rubberized decking more suitable for Terrans. The interfaces all understood Terran links and provided the services they needed to operate in deep space. Though tiny compared to the Clacker, the New Iridar was faster, better armed, and stealthier than the original ex-UED scoutship that had taken Telisa to Thespera. Once again Telisa lived in a quarters the size of a large closet. It had no shower tube; everyone on board had to share the single shower that had been installed where the sand cleaner had been.

What difference does it make? It just serves to remind me even more of the fact I’m a slave now.

Telisa thought of her golden master for the thousandth time. Shiny had been a powerful ally. Now he was a cold and distant overlord. Without him to rely on, the mission ahead could be hard. She thought of the PIT team’s watchdog, a Vovokan battle sphere the size of a small car sitting within their cargo hold. At the moment it was content to wait there and ensure they went to the assigned world. Telisa assumed it would emerge to monitor their progress once they had arrived.

I have to get the pieces of the team back together again.

Shiny had brought her Caden, Cilreth, Siobhan, Imanol and Jason. The alien told her Cilreth2 and Maxsym had died in the Clacker when its shields gave way under a salvo sent by Shiny’s other ships. Their advanced, luxurious ship was gone. Not a single member of PIT had protested when Shiny told them they were staying on the team. Perhaps they were all glad to go back out to the frontier, far away from Shiny’s new empire. For some, like Caden and Telisa, there was also the shame of being considered an enemy of mankind.

Telisa walked out of her tiny quarters and headed for the galley’s lounge.

Imanol’s tough enough to go on. Cilreth, too. Caden took it the worst but he has Siobhan. Jason may be broken. He no longer worships us. But that could be a good thing.

Telisa arrived and met everyone at lunch time. Caden and Siobhan sat together on a black piece of convertiture currently shaped like a couch. His arm was thrown over her shoulders. Imanol sat alone, brooding as if angry, but Telisa recognized it as his neutral state. Cilreth stood behind a counter looking over their food. Telisa could tell her computer specialist had already taken a morning dose of twitch. Jason stood on the other side of the room. He watched Telisa carefully.

Cilreth took note of her arrival.

“We’ve been talking it over, Telisa,” Cilreth said. “We all think we should hang tough with Shiny. If we all refuse to go without Magnus, he’ll have no choice but to let him out of the Trilisk column to join us.”

Telisa looked at them. She could see the whole crew in a wider spectrum than before, thanks to her new eye. She flicked through infrared and ultraviolet views by habit as she processed Cilreth’s speech. Everyone looked back at her expectantly.

“That means a lot to me,” Telisa said. “But I’ve been through this already. You see, Shiny has control of the entire Sol system. He can send teams to every planet he knows about without even sending us. He sent other teams when we came to Earth to oust the Trilisks. We’re just one possibility to him. He knows us, which is good, and he knows we have experience. He also knows if he gives us Magnus, he might lose his hold over us.”

“There’s no guarantee he’ll ever release Magnus,” Caden said. Siobhan leaned into him a bit harder. The pair had been inseparable recently.

“What are you going to do in the long run? Really work ten years and hope?” Imanol asked.

“That depends. Do watchdogs only watch their warehouse or do they listen too?” Telisa asked.

Cilreth processed that odd question, then she shook her head.

“I don’t think we’re being listened to through the ship’s internal sensors,” Cilreth said. “But the bottom line is, I can’t be sure. The battle sphere probably has a mass sensor like Shiny, and it may be sensitive enough to see our mouths moving and tell it what we’re saying. Speaking aloud is probably less dangerous than sharing secrets over the links.”

Yes. Shiny has proved beyond devilish when it comes to network infiltration and obfuscation. I’m sure that was raised to a high art on Vovok.

“I’m going to find more artifacts and get something to bargain with,” Telisa said out loud. She let the edge of anger into her voice. Or something to threaten him with, she thought. The tone of her voice made her hostile intent known to the others.

“Just let us know how to help,” Caden said.

Telisa was glad Caden had decided to remain on the team. She knew he excelled at so many skills she needed. He had taken the betrayal hard. He had gone from a promising UNSF recruit to a traitor in the fiasco of their revolution.

“Keep training. Get Jason up to speed. We’re going to be a notch more cautious this time because we have less backup. We’ll scan the target planet for a few days, re-create the environ for virtual training, and gather more clues before we set foot on the ground. We’ll bring back enough to keep Shiny happy while we search for anything that can get us leverage.”

“Do we have any robots?” asked Imanol.

Telisa shook her head. “Not really. Not like before. I have five of the old scouts. We have over two dozen attendant spheres. As far as real automated firepower, it’s only the New Iridar and our watchdog. Of course we still have our rifles, pistols, swords, knives, and a case of glue grenades.”

“I have a case of real grenades too,” Imanol added.

“Why do old people always think glue grenades aren’t real grenades?” Jason asked.

Imanol rolled his eyes. “It wasn’t always just stunners and shockers and nets and glue, Mr. Salesman,” Imanol said. “Things were more serious before you core worlders all went soft, and still are—”

“Out on the frontier,” Caden finished for him.

Telisa remembered her special alien weapon. It was lost, but she still had the cloaking sphere and her breaker claw.

“Where are we going?” asked Imanol.

“I’m in the dark about most of it,” Telisa said. “We’re going to a place known by Vovokans, ruins of a race other than the Trilisks. I know it’s a planet, not a space habitat. Our mission is a lot like what we’ve done in the past: investigate and pick up some alien technology to study and learn about.”

“Then hand it over to Shiny,” Imanol said. The resentment in his voice expressed his thoughts more honestly than his words.

“Let’s see what we find, first, and what use we can make of it,” Telisa said. The group ate lunch. Telisa took more than her share of food. Her amped body screamed for more calories. She could survive on the amount they ate, but that would curtail her energy. She saw Caden and Siobhan staring.

I’m going to have to tell them I’m Telisa3 soon.

Telisa decided she did not feel like telling them yet. She left to think it over.

For now, they might think I’m catching up on calories from when I was paralyzed by Magnus’s absence.

She went to the cargo bay and set up a tool table as a workspace. She found it inadequate compared to her old lab on the Clacker. Not the least of its problems was the presence of a large battle sphere sitting a few meters away. Amorphous green light played lazily across its black surface, though Telisa did not know what the display meant. She did not talk to it.

Telisa sighed. She decided to take care of some other necessary business she had been putting off.

“Do you have time?” Telisa asked through her link.

“Yes. Let’s do it,” Cilreth sent back. Telisa left the watchdog alone with its thoughts.

She met Cilreth in a chamber set up as a sick bay for the transport ship. Cilreth brought her over to a padded medical table. On a small tray, two thin gray wafers sat inside clear sterile packs.

“You checked these things out?”

“Eight ways from extinction,” Cilreth said. “Still... I can only be so sure.”

Telisa nodded.

Jason had obtained upgraded links for Telisa and Cilreth before leaving Earth. Telisa’s link had become dated while she was in hiding on the frontier. Also, her new eye streamed in much more detailed visual scans than her natural one, so it would be nice to have more optical bandwidth and storage. Her new link had orders of magnitude more storage than her own brain. But Telisa’s main motivation was to remove her current link in case Shiny or the Space Force had tampered with it.

Jason’s not a traitor, but if he was found by Core World Security...

If they knew he had links and they had tampered with them, she would be back to square one.

I guess I’d rather be monitored by CWS than Shiny. For now.

Telisa lay down on the table and deactivated her link. A hole opened in the table below her head. A small robot unfolded from under the table and started to examine her head with three scanner arms. Telisa knew the sensors and effectors in her brain would remain behind. It was only the central module she wanted to replace. It was a simple, common procedure. Telisa had had an upgrade swap done two times before. She realized she was not at all nervous.

I was scared last time I did this. Things have changed. This is a vacation compared to what I’ve seen.

The robot immobilized her head, zapped her local nerves, and drilled into the back of her skull. Telisa waited. It seemed to take longer than she remembered.

“Hang on. It’s almost done,” Cilreth said.

Some snag?

The robot kept working. A minute later, the link had been extracted. Cilreth fed in the new link. The robot plugged the tiny wafer back into Telisa’s head. A bonder sealed the hole in her skull close to its original strength for gradual replacement with natural bone matter. She would have a scab on her scalp and nothing more.

“How’s it looking?” Cilreth asked.

Telisa checked her services list and brought up a few of her internal monitors. She shuffled a picture of Siobhan and Caden from her artificial eye’s memory to her link.

“Basic sanity check is working out,” Telisa said.

“Ready to sync?” Cilreth asked. She spoke of Telisa’s old link. All its private information remained to be moved to her new link.

“I’m going to sleep on it,” Telisa said. “I can sync later.”

Cilreth shook her head. “Brave words, woman. I wouldn’t be able to live without my data for ten minutes.”

“It could mean a lot,” Telisa said. “There’s some danger in it.”

Cilreth shrugged. “If my stuff can’t detect any spy software there, then it may be hopeless. If it’s that advanced, it may end up on your new link anyway. With Shiny, it could even be a tiny hardware bug he put in your head.”

“Maybe,” Telisa said. Her tone said she was not buying it yet. “Keep the old one isolated. Don’t worry. I don’t expect the same from you.”

“It would cripple me for weeks,” Cilreth said. “I have a lot of my own software in here. Whole suites of crap you couldn’t imagine.”

“I believe you. And I meant it. Go ahead and sync yourself when you’re ready. Speaking of which, it’s your turn.”

They switched spots on the medical table. Telisa accessed the instructions from the table. Of course, the procedure was mostly automated. She skimmed some dire looking emergency instructions.

If something goes wrong, I’ll be left with a mess on my hands.

She checked for the presence of a full medical suite. It was there. Apparently the Vovokan ship had been well equipped. She allowed the robot to proceed.

It went even faster than her switch out had gone. Cilreth was up within a minute. They stared at their old links, coated in fluid, sitting on a tray.

Telisa decided to try out another of the reasons she had decided to upgrade. One of her link’s internal services included a new emotion management suite. The link could suppress or enhance activity in parts of the brain related to emotions. She saw a concentration suite that could control emotion to improve focus on complex mental tasks. It was limited to one three hour cycle every twenty four hours.

I need to forget about Magnus for longer than three hours at a time.

“Can you remove the emotion management limitations?” Telisa asked.

Cilreth stopped working and looked at Telisa.

“Is that what this is about?”

“No, it’s about anything Shiny may have done to the other link,” Telisa said.

“I won’t tamper with it. I’ve seen the research. If you leave those things on too long, you’ll become a different person.”

“I need to focus on this mission. I have to get Magnus back. The way I see it, suppressing my feelings both keeps me from despair and also will help me fix the problem.”

“If you were able to do that, then you’d find that when you get him back, you wouldn’t have any feelings for him anymore,” Cilreth said. “In fact, after a week or two without emotions, humans don’t tend to turn them back on again. And when you do, they take a long time to come back. If you turned it on for ten years, not only would you not care about Magnus anymore, you probably wouldn’t even have a will to live. Three hours a day should be sufficient.”

Telisa sighed.

“How about an endocrine pack?”

Space force soldiers had implants in the abdomen that could interact with their endocrine system by releasing compounds controlled through their link. The ability to change various bodily signals was sometimes useful in combat situations, as well as in dealing with the stress of prolonged engagements.

“You don’t need one. You’re young and healthy and... well, besides, you’re Trilisk Special Forces now anyway. You’ve got way more advanced features built right in.”

“Trilisk Special Forces. Nice one.”

“Well, you know... Imanol and his pet names. He came up with it for Cilreth2.”

Telisa nodded. “How did you know I’m not original?”

“I set up New Iridar with some basic Trilisk detection and warning systems. I noticed right away you’re in a host body. Besides, the damn robot almost couldn’t bore through your skull. It’s harder than steel.”

“We’re not headed to a Trilisk world. So says Shiny.”

“But the Trilisks visited other races and... well, spied on them, or ruled them, or something.”

“I guess we have no choice but to risk it for Shiny,” Telisa said.

“I know. Why aren’t you the original?”

“I can do a better job like this.”

“Then that goes for the rest of us, too,” Cilreth said softly. Telisa did not pick up any hostility in Cilreth’s mood, only curiosity.

She handled losing Cilreth2 better than I handled losing Magnus.

“Yes. Ask Shiny. I think he studies us and thinks of us as primitive animals. He wants to solidify my position as leader. Probably because I’m the one he has the most leverage over.”

“Ah. So as the strongest and fastest of us, instinctually we’ll fall into line behind you.”

“Sorry,” Telisa said. “But I think that’s how Shiny thinks of us.”

Cilreth nodded.

“Your priority has to be our security, as usual,” Telisa said. “When the time comes...”

“Got it. And you?”

“I’m going to start a mini project to recharge my cloaker and the breaker claw. I should have what I need to accomplish it.”

“Good luck. Don’t blow yourself up.”

“On a ship this small? It would probably blow us all up,” Telisa said and walked out.