Chapter 1

Jason Yang walked into Incarnate Encounters, the seediest establishment on the frontier world of Yaal Yaalon. About half the tables were full. Jason scanned over the scene, afraid to stare too long. He saw groups of two and three, mostly men. The closest group had dirty clothing and grim faces. Builders? Miners? He could not tell. The place looked worn by his standards, but Jason had been prepared for that. It amazed Jason that even with robot workers, computer controllers and space suits, everyone on the frontier still managed to get so dirty.

Being a core worlder, he might well have been nervous in such a place, but the presence of his two bodyguards reassured him. Flanking his right was an ex mercenary named Jaxir Tortorella. On his left a humanoid security robot called Flair Five shadowed him in silence. It probably gathered a lot of attention, but Jason had been told trying to hide just would not work. The curious faces that turned to regard him as he entered indicated that was true. At least most of the gazes were brief. Jason thought the patrons probably did not want trouble from some obviously rich man with hired help.

Okay, here I am, Jason thought. Everyone in the whole place has noticed. I should have stayed on Earth.

Jason went to the table he had reserved with his link, but a man was already sitting there. Jason decided to roll with it. He sat down across from the man. Flair and Jaxir took the outer seats, then Jason activated the sound curtain.

“I’m Jason,” he said, extending his hand.

“Carter,” the man said. They shook hands. Carter’s hand felt rough. Jason noticed a lot of hair on Carter’s burly forearm.

“I’m glad you made it,” Jason said. “I think others are coming.”

“The meeting isn’t here.”.

“Should we order drinks and play it easy for a while?” Jason asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Carter said. “Either they’re following you are they aren’t.”

“I see. Let’s get on with it, then,” he said.

Carter sent Jason a pointer to a map. The route indicator showed which exit Carter wanted to take. Apparently Jaxir and Flair got it too, since they stood up. Jason and Carter followed.

This is as subtle as an asteroid buster. At least we can talk someplace better screened from surveillance than a frontier dive with cheap sound curtains.

The noise of Incarnate Encounters faded behind him as the group walked out. They proceeded along glistening dark streets in the small frontier town. Though the tiny, distant system star was overhead, it was as dark as a Terran night on Yaal Yaalon. The only reasons the surface was not frozen was the planet’s hot core, a thin crust, and a touch of Terraforming magic performed by the Space Force decades ago. The air was crisp and cold but the concrete under his thin shoes felt warm.

It was less than a kilometer to the new meeting site. They walked through two long rows of concrete buildings and came to a machine yard. The complex corpses of giant digging machines obscured the landscape.

Here we are. Stay alert, he said to Jaxir and Flair. Jason realized it was useless to tell the robot, but he treated Flair just like a human assistant. No sooner had he delivered the warning than Flair Five slumped, then collapsed. Jaxir stiffened as if hit by a stunner. He fell to one side leaving Jason and Carter the only ones standing. Jason shifted uncomfortably.

So much for my escort, Jason thought grimly. Should have stayed on Earth, should have stayed on Earth...

“Don’t move and you won’t be harmed,” a voice said to his link. The owner was labeled ‘SF Viridian X’ in Jason’s link and it had a military level authority index, which let him know that the speaker was either a hacker or a representative of the Space Force.

Jason froze. A man became visible ahead of him as some kind of camo suit powered down. A section of metal that looked like chipped paint and rust resolved into a large man who strode forward, rifle in hand. His face was covered by a combat shroud. No doubt he was reporting to friends nearby.

Jason realized he was going to have to wipe his link. He could not give PIT away.


Before he could prepare himself, a tiny sphere flew out of a pile of old machines toward him.

Oh no. Grenade!

Jason’s heart skipped a beat. His eyes flinched.

The sphere stopped before him.

I’m still alive!

“We’ve got this Jason, just hit the deck, if you please,” it said to his link.

“What’s that!” yelled the soldier.

Jason hit the deck.

From his prone position on the warm, damp concrete he watched the soldier above him scramble for cover. The small sphere zipped off to smash into the back of the soldier’s calf, causing him to fall to the ground and roll.

Shots rang out. Carter ran off.

Jason caught sight of a robot scuttling among the wrecks nearby. Then he saw another. The machines were insect-like, with weapons mounted on their backs. The shooting continued, but he could not see who was doing it.

This is crazy. The frontier really is out of control.

His doubts grew. The now-familiar mantra flew through his head again. I should have stayed on Earth. Maybe the safety of the core worlds really was preferable despite the oppression?

No. This has to be done.

The sounds of combat waned. More of the short multi-limbed robots aggregated around him. Jason saw a woman in a Veer combat suit walk out into the open.

“Glad you could make it, Jason. How do you like the frontier?” Telisa said.

Thank Cthulhu, it’s finally her.

Jason let his tension go down a notch.

“Glad to see you, Telisa,” he said from the ground. She offered him a hand up. Jason regained his feet. “Meeting you is like stepping into an action VR.”

Telisa gave a single nod. “It’s all real,” she said.

He was struck by her good looks. Then he saw a new scar over her left eye that continued to the top of her cheek.

Why would she let that stay there?

In an instant she assessed what he must be thinking.

“The scar reminds me of something I don’t want to forget,” she explained.

“Okay, but your link could—”

“Have it fixed and overlay my sight so only I could see it? No. It has to be real. Some things have to be real,” she said. “I don’t care if other people see it.”

Jason nodded. It would not have seemed like much, but a decade ago the core worlds had gone through a major scar craze. One of the big VR stars had a scar fetish which took off in her billions of fans. In the space of two years the fad went from trending, to extreme, to all-reaching, of course ensuring its quick burn out. Scars were way out now. Core worlders took their fashion very seriously. Jason reminded himself that Telisa was not shallow in that way. If she wore a scar it was for real personal reasons and not for something transient.

“I hope it won’t be so cloak and dagger for long,” Jason said, shifting the conversation back on track.

“The cloak and dagger is just starting. But we’ll muddle through,” she said.

“Nice to see you again, Jason,” Siobhan said. Jason spotted her walking across the dark yard toward him.

“And you. Incarnate, even,” Jason said, smiling. He remembered recruiting Siobhan well, though he had not heard anything from her since. He tilted his head up a fraction to greet her.

She’s an Amazon. And a beauty as well.

Jason could not help but hear Imanol’s nickname for her in his head: Fast and Frightening. He looked back at his bodyguards. They were not moving.

“What about Jaxir and Flair Five?”

“Pay Jaxir off and release him,” Telisa said. “We’ll give... Flair Five? We’ll give it a once over and if it’s clean you can keep it.”

“Okay... will do.”

Siobhan rolled Jaxir onto his back and tilted his head as Jason had seen medical responders do on Earth. Jason paid off the mercenary’s contract in a few seconds. He had already noticed that link services were very sparse out on the frontier. There were only a few dozen he could see at his current location. His PV warned that the emergency response latency was in the red zone; out here it would take minutes to get an ambulance.

“Did you get the array set up before you left?” asked Telisa. She asked it like small talk, as if she knew the answer.

“Yes. But I can’t guarantee the security of the array,” Jason said. “Obviously,” he added, looking at the downed man before him. Siobhan secured the soldier’s hands, indicating he was still alive.

Telisa nodded. “They can listen in all they want. We just need to be able to scan for Trilisk signs if any of them manage to escape our grasp.”

“Ah, so that’s what it’s for! Of course, I’ve been wondering. But... there are Trilisks on Earth?”

“Yes. We’re coming to take them down.”

Jason felt a sense of awe.

Take down Trilisks?

“The Space Force may get in your way...”

“Yes. But they’re controlled by the Trilisks. We’ll have to deal with them and do as little damage as we can. There will probably be casualties. I give you my word I don’t take that fact lightly.”

Defeat the Space Force? Everyone I know thinks I work for an ordinary travel agency.

“Now what?” Jason asked. His voice betrayed his nervousness.

“Time for the real meeting. I’ll do the talking,” Telisa said.

Jason nodded.

Good. Very, very good. I’ll just listen and try to look tough.

“Should I know who we’re meeting?”

“The UED.”

Jason froze. Telisa watched him.

I thought we defeated them. And with good reason...

“Uhm, you promise this is really about Trilisks?”

“Yes. I’m not here to take over Earth. We’re here to save it.”

Jason nodded. Working for Parker Interstellar Travels had never been anything but great for him. Now, he wondered if he had been employed by criminals the whole time. Or worse: aliens plotting to dominate Earth.

Telisa stepped a bit closer. “When we get back to my ship, I give you my word I’ll show you all the proof you need to eliminate every doubt,” she said quietly. “You can meet an alien.”

“Thanks,” he said nervously.

I knew so much about what’s been going on out here. But living it myself is a bit harder than I thought it would be. Though finally seeing Telisa up close is... motivating. As beautiful as ever, but now she has an authoritative presence.

Telisa led Jason through the scrap yard and to a frontier house. It was a squat, half-buried dwelling with short, meter-wide windows. It looked like a bunker, but Jason assumed that had more to do with the planetary conditions than any desire for increased security. The ground would provide a lot of warmth, and there was not much light to be had from making the windows any taller.

The door opened ahead of them. Jason felt a moment of unease again, but the people inside were just walking out. There was no leaping about, no weapons waving. He exhaled silently.

Two women and a man approached them in the dim twilight of Yaal Yaalon.

“Hello,” one of the women said. She looked muscular. She wore some kind of black skinsuit under an extra jacket and tall boots.

No need for the jacket unless she’s hiding something in it. The boots, at least, could just be something to get dirty and discard when you get back to the ship.

“Thank you for meeting with me,” Telisa said.

“Your data package got our attention,” the woman said.

I guess no point in introductions just for me. Or maybe Telisa doesn’t know their names anyway.

“Then you know Trilisks control Earth. I intend to remove them from power.”

“Ignoring the issue of its questionable authenticity, let me just ask: you need our help? As you know, we tried to defeat the core worlds already. There isn’t much left, and the Space Force is stronger than ever before, preparing to fight... oh, of all things, aliens. Then you show up.”

“I’ve brought a space fleet with me. It’s more than a match for Terran warships. We need someone to step in and minimize the chaos when we chop the head off the snake,” Telisa said.

The UED group looked surprised. Then alarmed.

“You do realize that everyone’s been told the aliens are coming for them? Now you’re going to show up with an alien fleet? The populace will never believe you’re the good guys,” said the woman.

“That’s why we need your help.”

“I’m not sure I know who’s the bigger evil here. That’s saying a lot, considering I fought Earth for decades. I lost family to them. But you? Who knows who you are? Maybe you’re the one under alien mind control.”

“We sent you our proof.”

“You sent us a giant package of crazy. We have no idea if it’s real.”

Telisa raised an eyebrow. “Then get better advisors. AIs if you have to—”

“Yes, our experts think it’s real. But they couldn’t give me the one hundred percent. They said aliens with advanced technology could fake it all—weeks of video feeds, endless machine logs, and, well, the artifacts you sent us... obviously aliens could have produced those as well. So you could still be working with, for lack of a better term, ‘the bad guys’.”

“Our ships don’t look anything like what took out the Seeker,” Telisa said.

“Interesting you should bring that up. They destroyed the Seeker without your father on it, by the way,” Garrison said. “You know how that looks?”

Telisa’s face shifted for a second, then relaxed.

Anger? She suppressed it quickly.

“As soon as we’ve removed the Trilisks, we can hand power over to you to set up an interim government. I know you must have had dreams about doing that. I bet you even have a few details drawn up for it, back when you started the revolt and envisioned success.”

“We can’t support an attack on our own kind conducted by aliens. Even Earth. If what you say is going to happen, we might move in to pick up the pieces. As it is, I’m thinking about warning them you’re coming.”

“That would be a terrible mistake,” Telisa said.

The man shrugged. “We can’t help you. Not up front.”

Jason shifted uncomfortably. Though he was not privy to the details of the plan, he figured failure to get an agreement could not be a good sign.

“How far away will you be? How long will it take for you to step in? We need someone in from ground zero.”

“A week or more. But we have a few people around of course, keeping tabs on things.”

“Now is the time for bold decisions and risks,” Telisa said. “The future of our race depends on it. That’s why I’m doing this. Against Trilisks, we could fail. But we have to try.”

“If you’re for real, I wish you luck. We won’t be there when the hammer falls.”

The woman turned away. The others followed. Telisa made no move to continue the conversation.

Telisa’s face looked troubled. Jason wanted to say something, but nothing came to mind.

“We’ll have to find someone else,” she said. “Who do you think could take over?”

Jason hesitated as she put him on the spot.

“Hrm. Well, the Space Force.”

“They’re in control now,” Telisa said.

“No, the Trilisks are,” Jason said. “They’re at the top. Wielding the Space Force like we use a stunner or a laser. Get rid of the Trilisks, and you still have Terrans with the training, equipment, and desire to keep the order on Earth.”

Telisa absorbed that.

“We hired you because you’re smart,” Telisa said. “I like your thinking. We have to figure out where to cut the hierarchy and go there. Those will be the ones in charge when their superiors go missing. Let’s work on fleshing out that idea. The first problem is, how do we prepare them without them calling the alarm?”

Jason had no idea.