Spreading peanut butter on a piece of toast with a knife, Jon Andalon let out a soft sigh. The sunlight that streamed in through the windows behind him warmed his body and illuminated the white cupboards and blue walls of his kitchen.
Jon was a tall man, slim and muscular and dressed in black pants and a gray t-shirt. Dark of skin and eye, he wore his black hair buzzed to little more than stubble. “Honey! You're going to be late.”
In his mind's eye, the silhouette of his boyfriend emerged from the door that led to the bedroom, pulling a t-shirt over his head. He turned around just in time to see Ren poke his head through the neck-hole.
Jon smiled, bowing his head to the other man. “Always running late,” he teased, striding forward and offering a plate. “I'm telling you, one of these days, you're going to be responsible for my losing the last of my hair.”
Ren was a handsome man with a square jaw, dark skin and eyes that lit up every time he looked at you. “That might be a good look for you.” He snatched up the piece of toast and took a bite at the corner.
“So, what's on the agenda for today?” Ren asked. “Apprehending a terrorist cell? Or maybe thwarting an arms dealer.”
Closing his eyes, Jon trembled with soft laughter. “You really should know better,” he said, shaking his head ruefully. “Nothing happens on Belos. Even the Antaurans don't bother us anymore.”
Ren said nothing in response to that, opting to chew his toast thoroughly instead. The man had made his opinions on this subject known many times. Jon's career was far from over – Justice Keepers remained in peak fighting condition well into their fifties – and there was no reason the higher-ups should stick him on some small backwater world near the Fringe.
In fact, Jon's predecessor had voiced similar opinions when she held this position last year. Some people could change their circumstances by complaining often enough. He was not one. This was where his superiors felt he could do the most good, so this was where he would stay for now.
Ren marched into the kitchen, setting his empty plate down next to the sink. The man stood hunched over, bracing himself with hands pressed to the countertop. “I really don't know why you stay.”
Jon crossed his arms over his chest, hanging his head with a sigh. “It couldn't have anything to do with the company,” he said, pacing back to the kitchen. “Sweetheart, if I'm happy here, then you should be happy for me.”
Ren glanced over his shoulder, a wry smile blooming on his face. “Okay,” he said, shaking his head. “But I reserve the right to remind you of this conversation the next time you tell me you're bored with your job.”
The man turned his back on Jon and made his way to the front door. He paused there for a moment. “The city planners want to meet this evening,” he said. “I'm going to be late.”
“See you tonight. I love you.”
With his boyfriend gone, Jon took a few moments to enjoy quiet solitude before he left the house. As he'd said, there was not much for a Justice Keeper to do here on Belos; he could pretty much set his own hours, so there was no harm in taking a little time to himself before he started his day. Maybe he could straighten up a little before-
His multi-tool chirped from its resting place in the wall charger. The blinking red light on the metal disk told him he had an incoming call. So much for a pleasant morning of quiet solitude. “Answer,” Jon barked. “Holographic display.”
The transparent image of a woman rippled into existence in the middle of his living room. Tall and slim, she wore a pair of beige pants and a bright blue tank-top, her short hair parted in the middle. “Jon,” she said.
Tilting his head back, Jon felt his lips curl into a small smile. “Jena Morane,” he said, eyebrows rising. “I guess I should have expected as much. Things have been going much too smoothly lately.”
Jena stared at him with her mouth hanging open, blinking as if she couldn't believe her eyes. “Hey now!” she protested. “Is that any way to treat the lady who spurned your advances multiple times?”
He wheezed with laughter, then covered his face with one hand. “If you're looking for a date,” Jon said, approaching the hologram. “I'm afraid I'm no longer available. Also, did I ever thank you for sticking me with your old job?”
“No, and I know just how you can do it.”
A painful expression passed over Jena's face, one that she smothered in less than half a second, but it was clear that something wasn't right. “Things are changing, Jon,” she said. “It's time I put a few contingencies in place.”
Pressing his lips together, Jon blinked at her. “Things are changing,” he said, taking one cautious step forward. “What kind of things? And what exactly do you mean by 'put a few contingencies in place?'”
“I want you to visit a world called Adraxis.”
“Never heard of it.”
Heaving out a sigh, Jena looked down at the floor. The woman seemed unwilling to make eye-contact, almost as if she knew she was asking too much of him. “That's 'cause it's on the far side of Antauran Space.”
Well, that was just...Damn this woman and her presumption! What could possibly convince her that he would be willing to fly to the far side of a hostile power's territory just for one of her little favours? He'd done his fair share before. Still, curiosity got the better of him. “And what will I find on Adraxis?”
The way she looked at him gave him pause, and suddenly he realized that Jena was dead serious. She hadn't come to him on a whim; this was important to her. “I want you to delete all record of this call when we've finished.”
“Good. Now listen carefully...”
The sandstorm was nothing short of devastating: a wave of dust that rushed over the dunes, swirling and raging with enough force to do serious damage to anything plant or animal that might have been unfortunate enough to make its home here. Assuming, of course, that anything actually lived here. Adraxis was as close to what would be called a dead world as she had ever seen.
Keli Armana scrambled down the hillside with hands raised to shield her face, hissing as the dust pummeled her. She wore thick tan clothing along with a cloak with its hood pulled up. It did little good.
In the distance, perhaps half a kilometer away, a small two-story building stood its ground against the howling wind and raging dust. A bastion of hope against the tempest. Assuming, of course, that hope could survive in a place like this. Adraxis was where hope went to die.
Keli stumbled, falling face down in the sand. Grunting, she tossed her head about and tried to recover her what little remained of her willpower. “Come on,” she whispered to herself. “You've made it this far.”
She got up.
Wincing inside her hood, Keli felt tears leak from her eyes. “You survived that cell on Ganymede,” she reminded herself. “You can survive this.”
The building was her destination, though she wondered if she would make it there before exhaustion or the storm did her in. She would have preferred to have landed there, but the pilot she had coaxed into flying her all the way out here had been unwilling to set his ship down on “the Haunted Planet.” The most he would do was let her use one of his escape pods, and those things weren't exactly precise when it came to maneuvering. In truth, she was lucky she managed to land within five kilometers of this place.
So, she scrambled through the storm, keeping her head down, shielding her face as best she could and ignoring the pain when a stone or pebble hit her. It was slow going – hours seemed to pass before she reached her destination – but arrive she did only to fall to her knees just in front of the door.
Keli got shakily to her feet.
Pounding on the door with her fist, she let out a wheeze and then collapsed against the metal. “You can't just leave me out here,” she whispered to no one in particular. “You can't just leave...”
The doors slid apart.
Without the metal to support her weight, Keli fell to her knees again, huddling in on herself and gasping. She was aching from head to toe, barely able to think, but she sensed the newcomer's approach.
A woman in black pants and a matching tank-top stepped out of the darkness: a tall woman with pale skin and short blonde hair. “Gods have mercy on me!” she said. “Who might you be?”
Keli looked up to squint at the woman. “I need answers,” she said, nearly falling on her face. “Please...”
“Answers. Do you know where you are?”
The other woman crossed her arms, frowning down at Keli with obvious disdain in her eyes. “And do you know what kind of people come to Adraxis?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “Go on, take a moment and ponder it.”
Baring her teeth in a vicious snarl, Keli hissed. The pain in her body was difficult to ignore. “Criminals,” she answered. “Smugglers, murderers, thieves. Those who have run out of places to hide.”
The other woman leaned forward, her mouth twisting into a predatory smile. “And how willing do you think 'those who have run out of places to hide' would be to provide you with answers?”
Keli looked up.
It took some effort – she was very tired – but she reached out and touched the other woman's mind. Palia. That was the woman's name. Brief flashes of memories floated in Keli's mind. Palia was something of an activist who hacked into classified databases and leaked their secrets. After fleeing authorities on the colony world of Torval, she hid on various space stations before coming here.
Palia winced, shivering as she let out a slow, rasping breath. “You have the gift of Communion,” she mumbled, backing away. Sighing regretfully, she added. “Come with me, Honoured One.”
With some effort, Keli stood and allowed the other woman to lead down a hallway with thick gray walls and doors at even intervals. It was utterly dark, forcing Palia to use a flashlight to avoid tripping. This place certainly lived up to its reputation. It had once been a military base, but her people had been forced to abandon it long ago.
Forced because Adraxis was inhospitable to human life. Oh, the atmosphere was just right, and one could pump water from underground streams. The desert conditions were easily mitigated with hydroponic farming technology. But that was not the reason this place was uninhabitable. Anyone who stayed here long enough began having terrible nightmares. Stay too long, and you were never quite the same.
At the end of the hallway, Palia opened another door, this one leading into what looked like a mess hall with black and white floor tiles. Round plastic tables were spread throughout the room, and the lights were on full. Long rectangular windows in the wall to her left should have been admitting sunlight, but the sandstorm blocked it out.
She noticed a man sitting on one table, a tall muscular fellow with copper skin and gray flecks in his scraggly dark beard. “Who's this?” he said, hopping to his feet. “Don't tell me we've started picking up strays.”
Palia stopped short, standing before Keli with her back turned and facing the man with arms folded. “This one has the gift of Communion,” she explained. “I thought we should at least offer her water.”
The man scrunched up his face before pinching the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. “You're joking, right?” he asked, striding toward them. “You want to bring a telepath in here?”
“Would you say no to her?”
Telepaths were revered in Antauran society, considered the pinnacle of evolution. There were some who even believed them to be close to godliness. The experiments that been done to Keli had only heightened her powers.
“This is insane,” the man said.
Closing her eyes, Keli took a deep, calming breath. “Insane,” she said, nodding to the man. “Then perhaps you've been on this planet too long. They say that anyone who stays here goes insane.”
He crossed his arms and stood as still as a statue, hissing at her through his teeth. “Then why are you here?” he growled. “What crime is so great that an Honoured One must flee to this wretched hole?”
“I came to see if the legends are true.”
The man spun around, throwing his hands up as he walked away from her. “Oh, is that all?” he asked, pacing to the other side of the room. “You want to see if the legends are true. You can just suck-”
The man dropped to his knees, clutching his skull in both hands. A painful squeal escaped his lips. “Stop!” he begged. “Stop! You want to see? I'll show you whatever you want to see, just stop!”
A smile blossomed on Keli's face, and she bowed her head to the man. “Excellent,” she said, striding forward. “Now, tell me everything you've learned from the moment you set foot on this world.”
Denabrian winters were generally mild. Leyria's capitol hugged the western coast of the Iyrian continent, and the stream of warm ocean currents coming up from the tropics generally prevented the weather from dropping below freezing on all but a few days of the year. There was, however, quite a lot of rain.
A deluge pattered against Ben's living room window, thin droplets sliding over the pane and blocking his view of the green front lawn. The line of pine trees at the far end of his property swayed in the wind.
He scanned through the reports Larani Tal had given him, looking for some kind of pattern. It was difficult; there were only three known traitors – Slade, Breslan and Calissa – but he searched for some kind of pattern. Some place where they had all served. Some mutual contact they all shared.
There had to be a connection; conspiracies like this one didn't just unfold ex-nihlo. However, it was extremely difficult to find the common thread. Cal Breslan's record had been shady until about five years ago, when he joined the Denabrian office of the Justice Keepers at Slade's instigation. The man had a list of teachers and former supervisors – most of whom were conveniently dead – and his record claimed that he had received his symbiont on Belos with few witnesses.
Calissa on the other hand...