Episode 1 – The Peace Accord
This had all the makings of a disaster.
Commander Rhodie Menodora evaluated the scene as his unit walked down the corridor. It was too open for his liking, exposed to the outdoors rather than an internal site that could be secured. The low, clear walls that lined the pathways were filled with salt water and colorful coral. They could easily be scaled yet they channeled his group, controlling their direction like a school of fish.
Appropriate for the Maelstrom water world.
A twinge hit his shoulder blade, but he kept his hand loose and ready by the phaser at his hip. The plus was that the walkways were covered by canopies. Still, that left too many angles of attack available, so he kept his gaze forward. He’d brought a security detail of ten for just this reason. It was his responsibility to protect their forward flank as their group progressed to the ceremonial rotunda.
Again, an external location.
It was the best venue they’d been able to negotiate. If the mission hadn’t been so vital, he would have used his authority to insist on another locale. Yet this was the best compromise—because it didn’t suit any of the parties that were gathering here today.
“This way,” their guide said. The flowing tendrils of her dress flipped as she turned down a central pathway. Her voice was calm, yet her gestures were jerky.
Even the easy-going Maelstromians were nervous about this meeting.
Rhodie’s focus sharpened, and he evaluated the large circular structure ahead with its blue pillars and protective domed roof. The Maelstrom party awaited them, and his hand settled on his weapon. The race was generally easy-going and adaptable, but that was no guarantee these days.
The entire Akasha solar system was vibrating with high-pitched tension.
Rhodie spotted the water planet’s leader, and he frowned. Three acolytes stood behind the man, not a protective guard. He never would have let his king stand so exposed, but it gave him more certainty that this wasn’t a trap. The Maelstromians were ready for peace. They were the ones who’d taken the middle-ground in negotiations and had pulled the planet representatives together.
Something needed to change. They all agreed to that—the Maelstromians, his Terrenes, and even the unpredictable Sciroccons. It was why they were all here today, ready to sign an inter-planetary peace accord.
Their guide motioned to the left side of the circular space, under the protective roof. Rhodie’s team assembled with their backs together and their king centered amongst them.
“Why are we here first?” King Starsun demanded. “Terrenes are subservient to nobody.”
“The Sciroccons are here,” the guide assured him in that soothing voice. “Your commander requested that you be led in first.”
Rhodie gave a brief nod. Better to get in and have cover than to walk into a trap—or to come face-to-face with the Sciroccons in that maze of coral walls.
The king’s eyes narrowed. “First in line. Yes. Good move, Rhodie. It’s the position of power.”
His king was on edge. He’d been like this for days, vacillating between anger and aggression to frustration and worry. Rhodie wondered if he was regretting his compromises. Only a short time ago, Starsun had seemed confident that an accord was the right thing to do. They’d tried just about everything else, and nothing had worked. Their jails and medical facilities were filling up fast.
Their guide gestured to tables around the perimeter filled with food and drink. “Would any of you like sustenance?”
Like any of his unit was going to break rank. It wasn’t a tea party.
Seeing the scowls on their faces, the guide faltered.
“I shall go get the Sciroccons,” she said. Her nerves showed again when she pushed her hair over her shoulder. She was a lovely woman, full of grace and, apparently, determination. The tendrils of her dress floated behind her as she turned to make her way back down the pathway.
She’d barely left the rotunda, however, when she jumped and let out a surprised squeak. The Sciroccons had arrived—just as Rhodie had predicted—via the air.
In the blink of an eye, his team drew their weapons.
The Sciroccon on point didn’t look surprised as she came in for a landing. She’d known the tactical advantage his squad had, but there was no way a flier would be led down a path with covered walkways. Still, it was a dangerous way to approach and, for that reason, she came in locked and loaded.
When her feet touched solid ground, she retracted her wings.
It was an olive branch, a sign of good faith. When phaser fire didn’t erupt, her team followed, dropping in one-by-one.
“All clear,” Lieutenant Zhuldyz reported. He’d checked out the sky behind them, just in case.
That didn’t mean there weren’t more Sciroccons out there, lying in wait.
Rhodie locked eyes with the leader of the opposing security detail, the dark-haired female who’d landed first. At her silent nod, they all stowed their weapons away. Sharp-eyed, the Sciroccons approached and took position on the opposite side of the rotunda. Only then was it obvious who their queen was.
Rhodie checked himself. President. The matriarchal society voted on their leader.
“Always a damn spectacle,” King Starsun muttered behind him.
Definitely eye-catching. The Sciroccons were known for their beauty and their brains. Delicate, voluptuous, sultry, or refined, they were trained to use their charms. It was a mistake to focus on their appearance and discount them.
Because these were the deadliest Sciroccons of them all, the beautiful assassins known as the Spears.
“Ah, we’ve all arrived,” the Maelstrom leader said. He was in ceremonial dress with a crown of seashells circling his gray-haired head. He gestured to the circular table before them with three identical chairs. Everything equal. “Let us convene.”
The twitch pulled at Rhodie’s shoulder again. Not so fast. He evaluated the female warriors before him, his gaze quickly skimming over their hands. They were known for weapons of flight, anything they could throw. Yet all he saw were hands poised over phasers, just like his unit.
He sidestepped to let King Starsun approach the table.
Rhodie stopped and moved back into defensive position.
Clasped hands. White knuckles. Atypical for a Sciroccon Spear with nerves of steel.
His gaze snapped up.
And, this time, he was rocked back on his heels.
The female stood across the table from him, but off to the side. It indicated a lower rank, but that meant absolutely nothing. She was heart-stopping. Shorter than her sisters-in-arms, she had less of an edge. If that was something a person could see…
He was certainly looking hard enough.
She had light brown hair that brushed her shoulders and gray-green eyes that widened the longer he stared at her.
Beside him, Lieutenant Zhuldyz stiffened. His number two sensed something was off.
Rhodie forced his attention back to the woman’s hands. She pulled them apart as he watched, but then squeezed them into fists as if she didn’t know what to do with them.
Oh, yeah. There was something different about this one. Something very different.
“Commander?” Zhuldyz said.
Rhodie let the king pass. He didn’t see a weapon on her, but she had his attention.
King Starsun scowled as he looked that the table setting. A centerpiece of water flowing over crystals was probably meant to encourage peace and calm, but Rhodie wasn’t quite sure what the crustacean claws symbolized. He didn’t have the patience to keep up with all the Maelstrom woo-woo stuff.
He was more concerned about the female. When he looked at her again, she stuffed her hands behind her back, which didn’t help anything at all. She was slenderer than Terrene women, but she had curves in all the right places.
And… there it was. That was how the Spears got you.
Rhodie reined himself in quickly. He needed to pay attention to what the female might be holding behind her back, because one thing was certain.
Out of all the femmes fatale standing in front of him, she might be the most dangerous.
* * *
Breeze’s pulse thundered so hard in her throat, she wondered if the stern soldier staring at her could see it.
She didn’t know how. She didn’t know what she’d done wrong, but he’d caught something. He knew she wasn’t supposed to be here.
Cold washed through her. Surreptitiously, she looked at the Spears standing on each side of her, trying to pick up what she should mimic. She didn’t want to endanger any of them by attracting more attention.
“Welcome,” the Maelstrom leader said. He took a seat at the table, and the other two leaders followed. The Terrene tactical unit seemed to lean forward, their strong bodies bracing as their king took his place at the table. He looked uncomfortable as he sat on the edge of his chair.
It made the Sciroccons itchy to extend their wings again. Breeze watched as Skye… er, President Caelestis carefully took her seat.
“Let’s get started,” the Maelstrom leader said. “We all know why we’ve gathered here today.”
The attacks. Random, violent, and unexplainable. They’d been happening on all three planets of the Akasha system. It had all started when a Terrene had snapped at an interplanetary research laboratory on Scirocco. Two Sciroccon scientists had been badly injured.
Hence the evil eye the women around her were shooting across the table.
Yet that unexplained attack by an individual who’d shown no previous signs of hostility had been followed by an unexpected ambush by a Sciroccon at a dinner party on Maelstrom. Retaliations for both incidents had soon followed, along with new strikes and counterstrikes.
They were here to try to stop it by signing an inter-planetary peace accord.
But nobody was talking about the rest of it.
There were other incidents, too. Terrene on Terrene. And heaven’s rest, Sciroccon on Sciroccon.
All were escalating.
That was why Breeze had insisted on coming today. That was her focus. She’d begged to be a silent observer to see if she could pick up on anything. Any tidbit of information could help.
Nobody really knew what was happening… why certain individuals were losing control and responding so harshly. People were scared, uncertain of neighbors they’d known for years. Residents were barricading themselves inside their homes. Armies and security forces were growing, while more vigorous mental health testing was taking place.
Yet the data was frustratingly inconclusive.
“We’ve come to the agreement before us to de-escalate the terrible violence that has besieged all our worlds.” The Maelstrom chieftain spread his arms to express the inclusivity.
He had a calm presence that Breeze liked very much. With his bold orange robes and booming laugh, he could cut through the tension that inevitably arose whenever the planet delegations came together.
“With the agreed-upon mitigation steps and the setup of an inter-planetary tribunal,” the Maelstrom leader continued, “we’re taking important steps to bring the chaos back under control.”
Even if this effort failed, the man deserved an award. He was the one who’d acted as peacekeeper. He’d reached out for long-distance talks and had worked hard to bring the three sides together. Breeze had the luxury of a view behind the scenes. She knew that while their dislike of each other was strong, the planetary leaders all swore that the attacks hadn’t been politically ordered.
Unless someone was lying…
It was a possibility, but she wondered if something else was going on. Something entirely different.
“Do either of you have anything you’d like to say before we sign?” the Maelstromian asked.
The Terrene king grunted. He was glowering at the agreement on the tablet before him.
Skye was on edge, too, but she didn’t let it show. “Sciroccons didn’t start this, but we will help end it,” she vowed as the planet’s president.
With the agreement or not.
Breeze caught the technicality, and she was proud of it. That was their manner. Terrenes were physical and aggressive; Sciroccons were cerebral and deceptive.
Just like her and the soldier across the table…
She risked a peek at the Terrene commander.
Their gazes locked, and her knees wobbled. She’d never been this close to a Terrene before. They were big, muscled, physical, and attractive. She wondered at the hormone levels they must have to produce that kind of virility.
She pulled her gaze away, unable to hold his like a true Spear.
Yet another reason to make him suspicious… Flames. She clasped her hands together in front of her and laced her fingers tight.
“It is time,” the Maelstrom leader said, his voice lifting. “Time to heal the wounds. Broach the divides. Let us sign and move our people forward.”
The three acolytes approached, and each handed a planetary leader a stylus. Skye scrolled through the agreement’s language to check that it had not changed, but the Terrene king just fisted his hand around the writing instrument.
Breeze frowned. After all this, would he not sign?
He shook his head slowly as he read the words. Had he not examined the agreement before? Color rose up his throat and into his cheeks.
“You shall not leave us out again,” he said in a rough, strained voice.
“I’m sorry,” the Maelstrom leader said, stopping mid-signature. “Is there a problem?”
“We will not be shown this disrespect,” the Terrene said, his hand twitching.
“Disrespect?” Skye pointed at the tablet. “You had just as much say as—”
“NEVERMORE,” the Terrene roared.
Breeze jerked back from the table and bumped into the Spear that was instinctively moving forward.
Yet even his own troops were caught off-guard when King Starsun exploded out of his seat. Before anyone could react, he swung his arm at the man who’d proposed peace…
And plunged his stylus into the Maelstrom leader’s heart.