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"Isolde's Initiative" -- Serialization of Novel by J.A. Taylor -- Fifth Installment

Updated on September 21, 2015
Janet A Taylor profile image

"Isolde's Initiative: New Beginnings" is the first in a series of four. "Stranded on Tevan" is in the process of being published.

Saved to be an Intercessor

Cassia has no idea where she is. Before she blacked out, Corey was ordered by one of their assailants to lay down his weapon; it was the last thing she could remember. All she knows now is that she has been drugged and Sasshaan nomads brought her to this place for some unknown reason. She fears that Corey could be dead or a slave.

In the meantime, Damon and Corey prepare to leave Paldaar to rescue Cassia from the clutches of Quillar. Corey decides to go along for Cassia's sake, but his animosity toward Damon still shows. Damon reminds him that things will be done his way, or the rescue mission is off.

Due to the failure of his plan to eliminate Owen and Corey's assassination being interrupted by Damon Gyles, Morgan is outraged, and now demands the deaths of all the Isoldes, including Cassia, plus one other--Damon Gyles. Suspecting the brothers will attempt to rescue their sister, Morgan orders Quillar to set a trap for them, warning the Deltan Lord that there are consequences to another failure.

Torn between his allegiance to Morgan and his own personal wants, Quillar returns to Delta-Linus with only two people on his mind--Cassia and Damon. He is determined to have his night with Cassia, and when the time comes,would reap his revenge upon Damon. Thus, Quillar's procrastination in acceding to Morgan's demand gives Damon, Corey, and Alec time to infiltrate the maximum security section of his prison.

When Damon and Corey arrive at her cell, Cassia, determined and fighting mad, mistakes them for her captors, and after a brief scuffle, Cassia realizes her help has arrived.

When It becomes evident that they cannot leave the prison the same way, Damon is forced to lead them out another way to and through a place from Damon's nightmarish past--the Arena.

As the Deltans' search narrows and focusses on the Arena, Damon successfully removes their last major hindrance, setting Corey and Cassia at liberty to head to Aurora. Noticing that Alec is not with them, Damon learns that Corey ordered the android to release the prisoners in the prison which results in a stampede. Damon backtracks to find the android and later show up at the Aurora, each carrying a prisoner on their shoulders.

Aurora is soon airborne. Between Damon's flight maneuvers and the Isoldes, pursuing enemy fighters are dispatched; Aurora escapes Deltan space.

Though all is quiet in space, a war of words heats up between Damon and Corey again to the point that a couple of blows are struck. Cassia keeps physical violence from escalating when she steps between Damon and her brother.



Chapter Five

Someone shoved Cassia, bound and blindfolded into a small room. Still woozy from the sedation, she yanked the blindfold off too late to catch a glimpse of her captors before the door slammed shut behind her. She was in darkness again. She had lost all sense of time since her blackout. The last thing she recalled was Corey surrounded by sinister beings in nomadic robes…the point of a dagger at her throat…someone telling Corey to drop his weapon…a stinging sensation to the back of her neck…a blinding flash, and everything going black. She woke up, her head feeling like it had exploded from within; her hands were bound, her eyes blindfolded. Now, she was here, but, where is here?

She reached out into the darkness above her head, then, down around her knees, sliding one foot at a time to detect any unseen obstacles on the floor, searching for a starting point to explore and identify her surroundings. Turning and looking down, she discovered a dim light making its feeble entrance through a two-inch gap at the bottom of the door behind her. She cautiously stepped toward the door and ran her fingertips over its rough wooden surface until she felt a painful prick from a splinter. As near as she could tell, the door opened outward—no way to get to the hinges, and there was no handle on the inside.

She heard slow, meticulous steps approach the door, and then someone gave the door a shake and passed on by. Cassia braced herself against the door, her heart pounding with breathtaking fear, and slowly sidestepped along the stone wall until she came to a corner. There, she slumped, bringing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them, allowing her head to tilt back against the wall. Why am I here? I’ve been kidnapped, but why…for ransom, or…The worst possible scenario she could think of—Slavery? Sasshaan nomads were notorious thieves, cutthroats and, on certain occasions, slave traders. If that’s the case, Corey could be a captive or…dead.

Shadows appeared in the light at the bottom of the door. The lock disengaged and the door swung open wide. As light flooded the cell, Cassia shielded her eyes. The blurred image of a tall man stood in the threshold, his face obscured by the light behind him. He wore a dark-colored uniform instead of the robe of a nomad.

When he saw Cassia huddled in the corner, he glanced back over his shoulder at two other men standing behind him. “Get a light in here!”

A couple of seconds later, a grotesque man walked in with a glowing cube, hung it on a hook beside the door, and then walked out. One of the soldiers by the door walked over to Cassia, grabbed her by her bound wrists, pulled her from her seated position on the floor, and forced her to sit down on a stuffed straw mattress on a stone slab where he began to untie her hands.

“I’m Lieutenant Jaxon Carlan,” he stated with military formality.

“You’re not Sasshaan,” Cassia said as she rubbed her wrists, “where am I? Why am I here? Where’s my brother?”

“You are the special guest of Governor Quillar,” he answered as the other soldier resumed his position by the door.

Delta-Linus? Cassia rose to her feet. “Apparently Governor Quillar missed his class in protocol. I should have received an engraved invitation,” she said.

“It was a sudden decision on his part,” Carlan replied. “He wants you to know that he bears you no ill will since your last encounter.”

The officer’s mocked politeness was grating. “The feeling’s not mutual,” she said as she started toward the door, “So…if you don’t mind, I’ll be going now.”

Carlan grabbed her arm as she started past him. Cassia jerked away. “Like I said, milady, you’re a guest here. Lord Quillar left the strictest orders for your care.”

“I’m sure he did,” Cassia retorted, “Quillar has overstepped all interplanetary bounds again this time. Add kidnapping and assaulting an officer of the Interstellar Council.”

“Lady Cassia, the Interstellar Council serves no purpose except to make him laugh.” Carlan strutted arrogantly about the small cubicle, nodding his head in mock approval. “This should do nicely until Lord Quillar returns.” The officer snapped his fingers at the man still standing by the door, who in turn, waved his arm to someone else outside.

A nondescript man with keys dangling from his belt walked in carrying a tray of bread and fruit, placing it on a small stool beside the crude stone slab. Up until this moment, she did not realize how hungry she was and stood looking over at the food. “A peace offering, no doubt.”

“Call it whatever you like.” Carlan leaned in close to Cassia and ran the back of his open hand from her shoulder down her arm. “I could make things more comfortable for you. What would you like?”

Cassia walked over to the food tray. “How about a disrupter and you…standing in front of it?” The mere sight of the food had awakened a growling, sleeping creature in the pit of her stomach, and as she reached for a bit of fruit, something stayed her hand. Anything from a Deltan might as well be poisoned. “Take this away. Quillar has no right to keep me here. When my brothers will find out…”

Carlan laughed as he turned toward the door. “Dear lady, you have run into a streak of bad luck. Your brothers…are dead.”

Dead. The inflection of Carlan’s words so shocked Cassia that her knees buckled and she nearly knocked over the food-laden stool as she sought out the stone slab to sit down. She felt something cold place a vise-like grip on her heart, she could barely breathe, and the light around her began to fade. Then, her father’s words about fear came back to her. She turned angry eyes on the Deltan. “No! You’re lying!” Cassia grabbed the tray of food and heaved it at the insolent officer as hard as she could. “I don’t believe you! Get…out!”

The brazen officer ducked the spray of food, shielding his face and head with an upraised arm, and afterwards, stood calmly flicking little bits that had ricocheted off the wall and caught the sleeve of his uniform. The commotion brought the jailer and a couple of soldiers to the door. Resenting their stares, Cassia frantically looked about for more objects to hurl. When she picked up the wooden stool next to the straw-covered slab, Carlan made a hasty retreat. The door closed in a nick of time just as the stool crashed into it.

While Carlan and the soldiers conversed on the other side of the door, laughter erupted and gradually faded as the soldiers walked away. Cassia stood trembling, fighting for control of her emotions. For the first time in her life, fear had paid its call. Her father’s words were true. Fear had nearly paralyzed her, but anger had become her strongest ally.

The light of the glowing cube grew dimmer, her cell darkened, and her strength seemed to ebb away. She slowly felt her way back to the corner, and slid to the floor wrapping her arms about her to fend off a cold, numbing chill.

j

Damon, seated in the co-pilot’s chair of Aurora’s command center, watched Alec and Ida completing the preflight routine and bringing the systems online. In silent observation, Damon marveled at the androids’ humanlike qualities, right down to their communication with one another. Alec talked incessantly, answering Damon’s questions about Aurora without hesitation. In the few short hours spent in preparation for the rescue mission, Alec had more than made up for the verbal famine Damon had experienced with the Vrende.

“Pre-flight takes just a few minutes. No other ship in this galaxy can keep up with her, and the guidance is such that one can execute a one-eighty degree evasive maneuver in ten seconds, maybe less.”

“Impressive.” Damon nodded.

“Yes, sir,” Alec replied.

Ida looked up from a console behind Alec. “All assault weaponry and med-tech supplies have been stowed,” she said. “I’m beginning the sensorial read-outs.”

“Affirmative.” Alec flipped a switch to his right. “I am activating the ion charging system.”

With all the activity going on around him, Damon was unaware of Corey’s presence until he spoke from the doorway. He appeared subdued, and the hostility, for the time being, had abated. “Ida, check the perimeter security system,” he said.

“Come for round two?” Damon chided as Corey took the chair at the navigator’s station. “I see Owen changed your mind.”

Corey gave Damon an unwavering glare. “Get this straight, Gyles,” he said, “I’m only doing this for my sister.”

“Just so you know…you’re second in command this trip,” Damon replied.

Ida looked up from the console, unsure as to who was in charge. “Captain?” Damon nodded and waved his hand toward Corey. “Commander, perimeter security is operational.”

“Thanks, Ida,” Corey said, pulling a star chart from a vertical slot beside the navi-comm. “Alec…the deflector array?”

“Fully operational, sir.” A series of beeps sounded from the pilot’s console. “And preflight is complete,” Alec said.

“Very well, let Owen know that we’ll be leaving within the hour,” Corey said, “that is, if it’s all right with our intrepid captain.”

The sarcastic remark was an intended insult but Damon let it pass for the moment. “Sounds good to me.”

“One hour, Alec.” Corey went back to punching in the course coordinates. “Ida, Owen has some last minute instructions for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Alec said.

Alec got up and left the command center and Ida followed without a word.

When Damon was sure the androids were gone and out of earshot, he left the co-pilot’s chair, approached Corey from behind, and violently spun Corey’s chair around. “Now, hear this, Isolde…you run this ship anyway you see fit, but when we get to Delta, I call the shots. Question my authority the least bit, and you can forget your sister and I ever existed. The plan is to get your sister off Delta without getting any of us killed in the process. So, do us both a favor, lose that attitude right here, and now. There won’t be any time for it on Delta.”

Damon straightened, turned, and walked out.

j

Hours later, Damon walked about the passenger compartment and the galley, exploring what would soon be his ship. Corey sat unpacking pieces of an unusual weapon, inspecting each one before fitting them together, while at the same time, trying to ignore Damon’s roundabout tour.

The Deltan could feel Corey’s hostile gaze each time he stopped to gander inside each storage locker, but when he looked around, Corey went go back to what he was doing, pretending not to notice.

“You know, I thought we hit it off real well back on Uvalde.” Damon rummaged through a storage locker. “I mean…my saving your life and all.”

Corey continued with his project until Damon closed the locker and stepped up beside him. “What would you like to hear?”

“Well…thanks would be a start.”

“Fine. Thanks.” Corey stood with a fully assembled assault weapon, and Damon craned his neck to get a better look.

“Is that what I think it is? I didn’t think you Paldaareans knew anything about heavy artillery. What is it?”

“A TEH assault cannon.”

“Another of your brother’s little innovations?”

“And it’s not for sale.”

Damon held out a hand to Corey. “Mind if I take a look?” Corey placed the weapon into Damon’s hand. “What’s the range and accuracy?”

Surprisingly, the weapon was light, and Damon was impressed. He stood positioning the stock against his shoulder, sighting over the ammunition chambers, and then lowering it.

“Two thousand yards, pinpoint,” Corey said, “depending on the person.”

“And the firepower?” Damon went over the weapon with all the precision of an ordinance master.

“Two tri-nitrocine explosive heads, each with nearly ten times the power of your disrupter set for overload.”

“So, what do you plan to do with it?”

“It might come in handy on Delta.”

Damon’s inspection came to an abrupt halt, and with a frown, he thrust it back into Corey’s hands. “Forget it. This is strictly a rescue, not a search-and-destroy mission.”

“You’ve missed the point,” Corey said, “We may need it to even the odds.”

“Our odds will be better without it,” Damon replied as Corey walked to a storage locker and stowed the weapon inside along with the ammunition. “Where we’re going, we don’t want to bring anything down on our heads.”

“You’ve forgotten who you’re working for,” Corey said as he slammed the locker shut.

“Fine.” Damon threw his hands up. “Go ahead, do things your way. But, you can count me out.”

Damon took his ease in a recliner, and Corey walked over to him and leaned on the arm of the recliner. “You’re bluffing.”

“You’ve got I’d say…about fourteen hours till you find out for sure. In the meantime…” Damon yawned and stretched. “Dowse that light?”

Corey straightened, passing his hand over a tiny beacon. As the light in the compartment faded, Corey settled into his own recliner and looked over at Damon in wonder. Nothing seems to take this man by surprise. One thing was certain, Gyles’ brash behavior couldn’t disguise habits bred by military service. Damon had been an officer once, one who had seen action. From that moment on, Corey resolved to find out who Damon was and where he came from.

After a few minutes of silence, warm waves of slumber purged any other lingering thoughts from Corey’s mind.

j

Aurora shuddered as she entered the lower atmosphere of Delta-Linus. Damon took the navigator’s chair, and watched as Corey brought the ship out of its swift vertical drop and leveled off just above the treetops.

“Trytaan dead ahead, sir,” Alec said to Corey.

Corey looked over his shoulder to Damon. “Where to?”

“There.” Damon pointed. “Three degrees to starboard. There should be an old Sandeep-Tariq temple just beyond that stand of trees. Slow your momentum or you’ll overshoot it. That’s it, there…see it?”

Corey reached for the throttles and began a mental countdown before engaging the breaking thrusters. Aurora hovered a few seconds and then came to rest in a secluded area surrounded by a dense overgrowth of moss and vines. While the engines vented steam, Alec shut down the rest of the systems. Corey whirled around in his chair. “We made it, and they didn’t spot us.”

“They saw us all right. That vertical drop into the atmosphere bought us some time. It’ll be a while before they get a fix on our location.” Damon got up and looked out at the orange-tinted sky. “It’ll be dark in about an hour.” He turned to Corey. “Now, who’s calling the shots?”

j

When the last ray of orange haze left the sky, Corey activated the hatch and turned to Ida as Damon disembarked. Alec stood beside him in the doorway with a coil of climbing cable draped over one shoulder. “Keep an eye on those perimeter sensors,” Corey said to Ida. “If you pick up anything other than this beacon approaching, get Aurora out of here, fast.”

“Yes, sir,” Ida replied, “How long do you expect to be gone?”

“I don’t know,” Corey answered, “but if we’re not back by morning, take Aurora, and rendezvous with Owen on Gosmaar as planned.”

“But, you’ll be stranded,” Ida said.

“If we’re not back by then, stranded will be the least of our problems.”

From ground level, Damon’s head popped up in the doorway. “All’s clear,” he said, “let’s go.”

Alec stepped down from the ship and Corey followed. With a wave from Corey, Ida activated the hatch closing as the trio disappeared into the darkness.

j

Quillar’s hurried strides through the corridors of his fortress brought soldiers to abrupt halts, eliciting salutes and respectful nods from each one he passed. He was oblivious to everything; two people were foremost on his mind—Cassia and Damon Gyles.

The great doors to his private quarters swung open to admit him. A woman-servant greeted him with a slow curtsy as he unfastened his cloak and let it fall to the floor. She picked up the discarded garment, and left the room as a manservant entered with a tray of food and drink. Quillar waved him out of the room, and then he walked to the tray to pour a drink.

The Deltan stood briefly staring into the drink gently caressing the cup as tender thoughts of Cassia filled him with wonder, but when he lifted the cup to his lips, he saw the imagined reflection of Damon Gyles in the rippling liquid. A fit of rage seized him, and he let out a fierce growl, hurling the crystal goblet across the room. The sound of shattering glass brought the immediate attention of the soldier stationed outside his door and the woman-servant from another room.

Quillar was pacing like a wearisome beast within the confines of an imaginary cage. As the woman stooped to pick up the shards of the shattered goblet, Quillar turned on her. “You! Leave it! Get out!”

The woman made a hasty retreat, Quillar turned around to the soldier. “Have Lieutenant Carlan bring Lady Cassia to me, immediately.”

“Yes, milord,” the man said.

As the door closed, Quillar walked back to the tray, filled another goblet, and walked to the windowed doors of his balcony, where he stood gazing out toward the entrance of the prison.

j

Below Quillar’s balcony window, three dark shadows stood beneath the drooping branch of an acacia tree—two harboring a special hatred. At that very moment, each considered the opportunity to rid the galaxy of him. However, when Quillar walked away, they reunited in their quest, turning to the ten-foot high wall that surrounded the fortress.

“Alec,” Damon whispered, “give me the rope.” The android lifted the coil off his shoulder and handed it to Damon, who looped it over his own shoulder. “Now, as soon as Corey and I are over, you know what to do.”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right, let’s do it.”

Alec cupped his hands together to provide a foothold for Damon, and with very little effort, hoisted him to the top of the wall. Damon lay on his stomach, letting one end of the rope drop to Alec, and then motioned to Corey. Alec turned to Corey, and in short order, had him up on the wall beside Damon.

After a precautionary check of the grounds below, Damon let out the rest of the rope, and climbed down while Alec anchored it from the other side. Corey eased over the side and dropped softly to the ground beside Damon.

When they stepped back into the dark, shadowy curtain along the wall, Damon gave the rope a violent jerk, and then tossed his end back over the wall. Motioning to Corey, they moved covertly along the wall, coming upon the sentry, who had, by then, already encountered Alec.

“Halt! Who are you?”

“Who…me?” Alec answered.

“What are you doing here?” the guard asked.

“Well, sir, I’m looking for someone,” Alec answered.

Damon caught the guard from behind, placing a tight squeeze on his larynx, dragging him back into the shadows where Corey stood with a drawn disrupter.

“Make one sound,” Corey threatened with the weapon against his right temple, “and you’re dead. Understand?”

The man had difficulty swallowing, but managed to nod an acknowledgment. “Where is Cassia Isolde?”

“Who?” the man gasped.

Damon gave the man’s neck a painful jerk and whispered in his ear, “You heard the man.”

“ZAN Level…she’s there,” the man whimpered.

Corey looked to Damon. “Think he’s telling the truth?”

“It’s possible. ZAN Level is the maximum security section,” Damon answered.

“Okay.” Corey holstered his weapon.

Damon, without hesitation, jerked the man’s neck to one side with a snap, and the man collapsed to the ground. Corey and Damon dragged the man back into the shadows. From their hiding place, Damon pointed out the other sentry posts between them and the prison. Moving in and out of the shadows of the courtyard, they managed to get within a few feet of the narrow doorway, which led to the dungeon cells.

Getting to the entrance meant a short, but risky stroll out in the open. With the next watch due to change, Damon knew too much caution at this point would take time and he stepped out into the open courtyard. The sentries, as Damon suspected, were grouped together, laughing and taking their ease since their watch duty was about over. When it was apparent that no one was paying any attention, Damon motioned to Corey and Alec, and took refuge in a dark recess beside the prison’s entrance to wait for them.

Corey arrived, heaving a sigh. All had gone well thus far. He kept wondering how Damon knew where he was going. How could a mere prisoner be so knowledgeable of this place? In the back of his mind was the nagging thought that Gyles may be leading him into a trap. For Cassia’s sake, he would give Damon the benefit of doubt, but he would not let his guard down.

“Ready?” Damon whispered.

Corey gave him a nod.

Damon, taking a deep breath to steady his own jangled nerves, stepped around the corner, directly into the path of Lieutenant Carlan, who was on his way inside. Face-to-face in wide-eyed surprise, both men stood eying one another until Carlan’s face registered recognition. A split second before the Deltan could draw his weapon, or raise an alarm, Damon delivered a blow to his throat, sending him noiselessly into the dark entrance of the prison. The final sounds of a brief struggle greeted Corey and Alec as they stepped through the door and into the corridor. Inside, Damon was dragging the body of his opponent to a narrow, winding staircase and sending it tumbling out of sight.

“Is he dead?” Corey asked.

“The only way to leave your enemy.” Damon wiped blood from his lower lip, straightened his disheveled appearance, and repositioned his disrupter about his hips.

Corey watched Damon glance toward the narrow staircase and then down the passageway. “You lost?” he asked.

“No,” Damon said, “just second thoughts about what I’m doing here. Stick close, and no talking. Here on out, we tread softly and listen hard. Voices and footsteps carry in these corridors. We don’t want to broadcast our movements.”

“Are we getting close?” Corey whispered.

“Soon,” Damon said, “just be ready to do what I say, no questions asked, understood?”

“Okay,” Corey unstrapped the restraint on his disrupter, and looked to Alec.

“Understood,” Alec said.

“Good,” Damon said, with a wave of his arm, “this way.”

They followed the trail of glass-encased cubes down a corridor that had an eerie darkness. The musty smell of decay and even more putrid odors met their nostrils as they ventured further into the foreboding fortress.

They came to an intersecting passage. Damon paused long enough to listen for life sounds, and then motioned to the left. The once-level floor became a gradual decline, twisting and turning so many times that Corey soon lost all sense of direction. The ground leveled, the foul odors were gone, and the temperature had dropped. They had entered a natural cave where the sound of dripping water echoed about them.

The pathway had two branches, one was pitch black, and the other well lit. Damon paused at a flow of water coming out of the rock wall, took a couple of swallows from his cupped hand, and splashed a little in his face to wash away the salty sweat stinging his eyes.

“How much longer?” Corey whispered.

“Soon,” Damon answered.

Damon chose the lighted path, and they began a steep, narrow incline, weaving past several columns of dripstone. Both Corey and Damon were nearly breathless when they reached the top, but Alec showed no sign of exhaustion. The floor leveled again, and the foul smell returned when they came to an intersecting passageway from which boisterous voices emanated.

Damon poked his head around the passage wall for a quick look, and turned back to Corey holding up three fingers. They eased back a few steps into the passageway.

“Alec, douse a couple of those lights behind us…real quiet like,” he whispered.

Damon hugged close to the wall and reached up, taking a glowing cube from its holder, while at the same time, keeping an eye on the Deltans seated ten yards away at a table outside a heavy, bolted door.

Cassia’s jailer and two Deltan guards exchanged amusing stories while they enjoyed liquid refreshment from tall, pewter tankards. Their laughter ranged from the very loud, backslapping kind to the reserved snicker behind arms that wiped dribbling seepage from their mouths.

During a lull, a strange shuffle in the corridor followed by the sound of breaking glass brought the Deltan soldiers to their feet. The passageway was in darkness and the guards went to investigate.

The drunken jailer was unaware that his companions had left him and turned the tankard up for one last swallow. He didn’t see them grabbed, or hear their last grunts and groans. With the armed guards dispatched, Damon boldly moved toward the jailer, who had slumped forward in a drunken stupor onto the table and stood over him as Corey and Alec walked up. It was apparent the jailer was in no condition to be any problem.

j

Cassia, seated with her back against the door of her dark cell, was half-asleep when she heard hurried steps nearing the door. She heard the key scrape as it turned in its slot and the lock disengaged. Reaching down beside her for a leg of the broken wooden stool, she stood with her back pressed against the wall.

The door swung open, and a tall, dark-haired figure rushed past her. Assuming it was Carlan, Cassia was about to strike him when someone took hold of her upraised arm. In defense, Cassia unleashed a vicious elbow to the solar plexus of the person behind her, then stepping back, she flipped the man over her shoulder and breath exploded from his lungs when he landed flat on his back.

Cassia was about to bludgeon the disoriented man when a hand touched her shoulder. She turned, taking a wild swing at the dark-haired stranger. The moment her wrist connected with his forearm, the club flew from her hand, but the man didn’t see her fist coming around and colliding against his cheekbone just below his right eye—nor did she—when she received a clip to her jaw and everything went black.

Corey rolled to his feet over, gasping for breath, and saw Damon lowering Cassia to the floor. “Gyles…what did you do?”

Damon sat back on his haunches with his hand up to his cheek. “Had to defend myself,” he said, “you didn’t tell me she was a spitfire.”

Corey caressed her forehead and looked up at the Deltan and snickered slightly. “She’s like that when she’s riled. But, why did you have to hit her?”

“She hit me first,” Damon said, “and she was about to clobber you.”

“Cass…” Corey said calmly as he lightly patted both sides of her face.

Cassia began to recover with a few moans and when she opened her eyes, her hands flailed the air. “Leave me alone! Go away!”

Damon rose to his feet and backed away as Corey gently took her hands and restrained them. “Cass, it’s me Corey. Everything’s all right now.” Corey turned his face toward the light. “See? It’s me.”

“Corey?” When she recognized her brother, she threw her arms around his neck. “Corey…oh, Corey! They told me you and Owen were dead!”

“Are you okay?” Corey said.

“But how did you find me?”

Corey cocked his head toward Damon. “He brought me,” Corey got to his feet and reached down to Cassia. “Can you stand?”

“I think so…” Cassia swayed a little, and as Corey placed a supportive arm around her waist, her hand reached up to her jaw. “What happened?”

“Sorry about the jaw,” Damon said.

“You hit me?”

“Only in self-defense,” Damon replied, “Who…”

“Captain Gyles! Captain Gyles!” Alec said rushing to the door. “I think someone’s coming!”

“Wait here,” Damon said as he rushed out into the corridor.

Cassia turned inquisitive eyes to Corey. “Gyles? Where did he come from?”

“That’s what I’m going to find out before…”

Damon rushed into the doorway. “Alec’s right!” he said. “Sounds like a squad. They must have found that dead sentry outside, and when they find those other two guards, and her, missing, they’ll tear this place apart looking for us.”

Corey, with Cassia in hand, joined him at the door. “Can’t we stand and fight?” Corey asked.

“Sure, but don’t count on seeing home again,” Damon answered.

“Is there another way out of here?” Cassia asked.

Damon thought a moment. “Yeah, there might be,” he said, “this way, quick!”

j

All caution abandoned, their pace picked up, but as they climbed a seemingly endless, winding staircase, the Isoldes lagged behind. Alec was the one setting the pace and Damon found it difficult keeping up with him. Then, Alec stopped twenty steps above and motioned ahead to him. Damon paused long enough to catch his breath, and then took the remaining stairs.

“I believe I found it sir,” Alec said pointing to a crack in the wall.

“Good,” he said, “go in…check it out.”

Corey and Cassia collapsed on the staircase at his feet in almost total exhaustion. “You got to keep up better than that.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll keep up,” Corey snapped. “Where’s Alec?”

“I’m here, sir,” Alec answered, stepping out of the dark recess and turning to Damon.

Damon motioned to Alec. “What have you found?”

“It’s there, like you said.”

“What’s there?” Corey asked between breaths.

Damon turned to Corey. “Don’t move,” he said, “I’ll be right back.”

Damon and Alec stepped back into the dark gap in the wall.

Cassia gave out a long, hard puff and swept sweat-drenched hair from her eyes. “Where did you find him?”

“Uvalde,” he answered.

“An old friend of yours?”

“He’s a mercenary,” Corey said, “Against my better judgment, Owen hired him to rescue you.”

“I don’t understand,” Cassia said.

“I’ll tell you later,” Corey replied. “There’s more to him than he’s told us. Just stay clear of him.” Hearing noise behind him, Corey turned drawing his disrupter.

“Hey, whoa!” Damon said, brushing the muzzle of the weapon aside.

Corey stood up and holstered the disrupter. “What did you find?”

Damon took down the torch that lighted the staircase a couple of steps up from them and doused it, then helped Cassia to her feet. “We’re going this way.”

“But, wouldn’t it be quicker that way?” Cassia pointed up the staircase.

“Nobody’s twisting your arm…go that way…follow me,” Damon said. “It’s your choice.”

Damon stepped back into the dark recess. Corey and Cassia started to go up the staircase but quickly changed their minds when they heard sounds of footsteps descending toward them at a speedy pace. Corey coaxed Cassia through the opening and quickly stepped inside behind her.

“I can’t see,” she whispered as she groped along the wall until she found a shoulder, “Corey, where are you?”

“Watch your step,” Damon said, “and your heads.”

The pitch-black narrow passage had unseen obstacles jutting out from the wall and hanging overhead. The floor would occasionally reach up to trip its guests. Navigation was slow and tedious until the channel zigzagged and a light appeared ahead.

When they emerged from the darkness, Cassia discovered that Damon had a viselike grip on her hand. “You can let go of my hand now,” she said.

Damon relinquished his hold on her soft, dainty hand and smiled. “I didn’t want you to lose your way,” he said.

Cassia shook her hand to relieve the tingling sensation in her fingertips. “Not much chance of that. You cut the circulation off.”

Damon took her hand and massaged it gently in his hands. “Allow me.”

Corey stepped out of the tunnel and between them. “Where to now?”

Damon pointed over his shoulder. “That way. Alec’s up ahead.”

Corey took Cassia’s arm and led her away. “Where are we?” Cassia asked. “That smell…it’s horrible.”

“Believe me, you don’t want to know,” Damon said.

“Ugh! I think I’m going to be sick,” she said.

“We don’t have time for that!” Damon replied as they walked past him. “Just keep moving.”

“What are you going to do?” Corey asked.

“Just earning my pay. Somebody’s got to cover our backsides,” he answered, “I won’t be far behind. Go on.”

j

Alec stood in front of a seamless metal door. The android had taken the security panel apart, and two wires protruded out of the wall. The horrendous odor had worsened, and seemed to emanate from the other side of the door. The Isoldes were examining the ominous-looking door when Damon arrived out of breath.

“What is this place?” Corey asked.

“This? It’s the arena where Quillar trains his militia,” Damon said, “where they practice their assassin skills.”

“Can’t something be done?” Cassia asked.

“Get rid of Quillar,” Damon said coldly. “Let’s keep moving!”

Damon gave Alec a nod. Sparks flew when Alec touched together two wires, and the door slid aside.

The dim glow of the same incandescent lamps only enhanced the evil atmosphere of the arena. The sand-covered floor, strewn with primitive bloodstained spears and clubs suggested that a battle of some sort had taken place that day in which not many combatants walked away. The Isoldes, dumbfounded by the hideous surroundings, were unaware of the brutality that took place there every day.

“Alec, there’s a door on the other side,” Damon pointed it out to the android. “Take them through and wait there for me.”

Damon waited until Alec and the Isoldes crossed the arena before he pressed his hand to the security panel, activating the door’s closing. The arena brought back the memories from days not long past. It was never his intention to return to this place. The substances of his nightmares were attributed to the horrors he had witnessed and participated in; all the painful screams…the whistling crack of the whizped…cheers and jeers of the combatants…came at him from every section of the amphitheater, echoing through his mind.

A hand touched his shoulder bringing him back to the reality of the present. Coming to himself, Damon instinctively reached for his disrupter, but before the weapon left its holster, he realized Alec had returned. “Wrong thing to do, Alec.”

“Sorry, sir,” Alec said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Suddenly, a high-pitched scream that could only be Cassia’s came from the tunnel. Damon drew his disrupter on the run as he and Alec raced across the arena and through the door. In the dimly lit corridor, her sobs and Corey’s comforting remarks led him directly to them. They were standing by the open door of a cell. Cassia trembled, hiding her eyes against Corey’s chest.

“What is it?” Damon said.

Corey gave a gesture with his head. “In there.”

Damon stepped into the doorway for a look. Cassia and Corey, out of curiosity, had stumbled upon the death cell where mutilated bodies of the day’s victims awaited disposal. The scene even sickened him. Damon turned away from it and closed the door.

Cassia’s outcry had not only alerted him, but the inmates, as well, prompting cries for help from behind bolted doors.

“Come on!” Damon grabbed Cassia’s hand and headed off down the same long corridor.

Chapter Six

A short time later, Damon, with Cassia in tow, came to an abrupt halt. The only thing between them and freedom was the same barred gate. This time, a huge chain completed its security. While Cassia stood gazing at the barrier, Damon drew his disrupter, stepped between her and the gate, and shielding his eyes, he took aim and blasted the chain. He then fired at the locking mechanism and pushed at the gate, but it didn’t budge.

“Where’s Alec?” Damon asked when Corey came running up to them.

“He’s back there,” Corey said. “Why?”

“Never mind.” Damon put his shoulder against the gate. “Here, put your backs to it!” All three pushed and groaned, but the gate still refused to cooperate.

Stepping back, Corey examined the hinges. He tapped Damon on the shoulder, pointing to the problem. “You’re wasting your time,” he said, “Those hinges are welded solid.”

“Welded? But, they weren’t before…” Damon said.

“How’s that?” Corey said.

Damon studied the gate more closely. “Never mind, I was just thinking,” Damon said.

“Don’t tell me we’re trapped,” Cassia said.

Corey’s arm went around her. “Maybe we can still get out the other way,” Corey said.

“Forget that,” Damon looked at Cassia. “That little scream a while ago has already let them know we’re here.” Damon reached out to Corey. “Quick…hand me your disrupter!”

Corey’s hand went to cover his weapon. “What…?”

“The only way out of here is through this gate.” Damon took out his own disrupter and made some hasty adjustments.

“Fine,” Corey replied, “use yours.”

Damon held out his hand again to Corey. “We’re going to need both, Commander,” Damon said.

“No way!” Corey drew the weapon and backed away. “We’ll need this.”

“Listen to me! Our time has run out. We have to work together. We can’t hold off a hundred men with two disrupters,” Damon said. “The only way you’ll keep that disrupter is over my dead body. Now, hand it over, or use it!”

Cassia watched as Corey’s hand tightened around the grip of his weapon, and she stepped between them with her hand out. “Corey, he’s right.”

Corey had no sooner placed his disrupter into her hand than Damon snatched it and began setting its charge. “Get back down that passage…get close to the wall, down on the floor. Go!”

Corey and Cassia ran and took cover. Damon placed each disrupter in the bars of the gate close to the hinges, flipped the switches on each weapon, and ran to join the Isoldes. “Get down! Cover your heads!” He dove to the ground close to Cassia and covered her as the charges detonated.

A shower of rocks fell and dust hung heavily in the air, making visibility difficult when they returned to the gate. Damon paused, fanning the air, relieved to find a gaping hole where the gate had been.

Corey and Cassia stepped up beside him. “You coming?”

“Yeah,” Damon replied, “But…what’s keeping Alec?”

“I told him to release the prisoners,” Corey said.

“You did what?” Damon turned, hearing riotous voices coming from the powder-laden air of the passageway; it was a stampede.

Damon swiftly ushered Corey and Cassia through the hole into the fresh night air and ducked to one side of the opening to avoid a trampling. A mob of thirty badly beaten and bruised men, barely recognizable as humans, emerged from the curtain of smog. Men in tattered clothes, their bodies reeking from the festering wounds and mutilations received at the hands of their Deltan captors—most of them Damon recognized. Although Damon hated admit it, Corey had done a good thing. I could have released them that night Zeno and I rescued Rufah. They might’ve stood a better chance at freedom than now…the Deltans will have them rounded back up in no time.

Damon watched the last stragglers pass; Alec was not among them. Corey stepped into opening of the jagged portal. “Gyles,” he said, “Let’s go!”

“Alec’s still back there,” Damon said, “get your sister to the ship—”

The sound of disrupters coming from the corridor gave Damon reason for concern, and he headed toward it.

“Gyles, that’s disrupter fire!” Corey shouted, “Are you crazy? Where are you going?”

j

Damon met Alec in the corridor at the door of death cell, and the android had his arms full, hoisting, and carrying along two men who could barely walk. “What do you think you’re doing?” Damon scolded.

“Commander Corey said to…”

“Don’t you ever think for yourself?” Damon heard the unmistakable sound of weapons coming from inside the arena. “Don’t answer that…just get going!”

The door to the arena was ajar and Damon rushed over to close and bar it, glancing briefly inside at the raging battle going on. From what he could tell, thirty or more prisoners had chosen to leave by the only route they knew and ran head-on into the armed search parties converging on the arena. The fugitive mob had snatched up the crude weapons lying about the arena floor and charged the first search party who, without realizing, entered the hive of desperate inmates. The prisoners were fast snatching up the more-advanced weapons from their fallen enemies.

It almost looked like the inmates’ valiant fight would pay off, until more Deltan squads arrived. Out-gunned and out-numbered, the prisoners were soon cut down. Time had run out. Damon closed the heavy door and swung the bar down into place.

Rushing past the death cell, Damon noticed a huge drum of liquid; he gingerly touched the fluid and sniffed. Karoleen. He pushed the container over in the direction of the arena door, the liquid completely saturating the corridor before the bolted door succumbed to a concentrated blast, and it fell from its hinges.

As the first stream of Deltan regulars spewed into the passageway, Damon took one of the glowing cubes hanging on the wall and heaved it at the feet of the soldiers. Flames shot up instantly, and the engulfed soldiers screamed.

Damon reached the blasted gate and found Alec in a dilemma. One of his wards, an old man had completely collapsed, and the other, a younger man, struggled to get to his feet.

“They’re coming, Alec, let’s get outta here!” Damon hoisted the younger man over his shoulder. “Come on!”

Alec scooped the old man up in his arms and followed Damon out into the blackness and the fresh night air.

j

Corey and Cassia arrived at Aurora winded and exhausted. While Cassia rested against the open hatchway, Corey and Ida rushed to the command center. He jumped into the navigator’s chair.

“Ida,” he said, “initiate preflight!”

Ida went to the pilot’s station, “But, sir, where’s Alec?”

“He’ll be here!” Corey said over his shoulder as he plotted their course.

Lights came on all around the cockpit. Aurora was waking from her sleep when the alarm on the stasis sensor sounded.

“Sir,” Ida said, looking up from the console, “two unknowns are approaching two hundred yards south of us. They are moving very erratically.”

Corey looked up in surprise and turned to the screen, and started for the back of the ship. “On my word, raise ship and get us out of here!”

Corey rushed past Cassia to the storage locker. He pulled the TEH out and slid two projectiles into its chambers. “What’s happening?” she asked.

He went into a defensive crouch by the open hatchway. “Trouble…maybe,” he said. He heard a rustling sound and took aim in its direction. “Get back.”

Damon’s voice came out of the darkness. “Don’t shoot!”

Corey lowered the weapon and gave it to Cassia. He reached out and helped Damon lift the burden off his shoulders. “It’s about time you showed!” Corey said. “I was about to raise ship!”

Together, they carried and placed the young man on a cot. “As you can see, we’re leaving with more than I bargained for,” Damon said.

Corey followed Damon back to the open hatch to receive Alec and the old man he carried. While Damon helped Alec place the old man on another cot, Corey activated the hatch closing and spoke into the ship’s intercom. “Ida, raise ship…now!” he said. “Alec, get forward!”

Damon and Corey were securing the old man on the bed when Cassia came over with a blanket. “Missed your chance to save your brother a ship,” Damon said.

Without a reply, Corey left and headed toward the command center. Cassia caught the inflection of Damon’s voice as she tucked the blanket about the old man and looked up at him as he finished fastening the last restraint. “What’s going on between you and Corey?” she asked.

“Just a business deal he’s choking on,” Damon said walking away.

“What business…?” she started to say when the lifting thrusters fired and Aurora trembled beneath her feet.

Damon paid no attention to her. Instead, he returned to the young stranger he had carried to the ship to secure him to his cot and spread a comforting blanket over his battered body and tattered clothes. Sandy-blond hair hung to the man’s shoulders in long, thickly matted strands and a grubby blond beard nearly two inches in length intensified his sunken, bruised cheeks. Looking down into his tear-filled eyes, Damon placed a consoling hand on the man’s shoulder. “Welcome aboard.”

The man, unable to utter a word, managed a nod and blinked his eyes in response.

Cassia came up behind him. “Gyles…what business deal?”

Damon whirled about, but before he could say a word, the transport pitched skyward, and reeled under the impact of several laser bolts striking the shields. Aurora banked sharply, sending Cassia unexpectedly into Damon’s arms. They stood in the embrace until the ship righted herself. Cassia backed away with a blush on her face.

In the light of the compartment, they both noticed the bruises from their first encounter with one another.

“How’s the jaw feeling?” Damon asked.

She worked her jaw and smiled. “Okay.” She reached up to touch Damon’s right cheek. “Boy, you’re going to have a shiner.”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Damon replied. “You totally caught me off-guard. Where did you…”

“Gyles!” Corey’s voice shouted over the ship’s intercom. “Get up here!”

j

Damon entered the command center on the run with Cassia close behind. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Deltan Soarers,” Corey exclaimed, “three of them!”

“What do you expect me to do?” Damon barked. “Get out and shake their hands?”

Corey got up from the pilot’s chair and motioned to Damon. “You said you were a pilot. Show us what you can do.”

Damon sat in the pilot’s chair, and looked back over his shoulder. “Hey, where’re you going?”

“Just get us some maneuvering space. Cass and I will do the rest.” Corey took his sister by the arm, and they left the cockpit together.

“Fine,” Damon said. He turned to the androids. “Alec…Ida, strap in.”

Damon turned back to the control console, and noted a curious look on Alec’s face. This wasn’t exactly the leisurely first turn at the helm he had pictured. At this moment, he felt more like a trainee in a new ship. Fortunately, many of Aurora’s controls did remind him of the old SPX-sixteen trainer he had flown prior to the Uvalde-Deltan conflict. How long ago…five, six years? No matter, maneuvering space he wants, maneuvering space he’ll get.

“Corey, are you and Cassia strapped in?” Damon said into the intercom.

“We’re ready!” answered Corey.

Once again, Aurora shook from the impact of more laser strikes from the Soarers making another pass. They circled wide to return, Damon looked over to Alec and pulled the seat restraints over his shoulders. “You said this ship could make a one-eighty in ten seconds, or less?”

Alec looked up from his console. “Surely, sir, you’re not intending to…” The androids secured themselves.

Damon worked the series of switches in preparation. “I hope you weren’t just whistling in a sandstorm.”

“Sir, I never whistle,” Alec replied.

“Didn’t think you did.” Damon reached for the throttle. “Well…ready or not…”

“But, sir,” Alec stammered, “that was only a hypothesis!”

“A what?” Damon looked over to the android as he engaged the steering thrusters.

“A theory!”

Aurora went into a one hundred eighty degree rotation to the port side, rolling over topside, belly-up. Damon routed all the auxiliary power to the boosters, taking the ship immediately into a ninety-degree arc straight up, and leveled off into normal trajectory. The evasive maneuver had put some distance between Aurora and her pursuers, and had taken her out of the planet’s gravitational pull.

Damon felt pleased with his piloting expertise. “How was that?”

A slight flutter in Alec’s mechanical larynx gave the impression that the android was trying to clear his throat. “Well, sir,” the android replied, “quite commendable.”

Somehow, Alec’s compliment doesn’t have that special ring to it. “Only what?” Damon asked.

“Well, sir, the entire reversal of course took eleven point two seconds,” Alec answered. “However, with practice, you should shave that by one or two seconds…and we must take into consideration that your knowledge of Aurora is limited on such short notice and the circumstances.”

“Okay, okay, you made your point,” Damon said. The ship’s sensors alerted him to fast approach of the three Soarers. “Looks like our friends are back.” Damon reached to the switch of the intercom. “Corey, we got bad news closing fast!”

“We’re ready,” Corey replied calmly.

A check of the sensors indicated that the Soarers no longer held a tight squad formation. One continued to bear down from aft, and the others circled wide of port and starboard to make a head-on approach. The old Deltan vise, Damon thought. It might work on any other pilot, but not me. When they had aligned themselves, the Soarers commenced a heavy barrage. Aurora answered with blue-white bolts from her own ion turrets. Damon executed a three-hundred-sixty-degree, downward spiral out of the crossfire. The topside ion scored a hit, and a Soarer erupted into spectral brilliance that would shame a star.

When the remaining pursuers rejoined, Damon realized that the squad leader must have been the first kill, which meant things looked favorable for them. The other Soarer pilots hesitated to begin another immediate attack run. It could only mean that these pilots were fresh out of flight training, and for the first time, they were on their own. Damon knew that feeling all too well. Right about now, they are probably considering their options, and right about now, failure to pursue is not acceptable by Deltan standards.

Aurora was fast approaching the point of no return for the Soarers, and the pilots made their final bid, employing a tactic borne of necessity. The Soarer pilots brought their ships in at forty-five degree angles, port, and starboard, concentrating their firepower on the topside ion turret and the command center, rendering the ion cannon on the underside ineffective. Damon promptly set Aurora forty-five degrees over, bringing both ion turrets to bear. The underside ion fired immediately on the ship approaching at starboard, the blazing energy striking the Soarer’s right wing and thrusters. The Soarer spun out of control into the flight path of its partner. When it became evident that a collision was eminent, Damon veered Aurora away.

As the last glittering particle of wreckage died, Damon fell back in his chair in relief and turned to Ida.

“Ida…go check on our passengers.”

Ida unfastened her shoulder harness. “On my way, Captain.”

“Excellent work, sir,” Alec said.

“Thanks, Alec,” Damon replied.

Ida had no sooner left when Corey and Cassia’s jubilant voices preceded their return to the command center. Damon rose from the pilot’s chair and turned with a smile.

“Looks like we’re home free!” Corey was saying to his sister.

“I’ll second that!” Cassia came eye to eye with Damon. “I guess we’re lucky you were with us. Right, Corey?”

Corey sat down in the pilot’s chair. “I suppose.”

“You flew Aurora like you owned her,” Cassia said to Damon.

“Well, as a matter of fact…” Damon said.

“How did you know what to do? I couldn’t get a clear shot until you banked Aurora.”

“My uncle, actually,” Damon said.

“You don’t really expect us to believe that?” Corey said. “Your tactical was textbook…like you knew what those Soarer pilots would do before they did.” Corey tapped Alec on the shoulder and gestured with his head for the android to leave.

“Where’s he going?’” Damon asked as Cassia settled into the vacant co-pilot’s chair.

“To recharge. He’ll relieve me in four hours,” Corey answered.

“Have an extra hour on me, Alec,” Damon said, “you earned it.”

As the adrenaline rush from the harrowing space battle subsided, the faint beeps and whirs of the ship’s controls became more noticeable. Another blanket of silent hostility settled in the command center. Corey only went through the motions of setting switches and punching buttons when, in fact, there was nothing really to do. Aurora’s navigational systems had her winging a true course for Gosmaar at top speed.

All the while, Corey looked forward and Damon leaned against a bulkhead with his arms crossed. From the co-pilot’s chair, Cassia’s attention trained one moment on her brother, then on Damon, and back to Corey.

Clearing his throat, Damon broke the dead silence. “Look,” he said, “I can take the helm for a while longer. I’m sure your sister could use a little rest and you…”

“I’m not tired!” Corey snapped.

“Well, then,” Damon asked, “something on your mind?”

When Corey gave an arrogant sniff, Damon’s patience with the young man was finally at an end. Under Cassia’s confused gaze, Damon spun Corey around in the chair, and leaned into Corey’s face. “You know, Isolde, I’ve played one too many deadly games with you already. I’m not in the mood to play another. If you’ve got something to say, spit it out before I knock that cocky smirk off your face.”

“You’re pretty good with threats,” Corey said.

“Don’t bet your life on it,” Damon said.

“All right! That deal you made with Owen,” Corey said, “doesn’t include Cass.”

“Corey,” Cassia said.

Damon tried to stifle the hilarity of Corey’s reply, but could only turn away, laughing. Damon’s response only served to infuriate Corey.

“I saw the way he looked at you back there in that cave,” Corey said to his sister. “He took advantage of Owen. I won’t let him take advantage of you!”

“I don’t understand,” Cassia said.

“He’s steamed about the deal I struck with Owen. By an agreement with Owen, Aurora belongs to me now. That was the price for your freedom. And if the truth was known, your brother, here, was ready to leave me on Delta and no one would’ve been the wiser.” Damon turned on Corey. “What stopped you…didn’t want to leave Alec behind, is that it?”

“Is it true, Corey?” Cassia said.

When Corey turned away in silence, Cassia looked back to Damon.

“I rest my case,” Damon said. “Owen and General Arriaad thought I was the best man for the job. That’s why Owen hired me.”

“An out-and-out way to steal this ship from Owen, I’d say,” Corey said.

“You’re mighty free with your accusations,” Damon retorted. “Anyway…I was the right choice in this matter.”

“What accusations…what…” Cassia asked, but Damon and Corey were too far gone in their verbal battle to even hear her.

“How would you know?” Corey said.

“The proof is here with us, wouldn’t you say?” Damon replied, “You were too busy shooting your mouth off to think logically. I wasn’t emotionally involved. She…” Damon pointed to Cassia with his thumb, “wasn’t my sister. I could think more clearly and I’ve had a bit more experience in these kinds of situations. I saved your life, didn’t I?”

Cassia turned surprised eyes on Corey. “Corey. You didn’t tell me he saved your life.”

“Well, who asked you?” Corey’s voice rose.

“Nobody…but if I had the slightest chance to do everything all over again, I’d definitely have second thoughts! Then, Owen would still have his precious ship, you...friend would have a second mouth carved ear-to-ear, and your sister, here, would be Quillar’s unwilling concubine!” Damon said. “How’s that for an answer?”

Corey lunged at Damon from his chair, only to miss and fall to the floor when the Deltan dodged him. Embarrassed by his failure to connect with Damon, Corey renewed his attack, grabbing Damon by the shoulder, and taking a right-fisted swing at Damon. Damon’s left forearm blocked the punch and his right fist found Corey’s unprotected stomach. When Corey doubled over, Damon snatched him by the collar of his tunic, preparing a right cross to his jaw when Cassia intervened, throwing up an outstretched hand to stop the would-be blow.

“No!” she yelled.

Damon’s anger abated. He released Corey into the pilot’s chair and leaned over him. “Your life just got saved a second time! Now, get this straight, Isolde…I just want to conclude this deal with your brother, and then I’ll be on my way. From now on, you stay out of my way, and I’ll stay out of yours. But, if and when you’re man enough to finish what you start without,” he glanced at Cassia, “anyone’s interference, I’ll be waiting!”

Damon straightened and turned to leave the command center. Ida’s appearance in the door of the passageway with a disrupter in her hand gave him pause, and he glanced back to Cassia.

“It’s all right, Ida,” Cassia said.

Ida lowered the weapon. Damon sidestepped her and left the command center without another word.

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