Prologue

“Cortiora, you have one hundred and sixty-seven communications waiting,” the computer’s mellifluous voice informed her. “Of those, one hundred and twenty-three are official and require response, and thirty-nine are Priority.”

“Fuck.” Khyria hesitated in the doorway of her sleeping room, caught between a desire for a long shower, an approximately equal amount of faran, and the certain knowledge that most of the waiting communications were not going to be good news. “Hold all. Locate Taiva Zarlan; request her presence, here, half an hour.”

Half an hour to get clean, get a clean uniform, and probably most importantly, get some faran, and whatever those Priority messages represented would be easier to deal with. Whether or not any amount of preparation would make her de facto second in command easier to deal with remained to be seen.

*     *     *     *     *

By the time Taiva reported to her commander’s quarters as ordered, approximately awake and wearing the very new insignia of a full Derian at neck and shoulder, her Cortiora looked alert, freshly groomed, and about as vulnerable as a battle platform. Unfairly, the visible injuries, and there were some, made the perfect accompaniment to the rest of her appearance; black hair, black uniform, and all of a Cortiora’s rank tabs on intimidating display.

Taiva made her the bow her rank required, wrists crossed, fists at each shoulder, using the time to force resentment back, or at least out of sight. Her knuckles brushed the leaping cat symbol of Wildcat Cortia, an unfamiliar shape without the outer circlet denoting a trainee. It jolted her. Everything since she woke up had been unfamiliar, from the new insignia on her uniform to the shape of her bedroom, and it was throwing her off.

Ilan’s working area was already littered with chips, readers, and slithering piles of hardcopy, and a diverse array of information filled the big wall screens above her. The rooms were different, but that sight was very familiar from the past few months, enough so that Taiva sighed as tension she hadn’t consciously noticed left her shoulders.

Characteristically, her commander didn’t waste time on small talk, but waved her to a seat on the nearest end of the standard-issue couch. That piece of furnishing, at least, was very much like the versions in the trainee quarters they’d so recently left. She inhaled quietly, encountering the same smells of very recently opened rooms and new enviro tech that pervaded her quarters, and the soap Ilan preferred. Air, stirring from the vents, brought her the smell of faran, very strong, and her mouth watered.

“Help yourself,” her commander said quietly, indicating the dispenser on the opposite wall. “There’s a lot to do.”

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