Chapter 1

Xavier paced across the office, hands behind his back, and shoes clicking against the transparent floor through which the rest of the Tyconderoga space station could be seen spreading out beneath the rather peculiar, vertigo-inducing office. His dark hair was pulled into a short tail at the back of his skull, and his steel-gray eyes remained fixed upon the office’s other occupants as he moved from his immense, transparent desk, to the black, leather, over-stuffed chairs where the target of his current tirade sat, quietly fuming.

“This is absolutely unacceptable. I have already forbidden you from investigating this matter any further. Yet I am receiving reports from the server levels that you have both been down there, yet again, digging through records pertaining to the unfortunate expiration of Mr Arianas.” He finished his quiet stalk across the huge office and deftly undid the waist buttons of his silk jacket, parting it to reveal the supple, white fabric of his shirt as he sat down in the chair opposite the women.

“That’s not fair Xavier! We…” Willhelmina began to protest, but Xavier cut her off with a simple, efficient raising of his right hand. She stopped speaking instantly.

“It is not your place to determine fairness or equity Willhelmina. I should think that my decisions concerning you over the years have convinced you that I am not interested in such trivialities. My concerns are somewhat larger than you and Miss Thorindal’s personal desires.”

“But his death had nothing to do with a computer malfunction,” Willhelmina kept her tone flat and the wild energy out of her voice. Maybe if she could play things the way he’d always tried to teach her, he would respond better. She calmly raised her own hand and brushed a lock of her jet black hair behind her ear. Focusing her emerald eyes on his steely orbs. Her lithe frame nearly disappeared into the voluminous cushions of the chair, even under her slight weight.

“I welcome any evidence that you might present on the matter,” he seemed suddenly more interested in the conversation now that she had calmed down and sat up straight. “However, to date, the best either of you have produced is a series of verbal accounts from avatars in Kalijor, and a time-line that matches the two events. There is no computer information what-so-ever, to corroborate your theory.”

Willhelmina positively fumed as her mind raced to try and find some way to connect the dots so he would even consider the idea that Exodus and Jax’s deaths were linked. They’d spent more than a month digging through computer records and parsing Kalijor log files despite Xavier’s repeated demands that they stop. Finally, he’d had their access to the server levels revoked (which meant no more game pods while entering Kalijor), and a decrease in both of their courier salaries.

“I need to see Wayne,” Riana cut in, causing both of the others to swivel their heads around to look at her. She ran her fingers through her long, dark purple hair, revealing her thin, tapered ears that were twitching slightly with a sort of barely-contained annoyance at the entire situation.

“I presume you are speaking about Doctor Nelson?” Xavier raised an eyebrow. “Is there something wrong with your body?”

“Yes,” Riana confirmed, narrowing her violet eyes, “I’m having difficulty restraining myself from choking you to death.” She didn’t so much as twitch while she spoke. Neither did Xavier.

Willhelmina however, had trouble closing her mouth after her jaw dropped in surprise. “Ree…” she began, but was cut off by Xavier, who’s voice was fast approaching that level of irritation that seemed to be the thin line between his impossible calm, and his irate, explosive yelling that only Riana seemed to be able to bring out from him.

“Miss Thorindal, that is highly inappropriate. Please remember your place here amongst us.”

“My place? You mean the fact that you’ve stuffed my mind into this borrowed body and keep me on a leash like some sort of animal on a chain? Or do you mean my place as in the fact that I’ve willingly turned myself into your obedient little hit-woman just to keep my only flesh and blood relative out of trouble?” Riana glared at him.

Willhelmina continued to gasp, having trouble getting her voice back under control as the war escalated. But much to her surprise, it was Xavier that broke first this time. Riana sat cooly in her chair, sunk all the way to the bottom in the cushion as her deceptively heavy frame pushed all of the supporting material aside. Meanwhile, Xavier had moved his hands to the arm rests of his own chair and pulled himself forward, almost violently, narrowing his eyes at her and seething slightly as he responded.

“Your place, as in the fact that you are a guest here. At best. At worst, you are a few pounds of meat on a coroner’s table and a bin full of spare parts and computer equipment. Be careful what you say to me Miss Thorindal. I do not suffer disobedience lightly, especially from my employee’s research projects.”

“Research projects eh?” Riana’s lips curled into a tiny smirk. “It’s been a while now Xavier. A couple years, in point of fact, that your little research project has been running around, making trouble for you. Isn’t it about time to pull the plug? To consign it’s artificial mind to the dark abyss?”

For an instant, it seemed as if Xavier was about to stand bolt upright and unload another round of screaming at the purple-haired elf, but he seemed to suddenly get control of himself and his entire body relaxed as he picked up his cup of tea from the table and sank back into the chair with a quietly appreciative smile spreading across his face. “Nicely done Miss Thorindal.” He sipped at his tea with a thoughtful expression writ across his face. “That was faster than usual, and you didn’t even lean forward in your chair.”

“Well, I’ve been learning from the master,” Riana replied, her smirk turning into a full-blown, mischievous smile. She leaned her head back against the chair and stared out into space through the transparent dome that was the top of his office. Taking a few long, calming breaths, she looked back toward him and added, “Why are you stone-walling us on this?”

“I have my reasons,” he still sounded upset, but was doing a much better job of controlling himself.

“But we know there is a connection between these scientists, and what happened to Jax,” Willhelmina finally recovered her voice enough to rejoin the conversation.

“You suspect,” he corrected her with a glance in her direction, but his eyes quickly snapped back to Riana’s.

“We came to you with all of the data about the excessive sub-space domain usage coming from Kalijor. We came to you with the time data that corresponds to the deaths of Jax Arianas and Exodus, both the same mind, in two different worlds, simultaneous down to the pico-second. We supplied you with recorded conversations of people telling us what Shantal was up to, and who he was tracking down, and that list is not only short, but extremely specialized in the area of cybernetics and sub-space domain manipulation. All of the evidence, while admittedly a bit spotty, points to the fact that not only are there links between Kalijor and the real world, but people are learning how to manipulate those links and cause effects in the real world by initiating actions in Kalijor.” Riana still managed to keep her voice calm and controlled. Something her ‘sister’ Willhelmina, was still having trouble with this round.

“Why won’t you let us look into this, even on our own time?” She implored.

“Because you agreed to be couriers for Solidarity Online, which means you no longer have anything even remotely similar to ‘your’ time. In fact, I have another assignment for you.”

Willhelmina bristled, but remained silent. He was right. As long as they worked for him as couriers, they basically had no time of their own, unless they were on leave. And even then, they could technically be called back to work on no notice at all.

Riana managed to keep hold of her calm, her ears twitching slightly, then drooping a bit as her eyes narrowed. “And what is the assignment this time? Another tiny little corporation getting too involved in sub-space domain management? Or making their processors too powerful for your liking? Maybe another para-military commando unit that needs to be erased?”

This time it was Xavier’s turn to smile triumphantly. While the game between himself and Riana had changed slightly over the last couple of years, the end goal remained unchanged: see who could incite the other to showing their anger first. And there was no surer way to incite Riana than to talk about either her work for him, or to threaten her family, which now, for some unfathomable reason, seemed to include his ward, Willhelmina. “Actually, it is a simple pick-up and return.”

He sipped at his tea before continuing, “Your recent activity on Luna has endangered the work of Doctor Hakiro Yamato in Tranquility. I have set up quarters, and a lab, for him here aboard The Tyconderoga and I want you two to go and retrieve him, and his processor prototypes, and bring them back here.”

“That business was all Daray, Xavier, we were just helping out, and you sent us in on it,” Riana groused. She hated the fact that he made every situation sound as if it were her fault when he spoke. Daray was an awesome person, and so were Lana, Alina, and Melissa. They’d inadvertently involved Doctor Yamato in their business when they’d tapped him to help Daray and APRIL get their minds sorted out after some mad psychic called Turin had scrambled them inside Daray’s head. “And, it was settled well enough. There isn’t going to be any fallout.”

“Perhaps not. However, Doctor Yamato’s work has progressed to the point where it will be necessary for him to be closer to home for the foreseeable future,” he gave her the benefit of the doubt.

“Fine. Timeframe?” She schooled her expression into a more business-like appearance.

“You will leave presently. I’ve ordered The Kestrel prepared for departure within the hour.”

Willhelmina raised her arm to examine the holographic display of her wrist computer for the current time while Riana silently called the information up on her internal computer system, the time and date appearing in the heads up display superimposed over everything she saw.

“That’s less than twenty minutes!” Willhelmina complained.

“Then I suppose you had better get moving. You are cleared for Class B weapons and resistance should be minimal to non-existent.”

“And this doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that Hakiro Yamato is on the list of people that Gregory Shantal is looking for?” Riana asked as she stood up in an impossibly fluid movement, considering how deeply imbedded she had been in the chair.

As usual, it took Willhelmina several attempts to get free of her own seat, the deep cushions refusing to let her go without considerable effort.

“It does not,” Xavier replied. “Please, have a safe voyage.”

Riana placed a hand on Willhelmina’s shoulder and hoisted her up out of the chair, then the two of them turned away from Xavier and headed for the vertigo-inducing U-bend hallway that led back to the bulk of the station.

“Well, I thought that went rather well,” Willhelmina said sourly as the door closed behind them and they navigated the sickening turn in the hallway.

“In what way?” Riana asked, her ears perking up.

“That was sarcasm, Ree.”

“Oh,” Riana considered that for a moment, then her expression brightened slightly and she replied, “well at least we know he’s moving to keep these people out of Shantal’s reach.”

“How do we know that? He said he wanted him closer to his projects here,” Willhelmina commented as she adjusted her skin-tight outfit to show her toned body off to best effect for the rest of the station.

Riana raised an eyebrow at her as Willhelmina primped herself. Shaking her head slightly, she responded, “Hakiro Yamato’s work can be done from anywhere. He designs hardware and uploads specs for fabrication.”

“But then they need to be tested right?”

“In theory, but the bulk of testing is done in virtual space, before parts are ever built. Rarely is any of his gear fabricated if it isn’t already 100% in design phase.”

“So we can infer that Xavier is relocating him as a safety measure, not as a project related need.”


“Okay, so my other question is, how the heck do you know all this stuff? Since when do you know anything about hardware fabrication and personnel allocation?”

Riana gave her sister a hard stare and shook her head again. “Kat, I don’t need more than a couple hours of sleep a week. Master Jonin can’t spar with me at all hours of the day and night, and I get stuck on station more than a little bit.”

“So?” Willhelmina screwed up her face as they exited the lift and headed for their personal quarters to gather a few things before the trip.

“So, I read. A lot.”

“I read quite a bit. I couldn’t spout half the things you just came up with,” Willhelmina whined.

“You don’t have a computer-enhanced brain. I can read a half dozen books at the same time and remember every single word.”

Willhelmina stopped in front of her door and looked at Riana a bit wistfully. “I’m sorry, Ree.”

“For what?” Riana stopped half way to her own door and looked back at her sister, ears rising up in curiosity.

“For never giving you a choice,” she breathed.

Riana considered the words for a moment, not entirely sure of what she was talking about, but there were several applicable events in their past. Finally, she shrugged and smiled, “you know, Kat. We’ve been sisters my entire life. I’d do anything for you. Don’t beat yourself up alright? You’ve never once forced me to do anything I couldn’t have backed away from.”

Willhelmina looked at her friend for another long moment, before smiling and waving her hand in front of the panel to open her door. “I’ll catch you in a few. I’m going to grab a shower before lift-off.”

Riana nodded, watching her sister disappear into her rooms, and waiting until the door was closed behind her before she waved her way into her own room.

She could hear Willhelmina crying in the shower through the walls as she packed her few things for the trip. “The curse of cybernetically enhanced hearing…” She mumbled to herself.

It had been months since Exodus and Jax had been killed, and try as she might to appear as though she were over it, Willhelmina was getting worse day by day. She put on a brazen front for everyone to see, and had even begun courting again, probably in an attempt to ease the pain. But she suspected it only made things worse.

She’d even gone as far as speaking to Gayle about it, but the psychologist’s advice on the subject had been to let her brood a while and just make sure she knew she had friends when she was ready to talk. Fat lot of good that had been.

In the end though, she really had no other choice in the matter. If she attempted to broach the subject, Kat would just get angry. If she did anything to impede her, it would be worse than yelling. So instead, she just sat back, quietly watching, and wishing she could cry her own tears, as her sister worked hard at destroying what was left of her life with Exodus.

She sighed again as she shouldered her little duffle and waved her way out of her rooms, headed for the landing bay so she could prep The Kestrel for take-off.

Something was about to give, and it wasn’t going to be pretty when it did…

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