Also by Anela Deen
[+ A RANSOM OF FLAMES+]
By A. Deen
Copyright © 2017 Anela Deen
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Fine Fables Press 2017
Cover art by High Impact Covers
Indra Patel sat in her car across the street from her husband’s office, bit into a granola bar, and contemplated whether she truly believed her husband was cheating on her or if she was going through some sort of early mid-life crisis. What sane thirty-three-year-old woman actually took a half day off from work to stake out her spouse? A desperate one, surely. Or was it a paranoid one? Maybe the two overlapped in a kind of chemical combustion that turned a straight-laced administrative assistant into a stalker.
She sighed heavily and tossed her granola bar aside as she stared at the building where David worked as a human resources rep for a small law firm. Earlier she’d watched him stroll out the doors, grab lunch from the sandwich shop next door and return without so much as look at his cell phone. No mystery woman beside him. No suspicious phone calls where he smiled too enthusiastically. The only personal call she’d seen him make had been to her. She hadn’t answered, fearful her voice in the car would sound odd and draw questions. His voicemail had been a quick, “Just checking in. Hope your day is going well.”
Like any good husband would do during the day, never knowing his wife had gone completely round the bend.
Indra glanced at the empty wrappers and water bottles littering her passenger seat, evidence of the day’s lunacy, then thunked her head against the steering wheel. This was Mildred’s fault. Her fifty-something-year-old colleague prattled often and endlessly of her relationship implosions.
“They cheat, honey. They always cheat, even the nice ones. It’s in their DNA,” she’d say while gnawing on her peppermint gum. “Don’t take it personally. Just get your evidence and get your alimony.”
Yet more reason to continue begging off those invitations her co-workers extended to lunch or a drink after work. Even if she and her husband had moved to Oregon only a month ago, she had no real obligation to form connections with the other admins. She didn’t like the job anyway and no one ever seemed interested in her ideas to increase efficiency and productivity. It filled her days with monotony but it also paid the bills. It didn’t have to be her social life. Surely there were better friends to find somewhere in this town. She could join a choir or a women’s sports league.
And she should really just talk to David.
Maybe that was the problem. They didn’t talk anymore. She couldn’t even recall when they’d last been romantic with each other. Certainly not since the move. Perhaps worst of all, Indra hadn’t noticed any of it until Mildred began reciting the signs of cheating to one of the other assistants in the office a few days ago.
“Does he come home late from work?
Does he disappear outside, to the garden, on a run?
Does he keep his phone on hand at all times?
Does he leave the room when a call comes in?”
The panic those questions ignited in Indra’s chest had sent her running to the ladies’ room to collect herself lest she hyperventilate in front of the entire office. Now here she sat, like some demented sleuth with a large purse full of snacks, a notepad and a far too expensive long-distance camera she’d foolishly invested into this venture.
She heaved another deep sigh, finally allowing the question she’d been trying to answer to float to the surface. Did she really care if her marriage ended, or did she do all this because the idea that David would betray her with a twenty-something, size four bombshell rankle her past all coherent thought? She snorted. As if the man could draw such a specimen. He had ten years on Indra and possessed neither looks nor charisma. She frowned at that thought. Could it be she didn’t even find him attractive? That couldn’t be right. She tried to think back to when they’d met and how she’d felt but the memory was blurry. The harder she focused on it, the fuzzier it became and a low throb started at her temples.
Her phone buzzed with an incoming text and she turned her attention to it. Immediately the throbbing ceased. Rubbing her temple with one hand pulled up the text. It was from David.
Working late tonight. Won’t be home for dinner. Don’t wait up.
Indra’s fingers clamped around the phone hard enough to make the casing creak. Exactly what kept an HR at work late enough that she’d be in bed by the time he came home? He’d done this in the past but she’d thought nothing of it then. Now it seemed so obvious something was off. Movement across the street caught her eye. David strolled out the doors and headed to the office parking lot on the side street. She checked the time. Five o’clock. Working late, eh?
Muttering curses, she sent back a simple, “Sounds good” and started the car, watching as he gunned the engine of his two-door sedan and departed with an eager tire squeal. Her hands wringing the steering wheel, Indra forced herself to wait several seconds before pulling onto the road behind.
Keeping several cars between them, she followed. As he drove out of Portland she dropped farther back to ensure he didn’t spot her. Were the hotels in town not suitable for his sweetie? Or was he going to her place so the charge wouldn’t show on his credit card? Not that Indra ever checked such things. David handled the money in the house. And the bills. And doled out the extra cash if she wanted to go to a movie or the shops.
She gritted her teeth. When had she become the type of woman who allowed a man to control her finances like that? It had annoyed her for quite a while but she never said a word. Had she always been so inhibited? She glanced down at herself, at the drab cream colored shirt buttoned up to the neck, the tan skirt that fell past her knees, and the plain flats. Nothing unusual, yet it looked different somehow. She hated her clothes, she realized. They looked terrible against her warm, golden skin. She hated the way she always wore her long, black hair braided and coiled into a tight bun at the base of her skull. Had she always dressed like this? She tried to recall if her style changed since the move but that ache in her head returned, heavy and insistent until she released the thought in favor of watching the road.
One step at a time, she told herself. First, find out why David blatantly lied to her about working late, confront him about it, and if it turned out for the worst, then…Then what? Her hands tightened on the wheel and she pushed down the surge of fear. Then she’d figure it out, that’s what.
Two hours later and Indra’s confidence dissolved into sinking dread. Surely this was too far for a simple tryst. But if not that, then what? Night had fallen, starless and rainy. She’d recognized the area when they’d crossed the Willamette River, but after that, it became one long stretch of farmland after farmland, devoid of city lights but for the occasional glow from a house in the middle of a black expanse.
To make matters worse, theirs were the only cars on the road and Indra had to turn off her headlights to avoid detection. Just what any super spy wannabe would do, right? She should turn around and go home before she killed herself driving in the dark with only David’s distant taillights to guide her. She would still confront him when he returned and demand an explanation though. She would not, as she’d done before, just ignore the things that didn’t add up—Like why they hadn’t brought any photo albums with them in the move. Or why all the furniture for the house had to be bought new. Or why her life felt like a prison she couldn’t break out of, why her dreams were of a woman who looked like her but moved and spoke with assurance and authority Indra didn’t possess when she awoke.
Yes, she needed answers to these questions more than she needed to know where David headed tonight.
As she lifted her foot from the gas pedal and reached for her headlights, David’s taillights turned off the highway. Her hand froze, and then returned to the steering wheel as she stepped on the accelerator to catch up. At this point, she might as well get to the bottom of this mysterious rendezvous.
Indra had to slow down to find the frontage road David had taken. It turned out to be more of a dirt road, muddy from the rain and sculpted with enough moon-sized potholes she felt certain her teeth would rattle out of her head by the end of it. At last, she spotted David’s car parked ahead, its headlights pointed at a large, ramshackle barn. She stared at it. Not exactly a romantic spot. She didn’t see any other cars either.
Indra stopped some distance back and squinted at the place through her rain-speckled windshield. Surrounded by fir trees, it was certainly a secluded area and that barn had all the earmarks of an abandoned claim, right down to the sagging roof and rotted wood siding. She crept forward a bit more. David’s car appeared empty. He’d forgotten to turn his lights off. Again. How many car batteries did the man have to burn through before he remembered to switch them off before stepping out? Indra pursed her lips. Not really the important issue right now, was it?
She parked her car off to the side and silently shut the door behind her when she exited. The rain still fell in small, hard pellets that stung her cheeks and eyes as she made her way toward the barn. She nearly lost her footing twice and muddy water flooded her shoes, washing grit between her toes. What a fantastic Friday night this had become. And yet, some part of her found it exhilarating to be so wildly out of routine. Even soaked through and miserable, her blood sang with the freedom of it. She huffed out an incredulous breath, shaking her head at herself. Maybe therapy would be a more pragmatic after-work activity than choir.
Under the assumption that whomever David met with in there would keep an eye on the front door, Indra went around the other side, looking for another way in. Her search rewarded her with a second door—if that slab of wood attached by a lone rusted hinge still counted as a door. It hung at a precarious angle across the threshold, leaving a slim triangle of space toward the bottom for Indra to squeeze through. She hesitated, not relishing the idea of crawling around on her knees in the questionable slop coating the ground. Was this really worth all the effort? Raised voices within caught her ear and she stepped closer.
“This…last time…way out here.”
David. That was definitely his voice, pitchy with agitation but she couldn’t make out all the words. Closing her eyes for a brief moment and sending up a prayer that she wouldn’t need a tetanus shot in the morning, she sank into the cold, rain-drenched dirt and peered through the gap. What may have once been bales of hay sat in a molding heap directly in front of her entrance and she couldn’t see anything more than the dim glow of flashlights beyond them. Nope, wouldn’t be catching a break on this escapade. She’d have to crawl in there if she wanted answers.
Threading her body into the open space, she angled one shoulder through at a time, army crawling her way in. Her ears popped as she entered, the way they would when one coasted down a steep hill and the air pressure changed. Odd. She worked her jaw to diffuse the sensation and then returned to pulling herself inside.
Her hip caught on the edge of the door before she could successfully navigate it through, wood snagging on the polyester skirt. She wriggled her hips left and right to pull it free but the jagged slivers held on tight. With a silent curse, she grabbed the hem, straining to rip it loose. The fabric tore with a suddenness that sent her rolling into the stack of soggy hay, prompting a small cascade to tumble down on her head. The stench of wet decay and rodent droppings choked her and she clawed the stuff away from her face and neck, pinching her lips against a groan and repressing a full body shudder.
The clear sound of conversation pulled her attention away from her disgust. Flicking her hands free of the gunk, she got her knees under her to peer around the wall of sludge. There stood David in his work khakis and gray flannel holding up an electric lantern and a scowl aimed at—she edged a bit farther out for a better look and blinked—another man? That was…unexpected. The other man had white hair but a young face with small, pointed features. He wore a trench coat that looked more like a cloak and fell to his ankles, outlining his tall, willowy build with limbs that seemed unnaturally long. His odd face held an expression somewhere between irritation and indulgence.
“I don’t expect it to take much longer,” White Hair said. “Negotiations are almost concluded.”
Negotiations? Dear heaven, David wasn’t caught up in something illegal, was he? She glanced around her and nearly smacked a hand against her brow before she remembered it was covered with filth. Of course it was illegal. No one met in abandoned barns in the middle of nowhere to discuss legitimate business.
“They’d better be,” David snapped. “I’m sick of this time. And I’m sick of babysitting. A month, Mallory. An entire month stuck here with her.”
“The admiral is vital to the Quorum. In a thousand timelines, they’d never find another as masterful as she is with the four dimensional fabric. They’ll bend to your demands. Eventually.” He shrugged at David’s deepening scowl. “We’ve taken steps to ensure neither of you can be found in the meantime.”
“The longer this drags on the less you can guarantee that. Make no mistake, it’s the only reason I came to you people for help. I’m not a believer in your doctrine. In fact, I should be the one to negotiate with the Quorum, not you.”
“After you betrayed them? Don’t be foolish. Trust in our resources, if nothing else, and be patient. Time is endless after all.” White hair—or Mallory as David called him—gave an ugly smirk. “Surely you can find ways to wile away your time here with the admiral, particularly given your cover. She is a beautiful woman.”
“You think I’m interested in sleeping with my sister’s killer?”
Still trying to parse through what they were talking about, Indra’s brow crinkled at this. Sister? David told her he was an only child and his parents were dead. He’d lied her. Monumentally. What else had he lied about? The unsettling thought sent a shiver through her.
Mallory swept his flashlight across the dirt-packed ground, lighting on puddles gathering beneath gaps in the ceiling. “There are less gentle means if that’s your preference.”
David’s lip curled. “Even if I didn’t find that sort of thing revolting, Ree would make it his mission in life to flay the skin from my body if he found out.”
“Then you’re wiser than you look, traitor,” a third voice said.
Both men whirled toward the front door where another man had appeared. Indra gaped at the newcomer feeling like she’d stumbled upon a theater piece right when the mysterious stranger showed up and the music took an ominous turn. How had he entered through that door without making a sound or being noticed?
Draped in a cloak similar to Mallory’s, Indra couldn’t make out his features beneath the hood drawn around his face. Unlike Mallory, there was nothing slender about the body beneath it. Wide shoulders. Muscled legs set apart. His posture held a calm that belied the ferocity she sensed simmering beneath the surface.
With Mallory’s back to her, she couldn’t see his expression but the sneer in his tone didn’t need interpretation. “Ree. I’m surprised to see you here. Found a way to follow me, did you? Impressive, yet the Quorum promised they’d send no Wardens after us while negotiations continued. Did you decide to take matters into your own hands?” Slowly he set his flashlight on the ground, the beam of light pointed toward the broken roof, raindrops glinting in its anemic light. “One might call you a traitor for disobeying their orders.”
The hood tilted toward Mallory. “I’m not here as a Warden.”
That low tenor and warm Spanish accent strummed a chord of recognition in her. Did she know him? She searched her memories. A headache flared to life behind her eyes and she stifled a gasp.
“What then? You’ve gone rogue?” David said, a nervous hint invading his incredulous tone. “By-the-book, unflappable, immovable Ree has gone rogue? What did the admiral do to earn such loyalty, I wonder.” A salacious note entered his voice that Indra didn’t like.
It seemed Ree didn’t like it either. One gloved hand clenched. “Where is she, David? Tell me now and I won’t cut you down.”
“You’ll just drag me back to spend the rest of my life in one of your temporal prisons? Is that my alternative?”
It didn’t escape Indra’s notice that David and his companion had quietly begun moving to either side of Ree. Flanking. The word rose up from some deep recess in her mind and the headache pulsed hard enough to make her grip her head.
“No. I’ll send you home,” Ree said quietly.
David froze. “To my own time? From the moment I left?”
David seemed to consider that until Mallory asked, “And his sister?” in the cheerful tone of one who already knew the answer.
Ree’s chin dipped. “There’s nothing I can do for her. That timeline can’t be changed.”
“It can.” Grief tore David’s voice. “If the Quorum wants their admiral back, they’ll do it.”
“It would damage too many other threads. They won’t, no matter what your negotiations say. Why do you think I’m here, David?” Ree extended a hand toward him, palm up. “Don’t listen to these anarchists,” he said, flipping his other hand in Mallory’s direction. “They only want to see chaos, to see time fractured and looped, destroying the lives of billions. Your sister wouldn’t want that for her sake.”
David’s jaw tightened. “When the admiral recruited me from my time she promised that I could save my sister if I became a Warden. I served faithfully under her command, Ree, you know I did, but she lied to me from the start.”
“Not even the admiral can see all the twists and turns of the causal chain.” Ree’s hand remained extended toward him. “If she could have saved your sister, she would have. You know that too.”
David spat on the ground. “That’s easy for you to say. She helped you save your ship and crew from the Pacific the same night she recruited you. I waited three years for nothing.”
“So you throw your lot in with madmen?”
“The admiral as good as killed her with her inaction. At least they’re willing to help.”
Ree’s arm dropped to his side. “They don’t care about your sister, David. They’re supporting you because the Wardens are weakened without their leader and the Quorum can’t find her while she’s hidden in time. It leaves these animals free to cause anarchy.”
Mallory spoke then, his voice soft with threat. “To you, it is anarchy because your mind is too limited to see the truth.” He swept his cloak from his shoulders and in his hand he held—Indra’s eyes widened. Was that a sword? It glowed softly and blue-white lightning sparked along its length, curling and crackling around the blade.
David looked surprised by the appearance of the weapon. “What are you doing? We can’t attack a Warden with that here.”
Mallory addressed Ree. “What we want is to see the dance of time unbound. Perfected. We want its beauty taken beyond mortal definitions. The curvature of time conquered by those with the divinity to master it.” He moved a step closer.
“The kings of old used to think themselves divine, too.” Ree’s hand slipped into the folds of his cloak. “They tossed the lives of men into their gambit with less thought than what they ordered for breakfast, including mine. Like them, the only thing your cult seeks is power. And like them, your time will end.”
Ree pulled free his own sword with a rasp of steel—a similar blade without the electrical bolts twining the metal—and shrugged off his cloak. A confusing burst of emotion slammed into her when she saw his face. She didn’t know him, yet like his voice, undeniable familiarity gnawed at her. She gazed at the tousled black hair, the scar across his nose, and the fury in his deep brown eyes. The image of him at the prow of a ship, dressed in a gambeson and Morion helmet flashed through her mind, disorienting her. Where did that come from?
Inexplicably she felt the desire to draw closer to…help him? Why? Her head already pounded with the mother of all migraines but she fought the lure of physical relief which came with ignoring what she felt. Her mind grappled with the things she’d heard. They spoke of time as something other than linear, like puddles they could leap between. But such things were impossible. Then again, so was a lightning sword. Rationally, none of this made sense but instinctually she could swear she was supposed to understand.
David had set down the lantern and edged closer as the two combatants squared off. “Mallory, put up your sword. You can’t use a temporal weapon here. We’re too close to the portal.”
“He doesn’t care about rupturing the spacetime fabric, don’t you understand?” Ree’s dark eyes never left his opponent. “His people want to ruin continuity itself. Help me end this before it’s too late.”
“I can’t.” David raked a hand through his hair, his gaze snapping between them. “Just get out of here, Ree.”
“I won’t leave without her.”
“She’s safe, I swear it. You know I wouldn’t hurt her. Get the Quorum to give me what I want and she’ll be freed.”
A smile broke out across Mallory’s face, more a baring of teeth than actual mirth. “Come, Warden Ree, let’s set aside the pawn and play this moment through together. It’s so rare when I don’t know the outcome beforehand. Dance with me.”
He lunged, moving with uncanny speed. His blade arced down to cleave the other man in half. Ree brought up his sword in time to block it and the blades met with a clang that reverberated through the barn. The strange lightning curling around Mallory’s sword leaped onto Ree’s and clawed down his arm. Ree grimaced, body stiffening. For a moment, the hair at his temples went white and a map of wrinkles spread across his face. Then his arms flexed and with a growl, he turned the blades aside and broke the clash.
The ground trembled briefly, a static charge thickening the air and raising the fine hairs on the back of Indra’s neck. Ree took several distancing steps from Mallory, keeping his sword between them. His face and hair had returned to normal but wariness entered his gaze.
“Put up your sword, Mallory,” David barked, moving between them. Indra tensed to see him place himself there, especially since he didn’t appear to have a weapon. His eyes swept over the roof as if he saw something. Indra saw nothing but the dark, damp rafters but she sensed the danger. “You’ll get us all killed. The exotic material—”
Mallory laughed. “You wanted retribution, didn’t you? For your sister and their indifference? I’ll give you that in ways that will reverberate through time and space.”
David’s jaw tightened. He turned toward Ree who met his gaze evenly. “I only wanted—I didn’t want this.”
The stony expression on Ree’s face eased a degree. “There’s still time to end it, my friend. Tell me where she is.”
David pursed his lips. His shoulders drooped. “She’s—”
Mallory moved, a blur of motion, and whatever David meant to say was lost as the other thrust his sword through his back and the point of the blade burst through David’s chest.
“No!” Ree shouted and Indra hands flew to her mouth to hold in her scream.
David’s mouth hung open, eyes already glazing over. The sword’s lightning enveloped him and Indra watched helplessly as his body shriveled with age, the skin tightening and stretching, his hair going white and falling away. Bones emerged as the flesh thinned and dried. Then they too dissolved into nothing more than a smattering of dust across upon the barn floor. Indra’s limbs shook, bile surging up against her throat. Her innards clenched and she turned away to heave out the contents of her stomach.
The ground rumbled again, stronger this time, and a wind picked up, ruffling the stray hairs that had fallen loose from her bun. Shakily, she wiped her mouth with her sleeve and wound her arms about her middle. The shock of it crashed over her like a great wave, her mind struggling against the undercurrent.
Heat grew behind her eyes but any tears she might’ve had evaporated at Mallory’s laughter. The sound turned her pain to rage. She pushed to her knees behind her barricade and saw him blow the flecks that had once been David from the length of his blade. The electricity of his sword had lessened as if sated by the life it took.
“The board is swept clean,” he said with a smile. “Now it is just you and me, Warden. Shall we continue?”
Ree’s hands wrapped tightly around the hilt of his sword, his face set in hard, thunderous lines. Without a word, he charged and the ring of their steel filled the room again. If only she had a weapon to join the fight. Indra blinked at herself. Was this grief filling her head with insane urges? What did she know about fighting? The greatest danger she encountered in her day was a possible paper cut from the office’s cheap envelopes. Still, she couldn’t just sit there and do nothing, not after what happened to David. Maybe she could cause a distraction to give this Ree an advantage. Of course that ran the risk of benefiting the wrong side.
While she debated, she watched them fight, amazed by the intricate lunge and parry, their steps not unlike the dance Mallory had called it. Ree moved with lethal grace, patient as a predator, his attacks calculated, his retreats eloquent. In contrast, Mallory’s willowy body circled and spun, his strikes as hard and as fast as a cobra’s. Both had landed minor hits but Ree seemed to suffer more and Mallory pressed his advantage. Something about the energy in Mallory’s sword affected Ree, even in its subdued state. She had to help somehow but what could she, a mere paper pusher, do?
In frustration, her hands sank into the decrepit hay she hid behind. And bumped into something hard. Frowning, she reached in and grasped what felt like a handle. Slowly she withdrew her prize and found herself holding a pitchfork, its handle wore down by age, its prongs nearly black with rust. The thing would probably fall apart under strain but if she could get behind Mallory and give his murderous backside a prod, it might be the distraction Ree needed to beat him.
Staying low, Indra crept out of her cover, keeping to the perimeter of the barn where the shadows were thickest to conceal her approach. Distantly she wondered how she knew to do that but turned away from the thought when her head began throbbing again. What was with this headache anyway? Was she having a stroke? Was this all an hallucination? She had trouble deciding which would be preferable—losing her grip on sanity or the incomprehensible reality of what she witnessed here. If she were crazy that meant David was still alive, probably grabbing a burger at the drive-through for dinner on his way home from work. She swallowed past a lump in her throat. She knew which one she preferred, even as she knew deep down how real this all was.
The sound of swordplay intensified and turned her mind to the matter at hand. A flurry of deafening exchanges erupted. Ree moved with exquisite precision but Mallory was faster. A slice across his leg and Ree seemed to stumble. Mallory came in hard, his attack aimed at Ree’s throat. A ploy, Indra’s mind whispered and sure enough, Ree’s body shifted suddenly, bowing backward. Mallory’s weapon sailed cleanly over his head. Ree snapped forward then and dove in under his guard before the other could stop his momentum. The blade flashed, severing Mallory’s sword hand at the wrist. His sword clattered to the ground, the hand still wrapped around the grip. Ree drove a boot into the other man’s midsection hard enough to crack ribs and Mallory landed hard on his behind. Shaken by the sight, Indra nonetheless quieted a whoop of satisfaction that wanted to force its way out.
Blood spouted from the stump but Mallory merely looked up at Ree and grinned. “Well played, Warden,” he said, cradling his bleeding limb. Strangely the red flow already lessened of its own accord. “Not a move I’d have expected from an honorable man such as yourself.”
Ree loomed over him. “You question my honor while wielding a sword charged with tachyon wavelengths.”
The other shrugged. “I never said I was honorable.”
Ree set the point of his sword to the other’s throat. “Tell me where she is.”
The grin widened, teeth stained with blood. Indra’s lip curled. What was wrong with this man? Didn’t he feel pain?
“And if I don’t? What, you’ll kill me? You’ll never find her then. She isn’t trying to escape if that was your hope. She doesn’t even know who she is.” He tapped his temple. “The admiral is a wily sort with her memories intact so we shunted those aside and implanted new ones. If I die she’ll be lost in time forever.”
Taking position by the far wall directly behind Mallory, Indra had a clear view of the torment on Ree’s face.
“I’ll find her,” he vowed softly.
“Not if the portal is blown apart.” Mallory’s shoulder twitched on the side of his good arm and something rolled from the sleeve into his palm. A small, spherical object of gray metal. It reminded Indra of a grenade, only smaller. The same blue-white lightning from the sword flared along the side.
Mallory sent it rolling across the ground with a flip of his hand. With a shout, Ree turned and dove for it. As he did Mallory pulled a long, thin dagger from his boot. Indra raced from her cover, pitchfork at the ready, but she was already too late.
As Ree’s hand closed around the sphere, Mallory leaped at him and plunged the dagger into his back. Ree gasped but held on to the object, releasing his sword to work at a switch. The lightning vanished and the sphere turned dark. Mallory wrenched the blade out, eliciting a cry from Ree who twisted around before the blade could fall again. Mallory stayed on him, stabbing viciously. Ree brought his arms up to block but the other attacked like a man possessed, slicing at his arms and hands until the blade struck true and sank into his chest. Pain contorted Ree’s noble features. An enraged scream tore from Indra’s throat, her heart twisting with deep anguish for this man. This stranger she didn’t know. As if her body understood something her mind did not.
Surprise wiped the triumph from Mallory’s face as he turned to look. Then she was upon him, jamming her pitchfork into his back. As she’d feared, the rusted prongs broke off rather than running him through, but she managed to shove him off Ree. Mallory bounded up with a snarl but she was ready for him. Switching her grip on the pitchfork she swung it at his head like a bat.
The handle snapped in half. Mallory’s face slackened and he went down hard and didn’t move. Heart thundering in her chest, she stared at his crumpled form. Was he dead? Part of her hoped he was and another part felt sickened by that hope. His midsection still rose and fell. He was just unconscious.
“Indra,” Ree called to her, his voice a pain ravaged rasp.
She dropped the broken pitchfork and went to his side. How did he know her name? Blood pooled over his chest, his clothes dark and wet. In the wan light of the upturned flashlights, his face was pale and growing paler.
“It—It’s going to be okay,” she said. That’s what one said to injured people, right? So they didn’t know how bad it was, especially now when it looked really, really bad. “I’ll call for help.”
Hands shaking she searched her pockets for her phone. It wasn’t there. She must have left it in the car. She almost cursed aloud. The thing was practically a part of her body but tonight she didn’t have it on her?
Ree’s hand touched hers, startling her but she didn’t pull away, letting him twine her fingers with his. “Indra,” he whispered again, gazing at her with unmasked affection, his eyes glassy. “Mi Cielo. Mi Estrella.”
My Sky. My Star.
How did she know that? She didn’t speak Spanish. Why did the words seem so right coming from him? Tears filled her eyes as she watched his labored breath, her soul crying out in ways she didn’t understand.
“Do I know you? Tell me. Please.”
His other hand reached for her, she thought, to touch her face. Instead, he affixed something cool and flat to the skin at her temple.
“Remember,” he breathed and his hand fell away.
Pressure and heat built in that spot, intensifying with each second until she thought her head might explode. She clawed at the metal thing, gasping, scraping the skin around it with her fingernails but she couldn’t dislodge it. She stumbled away from him, swaying, dizziness swarming her senses, the barn walls spinning around her as the mounting pressure grew to excruciating heights. Then, with shocking suddenness, it broke, like a dam bursting, and her mind flooded with memories. The lies she’d been living for the past month fell away and she saw all of it in an instant.
The Temporal War. The shadowy figures of the Quorum. The anarchists’ warped pursuit of power over spacetime. The dying future. Mission after mission. Battles. Victories and defeats.
She was the admiral, commanding a fleet of Time Wardens, handpicked from different centuries to defend the timeline and repair what the anarchists had broken. David wasn’t her husband but a recruit whose grief had turned him against her. She had no husband. The burden of command didn’t leave room in her life for one, but there was—there had been someone. A comrade. A friend…
Indra returned to Ree’s side. His breath had stilled and his warm, brown eyes gazed upward. Empty. For a moment, her lungs couldn’t get enough air. He’d come for her. While the Quorum had dithered with strategy and delay, he had come. Of course he had. Always there when she needed him, a steady bulwark guarding her back. She’d known for some time that he loved her.
Mi Cielo. Mi Estrella.
He’d never pressed her on it, but he’d made it known in the small gestures: the smile that lingered, the honest council, the way he could brew a tea exactly the way she liked it. Indra brushed a lock of dark hair from his brow, traced the scar across his nose with trembling fingers.
What she hadn’t realized until now was she felt the same. Or perhaps she had known but pretended not to. It was in the small things with her as well: the professional distance she maintained, the steps she took to ensure they were seldom, if ever, alone together. He served as her second-in-command. Anything they felt could never have been acted upon. Even so, seeing him like this, his life bled out in this filthy barn as the rain fell on him through a dilapidated roof—it was almost too much to bear. He deserved better, this courageous, intractable Spaniard who had joined her to alter the fate of his crew from a long, suffering death at sea. Capitán Renaldo Obscuro de València. He deserved more.
Indra looked at Mallory where he lay unconscious. The Quorum would want her to return with him for interrogation. They’d never captured one of the anarchists alive before. He could reveal much about the elusive leader of their cult. But if she took him back, this timeline would become fixed. That meant David would remain dead. He had betrayed her but she had deceived him. Not at the beginning but certainly when she neglected to tell him that his sister, the sole reason he had joined her fleet, couldn’t be saved. His actions reflected a failure in her leadership. And Ree…He too would be lost, never to stand beside her again. Never to debate her. Challenge her. Care as no one else did. But duty required her to go back. Now.
Indra wiped at her cheeks. No, those weren’t tears. Admirals didn’t have the leisure to cry.
“Just the rain,” she whispered, gently closing Ree’s eyes. She drew and released a deep breath. She knew what she had to do.
Sliding up Ree’s sleeve she located the Sequencer band gripping the length of his forearm. She breathed out a sigh of relief to see Mallory’s knife hadn’t damaged any vital components in the fight. The small, green and yellow lights along the control circuits indicated Ree’s stationary position in time. She tapped in a few commands to override the security protocols and grant her access.
Pulling up the holographic grid map, she examined the timelines floating before her. They threaded across the map like roads upon the Earth. In some ways, that was exactly what they were, only the origin and destination could be changed, replaced by something different. Her fingers sifted through the faintly glowing strands, adjusting the causal chain, testing outcomes.
When she was satisfied, Indra accessed the time dilation module. It took a moment to make the calculations and adjust for the jump coefficient, after which she removed the band from Ree’s arm and attached it to her own. Ree’s band was much bigger than the one she usually wore. The flexible cuff encased not just her forearm but most of her bicep. Somehow she’d forgotten how much bigger he was than her. He carried himself with such casual grace and economy of movement it was easy to overlook his size.
Her eyes settled on him again and for a fleeting instant, she imagined what it would’ve been like to have those great arms around her, to feel his hands—made rough from a life at sea—holding hers. Then she let it go, released it into the ether of events that would never come to pass.
Calibrating the settings to her body’s physical parameters, Indra activated the dilation module. She rose and took a step back from Ree. She didn’t bother with a final glance around her. She was done with this place and this time. The Sequencer pulsed, ready to draw her into the wormhole above.
She triggered the event with a single command. “Jump.”
“This is the place, Admiral Patel.”
Indra blinked against the glare of daylight and tried to orient herself to the surroundings. It had been a long time since she’d done this type of jump. She’d once compared slipping the consciousness of the present-self into the body of a past-self with opening a bookmarked page. That was a better description for physical jumps. This sensation was like tightly wrapping a thousand rubber bands around one’s skull and then bashing it against the wall. Such was the consequence of forcing the cerebral cortex to suddenly accommodate an influx of memories that the past-self’s body hadn’t lived yet. The Quorum’s jump technology ensured her brain didn’t hemorrhage or glitch itself into a stroke, but that didn’t mean she felt like dancing afterward.
“Is something wrong, Admiral?”
Indra focused on the man beside her. The sense of bleary discombobulation eased to see Ree standing there, alive and well. Which of course he would’ve been three years ago when the two of them embarked on this mission. She glanced down at herself, at the deep red sari and matching dupatta draped over one shoulder, the pattern of flowers embroidered in a riot of golden thread. Her dark hair flowed freely down her back.
She smiled. “Everything’s fine.”
They stood at the curb of a small Ranch style house in a New England suburb. With its white picket fencing and rose bushes lining the front walk, the home was similar to most of the other houses in this cheery neighborhood. Here in the 1950s, it symbolized the dream life for many. Of course, Indra knew this particular home offered nothing but nightmares to those living inside, its tranquility skin-deep. With its windows closed and curtains drawn, no one could hear the screams occurring within right now.
“Did we arrive too late?” The hint of concern in Ree’s voice had her turning back to him. Naturally, he noticed her hesitation. It was uncharacteristic of her. The first time she’d stood in this moment Indra hadn’t hesitated. She knew better this time.
She gestured to a stone beside the mailbox on Ree’s other side. “Not at all. Hand me that rock, would you?”
His brow furrowed with questions but he didn’t voice them. When he placed the stone in her palm, she took a few steps up the drive, then leaned back and sent it flying through the front window of the house. The glass shattered noisily and startled shouts sounded inside. Indra had no concern they’d be seen. On missions of this sort, they kept the cloak activated on their Sequencer bands until they located their target.
“Has our objective changed?” Ree asked quietly.
A man wrenched open the front door, sweaty and half dressed. He swayed somewhat, obviously drunk, knuckles smeared with blood. By his side, he held a pistol. He surveyed the street, face twisted in bewildered anger.
Their Sequencer bands trilled with a notification. Ree frowned, bringing up his arm to check it. Indra didn’t bother. She knew what it meant.
“Events have changed,” Ree said, eyes tracking over the information floating above his band. “That broken window interrupted a pivotal moment. It appears now that—”
“Yes, I know.”
Indra watched as a few of the neighbors approached the house calling out concerned questions. The man at the door tucked the pistol into the waistband at his back.
“A few minutes before we left, our Quorum approved mission was to recruit David Hobson to be our newest Warden,” Ree said with a nod at the house. “I’ve seen you alter plans before but never like this. If we’re not recruiting him, what are we doing here?”
“Fulfilling a promise.”
A car turned the street corner at high velocity and screeched to a halt at the curb of the house. David bounded out of the driver’s side, panic carved into his face before he took in the scene at the house, and slowed.
“His sister was supposed to die today,” Ree said. “Instead, two weeks from now, our recruit will confront her husband. David will be shot to death in an altercation and the other man will spend his life in prison.”
David may have thought she’d forgotten the reason he joined her Wardens, but he’d been wrong. She tried to find the thread that would save his sister’s life, but in each eventuality, her survival meant his death instead. The Quorum refuted the idea of fate but Indra had come to believe there were powers greater than those able to alter the course of time. She had come to respect that power. Sometimes one could not avoid lightning when it struck.
“You’ve got that look in your eye.”
Indra glanced at Ree who regarded her with a slight upturn to his mouth. “What look?”
“The one that says you know something I don’t and have no intention of telling me.”
“I have a look like that?” she asked, allowing herself to meet his gaze, to see the light in his dark eyes and banish the image of when they’d stared into nothing.
She wished she could tell him the truth behind all this but soon she wouldn’t remember it either. Before they returned home she would adjust the shielding on her Sequencer that protected her memory. She would forget that future, syncing her mind with the consciousness of the Indra of this timeline. The Quorum might suspect a deviation but she doubted they’d find the underlying cause. It didn’t matter. She owed this to David even as it saddened her to know they would never meet each other.
“You have a look for many occasions,” Ree answered. “I sometimes think you have a file of them stored in your head that you access depending on the situation.”
This time she did give him a look. “And which one am I wearing now?”
With a crooked smile, he held up his hands as if to ward her off. “The one that says I’m entering dangerous seas and ought to adjust course.”
“A wise maneuver,” she said, returning the smile.
“That’s why I’m your second-in-command, Admiral. A well-honed sense of survival—I mean, strategy.”
“Is that why you think I keep you around?”
“Were there other reasons?” His eyes glinted, a spark that drew him a step closer, skirting the border between companionable and intimate distance. She didn’t move back, for once allowing herself to enjoy the nearness of him.
“You brew an excellent tea as well.”
“Ah, so not my sage council and pleasant company then?”
She pretended to consider the idea. “No. It’s the tea.”
He tipped his head back and laughed, a low, belled sound that sent warmth curling through her chest. She tore her gaze away, reluctantly ending the moment.
“We should be heading back,” she said, turning her attention to her Sequencer.
He fell silent, then squared his shoulders and looked to his own band. “The Quorum will ask questions about what happened.”
“I’ll handle them.”
“And we’re still short a Warden.”
“We’ll look into that other candidate we considered.”
His eyebrows went up. “That one? Really?”
“It’s worth another look.” Indra turned slightly to the side so he wouldn’t see her alter her temporal shield before inputting the return coordinates. She felt the effects instantly—a stiff wind cascading through her mind, sweeping pieces of her away.
Ree nodded. “True, though it might be a hard sell.”
She watched as he readied himself for the jump, his whispered words to her in the barn fading. Without thinking, she reached out and gripped his hand. He froze, his breath catching.
“Ree, I wanted to tell you—to thank you for always…” She paused, frowning. What had she wanted to say? It was on the tip of her tongue.
“What is it, Indra?”
She blinked, startled to find herself clutching his hand. Hastily, she pulled it back. “I can’t recall now.” The more she concentrated on it the more it slipped away. She exhaled quietly, trying to ignore the lingering heat his skin left on hers. Why had she done that?
“Are you sure?”
The odd feeling abated, her thoughts settling back into place.
She met his searching gaze evenly. “Yes. Time to go home.”
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In a not so distant future, an unprepared humanity barely managed to repel the Locusts when they invaded Earth. The long war left its mark on mankind and the Establishment was founded to ensure it would never come so close to destruction from an alien force again. Now, decades later, the world is run by this single governing entity. Loyalty is rewarded. Disloyalty is met with corrective action.
As an inquisitor for the past twenty years, Gemson used torture and interrogation to root out subversives. He’d worked hard to earn his cold, hard reputation. Now he finds himself on the subject’s side of the interrogation table. Loyalty? Some bonds transcend the laws of state.
Sneak peek of Subversive (Insurrection Book One)
Copyright © 2016 Anela Deen
All rights reserved
Gemson decided a cramped interrogation suite in a prisoner compound was as good a place as any to die. As an inquisitor, he’d spent most of his life in them so it had a certain logic he appreciated. Sitting alone on the subject’s side of the table was a new experience, however.
He squinted against the glare of the metal table top from the overhead heat lamps recessed into the ceiling above him. Heat consumed his body. Sweat trickled past his temples and he closed his eyes to avoid another glance at the glass of water in front of him. Instead, he twisted his wrists beneath the straps that bound them to the arms of the steel chair. The pinch of abraded skin helped him focus.
Standard procedure, Gemson thought to himself—the heat, the lights, the endless hours in the chair, the water out of reach—he’d seen it all before. Hell, he’d done it all before to countless subjects. Soften the resolve. Doubt through deprivation and isolation. He could recite the protocols in his head. His dedication had made him one of the best after all. No, not dedication. He was just good at it.
Beads of perspiration dripped into his eyes, and he shifted awkwardly in the restraints to wipe his brow on his shoulder. It didn’t do much good. He’d soaked through the flimsy, yellow jumpsuit. Whoever had decided to dress prisoners in pastel yellow as a form of psychological manipulation must’ve really been struck by inspiration that day. It reminded him of diluted bile. He scowled at the weak, ugly color draped over his body and missed his usual blacks. Then he twisted his wrists against the straps again. Focus.
Prisoner protocols were simple: Passive pain—twenty-four hours alone in the chair—followed by active pain—interrogation. Accordingly, he estimated they ought to be coming for him soon now, though he was loath to admit he’d lost track of time at some point. Forty wasn’t old but ten years ago his mind wouldn’t have lost count of the hours. Still, age honed instinct, something he’d always depended on, and if his instincts were right the next phase was about to—
The door on the opposite wall slid open, and he smothered a wry smile. Right on schedule.
His gaze flicked to the ceiling in anticipation. The lights switched from blazing red to white. The heat that braised the top of his head extinguished and the whir of ventilation fans replaced the oppressive, sweat laden air with fresh oxygen. Gemson’s head swam with relief.
A giant of a man entered, his face hidden behind the reflective surface of his helmet. He said nothing as he took position beside the door, standing on the balls of his feet, his thickly muscled body angled directly toward Gemson. Intimidation through anonymity. Nothing new there.
Gemson sized him up with a glance. The guard’s face might have been concealed but not his hands. They were scarred but not wrinkled. His gray uniform was clean beneath the riot pads, but not pressed. Boots scuffed at the toes. So, this one cut corners. Likely he relied on his mass, rather than discipline, to get the job done. Gemson had never thought much of bulk. Speed was his thing. Tall and rangy with lean muscles, his body was made for it. A handy asset on his occasional field assignment. Still, in a fair fight, that guy would wipe the floor with him. Good thing he never fought fair.
They stared at each other for a handful of seconds. Ah yes, building the apprehension. Gemson felt a twinge of indignation at that. Did they have to insist on the theatrics? With him of all people? He’d invented half of these techniques himself.
His caught his reflection in the other’s helmet. It gave him pause. Drawn, haggard, with a few infuriating white hairs speckling the black whiskers grown over the past few days. Stars, he looked old. This wasn’t how he would’ve wished her to see him again after so long. Nothing he could do about it now.
The clank of boots on the platform beyond the door reached his ears. A thrill of anticipation bubbled in his gut and his mouth twitched upward. He’d recognize that determined clip anywhere. It was the same as when she was a girl. A quick step with a hard heel-toe, like she was ready to take on the whole damn quadrant and it would be wise to get out of her way. Who cared if he looked and smelled like a garrison’s footlocker? It would be worth it to see her face to face. One last time.
End of Excerpt
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About the Author
A child of two cultures, this hapa haole Hawaiian girl is currently landlocked in the Midwest. After exploring the world for a chunk of years, she hunkered down in Minnesota and now fills her days with family, fiction, and the occasional snowstorm. With a house full of lovable toddlers, a three-legged cat, and one handsome Dutchman, she prowls the keyboard late at night while the minions sleep. Coffee? Nah, she prefers tea with copious amounts of sarcasm.