Prologue

The scars had faded into white, jagged lines, and that alone was a testament to the time span between when Pamas was captured and when she escaped from the changer called Nestrocalder. That was not the changer’s real name, of course, but an ancient Oconodian word meaning “poisonous soul.” Always dressed in flowing, black garments, Nestrocalder kept the mystery alive by never revealing its identity. Some said Nestrocalder was male; some claimed the enigmatic leader of the illegally organized changers was a woman. Others insisted Nestrocalder did not even exist—or was a blend of several different malevolent changers high up in the hierarchy.

Lieutenant Commander Pamas Seclan didn’t care. All she knew was how one day stretched into the next while she was held in bunkers deep in the jungle in the Kirano sector on Oconodos. They moved her intermittently, which made her realize the changers had an entire web of bunkers. They somehow managed to make the compounds invisible to Oconodian sensors. The hope of being rescued seeped from her soul as the days turned into months and the months into years.

During her capture, Pamas feared for the welfare of her children. About to leave her abusive husband when she was taken, she now stressed over the fact he had sole custody of Aniwyn and Pherry.

She couldn’t remember how she was taken. One moment she was driving her hovercar to Fleet Admiral Caydoc’s office for a pre-mission briefing. She’d blinked, and the next time she opened her eyes, Pamas was in a room so dark she was certain she’d lost her sight. It turned out she was half right. During her capture, she had lost her right eye. For years, she bandaged and protected her empty eye socket with strips of fabric ripped from whatever clothes they provided her with. She refused to give them any information, military or otherwise, not even when she suspected Nestrocalder was interrogating her. This steadfast refusal infuriated her captors, and they never treated her with kindness or compassion.

When she escaped after almost twenty years, she learned how close the pending Exodus mission was and about her daughter’s part in it. While her son Pherry led a family life on Oconodos, working as an agronomist, her daughter, Aniwyn “Spinner” Seclan, had walked in her mother’s footsteps and carved out a military career. A skilled pilot, she was part of the Advance Team, sent to scout for a planet able to sustain life for the Oconodians desperate to leave the volatile situation on Oconodos. The malevolent changers were on the verge of taking over, and the government had decided long ago that this was the only solution.

When Pamas found Pherry’s name on Pathfinder’s passenger roster, Pamas used her stolen identity, which had kept her safe from the changers she had escaped from, and secured travel documents for the Exodus ship when it launched.


Chapter One

Standing among the cheering crowd, Pamas knew she attracted attention for having an eyepatch. Anyone suffering the loss of an eyeball would replace it with either a cybernetic one or a much more expensive transplanted real eye. Pamas had yet to prioritize either of those solutions. Having an eyepatch didn’t bother her as much as it did other people.

Another announcement echoed throughout the entire ship. “Please brace for impact. Restrain small children, the elderly, and others who may need assistance. Cube eleven will touch down in one hundred secs.”

Now as she stood by the large screen at the main square aboard cube eleven, she marveled at the technology that made it possible for the cube to travel across the vastness of space while attached to the other twenty vessels. Having arrived at this planet, the Oconodians’ and the Gemosians’ new home, called Gemocon to commemorate the merging of the two people, the twenty-one cubes separated and were in the process of landing. This was the tricky part, as no one had actually performed a landing sequence before cube one set down only half an hour ago in the very center of what was to be named the capital of Gemocon.

Holding on to one of the trees growing around the square where they all watched the exterior cameras filming their descent, Pamas breathed slowly as her stomach clenched. She had managed to remain incognito for the entire duration of the journey, and now she had to finally decide whether to assume her true identity or stay hidden.

 

v

 

One day later, Pamas stood in line to one of the south exits. Twice already she’d had to prove her identity. The name she had used during the long journey, Pamas Dagellion, was connected to her retinal scan and genetic makeup records. She had found it easier to use her real first name, as it was common enough.

The buzz around her nearly split her eardrums. Young people couldn’t stand still from pure excitement, and right next to Pamas, a small child, perhaps three years old, asked the man whose hand she held on to if the ground hummed on Gemocon, like it did on Pathfinder. No doubt the child had been very young when they boarded the massive spaceship to find a new home.

“No, Miela,” the man answered her, chuckling. “The ground is very still, but what you can feel is the wind.”

“What is the wind?” The little girl’s mouth became a perfect little o.

“It’s when the air moves really fast and caresses your face.” Miela’s father smiled wistfully. “I have missed that during our journey, but now we’re here, and it will be wonderful.” His voice was cheerful, but his eyes had something sad in them as he smiled at the child.

Miela nodded and turned to look at the young people cheering loudly now when crewmen prepared to open the hatches. Her gaze passed Pamas, and her green eyes grew wide at the sight of Pamas’s eyepatch. “Oh…what happened to your eye?” Miela looked stunned but not afraid.

The man she was with turned to see who she was talking to and seemed taken aback and embarrassed as he pulled the child closer to him. “Miela. It’s not polite to ask,” he said hurriedly.

“It’s all right,” Pamas found herself saying, her tone mild. “I had an accident and my eye got injured.”

“Does it hurt?” Miela tilted her head, peering up at the eye patch.

“No. Not anymore.” But it had. When the torture had reached that level, Pamas had for the first time asked for death to claim her. After they took her back to her cell in the jungle bunker, she knew her eye had been destroyed. She received some rudimentary treatment, perhaps because she would have been even more of a problem if it had become infected. Once the worst of the pain was over—and it took several weeks—Pamas swore never to wish for death again. If she could endure the agony of what they had done to her eye, she could take anything. They never fully broke her, and she didn’t give up any information.

“I apologize for my daughter. Miela is only three and a half, and she hasn’t learned yet what is polite to ask and what’s not.” The man cleared his throat. “I’m Toggion, by the way.”

“It’s fine,” Pamas said and winked at Miela. “I prefer questions to stares or murmurs behind my back.” Truthfully, she cared about neither, but she didn’t want the little girl and her father to feel bad. This sentiment surprised her. Only a year or so ago, she wouldn’t have minded either way.

“Thank you. May I ask why you haven’t had it replaced? Just tell me if I’m being too forward,” Toggion said.

“For a long time, I wasn’t motivated, and then, when I was, I figured it could wait until we reached Gemocon. During the journey, I thought our health-care system should focus on real emergencies.”

Toggion looked impressed. “That’s very selfless. Not a lot of people would think like that.”

“I’m not selfless,” Pamas said, cringing. “Just practical.”

A muted metallic sound was followed by a squeaky tone as the crewmen began to lower the hatches outward. A gush of new, fresh air made the old air that had been perfectly fine just before seem stale and recycled—which it was, of course.

Miela gasped and clung to her father’s hand. “It’s the wind, Daddy! It’s the wind!” Her entire face lit up. “I can feel the caress.”

“I know, I know,” Toggion said, wiping at his eyes. “Creator of all things…I can’t believe we made it.”

“But we did, Daddy.” Miela kissed Toggion’s hand.

“I just wish your mother could have been with us.” Toggion lifted the girl up onto his shoulders and grabbed his suitcase with the hand that wasn’t holding her legs securely.

Pamas shifted the shoulder straps of her backpack, which held all her belongings. She knew of people who had brought much more with them, filled every storage space in their quarters with belongings they clearly couldn’t live without, despite the clear instructions from the authorities.

“Do you think we’ll spot the Red Angel, Daddy?” Miela asked. “She works at the hospital in our cube. I’ve only seen her on the screen.”

Pamas had seen the woman who went by the moniker Red Angel, an empath changer who could not only sense emotions from others, but also read thoughts. Rumor had it that she and her sister, who possessed the ability to see the future, had stowed away aboard Pathfinder despite every precaution the engineers and authorities responsible for the Exodus mission had taken. Strangely enough, President Tylio trusted both changers and credited them for saving the ship and a multitude of lives on several occasions.

Toggion answered his daughter. “I don’t know, sweetie. She might be working, or assisting the president. You know she does that.”

“I just want to see her. Just once.” The little girl looked around them, obviously hoping against odds to see the famous and revered changer.

A loud humming noise permeated the large hall inside the hatches. An automated, metallic-sounding voice came over the speakers. “People of cube eleven. Form lines and keep together with family members. Move in an orderly fashion. Anyone cutting in line will be pulled aside and made to wait until last. You will be greeted and scanned as you reach the gates. Keep moving, and do not stall the lines by asking redundant questions. Everything each of you needs to know will be given to you when required. Welcome to Gemocon, your new home. Go in heavenly splendor.”

Pamas swallowed against the sudden dryness in her throat. She wanted to push herself to the front of the line, get off this ship, and make her way out into the fresh air. Suddenly the vast cube felt constricting and as if it were about to pull her back in. A lot of people would keep residing in here to keep the hospitals going. If she had been one of them, she would have escaped and gone into the wilderness despite potential dangers.

The line moved fast enough to keep people who felt like Pamas in check, but not so fast the greeters at the gate didn’t have time to do their job. Men and women from the advance team stood there smiling broadly as they scanned them and gave initial information. Pamas ended up in the far-right line and found herself looking down at a stunningly beautiful woman. Large, black curls framed a triangular face, and her blue-violet irises told of her Gemosian descent. Her lips were full and curvy, her nose narrow and slightly upturned, giving her an impish expression. A nametag on her uniform gave her name: Darmiya Do Voy.


Chapter Two

Darmiya Do Voy stood at gate eleven, ready to greet the passengers as they disembarked cube eleven. It had been a majestic view when the enormous cube broke through the light clouds, still emanating heat and scorching the ground as it touched down. As soon as it was cool enough for the crews to approach, a steady stream of men and women rushed forward to attach hoses and vents required to sustain life support within the cube now that it was no longer traveling through space at an unimaginable speed.

Now, twenty hours later, it was time to greet the ones leaving the cube and guide them toward their habitats or tents. Habitats were mainly for families with young children, the elderly, or others with special circumstances. The rest would stay in tents until they had chosen whether to reside in any of the denser populated areas or the countryside.

Darmiya hadn’t slept many hours during the last three nights, going over checklists and trying to anticipate any potential mishaps. Now she was standing here at the opening to the long corridor that would take the new inhabitants farther into the part of Gemocon’s future capital that held provisional housing. Darmiya had meant to greet the newcomers with her usual exuberant self, but now all she wanted was to return to her own habitat and go to bed. She didn’t used to succumb to exhaustion like this, but the last year had been insanely busy. A lot of the medical issues and planning had weighed heavily on her. Her best friend Spinner, the commander of the air group for the advance team, claimed Darmiya would be back to her old self as soon as Pathfinder had arrived and the responsibility didn’t solely lie on the advance team. Not only that, Darmiya and Calagan would have some 100,000 of their fellow Gemosians and not feel like they were so outnumbered.

Darmiya didn’t feel outnumbered. That wasn’t it. And besides, these two people had agreed to merge and refer to themselves as Gemoconians. She didn’t want to seem overly dramatic, but she doubted the arrival of Pathfinder would solve everything for her in an instant. Yet she also didn’t think it was right to bother Spinner and her wife with her fears. They had so much on their plate, currently standing in for President Tylio until she arrived. Darmiya wasn’t sure it was the hard work, not entirely anyway, which was good, since she did realize if they had worked hard before the Exodus ship arrived, their duties would only increase once the cubes landed. Her mood swings and bouts of depression were something…something else. She couldn’t pinpoint the problem herself.

The hissing sound of the metal walkway extending from the open hatch to cube eleven drew her attention from her inner musings. People began milling out in single file through the walkway. Some of the engineers had suggested they should construct totally closed arms from the cubes to the gates, but Darmiya had fought, and won, for building them without a roof. “Don’t you think they’ve longed to see the sky? They’ve just spent more than two years in space without the types of shore leaves we had. Even if our pit stops were dangerous, some of us stepped on solid ground and breathed air. We will have much less stress and discontent if the walkways don’t have roofs.” She had glared around the conference table, seeing Spinner and her wife, Admiral Dael Caydoc, nodding to themselves. Some idiot had objected by saying, “But what if it rains?” Only Dael’s intervention had stopped Darmiya from igniting on all fuses. Dael put a hand on Darmiya’s shoulder and turned to the engineer in question. “If it rains, Lieutenant, they’ll get wet.”

Now, Darmiya readied herself, holding the tablet steadily. She didn’t have to fake any smiles yet today, which was a blessing.

Nodding encouragingly toward a family of five as they walked down the corridor from the gate toward the small hover vehicles that would take them to their provisional habitat, Darmiya then turned her attention to the next on the list.

“Pamas Dagellion?” Darmiya glanced up at the slender, tall woman before her. It was hard to miss the stark appearance of an eyepatch, but she disregarded it and merely repeated the name and smiled questioningly.

Pamas Dagellion didn’t reciprocate but nodded briskly, and Darmiya could have sworn that the woman went from a military “attention” to an “at ease” stance, hands behind her back.

“Yes.” The woman extended her right hand for Darmiya to initiate the identification procedure. Pamas Dagellion kept her one good eye on her, which made Darmiya’s cheeks grow warmer. When she had performed the retinal scan of Pamas Dagellion’s right eye, she read the results and nodded affirmatively. “Excellent. Now, according to my list here, you are to take the left corridor and exit toward the settlement area down by the lake. You will find it consists of tents and habitats. Yours is tent 14-DG. The orientation board at the entrance is quite self-explanatory. You will find guards and personnel to assist you if you require help. Do you have any questions?” Still following the script, Darmiya didn’t really expect the woman before her to have any special queries.

“Yes. Where can I find the military headquarters?” Pamas asked. “It’s important.”

“I see.” Darmiya really didn’t see, but the advance team’s counselor had trained her how to address eager new arrivals. “You will find everything you need to know on the orientation boards by the entrance to your quarters. Everything is easily downloadable into your tablet for convenience—”

“No, Ms. Do Voy. You don’t understand. This is quite urgent.” Pamas glared at Darmiya and clearly tried to keep a civil tone. This was something she was supposed to note on her passenger roster, but Darmiya decided to give the woman some slack. The eyepatch combined with the paled scars on her face awoke sympathy in her. The juxtaposition between that and Pamas’s pale-blue eye was mesmerizing.

“It’s Doctor Do Voy.” Darmiya sensed that she would lose the other woman’s interest if she didn’t remain firm. Pamas Dagellion didn’t appear to suffer fools or weak personalities easily. “No new arrivals are allowed to wander outside the provisional camps until everyone is ashore and accounted for. Once everyone is assigned accommodations, passes will be handed out—your new identity documents.”

“That is just it,” Pamas said, and now Darmiya could tell others were starting to object about having to wait behind the stubborn woman. “I need to go to the military headquarters for that reason. It is very important. Very.”

Darmiya was uncertain what to do. She could insist on Pamas following the rules, but she had a hunch this woman would do as she pleased and find her way to headquarters no matter what—and surely that would make everything Darmiya’s fault for not being clear enough.

“Hey. How long is this going to take? I have three kids back here getting restless,” a woman called out from the line behind Pamas, who merely looked at Darmiya below raised eyebrows. She was obviously not going to back down.

“All right. Let’s do it this way, even if it’s not by the book. You go ahead and settle into your new lodgings. Then, once my shift is over, I’ll come and get you and walk you over to the military headquarters. It’s a bit of a hike, but we have very few hovercars operational at this point, and we can’t spare any.”

“Thank you. I have no problems going on foot. I’ll get out of your way unless I need to know something else.”

“No. That’s it. Once again, welcome to Gemocon. I hope your tent will be to your satisfaction for now, Ms. Dagellion.”

Pamas nodded and began walking down the corridor behind Darmiya, who shook her head. What was it about this woman that got under her skin? She had hoped something or someone would come along that could pierce the armor of indifference and dullness that engulfed her every day, but she hadn’t counted on it being a prickly, persistent woman who looked like she’d endured torture at one point.

Going through the motions with the remaining people, one after another, Darmiya smiled and gave the correct information while on autopilot. She really was happy that the Exodus ship, with all its twenty individual cubes, had made it to Gemocon. This was the entire reason for the dangerous journey they had all undertaken, first the advance team and then the 2,100, 000 people aboard Pathfinder.

Darmiya’s communicator buzzed, and then she recognized retired Fleet Admiral Helden Caydoc’s voice. “Admiral Helden Caydoc to Darmiya Do Voy.”

Darmiya tapped her lapel to answer. She had never used to wear an Oconodian uniform, consisting of a gray coverall with a thin flak vest over it, but now it had become a necessity when working toward receiving their people. When someone wore a uniform, it was easy to identify the other person’s branch and profession. Darmiya was on the medical and scientific side together with her brother Calagan. The woman paging her was Dael’s esteemed grandmother, and even if she was officially retired, she was the highest-ranking active military officer among the advance team. “Darmiya here, Admiral. What can I do for you?”

“We have a bit of a situation, and you are among the ones that needs to be briefed. Dael has put me in charge of getting the right group together, Advance team and Pathfinder crew alike. Report to headquarters at 20:00 hours.”

Checking her timepiece, Darmiya calculated quickly that she might just about make it after walking Pamas Dagellion to headquarters. She would have to order some military police to escort the other woman back, but it wasn’t undoable.

“Count me in, Admiral. Will Calagan be there too?”

“Of course. Caydoc out.”

Darmiya frowned as she scanned the next person in line. Helden was rarely anything but direct, but even so, she was never this abrupt. What could be so amiss that it required her to slip back into her role as fleet admiral?

 

v

 

Pamas followed the winding corridor, now under a roof again for a few hundred meters. Guided by the signs, she made two turns and then stepped outside. She moved out of the way of the people walking behind her and took in the view. In the far distance, tall mountains rose through the layer of clouds hovering above them. It looked like there might be snow or ice toward the top, and the scene was achingly familiar compared to Oconodos’s northern hemisphere. Closer, a vast forest stretched along the horizon, and in front of it lay something resembling the grassy prairie she had hiked across as a young cadet. The area just before her looked like the perfect area to receive the Gemoconian population. Flat, but with beautiful hills to the…gazing up to the two suns above them, Pamas estimated she was looking due north. Slowly she inhaled the crisp air, feeling quite dizzy from its sweet scent. Were flowers nearby emanating this scent, or was it like this everywhere on the planet?

She headed toward the area of habitats and tents where she would reside until the next step of colonization. The area was indeed located by an idyllic lake and was the one closest to cube eleven. Looking back over her shoulder, she was stunned at how enormous the cube was, seen from her current perspective. In the vastness of intergalactic space, each cube hadn’t seemed as big, but now it towered 580 meters over what would become the capital, together with cubes one and three. Cube one held the Caydoc Park and all the governmental buildings, universities, and, so far, the residential area for their political leaders. Cube three mainly consisted of the engineering area. It would be entirely dismantled and converted into providing the capital and surrounding towns with much-needed power and computer systems.

On her walk along the gravel path toward the village of tents and habitats, which seemed to wrap around the entire lake, Pamas let her thoughts stray to how the military would receive her once she had revealed her identity. Would they welcome her back into the fold? Would she truly want to go back on active duty? A lot had to have changed while she was held in a bunker in one jungle more mosquito-infested than the other. Her knowledge was outdated, to say the least. Apart from the two changers that had snuck aboard Pathfinder, the sisters, nobody could use her extensive knowledge about malevolent changers. They were all back on Oconodos.

The orientation board consisted of a six-meter-wide rectangular panel with people standing in line for any of the eight palm sensors available for registration. Pamas hoped they weren’t expected to use one each time they came and went. That was a bit more surveillance than she was prepared to allow. After all, getting away from the changers that had held her captive and finding her kids were the only reasons Pamas was here. If Pherry and Aniwyn rejected her, she would purchase what she required and go off into the wilderness. Having made do on practically nothing in the jungle had prepared her in ways she never would have guessed before she was taken.

Pamas placed her hand into the indentation when it was her turn at the orientation board. She also placed one of her large tablets into a connection slot. A purple light ran along her palm, and she hoped it would be forgiving enough and recalculate her palm and fingerprints despite the scars interrupting the sweeping lines. The scanner gave a muted beep, and a dotted line appeared on the map of the paths among the tents and habitats. Her tent was at the far end of a small peninsula that extended to the center of the lake. Not bad for tent real estate. Back on Oconodos, such a lot, no matter how small, would be worth a fortune. She had lived in a regular neighborhood as a child and only moved into a posh district when she married the man she thought she would love forever. When the much-older Gexter Seclan made general, she concluded that the price of trying to stay in the marriage was hurting her, but worse than that, it was damaging her children. She had come so close to leaving him together with Aniwyn and Pherry. Just one more day and—

“Finding it hard to read the map, dear?” a kind voice said behind her, making Pamas wince and step aside.

“No, thank you. I’m fine. Excuse me.” Grabbing her tablet, she nodded at the elderly man, hoisted her backpack, and hurried along the well-marked paths among the dwellings to her tent. The tents came in two different sizes, as did the habitats made from nylon-infused aluminum. Pamas wondered if the advance team had stored all of them or had brought some manufacturing equipment with them.

Reaching her tent, she once again pressed her palm against a sensor near the fastening of the tent flap. It buzzed and released its locking mechanism. Pushing the flap aside, Pamas stepped inside.

The tent boasted a real floor, which was a relief. She had had her fill of sleeping on the ground in the jungle or on raw concrete in the bunkers. Seeing the single bed, the blankets, pillow, and sheets folded at the foot of it made her smile. She spotted a simple faucet by a shelf holding a small sink, but nothing resembling a bathroom. A quick glance at the information on her tablet showed that those in single and double tents were supposed to use the common areas that provided bathrooms, aqua showers, cooking possibilities, and recreational areas. Pamas doubted she would spend much time in the latter. The closest facility was only two paths away, which was a relief.

As for her tent, a small seating area with a table and two stools sat next to a rack holding enough space for clothes and personal items. Those who had accumulated a multitude of things aboard the cubes would have to store their belongings outdoors. Pamas traveled very lightly, for obvious reasons, having constantly been on the move after her escape. The habit was hard to shake. She glanced around her new, albeit temporary, home. The whole briefness of this arrangement was perfect at this point. The wilderness was still on the table, should her attempts at redemption where her children were concerned fail miserably. She tried to shake the gloom from her mind, but it was difficult. She had remained aloof and endured the loneliness that had been her existence all through her captivity and afterward. Would life on Gemocon be different?

Pamas placed her backpack on the floor where she could reach it, locked the fastening device on the tent flap, and then set her timepiece to alert her so she would have time to freshen up before she handed herself over at the military headquarters. And who was she kidding? Next to the stunningly beautiful woman of Gemosian descent, she could hope to look clean at the most.

Oddly enough, it was Doctor Do Voy’s intense, golden-brown eyes that followed her into a fitful sleep.


Chapter Three

Darmiya pulled the lever back on her hoverskid. She was grateful to be among the few who had access to their own means of transportation, since the only larger vehicles were emergency hovercars. One hovercar served as transportation for Admiral Dael Caydoc when she had to travel quickly between the three major settlements. She usually took her entire senior staff with her, as the vehicle could accommodate eight passengers, not counting the driver. Dael most often didn’t use the private vehicle, insisting it was needed elsewhere as an addition to the other emergency vehicles.

One of the junior engineers had invented the tiny method of transportation that Darmiya now skillfully maneuvered among the rows of Gemoconians walking to their new dwellings. The footrest barely had room for her feet, and a rod led up from the rectangular plate to a handle from where she controlled direction and speed. By leaning to either side, backward or forward, Darmiya could make the tiny hover vehicle move or turn faster.

Now she turned into the area where Pamas Dagellion’s tent was located. A quick glance at the orientation map showed her to the location, and she had to concede that Pamas had lucked out. As the woman was living alone and hadn’t submitted any information about family or other loved ones, she would reside in a one-person tent until a permanent apartment was constructed—or Pamas had built a house with her own hands, which a lot of people would do once they traveled beyond the limits of the three cities.

Darmiya lived in a habitat that she shared with her brother, though they had managed to create separate entrances even if they shared a kitchenette and living area. Because Darmiya treasured her privacy, her bedroom was her private sanctuary. Spinner often looked at her with concern if Darmiya spent too much of her precious free time in there alone.

Reaching Pamas’s tent, Darmiya pulled the hoverskid to a stop and folded it up, as always impressed with how small it became and how easily she could stow it in her backpack. She pressed the small sensor next to the fastening on the tent flap and heard a muted signal from inside.

“Just a minute.” Pamas’s voice filtered through the tent’s insulated material. A minute later, the flap shifted to the side and Pamas stepped outside.

Darmiya blinked, trying to fathom that this impressive-looking woman was the same as the worn and torn person she had guided through the arrival gates only a few hours ago. Pamas was now wearing sleek black trousers, a long black coat, and metallic-looking, knee-high boots. The clothes looked brand-new, and Darmiya had never seen anyone carry off an outfit quite like Pamas Dagellion. Pamas still wore her eyepatch, which was part of her intimidating aura, she surmised. The dark-brown hair ran down her back in a thick ponytail.

“Something wrong?” Pamas frowned as she gazed from Darmiya and down at herself.

“What? Oh, no. Not at all. I—I just didn’t recognize you at first.” Darmiya felt her cheeks color as warmth spread from her cheekbones to her ears.

“So, I take it I made the right decision to change clothes and clean up some.” Pamas shook her head lightly. “I figured I couldn’t be seen walking around headquarters looking like a vagabond.” She pulled up her shoulders and let them down in a fluid, casual gesture. “So, we’re walking?”

“It’s how we normally get around, if possible. Once you get your hands on a hoverskid, it’ll be even faster.” Darmiya pointed at one of the engineers she knew who came skidding toward them as they began walking. “They’re quite easy to make if you’re able to read blueprints and know your way around a laser spanner and some other tools.”

Pamas followed the disappearing engineer with her eye. “Interesting. Do you have one?”

“Yes. I didn’t have to build my own though. I’m more of a theorist and not very good with tools.” Darmiya lengthened her stride to keep up with Pamas. “However, I often walk. Good exercise. Once the workday is over, I’m not much for stepping into a crowded gym.”

“Sounds like a good idea.” Pamas nodded. She looked toward the mountains in the distance. “So beautiful. I can’t quite fathom that we’ve landed and disembarked.”

“You had a much longer journey than we did.” Darmiya rounded the gate leading into the area and motioned for Pamas to keep to the right. “Ours felt long enough. If my brother and I hadn’t made lifelong friends aboard the Espies Major, I don’t think we would have been able to keep working such hours.” Suddenly worried how her words might sound to Pamas, Darmiya continued quickly. “Not that I’m complaining. Not at all.” Feeling stupid, and skinless, for having spoken too candidly, she pressed her lips together to stop making things worse by adding apologies. She spoke too much. It was one of her biggest flaws, and it didn’t matter, not lately, that her friends and her brother insisted this was part of her charm. She had been criticized enough for it to know better.

“Your journey must have seemed longer, even if it wasn’t. You charted our course. You had no idea what waited behind the next nebula, and you had to be prepared for just about anything. The advance team risked their lives, and you lost an entire ship, to keep the rest of us as safe as possible. There is more to a journey than minutes and hours.”

Glad now she was pressing her lips together, as she was close to losing control of her jaw, Darmiya whipped her head around to stare at Pamas. The way the woman spoke was so matter-of-fact and drama free, her words sounding so well thought out and true. And they hit home. It had been a dangerous journey and they had lost so many. That, too, had meant longer hours and more shifts for the rest of them, especially after they touched down on Gemocon.

“I never thought of it that way. It makes sense.” Darmiya turned left, and they entered a road that was turning into a street before their eyes. Broad—three lanes in each direction—it would ensure traffic to and from the main military base, and its headquarters would not become congested once hovercars and other vehicles became more common. This would happen soon, as Pathfinder had all sorts of transportation in its storage units.

“Impressive,” Pamas muttered. “You found material with which to pave the streets.”

“Yes. It’s not as harmful to the environment as the oil-based cover we used on Gemosis, but we won’t have many vehicles running directly on it. The government agrees with the environmental department that hovercraft create a much smaller footprint, so it won’t be subjected to the same wear and tear.”

“Good that someone is paying attention to old mistakes—at least sometimes.” Pamas gazed around her as they passed the buildings constructed along the street.

“Right now, these are shops, but as the commercial areas develop further, they will become military offices instead.” Darmiya pointed at the two-story buildings. “The wood they’re made from grows fast, and after we treat it to not be combustible, it suits our needs very well. I think settlers who want to build their own houses will find the material quite easy to handle.” Blushing now, Darmiya reminded herself about her chatterbox nature. “There I go, lecturing again.” She hoped her demeanor showed professionalism rather than the awkwardness she seemed to battle lately.

“You’re being most informative, Doctor Do Voy.” Pamas still sounded matter-of-fact but not unkind. Tall and wiry, she walked next to Darmiya, who tried to remember the personal information she had been privy to while scanning her at the gate. Forty-nine years old, the woman looked like she had been a stunning beauty when she was younger. Pamas was still good-looking, but her scars and weathered complexion made her seem slightly older and worn. Her one good eye possessed a sharp gleam that belied her years, and Darmiya guessed this woman wasn’t easy to intimidate. Something about her made Darmiya’s stomach clench, and she wasn’t sure what.

The military headquarters was the only structure along the street that stood more than four stories tall. The first floor held the reception areas for the different branches; the second provided conference rooms and a large banquet hall. The third floor, now mostly empty, would become the main offices for junior officers, and the top one boasted large office areas for Admiral Caydoc and her aides. It would initially provide an office for President Tylio and her cabinet members until the governmental building was finished. Now that Pathfinder had arrived with material and labor, the plans suggested it would take only about six months for that to happen.

“We’re here.” Darmiya motioned for the headquarters. “I can walk you to the reception, and then I’m due at a meeting with the brass. I hope everything will work out for your errand.”

Pamas stopped and stood motionless in the sunset. “I—I hope so. Thank you for bringing me here. You’ve been most kind, Doctor Do—”

“Please. Call me Darmiya.” Smiling nervously, Darmiya kicked at an innocent pebble on the sidewalk. “Shall we?” She tilted her head.

“Of course, Darmiya. You must call me Pamas, then.”

Pamas seemed taken aback but then began to climb the five steps to the headquarters’ entrance.

Inside, they both went through the identification scan, and as usual the young ensign on duty smiled in a flirty way toward Darmiya. And, as always, Darmiya sighed inwardly and smiled politely. “Hello, Ensign. I’m escorting Ms. Dagellion to the reception area.”

“Always working, Doctor. You need to get out there and have some fun.” The ensign winked at Darmiya.

“So you keep saying,” Darmiya muttered. “Carry on, Ensign.”

They kept walking down the wide corridor. Beautiful stones cut from bedrock not far away from the mountains in the distance by skilled masons made the floor look a beautiful grayish pink. The white walls reflected the sunlight coming through the skylights.

Darmiya sighed in relief. “Oh, good. Ensign Lomoda is manning the desk. That saves us a lot of administrative nonsense.”

Pamas turned her head and raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean by ‘us’?”

“Oh. Right. Sorry. I mean, I thought I’d just help you…you know, smooth the waves and so on. Silly, I know. You’re perfectly capable of doing your own smoothing—Oh, Creator, that came out wrong.” Darmiya wanted to sew her lips closed, but to her astonishment, Pamas merely nodded thoughtfully.

“Good idea. You seem to truly know your way around here. I still have no idea what the outcome will be regarding my errand. If I’m not making you late?”

Checking her timepiece, Darmiya shook her head, feeling elated in a curious way. “I have forty minutes before the meeting. I’m all yours.” Moaning inwardly at her loose tongue, Darmiya decided to actually bring some strong adhesive for her mouth in the future.

“All right.” Pamas walked the last few meters to the reception desk.

“Yes. How can I assist you?” Ensign Lomoda asked politely, clearly trying not to stare at Pamas’s eyepatch.

“I’m trying to locate Commander Aniwyn Seclan, commander of the air group.” Pamas gripped the edge of the counter before them. “I also need to have my name and status altered back from my alias to my real identity.”

Ensign Lomoda gaped. “The CAG…um, isn’t here today. At least not yet. She is due in half an hour, approximately. As for the second part of your errand—I’m not sure who to approach for that. Or if it can be done at this office since this is a military installation.” She looked helplessly at Darmiya, who returned her attention to Pamas.

“Are you saying Pamas Dagellion isn’t your real name?” She took a step back. “Are your scans accurate?” Darmiya didn’t think she was being overly cautious. She knew of the stowaway changers aboard Pathfinder and had read all the intel, as she possessed a level-two security clearance. Only the president, the cabinet, generals, and admirals had level-one clearance. Could Pamas—what else could she call her—be an undiscovered changer? “Ensign Lomoda. Deploy your sidearm.” Darmiya spoke quietly, her voice grave. “Pamas, or whatever your name is, stand back from the counter. I intend to alert security.” Sure, the quick scan by the entrance had not detected any changer markers, but that was clearly not enough, judging from what had happened aboard Pathfinder. Yes, the first two changers they had discovered while en route to Gemocon had been benevolent, but the situation was more complicated than that. Darmiya was furious at herself. How could she have been so naive as to let a stranger get close to her this way without knowing anything about the other woman?

Ensign Lomoda had just taken aim at the center of Pamas’s chest when a familiar voice made them all flinch.

“Darmiya, dear child, who is this—and why does Ensign Lomoda have her sidearm drawn?” Fleet Admiral Helden Caydoc sat straight and perfectly poised in her hoverchair, which one of her caregivers operated. Having suffered a series of strokes, the elderly woman could use only half of her body, but her intellect, not to mention her wit, was fully intact.

“Colonel—I mean, Admiral Caydoc…” Pamas whispered as she turned around. “It’s truly you.”

“Excuse me?” Helden looked back and forth between Darmiya and Pamas. “Do I know you?” She squinted, and her light-blue eyes seemed to sharpen. “You do seem familiar, thought I doubt I’d forget such an impactful eyepatch, madam.”

“It has been twenty years, sir.” Pamas had stood straight and rigid, but now she raised her hand to her chin in an unmistakable Oconodian military salute. “Lieutenant Pamas Seclan reporting, sir.”