…Intelligence Headquarters, outskirts of New Romas
“Ashbar, do you see him?” Utara rocked on the balls of her feet, hoping even a centimeter more height would afford her a better view through the towering wanderwillows encircling the Prime Intelligence Service headquarters. The Cultural Minister and her assistant had been waiting at the top of the massive building’s grand front steps for what seemed like an interminable amount of time.
“Not yet, but Master Oggust’s message indicated your husband would arrive no later than –” Ashbar glanced at the chrono on his wrist. “– well, now.”
“He’s never late.”
“It’s a circuitous flight from Grandell Valley. Perhaps –”
“There.” After pointing to a spot just above the northwestern tree line, Utara hurried down the steps as fast as her feet would take her. “He came along the river, not directly from the west.”
“And breached three or four no-fly zones in the process,” Ashbar called from the top of the steps. Utara paused about halfway down, glancing back over her shoulder at him. He added, “I’ll take care of it. Although I’m not sure what I can do about the Unified Forces pilots who will be tailing him.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. He trained many of them, remember.” Perfectly content to leave Ashbar to the bureaucratic headache of detangling Daemyn’s rule-breaking, Utara smoothed the fall of her robes as she deliberately and slowly completed her descent. The WyndeStalker swooped in over the willows, causing their limbs to sway and bend dramatically in its wake. The personal shuttlecraft practically screamed affluence and power with its brushed lanium trim and uncontained engines that throbbed so deeply and vibrantly the very core of her being resonated to their rhythm. The downwash of the thrusters kicked up leaves and dust, swirling them into powerful eddies. Utara raised a palm to protect her face. The beastly machine landed dead center in the crossed lines marking the transport pad’s target zone.
Waiting for the shuttle to power down, Utara checked her hair. Several pieces had been blown from her carefully coifed bun. The braiding was too intricate to fix immediately, so she settled for tucking the wayward locks behind her ears.
“I like it the way it is,” a deep voice remarked from off to her right.
An imposing man with wide shoulders tapering out of a narrow waist set atop long, powerful legs, her husband strode down the ramp with the confidence of someone who knew what he expected from life, and generally took it. His potent presence made Utara’s heart pause. It was a brief respite once she saw his face. Daemyn had a rugged, etched visage that, despite his domineering presence, could make the most skeptical person smile. His dark eyes usually twinkled, yet now they were brooding and harsh. His hair wasn’t just riotous – it was unkempt to the point he almost resembled a mad scientist more than the mastermind behind a worldwide venturist conglomerate.
Before Utara could place the last time she had seen him this way, Daemyn had taken her in his arms. “I’ve missed you.”
She did not want to be held; she wanted answers. Extricating herself from his embrace, Utara peered up. “The children?”
“I have confirmation they survived the initial attack –”
“What does that mean? Stop being so cryptic, Daemyn.”
“I agree with your wife. Now is not the time for obscuring the truth.” Intelligence Chief Monson must have snuck up on them.
On Utara, anyway. Her husband, his jaw clenching, stared silently at Marx. His internal battle abruptly ended, and he forced what some might mistake as a welcoming smile. “What I have to share is best left for inside.”
“Of course.” Marx’s black eyes studied Daemyn, but he too willed a conciliatory curl to his lips. With a sweep of his hands he beckoned them up the steps. “Shall we?”
“After you.” Daemyn let loose a shrill whistle that caused everyone to start.
“I’m coming!” The voice shouting down from the shuttle’s ramp was one Utara recognized instantly. It belonged to Kirkland Oggust – or Oggie, as he was known around Wynde Industries. Once a code hacker who had been in and out of trouble before her husband had given him a purpose and a new life, he was now Daemyn’s right-hand man. Emerging from the shuttle juggling two compupods and two other unidentifiable devices that made his diminutive, gawky frame seem frailer than it really was, he looked far from the genius she knew him to be.
“I’m not letting a common criminal in my Headquarters,” Marx spat.
“Oh, his record is far from common.” No matter what internal strife tore through Daemyn, the slight curl to the corner of his mouth suggested he took great pleasure in needling the Chief. “In fact, he was recently honored with the Liberty Award for his work with AmAid on behalf of the Isles of Trinead.”
“Your wife may have helped expunge his record, but that doesn’t change –”
“Fine.” The humor was gone from Daemyn’s expression. “We’re done here. Back to the ship, Oggie.”
“But I just got –”
“You bring the equipment inside, Wynde,” Marx countered. “I’ll permit him to wait on the shuttle.”
“Impossible. This data is raw. Only he –” Daemyn thumbed over his shoulder at Oggie shuffling forlornly back up the ramp. “– knows how to make sense of it.”
“I’m sure my specialists can –”
The Chief’s face reddened. “I hope you’re not suggesting that proprietary rights take precedence over a matter of state security.”
“Not at all. Just that you don’t have the means to decipher the data.”
“Gentlemen.” Utara calmly stepped between the two men. “Because this is a matter of utmost security, it’s imperative we rise above our personal differences to work together. We all simply want what’s best for Prime.” She glanced up at Daemyn, her eyes beseeching him to stand down. Then she realized where she had seen that look before – fear, pain, powerlessness. Her heart practically shredded remembering it. The memory changed her tactic from placating to determination. Whatever the reason, Daemyn believed it was absolutely necessary to get Oggie inside that building. She swung to face Marx. “Put a guard on Master Oggust, whatever you have to do. Arrest him if you must –”
“Wait!” Oggie declared from the top of the ramp, just out of sight.
“ – and use the Prisoner Empowerment Bill to enlist his assistance.”
Marx snorted. “The PIS has a careful screening process for our recruits.”
Utara’s eyebrow arched. “So you do let some criminals in, then?” Marx opened his mouth, but a flat palm from Utara shorted out his protest. She had thrown the Chief far enough off-center that she could play her hand now. “What will the Prime Minister say when he has to answer to the people about today’s events and he doesn’t have, at the very least, the same intelligence as Wynde Industries?”
Marx’s eyes squinted tightly, as if he were sizing up a bug to squash with his boot heel. Stepping to her side, Daemyn distracted the Chief’s singular focus. “What will it be?”
“Very well. Bring him,” Marx said. “But I’ll be watching him with my best operatives. If either of you step out of line –” He pointed two fingers, one at Daemyn, the other at Oggie. “– I’ll have you wrapped up in charges that will leave both of you sweating in the mines of Borlag.”
“Your cooperation is most appreciated,” Daemyn said. Bringing his hand up over his shoulder and flipping his fingers, he summoned Oggie back.
Marx stormed off, military boots clacking on the marble steps as he made his way up to the entrance. Utara waited with her husband for Oggie to stumble back down the ramp, his arms so full he could barely see where his feet should go.
“Can I help?” she offered.
“I’ve got it.” Daemyn grabbed the topmost compupod with one hand and his other wrapped around her upper arm. He practically propelled her up the stairs, stopping only long enough to toss the compupod at Ashbar, who had been working diligently during the entire exchange. “Thanks for scrubbing the mess I made on the way here, Ashbar.”
“You broke ten protocols –”
“Is that all?”