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Liquid Fire

By Nika Dixon All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Scifi

Blurb

Seventeen-year-old hacker Illora Vale dreams of having someone to share in her secret, but her solitary life in the remote border planets is the only way to protect the energy based entity she carries within her. Now, her quiet lifestyle is in danger. War is coming, and Illora is the only one who knows the truth. Caught in a web of politics and prestige, Illora is surrounded by traitors and stalked by a man who wants her dead. She alone holds proof of the plot to overthrow the Alliance and plunge the planets into a deadly war. With millions of innocent lives at risk, Illora reaches out to the only person she has ever trusted, a young soldier from her past. With his help, Illora transforms from hunted to hunter, risking her future, and her secret, to save the Alliance.

Chapter 1

From her lofty perch in the stone walled observation tower, Illora watched the approach of the evacuation transport. The silver ship descended past the front of the building, the wash from the engines blasting a cloud of sand and dust into the air.

A swarm of geologists hurried out into the courtyard below, their lab coats billowing out behind them like capes. Towers of supply cases dwindled as they were loaded into the ship, then the transport lifted off, leaving nothing behind but silence and solitude.

With nothing more to distract her, Illora turned her attention to the horizon.

As a planet, Candara wasn’t much to look at. The barren planet sat on the edge of Alliance controlled territory, with little vegetation, less water, and nothing to offer but a dream of buried riches and a nightmare of trying to mine them beneath the mile-high rock spires that covered the continent.

It was through this sea of rocky spikes that a dark smoke drifted up, blackening the orange-tinted sky. Somewhere in the distance, the mines were burning—looted by an encroaching General and his army of thieves and killers.

Unfortunately for Illora and the research team, the abandoned Candarian outpost they’d been using as a base of operations was directly in the oncoming tyrant’s path. In a few days, the facility would be overrun. And while the Candarian government had no problem with allowing the Alliance researchers access to the planet, when it came to invading armies, the researchers were on their own.

Illora wasn’t worried. The Alliance protected her own. An evacuation had been called, and the science teams and equipment were being removed from danger. Soon, it would be her turn to go.

But first, she had work to finish.

She leaned over the railing and let out a soft whistle. A moment later, a bright spark of light shot up over the balcony. The small glowing orb floated closer, then hovered in the air next to her shoulder. Relief at her friend’s return made her smile. She always worried a little whenever Sophy went off on her own. It was silly, of course. Sophy was more than capable of taking care of herself, despite her tiny size. But Illora always fought a sense of panic whenever the little creature was separated from her. People feared what they didn’t understand, and that fear often made them do terrible things.

Sophy floated higher, her glowing spark bouncing lightly in the air beside Illora’s cheek. “The evacuation is almost complete,” she said, her melodious voice anxious. “There won’t be many more chances for us to leave.”

“I’m almost done,” Illora assured her. She turned her hand over, holding her palm up to the small orb.

Sophy dropped down, her brightness fading as she disappeared beneath Illora’s skin.

Forever fascinated by Sophy’s ability to blend herself in with another host, Illora traced her finger over the sparkling lines of light spidering out across her palm and up into her arm. The light lines solidified into the shape of a bright blue butterfly tattoo on the inside of Illora’s wrist.

The idea of having another creature—an alien being—hiding itself beneath their skin might very well scare the sanity out of anyone else, but to Illora, having Sophy’s life force within her was as normal as breathing. Sophy wasn’t a true solid. She couldn’t be pressed into a box or carried in a pocket. She was energy, and energy needed fuel. The only way Illora could keep her tiny friend safe and strong was to be the host body where Sophy could rest and recharge.

The return of Sophy’s lifeforce flooded Illora with a sense of peaceful warmth. Sophy was once again safely hidden where no one could see or hurt her.

Sophy’s voice whispered inside Illora’s head. All right, let’s finish up and get out of here.

Illora picked up her canvas bag and slipped the strap over her shoulder. With a parting glance at the smoke on the horizon, she headed down the staircase to the main floor of the building.

Dalid, the research team’s administrator, stepped out of an office, a large silver shipping case in each hand. The overweight man was sweating profusely, his arms shaking as he hefted the cases onto the flat bed of a hover lift that was parked in the corridor.

“What are you still doing here?” he demanded. “Mr. Larsen ordered everyone gone before now.” He waved his hand at her as though he could make her disappear with a flick of his chubby fingers. “This isn’t gone. This is you still here.”

A voice called out from the office. “Who’s still here?”

Mudballs, Sophy muttered. What are they still doing here?

Illora peered around the doorway at the project’s director, Rikard Larsen. Rikard was short and stocky, with a disappearing hairline and a belly that said he enjoyed the good life almost as much as Dalid. Both men were pampered, pompous, and had absolutely no business on a geological research project. Especially one on a dusty rock planet with bare bones accommodations and not a single personal-servant on staff...which they brought up at least twice a day, sometimes more.

Rikard also loved to remind everyone about his famous father—Senator Marcus Larsen—who, if the preliminary polls were right, would be the next Chancellor of the planetary Alliance. It was a bloated set of statistics that Rikard used as his open card to do whatever he wanted, which somehow included being the man in charge of a scientific research study.

The fact that Rikard knew nothing about geology, science, or anything else of need to the project didn’t seem to phase him in the least. After all, his senator father thought Rikard was brilliant at it.

Or so Rikard kept telling everyone.

The best Illora could figure was that by dropping Rikard onto this uncivilized hell hole, as he was fond of saying, the senator was using his son as campaign publicity for the upcoming vote. Unfortunately, Rikard spent more time and resources having modern amenities delivered to make his stay more luxurious than he did providing any actual support for the studies being conducted.

That he hadn’t run screaming to the first shuttle back to civilization was a surprise and a half.

“I hope you’re here to tell me you’ve finished, Miss Vale,” Rikard said, his voice dripping with an expectation of obedience.

Illora didn’t bother to remind him, yet again, that she worked for the Alliance, not him. Rikard made it clear from the start that he didn’t care. He didn’t trust her, or her credentials, no matter what security level she held. She couldn’t possibly be an approved engineer—she was too young, and too female.

“Well?” he asked again, this time with a haughty hand wave. “Are you finished?”

Her fake smile was starting to dry her teeth out. “Almost.”

Dalid lumbered back into the room, swiping the sweat from his shining forehead with a cloth. “You should have been finished yesterday, Miss Vale.” He jammed the rag into his pocket then lifted the case off Rikard’s desk. He lugged it out into the corridor and added it to the growing stack on the hover-lift.

“It’s not something I can rush,” she tried to explain. “There’s a lot of data—”

Rikard cut her off. “You need to complete your task now, young lady.”

Young lady? Sophy exclaimed.

Illora’s smile wavered and an answer jumped into her throat. She wasn’t a young lady, she was a highly certified engineer, and she had been hired specifically for this contract based on her skills, not placed here because her father was some fancy ass politician.

But when she opened her mouth the only thing that came out was, “yes, sir.”

Sophy snickered. Way to stand up for yourself.

Illora sighed. Somewhere, in some alternate universe, she was a kick-ass warrior princess with nerves of steel and an attitude to match. Unfortunately, in this reality she was an uncoordinated tech-rat who hated conflict.

Dalid grabbed the handles of the lift. The flatbed beeped, then rose a few inches off the floor. “General Izad is dangerous. Your data won’t matter if your head is hanging from a spike on the wall, now would it?”

Sophy giggled. His head is too fat. It would need two spikes.

Illora bit her cheek to keep from laughing. “The danger is days away.”

Dalid pointed the lift down the hallway and waddled off behind it. “Well I, for one, am not waiting. There is another shuttle loading up right now, and I’m going to be on it.”

“Miss Vale, I want you on that transport as well,” Rikard called after her as she left the office.

Miss Vale, Miss Vale, Miss Vale.... Sophy mimicked. I am not going to miss him one bit!


Standing in the center of the containment lab, Illora pushed aside her annoyance at having to destroy it. She was damn proud of the work she’d done. Not only had she resurrected an antique airlock from a blown-out husk, she’d retro-fit the entire laboratory with tech better than anything in any high-end corporate research lab.

Now she was going to have to turn it into a useless pile of garbage.

Taking a tablet from her canvas bag, she ported into the airlock’s control system. After venting the decontamination tanks, she disconnected the all the active components from the power supply and shut the unit down.

“Laboratory one, deactivated,” the tinny voice of the command system announced. “Power levels zero.”

The lights in the lab flickered, then flashed out, plunging interior space into blackness.

That’s it, then? Sophy asked.

Illora dropped the tablet back into her bag. “I just need to pull the control panel, but all my tools are downstairs. We’ll have to grab it on the way out.”

So, back to the closet?

“Back to the closet. Scrub the data, pull the panel, then catch the next transport?”

Sounds good.

A muffled electronic chime sounded. Recognizing the custom tone, Illora’s heart jumped with a happy little skip. She dug into the bottom of her canvas bag, her fingers searching for the cool smooth surface of the p-com, the personal communication unit she always carried with her.

The transparent screen was blank except for four words.

STAYING OUT OF TROUBLE?

Even though there was no sender ID, and no location tag, Illora had zero doubt who the message was from. The military issue p-com served only one purpose—to keep her connected to Ty.

Taking his cue to send back a worded message and not audio, she swiped her thumb over the speech conversion access. “You know me,” she replied, unable to stop herself from smiling. “I always manage to find a way.”

She watched the screen, hoping for a fast response. If his answer came quickly, he was somewhere within the quadrant. Greater pauses meant he could be pretty much anywhere. She liked it better when he was nearby, within the Alliance controlled boundaries of the quadrant and not out in the borderlands where rebel factions occasionally forgot the Colony War was over.

The reply returned almost immediately.

STILL SAVING THE WORLD FROM KILLER ROCKS?

She laughed. “Damn right. Just you remember who to call next time some killer rock bites you in the ass.”

ROGER THAT. KILLER ROCK? CALL VALE.

“Actually, we’re under an evacuation order. I’ll be back to eating mess hall slop by tonight.”

EVAC? YOU OKAY?

“All good. Just finishing some stuff then catching the next transport.”

KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN.

“Always do.”

She waited for a response, but nothing came back. Disappointed at the short conversation, but happy he reached out, she tucked the p-com back into her bag.

That’s it?

“He’s probably busy, Soph. It was just his way checking in.”

I’ll never understand you two.

“Why? Because he’s military and I’m not?”

Because you don’t know anything about him! You talk to him like he’s your best friend.

“You are my best friend.”

You know that’s not what I mean. You act like you’ve known him for years.

“I have known him for years.”

A voice, Illora. You know his voice. You don’t even know what he looks like!

Illora shook her head at Sophy’s insistence that Illora needed to know what Ty looked like in order to talk to him. Even without being able to put a face to the voice, her distance relationship with Ty was second only to the depth of her relationship with Sophy. They had more of a connection across the distance of space, than Illora had with the people she worked side by side for months then never heard from again after the job was done.

It was the luck of the universe that introduced them. One minute, Illora was hiding out in a cantina on a rusted-out transfer station, and the next she was facing the watch commander of a docked Alliance warship. She was given a choice of futures—talk a soldier through breaking the lockouts on a malfunctioning defence satellite, or spend the next twenty years in an Alliance prison facility for illegal hacks.

She took the com and got to work.

Despite the urgency of the situation, the voice on the other end never wavered. The young lieutenant followed her exact commands without questioning her age, gender, or experience. It had been his saving grace. If he’d argued even once, he’d have used up the mere ten seconds they’d had to spare in the end. When it was over, he made a quip to ask if she could have cut it any closer. She’d fired back by accusing him of being overly emotional, then complained that he’d made her miss dinner.

Before she could even think to ask his name, security hauled her back to the cantina without so much as a thank-you. A week later, a transfer cube arrived at the research station she was working a contract for. Inside the box sat a high-tech military issue p-com, its screen blank except for a single message.

FINE. I OWE YOU DINNER.

It was signed simply, Ty.

She replied back, not really expecting an answer, but one came, and that was that.

Ty became her only other constant besides Sophy. Her only other friend. She couldn’t trust getting close to anyone else for fear they would find out about Sophy. But she trusted Ty. He was the only person she ever considered telling about Sophy. She never did, but something about the soldier with the sarcastic sense of humor made her at least consider taking the chance.

There had only ever been one rule.

No faces.

It never bothered Illora as much as it bothered Sophy. She kept Sophy’s secret, why shouldn’t she keep Ty’s, too? Sure, she could have hacked his file, but she wasn’t willing to chance it would be discovered. Military identities were restricted to keep them safe, but Ty wasn’t just any military, he was Task Force. His missions were the most dangerous, blacklisted to all but the highest clearance levels. What if something happened because she’d hacked his file? What if she compromised a mission? What if she got him hurt? What if she got him killed?

No. Sophy was her only family, and Ty was her only friend. Doing anything that could hurt either one of them would never be an option.

The thought alone made her heart speed.

You worry about him.

“Yes.”

Lying to Sophy wasn’t possible. Even though Sophy could not read her mind, the tiny creature was tuned into Illora’s very being. When they were melded as one, Sophy could sense every change in Illora’s emotions down to the smallest twitch. Including something as simple as concern for a soldier she wouldn’t recognize if she walked right into him.

“I worry about you, too, you know.”

A flash of warmth tingled across her skin. Sophy’s version of a hug.

I worry about you, too.

Illora ran her finger over the butterfly tattoo on her wrist. “Technically, I don’t really know what you look like either.”

The colors of the tattoo shifted into silver and blue as the butterfly floated around her wrist.

I look like a butterfly, Sophy said with a laugh. Maybe Ty does, too.

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