QSFer Jana Denardo has a new MM sci fi book out: Modified and Sacred.
Lieutenant Addison Hunt is proud to serve the Confederation even if he still feels like he’s on the outside looking in. Addison was illegally genetically modified as a child, leaving him burdened with a sense of shame. Emotionally isolated from his fellow crewmen and recovering from injuries from his last job, Addison is happy to have light duty transporting an esteemed diplomat to a peace conference.
Deveral is one of the Sacred Kin, possessing a psychic ability that his people consider a spark of the divine. Like all the Sacred Kin, he’s led a sheltered life as a temple priest, but his heightened empathic ability makes him the perfect diplomat. Nervous to leave his home, he’s curious about his new companion, Lieutenant Hunt.
Not everyone wants the diplomatic mission to succeed, and a rebel faction poses a real threat to Addison and Deveral. Finding themselves cast adrift on a “lost” colony, they’ll have to fight to stay alive.
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Fyria promised peace, hanging like a blue-green, white-smudged jewel in the starship Turing’s view screen. Addison wondered if Fyria’s peace would be one more broken promise. Living a life stuffed full of fractured vows, he remained leery of new pledges. He’d never been in this little pocket of the galaxy and knew the bare minimum about the Fyrians.
Captain Valdis Sigmundsson swiveled her chair around to eye him. The fine lines around her eyes and lips always set him at ease. He knew this face well, though he knew the visage best on Admiral Hilde Sigmundsson, Valdis’s identical twin. Hilde had saved him all those years ago and sponsored him through the academy. He’d do anything for the twins and had been honored to serve with Valdis. Valdis and Hilde had made him honorary family, and off duty, he called them his aunts. If there was anyone he loved unconditionally, it was the sisters.
“Are you ready for a mission more boring than your usual?” Valdis’s platinum-hued eyes danced.
Addison schooled emotion from his face. He liked to appear neutral and unflappable on duty, a contrast to his captain. Controlling his emotions proved difficult for him, too acerbic in temperament. His shoulder thrummed with pain, reminding him how his last mission had been too exciting. He was luckier than most when it came to that assignment.
“An uncomplicated escort mission would be a nice change of pace. Besides—” He grinned impertinently at his captain, breaking his own self-edict of being emotionally controlled. “—how often will I get to talk to a living god?”
Valdis snorted, garnering the attention of her navigators. “Deveral is not exactly a living god. He’s Sacred Kin,” she reminded him, though he could be trusted to read the dossier. “The Fyrians believe their Sacred Kin hold a flicker of God’s power. That said, do be on your best behavior, Lieutenant. I’d hate for you to cause an intergalactic mission to go belly up if you act like your usual sarcastic self.”
Addison offered her a flat smile, recognizing the subtle reprimand hidden in those humorous words. He’d spent too many hard years outside the military. He hadn’t been broken to their respectful ways, not entirely. His spotty past was why he fought to improve his on-duty demeanor. “I’ll behave.”
Addison hoped this living god would do the same. He had no time for entitled assholes, whom he loathed outright. He might not be the right person for the job of babysitting an ambassador, especially one who’d been treated as a god his whole life, but Addison brushed away the negativity. He was a professional. This would be a simple job easing him back into active duty after Telsama. Uncomplicated was just what he needed.
His shoulder twinged at the thought of Telsama. He was lucky to still be standing here. The ship’s surgeon had worked hard to put him back together again, and his strange body hadn’t made it any easier. Illegal anatomical modification meant very few records had been kept on all the things done to him as a child. Luckily, Dr. Wroe had done multiple workups on him the moment Captain Sigmundsson brought him on board, so she knew all his strangeness intimately.
Setting the dark thoughts aside, he entered his small, but private quarters. Sigmundsson had arranged these accommodations, even though most Coalition officers of Addison’s rank had roommates. If anyone had known the captain was involved in the situation, he’d have faced taunts of favoritism, but jeers would have been worth it. Roommates would have questions if they caught sight of his few visual modifications. Most of his mods were internal, but those that could be seen were highlighted in glowing lights in his imagination. Sighing, he considered what he needed to pack in his rucksack.
It would be a short trip on a shuttle. All the appropriate away-mission weaponry was a must. Any options centered on what to bring for the day or two he’d have to spend at the station hosting the talks once he dropped off his holiness. He would have been far more comfortable just turning around and heading back for the Turing, but protocol demanded he wait and make sure the Sacred Kin remained safe.
Addison flopped on his bed, staring up at the gunmetal gray ceiling. He had no idea how to handle someone like this Sacred Kin Deveral fellow. He’d never been anyone’s first choice for ambassadorial duties, so Addison couldn’t guess why Aunt Valdis had tasked him with the job. He’d been cleared for full duty, so he didn’t need this light assignment. Did she think he wanted to step up the ladder and round out his résumé? No, she knew he’d not be allowed to advance. His modifications had been forgiven as they weren’t of his doing, but they were still a noose to any chance of becoming a captain someday.
Rubbing his eyes, Addison tried not to feel bitter about the situation. He would do his best to go as far as he could.
“I’m going nowhere if I don’t get myself prepared,” he muttered.
Addison rolled to his feet and parked himself at his workstation. He needed to know more about the Fyrians in order to deal with Deveral properly. This Sacred Kin business was new to him. He’d grown up without a hint of religion. After his rescue, religion remained something he only had a passing acquaintance with. The idea that an entire race could believe certain members of their kind actually possessed a sliver of the divine struck him as bizarre. What would that entail? How arrogant would someone like a Sacred Kin be if they were praised and all but worshipped daily? Would he have to grease up the guy’s ego to get it in the shuttle?
Addison delved into Fyrian history and culture. He had immersed himself so deeply into his studies the doorbell chiming nearly sent him out of his skin. “Door open,” he told the computer. He rubbed his aching eyes again, feeling as if someone had poked them. He never did well with a lot of light, and the computer screen counted as too bright.
Doctor Yukiko Hayashi stood in his doorway. Addison smiled slightly and waved her in. “What’s up?”
“I heard you have a diplomatic mission and thought you might need a little of this.” She waggled the Cala whiskey bottle she held, sloshing the blue liquid about.
He made an appreciative noise, pushing back from the workstation as he nodded toward the little breakfast nook in his studio. “Do you know what I love about you, Yukiko?”
“I can read your mind?” Yukiko tossed her long hair over her shoulder before she sat at the tiny table.
“That’s it.” Addison fetched two glasses and sat next to her. “Do you know anything about the Fyrians?”
“Not much other than they’ve been in the news a lot lately.” She poured the whiskey. Unlike so many others, the drink had a sweet scent, almost like blackberries. The fruity taste was one of the reasons he liked the whiskey. His modified system could handle a lot of alcohol, but he preferred it sweet.
“How so? I’ve been out of it.” He didn’t have to tell her. She had assisted Dr. Wroe’s lifesaving efforts on him after his last mission had gone horribly awry.
“They found a group of them that branched off the main planet so long ago they faded into myth. Isn’t that what your mission is?”
Addison sipped the high alcohol content whiskey. “I’ve been looking up what the hell a Sacred Kin is.”
“Did you find anything interesting?” Yukiko shot her whiskey faster than he did. She poured herself another.
“They’re an interesting people. You’d find them fascinating. They have chromatophores in their skin and can change their coloring as camouflage.” Addison remembered the videos he’d seen of them and tried to explain. “During their evolution, there was a particularly nasty predator involved. The prey-predator relationship is what scientists think drove that piece of genetic neatness. I mean, it sucks to be prey, and obviously, their situation was worse than primitive humans had with a saber-toothed tiger, but their skin color thing is pretty.”
“You’re right; that would be fascinating. Now I’m sad I’m not on this mission with you.”
“I’d gladly let you take my place. I’m not good at this stuff. I don’t talk to people.”
“You’re talking to me.”
“Only because I had to talk to you for so many months when I came onboard. I got used to you.”
“Newsflash, Addy, that’s how it works. You talk, the other person talks back. You don’t actually have social anxiety, per se.” Yukiko scowled. “You don’t, do you? I’ve never seen any signs in you.”
He shook his head. “No, conversation doesn’t make me anxious but…” He let air escape him. Talking about this never got easier. “I don’t know the rules.”
“I’m aware, just as I’m aware that, despite being schooled, you never picked up on those sorts of social cues, nor do you recognize your worth.”
Addison forced himself to meet her gaze but couldn’t keep eye contact. “My schooling was with private tutors.”
She knew that of course, and his statement wasn’t the whole truth. He’d attended the academy after a few years of immersive education thanks to Hilde and Valdis. His determined aunts never let him quit on himself. It would have been easier to just implant the education, but it was an imperfect, illegal process that had high chances of basically lobotomizing a person. Most illegal mods like him, worker drones who counted for less than the equipment they manned, had gone through implantation. He’d worked with those lobotomized mods, or at least the ones still able to function. Some were violent, forced into wearing a “shock collar,” technically a neuroimplant and nothing the mod could have somehow removed. Addison hadn’t been collared, because implantation wasn’t needed for his work, and he’d been taken and modded at such a young age, he never knew there was life beyond his job and dorm room.
Implanting might be dangerous and illegal, but tethering was neither. Tethering, while slower, meant being literally wired into another person’s brain, and utterly unpleasant. There were reasons tethering was used only in extreme cases such as his. He didn’t so much have a mentor as he had someone willing to use their brain to train his. There had been an insane amount of catching up to do. He’d managed it but barely, or so it felt some days. That wasn’t the literal truth; he’d progressed further than he’d imagined and owed it all to his aunts.
Yukiko said nothing to his fallacious statement, just raised an eyebrow. Finally, she said, “Do you know anything personal about this man you’re escorting?”
He shook his head, grateful for the change of subject. “Not really, only that I’m to transport him to the conference. I guess they don’t think it’s necessary for me to know much about him since I’m merely the pilot and bodyguard.”
“You could always find your answers by asking him.”
“I’m not sure I can. That’s why I wanted to learn more about the Sacred Kin. It appears I can speak to him, but you know how some races are. They have a huge amount of rules and protocols. The Fyrians don’t seem to, but their Kin are special. They’re said to have special abilities other Fyrians don’t.”
“How so?” Yukiko quirked up her eyebrows.
“Records aren’t clear on that. I’m not sure if it’s a secret, or if the Fyrians don’t give it a second thought and assume everyone else knows. I’m sure if I dig around longer, I could find out more, but I probably should go make sure the shuttle is fully stocked, especially if I’m going to be stuck in that tiny thing for days with a stranger.”
“Maybe I should give you something to mellow out that personality of yours.” Yukiko shot him an “I’m so innocent” look.
He rolled his eyes. “Why are you my friend?”
“Because I can put up with your dourness.” She stood and dug in her pocket for something. “Computer, Dr. Hayashi, going off duty,” she said loudly for the benefit of the ship’s computer.
“I thought you already were.”
“No, just checking on my favorite patient. Try not to get yourself taken apart this time. I’m getting tired of playing with the meat puzzles you make out of yourself.”
He huffed at her. “Never my plan to get hurt, but I am part of the ship’s tactical and security crew.”
“With a stunted sense of self preservation.”
He couldn’t argue. Drones like him were replaceable meat sacks to the corporations dirty enough to use them. Making friends and keeping himself alive were still relatively new concepts for him. “Maybe.”
“And if I was on duty, I couldn’t do this.” She bent over and tossed her arms around him, giving him a powerful hug. She held something odd in her hand, but he ignored it as he leaned into the embrace. Hugging he’d gotten used to. His aunts were huggers, and he found he liked the comfort of being in someone’s arms. He reached up and embraced her in kind.
When Yukiko let him go, she handed him a small brocaded silk pouch. “For you. Keep it on your person.”
He stared at the pouch and then tried to open it. Yukiko snatched it from his hand.
“Never open the pouch. It drains the power.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Inside the pouch is an omamori, a Shinto protective charm. I made the omamori for you. This one is a yaku-yoke for the avoidance of evil. They used to be issued by shrines. It’s more commercial these days, of course. Has been for centuries.” Yukiko shrugged. “I guess they’re remnants from a time long ago, but an omamori still means something to a lot of people.”
“Do you believe in this sort of thing?” Addison waggled the charm. “Are you Shinto?”
She stared at him for a moment. “You’ve never been interested in religion before, but I guess I am the one who brought it up. Yes, I do believe.”
Addison stood and put the charm in his rucksack. “I have no beliefs at all. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that. You know how I was raised before the captain took me in. I can’t say she’s particularly religious either, but thinking about the Sacred Kin has me wondering about how faith works.”
“I’m not sure you can approach it logically, Addy.”
He shrugged. “I have no other means in which to do it. For me, religion is an academic exercise. I don’t have enough time to really study the Fyrian religion, so I guess I’ll have to keep my mouth shut about that topic for most of the trip unless he brings it up. I could listen. I’m pretty good at that.”
“Sounds like a plan. All right, I’ll leave you to finish prepping for the trip. Hope it’s nice and boring and you come back safe.”
He hoped it would at least be more boring than Telsama.
Jana is Queen of the Geeks (her students voted her in), and her home and office are shrines to any number of comic book and manga heroes along with SF shows and movies too numerous to count. It’s no coincidence that the love of all things geeky has made its way into many of her stories. To this day, she’s disappointed she hasn’t found a wardrobe to another realm, a superhero to take her flying among the clouds, or a roguish starship captain to run off to the stars with her.