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IN THE NORTHERN PORTION OF THE TETON Range stood a mountain as proud and immovable as the man whose revolution hid within its depths. In the grand scheme of the area, it seemed an unspectacular thing. Too small to interest climbers, too low to stand above its siblings in the region, the mountain’s jagged face rose, nevertheless, in simple defiance of its averageness. It had the countenance of a warrior, with craggy heights shaped by time and element. Concealing a network of tunnels and machinery, it was Jared Bennett’s most important base, crucial to the rebellion he housed within its shadow.
Today, Jared was inspecting one minuscule piece of that vast military framework, staring across a large hangar filled with a fleet of fighters his engineers had spent the past nine months testing. Sleek and black, the planes had moved stealthily along Earth’s surface in test flights that had taken his pilots from California to Japan and onward over to Europe, then back across the East Coast of this country they called their temporary home.
A hydraulic lift approached, sounding warning beeps as it backed up to one craft’s side. Jared’s engineers stood back, waiting, as always, for their commander’s approval. He mounted the steps, climbing upward toward the craft’s cockpit. For a moment, he appraised the plane’s design, appreciating its powerful styling.
“Tight little things, aren’t they?” Jared remarked to one of the engineers, running his fingertips over the dull black surface of the wing. His deep voice echoed off the hangar’s ceiling, which stood a good forty feet overhead.
His chief engineer stepped forward and smiled, obviously pleased with the praise. “We’ve worked hard on the design,” the man said, releasing the hatch with the flick of a switch on his handheld control. “Room for two, but still light enough to go long distances without refueling.”
Jared stared into the open cockpit, itching to take the craft out for a test. Even after some harrowing recent engagements, the fighter in him still needed to get off the ground again—and soon. He reached out an appreciative hand to stroke the buttery-soft leather of the pilot’s seat. “Comfortable too,” he said with an admiring nod.
From the cement floor below, Scott Dillon glared up at him, and he could read the warning that flared in his friend’s eyes: Don’t go getting any ideas, Commander. If his chief lieutenant had his way, Jared would never go up again, but that simply wasn’t an option. Not only did their strategy necessitate his involvement, he also refused to be grounded like some impotent figurehead.
Jared hoisted himself up onto the side of the craft, and was already planting one boot inside when his intelligence commander, Thea Haven, trotted across the hangar toward him. From the expression on her face, he could tell long before she reached him that there was a serious problem, and he swung back down to face her.
“The elders have gathered,” she announced, standing at ease after he returned her salute. “They’re calling you to chambers, sir.”
“The occasion?” He glanced across the hangar toward the darkened assembly room where he always met with his council. Nervousness shot through his heart; the elders never convened unless something truly serious warranted it.
Thea’s blue gaze darted toward Scott, and Jared had the sense that his two commanders had already discussed the matter. She seemed ready to tell him more, but then inclined her head respectfully. “Sir, they wait for you,” was all she said.
* * *
JARED TOOK HIS PLACE IN THE DATA portal, sliding into the throne-like chair, and immediately the sensory scan of his vitals began. First his cornea, the red filter light sweeping over both of his eyes. Then, as he flattened his palms on the electrode pads, he felt a slight tingling as his fingerprints and energy readings were verified. For an answering moment, there was only the quiet hum of data renewal, and he allowed his eyes to drift shut, fighting back the wave of anxiety that meeting with his council always evoked.
In the darkened chamber, the council members began to appear in a semicircle about him. Not literally—they were, of course, back on Refaria. But thanks to technology that accessed energy packets flowing through wormholes (which allowed them to move faster than the speed of light), he and the elders were able to interact in these chambers in real time, even across the vast distance that separated them. Reflexively his fingers tightened around the metallic arm of his chair. In turn, each elder made the traditional sign of respect: a slight bow, then one hand over the heart, a proud yet reverent stance. And he damned well hated it; he always did. Still, someone along the way—perhaps Scott, or maybe Thea, he wasn’t sure—had reminded him that the people needed the traditions, even if he did not require them. Even if he did not want them.
Once the full council had fully surrounded him, he shifted in his chair in an effort to make himself comfortable, then invited them to speak.
Aldorsk, the chief elder who had once advised his father, stepped forward into a clear beam of silvery light. “My lord,” he began, his voice scratchy as he spoke slowly in their native tongue: “I feel certain you know the reason why we gather today. Indeed, you must.”
Oh, indeed. He had hoped it wasn’t true, but the furtive glances between Scott and Thea had left him pretty damned sure. Scowling, he waved for the man to continue.
“With all respect, the council feels the need to remind our leader that he has no heir.”
“Your leader has no position,” he countered, crossing one long leg over the other uncomfortably. If they wanted to force him onto a throne, couldn’t they at least create one to accommodate his full height? “Your leader,” he reminded all eight of them, his voice curt, “helms a small, fractured rebellion on an alien planet.”
A hushed cry swept the room, heard even across the great intergalactic distance that separated them. “You underestimate the situation,” the head councilman answered softly. “Need I remind you that the mitres are nearly opened? The tide in this war turns daily.”
Unable to help himself, Jared released a rough growl of frustration, closing his eyes against the image of the elders gathered before him. “I am a warrior, not a king,” he replied, wrestling to regain his patience. “I do not intend to take a mate.”
“My lord, you have but five years left in your fertile time.” This remark came from Dalne, the youngest council member. Leave it to a woman to speak so frankly about his approaching infertility. “That is, if we are fortunate. Perhaps less than that.”
“You make your leader sound quite inexperienced.” He laughed, working to deflect the council’s efforts at persuasion. “As if he does not know his own body.”
“Sir, it has nothing to do with….” Dalne’s words trailed to nothing, and she glanced anxiously at the others for help.
Jared chose to take the lead. “I am no virgin, and do not require these lessons that the council seems determined to issue.”
Aldorsk stepped forward, attempting to placate him. “My lord, we mean no—”
Jared cut her off. “I also know that any other Refarian male would have at least ten years left in his fertile time.” He yielded a coarse rumble. “Perhaps fifteen. I possess a finicky, problematic bloodline, do I not?”
Blushing, Dalne made a low bow. “Forgive me for saying what you’d rather not hear, sir.” One look into Councilor Dalne’s eyes revealed her extreme agitation. It couldn’t be an enjoyable task, reminding him that his fertility approached an end—and at such a relatively young age. Thank the gods that his council didn’t know that he’d never passed through so much as a single mating cycle. Mate or no mate, he should at least have experienced the fever by how; after all, at thirty, such was commonplace for those of his line.
With a cough, he made a polite change of subject. “Dalne, what is the weather like at Mareshtakes today?” As she glanced over her shoulder, he could imagine that she gazed out a window at their council’s hidden encampment back on Refaria.
“The sun shines bright, sir,” Dalne answered with a cautious smile. “The temperature is mild, breezy.”
Tilting his head backward, he tried to picture his beloved ocean, restless and rolling with waves. He could smell the brine so clearly that his chest literally tightened with the memory of it. He repeated her words like a prayer: “The sun shines bright.”
“It is middle day at the moment,” she continued. “Cloudless, and the tide ebbs low.”
A wistful smile passed his lips. “Ah, Mareshtakes was always most beautiful at low tide.” That was when the rocks could be seen, refracting the sunlight in all its glorious, prismatic color.
Six years, and he’d not been home. Six years, and he’d led this revolution from Earth, never looking back. With the war’s escalation, this alien planet had been deemed the safest place for him, hidden far from his enemies back on Refaria. But he’d grown weary of the campaigns; weary enough that he did long for a mate sometimes, though not on their terms.
They had but one woman in mind for him, his second cousin and trusted lieutenant, Thea Haven. Narrowing his eyes, he allowed his gaze to travel the semicircle. “Make note of one thing,” he said, his voice tightening over the words. “I do not intend to bond with Thea. Nor do I intend to mate at all.”
A rumble of objection and argument erupted, but he disengaged from the portal, decisively silencing their complaints. He had listened, which was all they required of him; in the end, the decision fell to him, and his decision stood. To remain alone was the only choice for a wartime commander.
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