alien arcana (starships mage book 4)

Alien Arcana

By Glynn Stewart

Copyright 2016 by Glynn Stewart

All rights reserved. This eBook is licensed for the personal enjoyment of the original purchaser only. This eBook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons— living or dead— is entirely coincidental. 

Cover art Copyright 2016 by Jack Giesen  

 

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 1

 

Professor Yoshi Kurosawa, Mage, Rune Scribe, and holder of PhDs in xenoarchaeology from several of Mars’s most prestigious universities, would not have described himself as bored. He had an entire centuries-old alien facility to investigate.

But after a year in the Andala System, digging through the scraps and the wreckage of what had once been
someone’s
refueling station, Yoshi was starting to wish they would find
something
interesting.

The Rune Scribe was on Andala IV because the ruin there was the only evidence humanity had ever found of aliens with interstellar travel—and humanity only traveled the stars by the magic of the Jump Mages and their runic jump matrices.

He’d hoped, when he’d agreed to the placement, to find alien runes in the wreckage. The complex wasn’t
small
, after all. Six domes, each over six hundred meters across, on top of an underground structure that stretched dozens of levels into the ground.

It had been a refueling station once. They hadn’t found any evidence of gas extraction facilities at the gas giant in the system, but the ruins had once contained massive, billion-liter tanks of hydrogen. Their contents were long evaporated now, but the tanks remained.

Checking his breather, Yoshi wandered deeper into the ruins. While the humans had attached a prefabricated habitat to the alien dome that had been the focus of their investigations so far, the planet’s atmosphere was toxic to humans. There was enough oxygen in it to be breathed, though, so simply filtering out the high carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide content was enough for humans to survive.

The domes were mostly intact and had shielded their interior structures and the underground tunnels from the planet’s weather. Over three years of investigation, the archaeologists had cleared and cataloged twelve floors and subbasements of three of the domes.

Water and collapsed tunnels had stopped them going deeper. The current plan was to clear and catalog
every
dome as deep as they could go, which frustrated Yoshi to no end.

He’d seen the drone video of the rest of the complex. There were no runes there, not even where there
should
be. No gravity runes. No defensive spells. No emergency atmospheric magic. None of the things that humanity would have included in this facility.

It was possible, of course, that the aliens
did
have a technological method of faster-than-light travel, in which case they wouldn’t have the magic that Yoshi wanted to find. Except that the technology they
had
found was no more advanced than humanity’s—cruder, in many cases, than modern human tech.

Yoshi wasn’t
supposed
to come down and stare at the collapsed tunnels leading deeper into the alien base. As he was one of the most senior scientists and the only Mage in the research team, though, there wasn’t really anyone to tell him
not
to.

The walls around him were smooth rock, either cut or smoothed by lasers long enough before that humanity hadn’t even
had
the technology. Some failure of design or intervention of nature in the centuries since had first bowed and then shattered the roof of the curving stairwell leading deeper into the underground complex.

Magic twitched in his hands, the Gift of his Martian bloodline
itching
to serve his curiosity, and Yoshi laughed softly to himself. Opening up the lower levels would take time and energy for the rest of the expedition. They would bring in heavy equipment and carefully remove the rubble, shoring up the roof with supports and bracing.

He could just…open it.

There were a hundred reasons why he shouldn’t, but at that moment, deep in the bowels of an alien base that utterly
refused
to reveal its secrets to him, none of them came to mind.

Softly humming to himself through the breather, Yoshi gave in to temptation. Power flowed through his body as he carefully considered the debris, continuing to hum as he reached out his hands and unleashed the energies he commanded.

Yoshi Kurosawa was a Martian-born Mage by Blood, born to one of the oldest families of Mages and descended directly from the survivors of the Eugenicists’ Project Olympus. For all that he was an old man now and had been an academic his entire life, he was a
powerful
Mage.

The fallen stones bent to his will. They lifted, adjusting and merging together to form a new supporting archway through the debris. It wasn’t large, just enough for Yoshi himself to walk through, and he wasn’t a tall man.

A few minutes of magic, an exertion of will no one else in the research team could match, and a tired-but-pleased Yoshi walked through his new tunnel to see what secrets the debris had hidden.

At first, his light fell on the same smoothed stone and ancient light fixtures that had been present on the other side of the cave-in, but he hadn’t expected anything different.

Carefully and gently, he walked deeper into spaces where no human had ever set foot. His breather warned him the air here was different from outside. Staler. It still had enough oxygen for the machine to function, though, so he carried on.

Turning a corner, however, he stepped into an open gallery, and his breather calmly informed him it was now redundant. Surprised, he checked the readings on the device through his wrist computer. The air still wasn’t perfect for human consumption, but it was far closer than it had been even a few steps back. The carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide had been reduced to levels that wouldn’t harm him.

Yoshi looked around him. Someone, long before, had gone to a lot of effort to make the gallery look as welcoming as a two-hundred-meter-long cavern could. He stood on a balcony around a third floor, looking down at a floor ten meters below, centered around what had clearly been some kind of fountain. Murals of strange and alien trees, now flaking and faded, had been painted on the walls.

Part of the roof had collapsed at some point in the intervening centuries, leaving debris scattered across what had once been some kind of market concourse, but this had clearly been a place for rest and relaxation for visiting ships’ crews—and had been set up to preserve atmosphere somehow.

Yoshi knelt next to the murals, brushing aside debris and dirt as he searched for what he
knew
had to be there. No technological solution could have lasted this long.

It wasn’t in the murals, he realized after a moment. It was in the
safety railing
. The safety barrier around the balcony had been laser-carved from the original stone, and the top layer then bleached white—and inlaid with familiar silver runes.

“Yes!” Yoshi shouted aloud, pulling his camera around to take pictures and record
everything
. It wasn’t much—just a simple spell to maintain atmosphere in this massive space—but they were
runes
.
Still-functioning
runes of an alien race.

He was starting to salivate over the potential lessons humanity could learn from studying a completely different species’s approach to magic when his computer happily started popping up recognition notes for the matrix.

He stared in shock as his computer happily translated the matrix into normal human diagram summaries. It recognized the symbols. That was
impossible
.

Dropping to his knees once more, Yoshi Kurosawa studied the silver inlay with a critical eye. Looking for it now, he saw what his computer, following its basic programming, had seen instantly. The runes weren’t alien. They weren’t even just similar to the Martian Runic script humanity used.

It
was
Martian Runic.

But no being of any kind had set foot in these buried lower levels since before humanity had relearned magic. They’d
dated
the debris—the tunnel he’d opened had collapsed before Martian Runic had been invented…which meant…

“Damn,” a voice murmured softly behind him. “I’m sorry, Professor. I’d really hoped you wouldn’t find anything.”

Yoshi jerked back to his feet, turning to find Samara Hollins behind him. His tall, athletic student wore the same breather as he did—but instead of carrying a light, she was wearing light-gathering optics. Military gear that would have enabled her to sneak through the abandoned base without being seen.

“What are you doing here, Samara?” he asked, then shook it aside in the excitement of his discovery. “Come take a look at this,” he told her. “These runes! They’re Martian Runic—
exactly
. That means…”

“I know,” she cut him off coldly. “I know what they are, I know what that means. I don’t suppose I could convince you to stay quiet about this?”

Yoshi stared at her in shock.

“This is the find of a lifetime!” he snapped. “What can you possibly mean,
stay quiet about it
?!”

In answer, his student conjured blue witch fire around her hands—burning off both the gloves she wore and another layer of skin-toned covering he’d never realized she wore. A chill ran down Yoshi’s spine as he realized Samara had a projector rune carved into her hand—a rune only given to
Combat Mages
.

“You’re a Mage?” he demanded. “I don’t understand.”

“I was sent here to make sure no one discovered what you just found, Professor,” she said sadly. “If you will not keep silent, then my orders are to silence you.”

Witch fire flashed from her hand, but she’d talked for too long and Yoshi was no fool. A shield of frozen air flashed into existence between them, Yoshi backing away as he drew on half-forgotten training to try to defend himself.

More fire hammered against his shield, and a tug of force tore his feet out from underneath him. The old professor fell, feeling his bones
snap
as he slammed into ancient stone.

“I’m sorry, Professor,” Samara said gently. “But there are secrets I am sworn to keep.”

Yoshi Kurosawa would
not
die on his knees. Power flashed through him, lines of force supporting old and broken limbs as he rose to his feet once more and
attacked
. Waves of pure force flashed across the space between them, throwing Samara back as he struggled to remain standing.

She used magic to control her movement, twisting in the air to land on her feet like a cat and then sending more fire hammering back at him.

Focused on standing, he’d dropped the shield. Witch fire hammered into his flesh, setting muscles and nerves alike on fire. Somehow, he remained up and flung lightning and force back at her.

She dodged, sidestepping his wild attack with the ease of practice. Whatever Samara Hollins was, she was
not
a xenoarchaeology grad student!

Her counterstrike hammered into a hastily raised shield, force and flame flinging him backward. Yoshi barely had time to realize the only thing behind him was the railing when he slammed the old carved stone with an echoing
snap
.

It was only when his legs and hands refused to respond to him that he realized he’d snapped his back in multiple places against the safety railing. He tried to summon his magic, bring himself back to his knees, but only sputters of power answered him.

Then he
was
rising, but not under
his
power. He looked down at Samara, who held him suspended in the air.

“Dammit, Yoshi,” she whispered, “you could have been one of us.”

Then she threw him over the balcony.

 

Chapter 2

 

Damien Montgomery, Hand of the Mage-King of Mars, found detention center interview rooms spectacularly creepy. He didn’t have particularly fond memories of them, though today was the first time he’d been on the
interviewing
side of one quite so reminiscent of his stay in a Corinthian cell so many years ago.

The young woman sitting across from him would probably have looked small and harmless to most, but Damien was easily ten centimeters shorter than she and even skinnier. He didn’t underestimate his
own
threat level, so he doubted that Roslyn Chambers was as harmless as she looked.

She sat silently, judging him in turn while probably wondering why she’d been summoned there. The closed golden fist of his symbol of office hung openly outside his suit, a stark contrast to the shapeless jumpsuit the Tau Ceti Landing City Juvenile Detention Center had stuck Chambers in.

“Care to tell me why I’m here?” the girl demanded. According to the records Damien had been shown, she had turned eighteen in detention and was being released shortly, her youth sentence finally up.

“You have an interesting record, Miss Chambers,” Damien told her in half-answer, projecting the details he’d been given onto the plain metal table from his wrist personal computer. “Let’s see.”

He tapped a command, zooming through the list he’d read when Chambers’ counselor had sent it up to Damien’s ship with her request for a favor.

“Brilliant student, pride of the Chambers family, one of Tau Ceti’s first and most famous Mage families,” he noted. “Until, at age fifteen, everything seemed to go to pieces. Four allegations of assault, one dropped, two settled out of court, and one where the individual tried to press charges. The note here suggests that after interviewing the witnesses, the young gentleman who tried to press charges ended up facing charges of his own.

“Suspected association with an illegal Mage duel,” he continued. “Resulted in over fifty thousand in damages—paid by a third party, and the owners of the property declined afterwards to assist in the investigation.

“No less than
fourteen
incidents of vandalism you were either linked to or implicated in, but,
strangely
, none of the damaged parties chose to press charges,” Damien noted dryly. “A curious Tau Ceti Bureau of Investigation officer turned up that the damaged parties were all compensated for damages in exchange for ironclad nondisclosure agreements.

“And not quite lastly, seven counts of minor to moderate petty theft that the TCBI is sure of, all settled without police involvement,” he concluded.

“I have to wonder, Miss Chambers, how many incidents aren’t in this file that your parents covered up before you stole—and
wrecked
—Royal Tester Karl Anders’s personal car while he was visiting their estate.”

“Nothing except Anders’s car was ever proven,” Chambers told him, her nose elevated slightly as she managed to look down on him despite the fact she was handcuffed to a chair.

“A pattern still emerges,” he pointed out. “What pattern do you see, Miss Chambers?”

“That I’m handcuffed to a chair with a creepy dude reading my life story to me,” she replied. “What’s the damn point?”

“I can tell you the pattern the Navy recruiter saw,” Damien said quietly. “Ninety-eight percentile in Practical Thaumaturgy. Ninety-fourth percentile in Thaumaturgic Theory. Average ninety-fifth in all secondary academic testing
except
Law and Ethics. Fifty-second percentile in Law and Ethics. A pattern of dysfunctional behavior covered up by your family.

“Mages by Blood sometimes believe there are no consequences for their actions. Your parents tried to shield you from them, but the Royal Martian Navy is not
blind
, Miss Chambers.”

She wilted in the chair.

“All I ever got was ‘rejected’,” she admitted.

“I should also note,” he continued, his voice still soft, “that your conviction for grand theft auto, while a youth conviction thanks to your parents’ influence, has still resulted in your admission to the Tau Ceti Jump Mage Academy being revoked.

“You walk out of here in three days,” he concluded, “but you have nowhere to go but home.”

“So, what’s the fucking point of this, then?” she demanded. “A Mage by Right here to gloat over one of the lucky ones born to it fucking it all up? What do you
want
, Montgomery?”

Damien hadn’t actually given her his name, though he was hardly surprised that she knew who he was. The Hands of the Mage-King of Mars were his roving warrior-judges who spoke with his voice and held what the Romans had once called
imperium
—the right to command the Protectorate military.

There were also only fourteen of them right now. Small and inoffensive as Damien was, people tended not to associate him with the public images of Lord Hand Damien Montgomery, but Chambers knew his office and could draw the connection.

She was a smart kid. Which was, of course,
why
Damien was there.

“I’m wondering how someone with so much going for them fucked up so badly,” he responded bluntly, throwing her profanity back in her face. “Though I’ll note that I see a different pattern then the Navy recruiters did when you took the intake exam.”

“And what pattern does the mighty Hand see?”

“Someone in pain,” he told her. “Lashing out for attention, only to have the consequences smoothed away by the very people you want to
see
you. Until, eventually, you found something even your parents couldn’t bury with money and influence.

“So tell me, Miss Chambers”—he leaned forward to hold her dark eyes levelly—“given what I’m guessing, why is Ronald Armstrong still breathing? Even at fifteen, you could have broken his neck. Hell, even leaving him alive, you could have told the prosecutors what happened where no one else could see.”

“You can’t know about that,” she snapped. “
No one
knows about that. Except…”

Chambers sank her face into her hands.

“I told Karen in confidence,” she whispered. “I couldn’t… I wouldn’t…”

“Karen Jakab is the cousin of the commander of my cruiser,” Damien told her. “She begged a favor of him and he begged a favor of me—and I owe Kole Jakab more than I can count. So, I’m here. Looking at a girl who let an idiot ruin her life. Sound about right?”

She didn’t lift her face.

“What do you
want
?” she repeated, her voice very quiet. “My parents are…well, my parents”—a pair of senior judges in Tau Ceti’s Compact Judicial system, the separate justice system for Mages—“but Armstrong… his father was the
Governor
.”

Which had meant that Ronald Armstrong had dodged facing adult sexual assault charges—something he wouldn’t have dodged for an attempted rape charge. It also meant that he’d been dumb enough to try to charge Chambers for assault after she’d punched him out and fled the party.

Getting arrested and dropped into Tau Ceti’s Juvenile Detention system with its mandatory counselor visits was probably the best thing that could have happened to Chambers after that, short of her actually talking to her parents. Something that Damien could almost understand her being unwilling to do.

“Once, not that long ago, I sat where you are, in a room very much like this one,” Damien told her. “I faced having my magic stripped because no one would believe what I said. While where you sit isn’t quite
that
bad, you’ve lost a lot.”

She nodded.

“But you’ve been a model prisoner and your counselor thinks you have a great deal of potential, so I’m here,” Damien concluded. “You still want to be a Navy officer, Roslyn Chambers? Why?”

“Yeah,” she admitted. “Because…because…someone has to stop the bullies of the world. No matter the scale,” she finished fiercely, finally raising her head to look back at him.

“Good,” he told her. “Here’s the deal: you walk out of here in three days. The next intake exam for the Navy is in six months. You stay out of trouble and keep seeing your counselor for those six months and
pass
the ethics chunk of the exam, and I’ll put a letter on file that has your record ignored.

“You’ll enter the academy a year late, but having
seen
your test scores, I don’t think that will slow you down,” Damien finished. “Do you think you can do that, Roslyn? I can tell you the Protectorate needs every smart Mage it can get into uniform.”

“Even battered ones who’ve fucked up everything?” she asked.

“That’s why I’m offering you a chance to
un
-fuck everything,” he replied.

 

#

 

“Well?”

Damien nodded silently to Warden Conner, gesturing for the older man to show him to his office. With a sigh, the Warden obeyed. The instant obedience of most public officials to Damien’s office always bothered him. He shared dark hair and a slim build with the Warden, but Conner was easily thirty centimeters taller than him.

Entering the sparsely furnished office Conner ran the planet’s largest juvenile detention center from, the lanky prison warden repeated his question.

“Well? What do you think?”

“There’s a good kid in there,” Damien told Conner, looking around the man’s office. If you didn’t know you were in a prison, you’d have thought you were in a high school teacher’s office. The shelf of books on teaching and connecting with teenagers belonged in either, but the cheerful motivational posters had gone out of style everywhere
but
high schools.

“There’s a good kid in almost all of them,” the Warden replied. “There aren’t many irredeemable sixteen-year-olds, my lord. Some—but most of those end up in adult prisons. You think she’ll take you up on it?”

“I think so,” the Hand told him, squinting in thought. “I hope so, anyway. The Navy could use her.”

Even with Conner, he couldn’t admit that the Navy was quietly starting to prepare for war. No one expected anything
soon
, but Damien and the other Hands kept finding Legatan supplies and agents buried inside the conflicts they were sent to resolve.

Every
smart young Mage was needed. Damien wasn’t certain what was coming—but he had his suspicions.

“I’ll leave a letter of instructions for the Navy recruiters with Miss Jakab,” Damien continued. “My understanding is that she’ll continue to act as Chambers’s counselor after her release.”

“That is generally our preference, though I’ll admit our counselors are
always
overloaded,” Conner admitted with a sigh. “We have just over twelve hundred kids in this place, and we cycle through over three thousand every year. I’m…honestly shocked you made the time to come down here.”

“You do good work here,” the Hand told him. “Though, admittedly, I’m on vacation and I owe Karen Jakab’s cousin a few dozen favors.” He smiled sadly. “Not least, I’m ‘on vacation’ because I got his ship shot up, and for some reason, the Navy wanted to
fix
it.”

Conner paused, clearly digesting that.

“Doesn’t Karen’s cousin command a battlecruiser?” he asked plaintively.

“Yes,” Damien confirmed. “The Navy lends it to me as a transport, and we got in some trouble last month.”

The prison warden shook his head at the concept of someone
shooting
at a cruiser of the Royal Martian Navy and checked his wrist-comp quickly.

“It’s almost time for the assembly you agreed to,” he noted. “I hope you don’t mind, but I pulled in all of the detainees, Mage and mundane.”

“If you hadn’t, Warden Conner, you’d be spending the next few minutes scrambling to fix that,” Damien replied. “If my time here leads even one of these kids to make better choices when they leave, it was a worthwhile side trip. Show me the way?”

 

Chapter 3

 

Being on vacation, as much as a Hand
ever
actually went on vacation, meant that Damien had the
time
to do things like address an entire prison full of teenagers on how they could turn their lives around. He doubted any of the teenagers actually
believed
he’d been a wanted fugitive at one point, but if even a handful of them listened and ended up in a Protectorate uniform, it had been worth it.

Since
he
was on vacation, though, he’d sent his
staff
on vacation. That meant that instead of Julia Amiri watching his back, he had a very earnest squad of Royal Martian Marines—who were intimidated enough by the Hand and his history not to argue when he’d told them to go grab a bite to eat with the prison guards.

Despite that, three of them were waiting for him when he left the auditorium stage, their faces grim.

“Sir, we just received a transmission from Mage-Admiral Segal,” said the squad leader, a Combat Mage-Lieutenant named Denis Romanov who was almost as earnest as Damien suspected himself of being. “He’s requested a secured channel to you as soon as you’re available.”

The Hand glanced back at the door behind him. Conner was still speaking to his detainees on the other side.

“Did he say how urgent?” he asked the Mage.

The young Mage-Lieutenant clearly thought that
any
request from an Admiral was high priority and shrugged in response.

“Corporal Levant,” Damien turned to one of the two junior Marines. “Could you please pass my regrets on to Warden Conner? It appears duty calls.”

The soldier nodded his agreement, and the Hand turned back to the commander of his temporary bodyguard.

“Lead the way, Lieutenant Romanov.”

 

#

 

Since he mostly made his home on a Navy warship, Damien also used a Marine assault shuttle as his personal transport. It made life easier for his bodyguards, in the worst-case scenario he could fly it by himself, and it was often helpful to impress on people that the barely one hundred and fifty centimeter–tall quiet man in a tailored suit was dangerous.

It had other advantages, though. Since it was designed to function as a mobile command post as well as a delivery system and weapons platform, the shuttle had a small officers’ compartment tucked in behind the cockpit, with a full communications suite.

Activating the privacy shield, Damien brought up the encryption system and entered a sequence that would connect him to Mage-Admiral Segal’s flagship. A burly young man with pitch-black skin and hair appeared on his screen.

“Lieutenant Salil Ali speaking, how can I assist…Hand Montgomery!” Without even rising from his chair, the youth managed to stiffen to attention and salute crisply. “What do you need, my lord?”

“Admiral Segal requested to speak with me,” Damien replied. “Is he available?”

“He’s on the flag bridge, but he left orders for you to be connected to him immediately,” Ali replied. “Give me a minute, my lord.”

The screen faded into the stylized rocket-and-red-planet logo of the Royal Martian Navy for less than a minute, then a new image appeared on his screen.

Mage-Admiral Aaron Segal was a short man, not much taller than Damien himself, with broad shoulders and salt and pepper hair. He was turned out as perfectly as always, his navy blue uniform perfectly crisp and gold stars polished to a shine.

Something about his eyes, though, told Damien all was not well.

“My Lord Hand,” he greeted Damien. “How was your visit to the detention center?”

“Hopefully productive,” the young man replied. “It doesn’t take many minds changed to make a trip like that worth it. I received your message. What did you need to talk to me about?”

“Are you familiar with the Andala System, Lord Montgomery?” Segal asked.

Damien ran the name through his mind, remembering what he’d heard about it.

“Uninhabited system with alien ruins,” he dredged up. “We have some kind of research base there, right?”

“We do,” Segal confirmed. “Jointly funded by the top, oh, thirty universities in the Protectorate. I haven’t seen anything more exciting than a pottery party out of the expedition until the weekly courier dropped back into Tau Ceti two hours ago and transmitted an urgent priority message.”

“What kind of urgent priority does a camp full of scientists
have
?” Damien asked.

“Murder,” the Admiral said flatly. “Professor Yoshi Kurosawa apparently made an unauthorized breach into the previously sealed lower levels. He was a Mage and a Rune Scribe, and the lack of any evidence of magical capability in the Andalan facility’s upper levels bored him.

“His students found his body,” he concluded. “He was killed with magic, Damien—and he was supposed to be the only Mage in the system.”

“So, a mystery,” Damien murmured. Despite himself, he was intrigued—though he still didn’t see just why the Admiral had reached out to him. “I believe the Martian Investigation Service has a Tau Ceti station. We can spare a Marine escort with a few Combat Mages to keep the MIS team safe, can’t we?”

“We can, but I did contact you for a reason, my lord,” Segal replied. “Damien…Kurosawa found what he was looking for. His students found at least one fully functioning rune matrix in the room where they found his body.”

A fully functioning rune matrix.

A fully functioning
alien
rune matrix. That was the dream of any Rune Scribe like Kurosawa—and Damien finally understood why Segal had contacted him.

“I could send an MIS team and a dozen Rune Scribes,” Segal told him. “Or…I could ask a Rune Wright, who’ll sort out in an hour what would take the Scribes a year, to take a look.

“And since said Rune Wright is a
Hand
, with more investigative and police authority than any MIS team…”

Damien snorted and conceded the point.

There were, to his knowledge, exactly five Rune Wrights in the Protectorate. Two were the minor children of the Mage-King of Mars. Two others were the Mage-King of Mars and his sister. The last was Damien Montgomery himself.

Unlike other Mages, the Rune Wrights could
see
the flow of magic in runes, understand the use of a rune matrix in a glance instead of taking painstaking hours to read it. The additional understanding meant that Damien and the others could do many things ordinary Mages couldn’t—among other things, design the Runes of Power that they carved into their flesh, dramatically augmenting their own power.

That same Sight would enable him to read alien runes, understanding them regardless of how much or little they shared with humanity’s script.

“I’ll still need the MIS team,” he told Segal. “My Secret Service detachment is down to the bare minimum. I
am
on vacation,” he pointed out. “I’ll also need a ship.
Duke of Magnificence
is several weeks from being ready to deploy again.”

“I have a Navy armed courier I was going to put at the Investigation Service’s disposal,” Segal replied with a grin. “I can place it at your command instead.”

“I’ll take it,” Damien agreed. “I’ll need to speak to His Majesty first, though. This does seem sufficiently low-key, I think he’ll agree to let me cut my vacation short.”

 

#

 

Unlike the Andala System with its tiny research base or even many of the poorer systems of the Protectorate, Tau Ceti had a Runic Transceiver Array. Unlike even wealthier system, Tau Ceti had two—one for each of the two inhabited worlds, Tau Ceti
e
and Tau Ceti
f
.

The system had been one of the earliest settlements after the first Mage-King concluded the Compact that defined the relationship between man and Mage, and it had the wealth and industry to show it. Massive stations orbited ahead of each world, shielding them from the fields of meteors and comets that had regularly shattered the biospheres of both worlds before humanity had settled them.

Amidst the many signs of wealth and progress were the RTAs. Many systems didn’t have any. Damien’s own homeworld of Sherwood had been more able to afford an entire
fleet
of warships than a single Array. The Sherwood Array, partially funded by the Protectorate after the events of the last few months, would come online soon.

The nature of the Arrays prevented more than one being installed on a planet: they flung the voice of a Mage inside them across the galaxy to the target world and were only so accurate. Even an entire planet was a tiny target on that scale.

Tau Ceti was the only system with two of the massive black spherical facilities. Sol alone had more, with one each on Earth, Mars and Ganymede.

Damien’s rank and authority cleared him a fifteen-minute slot at the Tau Ceti
f
Array. His Marines led the way through the rune-encrusted obsidian hallways, his pair of Secret Service agents trailing behind. He’d given the Array short enough notice that they clearly hadn’t informed all of their staff, and he felt guilty as the various functionaries and administrative staff either pressed themselves against walls or cleared out of the way.

“Lieutenant Romanov,” he said softly, gesturing for the Combat Mage currently acting as his chief bodyguard to drop back and join him. “Remind me next time to warn them I apparently bring multitudes.”

That got a glimpse of a smile out of the perpetually serious soldier.

“I’m in contact with Array security,” Romanov murmured back. “We should be clear to the transmission chamber now.”

The number of staff the Marines had to gently move aside dropped off as they progressed, until the final layer of the immense onion-like structure of obsidian walls and silver runes was completely clear except for a single redheaded Mage in a uniform-like robe.

“I am Transceiver Elva Santiago,” she told him. “We have cleared the secondary receiving chamber as requested, though we do have a recorder running in case any side transmissions come in. Per Guild rules, of course, we will remove your transmission from the recording, and you may verify this yourself afterwards.”

Damien smiled at the older woman.

“Miss Santiago, I have studied the history of the Protectorate with a careful eye, and
never
have the Transceiver Mages broken their oaths of confidentiality,” he reminded her. “I appreciate your efforts, however. A review of the recording will not be necessary this time.”

She inclined her head.

“The chamber is prepared for you,” she told him.

 

#

 

“So, both Segal and I agree that a Rune Wright would be ideal,” Damien concluded after summarizing the incident at Andala. “Which means me, my liege. While I hesitate to call the murder unimportant, I’m not sure a Hand is needed for that investigation—but if a Rune Wright is needed anyway, I see no reason not to handle that as well.”

“You
are
supposed to be on leave,” Desmond Michael Alexander the Third, Mage-King of Mars and Protector of Humanity, answered calmly. “That whole mess in Sherwood and Míngliàng was rather enough trouble. Are you sure you’re up to this?”

Damien sighed. A
lot
of people had died when a mining rights conflict between those two systems had nearly been fanned into open war. While he was reasonably comfortable now that there hadn’t been much else he could do, the dead had joined many others in his nightmares.

“It’s one murder in a base with barely a thousand people,” he pointed out. “It can only go so wrong—and we
do
need a Rune Wright. It’s almost a continuation of my vacation.”

He couldn’t
see
Alexander. Despite almost two centuries now of research, the only thing an RTA could transmit or receive was the voice of a speaking Mage. Any kind of data transmission had proven impossible—including, in one more experimental thought, via replacement of a volunteer’s voice box with an implant.

He could still
hear
his King’s sigh.

“Only the men and women I pick as Hands would call a murder investigation a vacation,” he pointed out. “Which perhaps says more about what I normally ask of you than anything else. Your support is also on vacation. I assume you have a plan?”

“I will be borrowing several investigators from the MIS and a squad of Marines from Mage-Captain Jakab,” Damien confirmed. “Mage-Admiral Segal is placing an armed courier at my disposal. It has the space for twenty passengers, exosuits for the Marines, and a combat shuttle. I checked.”

Alexander laughed.

“All you needed to tell me was that you had a plan, Damien,” he pointed out. “You didn’t get that golden chain because I don’t trust your skills, and you’ve proven those skills again and again. Go to Andala, my young friend. See what our eyes can see of what the aliens left behind.

“You don’t need my permission, but you have it. And my blessing. Keep me informed.”