The news that the Khayyami fleet was coming should have made Asala feel something. Betrayal, fear, anger, something. Instead, her brain swallowed it into numbness, drawing conclusions detached from emotion.
Ekrem was coming for the cubes. He’d have the wormhole generators from Uzochi and Hafiz, or he’d blast them and their people into craters. Gan-De wouldn’t stand by while their space was violated either. This battle was about to rain blood out of the skies.
The whole system had thus far been blithely willing to ignore the pending apocalypse, but now that a single, shining chance at a future dangled before them, they were going to slaughter each other in order to snatch it.
It should have awoken something in Asala, the inescapable conclusion bearing down on her that this was about to become a massacre, that a system-wide war would decimate the population before anyone had a chance to escape. But maybe it was all too big. Or maybe she’d used up all her feeling on Niko.
Niko. Fuck. She hadn’t thought it was still possible for something to gut punch her that way. How had she allowed an inexpert child to get under her armor? She should never have permitted it. She should have remembered: People inevitably betray, disappoint, fail.
This was her fault. She’d allowed Niko to get close. She’d failed to rip out the grudging fondness that had been growing in her like a fungus.
“Asala?” Soraya said. “What’s going on with—with you two? Why is Niko . . . ?”
“They’re a traitor.” Oh, and that was all coming together in Asala’s head like a riddle that made her want to vomit. From the very beginning, back on Khayyam—Niko scrambling on their handheld, and every interface in their vicinity suddenly going dark. Niko conveniently finding glow on the assassin and conveniently pointing the finger toward cartels out of Khwarizmi. Niko knowing how to hack General Cynwrig’s spiders in less than no time at all.
Because they’d already hacked them, and sent the hack to the rebels.
They’d sounded so personally injured at how inexpertly the hack had been used. Now she knew why. And then all the “malfunctions” on the Altair, and mysterious contacts crawling out of every crack in Shi Shen—how had Asala not realized?
“They’re a toady for Hafiz,” she said to Soraya. Her voice sounded as cracked and cold as the night air. “They have been all along.”
“I’m not a toady,” Niko objected. “I only wanted—I want justice. My planet has been killing yours for centuries. We’re all guilty, and so are Khwarizmi and Gan-De. The people we’ve been stomping all over deserve to build a civilization without us strangling them. If my dad gets his hands on even one of those cubes, I guarantee you he’s going to try to re-create Khayyam on the other side, a clone of the same old power structures—”
Asala drew her gun, thumb going to the dial that was still set to maximum. Niko stopped talking and flinched away, stumbling back in the light of the police car’s headlamps, their cuffed hands coming up reflexively in front of them. Fury clawed up Asala’s throat. How dare they question her ethics, that she would stoop to murder when they were no threat? Murder was what Niko had tried to do.
Beside Asala, Soraya’s eyes had gone as wide as moons.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Asala said. “I don’t have time to babysit you. Or to arrest you.” Besides, what authorities would she hand them over to? Gan-De, whose law enforcement would be all too happy to whip Asala behind bars too? Ekrem, who had also lied to her, who was bearing down on them all to wage world-ending war, and who would probably give his wayward progeny no more than a gentle bureaucratic slap anyway? Asala was no stranger to the politics of family.
“I’m going to uncuff you,” Asala continued to Niko. “Then I’m going to take Soraya in one of these vehicles and make sure she gets dropped off on Camp Ghala safely, with the intelligence we gathered here. And you’re going to take the other and get out of my sight, and I am never going to lay eyes on you again.”
Instead of the relief Asala had expected, Niko’s face crumpled. Her anger sparked again. They should be fucking grateful.
“Wait,” Soraya said, sounding panicked. “What do you mean, drop me off? Great Mother, Asala, you have to help us!”
“I am helping you. I’m giving you our intelligence,” Asala said. “What else do you expect me to do? Take on the whole fucking Khayyami fleet?” One person couldn’t make a difference anyway. She was giving Soraya what she needed to evacuate as many of her people as possible before the bloodbath. What else was there?
Soraya flung a...