DESPITE the fat snowflakes that had begun falling in earnest from the leaden sky, the brisk, two-block walk to Sal’s did Lilia good. By the time she reached the café, she was considerably less agitated. Her spirits lifted further as she stepped through the front door and a host of warm, inviting smells tantalized her nose.
Her stomach gave an appreciate rumble. It was past noon; the bulk of the lunch crowd had thinned and there were a few tables free. Shoving her hands into her coat pockets, Lilia dematerialized her gloves. Her nanites retreated back into her skin and she loosened her coat.
Miguel, the Deleóns’ second oldest son, lounged up against the dessert counter at the back of the dining area. As Lilia made her way over to a booth by the window, he sent her a wave and a grin before yelling over his shoulder, “Hey, Alexis, come see who the wind blew in!”
A few startled patrons looked up from their meals, but the regulars carried on, well-accustomed to Sal’s staff and their ways. Returning Miguel’s smile, Lilia slid into a seat. She glanced at the holographic menu that sprouted up out of the center of the table, but kept an eye on the double doors to the kitchen. Any second now, her best friend was going to slam through…
The doors flew open as a short, slender figure barreled her way out into the dining area. Alexis cast a quick glance around the café and beamed when she spotted Lilia. “I’m on break, Miguel!” she sang out.
Heading straight for Lilia’s booth, Alexis slid into the seat beside her and gave her a hug. “Lilia! I didn’t expect to see you today.” The purple streaks in her curly black hair shone with a reddish tint in Sal’s warm lighting and her brown eyes sparkled with delight.
“I didn’t expect to be here either.” Lilia gave her a wry look. “The boys are having a gaming tournament and they keep forgetting to shut the door.”
“Oh, dear.” Alexis moved around the table to sit opposite her. “I take it you haven’t found any clients yet.”
“Well, that stinks.”
“Tell me about it.” Lilia folded her arms on the table’s shiny surface and rested her chin atop them. “I know they’re going stir-crazy without anything to do, but they’re going to drive me crazy first.”
Alexis fluttered a hand. “It’s only been a month since you got back. Give it time. Building a business doesn’t happen overnight.” She sighed wistfully. “Especially an off-world shipping business.”
Lilia frowned. “It’s just irritating, because it’s not like we don’t have experience. I mean, Kevin and Lon spent two years running supplies on Glo’Stea. That included the occasional interplanetary run.”
“It’ll happen, Lil. Just be patient.”
“I’m trying.” Giving the menu a desultory poke, Lilia scrolled through the list of lunch specials. “What’s the soup of the day?”
“Beef onion stew, actually.”
Her stomach rumbled again. “Sounds good.” She punched in an order.
“So…” Alexis nudged her under the table with her foot. “Have you found a dress yet?”
Lilia stared at her. “Have I—what are you, the fashion police?”
“When it comes to you? Yes.” Alexis snorted. “You’re living with all those boys—I’m sure if your grandfather had his way you’d be wearing a snowsuit everywhere.”
That prompted a laugh. “He’s gotten better about it actually. I think it helps that I’m older.”
“Well?” Alexis nudged her again. “The soiree is next week, isn’t it? You can’t wait until the last minute to buy a dress.”
Sighing, Lilia stared at the tabletop. “I’m still not sure I want to go. I know it’s to celebrate Uncle Martin’s birthday, but…”
“Ah.” Her best friend’s voice took on a knowing tone. “Don’t tell me those empty-headed politicians’ women have you intimidated.”
Alexis’s words hit closer to the mark than Lilia would have liked. She narrowed violet eyes at her friend before dropping her gaze to the table. “Maybe. Grandmother wouldn’t let me go to any of these things before she died, and then we left the planet, so…” She twitched her shoulders in a tiny shrug. “I don’t really know what to expect.”
“Well, you can’t walk into it dreading every moment. That’s just setting yourself up for failure.”
Lilia bit her lip.
“Look, if you’re worried about them giving you grief about anything, that’s easy. Tell them all about the common man’s plight on Glo’Stea.” Alexis grinned mischievously. “I guarantee, if they’re not interested, they’ll find someplace else to be real quick.”
That startled a laugh out of Lilia. “You’re probably right.”
“Of course I’m right.” Alexis tilted her head sideways with a little smile. “Here’s Papa with your lunch.”
Sal Deleón appeared through the double doors, bearing a tray. He was Lilia’s height, an older, male version of his daughter with a shiny black handlebar mustache. His apron disguised a slight paunch gained courtesy of liberally sampling his fare. He beamed at Lilia and deftly avoided her attempt to relieve him of his burden.
“You didn’t have to deliver it yourself, Mr. Sal,” she said reprovingly.
He waved her words aside. “It’s good to see you, Lilia. I wanted to say hello.” He shook a finger. “I know he’s not our Representative, but tell Aiden we think he is doing a marvelous job.”
“Good, good.” Sal cocked a half-playful, half-stern eyebrow at his daughter. “Don’t you have a batch of cakes you’re supposed to be watching?”
“They’re doing fine, Papa. I know exactly when they’re coming out.” Alexis flapped her fingers at her father. “I’ll be back there in a minute.”
Grumbling playfully, Sal returned to the kitchen. Lilia smothered a grin and picked up a spoon. Her first bite was heaven. “Oh, this is wonderful.”
“Good.” Alexis looked pleased. “The stew was my idea.” She glanced at Miguel, who was waving his hands at her. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Go ahead.” Lilia gestured with her spoon.
She was halfway through her stew when she felt a familiar tingling in the back of her mind. Kevin had sent her a channel request. Nancom was another Guardian advantage. All of their armor was controlled by a portion of nanites that had breached the blood-brain barrier and integrated into their cerebrums, forming a neural network and a communications hub. Each Guardian had a unique identifying frequency used to open comm channels.
Lilia allowed him access, and Kevin’s voice, slightly aggrieved, flooded her mind. [Hey, why didn’t you tell us you were going to Sal’s?]
[You wouldn’t have heard me.] She took another bite.
[Are you implying that—]
[—you were being loud? Yep. Besides, you already had lunch.]
Kevin was silent. Then, [They do have good desserts.]
Lilia rolled her eyes. [I made cookies, remember? You only ate about a dozen of them. Besides, I’ll be home in a little while.]
[Fine.] He paused, struck by an idea. [Want to hit the exercise center later—]
[—so you can kick my butt again?] Lilia winced; in the last two years she’d fallen behind on keeping up her fencing skills. [Oh, sure. Why not?]
Kevin picked up on her lack of enthusiasm. [Don’t worry, Lil. I’m sure it won’t be that bad.]
He was wrong.
It was snowing harder when Lilia and her brothers left Ferndale later that afternoon. They headed to the Chakin Lifestyle Center five streets over, hauling their gear with them. Lilia and Kevin had wanted to shove everything into their ISFs and be done with it, but Lon insisted that they had to look normal. The twins humored him.
Kevin and Lon kept up a steady stream of chatter on the way, but Lilia was only half-listening. Her thoughts kept dwelling on her conversation with Alexis. After returning from her cakes, Alexis had reminded her that the event would likely have media coverage.
“Even I know you’ll want to dress up for this, Lil,” she’d said.
Lilia sighed, her breath emerging in one long, frosty plume. There’s nothing for it. I’ll have to find a new dress. A nice one. It probably won’t be good for Grandfather or Uncle Martin if I show up looking like a street urchin. Grandmother, after all, had stressed the importance of making a good first impression.
She came back to herself as they approached the large, four-story Chakin Lifestyle Center. “We’re in before club practice, right?”
“Yes,” Lon assured her. “They start at six-thirty; we’ll be done by then.”
A wall of warm air met the trio as they stepped inside. Chakin Lifestyle Center boasted a fully-equipped gym, but their primary claim to fame was their long, illustrious history—stretching back at least eight decades—as home to the East Sonela Knights Fencing Club. Across the Coalition, the breakdown remained the same. If you fenced, or if you fenced and had aspirations of making it to the Tri-Global Tournament, you belonged to a club. If you didn’t fence, you supported a club. Lilia had met a few people over the years who didn’t care either way, but generally everyone had their favorite club.
Neither medcenter at which Lilia had worked during the last two years she’d been on Glo’Stea had fencing clubs. Surrounded as they were by death and injury, no one had the leisure time or the inclination. It was only now that she had returned home that she realized again how out of sync her former coworkers were with the rest of the worlds in their system.
The head and torso of a humanoid chrome ‘bot dressed in a red-on-black Knights jersey and hat protruded from the center of a counter just inside the door. “Good evening,” it said in a deep voice.
“Evening,” Lon replied breezily, extending his memberchip for the ‘bot’s palm to scan. Lilia and Kevin followed suit.
“Welcome.” Yellow photoreceptors glanced between the three of them. “Would you be interested in purchasing a Knights jersey or making a donation to support our club team?”
“No, thank you,” they chorused. Moving past the ‘bot toward the hall that led to the locker rooms, the trio parted ways.
As she pulled on her white protective gear, Lilia wished she could just materialize her nano-armor. That armor would be so much better at actually preventing an injury and I wouldn’t have to carry all this stuff around with me. Checking to make sure her dark, hip-length hair was safely secured in a bun atop her head, she picked up her facemask and swords and took the third door on the left out into the arena.
The arena occupied half of the building’s first two floors. Only fencing matches were allowed inside, though a track snaked around the upper level. A handful of white-clad competitors were already inside, dancing around each other with varying degrees of skill.
Lilia met her brothers just outside the men’s locker room entrance. Kevin threw her a wink before tugging on his facemask. “This should be fun.”
“Oh, definitely,” she muttered.
Kevin struck out across the floor for an unoccupied practice square and Lilia matched his pace. As acting referee, Lon followed. The twins took up positions facing each other, drew their blades, and saluted—Kevin with one blade, Lilia with two.
Kevin grinned at his sister over his blade. “One of these days, we’re going to have to try dueling with nanoblades.”
“You mean instead of cutting through walls with them?” Lilia grinned back, shifting her weight on her feet. Though similar in weight and design to their fencing blades, their NCDC-issued nanoblades were sharp enough to slice through almost every substance in the known galaxy. That had come in surprisingly handy during their rescue mission on Lanx.
Lon touched a button on his scoring device. “Begin.”
Kevin started off with a few light, exploratory jabs, testing the bounds of Lilia’s defenses. She parried those blows easily enough, but it took considerably more effort when he moved into a complicated pattern of cuts and thrusts. Two years of very little practice had wreaked havoc on her timing and form, and her recovery was slow.
There was no mistaking Kevin had kept up with his training; he was everywhere. No sooner did Lilia deflect one cut with a downward sweep of her left blade, then he was thrusting at her middle and she had to parry with her right. He kept her on the defensive; every time she thought she might have an opening, he sidled out of the way and turned it back on her.
Points were scored every time a blade touched an opponent’s body. Within fifteen minutes, Kevin had collected enough points for Lon to declare him the winner.
“Congratulations.” Lilia saluted her brother with the flat of one blade, dimly registering that her arm muscles weren’t burning quite as badly as they had four weeks before.
“What does that make me?” Kevin raised his facemask. “Seventeen ahead?”
She suppressed a grimace. “Eighteen.”
“Oh.” Grinning cheerfully, he threw an arm around her shoulders. “You’re getting better, Lil.”
“Give it a little more time,” Lon advised, “and you’ll be back to where you were before.”
Time, Lilia thought. “One can only hope.”
Kevin glanced sideways at her. “Want to go again?”
Lilia tested her muscles. “Sure.”
“I’m going over there.” Lon nodded to a lone figure waiting for a sparring partner to volunteer.
“Go for it,” Kevin said. “We’ll be—”
“—right here,” Lilia finished.
Half an hour later, Lilia was ready to call it quits. “I’m done,” she announced, after Kevin beat her for the third time. She’d managed to score a few points of her own along the way, but not enough to matter.
“Okay.” He clapped her on the back. “You’ll get there.”
Kevin headed over to Lon, who had finished his match, while Lilia walked over to a long bench up against the wall on the sidelines. She had barely taken a seat when she felt a tingling in the back of her mind.
Her eyes widened a fraction in surprise. A channel request? Here? From beneath her eyelashes, she sent a casual glance around the arena. Somewhere, another Guardian was attempting to connect with her. She did not recognize the frequency.
A pair of mocking green eyes set in a long, pale face met her gaze. Lilia propped her blades up against the bench beside her, but inside she went very still. Oh, boy. She deliberately broke eye contact and looked away. Maybe he won’t realize—
Too late. The man—average height and built like a poster child for a Glo’Stean swimming team, with black hair pulled back in a low ponytail—moved closer. Lilia darted a glance in her brothers’ direction, but they were focused on each other. Part of her thought that was just as well. Wouldn’t want them to overreact and get us all kicked out.
“Well, well, well. I’d heard the entire Strong family was involved with the NCDC.” Those mocking eyes swept her from head to foot. “You’d think they’d have more sense than to bring their baby sister into it.”
Surprised, Lilia arched an eyebrow at the man. “Excuse me?”
“It’s a dangerous job.” The man rested a hand on the hilt at his right side. “Wouldn’t want something to happen to that pretty face.”
“I think,” Lilia said coolly, “you’ve mistaken me for someone—”
“Oh, no, my dear. I haven’t.” He smirked. “You felt that channel request.”
Irritation licked at the corners of her mind, but Lilia tamped it down. “Who are you?”
“Alan Birch.” He made a mocking half-bow.
At first, the name didn’t register. Then Lilia tilted her chin. “I’ve heard of you.” Michael and Derek had mentioned him a few times over the past few weeks. Alan Birch managed a division of the Internal Affairs Tower’s security at the Four Towers. She had the impression he and her oldest brothers did not care much for each other.
“I’m sure you have.” Birch gave her a thin, humorless smile that was all sharp edges.
“Can I help you with something?”
“Oh, just thought I’d introduce myself.” Birch watched her for a second, his face still mocking. “You move like someone out of practice.”
Lilia felt like she was being dissected for scientific study. “I am out of practice.”
Faint surprise flickered over his features; he obviously hadn’t expected her to admit it.
“Hey, Lilia!” They both turned to look at Lon as he bore down on them, his usually expansive features tight. “Is there a problem here?” He looked at her, but kept his body angled toward Birch, ready to move.
Lilia shrugged. “No problem. He,” she gestured to Birch, “just introduced himself.”
“Did he, now?” Lon directed a hard look at the older man.
“Strong.” Curling his lip, Birch flicked his gaze from Lon to Kevin, who had come up on his brother’s heels. “Strong.”
“Leave my sister alone, Birch,” Lon growled.
Lilia glanced between them, at a loss to explain this undercurrent of animosity when they’d only been back on Sta’Gloa for a month. As soon as Birch opened his mouth, however, she had her answer.
“Had to see it for myself,” he said diffidently. “I’m still amazed the nanites took, what with all the Tarynian blood you have.”
All three of them stiffened. Lon’s face hardened a little more. “I’m amazed you speak of the NCDC so casually.”
Birch’s sudden smile did nothing to soften the green ice in his eyes. “Well, when you refuse to connect…”
“Yeah, like I want you making snide comments in my head.”
Catching Kevin’s eye, Lilia quirked an eyebrow in a silent question. He shook his head.
“The Glo’Stean NCDC may have seen fit to include you in their ranks, but don’t think for a moment it means anyone here on Sta’Gloa trusts you,” Birch sneered. “We’ll be keeping a very close eye on you.”
“Oh, yeah?” Lon scoffed. “What could you possibly think gives you the authority to spy on anybody?”
Birch tapped his chest with a white-gloved finger. “I’m a provisional officer of the NCDC branch here in Sonela.”
“Right. Like I believe that.”
Lilia and Kevin exchanged concerned glances.
Birch shrugged. “Believe it or don’t believe it, but know that I will be watching you.”
“Funny,” Kevin said abruptly, canting his head toward Lilia. “I don’t recall Riley Callahan mentioning anything about our background being a problem, do you, Lil?”
She shook her head. “No. Nor did he say anything about us—”
“—being under surveillance,” Kevin finished. “In fact, I think we ought to take that up with him.”
Something flashed through Birch’s eyes, too fast to categorize. “Doesn’t matter who you know. Just remember, we’ll be keeping an eye on you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have club practice.” With another mocking smile, he sauntered away.
Lon watched him go, his mouth set in a grim line.
“Okay.” Lilia slid each of her swords back into its sheath. “What was that all about?”
Lon brushed her off. “He’s a button pusher, that’s all.” He nodded to the locker rooms. “I’m done for tonight. Grandfather and the others are probably back by now. Let’s head home.”
The twins exchanged glances behind his back; Lilia opened a Nancom channel to Kevin. [Let me guess. Lon and Birch have had words in the last couple of weeks.]
[Yeah.] Kevin made a face. [I think he’s trying to see how far he can push us. Mike says he does the same thing to him and Derek. The surveillance thing is new, though.]
[Tell me about it.]
A warm, spicy smell met their noses as the snow-covered trio let themselves into the penthouse. Peeling off her coat, Lilia swept into the kitchen, where she found Zoë stirring the pot of lentil soup she’d prepared before she left. “Smells good, Zoë.”
“Thank you.” The ‘bot did not look up from her task. “Dinner should be ready in twenty-three point two minutes.”
Lilia bit back a laugh. “Thanks.”
Heading back out of the kitchen into the foyer, she crossed the hardwood floor into the living room. Her grandfather occupied his recliner by the wall of windows; Michael and Derek were nowhere in sight. “Hey, Grandfather. Welcome home.”
“Ah, Lilia.” Aiden Monroe greeted his only granddaughter with a smile that brightened his green eyes. He looked like an older version of her brother Derek, except for the wrinkles and the short white beard. “Zoë tells me you were at Chakin’s. How goes the swordplay?”
Lilia waved a hand. “I’m getting back to where I was. It’s just taking longer than I expected.” She sank down onto one long navy blue couch, folding a leg beneath her. “How was the Triumvirate today?”
Aiden shrugged. “I cannot report much of a difference. We have been arguing about the G.U. for the past month and I do not see that changing any time soon.”
“Anything more from Admiral Chesnee?”
“It is indeed.”
Lilia played with the hem of her denim slacks. “Has anybody had any bright ideas about how we can help Sapriske 6 and Xana 5?”
Behind his white goatee, the lines in Aiden’s face deepened. “I am afraid not. All attempts thus far have met with disaster.”
“Gravity is a huge issue for Sapriske 6.” They both looked over at the door as Lon breezed in and took a seat on the other couch. He shrugged. “Nobody can get a decent approach vector without being in range of that battlecruiser. And Xana 5’s asteroid field is too problematic for most pilots. So, nobody in, nobody out.”
A chill skittered down Lilia’s spine. They had family on Sapriske 6—second cousins on Aiden’s side. Not that they ever saw each other. “Communication’s down too, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yeah.” Shadows passed through Lon’s eyes. “The Icefinger and the Requiem are sucking every byte of data in and keeping them from escaping.”
“What are we going to do?” It wasn’t the first time Lilia had asked the question; she doubted it would be the last. The words rose unbidden, the product of four weeks’ worth of pondering this latest wrinkle in Coalition life.
Her grandfather shook his head. “Only God knows.”
The atmosphere during dinner was subdued. The weather and the pressing weight of anxiety threatening to crush everyone all served to stifle cheerfulness. Afterward, Lon assisted Zoë with dishes while everyone else gathered in the living room with their datapads and tea, hot chocolate, or decaf coffee.
Lilia suppressed a sigh. Uncle Martin’s birthday is in four days. If I don’t get a dress soon, I’m going to be out of luck.
She spent the evening perusing evening gowns. Part of her felt guilty for having waited so long, but another part reasoned that since Sonela saw its fair share of socio-political events, competition would keep prices in line. She sent thumbnails of her favorite dresses to Alexis, who texted responses in between tasks at the café. They settled on a one-shouldered design in rosy pink. Lilia had wanted to go with a bolder jewel tone, but Alexis argued the pink would make her look young and fresh—just the thing for a young woman making her debut into society.
You sound like something from a hundred years ago. I doubt anyone cares, she texted Alexis.
Her comlink immediately vibrated with a response. You never know.
The Guardians: Portal Woes is available at: