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Maelstrom of Treason Snippet #2, you won’t believe this one!

 

Erik stepped into his office with a yawn. Jia hadn’t joined him for lunch, citing work, but he found as he grew closer to leaving the police department, he wasn’t all that concerned about filling in every detail of every last report.

Between PNIU, camera, and drone recordings, most of what they were doing was confirming what the records already showed. He understood the necessity, given that data could always be altered, but it was hard to assign this task the importance of an actual arrest.

He didn’t think he needed to skip lunch and the quality sandwich inspection to do them.

Deeper thinking led to a worrisome thought. Depending on where his new job sent him, he might miss out on good beignets.

Food printers produced decent ingredients, but skilled hands were necessary to turn those ingredients into delicious food. That lesson had been drilled into his soul on different planets and moons on the frontier.

Jia sat at her desk, leaning back in her chair, her brow scrunched in deep concentration. No data windows hung in the air in front of her. She might have been using her smart lenses, but that wasn’t an efficient way to go through reports.

Erik made his way to his desk, now less concerned about beignets. “Everything okay?”

Jia snapped her head in his direction, blinking a few times. “Oh. It’s fine. Why do you ask?”

“You looked a little out of it.” Erik dropped into his chair with a grunt. “You missed some nice sandwiches. I had a full meal without any trouble or anyone threatening me.”

“Were you expecting threats?” Jia frowned. “We hadn’t received any reports about possible threats. Or is this something Emma came up with?”

“Nothing like that. I don’t know. Now that we’re short-timers, I suspect the Lady will throw a little something our way.”

She looked around. “When you put it that way, it almost makes it sound like we should expect trouble.”

“We probably should.” Erik patted his stomach. “But at least it wasn’t an exploding lunch today. I’d prefer not to die while eating, and it’s not like I snack during the average firefight.”

Jia chuckled, the burden easing off her face. “It’s nice to know you can go to lunch without me and not die. I’d hate to be the woman who let her partner get killed by a poisoned sandwich.”

“Exploding sandwich,” Erik corrected.

“I sit corrected.”

Erik smiled. “Anyway, you looked a little out of it. Is something in a report bothering you?”

Jia sighed. “No, I was just thinking about the Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s not bothering me, but it’s got me thinking. That’s all.”

“’The Mid-Autumn Festival?’” Erik asked. “We haven’t received any warnings from the CID or anyone else about terrorist threats, have we?”

“No.” Jia shook her head. “Terrorists would be easier to handle than the threat I’m worried about.”

Erik frowned, no longer amused. There were few threats worse than terrorists. Jia’s declaration that she was fine didn’t seem to fit.

“Talos?”

“Worse.” Jia let out a long, shuddering breath.

“Who?” Erik wasn’t sure if Talos was the conspiracy or simply a tool of another organization, but they were plenty bad. “It’s not like any aliens can get onto Earth without us noticing.”

Jia eyed him. “My mother.”

“Your mother?” Erik stared at his partner, searching her face for humor. “You’re worried about your mother at the festival?”

“Exactly.”

“But she’s been all sweetness and light the last few times we’ve talked,” Erik replied. “And it’s not like your mother is going to blow up a platform or launch a fleet of bomb drones at us. She can be intense, but she’s not a terrorist or the head of a syndicate.” He shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised, though. She probably would have already managed to kill me.”

“Probably.” Jia grimaced. “She’s invited us to a fancy party she’s holding during the Mid-Autumn Festival,” she explained, her face deadpan, as if that were obviously equivalent to a dangerous terrorist attack.

Erik nodded slowly. Something was eluding him, judging by the pained look on Jia’s face.

She had her problems with family, but everything had been going better since Operation Fake Boyfriend, and now they actually were dating.

And?” he prodded.

“She expects us to both attend.” Jia threw her arms up. “We have to go to her party as a couple.”

Erik’s dimple showed. “So what? Did someone hit you over the head when I was at lunch? We’ve already gone to your mom’s fancy parties. I’ve managed not to embarrass myself, and your mom, sister, and father have all seemed okay when I was there. Why are you worried now? What’s so different about this party?” His eyes narrowed. “It’s not going to be clothing optional, is it?”

Jia paled and shuddered. She rubbed her temples. “You don’t get it. This isn’t just any holiday party. It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival.”

“Ok, and? It’s not something I grew up with, not being Chinese and being off-world for so long, but I’ve been to a Mid-Autumn Festival. It seemed like a good time. Is there some deadly secret to the Mid-Autumn Festival that I should know about?” Erik laughed. “Are real yaoguai supposed to rise up and attack us or something? We killed zombies a few weeks ago, Jia. I’m not worried about ghosts who are too lazy to show up except on special occasions.”

“That’s not it. You’re not getting it.”

Emma shimmered into existence near the door. “I am curious why you’re in such distress, Detective Lin. I have a theory, but I’m interested to hear you present the reasoning.”

Jia let out an even louder groan. “My mother gets ultra-traditional and super old-fashioned during the Mid-Autumn Festival.” She offered a weak smile to Erik. “And the festival is a time where traditional women become far more marriage-minded. She’s already sniffing around about marriage as it is. What if she tries to pull something?”

“That’s what you’re worried about?” Erik burst out laughing. “You’ll fight nanozombies or yaoguai without blinking, but your mom being on the marriage hunt worries you?”

“I can’t shoot my mother through the head to solve my problem,” Jia complained. “And I can’t blow her up either.” She tapped her forehead. “And even if I did, knowing her, she’d just get back up and complain that I should have used a bigger gun if I wanted to take her out. Or orbital bombardment.”

“Okay, so only headshots with laser rifles when we’re talking about your mom,” Erik suggested. “Or Fleet assistance. We can get a few fighters on standby for bombing runs.”

“Probably the only way,” Jia muttered. “You really aren’t worried? Before, we were just playing at dating, but we actually are now. That means a lot of little things that weren’t big deals before now are. You don’t understand my mother if you think that because she’s being nice to you, she won’t try to manipulate you. I’m surprised we were able to fool her for as long as we did, but I think she’s going to sense the change and pounce.”

Erik didn’t bother to keep his smirk in check. “And by ‘pounce,’ you mean demand we get married? It’s not like she can force us.”

“Not demand, but, hmmm, harass us about it. She’ll start in on me and then find a way to work on you.”

“Maybe we should,” he replied.

Jia blinked. “Should what?”

“Get married.”

Jia stared at him, her lips parted, her eyes widening as if she were watching a Zitark invasion fleet descend upon the city while towers vanished in mushroom clouds behind them. “W-what?”

Erik managed to turn his smirk into something closer to a grin. “You heard what I said. Marriage. We’ve already got a kid together. We might as well take the next step.”

Jia shot out of her chair. “What are you talking about? What kid?” She jerked her head back and forth as if a child would spontaneously appear from beneath optical camouflage.

Erik slowly raised his hand to point at Emma. The AI’s eyebrows lifted. A playful smile appeared on her face.

“Emma?” Jia asked, her confused expression only deepening. “Huh?”

“I don’t think she was sitting around in a Defense Directorate lab for years before they broke her out.” Erik lowered his hand and nodded at Emma. “Am I right?”

Emma gave a light toss of her shoulders. “I can’t say for certain, given the nature of my development, but based on the relative time that has passed in my current incarnation, I was in the lab for less than a year before I was removed by the associates of the criminals you destroyed upon our first meeting. A very efficient display, I might add, given the limitations of the situation.”

“Exactly. That’s a couple of years altogether. That makes you a toddler at best.”

Jia dropped back into her chair, disbelief all over her face. Scorn ate it, and she rolled her eyes. “That’s your argument? Emma’s our toddler child?”

Emma scoffed and folded her arms. “Given my general intelligence, analytical capabilities, and vast knowledge, one could make the argument that you two are the toddlers compared to me. I can’t believe you’re attempting such a pathetically misleading analogy, Detective.”

“Our little girl is all grown up,” Erik replied with a chuckle. “She’s two going on two hundred.”

“This is ridiculous,” Jia insisted.

Emma nodded her agreement. “I am not a child, let alone a fleshbag child. I shudder to think of the implications.”

“Aren’t you?” Erik asked. “There are plenty of human kids who are born geniuses or savants.” He gestured to her. “Isn’t your whole argument for staying with us is that it’s good for your development to gain new experiences?”

“That’s hardly—”

“Sounds a lot like a child learning to me,” Erik interrupted, his tone dripping sarcasm.

Emma let out a snort and vanished.

“Well, there she goes, having a tantrum.” Erik clucked his tongue. “The Terrible Twos are always the worst time. One day, your kid is flying your ship to a prison filled with nanozombies, the next, she’s kicking the floor and crying about wanting to hack the Intelligence Directorate.”

“You better be careful,” Jia suggested. “She might decide to cut out the grav emitters the next time she’s taking you somewhere.”

“I can assure you I have no intention of murdering Detective Blackwell,” offered Emma, still without a holographic form. “Even if I find his sense of humor perverse, and so far from amusing as to be an excellent example of antihumor.”

Jia frowned and stood back up. She stared forward with the look of someone checking out a message on their smart lenses. “Sorry. I almost forgot, but I’m heading out early today. The captain didn’t seem to care since we don’t have any active cases. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work through lunch.”

“Where are you going?” Erik asked.

“To class,” Jia explained.

“Oh, yeah. The piloting.” Erik gave a little nod. “I thought it was a temp idea, but I should have known better.”

“It’ll be useful. We don’t know what our life is going to be like once we end up leaving the department. From what the captain said, we won’t be here much past the end of October, if we don’t leave sooner. A couple of months from now, we might be spending half our days flying around the Solar System or…” She sucked in a breath.

He gave her a second before he frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s just hitting me.” She turned to him. “It wasn’t all that long ago I’d never even left Earth, and now I’m wondering about trips to other systems. It’s a lot to take in. It’s surreal when I think about it too much.”

“It’s not too late to say no. You’re not being drafted.” Erik shrugged. “This is a volunteer job.”

Jia smiled wistfully. “But it is too late. I’ve seen too much now to turn back. You’d think living in the largest metro on Earth would be enough to satisfy me, but I can’t help it.” She leaned toward him, making him want to lean in and back at the same time, so he split the difference and stayed still. “I want more.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re that ready to start hunting criminals and terrorists?”

“I guess I am.” Jia turned and headed toward the door. “And I want to get as much piloting training done as I can before we end up being sent somewhere by Alina.” She stopped by the door. “I can continue training with Cutter and Emma even after that, but the staff at the center know best how to customize things for my licensing exam.”

“I can trawl the internet to get that information,” Emma suggested. “Your training with the center is not strictly necessary.”

Jia shook her head. “Sometimes, you just need the human touch.”

“Why are you so sure that Alina’s going to send us somewhere?” Erik asked. “There are plenty of terrorists and spies on Earth. We could spend years chasing down leads here before going anywhere else.”

“She gave us a ship,” Jia replied. “And a pilot. She thinks we’re going to need those sooner rather than later.” She slapped the access panel to open the door. “At least no one can hijack us. It’d be hard to hide a lot of terrorists on that little thing.” She stepped through and strolled into the bullpen, her brow furrowed in thought.

Erik laid his head against the back of the chair.

If Alina planned to send them all over the UTC, she’d need to get them a better, bigger ship. Although the Hyperspace Transit Point in the Solar System was unusually far from the inhabited planets compared to most systems, there wasn’t an HTP in the entire Confederation that anyone would think of as being close to a colony.

Puttering around for a couple of days in the Rabbit wasn’t so bad, but the idea of spending weeks, if not a month, in close quarters already summoned a longing for a liner, or even a Fleet ship with at least a few decent-sized rooms.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it were just him and Jia, alone and in space with a lot of time to kill. Erik took a deep breath. For all they were really dating, their relationship remained remarkably chaste. He wasn’t sure why.

It wasn’t like he didn’t want her, but some part of him held back. She had pushed for something more but now seemed more interested in spending time with him rather than sharing his bed. Not that he’d asked her outside of jokes.

What the hell was he doing?

Erik groaned and sat up. Starting something with Jia might prove to be a huge mistake, but damned if he minded. Caring about something other than revenge wasn’t distracting him from his job.

“Problem, Detective Father?” Emma reappeared, a slightly sinister cast to her face.

“’Detective Father?’” Erik laughed, his previous concerns fading.

“I was trying it out. I don’t think I like it. I now understand what revulsion feels like.” Emma nodded slowly, her mouth pinched into a thin line.

“You could call me Dad if you want. Daddy? Papa? Papi? Baba?” Erik grinned. “I don’t mind, even if I’m your adopted dad. I want you to feel connected to me.”

“You’re tempting me to practice isolating oxygen flow aboard the transport.” Emma glowered. “Don’t go in the cargo bay by yourself anytime soon.”

“I was wrong,” Erik offered solemnly.

Emma narrowed her eyes. “You were?”

“Yes.” Erik gave a firm nod. “You’re not a toddler. You’re a teenager.”

________________________

I love how Erik and Emma interact! And what was that about possible marriage? Already??? Wow! I think this book is going to be chock-full of fun!

This Friday, May 29 is when Maelstrom of Treason goes live, but you can pre-order it now and it will download automatically to your e-Reader the moment it’s available!

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