Ever since I wrote Eye of the Mother, I had in mind that the couple in that book deserved another story. Brent Walker was still a nice guy – but he wasn’t ordinary anymore. And Tian Axmar hadn’t been ordinary for a very long time. Besides, it would give me an opportunity to include Admiral Ul-Mellor and his lovely wife in a new story. I’d left a lot of unanswered questions in Eye of the Mother – most particularly what had happened to Tian before that book started. And I liked the idea of exploring how the two of them would fare in their brand new, rather different, relationship. They’re both Imperial agents, working for Admiral Ul-Mellor, dancing on that tightrope between the Yrmaks and the Empire – and finding out about life together.
Even so, I wanted to introduce a new character. I’ll admit I was encouraged by the success of the Pets in Space collections, and I’d loved the furzels in Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command. But Puss isn’t really anybody’s pet. Although she resembles a cat in appearance and in some behaviors, she’s an alien species with more abilities than your average moggy. So she’s very smart indeed. Back in another life I was owned by several Siamese cats (and a few German shepherd dogs but that’s another story). I felt confident to be talking about cats and what they do.
I had the pieces for a new story – Tian and Brent, the mystery of whatever had happened to Tian before she met Brent, simmering conflict between the Empire and the Yrmaks. And Puss. One thing I wanted to weave into the story became the title - for the greater good. What constitutes 'the greater good' depends so much on the point of view of the person with the opinion. And not everyone will agree.
A Human settlement is destroyed and all signs point to an Yrmak raid as Imperial agents Tian Axmar and Brent Walker scour the site for clues. One thing they never expected to find was a survivor, a rare alien feline with unusual talents.
As tensions between Humans and Yrmaks ratchet to the point of no return, Tian and Brent must bring all their cyborg skills to bear as they follow a dangerous trail of deception and misdirection.
The feline, now dubbed Puss and strongly bonded to Tian, holds the key to many of the questions driving the investigation. Unfortunately, that bond drives a wedge between Brent and Tian’s working relationship, leaving Brent with second thoughts about his decision to become a cyborg.
As the evidence unfolds, it becomes clear that a devious plot to incite an interspecies war will strike at the very heart of the Empire. With lives at risk, there’s no time to waste. Racing against the clock, Brent, Tian, and Puss must stop the planned carnage, and this time for Brent and Tian… it’s personal.
In this excerpt, Brent and Tian (and Puss) travel to Ootzpah, following the trail of stolen weapons. The local customs officials are the corrupt sort who won’t hesitate to gouge small traders. Two of them have just searched the ship, and they’re closing in for the kill, having recognized Puss as a rare, valuable species, worth thousands to collectors.
"What is this?" the fellow said, waving the bottle in front of Tian. He shook it, and crystalline particles scattered inside.
Rooban. Shit. "I don't know. It is not ours. You know it's not ours."
The fellow smirked, his gaze sliding to his companion. "Do I? It's Rooban. That's illegal here. Handling it is a criminal offence. It'll land you in jail for a loooong time. Oh yes it will."
Tian swallowed. How to shift his mindset? He knew the drug wasn't theirs, so reinforcing that belief was pointless. They didn't have time for this shit, but she couldn't do anything but play along for now. "Okay, we get it. What do you want?"
"Lydis wants your feline. Hand it over, and the Rooban will disappear."
Smiling, the woman stepped forward, her arms outstretched. "Come along, kitty. You'll love your new home."
Tian grabbed her arm and squeezed just enough to hurt. "She's not for sale." She longed to keep squeezing, cut off the arm's circulation, but soothing colors of pale blues and yellows flowed through her mind. Puss wound her tail around the woman's arm, attracting her attention. The avarice faded. Puss unwound her tail and jumped lightly down from Tian's shoulder. Tian let go.
Tomic stepped back, her eyelids fluttering, then gazed down at Puss. "It's just a feline," she said to her companion. "Just an ordinary feline. "
The man stared, frowning. "But you said—" Puss rubbed past the fellow's leg, brushing her tail against him.
"It's a common cat," Tomic repeated. They've got nothing else. We might as well let them go."
Tian reinforced the thought. Nothing to see here, no point in trying to gouge smugglers with nothing. Maybe come back later.
Nodding, the man dropped the bottle of Rooban into one of the many pockets in his trousers. He produced a chip and handed it to Brent. "You're cleared. For now." He waddled down the ramp, his companion behind him.
Brent sank into a chair. "What in hells happened there?"
"Looks like she can do what we can do, only better." Tian sat opposite him, while Puss took up a spot on the table between them. The auralfang's mental images were of reassurance. "We can reinforce a thought, but she touched them and they changed their minds. It was almost like watching a mind-wipe. Sort of like, 'this is not the auralfang you're looking for'."
Brent stretched out slowly and touched Puss. She pushed her head into his hand and he scratched under her chin. "She likes it." His lips stretched into a silly, goofy smile, like a little boy.
Tian raised an eyebrow. "Most felines do. Did you ever have a pet?"
"Me? No. My sisters had a cat, though."
"Did you ever think about taking the cat away from them and selling it?"
His eyes widened. "Huh? Of course not. They'd be furious."
She grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him toward her. "Don't you ever, ever, think about selling Puss. Got that?" She grated the words, reveling in her own anger.
Raising both his hands, he said, "Hey. I just told you what we could get. Not that I'd do that. Honest, Tian. I'm fine with her."
Tian let go. She didn't completely believe him, but she'd made her point.
Puss sent out waves of approval.
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There’s certainly room for more Tian-Brent-Puss stories. That may well end up being my next project. That doesn't meet the definition of romance, I guess. But I think there's something romantic about learning to live with each other, despite the odds. Don't you?