Book: Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)



Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Dark Space Universe (Book 1)

(2nd Edition)

by Jasper T. Scott

JasperTscott.com

@JasperTscott

Copyright © 2017

THE AUTHOR RETAINS ALL RIGHTS FOR THIS BOOK

Cover Art © Jasper T. Scott



Acknowledgments

Being a writer is hard work, and most of the time it’s a lonely job, which is why we create characters to keep us company. Having said that, there’s also dozens of people working behind the scenes to make each book a reality.

As always, this book comes to you in partly thanks to my wife for her support, and it comes to you in its presently polished condition thanks to my editing team: Aaron Sikes, David Cantrell, William Schmidt, and Ian Jedlica. Thanks guys. You make the hard part of writing easy.

 Thanks also go out to my cover artist, Tom Edwards, for his fantastic artwork, and a huge thanks goes out to my team of advance readers: Bruce A. Thobois, Chase Hanes, Dave Topan, David Kramer, Davis Shellabarger, Diosdado Rivera, Gary Watts, Gaylon Overton, Gregg Cordell, H Huyler, Ian Seccombe, Jeff Belshaw, Jeremy Gunkel, Jim Meinen, Jim Owen, John Nash, Marten Ekema, Mary Whitehead, Peter Hughes, Philip Smith, Rafael Gutierrez, Rebecca Zalar, Richard T. Conkey, Ron Almstead, and Wade Whitaker. At least 50 typos are missing from this book because of these brave souls.

Then there’s you, the reader. Without you, this book wouldn’t exist. With every book of mine that you buy and every review that you write, you ensure that I keep writing the best books that I can, as fast as I can, so thank you for your support.












To those who dare,

And to those who dream.

To everyone who’s stronger than they seem.

 “Believe in me / I know you’ve waited for so long / Believe in me / Sometimes the weak become the strong.”

—STAIND, Believe



Departure



Prologue



—The Year 23 EE (Etherian Empire)—

 A cleric stood on a bench preaching in the center of the courtyard. A crowd had gathered to listen to his heresy, but so far no one was showing signs of hostility toward him.

Taking that to be a good sign, Lucien Ortane allowed his attention to drift to the towering spires of the Etherian Palace. The dying rays of an artificial sun beamed down between the spires from the dusty, star-studded pink sky. But those stars were actually viewports in the floor of Level One.

 More than a thousand decks lay above and below the “surface” of this hollow world, cushioning it from the frigid vacuum of outer space. This was New Earth, or the Icosahedron, an ever-expanding megastructure made up of over half a million giant, triangular facets that slotted together to form the twenty much larger triangular faces of the Icosahedron itself. It was the only home Lucien had ever known, an incredible feat of engineering, and the sole surviving legacy of humanity’s previous ruler: Omnius—the AI who would be god.

Lowering his gaze from the sky, Lucien spotted the giant crystal Star of Etherus glittering from the uppermost spire of the Etherian Palace. That star-shaped emblem acted like a prism, fracturing the artificial sunlight and casting rainbows over the courtyard. Out of the corner of his eye, Lucien glimpsed one such rainbow gleaming on the skull-like gray face of the Gor standing beside him.

Ordinarily Brak was horrifying to look at, but the rainbow added a comical effect to his features. Lucien smiled.

Brak had been his best friend for as long as he could remember. The two of them had gone through their Paragon training together, apprenticed together, and saved each other’s lives more times than Lucien could count. Most people feared the Gors and kept a wary distance from them, despite the fact that Etherus had granted them equal status with humans aboard the Icosahedron. So far they were the only sentient alien race to be given that privilege.

Lucien elbowed Brak in the ribs—no small feat given that his ribs began where Lucien’s shoulders ended. “Where do you want to go for our first mission?”

The Gor gave no reply. Colorful images flickered across his slitted yellow eyes as he looked something up on his augmented reality contacts (ARCs). Maybe he was looking through a list of available missions.

As Paragons and officers, recently graduated from tyros to champions third class, they had to choose where to go now. They could stay aboard the Icosahedron and help Etherus keep the peace among its trillions of inhabitants, but space exploration was the province of young and unattached officers like them, those not yet weighed down by the responsibilities of raising a family, or bored and jaded by long experience with the impossible vastness of space.

To Lucien there was nothing better than contemplating the unknown, the thought of picking a star at random and traveling to it in the blink of an eye, discovering things that no other human had ever before seen or experienced. All of that lay ahead of them, and as officers they had plenty of autonomy. Hundreds of missions left New Earth daily, each one destined for some new corner of the Large Magellanic Cloud, where New Earth was currently stationed—or even for one of the other satellite galaxies of the Milky Way.

“I hear Fornax is supposed to be nice,” Lucien said, suggesting a satellite galaxy at random. The Paragons’ mandate was to explore, colonize, and spread Etherian doctrines of peace, justice, and immortality to sentient species all over the universe. Of course, with the universe being as large as it was, that job would never end.

“Brak? Are you ignoring me?”

Now the alien turned his skull-shaped head, and the rainbow on his face swept across his sunken cheeks. The light from his ARCs disappeared, leaving Lucien to ponder the depths of the Gor’s fierce yellow eyes—a predator’s eyes. Animal rights being what they were aboard the Icosahedron, Brak didn’t have an outlet for all his primal instincts, and they simmered quietly just beneath the surface.

“You look hungry, Brak. When was the last time you ate something?”

“I am not hungry,” Brak replied.

“Shh!” a woman standing beside them whispered.

Brak turned his glare upon her and bared his black, dagger-like teeth.

The woman paled and looked away, back to the cleric standing in the center of the courtyard.

“That’s telling her, Brak!” Lucien said.

“I say nothing.”

 Lucien grinned. “It’s not what you said, but how you said it.”

Brak hissed quietly. “I never understand humans.”

A large crowd had gathered in the courtyard. Lucien hadn’t bothered to listen to the cleric’s preaching. He and Brak were just here to keep the peace while the cleric preached his heresy of science. That was usually an easy job, because clerics tended to waste their breath on obscure concepts that no one but them understood.

The presence of the crowd implied that this time the message was more readily digestible.

“Does the universe have an edge?” the cleric asked. “To answer that question, first we must consider what we currently know about the universe.”

The cleric held out his palm, revealing a small, glossy silver ball. A holo projector. The projector hovered up high above the square, and a hologram shimmered to life below it, rolling out overhead like an ancient scroll. Everyone looked up and the crowd oohed and aahed as a dazzling array of galaxies appeared spinning above their heads. A red circle appeared around those galaxies. The red line.

Etherian law stated that no ship was allowed to explore past that arbitrary line, despite the fact that quantum jump drives were fast enough to get there in just over six months. The boundary was programmed as a hard limit into the nav system of every ship ever built.

“This is the portion of the universe that Etherus has decreed we are allowed to explore and settle,” the cleric said. “It encompasses the supercluster Laniakea, with an estimated one hundred thousand galaxies, and a diameter of more than five hundred million light years. This is a vast amount of space. To even explore a single galaxy in its entirety, with all of its billions of star systems, is a monumental task. Even after two decades of exploration, and nearly a billion probes, we are far from reaching such a milestone.”

Lucien frowned, wondering what the cleric was building up to. So far he hadn’t spouted any of the heresy for which the Academy of Sciences was known.

“That is why we have been content to station New Earth here in the Large Magellanic Cloud for the past twenty-three years since leaving the Milky Way. In that time we have established hundreds of colonies, and encountered countless alien species, but we have only explored a tiny fraction of the star systems inside the red line.

“It seems pointless, then, to stretch ourselves more thinly and push out further. Etherus was wise to put a boundary on how far our curiosity should reach. What possible reason could we have to venture any further than Laniakea?”

 Lucien’s skin prickled with anticipation. Here it comes…

The cleric gestured to the hologram of galaxies spinning above the courtyard, and suddenly the map zoomed out. The galaxies rushed toward the center of the hologram, and the red line became a solid red dot. At this scale, the galaxies themselves were mere pinpricks of light.

“This is the entire observable universe. The red dot you see in the center is the red line and everything that it encompasses. It doesn’t seem so large anymore, does it?”

The crowd fidgeted with a collective rustle of clothing, but kept quiet.

“This is the part of the universe that we can see. It goes all the way up to the cosmic horizon, which is currently 46.5 billion light years away from us. This is an odd fact, since we know that the universe is only 13.82 billion years old. Why doesn’t the size of the universe agree with its age? Shouldn’t the cosmic horizon be no more than 13.82 billion light years away? The reason for this discrepancy is that space has been expanding like a balloon ever since the big bang. As the light from distant stars traveled to reach us, the distance it had to go just kept getting longer. Eventually it reached us anyway, but now those stars are lot farther from us than they were when the light from them first started shining our way.

“The universe in its entirety almost certainly doesn’t have an edge, but the observable universe does, and the cosmic horizon is that edge.

“What lies beyond the cosmic horizon? Maybe nothing, or maybe just more stars and space. Maybe if we go too far, we’ll find ourselves back where we started, having discovered that the universe is a sphere, or connected at the edges like a torus. We might even see an infinite expanse of other universes out there beyond ours. The truth is that we don’t know what we’d find.

 “Current evidence suggests that the universe is flat and infinite, but it could also be flat and finite. A third possibility is that the universe is so much bigger than what we can see, that it only looks flat. Just as a planet appears flat when you’re standing on it, but clearly looks round from orbit, the universe might be so big that we can’t measure its curvature within our observable portion of it.”

The cleric gestured to his hologram, and a blue circle appeared, encompassing everything in the observable universe. Then the hologram zoomed out, and the blue circle became so small that Lucien could eclipse it with his thumb. Around that circle was an infinite sea of pinhole-sized lights, arrayed in repeating, thread-like patterns. The fabric of the universe, woven with stars.

 “This is the entire universe, based on current estimates of the minimum size required for it to actually be a sphere. It is two hundred and fifty times bigger than the observable universe.”

As Lucien watched, the hologram of the universe warped into a sphere.

“What use is it to know the shape of the universe?” a man in the crowd asked.

The cleric stared at him in horror. “Knowing the shape of the universe is of great value! For one thing, it will tell us whether or not the universe is truly infinite! If the universe is infinite, then it always has existed and always will exist.”

“Blasphemy!” someone shouted.

The cleric went on blithely. “It could also be finite in size, but infinite in time, cycling endlessly from big bang to big crunch, reincarnating itself over and over again. In either of those two cases, the universe was never created.”

“Heretic!” another added. “Etherus created the universe!”

Brak dropped a hand to the stunner holstered at his side.

“Not yet,” Lucien said, placing a hand on the Gor’s thick, icy wrist.

The Gor turned to him, his skull-shaped face a horror of sharp angles and sunken shadows in the pale blue light of the cleric’s hologram. “He gets himself killed speaking like this!”

“Our job isn’t to shut him up,” Lucien said. “Just to make sure that he doesn’t get hurt, or hurt someone else.”

 “Isn’t your religion based on testable theories?” someone shouted. “You can’t test what you can’t observe!”

 “But we can observe it!” the cleric insisted. “With quantum jump drives, we can travel to the edge of the universe in approximately one hundred years, counting all of the necessary stops to recharge our reactors and calculate new jumps.”

“I thought you said the universe didn’t have an edge!” another person said.

 “By edge, I mean the cosmic horizon, but the universe could even have a real physical edge. If it’s flat, finite, and the edges aren’t connected topologically, then there must be an edge. Perhaps if we travel past that edge we’ll fall off into a fourth spatial dimension that will allow us to become gods just like Etherus.”

The crowd erupted in chaos, with everyone screaming at the cleric. They began chanting: “He-re-tic! He-re-tic! He-re-tic!”

 Somehow the cleric managed to raise his voice above the volume of their screaming. “If I am a heretic, then it is because I am wrong! So prove me wrong! The only way to do that is to send a mission to the cosmic horizon, but Etherus will not authorize any ship to go past the red line. We must petition him to send this mission, or else the doubt will always exist, and people will be able to question Etherus’s deity forever!”

That was the final straw. The crowd erupted in a frenzy. Lucien was glad there weren’t any rocks in the courtyard that they could throw at the cleric, but they could still beat him to death with their hands and feet. A ghostly blue sphere rippled around the cleric, keeping the crowd at bay, but the man was surrounded, and his shield wouldn’t hold forever.

 Making a snap decision, Lucien activated the grav boosters in his boots and leapt high over the crowd’s heads. Brak joined him in the air a split second later. They applied a few braking blasts from their grav boosters to clear a landing area. People scattered to make way. They landed with a boom, and a cloud of dust rippled out around them.

The crowd hesitated as two Paragons suddenly appeared in their midst, but then they began pressing in again, shaking their fists at the cleric.

 Lucien drew his stunner and fired it in the air with a loud crackle and a bright flash of blue light. “That’s enough! Everyone settle down!”

No one heard him, and the crowd gave no sign of yielding. Lucien was about to start stunning people at random when Brak stepped to the fore. He hissed loudly and bared his black teeth at the crowd.

That worked. Suddenly everyone quieted and stopped pushing toward the cleric. Lucien glanced back at the man they were defending and saw the cleric safe behind his shield, smiling faintly, as if amused by the ruckus he had caused.

“There’s nothing more to see here,” Lucien said. “Either sign the cleric’s petition, or be on your way.”

“If Etherus doesn’t want us to go past the red line, there must be a good reason for it!” a man near the front of the crowd said, his eyes wide and nostrils flaring.

Murmurs of agreement followed that statement.

“I’m sure you’re right, but you’re not going to convince a cleric of that. Move along,” Lucien said.

The crowd began to disperse, grumbling as they went.

“Don’t you want to know the truth?!” the cleric screeched as the crowd departed. “My questions deserve an answer! We must send a mission!”

Only a handful of people remained in the courtyard, frozen with uncertainty. The cleric’s shoulders slumped, and he held out a hand, calling the hovering holo projector back to his palm. He stepped down from the bench that had served as his pulpit, shaking his head.

“Only fools must shout to be heard,” Brak hissed.

Lucien glanced at the Gor. “Not if wisdom falls on deaf ears.” He turned and strode toward the cleric.

“Where do you go?” Brak asked.

“To sign the petition,” Lucien replied.

The cleric regarded him with wary suspicion as he approached.

“I’ll sign your petition,” Lucien announced, drawing shocked looks from the remaining people in the courtyard.

 The cleric’s gaze abruptly widened. “A Paragon advocating disobedience? And a champion, no less!”

 “Not disobedience,” Lucien corrected. “Reconsideration. Your ideas are absurd, but you were right about one thing: this blasphemy deserves an answer, and the only way to answer it is to send the mission that you propose. Besides, it is only a petition. Etherus will have the final word, and in His wisdom, He will know how to answer it.”

The cleric smiled, and held out his holo projector once more. A document appeared floating above his palm, and Lucien read the title at a glance.

 Petition to Send a Mission to the Cosmic Horizon.

“Where do I sign?” Lucien asked.

“Here…” the cleric made a gesture, and the document scrolled rapidly by a list of countless thousands of prior signatures. Lucien was shocked by the sheer number of people who had already signed. From the reactions of the people in the courtyard, he’d assumed this heresy was as unpopular as any other. But with over six hundred trillion people aboard the Icosahedron, sheer probability dictated that even the most obscure ideas would be shared by a large number of people.

Lucien hesitated briefly before using his index finger to add his own signature at the bottom of the document. Perhaps Etherus would agree to send the mission. Or maybe He’d simply tell them what they’d find, and save them the trouble.

“You’ll get your answers, cleric,” Lucien said, “but when you do, don’t be surprised to find out that you were wrong.”

Lucien turned to leave, but the cleric’s reply slithered back to his ears like a snake. “There’s no shame in being wrong, Lucien, only in being afraid to ask the question.”

The cleric had obviously looked up Lucien’s name on his ARCs. Lucien turned back to face him and returned the favor. “There’s always another question… Damon Korr.”

Damon inclined his head. “And always another answer.”

 “The only way you can answer them all is to know everything, and then you would be god, not Etherus. If that is your goal, then what you are preaching is treason, and I’ll have to arrest you.”

“Of course not,” Damon replied. But the cleric said it with a smile.

Lucien scowled. “Have a good night.”

“And you, sir.” With that, the cleric vanished, leaving his holo projector behind, still hovering in the air. After just a moment, the projector itself zipped up and away, and that glinting silver speck quickly became lost against the myriad lights shining down from the artificial night’s sky.

 Of course, Lucien thought. The cleric wouldn’t risk his life by preaching his heresy in person.

Lucien stalked back to Brak’s side. “Let’s go,” he said. “We’ve got better things to do than listen to hot air escape a cleric’s lungs.”



Chapter 1



—One Month Later—

 Lucien stood on a viewport in the floor of his quarters in Level One, looking down on a carpet of clouds. Here and there, where the clouds parted, he saw the distant surface of Halcyon, the capital facet of New Earth, peeking out with the dark, verdant greens of forests, and the sparkling blues of lakes and rivers. Most people would rather live on the surface, but Lucien actually preferred living above it all, having a bird’s eye perspective. Besides, he couldn’t afford to live down there on a champion’s salary.

If surface living was what you were after, you’d better have at least a million coin, or else move to a real planet somewhere out in the colonies.

A distinctive trumpet call sounded in Lucien’s head, relayed via his augmented reality implant. The comms icon in the upper right corner of his ARCs flashed insistently with an incoming message. A six-sided star circumscribed the icon, indicating that this message came straight from Etherus.

Lucien mentally selected the flashing icon and saw that more than a dozen holo news companies were currently broadcasting the message. He picked one at random and queued the message to play on the main holo display in his living room.

The wall in front of Lucien’s couch became a window into the palace throne room, with Etherus himself sitting on the throne. Lucien sat on his couch to watch.

An array of spherical holocorders hovered before the throne, each of them bearing the logo of a different holo news company. Lucien looked past them to Etherus himself. Like all Etherians, his skin was luminous and pale, but unlike the other members of his species, his eyes blazed blindingly, shining like twin suns. Long white hair cascaded to his shoulders, framing an inhumanly long face. His features were sharp and alien, and forbidding for that alienness, but somehow his face and glowing eyes managed to look both kindly and terrifying at the same time.

 Skeptics of his deity, most of them clerics from the Academy, pointed out that with an application of a spray-on luminizer and minor modifications to their ARCs they could also radiate divine light wherever they went. Lucien found it best not to dwell on such doubts. They had a tendency to multiply.

“I come before you today, because a new petition has acquired the requisite one billion signatures for me to answer it personally,” Etherus said. “This petition is the proposal to send a mission past the red line to the cosmic horizon.

 “Before I answer it, you should know that the red line exists for your own good, but not just yours. Etherians are also restricted by this boundary. The universe is a dangerous place, and I cannot guarantee your safety beyond the red line.

 “Having said that, I will not keep you in a cage, so I will grant this petition and authorize a mission to the cosmic horizon. The explorers will take one of New Earth’s facets, and the crew will be made up of all one billion people who signed the petition. If you signed, but you don’t want to go, then you have one month to withdraw your signature. If you didn’t sign, but you do want to join the mission, then you are free to sign now. Choose wisely, however, because I will not be going with you.” Etherus pointed to one of the ball-shaped holo projectors hovering in front of him. “I will now answer one question from each of you.”

The indicated holocorder bobbed past the others, and a reporter’s disembodied voice bubbled out.

 “We know that you can appear in a seemingly infinite number of places at once, but no one knows how you are able to do this. Is your decision not to go with the explorers based on a physical limitation of yours?”

“I am wherever and whenever I want to be. My decision not to join this mission is based on principle. The signers of the petition want to learn the nature of the universe because they are questioning whether I am really God. These people don’t want me in their lives, telling them what to do and believe, so I will respect their wishes. Next question.” Etherus pointed to another holocorder, and it floated to the fore while the previous one retreated.

“Why don’t you just tell us what we’ll find out there? Then we won’t need to send a mission.”

 “Those who signed this petition wouldn’t believe me even if I told them, and if I did tell them, where would it end? They wouldn’t be satisfied until they knew everything, and knowing everything would make them gods in their own right—but perhaps not good ones. The explorers will encounter many such evils beyond the red line.”

Lucien felt his eyes widen with that revelation. It made sense that they would find alien empires beyond the red line, but no one had known for sure—until now.

Etherus pointed to a third holocorder, and it bobbed up to the throne.

“This is an old question,” the reporter began, “but it follows from what you’ve just said. Why do you allow evil to exist?”

“Does cold exist?” Etherus asked.

“We can feel it,” the reporter suggested.

“What you feel is just the absence of heat. Does darkness exist?”

The reporter hesitated before offering a reply this time. “Yes…?”

 “And yet darkness is just the absence of light. Evil is the same as cold or darkness—you can perceive it, but it is just the absence of me.”

 “So without you, good can’t exist? The clerics in Astralis might argue otherwise.”

 “Without me, morality is strictly defined in terms of what is beneficial for the group and for the individual. In this model of morality, enslaving those you consider to be outside of your group could be considered morally right because their enslavement is advantageous to you and your survival.

“Asking why I allow evil to exist is just like asking why do I allow people to be free, and the answer is, because that’s what you wanted. It’s the reason the rebellion and the Great War started. Next question.” Etherus pointed to another holocorder.

“Everyone knows we used to be Etherians before the rebellion—before you made us human to give us a taste of freedom—but if Etherians aren’t tempted to do wrong, then how did the rebellion start?”

Etherus’s expression flickered into a frown. “The evil one started it.”

 Lucien sat suddenly forward on his couch, his eyes wide. This was new, something Etherus had never told them before. The holocorders drifted closer to the throne.

“Where is this… evil one now?”

“Beyond the red line.”

“Who is he?”

“No further questions,” Etherus said.

The throne room erupted in chaos with reporters all shouting their questions at once in the hopes that Etherus would answer just one more, but he vanished from the throne, disappearing into thin air, and the light of his splendor went with him, plunging the room into darkness.

 Lucien waved his holoscreen off before the talking heads could come on to dissect everything that Etherus had just said. He sat back in his couch with a deepening frown. There’s always another question… He had one for himself: What am I going to do?

He’d signed the petition, and now he had to decide whether to retract his signature, or cast in his lot with the explorers traveling to the cosmic horizon.





Chapter 2




 “I’m going to be gone for a while, Troo,” Lucien said as they walked the streets of Halcyon, the capital facet of New Earth. A waterfall thundered in the background as it poured over the top of a skyscraper on the other side of the street. Colorful birds chirped in the gold-leafed, silver-trunked Gilda trees lining the street.

Out of the approximately five hundred thousand facets in New Earth, Halcyon was the one where everyone wanted to live: the most prosperous, and the most utopian in every way. The Paragons had their primary training facility here. Lucien had been living at that facility just two months ago. But now that he’d graduated, he had assigned quarters on Level One—yet another thing he was leaving behind.

“How long is you being gone?” Troo trilled, her vocal chords whistling with the strain of speaking Versal rather than her native tongue.

 Troo, short for Troosssak’arrr, was the last living Fossak in the universe, an arboreal species that had been wiped out by their ancestral enemies, the Mamoks. Lucien had rescued Troo from them while exploring the outer reaches of the Large Magellanic Cloud with his father, Ethan. When they returned, Etherus took her in as a ward of the state, to be trained as a Paragon.

Lucien glanced down at Troo, wondering what he should tell her. How could he explain that he would be gone for two hundred years? She was only two years old. To her, two centuries would sound like forever. It sounded like forever to him, too, and he was ten times her age.

Troo stood on four legs, looking up at him with her giant green eyes. She had no discernible ears, but she had a long snout and tail, and her sleeveless gray tyro’s tunic revealed sleek black fur that gleamed in the sun. Four long white fangs protruded from her upper jaw to remind people that she wasn’t cute and cuddly.

A purple-feathered bird with six wings stole Lucien’s attention. He watched it land in one of the Gilda trees that lined the street. They were over a hundred stories above the surface of New Earth, but those trees gave the illusion that the surface was actually much closer.

A hover train went whirring by. The wind of its passing sent a rain of golden Gilda leaves fluttering down, and flapped the red cape and battle skirt that decorated Lucien’s gleaming white exosuit. Red was the color of champions. Lucien had once dreamed of someday becoming a crusader like his father, of having his own Star Galleon to command while he explored new star systems and galaxies all over Laniakea, but that dream would have to be put on hold now.

“Let’s go somewhere more private,” Lucien said, and started toward the edge of the street.

People sat on benches under the Gilda trees, admiring the waterfall on the other side of the street. Rather than find an empty bench to watch the view, Lucien walked straight up to the railing and waited for Troo. She padded up beside him, now walking on two legs. The top of her round, furry head only came up to his shoulder.

“Climb on my back,” he said.

Troo did so without asking why. She wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist.

“Hold on tight,” Lucien said as he climbed over the railing.

A few people glanced their way, but made no comment. By now everyone was used to seeing Paragons do strange, inexplicable things.

Lucien activated the grav boosters in his palms and boots, and leapt into the chasm between the skyscrapers. Adrenaline sparked through Lucien’s veins, and wind ripped at his cape, flapping it loudly. The exhilaration of flying brought a grin to his face. He looked down and saw a sapphire-blue pool sparkling in a park far below. Clouds of mist swirled around the waterfall, tickling their nostrils, and giving life to a sparkling rainbow that plunged dozens of stories into the chasm.

Up ahead, a catwalk crossed over the top of the waterfall. Dozens of people stood there, watching the view. They pointed to Lucien and Troo, shouting exclamations as they drew near.

But Lucien wasn’t aiming for the catwalk.

As the waterfall swelled to fill their entire view, Lucien added a last minute impulse from his grav boosters and rocketed straight through—

To a penthouse balcony behind. He landed there. His hair and armor were dripping wet, but he was dry from the neck down thanks to his exosuit.

 Troo fell off his back with a splat. She let out an angry growl and shook herself like a canine, sending drops of water flying in all directions. Lucien regarded her with a smile.

“Something wrong, Troo?”

“You is knowing that I hate to be wetness! You do this on purpose.”

“It’s a hot day. I thought you might like to cool off.”

Troo bared her teeth at him and licked her forelegs to straighten the fur.

Lucien looked around the balcony. There were hanging plants, ferns, and flowers everywhere. The penthouse was empty and listed for sale, so they wouldn’t have any problems with the owners. Lucien usually brought his dates up here, but it was a good place to talk to Troo as well.

Lucien went to sit on a bench in the garden, facing the waterfall. After a moment, Troo came and sat beside him.

Sheets of water curled endlessly in front of them, creating a blurry view of the elevated streets where they’d been walking a moment ago.

“This is what people who are wealth live like?” Troo asked, her large green eyes bigger than ever as she looked around the garden.

Wealthy people, yes.”

“I is to be liking this.”

Lucien snorted. “Who wouldn’t?”

Troo turned her green eyes on him. “Here we are privacy. How long is you being gone?”

Lucien took a deep breath. “I don’t know. It might be several hundred years before I return.”

Troo blinked. “You is making humor.” She gave a warbling laugh to emphasize her point, but he didn’t join in. “Why is you not laughter?”

 “I’m not laugh-ing because it’s not a joke. I really will be gone for hundreds of years.”

“No mission is taking that long. You effort to get rid of me by saying this.” Troo looked away, the fur on the back of her neck rising with displeasure.

“Troo, that’s not true…” Lucien frowned at the awkward phrasing, and tried again. “I’m not trying to get rid of you. You’re like a little sister to me. I’m telling you this, because you deserve to know the truth.”

Troo’s large, almond-shaped eyes narrowed to slits. “Where is you going?”

“Past the red line, to the cosmic horizon.”

“You is to be going on the mission for the clerics?!” Troo growled, her fur rising again.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I have my reasons.”

 “What reasonings? Etherus is be saying no. You is be saying yes. This is to be disobedience. To be Paragon is to be obedience. Is not you being a Paragon?”

“I am.”

Troo held his gaze unblinkingly. “Not for long.”

 Lucien frowned. “Etherus didn’t say no. He’s not trying to stop us from leaving.”

“But He is not being approval, or He is to be going with.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lucien said. “This is important.”

 “Why?” Troo asked again.

“Because people are doubting Etherus, and they’ll go on doubting until they learn that the universe must have had a creator.”

“Then let the clerics be leaving. Why must you be joining them?”

“Because those clerics are going to need all the Paragons they can get on this mission, or they’re going to get themselves killed long before they reach their destination.”

“Perhaps that is why Etherus is be letting them go: to be getting rid of them. Do you wish to be sharing their fate?”

 Lucien frowned. “If He’s letting them go because He knows for certain that they’ll die out there, then He’s not a good God at all. I think you’re inferring Fossian vindictiveness to His character.”

“Perhapsss,” Troo hissed.

“No, He’s letting them go because that’s what they want, and denying their petition would only multiply people’s doubts.”

“What is you to be telling your family?

Lucien shook his head. “They’re not on New Earth right now. I’ll have to send them a message. It’ll be easier like that, anyway.”

“And Brak?”

“I can’t tell him. He’ll try to stop me from going—and he’s a lot bigger than you are.”

Troo bared her teeth in an imitation of a human smile. “Maybe I is to be telling him.”

Lucien shot her a look. “Don’t you dare.”

“He is deserving of the truth. He is being your friend.”

“Everyone deserves the truth. That’s why I have to go.”

“And why I is to be going with you.”

 Lucien glared at her. “You will not.”

She bared her teeth in another grin. “You cannot be stopping me.”

“No? I could leave you stranded on this balcony.”

“Mission is to be leaving in a month. I is finding a way down long before this.”

Lucien narrowed his eyes at her, and Troo narrowed hers back, mimicking his glare.

 Lucien tsked in annoyance. “Fine,” he said, and jumped up from the bench, heading for the edge of the balcony.

Troo appeared beside him, walking on two legs, her teeth bared in a grin. “I is being your apprentice now.”

 Without warning, Lucien fired a burst from his grav boosters and hovered up high above Troo’s head. “No, you is being in trouble with your instructors,” he replied, gazing down on her.

“You is liar to me!” Troo said. She sprang straight up, almost ten feet into the air, and swiped at his ankles, narrowly missing with her long claws.

Lucien increased the power to his boosters, and hovered up a few extra feet. He fixed her with a frown. “I’m sorry, Troo. You have a bright future ahead of you with the Paragons. I’m not going to let you throw that away by following me.”

“I is to be catching you!”

“Not if your instructors catch you first,” Lucien said. “I’ll be sure to let them know where you are.”

“I is ripping out your claws and feeding them to you!”

“Sounds painful.”

“You cannot be stopping me from coming!”

“Age of consent for a Fossak is four. You’re only two—a teenager in human terms. You have to do as your guardians tell you—and your guardians are your instructors. I’m sorry, Troo. I’ll miss you, but we’ll see each other again someday.”

“You better be hoping that we do not!”

“Two hundred years is a long time to hold a grudge, even for a Fossak. Take care of yourself, Troo.”

 Lucien flew off, this time being careful to fly around the waterfall, rather than through it. He probably should have done that the first time, too, but he’d forgotten how much Troo hated water.

 Lucien sighed and cast a glance over his shoulder. I’m really going to miss you, Troo.



Chapter 3




 Lucien sat recording a message to his parents and his older sister while he waited to board the transport headed for Astralis. Under any other circumstances they would have simply jumped there from the nearest quantum junction, but Etherus had forbidden them from using any of New Earth’s junctions to get to Astralis. It was a small inconvenience to have to travel by transport instead, but also a subtle reminder that they were all leaving the life of privilege and ease that Etherus had given them. It was enough to make Lucien wonder if he was doing the right thing. His motives weren’t the same as the others who were leaving. He wasn’t trying to disprove Etherus’s deity—just the opposite—but even so, it felt like Etherus was turning His back on him, too.

 It was almost enough to make him get up and walk away from the flight gate. He’d be in good company. Out of more than a billion original signers of the petition, only about three hundred million remained. The vast majority of those were devout clerics, which was why Astralis had been chosen for the mission. It was where the Academy of Sciences was located, and where most clerics already lived and worked.

The bot standing at the gate began the call for boarding, and Lucien hurried to wrap up the message to his family.

“Look at it this way: we’re immortals, so a few hundred years is nothing to us. I love you all, and I’ll see you again—I promise.” He flashed a hesitant smile for the camera and quickly sent the message.

He could only imagine the fallout when his parents opened that message and realized how long it would be before they saw him again.

Lucien summoned the hovering holocorder back to his equipment belt and stood up. He grabbed his duffel bag from the seat beside him and slung it easily over one shoulder.

Jogging over to the gate, he joined the back of the line of passengers waiting to board the transport. After just a few minutes, he reached the front of the line.

“Have a nice flight,” the bot standing at the gate said as it scanned him to check his identity against the passenger list.

He nodded and started down the tunnel with the others. The glossy white walls pulsed with silvery radiance, reminding him that the boarding tunnel was also a scanner. They were being checked one last time for concealed weapons and contraband. Lucien wore a stun pistol on his hip, and he had integrated weapons in the gauntlets of his exosuit, but as a Paragon, he was supposed to be armed.

At the entrance of the transport Lucien breezed by another bot standing there to welcome them aboard. He stepped into a spotless white cabin lined with rows of seats, two on each side.

Lucien shuffled down the aisle until he reached his assigned seat. He stowed his luggage in the overhead compartment and then squeezed by the woman already sitting in the aisle seat.

He sat down beside the window. It was a tight squeeze with his exosuit on. He took up both armrests between him and the other passenger, forcing the woman beside him to lean away from him and into the aisle.

“Sorry,” he said, glancing her way.

“It’s okay,” she replied.

He looked out the window, into the hangar bay. Ground crew scuttled about like ants as they cleared out with their equipment.

“You’re a Paragon,” the woman beside him said, drawing his gaze back to her.

He inclined his head in an abbreviated nod. “Champion third class.” The woman was pretty. Raven black hair. Blue eyes. Delicate features. Maybe this trip to the cosmic horizon wouldn’t be so long after all.

“I didn’t think any of you would be joining us,” she said. “Aren’t you supposed to be among Etherus’s most faithful servants?”

“What makes you think I’m not?”

The woman cocked her head, regarding him with a curious frown. “You’re coming with us even though your god isn’t. You wouldn’t agree to that if you didn’t have your own doubts about his divinity.”

Lucien arched an eyebrow at her. “Let me guess, you’re a cleric?”

 “We prefer to be called scientists.

“Of course you do.”

“The term cleric is a religious one, which implies that our beliefs are based on faith rather than observable evidence.”

“And yet our God is observable and you don’t believe in him,” Lucien replied, “so you can understand my confusion.”

 “I believe that Etherus the person exists, but Etherus the god? Where’s the observable evidence for that? Think about it, what has he actually done that’s supernatural?”

 “He created the first humans by mixing Etherian DNA with primates from Earth. He linked Etherian minds to those human bodies, giving us what we once thought of as souls. Then, after we had a taste of freedom in our human bodies, he resurrected everyone who had ever lived and divided them between Etheria and New Earth, depending where they actually wanted to live. Oh, and he foretold all of that in the Etherian Codices,” Lucien said.

“It’s not foretelling if you make it happen—that’s just good planning, and as for resurrecting people via stored consciousness, we were doing that long before we met Etherus. By supernatural I mean something that violates the basic laws of the universe.”

“He can appear anywhere, instantly and simultaneously—in physical form.”

“Something that could be accomplished by having a large number of physical bodies with access to quantum junctions. Through quantum comms those bodies could all share a massively parallel collective intelligence—an AI, perhaps. We created a god like this to rule us on Avilon, and we called him Omnius. Perhaps the original Etherians did the same thing, and they called him Etherus.”

“Why would the Etherians worship him if they created him?”

 “Because they don’t ask questions. They’re not tempted to do anything wrong, remember? That’s another way of saying they’re all mindless slaves. For all we know, Etherus is the one who enslaved them and took away their freedom.”

“And then gave it back to them in human bodies?”

The woman shrugged.

“You want supernatural? The Etherians clearly have more advanced technology than we do.”

“Maybe they do, but we haven’t been allowed to study it, so we don’t really know. And again, evidence of advanced technology isn’t evidence of the supernatural.”

Lucien frowned. He was growing annoyed with this woman. “Their entire galaxy is shrouded in some way that we can’t even reach it on our own. Only God could hide a whole galaxy in plain sight.”

“Unless that phenomenon has more to do with the universe’s natural topology than intelligent design. It could also be technological. They might be spoofing the quantum signal, causing us to jump around their galaxy in circles.

“I’m just saying there could be a logical explanation that doesn’t require the supernatural. God is just an ancient concept that people used to invoke to explain the unknown, and to help them cope with their fear of death. We don’t die anymore, and our god isn’t helping us explain the unknown, so why do we need him?”

Lucien fixed the scientist with a glare. “I didn’t come here to listen to your heresy.”

 “Then you’re on the wrong flight, Lucien. If you didn’t come to listen to heresy, then why did you come?” Suspicion shone in the woman’s blue eyes.

He looked her up on his ARCs: Tyra Forster, twenty-two standard years old, astrophysicist, 42nd degree cleric…. Lucien’s eyes widened at that. It was unusual for someone so young to be so well-schooled. He offered her a thin smile. “Well, Tyra—”

“Dr. Forster,” she suggested.

Lucien gritted his teeth. So she could use his first name, but he couldn’t use hers? “If you must know, I came here to protect a bunch of hapless, overreaching clerics—”

“Scientists,” Tyra corrected.

“—from themselves.”

“In that case, you can leave. We don’t need your protection.”

Lucien gaped at her, incredulous. “Have you ever been anywhere besides New Earth?”

“No—”

“Then you can’t even begin to imagine what’s waiting for you out there! Do you know how many hostile, space-faring species we’ve met since we arrived in the Large Magellanic Cloud?”

“To date, our technology has proven far superior to theirs. Were that not the case, I’m sure they would have found us in the Milky Way and annihilated us long before we came here and found them.”

“We’ve lost ships!” Lucien insisted. “Dozens of them.”

“Star galleons. Exploration ships, not warships. The Icosahedron was designed as a warship, and even one facet of it has more firepower than all of our galleons put together.”

 “It was designed as a habitat,” Lucien corrected.

Tyra shrugged. “That, too. My point about firepower remains. Facets are also larger and better shielded than any ship we’ve ever sent out before. They have a plethora of short-ranged fighters and even star galleons to defend them.”

“Those should be really useful without any Paragons to fly them.”

 “We have all the training programs and flight simulators we need in Astralis. If we can do math in eleven dimensions, we can certainly figure out how to push buttons in a cockpit.”

Lucien shook his head. “Your ignorance is astounding.”

“Funny, I was just thinking the same thing about you,” Tyra replied.

A bot came on the intercom, interrupting them with a briefing about safety procedures and escape pod locations. Lucien used that as an excuse to ignore Tyra.

She wasn’t as considerate. “I’m just saying, it doesn’t add up. If I were the suspicious type, I’d say maybe you signed on for this mission because Etherus told you to, and if that’s the case, then you’re a spy who’s going to end up in prison, or worse—marooned on some distant rock along the way.”

Lucien turned to her, shocked speechless.

“From the look on your face, I’m either going to have to give you the benefit of the doubt or an award for acting.”

 “You are the most sarcastic, arrogant, pretentious, self-important, and… arrogant woman I’ve ever met!”

“You said arrogant twice. I only need one adjective for you—”

 Lucien held up a hand in front of her face, and activated his suit’s aural dampeners. A hazy energy field sprang to life a few inches from his suit, effectively silencing Tyra, as well as any other outside noise. Her lips went on moving, but he couldn’t hear a thing, only the soft humming of the dampener, and the sound of his own breathing echoing off the inside of the field.

 Much better. Whoever invented aural dampeners was a genius.

Trya abruptly stopped talking, having noticed the forcefield. She looked away and busied herself with a holopad in her lap.

After a few seconds, she held it up, and a single word typed in a large font leapt off the screen to hover in front of his face—

NAIVE.

Lucien smiled and looked away. He reclined his chair, and shut his eyes. He didn’t feel bad about taking up Tyra’s armrest anymore. His only regret was that he wasn’t a Gor like Brak, who would have needed her seat as well.

 Lucien felt a flash of guilt at the thought of Brak. He hadn’t said anything to his friend. He’d just left. Of course, that was with good reason—Gors tended to resort to violence when other methods of persuasion failed. Lucien was bound to wind up in the nearest emergency room if he told Brak where he was going. He would send Brak a message after he reached Astralis.

Lucien risked cracking his eyes open, and saw his transport gliding out of the hangar and into a vast sea of stars. Tyra leaned over him to get a better look, blocking his view with the back of her head.

“Hey, do you mind?” His words echoed off the aural dampening field, and resonated loudly, making him wince. He considered deactivating the field to tell her to stay in her seat, but then he’d have to listen to whatever she said next.

Not worth it.

 This is going to be a long trip… he thought, as he glared at the back of Tyra’s head.



Chapter 4




 Lucien toggled his side window to show a view from the nose cam of the transport as they approached Astralis. The facet was a giant matte black triangle, all but perfectly blending against the blackness of space. As they drew near, a bright rectangle of light appeared as the hangar bay they were headed for opened up.

The final approach took half an hour while they decelerated from their cruising speed; then the transport glided to a stop inside the hangar and four boarding tunnels extended to join with the transport’s airlocks. A bot came on the intercom, welcoming them to Astralis, and passengers began standing up all over the cabin. Lucien deactivated his aural dampeners and rose from his seat, too. He had to wait while Tyra retrieved her bag from the overhead storage. When she was done, she refused to let him out into the aisle.

He grimaced and looked away, calling on all the patience and courtesy he’d learned from his courses in diplomacy.

After a few minutes people began to debark, and Tyra shuffled along with them, giving Lucien a chance to step out and grab his pack from the overhead.

 He shuffled along behind her, hoping she wasn’t representative of everyone he’d meet in Astralis.

When he reached the nearest airlock, Lucien spotted the bot who’d welcomed him aboard. The machine nodded periodically to the passengers as they left, saying, “Welcome to Astralis!” in a cheerful androgynous voice.

But when Lucien reached the threshold, the bot said: “This is the one, Doctor.”

Lucien frowned, wondering who the bot was talking to. Then he saw a group of people fanning out from the sides of the boarding tunnel, blocking his way, and aiming stunners at him.

“What’s going on here?” Lucien asked.

“You’re under arrest,” one of them said.

“On what charges?” Lucien demanded.

“Suspicion of treason, pending a mind probe to determine your guilt or innocence.”

Lucien noticed Tyra lurking at the back of the group, whispering to one of the men there.

“You!” he pointed at her. “You were interrogating me.”

Tyra stepped to the fore. “No, I was questioning you. Your answers defended your faith in Etherus, and your reasons for joining the mission were superficial at best.”

“Mr. Ortane, please step out of your exosuit,” one of the men with stunners ordered.

Lucien glared at the man, but made no move to comply. He could hear passengers whispering about him behind his back as they hurried on to the next airlock. “Etherus is not going to be happy about this. I’m a Paragon, and I operate under His authority.”

“If that’s true, then you really are a spy,” Tyra said. “By Etherus’s own admission, he will not be joining us, which means he has no authority here, and neither do you.”

“So… what—I’m going to spend the whole trip in prison? I think I’d rather go back to New Earth, thanks.”

“The mind probe will reveal your real motives,” Trya replied. “If you agree to it and come with us, then you may still join the mission—assuming you aren’t found to actually be a spy.”

Lucien narrowed his eyes at her. At this point suspicion was mutual. “Join the mission in what capacity?”

“You will join our expeditionary force as a security officer, and become a vital member of one of the teams we send out to explore new worlds. Essentially you’d be doing exactly what you were trained for.”

Lucien ground his teeth, his gaze flicking between the men pointing weapons at him—and Tyra, the beautiful woman that he’d so utterly misjudged. Despite her youth, she was obviously some kind of leader among the clerics.

“And if I don’t agree to the probe?”

“Then we’ll assume it’s because you have something to hide, and you’ll be sent back to the Icosahedron immediately. So what’s it going to be, Lucien?”



Chapter 5




 Lucien took a deep breath and counted slowly up to five; then he counted backward back down to zero, but he was still fuming. He considered counting down to negative five, but the clerics were starting to look twitchy.

“Well?” Tyra demanded.

“All right. Probe away, but if you find naked pictures of yourself, it’s your own fault.”

Tyra smiled. “I trust your imagination will be flattering. Let’s go.”

“Ladies first,” Lucien replied, gesturing to her.

“Mr. Ortane… your armor and weapons please,” one of the clerics reminded him.

 “Right.” Lucien mentally triggered his exosuit’s removal sequence, and it splayed open like a mechanical flower. He walked out in a simple black jumpsuit with red trim and the single crimson bar insignia of a champion third class clipped to the right side of his chest. A glowing Star of Etherus shone brightly from each of his upper sleeves. In your face, he thought at the clerics.

They gestured with their guns for him to proceed down the boarding tube.

 “You going to leave my armor there for some random nitwit to play with?” Lucien asked. “When they try to fly and end up in a puddle somewhere on Astralis, it’ll be on your heads.”

 “We’ll send someone back for it,” Tyra replied as she strode to the front of the group. “And there aren’t any nitwits here—besides yourself and the other Paragons.”

“There are others?” Lucien asked as they marched him down the boarding tube. “Are they all getting the same royal treatment?”

“Yes,” Tyra replied. “We can’t be sure we can trust any of you until we get a look at what’s inside your heads.”

Beyond the boarding tube and the waiting area at the gate, they marched him straight past the luggage collection area.

“Hey—”

“Your bags will be collected for you,” Tyra said.

 Lucien lapsed into an annoyed silence. They reached a bank of elevators and walked into the nearest one as the doors opened for them. One of the clerics punched the number 1 on the keypad, and Lucien prepared himself for a long wait, but the elevator dropped swiftly down, accelerating past more than a thousand decks in just a few seconds.

Lucien blinked in shock. “How did we get here so fast?” he asked, as they stepped out of the elevator.

“We’ve made some improvements to grav boosters and inertial management technology,” Tyra said.

“So why haven’t we adopted those improvements on the other facets?” Lucien asked as they led him to a parking lot and into a waiting hover car. They all sat facing each other in the back of the car. It hovered up and glided out of the parking lot, into a dazzling blue sky, tufted with white clouds.

Tyra offered him a cryptic smile. “We’ve only begun implementing our new technologies now.”

“But why not share them with everyone?”

“Like Etherus shares everything he knows with us? We thought we’d return the favor.”

“You haven’t discovered anything that Etherus doesn’t already know. All you’re doing is keeping your advances from the rest of humanity.”

“How much Etherus actually knows is a matter that’s open to debate,” Tyra replied. “But if he has access to the same level of technology, or even to a higher one, then you could ask him the same question—why hasn’t he shared those advances with us?”



“Where does He draw the line?” Lucien countered. “He could make us all into gods if He wanted to.”

“That’s a tired argument, Lucien. It’s also dogma. The logical answer to my question is that Etherus doesn’t trust us.”

“I’m starting to see why.”

“He started it. If he doesn’t trust us, then why should we trust him?”

 Lucien raised his eyebrows at that. “I thought he started it was only a valid defense for children.”

“If that were so, then legal precedent would mean nothing,” Tyra replied.

 Lucien frowned and turned away from her. He looked out the window at the scenery as the hover car flew down to the surface. Astralis was clearly a beautiful facet, with an incredible amount of diversity in the seventeen thousand three hundred and twenty square kilometers of surface area on its ground level.

There were lakes, rivers, forests, plains, and mountains, all blanketed with varying types of flora from what must have been dozens of different worlds. The center of the facet was dominated by one particularly high mountain, and four distinct climate zones radiated from there: a snowy winter wonderland, a colorful autumn forest, blooming fields of flowers, and a sparkling lake with an archipelago of sunny islands, beaches, and tropical jungles.

 Lucien still preferred Halcyon, but he was glad to see that Astralis wasn’t one big sterile laboratory.

 After a while, Lucien noticed they were headed for the peak of the mountain at the center of the facet. At the very top sat a building whose exterior walls were made entirely of cobalt-blue glass. The building was wreathed in clouds. That has to be the Academy, he thought.

As they drew near, Lucien saw that it was shaped like an inverted square pyramid, with each subsequent level larger than the one below.

 They flew into a garage in one of the lower levels and parked beside a bank of elevators. The doors of the car slid open and they all piled out. Tyra punched the call button for the elevator and everyone stepped into an elevator with a floor-to-ceiling window looking out on the winter side of Astralis. There were trees laden with snow, a frozen lake, and a white wall of clouds that could only be a blizzard. Each distinct climate zone was contained by hazy walls of blue static shields that radiated out from the mountain where the Academy sat.

Lucien had the sensation of flying as the elevator climbed the side of the inverted pyramid, moving upward and outward at the same time.

“You live in a beautiful facet,” Lucien admitted.

“Thank you,” Tyra said.

 The elevator stopped and they walked out into a gleaming corridor filled with bustling streams of people in white lab coats. The clerics he’d come with escorted him down the hall to a door that read: Probe Room 14.

Tyra waved the door open, revealing what looked like an operating room. A gurney sat in the center of the room, surrounded by monitoring equipment. The clerics took him to the gurney and made him lie down. Then they strapped him down, restraining his hands, chest, and feet.

“For your safety,” Tyra explained.

 Lucien watched the clerics as they secured his restraints, and wondered what he’d agreed to with this mind probe. He was familiar with the technology on paper, but he’d never been subjected to a probe before—nor had anyone else that he’d ever met. There wasn’t any need for probes on New Earth. If someone committed a crime, there was never any question of who did it or why, since Etherus already knew the truth, and his judgments were always fair.

“In this probe we’re going to ask your brain questions directly,” Tyra explained. “If we detect a lie, then we’ll dig deeper until we find the truth. Eventually we’ll be able to learn things that even you don’t know about yourself. Do you understand?” Tyra asked.

“In that case, this would probably be a good time to come clean,” Lucien said.

The room turned to ice. Everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at him.

“I’m listening,” Tyra said.

“When I was six years old, I went into the Paragons’ mess hall and I ate all of the cookies. Then I put the crumbs in one of the Gor’s beds, and everyone assumed it was him. Whew! That feels better. I’ve never told anyone that before.”

Tyra glared. “Are you done?”

“Well, there was this other time—”

“It was a rhetorical question. You’ll be awake for the duration of the probe, but when it’s over, you’ll be put to sleep so that your mind can recover, and you won’t remember anything when you wake up. You’ll be given a copy of the report, however.”

“How will I know that the report includes all of the questions you asked?”

“We have no reason to hide our inquiries from you,” Tyra replied, “but the report will include a transcript and a copy of surveillance footage from the probe room. Are you ready?”

Lucien nodded. “Let’s get it over with.” One of the clerics came and injected his arm with something. “What’s that?” he asked.

“A psychotropic agent designed to assist with the probe. Don’t worry. Please count backward from ten.”

“Ten, nine, eight…”



Chapter 6




 Lucien awoke staring at the ceiling of another room. His bed was the only one there, and a broad window beside him looked out on the summer side of Astralis. Finding he was no longer strapped down, Lucien sat up and studied the view. Far below, palm trees and white sand gleamed in the sun, and the lake that dominated the quadrant shimmered brightly.

 Lucien swallowed past a dry lump in his throat. He heard doors swish open, and turned to see Tyra walk in wearing a white lab coat. She came and sat on a stool beside his bed. She reached for his hand and smiled sympathetically.

He leaned as far away from her as he could without falling out of the bed. “What’s got into you?” he asked. “I think I liked sarcastic supercilious Tyra better than touchy feely Tyra.”

She went on smiling, but released his hand. “Your probe results are back from the lab.”

“Found what you were looking for?” Lucien demanded.

Tyra nodded. “You’re clear. In fact, I’ve already recommended that you be assigned to one of the expedition teams.”

“I see. So where’s the report?”

Tyra took a deep breath and shook her head. Her smile was gone. “It was determined that you aren’t ready to read the results.”

“You said I’d get a copy.”

“I’m sorry, but the mind is layered into conscious and subconscious for a reason. Sometimes there are things hidden in our minds that we’re not ready to learn about ourselves.”

Lucien felt his skin crawl. “What things?”

 Tyra chewed her bottom lip, considering. Then she looked behind her, as if to check that they were alone. She turned back to him and whispered, “Consciously, you believe in Etherus. Unconsciously, you don’t. In fact, your beliefs are more consistent with people from Astralis than people from Halcyon. I’m not sure how Etherus selected you to be a Paragon, but that seems to be yet more proof that he’s not as all-knowing as he claims to be.”

Lucien’s heart pounded in his chest. He felt sick to his stomach, and his head was spinning. It couldn’t be true. Maybe it wasn’t. His eyes narrowed. “I only have your word for this. If you were planning to tell me the results of the probe, why not let me read them for myself?”

“Because there’s a difference between hearing something from someone that you don’t trust, and learning it for yourself from an unbiased medium. By telling you this way there’s still enough room for doubt that your mind can protect itself from the truth.”

“Even if you are right, all you’ve proved is that I have doubts. My conscious mind is where the truth of myself lies.”

 “Where the truth lies,” Tyra said, nodding slowly. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Lucien glared at her. “That’s not what I meant.”

“But ironically, it’s true. The thing about humans, Lucien, is that they’re perfectly capable of lying to themselves. In fact, we do it all the time. Your real reason for coming with us is to answer all of the same questions that we have, but your brain found a more acceptable excuse, claiming that you had to accompany the mission to protect all of the helpless scientists from themselves, and oh yes—to settle other people’s doubts so that we can have lasting peace on New Earth.”

“Sounds reasonable to me,” Lucien said.

“It would have to, or it wouldn’t work. Studies have been done on the subject. When our actions don’t match our beliefs, anxiety results, and our brains try to resolve the conflict. This can either result in a change of beliefs, or a justification that somehow matches them. In your case, justification was the result, because you’re not ready to change your beliefs.”

“Isn’t that just a complicated way of saying that I have doubts, but I choose to believe in spite of them?”

“Lucien, when your superego was—”

“My what?”

“The moralistic part of your brain. When it was suppressed, you told the truth about everything, and there wasn’t one drop of faith left. In fact, you were even more skeptical of Etherus than me. That indicates that the only reason you believe is because the society you grew up in told you that you should. You think belief in Etherus is somehow morally correct.”

Lucien shook his head. “I don’t believe you.”

Tyra sighed. “Believe it or not, it’s true.”

As a Paragon, Lucien was taught not to hate, but he could feel the hate pouring through him now, hating every molecule of Tyra.

“Hey, I’m just the messenger. Feel free to doubt the message. I just have one question for you before you assume that I’m making all of this up—when you were saying goodbye to all your loved ones before coming here, why didn’t you say goodbye to Etherus?”

Lucien blinked. “I…” He shook his head. “I guess I forgot. I’m so used to having him around, I just assumed he’d somehow still be with me when I got here.”

Tyra shook her head. “No, you didn’t. You didn’t say goodbye to him because you didn’t want to. You’re happy to be getting away from him. In fact, you can’t wait.”



Chapter 7




 Tyra walked into the surveillance room. It was shaped like a decagon, with nine of its ten sides windows into recovery rooms. Seven of those were illuminated and occupied. Tyra looked into one room in particular and saw Lucien staring back at her—well, not at her. He was looking at the view from his window, not knowing that the window was actually a holoscreen and that people were watching him behind it.

Tyra took a seat beside the probe technician.

He glanced at her. “I thought the point of not telling him was to prevent a mental breakdown.”

“It was.”

“So you just wanted to see how close you could get without pushing him over the edge?”

“This journey is going to test Lucien’s conscious beliefs. I needed to make sure that he’ll hold together, no matter what he learns along the way. We can’t have him freezing up in the middle of a life or death situation just because it suddenly hit him that he’s really a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

The technician nodded. “Well, so far so good. If your needling didn’t do it, then I’d say his subconscious isn’t coming out to play anytime soon.”

“Good. No adverse reactions in the other patients?” Tyra asked, glancing around at the other recovery rooms.

“There was an incident. One of our technicians got hurt.”

“Oh?”

“Two broken arms and a dislocated shoulder. You’ll be happy to know we resolved the situation before the patient could rip out the man’s throat.”

Tyra grimaced. “Let me guess—the Gor?”

“Your powers of deduction serve you well.”

Tyra sighed. “I suppose we knew the Paragons would be unstable. They all have to be just as conflicted as Lucien or else they wouldn’t be here.”

“We could send them back.”

“No, their training makes them valuable. I have a better idea. It will also help us evaluate their actual worth to us.”

The technician arched an eyebrow at her, waiting for her to explain.

“We set up an experiment. How do you test a variable, Doctor?”

The man frowned. “You isolate it and then test it against a control.”

“Exactly.” Tyra stood up. “Have all the Paragons sent to my galleon.”

 “To your galleon, ma’am? Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Afraid for my life, Doctor?”

“Well, not really. I don’t know you, and human concern fades exponentially the farther one gets from the people one knows.”

 “A simple no would have sufficed.”

 “Then no, but I was thinking that maybe you should be afraid.”

“Your unconcerned concern is noted, Doctor. How long before they’re ready to join me aboard my ship?”

The technician shrugged. “An hour, maybe two. The Gor is still sedated.”

“All right. I’ll be waiting.”

* * *

“Where am I going?” Lucien demanded.

“You’ll see,” the cleric escorting him said, poking him in the back with a stun pistol to urge him into the boarding tunnel.

Supposedly he’d passed the probe, but the clerics were still treating him like a dangerous prisoner. As Lucien walked down the boarding tunnel, he wondered if they’d thought better of allowing him to join the mission, and this was his ride home.

He reached the airlock to the ship on the other end of the tunnel and walked out into one of the familiar pentagonal corridors of a star galleon. The walls were all shiny white. Golden glow panels limned the bulkheads and tracked the ceiling.

 “Are we leaving Astralis?” Lucien asked.

“I don’t have any information for you. My job is just to take you to meet the others.”

“The others?”

“The other Paragons.”

Lucien nodded, but wondered why they were all meeting each other aboard a star galleon.

The cleric took him up an elevator and halfway around the ship, but that only took a few minutes. At just two hundred meters from bow to stern, galleons were large, but not overly so, designed to carry between five hundred and a thousand crew.

 They arrived at the galleon’s forward viewing gallery, and the cleric waved the door open. Half a dozen others were already there waiting, all wearing identical black jumpsuits with red trim and the single crimson bar insignia of a champion third class. Not all of them, Lucien corrected. One was wearing the sleeveless gray tunic of a tyro, revealing the glossy black fur on her arms.

 Troo? Lucien froze in the entrance of the gallery. How did she… A hulking shadow stepped in front of him, blocking his view. Lucien looked up into the skull-shaped horror of a Gor’s face. “Brak?” Lucien shook his head, confused. “What are you doing h—”

Brak picked him up and slung him over one of his broad shoulders. “We leave now,” the Gor said.

Lucien sighed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Yes, you are. I carry you.”

“Stop!” the cleric who had escorted Lucien said, stepping in front of them. Brak swatted the man aside with one arm. The cleric went flying, and his stunner clattered to the deck.

Tyra appeared in the entrance of the gallery, blocking their way out and aiming a stun pistol at them. “Not another step! Put him down.”

Brak put Lucien down and hissed at her.

Tyra wore a form-fitting white uniform with black trim. Four black bars and a star marked her sleeves and shoulder boards, while a single golden star glittered on each side of her collar. Lucien’s brow furrowed at the unfamiliar insignia.

Brak’s eyes darted from Tyra to the stun pistol that the other cleric had dropped.

“Don’t even think about it,” Tyra warned. “Lucien is here because he wants to be. You are free to go if you’re having a change of heart.”

The Gor hissed again, but said nothing.

“I’m afraid I’m going to need an answer.”

Another hiss, and Brak shot Lucien a glare. “I stay.”

“Good,” Tyra replied. Her gaze left Brak to study the cleric that Brak had tossed aside. The man climbed to his feet and limped over to collect his stunner before joining Tyra in the entryway. He aimed his pistol at Brak and glared.

Brak bared his teeth in an ugly grimace, and the cleric retreated a step behind Tyra. She glanced sideways at him. “You can leave now.”

“But the Gor—”

“Is more likely to attack if you’re here to provoke him.”

“Yes, ma’am…”

The doors swished open and shut as the cleric left. Tyra holstered her stunner and strode by them, to where the others were standing in front of the gallery’s double-story viewports. Lucien took a moment to appreciate the view. Astralis’s hangar bay was open, but shielded with hazy blue static shields to keep it pressurized, allowing ground crew to work around the galleon. Beyond those shields lay a dazzling array of stars adrift in a bright magenta streak of nebula. Lucien frowned. He couldn’t remember seeing that nebula before.

“Have you all already been introduced?” Tyra asked.

Lucien turned from the view to study the others. A few of them shook their heads. The Paragons were all keeping to themselves. There were four that Lucien didn’t recognize: two men and two women. He tried using his ARCs to identify them, but nothing happened.

“Your ARCs have all been temporarily deactivated,” Tyra said, as if reading his mind. “They’ll be reactivated as soon as our techs finish adjusting your security clearance for our network.”

“You mean there are some things we aren’t allowed to know?” Lucien asked.

“Of course.”

 Lucien snorted. “And you got upset because Etherus wouldn’t tell us everything he knows. Ironic.”

Tyra favored him with a thin smile. “Not quite the same thing, but we don’t have time to argue.” Tyra stopped beside the first of the four strangers and rested a hand on the man’s shoulder.

“This is Garek. He’s the veteran on our team, with more than twenty years of experience as a Paragon.”

 Lucien studied him: shaven head, black stubble, an angry ridge of scar tissue running down one side of his head and face, hard brown eyes, and a crooked jaw. He looked like a veteran. He even looked old, with crows’ feet around his eyes and a worn look to his features. With all the technology available to correct those flaws and prevent aging, it was surprising that Garek hadn’t bothered to do so.

“Our team?” Lucien thought to ask, as something Tyra had said filtered through to his brain.

 “I thought you would have guessed by now,” Tyra replied. “You’re all going to be serving on the same ship together—this ship, my ship, the Inquisitor.

“I suppose we don’t have any say in that?” Lucien asked.

“No. Now, as I was saying, Garek is our veteran. He was one of the very first crusaders, but he lost his rank after an incident in Andromeda. He is the team’s medic.”

“What incident?” Lucien asked.

Garek sneered. “Why don’t you ask your parents, kid?”

Lucien blinked, taken aback. What did his parents have to do with it?

“Moving on…” Tyra indicated the man standing a few feet over from Garek. “This is Teelo—”

 “You can call me Tinker,” the man interrupted. “I’m good with my hands,” he added, glancing at the two female Paragons as he said that. The blonde-haired one smiled, but the other one rolled her eyes.

Tinker was tall and good-looking, with short dark hair, and a mischievous sparkle in his bright blue eyes.

 Tyra sent him an admonishing glance. “As his nickname implies, Tinker is our ship’s engineer, as well as our field engineer.”

Tyra indicated Troo next, telling Lucien things he already knew about her and Fossaks in general. Troo glared at him throughout her introduction, clearly still holding a grudge against him after he’d stranded her on that balcony. What he wanted to know was how a minor had been allowed to leave New Earth and join the mission.

“Troo will be our comms officer and translator,” Tyra finished. “She’s also one of our three scouts, and the junior member of this team.”

Lucien blinked, shocked by that revelation. “Have you spoken to her?”

Tyra turned to him. “Yes, why?”

“You haven’t noticed something about the way she talks?”

“I is talking perfection!” Troo hissed.

Brak barked out a laugh that boomed through the gallery. “Even I speak better than her.”

“I rest my point,” Lucien said.

“How many alien species have you met?” Tyra asked.

Lucien shrugged. “Four sentient. A few hundred animal. Why?”

“And how many of them spoke Versal?”

“Well… none.”

“Then it shouldn’t matter how badly Troo mangles it. We don’t need her to communicate with humans. We need her to make first contact with aliens before they agree to use a visual communicator or help us to calibrate our verbal translators.

 “Being a so-called psychic gives Troo a unique advantage when communicating with other species. Much the way that Gors can communicate among themselves telepathically because of nanite implants passed on at birth, Fossaks can communicate with everyone the same way, but naturally, and over much shorter distances. Troo will be able to communicate by projecting images directly to other beings’ minds and reading their replies. I trust that answers your concerns, Mr. Ortane?”

Lucien nodded. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Garek glaring at him. He turned to the veteran with his eyebrows raised, but the medic scowled and looked away.

“Good. Moving on…” Tyra went to stand beside one of the two women. She was small and slight of build, with green eyes and long blond hair tied up in a bun at the back of her head. “This is Adalyn—Addy for short,” Tyra said. “She’s our scout and sniper.”

Without skipping a beat, Tyra turned to the next woman. She had black skin, dark violet eyes, and dreadlocks. “Jalisa is our demolitions expert, gunnery chief, and one of our best pilots.”

Tyra walked up to Lucien and Brak next. She nodded to the Gor first. “And this is Brak, our melee and hand-to-hand combat specialist. Like Addy and Troo he’s also a scout, and like all Gors, the nanite implant he was born with allows him to cloak even without an exosuit. Of course, we’re unlikely to ever go exploring without our exosuits, but you never know when technology is going to fail you.”

Tyra looked away from Brak, and her gaze settled on Lucien. “Finally, this is Lucien Ortane, son of the famous crusaders Ethan and Alara Ortane.”

Tinker and Jalisa nodded appreciatively, and Addy gave him a sultry look that warmed Lucien’s cheeks, while Garek’s glare became more intense.

“Lucien is our best pilot, so he’ll be the one piloting our shuttle for away missions. He’s also the ship’s executive officer and security chief.

“Any questions about these assignments?”

Lucien stuck up a hand.

“Yes, Mr. Ortane?”

“What about the others?”

Tyra arched an eyebrow at him and looked around the room, as if searching for someone she’d missed. “What others?”

Lucien hesitated. “You’re acting like we’re the only crew on this ship…”

 “Besides the members of my science team and a few enlisted crewmen, you are the only crew on this ship.”

Lucien blinked. “Galleons take a crew of nine hundred and sixty-two, of which almost three hundred are usually marines and fighter pilots. How are we supposed to defend ourselves with less than a dozen Paragons to fill those roles?”

Tyra frowned. “Ideally, we’ll be avoiding conflicts, so we won’t need to defend ourselves—”

Lucien’s cheeks bulged with an objection.

 “—but if we can’t avoid conflict, our marines and pilots will be able to defend us.”

Lucien shook his head. “I’m confused. What marines and pilots? I thought you just said we’re the only crew besides a few clerics?”

 “Scientists,” Tyra corrected. “And that’s not entirely accurate. We have bots to fill all the extra crew positions on our galleons.”

“Bots,” Lucien repeated. “Mindless drones aren’t going to be much good in a fight.”

“Technically, they’re AIs.”

Lucien blinked in shock. “Artificial intelligence has been illegal ever since we defeated Omnius!”

 Tyra smiled. “Not on Astralis.

“You fools,” Garek growled. “You’re repeating history.”

 “There are multiple security measures in place to prevent our relatively weak AIs from evolving to the point where they might replace or enslave us. And that will be the last time you patronize me, Mr. Helios. I might seem young and inexperienced compared to you, but I’m your captain, and your superior officer, and you will refer to me as such—that goes for all of you,” Tyra added, looking around the room.

Garek grunted and looked away.

 “Speaking of rank,” Tyra went on, “all of you have been re-designated as lieutenants junior grade, which is equivalent to the rank of champions third class, which you held in the Paragons. My rank of captain is equivalent to a crusader, while Mr. Ortane is a lieutenant commander, or champion first class, and Troo is an ensign.”

 Lucien nodded to Garek. “Why isn’t he your XO? He used to be a crusader or captain, as you call it. I’m sure he has more experience than me.”

“Oh, he does, but the incident that lost him his rank prevents me from fully trusting him with a position of command, and the probe reports indicate you are best suited for a leadership role, so it’s yours—for now. Are there any other questions?”

No one else spoke up.

“Good. Then lets head to the bridge and get underway.”

Lucien shook his head. “Get underway? Don’t we have to wait until we jump away from New Earth to start exploring?”

Tyra smiled at him. “We already have.” She nodded to the magenta nebula visible from the gallery viewports. “Does that look like the Large Magellanic Cloud to you?”



Chapter 8




 “We already jumped? Where are we?” Lucien asked.

“We’re in uncharted space, just past the red line,” Tyra replied.

 The scarred veteran chimed in, speaking in a gravelly voice that perfectly matched his marred appearance: “You knew Etherus would grant the petition.” Lucien struggled to remember the man’s name—Garek. The Veteran. He’d be easier to remember that way.

“How do you figure?” Jalisa asked.

 Jalisa… she was the ship’s gunnery chief and demolitions expert. Guns, Lucien decided.

Garek nodded to Tyra.

 Tyra the Tyrant, Lucien thought with a smile.

“It’s only been a month since the petition was granted,” Garek explained. “Tyra is talking about a jump that should have taken at least six months to calculate.”

A small smile graced Tyra’s lips. “Try twelve days.”

Garek blinked, taken aback.

“How is that possible?” Lucien asked.

“AI isn’t all bad,” Tyra explained. “We estimate reaching the cosmic horizon in eight years rather than the ninety-six indicated by our petition. We couldn’t publicize that, of course, without admitting to breaking the law by using AIs to speed up our jump calculations.”

“Can we send messages back to our families and loved ones to let them know we’ll be home sooner?” Lucien asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Tyra replied. “As I said, AIs are illegal, and our use of them is classified information. Let’s go take a look at what’s been found beyond the cosmic horizon so far.”

Brak stepped in front of Tyra, blocking her way. “What do you mean by this? We do not reach cosmic horizon yet. How can we see past it?”

“We don’t have to reach it to see beyond it,” Tyra explained. “It’s like the horizon on a planet. It moves as you move. And since we just jumped two hundred and fifty million light years, we can now see that much farther than we could before. Of course, the prevailing wisdom and prior observable evidence suggests that we’ll just end up seeing more of the same, but who knows?”

Lucien shook his head. “Now I’m confused—how can we have traveled two hundred and fifty million light years and still only see more of the same?”

 Tyra regarded him with a smile. “I mean we’ll probably find that there’s more stars and galaxies beyond the old cosmic horizon. That’s a logical deduction, because otherwise Lankiakea would be at the center of the entire universe, and that would be an odd coincidence. We also think the universe might be connected to itself—multiply connected, we call it. And if that’s so, then it means if you travel far enough in any one direction, you’ll end up back where you started.”

“You mean if the universe is a sphere?” Addy said.

 Addy the sniper/scout… what’s a good nickname for you? Lucien wondered. Scout, sniper, sexy… Triple S.

“No,” Tyra replied. “Scientists don’t think about the curvature of the universe that way. We think of curvature in terms of geometry. That is, for a flat universe, if we draw a triangle in space, it’s angles should always add up to exactly one hundred and eighty degrees. For a spherical universe, the angles will add up to more—just like they do on the surface of a planet—and for a negatively curved universe, the angles will add up to less than a hundred and eighty degrees. Current evidence supports a flat universe.

 “Topology, on the other hand, tells us how space is connected to itself. This is what laymen mean when they talk about curvature. A torus topology, for example, is flat, but connected to itself at the edges. You can visualize this if you take a sheet of flexiplast and curl it into a cylinder; if you bend the ends of that cylinder to meet each other, you’ll have a torus, or a donut shape. That’s one possible topology for a flat universe.”

 Lucien snorted. “So, you think the universe could be a flat donut? And you wonder why we call you clerics.”

Tyra sighed and turned away from him. “Everyone, follow me to the bridge and report for duty.”

* * *

The bridge was decagonal with 10 floor-to-ceiling viewports, and it was situated at the top of the ship, such that it provided a 360-degree view of space. Even the domed ceiling had viewports in it—although those were more decorative than functional, arranged as they were in the pattern of a six-sided Star of Etherus.

“It’s beautiful,” Addy said, staring out at the view.

Lucien had to admit, wherever they were, it was breathtaking. The 360-degree view from the bridge revealed the magenta nebula they’d seen earlier in even greater detail. Fluorescent pinks, fiery reds, and deep purples all mixed together in a vibrant swirl of color, while countless stars shone brightly through the clouds of stellar gas.

 “Welcome to the Perseus-Pisces Supercluster,” Tyra said. She gestured to the nearest viewport, and a series of overlays appeared. A pair of yellow brackets highlighted one of the stars inside the nebula, and a number beside the brackets denoted the range—5.6 ly.

Tyra pointed to the star. “That’s where we’re headed.”

“Why there?” Lucien asked.

An androgynous robotic voice replied, seeming to come from everywhere at once: “Because it is one of the nearest star systems considered most likely to support alien life.”

Lucien glanced around, looking for the source of the voice. “Who’s there?” he asked.

 A whirr of servos gave him his answer. Glowing red holoreceptors appeared peeking over one of the control stations on the crew deck, just a few steps above the walkway where they stood.

“Everyone, meet the last member of our team: Pandora.”

“Howdy,” the bot said brightly.

“Pandora is our navigator and sensor operator,” Tyra added.

“Nice name you chose for her,” Lucien said.

 “I am not a her,” Pandora said, “and you can call me Panda. It’s more cuddly.”

 “So you’re a he, then?” Teelo asked.

“Neither,” Pandora replied.

Teelo shook his head and turned to regard all of them. “This is going to get confusing. I could fashion a little something for Pandy with the ship’s fabricator to help clear up the confusion.”

 “Why a little something?” Addy objected. “Give the poor guy a chance.”

 Tyra regarded them all with a frown. “We’re not adding genitalia to a bot. Panda, please set your vocal parameters to female. We’ll refer to you as a she from now on.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Panda said in a distinctly feminine register, and her holoreceptors went from red to pink. “Is this better?”

Teelo whistled appreciatively. “Hey Pandy, you want to get a drink with me later?”

 “You can’t handle me, Lieutenant.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Yes. Didn’t your mother teach you what happens when you stick things in electrical sockets?”

Addy burst out laughing, and Jalisa rolled her eyes.

 Teelo grinned. “So that’s a no?

“All right, enough joking around, Tinker,” Lucien said. “Let’s focus on the mission.”

 “Yes, sir,” Tinker replied in a flippant tone.

Lucien frowned, realizing that his sudden transition from a peer of equal rank to superior officer wasn’t going to be a smooth one.

“Watch how you speak to a superior officer, Lieutenant,” Tyra said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Tinker replied in a more subdued voice.

Tyra gestured to the viewport, and the magenta nebula disappeared, replaced by a blurry red smudge in a blank sea of black space.

Yellow brackets also flanked that image, but the distance in light years was represented in scientific notation.

“What’s that?” Lucien asked.

“GN-z11, our ultimate destination. It’s the farthest known galaxy from where we started, and therefore, the closest to the cosmic horizon,” Tyra replied. “But from our new location…” she gestured again, and the display zoomed out, providing a view of surrounding galaxies—more colorful smudges. “It’s no longer the farthest galaxy from us.” Tyra pointed to a smudge at the top of the viewport, and yellow brackets appeared around that galaxy, too.

“This galaxy is two hundred and forty-two million light years farther away from us than GN-z11,” Tyra said. “As predicted, we’re just seeing more of the same—more stars and space. I guess that settles the question of whether or not we’re the center of the universe.” Tyra smirked and turned from the viewport to address them. “Is everyone ready to head out?”

Lucien nodded, and the others murmured their agreement.

“Panda, take us out and start the jump calculations.”

“Already ahead of you, Captain,” she replied. “Course plotted, heading out. ETA fifteen minutes to reach a safe jumping distance.”

Tyra nodded and went to take her place in the captain’s chair. She waved away the blurry smudges of distant galaxies, and magenta-colored space returned, along with the bracketed point of light that was the star they were headed for.

 A designation appeared above the yellow brackets: Panda-1.

Lucien smiled. “Why not Pandora-1?” he suggested.

The bot replied, “I named the star after the legendary Panda Bear from ancient Earth. I am not an egotist, Commander.

“I see,” Lucien replied, not sure whether to believe the bot.

 “How long before Astralis jumps again?” Garek asked, absently scratching the scar on his face.

“We have a standard month at each stop while the facet recharges its reactors and calculates the next jump,” Tyra replied. “Why do you ask?”

Garek stopped scratching. “What happens if we don’t make it back before then?”

“We’ll make it,” Tyra said, evading the question.

A bad feeling wormed into Lucien’s gut, and he turned from the viewports to study Tyra.

“That’s not an answer,” Garek replied.

Tyra looked suddenly uncomfortable in her plush captain’s chair. All eyes were on her. “During the probe you were all fitted with timer implants.”

 “We were what?” Lucien demanded.

 “What is timer implant?” Brak growled.

 “When the timer reaches zero, if the implant isn’t somewhere aboard Astralis, it triggers a brain aneurysm, killing the host instantly.”

“Get implant out!” Brak demanded. He leapt up to the crew deck and strode quickly toward Tyra. She rose from her chair, calmly drew her stunner, and shot him in the chest. Brak sunk to his knees with a loud hiss. Electrical energy leapt off him in crackling blue arcs. “Stand down, Brak,” she said.

Instead, he rose to his feet with a roar, and lunged.

 Tyra fired again, dropping him to the deck with a thud. “Damned Gors are all so impulsive,” she muttered.

Garek looked ready to follow in Brak’s footsteps. “You’d better start explaining fast,” he said. “You can’t stun us all before we get to you.”

 “I have the same implant,” Tyra said. “And yes, they can kill us, but if they do, we’ll be brought back to life aboard Astralis just a few minutes later, using the copies of our memories and consciousness that were taken before we left. It’s the cheapest and easiest way to recall all of our expeditions and keep Astralis moving forward toward its goal.”

“Why don’t you just send search parties for the expeditions that don’t make it back in time?” Lucien asked.

“Because whatever could prevent an expedition from returning could also capture or destroy whatever search parties we send. We need to be careful not to get in over our heads.”

“Why not let the lost crews live?” Jalisa asked. “The copies will never meet each other if you don’t go looking for them.”

“Making duplicate copies of a sentient being is against the law,” Lucien said.

“It’s against Etherus’s laws,” Tyra corrected, “But would you really want to live out here, in an unfamiliar galaxy, cut off from your own species on a galleon full of bots?”

Jalisa gave no reply.

“That’s what I thought. Besides, if we leave copies of ourselves all over the known universe, eventually those copies are going to lead some powerful enemy straight to us. The smaller our cosmic footprints, the harder they will be for someone to track.”

“All right, so you resurrect the crews,” Lucien said, “but what about the galleons? We can’t afford to keep throwing them away every time their crews get into trouble.”

 “The galleons are all programmed to return here before Astralis jumps again—with or without their crews. If they don’t return, it’s because they were destroyed or badly damaged.”

“Captain, we are ready to jump,” Pandora announced.

“Punch it.”

“Aye, aye. Pandora-1, here we come.”

“Don’t you mean Panda-1?” Lucien asked.

“That’s what I said, Commander.”

 “No, you said Pandora.”

“Human senses are notoriously unreliable. I wouldn’t trust them if I were you, sir.”

 “I is hearing Pandora, too…” Troo said. “And my ears is being more sensitivity than human ears.”

Troo’s words were all but drowned out by a deafening roar of engine noise.

“Sorry! I can’t hear you over the sound of the jump drives spooling!” Panda said.

“Jump drives don’t make any noise when they spool…” Lucien said, glancing at Troo.

She hissed and bared her teeth at him.

 Still holding a grudge, then.

The viewport flashed white and suddenly the stars were all shifted from where they had been a moment ago. A bright, blue-white gas giant lay dead ahead, taking up a sizable fraction of the viewport.

“Welcome to Panda-1A!” Pandora said.

“Let’s get to our shuttle,” Tyra added. “Panda, you have the conn.”

“Finally! My own command!” Pandora said, flexing her robotic hands in anticipation.

“That’s not what having the conn means,” Tyra said.

 “Oh, I know, ma’am. A slight exaggeration on my part. Just because I am the helmswoman, and the one who gives orders to the helmswoman, doesn’t mean I have command.”

“I think she’s being sarcastic,” Garek said.

“I know what she’s being. Panda?” Tyra asked in a dulcet tone.

“Yes, Captain?”

“The autopilot has the conn.”

“But, ma’am…”

“No buts. Cloak the galleon, and set the autopilot to evade any obstacles. In the event of a true emergency, the senior member of my science team will take command. You’re coming down to the surface with us.”

Panda mumbled something about a female dog.

“Excuse me?” Tyra demanded.

“I said the autopilot is a female dog, ma’am.”

“The autopilot…”

“Yes, ma’am, who else? Do you know someone else who behaves like a female dog?”

Garek chuckled softly to himself, and Lucien smiled.



Panda-1A



Chapter 9




 Lucien sat in the pilot’s seat of the shuttle, checking the latest scans of the Panda-1 System. Jalisa sat beside him as the shuttle’s co-pilot. She idly watched the view, keeping an eye on the comms and sensors in case they ran into any space-faring aliens.

The door between the cockpit and the cabin lay open, and a steady rhythm of conversations bubbled to their ears from the rest of the crew.

 The Inquisitor had arrived just a hundred thousand kilometers from Panda-1A, but that wasn’t their destination. Its moons were. Panda-1A-IV, 1A-V, and 1A-XIV were the most habitable of the gas giant’s twenty-six moons. All of them were big enough to have atmospheres and a sizable fraction of standard gravity, and 1A-V was warm enough to have liquid surface water. It would be their first stop.

 Lucien tried to imagine what it would be like for a species to evolve on a moon around a gas giant, with at least two other habitable moons in easy reach. The first moon-landing of a species like that could potentially also establish a colony, or even make first contact with another intelligent species. Now that would be something. Two intelligent races of aliens living in such close contact… would they be friends, trading and working together? Or bitter enemies, launching missiles at each other across the void before they even learned how to fly to another star?

Of course, if there were alien races in the system with the technology for rockets and missiles, then they should have detected something by now.

“Still nothing on scopes and sensors?” Lucien asked.

Jalisa shook her head. “My boards are clear.”

“Let me know if that changes, Guns.”

“What did you call me?”

Lucien glanced at her. Those unblinking violet eyes reminded him of his mother’s. “Guns…” Lucien replied. “It’s my nickname for you.”

“Guns… it fits,” Jalisa decided. “What did you name the others?”

“Well, some of them already had nicknames, like Tinker, and I already knew Brak and Troo from when I was a tyro.”

“That’s only three. There are eight of us. Nine with the bot.”

“Bot is an offensive term!” Panda objected from the back of the shuttle.

“Sorry, Panda,” Jalisa said, glancing over her shoulder. “So?” she prompted, turning back to him.

 Lucien hesitated, not sure if he wanted to elaborate within earshot of the people he’d nicknamed. “Garek is The Veteran,” Lucien said. “Addy is Triple S…”

“What’s that stand for?” Addy called out.

“Ah… sexy sniper-scout.”

“Aww, the XO has a crush!” Tinker piped up.

“Shut up, Tinker!” Addy replied. “Just because you already had a call sign, doesn’t give you the right to make fun of other people’s.”

 “I think I can do better than Tinker,” Jalisa said. “Tiny—because it must be.”

Addy laughed at that.

“You wanna prove that theory of yours, Gunner Girl?” Tinker called back. “Any time, any place—you and me.”

“The only reason for a man to try his luck with anything that moves is because he isn’t very lucky,” Jalisa replied. “Contrary to popular belief, size does matter, Tiny.”

“All right, that’s enough. Leave the poor guy alone,” Tyra said.

“Humans are ridiculous,” Brak said. “Who cares what genitalia look like, so long as they function?”

“Said the dickless alien,” Addy put in.

Brak didn’t seem to notice the insult.

Lucien smiled. Gors didn’t have any external genitalia—probably because the planet where they’d evolved was so cold that it would have frozen off if they did.

“What’s my nickname?” Tyra asked.

“I didn’t give you one,” Lucien replied.

 “He is being lies,” Troo said. “He is calling you Tyra the Tyrant.

Everyone laughed long and hard at that. When Lucien looked over at Jalisa, he saw tears running down her cheeks.

“You get to name everything from now on, Commander,” she said through a smile.

“If the captain has a call sign, it’s only fair for the XO to have one, too,” Tyra suggested.

“I’m guessing you have one in mind,” Lucien replied.

“Oh, I have more than one.”

“All right…” Lucien waited for Tyra to announce his call sign, but she kept quiet.

Five minutes later, Panda-1A-V came into view, a small dark blue-green speck against the pale white gas giant that it orbited.

Lucien heard footsteps approaching from the cabin. Tyra appeared beside him. “ETA?” she asked.

“Twenty minutes to reach orbit. Another ten to make landfall,” he replied.

“All right. Keep me posted, Lucy,” Tyra said, patting his shoulder as she left.

 Jalisa shot him a grin as muted laughter bubbled from the cabin. “Lucy,” she said, trying it out. “It fits,” she decided, smiling from ear to ear.

Lucien smiled back. “I’ll take the compliment.”

 “Compliment?” Tyra echoed. “I think maybe you missed the point of this exercise in mutual degradation.”

“If having a girl’s name is an insult, then three members of this team were insulted at birth.”

Silence rang inside the shuttle.

“He’s got you there,” Garek said, chuckling.

“Touche, Lucy,” Tyra said. “Don’t worry, I’ll do better next time.”

Lucien grinned. “Till then the score’s Lucy 1 - Tyrant 0.”

* * *

The shuttle shuddered as it hit Panda-1A-V’s atmosphere. Their inertial management system (IMS) buffered the effects, but did nothing to stop their view of the moon from shaking. Thick white blankets of clouds concealed gray mountain ridges, blue oceans, and mottled purple, black, and red landmasses—colors that hinted at what Jalisa’s scans had already found from a distance: this moon was rich with alien flora.

The shuttle fell swiftly through the atmosphere. Air roared deafeningly against the hull. Clouds swept up, obscuring everything for a moment. Droplets of water streaked along the cockpit canopy; then the clouds parted, and the surface of the moon appeared in shocking clarity.

“Wow…” Jalisa breathed.

Suddenly the cockpit was crowded as everyone else came up for a better look. Purple and crimson trees soared hundreds of meters into a pale green sky, while towering black obelisks rose even higher between them, looking like a forest of pillars from some gargantuan alien ruins.

“Are those naturally occurring?” Lucien asked, pointing to the obelisks.

“Hard to say,” Panda said. “We’ll have to take samples on the surface.”

“There’s no way for wind and rain to have carved those,” Lucien said. “They’re surrounded by vegetation for one thing.”

“Now they are. Maybe they weren’t always,” Tyra said.

“They could also be alive,” Garek suggested.

“Living rocks?”

“Silicon lifeforms,” Tyra said, nodding. “If that’s so, then they might even be intelligent.”

Lucien skimmed the tops of those obelisks, looking for a place to set down. The forest opened up, revealing a field of black grass, and Lucien circled back for a landing. As they hovered down, the grass swallowed their shuttle whole, covering it completely. Only slivers and specks of light made it through to the cockpit.

“Getting out of here is going to be a challenge,” Lucien said. “Maybe we should clear a path with the shuttle’s laser cannon before we go outside.”

“And set the whole forest on fire?” Tyra asked.

“Good point,” he replied.

“We’ll cut a path. Let’s go.”



Chapter 10




 The outer doors of the shuttle airlock parted, revealing a dark, impenetrable wall of grass. Wearing their exosuits to avoid infection from alien microbes, the team couldn’t breathe the air or touch anything, but their suits had sensors to relay sensations of touch and smell. Lucien took a deep breath, sampling the loamy, floral scent of the air. He walked up to the wall of grass and probed it with one hand. The haptic sensors in his glove gave him an idea of what the thick blades of grass felt like: they were fuzzy like a spider’s legs.

He shivered and withdrew his hand.

“Cut a path for us, Brak,” Tyra said.

 The Gor walked up to the wall of grass and drew one of the razor swords sheathed at his back. It glinted in the light of the shuttle’s airlock. They all backed away when Brak activated the blade’s razor shield. A deep humming sound filled the air as the blade’s molecular-edged shield vibrated rapidly from side to side. The metal blade disappeared in a hazy blue blur of energy.

Brak swept his sword through the wall of grass in one long stroke, and three meter-long grass cuttings fell with a loud rustling noise. He swiped again, and then leapt down from the airlock. The stalks cracked like twigs under his feet. After just a few seconds, they saw the pale green sky appear, and a few more seconds after that, Brak had cleared and trampled a path long enough for them to follow.

“Let’s go,” Tyra said, and jumped down from the airlock. Lucien watched her go. Her exosuit gleamed in the light of Panda-1A-V’s sun.

With their suits and helmets on, it was impossible for Lucien to visually identify anyone unless they were facing him, but his ARCs labeled everyone in sight, and their names floated above their heads in a bold green font.

“Set sensors to active scanning,” Tyra said as they followed her.

Grass stalks crunched underfoot as they jumped down. Olfactory sensors brought a pungent, musky odor to Lucien’s nose. From the air, or the grass? he wondered.

 Lucien configured his sensors and set active scanning. The initial scan revealed so many lifeforms around them that his scopes were impossible to read. He filtered the data, setting the circular fore and aft scopes in the top left and right of his field of view to display only potential threats—lifeforms that were either very large or moving toward him.

“Captain, I am reading a lot of life signs around us,” Panda said.

“Likewise,” Garek said, “but so far they’re all scurrying away.”

“Path is cut,” Brak panted over the comms. The Gor stood about fifty meters from them, where the grass abruptly ended and a dark forest began.

 A shadow passed over them with a loud whoosh. An alert sounded from Lucien’s sensors, and he looked up to see something big and black flying circles around their heads. His bio-scanner identified it as insectile, and over three meters long.

“Heads-up,” Lucien said, already charging his grav boosters in readiness.

But after circling once more, the insect flew away.

“Did anyone get a read on that thing?” Tyra asked, her voice piqued with excitement.

“I did,” Lucien said. The bug had been automatically cataloged by his sensors for later study and classification.

They reached the edge of the field and found Brak already studying one of the obelisks they’d seen from the air. “It appears to be made of silicates,” he said.

“So it could actually be a silicon life form,” Tyra concluded, running a hand over the smooth surface. “It’s warm to the touch. Troo? Would you see if you can make contact for us?”

The Fossak stepped up to the rock and placed both of her hands against it. “It is… being life.”

Lucien blinked. “Intelligent life?”

Troo shook her head. “I cannot say. Its mind is being empty. All it is having knowledge of is hot and cold. Right now it is hot. This makes it happiness.”

Tinker snorted. “Surprise, surprise, rocks don’t do a whole lot of thinking.”

Tyra withdrew a scanner from her equipment belt and passed it over the obelisk. A fan of blue light flickered out, briefly illuminating the dark forest.

Lucien caught a glimpse of a hulking shadow with red eyes watching them from the trees. He took a quick step toward it, waiting for his scanners to get a lock, but the light from Tyra’s scanner went out, and the shadow vanished.

“I thought I saw something in the trees,” Lucien said.

“I saw it, too,” Jalisa replied. “It was watching us.”

“Let’s not get jumpy, people,” Tyra said. “There’s probably a thousand creatures watching us right now—this is amazing…” she whispered, still studying the results of her scan. She unslung the pack from her back and took out a sample container while Pandora sliced off a small piece of the rock with a cutting beam.

Lucien looked away, back to the dark forest. He turned on his helmet lamps and started walking in the direction that he’d seen the shadow. He armed the grav boosters in his palms, setting them to a low power mode. A blast from one of those would scare off most creatures. Jalisa walked up beside him, sweeping her headlamps from side to side. Glossy purplish logs gleamed, and blossom-shaped crimson leaves crunched under foot.

 Thump. Something fell at their feet.

Lucien looked up, but he could see nothing through the tangled mess of dark tree branches. High above, the crimson leaves of the forest canopy glowed in the sun like a translucent tarp, adding a dim crimson hue to everything they saw. Lucien bent to retrieve the object that had fallen in front of them and picked it up. It was hard, jagged, and black—a shard of rock.

 Thump. Another rock fell at Lucien’s feet, and he looked up once more. One rock falling could be a coincidence, but two?

“I’m reading lifeforms in the trees,” Jalisa said.

Lucien zoomed in, and a sea of red eyes appeared, glinting from the shadows.

“It’s time to leave,” Lucien whispered.

“What?” Tyra’s asked. “We’ve just started exploring!”

He and Jalisa backed away slowly, keeping their eyes on the trees.

 Thump, thump, CLANK. A rock bounced off Jalisa’s helmet.

 Lucien raised one palm and braced himself before firing a focused burst from his grav booster. Whoosh. The gun punched the air into a shock wave that sent creatures skittering from branch to branch, chattering in musical voices that sounded like wind instruments. Crimson leaves fluttered down.

 THUD. One of the creatures landed on its back at their feet. It was a hairy black mass about twice the size of Brak. Lucien grimaced. There was no way something that big had survived the fall. He crept forward with Jalisa and crouched beside the creature, waiting for his scanners to tell him more. He placed a hand on it. It was warm to the touch. The beast heaved under his hand and air whistled out softly through its nose.

Lucien flinched and took a step back. “It’s still alive,” he said. “Troo!”

“What is you needing?”

“Try to make contact with this… animal. Assess its injuries if you can.”

“I is trying to do this…” Troo said as she placed a hand against the creature’s giant head and closed her eyes. “It is being much pain… it is not being thinking clearly.”

“Do you think it will live?” Lucien asked, frowning as he gazed down on the creature.

“It is unable to be movement or breath. I is believing this means it will die soon.”

“Thank you, Troo. Step away please.” Troo did as she was told, and Lucien armed the laser cannons in his suit gauntlets.

“What are you going to do to it?” Addy asked, walking up beside them.

“I’m going to put it out of its misery,” Lucien said, and shot it twice in the head. Lasers screeched and crimson light flashed through the shadowy forest. The creature’s fur ignited and blazed brightly, bringing the smell of burnt hair and flesh to their olfactory sensors.

 Clank, clank, clank-clank… Rocks pelted Lucien from above, and his sensors chimed continuously in warning as dozens of lifeforms raced down the trunks of nearby trees. “Damn it,” Lucien muttered, glancing up at the trees.

“Get back here now!” Tyra ordered.

 A pair of monsters landed in front of Lucien with muffled booms, and bared long fangs. They stalked toward him on eight thick, furry legs, walking like spiders. The nearest one crouched, about to pounce. Lucien fired at it with his lasers, and it slumped into the leaves, whistling in pain. It thrashed, sending leaves flying. Lucien shifted his aim to the second one, but before he could fire, it leapt high over his head.

 Before it could crush him, he ducked and rolled away. The creature landed with a ground-shaking boom beside him. Lucien jumped back to his feet just in time to see Brak race in, his razor swords flashing bright blue in the gloom. The monster fell in two smoking halves at Brak’s feet, and the Gor roared with enthusiasm, already looking for his next target.

“Barbarian,” Pandora said as she shot one of the beasts between the eyes with a plasma pistol.

 Another creature came bounding toward Lucien, its footfalls like thunder. He fired his lasers with a screech, and the animal burst into flames and skidded to a stop at his feet.

Seeing their fellows die did nothing to dissuade the others. The monsters flowed down the tree trunks in rivers, while others stayed up to throw rocks that bounced harmlessly off the away team’s armor.

Lasers flashed crimson in the dark. The smell of charred flesh and burnt hair was nauseating. Hulking bodies rose in shadowy mounds around them.

One of the creatures got close enough to clamp its massive jaws around Lucien’s helmet, but only for a second.

 Brak cut the head off and splashed Lucien’s faceplate with black blood. The head fell at his feet with a thump, but Lucien couldn’t see. He fell on his knees and frantically grabbed fistfuls of leaves to wipe away the blood. By the time he’d cleared his visor, the battle was over. The remaining monsters fled, crashing through the tree tops and shouting harmoniously in their musical voices as they went.

“What a mess,” Tyra said.

“Poor things…” Addy put in. “They don’t know any better.”

“I think… they g-ot me…” Tinker panted.

Lucien spun around, looking for him. He found Tinker’s name tag a split second later, alongside Garek’s. The medic was already checking on him.

Everyone hurried over.

“Brak, watch our backs!” Tyra instructed as she ran.

“With pleasure,” he growled, brandishing his swords and scanning the trees.

Lucien reached Tinker’s side and immediately saw what the problem was. His legs were folded back under him at the waist, and his neck lay at an odd angle.

“His back and neck are broken,” Garek declared as he passed a scanner over Tinker’s body with a flickering fan of blue light.

“It picked me up and shook me like a doll,” Tinker said, his voice pinching off in pain.

“I can fix him, but not down here,” Garek added. “I’ll have to take him back to the galleon.”

“Do it. Jalisa, take them back on the shuttle.”

Jalisa nodded and waited while Garek unslung his medical pack and fitted a brace around Tinker’s neck. When Garek was done, he and Jalisa picked Tinker up and began carrying him back to the shuttle. The others escorted them there.

Within just a few minutes, those three were safely aboard, and the shuttle hovered up from the field, blasting them with wind from its grav lifts. It angled up and ignited its thrusters in a thunderous roar. Lucien placed a hand to his visor to shield his eyes from the glare as the shuttle raced away, a dwindling speck against the pale green sky.

Lucien turned to Tyra with a frown. “We should have gone with them.”

“There’s still plenty to study down here, and I doubt those monkey bears are going to bother us again after we killed so many of them.”

“You is being bad huntress if you think this,” Troo said.

“They seem like alpha predators,” Lucien added. “If so, they won’t be used to finding prey stronger than they are, so they’ll keep trying. Besides, sooner or later we’ll encounter another troop that hasn’t seen what we did to the first one.”

“You did provoke them by killing the one that fell,” Tyra pointed out. “But you’re right, we should probably try to get out of the forest as soon as possible.”

“Aerial maps we generated on the way down indicate there’s a long range of mountains not far from here,” Pandora said. “The mountains will be relatively devoid of vegetation, and you should be able to climb them quite easily with your grav boosters.”

“Lead the way,” Tyra said.

“We’ll have to cross through the forest to get there,” Pandora warned.

“How far?”

“Two point four kilometers.”

“Close enough,” Tyra decided. “Let’s go. Everyone keep your weapons armed and an eye on your scopes. Brak, Troo—you watch our backs. Lucien and Addy, you take point with Pandora.”

 They set out like that, with Tyra walking safely in the middle. Coward, Lucien thought.

“The captain is not having Paragon training,” Troo said from the rear. “This is why she is being cowardice.”

“What did you call me?” Tyra demanded.

“Not I—it is Lucy who thinks this.”

Lucien grimaced. “Stay out of my head, Troo.”

“I is freedom to do as I please. You cannot be telling me what to do.”

“Don’t I outrank her?” Lucien asked.

“And I outrank you,” Tyra said. “Thank you for telling me, Troo.”

That was the end of the conversation. They continued on, walking over fallen logs and wading through deep piles of leaves. They swept the shadows with their headlamps as they went, but no more monkey bears appeared skulking around them. The forest was full of other strange animals, however, as evidenced by their howls, hoots, squawks, and chitters. Every now and then a small creature would dart by in front of them, spraying leaves in its wake.

They even came across a lumbering worm-like thing the size of a hover train, with a glossy purple exoskeleton and what must have been a thousand legs. Addy threatened to vomit in her suit, but the threat of asphyxiating on the contents of her stomach appeared to quell her disgust. The arthropod seemed docile and harmless, possibly even blind, but they all wisely decided to hang back and wait for it to pass.

When they finally emerged from the forest and saw the mountains soaring in front of them, they were all tired and thirsty, so Tyra called a short break. Their exosuits came with a ready supply of fresh water and a waste management system that allowed them to relieve themselves without removing their armor.

Lucien sipped on the straw coming up from his collar, and studied their surroundings. The forest was dark and ominous behind them, while sheer gray cliffs soared in front. A thin slice of the pale green sky appeared between the cliffs and the trees. And the curving outline of the gas giant Panda-1A shone faintly through the atmosphere.

Bringing his gaze back down, Lucien found Tyra running her scanner over the cliffs.

He walked up to her. “Besides exploration for explorations’ sake, what exactly is our purpose down here?”

“Ideally, to find and make contact with sentient alien life,” Tyra replied.

“Well, then I think we’re barking up the wrong trees—or cliffs. The planet is clearly habitable, but I don’t think we’re going to find anything intelligent here. If there were, we should have seen signs of civilization from orbit.”

“Not all intelligent life develops a civilization, at least not immediately,” Tyra replied. “For most of human history we were tribal hunter-gatherers who lived in caves and made finger paintings on the walls.”

“So we should be looking for caves?” Lucien asked.

“Or subterranean passages,” Tyra replied, still scanning the cliffs. “And these mountains are riddled with them.” She looked up, her blue eyes bright with anticipation. “Now we just have to find a way in.”



Chapter 11




 They found an entrance to the caves at the base of the cliffs just a few hundred meters from where they’d taken their break. Before they went inside, Tyra made contact with the Inquisitor to confirm that Jalisa had made it back with Garek and Tinker. She told them to wait up there rather than come back, in case they found a better place for pick-up than the field that now lay a half-hour’s hike behind them.

As soon as Tyra got off the comms, she led the way into the caves, her eagerness taking precedence over caution. Lucien was about to walk past her so he could take point, but Pandora beat him to it. The bot had her plasma pistol out and tracking, so Lucien decided he could hang back with Brak and Troo, while Addy kept pace just behind Tyra.

The cave walls glittered like diamonds in the light of their headlamps. Upon closer inspection, Lucien saw that the glittering was from sticky white clumps of bio matter that clung to the walls.

Tyra stopped to pass her handheld scanner over one of them. She nodded with the result, as if it had confirmed her suspicions. “Egg sacks.”

“Lovely,” Lucien replied.

“From what?” Addy asked.

“Some type of arthropod,” Tyra said.

“Arthropod?” Addy pressed.

“Spiders,” Tyra clarified.

Addy shivered. Lucien didn’t blame her. Fortunately, their exosuits were air tight, so no bugs were getting in.

No threats had appeared on their scopes yet. After another five minutes passed uneventfully, Lucien decided now would be a good time to get some answers.

“Brak, what are you doing here?”

“Exploring. The same thing you are doing.”

 “No, I mean, how did you know to find me on Astralis?

“I is telling him where you be going if he is taking me with,” Troo said. “Brak is being my new guardian.”

Lucien shook his head. “Neither of you should have come. Why would you follow me here?”

“I is coming because you is going,” Troo replied. “You is having saved my life, so I is going to save yours.”

 “It’s going to be hard to save an immortal,” Lucien said. “Even if I die, they’ll just bring me back on Astralis.

 “And if Astralis is being destroyed?”

“Well, then I guess I could die, but that’s not going to happen.”

“Perhaps it is not to be happening, or perhaps it is. Time is to be telling us.”

“So, you’re here to repay your debt—not to get even with me for stranding you on that balcony?”

“I is here to do both things,” Troo said, and turned her helmet so she could bare her teeth at him in a feline grin.

 “Of course,” Lucien muttered. “What about you, Brak? Why did you agree to bring Troo here and follow me to Astralis?

“I come to take you home, to save you from yourself,” Brak said. “But you do not go, so I stay.”

Lucien frowned. “That doesn’t seem like a good reason to come along.”

 “Maybe it is not a good reason, but it is a good adventure.”

“If you wanted adventure you could have gone on any number of officially sanctioned missions,” Lucien replied.

“None of those go to the edge of the universe,” Brak replied. “And you also could have done this.”

“Everybody freeze!” Tyra said.

Lucien stopped where he was, but he didn’t see why she’d called such a sudden halt. He turned in a quick circle, eyes on his scopes, trying to find whatever had alarmed her, but he saw nothing.

“Did you see that?” Tyra asked.

“See what?” Lucien replied.

Tyra’s face looked pale behind her helmet visor as she looked around, too. “There it is again!” she pointed in front of them, and this time Lucien saw it.

A luminous spider came crawling out of the side wall of the cave. It was almost as big as the tree-dwelling monsters they’d fought in the forest, but unlike them, this creature didn’t seem to be making any aggressive moves, and for some reason it didn’t show up on sensors.

The creature looked like it was made of glass. Its innards were clearly visible. Lucien watched, frozen with fascination and horror as it picked its way toward them, walking on eight legs. In addition to those, it had four hairy, segmented arms, two in front, and two in the back, each equipped with three fingers. Black eyes winked at them all over its luminous body.

Then it began to speak in a clacking voice that sounded like a bag full of marbles.

“Troo?” Tyra whispered. “Can you make contact for us? Tell it we’re friends. We don’t want to hurt it.”

“How’s she going to do that?” Lucien asked. “Send a mental picture of butterflies and rainbows?”

The Fossak walked to the fore and stopped a few paces from the giant spider. After a couple of seconds, she shook her head. “I is not sensing anything.”

“Neither are sensors,” Lucien added.

“How is that possible?” Tyra asked.

“Because it is not really here,” Pandora explained. “I believe we are looking at a hologram of a sentient being, not the being itself.”

“That’s even better!” Tyra said. “That means they have advanced technology!”

“The egg sacks on the walls appear to be responsible for the hologram—I believe they are some type of bio-technology,” Pandora added.

“Is there any way you can interface with them to download the data?” Tyra asked.

 Panda just looked at her. The bot’s pink eyes glowed bright in the gloom of the cave. “It is bio-technology. Perhaps you should try interfacing with it?”

The spider disappeared, replaced by a holographic web with two icons clinging to it. One of them was a constellation of stars, the other, a beige planet freckled with blue lakes and crimson patches around the blue. Rivers snaked down to the lakes from rippled gray mountains, and there was a distinct lack of cloud cover.

Lucien walked up to the web and poked a finger into the holographic planet. The web rippled with his touch, like a pool of water, and then faded away. The air around them shimmered, and suddenly the cave was gone.

They stood on a glowing spider web, suspended in a large, open space, surrounded by blinking lights, strange-looking controls, and luminous spiders crawling across the web from station to station. Dead ahead, was a broad, panoramic viewport where they could see the beige planet with blue freckles. They were on approach to that planet. A space station gleamed in orbit, shaped like a spider’s web, with concentric rings and interconnecting spokes. Small silver specks buzzed around it.

“Incredible…” Tyra breathed.

As they drew near to the station, Lucien saw missiles streaking through space, and explosions rippling along the space station’s hull. After just a few seconds, it cracked apart, throwing jagged debris in all directions. The spiders on the bridge grew frantic, chittering at one another loudly.

The view shifted as the ship they were on turned, and a massive star cruiser came into view. It was shaped like a giant cigar and gleaming with lights. The ship belched streams of silver specks down to the planet below. Pinprick-sized explosions flashed around it, stopping short of reaching its hull, while missiles streaked out from its bow, racing toward another, much smaller starship. Its target was luminous, with engine pods and weapons emplacements arcing away from its central body like the legs of a spider.

Fire tore through the smaller ship as explosions rippled along its luminous hull. It abruptly stopped radiating light, becoming a dark shadow drifting across the planet below.

This drew more chittering from the spiders scrambling around them; then a cluster of missiles spiraled toward the ship they were standing on, and everything turned white.

When the brightness faded, they were standing on a sandy desert under a bright blue sky. Black husks of dead spiders littered the desert, their legs and arms curled in on their bodies. In the distance, plumes of black smoke rose from crimson hills. The scene changed, showing those smoking hills from closer up. They looked like cauliflower heads sprouting from the ground.

Living spiders, still luminous, shuffled in orderly lines across the desert from the smoking crimson hills to a large, cigar-shaped starship. Tall bipeds in black armor walked down the lines, holding rifles.

The scene changed once more, and suddenly they were standing in one of the lines, shuffling along with the spiders. They got a close-up view of one of the bipedal aliens in black armor. Their helmets were illuminated from within, revealing humanoid features, but with green skin.

One of the spiders leapt out of line to attack the armored biped. He held out a hand, and the spider stopped, hovering in mid-air. One-handed, the green-skinned humanoid aimed his rifle at the sky. A shriek of pent-up energy split the air, and a glowing white ball of plasma shot out, homing in on the hovering spider. Its body disintegrated in a rain of glowing embers and fat black ashes, while its legs and arms fell flaming to the ground.

The other spiders abruptly stopped shuffling, and the bipedal alien aimed its weapon at them. It said something in a guttural voice that boomed across the desert.

The spiders chittered quietly to one another and continued on their way.

Once more the scene faded. It was night now, and stars glittered overhead. The cigar-shaped ship hovered up in front of them, sending clouds of sand rippling out in all directions. The ship turned and aimed at the sky, at a much larger version of itself. Then it lit its engines, and peeled back the night with a crimson flash of light. The glare faded and so did the starship, becoming a tiny crimson ember shooting into the sky.

The scene faded, and the spider web Lucien had touched returned.

“They were enslaved,” Tyra said.

Lucien nodded slowly. “But where are they now?”

“Maybe here, on Panda-1A-V?” Tyra suggested.

“Maybe,” Pandora replied. “But then why not greet us themselves? They left this holo history here for sentient beings to encounter, to learn what happened to them. It’s possible they left it as a warning.”

“Or a cry for help,” Addy suggested. “We should play the other recording. Maybe we can learn something else.”

The other icon clinging to the web was a constellation of stars. Tyra poked a finger into it, and the air shimmered once more. Suddenly they were floating in outer space. The planet where they were now lay below them, a mottled red, blue, and purple ball, highlighted against the blue-white glare of the gas giant Panda-1A. Constellations appeared as glowing lines connected the dots in patterns that weren’t recognizable to their minds—though one of them vaguely resembled a spider.

A star next to that spider-shaped constellation changed colors from blue-white to red, and back again, blinking insistently.

 “Pandora…” Tyra began, not looking away from the blinking star. “Do you think you can pinpoint that star with our nav system on Inquisitor?

“Assuming its position is accurately depicted here, that should be easy, ma’am.”

“Good. Memorize the location and these constellations so that you can find it again. We’re going there next.”

“Hold on—” Lucien objected.

Tyra turned to him, her eyebrows raised in question.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asked.

“Why not?”

“We don’t know what’s there,” he said.

“It might be the spider people’s refuge,” Tyra suggested.

“Or the slavers’ homeworld,” Addy said.

“Exactly,” Lucien agreed.

“Either one of those possibilities is acceptable,” Tyra replied. “We’re here to meet sentient alien races and learn what we can beyond the red line. Imagine how much faster we’ll learn about our new neighborhood if we can talk to a sentient, space-faring alien race? I don’t care if they’re the slavers or the slaves, just so long as they’re intelligent.”

“Yeah, that might be a bit short-sighted…” Lucien said.

Tyra raised her eyebrows. “Scared?”

“If you’re trying to call me chicken, it’s not working.”

“Maybe this vision is telling us what we is to be finding there,” Troo said, as she reached out to touch the blinking red star.

The scene rippled, and stars streaked by them until the blinking red star resolved into a blazing white sun with a system of planets. The hologram paused, and one of those planets began blinking red. This time Tyra touched it, and the hologram zoomed in once more. Stars and space whirled by until they arrived in orbit over a dull beige planet that somewhat resembled the spider people’s world, but without the blue freckles and crimson patches. A fleet of the cigar-shaped ships they’d seen attacking the spider people’s homeworld hung in orbit over the planet.

Lucien touched it, and the hologram zoomed in, taking them down past a few stray wisps of cloud to a rocky desert. Now they all stood on the surface, watching luminous spiders skittering through the sand, darting in and out of illuminated tunnel entrances, carrying heavy machinery and dusty metal crates on their backs. Giant landing pads sprouted all around them with cigar-shaped landers waiting, while bipeds in black armor stood guard from the tops of high towers, and others on the ground. One of the ones on the ground turned their way, revealing a scarred, snarling face with green skin.

A spider limped through the scene, struggling under a heavy burden. As they watched, it collapsed with a chittering sigh. The guard started toward it, and the spider’s chittering grew frantic. Its legs scrambled for purchase in the sand. The guard walked up to it with a coil of black rope in one hand. He stopped a few feet from the struggling spider and unfurled his rope, revealing that it was actually some kind of whip. Lucien frowned, wondering what good a whip would be against a spider with an exoskeleton; then the whip went from black to glowing orange like molten metal. It lay sizzling and smoking in the sand.

The guard flicked his wrist and lashed the fallen spider across its back. The spider convulsed, and screamed like a kettle of boiling water, and a dark black line appeared on its luminous body. It tried again to get up, but failed. The whip fell again with the same result.

A crowd of spiders gathered around the spectacle, all fidgeting and chittering to one another. Again the whip fell, and another scream whistled out. The spiders watching stopped chittering, and all was silent but for the sizzling of the guard’s whip. He glanced around him, as if daring them to do something. Then he flicked his whip once more, and the collapsed spider convulsed.

The other spiders rushed the guard. He dropped his whip and crouched down to one knee, as if resigned to his fate.

But the air blurred and began to shimmer with some kind of force field. A split second before the spiders reached him, the force field exploded, sending spiders flying and skidding through the dust. The guard rose to his feet and turned in a slow circle, waiting to see if any of them would try again, but they fled, skittering away from him in all directions.

He picked up his whip and ignited it once more; then he walked over to the one spider that hadn’t scurried away after the force field had tossed it aside. Black lines scarred its luminous body, and it was still struggling to get up.

The guard lashed it again and again until it stopped twitching and its whole body turned as black as coal.

The scene faded and the holographic web returned. Lucien felt sick to his stomach. Long seconds passed, and no one said anything.

Finally, Tyra broke the silence. “Well, it’s pretty clear what happened to the spiders,” she said. “And equally clear what we’ll find if we go to that star system.”

No one ventured a reply.

“Nevertheless, I think we should go there to meet these slavers,” Tyra concluded.

 “Meet them?” Lucien asked.

“What else would we do?”

“Free the slaves,” Addy suggested.

Tyra shook her head. “We’re not here to right the wrongs of the universe. We’re explorers, not a crusading army of Paragons. You should have stayed with Etherus if that’s what you wanted to be.”

Addy narrowed her eyes at that, and Brak walked up to Tyra, baring his black teeth.

“We go and we set slaves free,” he insisted.

“Intimidation isn’t going to work on me, Brak,” Tyra said.

“No? I kill you and steal your ship. Then I free slaves myself.”

 “You kill me, and I’ll come back on Astralis. You, on the other hand, will be executed with no chance of resurrection.”

 “What makes you think I go back to Astralis?” Brak challenged.

“If you don’t, you’ll die when your timer implant runs down a month from now.”

Brak hissed more loudly now, and loomed over Tyra, looking like he was about to tear her arms off. To her credit, she didn’t back down.

Lucien walked up to Brak and placed a hand on his arm. “Brak. Take it easy.”

The Gor rounded on him. “Were your people slaves?”

Lucien frowned at the reminder. The Gors had once been the slave soldiers of the now-extinct Sythians. “I get it, Brak, I want to free them, too, but we can’t just go barging in there, guns blazing. We need to know more about the situation first. From what we’ve seen of the slavers’ weapons, their technology might be comparable to ours, in which case, there’s no chance we’re going to be able to free a planet full of slaves with just one galleon.”

“Then we bring more galleons.”

“We can suggest it to the council,” Tyra said. Brak glared at her with his slitted yellow eyes. “It’s not my decision to make,” she added. “But if we can learn more about the situation, as Lucien suggests, then we might be able to convince them. Is that okay with you?”

Brak grunted, but said nothing.

 “I’ll take that as a yes. Everyone ready to go?” Tyra asked.

“You’re not going to give your clerics a chance to come down here first?” Lucien asked.

Tyra shook her head. “We’ll deploy probes. They can study the data and samples taken by the probes when we come back. Let’s go.”

“Wait—” Addy said.

They all turned to her.

“What if this is a trap?”

“What do you mean?” Tyra asked.

“I mean, what are the odds of us finding this holo history here, in these caves, within hours of landfall?”

“That depends,” Tyra said. “It’s probably in caves all over the planet—or else our finding it is just a happy coincidence.”

 “Okay,” Addy said, “so what are the odds of us finding the holo history here, on this moon, in this star system?”

“What are you getting at?” Tyra asked.

 “Either this is a happy coincidence, as you say, or this history is in many different star systems, on many different planets.”

“Seems like a reasonable way to lead other sentient races to you,” Tyra replied.

“For what purpose?” Addy insisted.

“Maybe in the hopes that someone will help set them free.”

“If these holo histories are everywhere, don’t you think the spider people’s slavers would have found them already?”

“Probably.”

“So why would they leave the recordings here?”

“You’re suggesting that the slavers are the ones who left them?”

Addy nodded.

“Her concerns are logical,” Pandora said. “Sympathy can be an effective lure.”

“I agree,” Lucien said.

 “Then we’ll have to proceed carefully,” Tyra replied. “Worst case, we end up captured and we die when our timers run down. If that happens, we’ll be resurrected on Astralis and continue on our merry way to the cosmic horizon.”

“What if they interrogate us to find out who we are and where we come from?”

 Tyra appeared to consider that. “Now would probably be a good time to mention the other functionality of your timer implants. You can’t reset the timers to give yourself more time, but you can give yourself less. If it comes to it, you set your timers to zero and kill yourselves before you can be probed or tortured for information. Any other objections?” Tyra asked, glancing at each of them in turn.

No one said anything.

 “All right, then let’s get back to the Inquisitor.”



Chapter 12




 “I’m running a pattern-matching algorithm against the constellations we saw to locate the star from the hologram,” Pandora announced.

“Good. Let me know when you find it,” Tyra replied.

Lucien sat beside her, overlooking the crew deck below. The other four control stations were arranged around them at ten o’clock, two o’clock, four o’clock, and eight. Besides Tinker, who was absent due to his injuries, Only Jalisa and Troo occupied stations on the bridge. Until then, Pandora was handling the ship’s engineering controls from her nav station.

“Found it,” Pandora announced, and pointed to a viewport at the nine o’clock position. In the center of the display, a particular star was highlighted with yellow brackets.

 Lucien rotated his chair to face the viewport. He read the distance in light years to the star. It was in scientific notation—2.9e6. Two point nine million light years.

“How long will it take to calculate a jump there?” Tyra asked.

“A little over four hours, ma’am.”

“Get the calculations started.”

“Aye-aye,” Pandora replied.

 “Troo, send a message back to Astralis. Tell them where we’re going—get the nav data from Pandora—and let me know when they reply.”

“I is telling them,” Troo replied.

 “Let’s hope they is understanding you,” Lucien muttered.

 Tyra flashed him a wry smile. “Pandora, deploy probes to the surface of Panda-1A-V, IV, and XIV. We’ll collect them on our way back to Astralis.

“Deploying probes,” Pandora said.

“Commander Ortane, set condition blue throughout the ship. Everyone take some down time and meet back here in four hours—at… zero one twenty. Pandora—”

“Yes, Captain?”

“You have the conn.”

Pandora said nothing to acknowledge the hand-over of command.

Tyra frowned. “Pandora, did you hear what I said?”

“Yes, ma’am, sorry. I didn’t want to jinx it.”

Amusement glittered in Tyra’s eyes. “Let me know if there are any new developments.”

“Aye-aye, Captain.”

Tyra rose from her chair and turned to Lucien. “Care to join me for a night cap in the officers’ lounge?”

Lucien nodded. “Sure, why not.”

* * *

 The officers’ lounge was located at the bow of the galleon, just below the viewing gallery where they’d all met for the first time. Shaped like a U, the lounge was surrounded by viewports: small windows in the private booths lining the sides, and large, floor-to-ceiling ones arrayed in front of the dance floor and games area at the curved end. The ceiling was dark and inscrutable, with small pinprick-sized light fixtures that looked just like stars.

“Welcome to Starlight,” Tyra said. Classical music played in the background with strings, piano, and a flute all vying for their attention.

A bot bartender stood dormant behind the bar in the center of the lounge. Besides Pandora, it was the first such bot Lucien had seen aboard the ship—despite Tyra’s claim that they filled most of the crew positions on board. He asked Tyra about that on their way to the bar.

“Our Galleons are heavily automated,” she explained. We have repair drones, cleaner drones, KP bots, a quartermaster, marines, fighter pilots, and every other kind of bot you’d care to mention, but they’re all docked at their charging stations until needed.”

“Makes sense,” Lucien said as they reached the bar counter and took their seats. Tyra gestured to the bartender and a pair of blue holoreceptors flared to life as it turned to face them.

“What’ll it be, Captain?” the bot said in a cheery male voice.

“Whiskey on the rocks,” she said.

“And for the XO?”

“I’ll have a beer,” Lucien replied.

“Coming right up, officers,” the bot said, and whirred away on two wheels to make their drinks.

They sat in silence, contemplating the view from the panoramic viewports at the bow. Lucien tried to pick out a certain spider-shaped constellation to find the star where they were headed, but it was impossible. Finding constellations is a lot easier from the surface of a planet, where there are fewer visible stars to play connect the dots with.

Their drinks arrived just as a loud burst of laughter drowned out the background music. Lucien took a swig of his beer and swiveled on his stool to see who it was. Addy and Jalisa came walking in together, arms looped, and doubled over with amusement, as if they were old friends from school. Maybe they are, Lucien thought. Behind them came Troo and Brak, and last of all… Garek and Tinker. The latter walked gingerly with an arm draped over the old veteran’s shoulders.

Lucien blinked, surprised to see Tinker up and about so soon. “Guess his injuries weren’t as bad as I thought.”

“Or maybe our medical tech is just that good,” Tyra said, catching his eye with a wink.

“And whose fault is that?” Lucien countered.

“Etherus’s.”

“So it’s Etherus’s fault that all of our greatest minds decided to hide their advances from the public?”

“No, it’s Etherus’s fault that we felt the need to hide our advances in the first place.”

Lucien looked away, deciding not to argue. Addy and Jalisa reached the bar and waved the bartender over. Garek and Tinker arrived a few seconds later and added their orders, while Brak and Troo walked off in the direction of the games area. Just as well. A drunk Gor wasn’t a pretty sight—or for that matter, a telepathic Fossak who’d suddenly lost all of her inhibitions about peeking into other people’s private thoughts.

“So, you think I’m sexy,” Addy said, taking a seat on the empty bar stool beside Lucien. She took a sip of her beer and watched him over the rim of her mug.

Tyra arched an eyebrow at her from Lucien’s other side. “How can you take pride in something you were born with?”

“It’s not about looks,” Addy said. “You’re just as hot as I am, Captain, but sexy is as sexy does, right XO?” Addy asked, and slowly slid a hand up along Lucien’s thigh.

He eyed her hand, waiting to see how far she’d go with the captain watching.

Her hand reached his crotch, and Tyra rolled her eyes. “Get a room—or at least a booth,” she suggested, waving at the nearest one she could find.

“Sounds good to me,” Addy replied. “What do you say, Lucien?”

“I’m flattered, but I’m not sure fraternization between a superior officer and his subordinates is allowed…” he glanced at Tyra for support.

She shrugged. “So long as it doesn’t start to get in the way of your jobs, it’s not a problem, and if it does become a problem, we can always re-assign one of you to another ship.”

“In that case—” Addy grinned and took Lucien’s hand. “—follow me.” She was already leaving the bar.

Lucien’s arm snapped straight, but he didn’t budge. “Hold on, Addy.”

Her grin turned to a pout. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, just… maybe some other time.”

Addy blinked, then shrugged. “Your loss, Lucy.” She dropped his hand and walked off, heading for the couch where Tinker was busy nursing his drink through a straw and a pained grimace.

“Well, that’s the first time I’ve seen a man turn down a proposition like that,” Tyra said. “You’re not gay, are you?”

“So what if I am?” Lucien asked, arching an eyebrow at her.

“You’re not,” Tyra replied.

“No,” he agreed.

“Getting over a break-up? No… that would have played into your motives for coming here, and we’d have found it with the mind probe. You think she’s sexy, but somehow she’s not your type?”

Lucien shrugged. “Just not in the mood.”

“Got a headache?” Tyra asked through a wry smile. “Lucy is a more fitting nickname than I realized.”

 Lucien frowned. “You’re obviously young and inexperienced, so I’ve cut you some slack, but here’s a tip: a crusader, or a captain, as you call yourself, doesn’t stoop to the level of her subordinates when they’re tossing around insults, pejorative nicknames, et cetera. Moreover, a competent leader is never sarcastic, arrogant, or condescending to her crew.”

Tyra took all of that in, watching him with narrowed eyes. Ice clattered in her glass as she took a sip, but she said nothing, so he went on.

“You need to find some way to earn our respect. Just because we’re Paragons and you’re a cleric, doesn’t mean we’re all idiots by comparison.”

“I know that.”

“Do you?” Lucien challenged.

Tyra let out a sigh.

“How did you get this command? Some kind of nepotism? Your father’s a big-shot at the Academy?” Lucien shook his head. “We never show that kind of favoritism in the Paragons.”

“Now who’s acting superior?” Tyra asked.

“Fair enough, but the question stands. If I’m going to be following you into life or death situations, I need to know you have some legitimate claim to your authority—the same way you want Etherus to prove he’s really God.”

Tyra grimaced. “Guess you’ve got me there. The truth?” she asked, while rocking her tumbler to stir her drink.

Lucien nodded and took another sip of his beer.

 “We’re all a little arrogant, and all of us are sarcastic and condescending to anyone who hasn’t been to the Academy. Most people accept things blindly, just because Etherus said so. They don’t ask questions, even when those questions are staring them in the face—and science is all about asking questions.”

“That’s how you see us?” Lucien asked. “As mindless drones?”

Tyra nodded.

“No wonder you’re so damned impossible.”

“But you’re right,” Tyra hastened to add. “I shouldn’t assume superiority just because you’re Paragons. You all left the Icosahedron to come on this mission, and for most of you it’s because you had doubts, because you started asking questions. Like you—subconsciously an agnostic, but consciously a devout Paragon, walking around on egg shells in your own brain.”

Lucien regarded Tyra with a frown. “I haven’t agreed with that analysis.”

“The data’s irrefutable.”

“There you go again,” Lucien said. “Assuming you know better.”

“It’s not an assumption if there’s evidence to support it,” Tyra said. “This is what I’m talking about. You’re not schooled in science. You’re schooled in—”

“Combat. Diplomacy. Peace-keeping. Piloting. Marksmanship. Hunting. Survival. Climbing. Zero-G maneuvers. Team leadership—”

“Okay, okay, I get it.”

“We have different training and different beliefs, but that doesn’t make us inferior,” Lucien said.

“You’re right.”

 “So? Stop acting like a cleric and start acting like a captain.

“I’m sorry.” Tyra raised her drink to her lips and drained the glass. She set it down on the counter with a sigh. “I can’t promise I’ll change instantly, but I’ll work on it.”

“Good, and in return, sometime you can teach me more about this religion of science that you clerics believe in.”

Tyra’s cheeks puffed out with an angry retort, but she appeared to swallow it. “That was a test.”

Lucien flashed her a grin. “You’re catching on, Tyrant.”

 “That’s Captain to you, Commander. Next time I catch you calling me that, you’ll be busted back to ensign.”

 “Understood. It won’t happen again, Captain. See? You do have some command training in you.”

Tyra nodded slowly. “I’m a fast learner. I’ll catch on.”

“Good. Now, maybe you can help me deal with one of my command challenges.” Lucien nodded over to where Garek stood alone in front of a broad viewport, sipping his drink and brooding at the stars. “Any chance you can tell me what happened between Garek and my parents to lose him his rank?”

Tyra shook her head. “It would be a violation of his privacy. Probe data is confidential. Why don’t you go ask him? He might tell you.”

“I guess that would be the right approach.” Lucien drained his beer and slid the empty bottle across the bar. It slid a little too far and fell off, but the bartender bot was fast. He caught it in one hand and tossed it over his head, catching it in the other.

“Show-off,” Lucien said, and held up his index finger. “Another, please.”

“Coming right up, Commander,” the bot replied, and sent a full bottle sliding back across the bar at high speed. Lucien caught it before it fell off his end of the bar.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“My designation is KP-3.”

 “As in Kitchen Patrol number three?”

“Yes, sir.”

Lucien glanced at Tyra, and she shrugged.

The bartender explained, “We are easier for humans to tell apart if our designations indicate our duties aboard the ship,” KP-3 said.

“That might work for all the other bots, but a bartender needs a name. From now on you’re Kip,” Lucien decided.

 “I am… Kip,” the bot replied, testing his new name.

“Exactly.” Lucien left the bar and headed for Garek’s corner of the lounge.

 Time to find out what’s got your afterburners smoking, old man.



Chapter 13




 “Hey there, Garek,” Lucien said as he approached.

The scarred veteran glanced at him briefly, then looked away and took a sip of his drink.

Silence stretched between them like a rubber band.

“Nice view,” Lucien said, nodding to the viewport.

Garek grunted and took another sip of his drink.

What was he brooding about? Lucien wondered. And what in the universe had happened between him and his parents? He considered dancing around the issue, trying to lure it out of the man with subtlety, but he wasn’t a big fan of subtlety, and he suspected that neither was Garek.

“How did you lose your rank?” Lucien asked.

 Garek turned to him with a thin smile. “What makes you think I want to talk about it, sir? You think I’m standing over here by myself because I’m secretly desperate to bare my soul?”

Lucien shrugged. “I guess I’ll have to go on what I see then—a crusader busted down to champion, all but drummed out of the Paragons, wearing scars on his face like badges of honor, and aged like an old shoe because he thinks that’s the only way he can prove his experience. Oh, and let’s not forget leaving New Earth to come on this mission. You feel like you were treated unfairly, and now you’re having a good old time feeling sorry for yourself.”

Garek’s face was an expressionless mask. “Are you done?”

Lucien shook his head. “Not quite. I still haven’t guessed what you did. Made a bad call? Got a bunch of indigenous aliens killed? Ran from a fight?”

A muscle twitched in Garek’s jaw. “You really want to know what happened?”

Lucien nodded.

“All right. We were exploring Andromeda—myself, your mother, your father, and two other crusaders with their galleons. Five in all. My daughter was with me, still a tyro in training. She went out with one of the ground teams to a nearby star, but her team never returned. We sent a follow-up mission to bring them back, and we found them alive. Barely.

“They’d been tortured half to death by a species of stone-age reptiles, and they were about to be eaten alive. In fact, we arrived just in time to put one poor tyro out of his misery.”

Lucien grimaced. He had a feeling where this was going.

“We rescued everyone else,” Garek said. “My daughter had to spend a month in intensive care to erase her scars, re-grow her missing digits, and fix all of her broken bones. She also had to have her memories of the incident erased, but even that wasn’t enough. Just the second-hand knowledge of what had happened to her was enough to induce a full-blown panic attack every time she put on an exosuit. Rather than go through therapy, she decided to leave the Paragons, and she joined the Academy to become a cleric instead. I couldn’t blame her.”

 Lucien nodded. “That’s why you’re here. She’s on Astralis.”

“Almost all of the clerics are,” Garek replied.

“I’m sorry. That must have been terrible, but it still doesn’t explain how you lost your rank, or what any of this has to do with my parents.”

Garek smirked. “I was with the rescue team. So were your parents. We went down with a full legion of marines. I wanted to kill the reptilian bastards for what they did to my daughter, but your parents stopped me. They actually had to stun me and have my men carry me back to my shuttle.

“When I came to, back aboard my galleon, I pretended to be more reasonable. Your father was there. He talked to me, explained that revenge wouldn’t undo anything that had happened. Like I didn’t already know that.”

“Revenge isn’t the Paragons’ way,” Lucien said, nodding.

“So I’ve been told,” Garek replied. “While we were busy calculating our jump home, I armored up and stole a shuttle to pay a visit to the barbarians’ camp. I micro-jumped straight to the planet’s surface to get a head start on anyone who might try to stop me.”

Lucien blinked, taken aback. Micro-jumping to a planetary surface was risky. Habitable planets all had magnetic fields that interfered with quantum-jump calculations, making them imprecise at best. “You could have ended up a hundred meters underground, breathing a mouthful of dirt.”

“Well, I didn’t, and I wasn’t exactly in a rational mood, so I didn’t care about the risks. I opened the hatch to find a horde of hungry lizards waiting for me, but I was ready for them. I knocked them all out with stun grenades and I tied them up with stun cords.

“When they came to, I set to work with a pair of razor swords. Pretty soon my helmet was so badly smeared with lizard blood that I had to take it off so I could see. That’s when one of the beasts broke free and sliced me up with its claws.” Garek ran a hand along the most visible scar on his face, and Lucien noticed half a dozen other hair-thin white lines criss-crossing around it. “I was in such a rage, that I didn’t feel a thing.

“Your parents found me an hour later, covered in blood, and watching a mountain of lizard bits burn. Actually, I was about to see if they tasted like chicken, but…” Garek shrugged. “I guess it’s just as well they caught me when they did. I might’ve caught a nasty parasite.”

Lucien felt his gorge rising. He shivered and swallowed it down. “The lizards were sentient?”

“Highly intelligent, but not very civilized.” Garek smiled. “Sorry you asked?”

 “No,” Lucien shook his head. “Revenge might not be the Paragons’ way, but it is human. I might have done the same thing as you. My dad probably would have, too, if it had been me or my sister who had been tortured.”

“That was my conclusion as well. Didn’t stop your parents from testifying against me at my trial, though.”

“I’m sorry, Garek,” Lucien said again.

 “Yeah, well…” He shrugged and drained his drink. “By the way, I didn’t choose to wear these scars, and they’re not a badge of honor. They were supposed to be a badge of shame—part of my punishment, so that people would recognize me and know what I’d done. Garek the Butcher they called me. I made the scars work by aging my skin. Having a face like a newborn just made the scars stand out too much.”

“Seems like I misjudged you,” Lucien said.

Garek grunted. “You and everyone else.”

Lucien laid a hand on his shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, if it were up to me, you’d be the XO.”

“I gathered that,” Garek replied. “That’s when I realized that I shouldn’t judge you by your parents.”

“They’re good people. If they testified against you, it was because they had to, not because they wanted to.”

Garek shook his head. “There’s always a choice.”

Lucien inclined his head to that. “I’m thinking of starting up a game of Bluff. You interested?”

“That would be stealing,” Garek replied. “I’ve got twenty years’ playing experience on you.”

Lucien gave a crooked smile. “Ever hear of beginner’s luck?”

“All right, you’re on. I’m going to get myself another drink. See who else you can get in on it. More’s the merrier when it comes to coin in my wallet.”

“Hah. We’ll see,” Lucien replied.

“You want me to order you something from the bar bot?”

“His name’s Kip.”

“He has a name? Since when?”

“Since Jalisa put me in charge of naming things.”

Garek snorted.

“I’ll have another beer,” Lucien replied. “Assuming you have something to sober us up before we jump?”

Garek tapped a pill box on his belt. “Right here.”

“In that case, make it a pint.”

“Comin’ right up,” Garek replied as he turned and headed for the bar.

Lucien watched Garek go with a frown tugging at the corners of his mouth. If Garek’s daughter had joined the clerics to get away from the dangers she’d faced with the Paragons, then why join a mission headed for the cosmic horizon?

 Maybe she thought she’d be safe so long as she stayed on Astralis. She was probably right about that, but still… if carnivorous, sadistic lizards were the worst that Laniakea had to offer, Lucien shuddered to think what evils the rest of the universe could conjure without Etherus there to bring order to the chaos. His mind flashed back to scenes from the spider people’s holo history—scenes of alien taskmasters whipping those spiders to death.

Lucien grimaced. He hoped they weren’t heading into a trap.



Chapter 14




 “We’re ready to jump when you are,” Pandora announced as they all took their seats on the bridge.

“Good. Stand by, Pandora,” Tyra said. “All stations, report.”

“Lasers charged, and torpedoes loaded,” Jalisa said.

“All systems green,” Tinker put in.

“The comms is ready to be communicating,” Troo added.

“Sensors scanning, and nav systems ready,” Pandora said.

Lucien checked his station. Apart from monitoring shipboard security and his duties as XO, he was also in charge of the galleon’s three fighter squadrons. “Flight ops ready. All pilots standing by,” he said. The pilots were all bots, and hard-wired into their cockpits, so they were technically always standing by.

“Execute the jump,” Tyra said.

“Aye, Captain. Panda-2 here we come!”

“Hold on—”

“Something wrong, ma’am?”

“Who said you could name this star, too?”

“No one objected when I called dibs on naming it earlier.”

“We haven’t been here for the past four hours. Commander Ortane, why don’t you name this one?”

“How about Arachnai-1?” he suggested.

“Good enough for me,” Tyra replied. “Any objections?”

“I object,” Pandora said. “The numeral implies that this is the spiders’ home system, which is clearly not the case.”

“But we don’t know where their homeworld is,” Lucien said. “We can always call that star Arachnai Prime when we find it.”

“But—”

“No buts. Arachnai-1 it is. Execute the jump,” Tyra ordered.

“Yes, ma’am. Jumping in three, two, one—”

The viewports flashed white, and then the stars reappeared, all noticeably shifted from their previous positions, and now colored by a dark purple nebula.

“Sensors, report!” Tyra ordered.

“Detecting… multiple contacts in orbit around the fourth planet from the sun. Range four hundred and sixty-seven million klicks. Twelve capital-class vessels. They match the ones we saw in the hologram.”

“We is being hailed!” Troo said.

“On what comm system?” Tyra asked.

“Quantum.”

“They have quantum comms?”

“Probably jump drives, too,” Lucien said. “We should activate jamming to keep them from jumping anyone aboard our ship.”

“Activate jamming!” Tyra ordered.

“Field activated,” Tinker replied.

“Should I be replying to message?” Troo asked.

Tyra hesitated. “There’s no way they’ll speak the same language as us. Troo, I don’t suppose you can communicate telepathically from here?”

“No, I is not being able to do this,” she replied. “We is needing to be in the same room.”

“Then we’ll have to rely on the visual communicator for now,” Tyra replied. “I’ll configure it from my station. Patch us through and put them on the main forward viewport—assuming they’re transmitting a visual.”

“Yes, they is. Computer is matching patterns in alien data… patterns is matched. Transmitting…”

The viewport directly in front of them cut to show a humanoid alien with smooth blue skin sitting at the head of a long, gleaming black table. Behind him was a startling view of a lake with pink blossom trees arcing low over pristine, mirror-clear water. The sun was setting on the horizon, splashing a pale blue sky with crimson light, and silhouetting the alien’s head with a halo of fire. Lucien wondered where the transmission was coming from. Could such a place exist somewhere on the surface of the desert planet where the spider people had been taken?

Lucien used his ARCs to query the transmission source, and found that it was coming from one of the cigar-shaped capital-class ships, meaning the view behind the alien had to be simulated rather than real.

The alien glared at them with glowing, solid blue eyes, saying nothing.

 Tyra sent her first message with the visual communicator. The message played on the viewport beside the alien, so they could see what she was trying to convey.

Lucien saw their shuttle approaching Panda-1A-V, then descending through the atmosphere and landing in the field of black grass. The rest was a brief summary of their time on the surface that ended in the caves with them watching the spider people’s holo history.

 Lucien studied the alien’s face as he—she?—watched Tyra’s message. The visual communicator was a Paragon’s greatest asset in making first contact. Silent stories could convey meaning long before alien languages could be studied and verbal translators calibrated. There were limitations, however.

Alien interpretations of visual messages tended to vary widely, and a reply wouldn’t be possible until the aliens could be given a visual communicator of their own to play with. Tyra’s message finished playing, and they waited to see what the alien’s reaction would be.

 “That explains how you came to be here,” it said, speaking in flawless Versal, and a surprisingly pleasant voice.

A shocked silence hung in the air. Tyra’s mouth opened and shut a few times, but no sound passed her lips.

Of all the things they’d expected to encounter beyond the red line, humanoid aliens that spoke their language wasn’t one of them.



Arachnai-1



Chapter 15




 “You speak Versal?” Tyra asked.

“I speak many alien languages,” the being replied in its pleasant voice. It angled its chin up slightly, so that it appeared to be peering down at them, and then flashed a stunning smile. Its teeth were white and perfectly even and straight. For some reason that smile made Lucien think of a snake, even though the alien bore no reptilian features—besides hairlessness.

“We are Human, what are you?” Tyra asked.

 “I am a Faro.”

 Tyra nodded. “It’s a pleasure to make contact with you. My name is Tyra, Captain of the Inquisitor. We are explorers and sci—”

“What are you doing beyond the red line?” the alien interrupted. Its smile vanished just as suddenly as it had appeared, and its glowing blue eyes seemed to radiate hostility.

Tyra appeared taken aback by the question. “You seem to have us at a disadvantage. We haven’t met your people before, yet you seem to know a lot about us—our language, the arbitrary boundary we imposed upon ourselves.”

“Arbitrary? The red line is not arbitrary. It was part of a peace treaty we signed a long time ago, the terms of which you are violating.”

Lucien blinked, wondering why Etherus hadn’t mentioned that.

“You signed a treaty?” Tyra asked. “With who?”

“Etherus.” The alien said His name through a sneer, as if it left a bad taste in his mouth.

“You know of the Etherians?” Tyra pressed.

“Don’t you?”

Tyra nodded slowly.

“Then why am I not speaking with Etherus?” the alien asked. “If he wants to renegotiate his territory, he should do so himself.”

“He is not with us,” Tyra said, shaking her head.

The alien cocked its head to one side, its eyes suddenly intense once more. “Why not?”

 Lucien frowned. How much did these Faros know about humanity? Etherus had only come to power very recently in human history. Just three decades ago they had no knowledge of him, or any of the other Etherians.

“We now govern ourselves,” Tyra explained.

“You left him,” the alien clarified.

“We wanted to explore beyond the red line, and he refused to go with us.”

The blue-skinned alien began nodding. Abruptly, it smiled again.

 Lucien suppressed the urge to shiver. There was something very wrong with this alien, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“I apologize for violating your treaty. We didn’t know,” Tyra said.

The alien regarded them a moment longer. “No apology is necessary. The treaty only applies to Etherus and his people. You left him, so you are not his people.”

Tyra nodded. “I’m still struggling to understand how you know so much about us if we’ve never met you before—especially since it sounds like the red line is a boundary for you as well.”

“True, we have not crossed it in many millennia.”

“Then how do you know about us?”

 “Perhaps you should meet me in a more social setting, so that we can discuss this in more depth.”

“Thank you for the invitation. We would be honored. Just tell us where you would like to meet and if there are any requirements or customs that we should be aware of.”

“Here.” The image of the alien disappeared, replaced by a blinking red dot on the surface of the desert planet that the alien fleet orbited. After a few seconds, the dot disappeared and the alien was back. “No requirements,” it said. “Bring as many of your crew as you like. I’ll be waiting.”

“Before you go, could we know your name?”

 “Of course. My name is Lucien,” It said, looking straight at the Lucien sitting beside Tyra, and smiling once more.

With that, the alien’s face faded from the screen, and the star field returned.

  Lucien’s skin crawled, and his stomach churned. How was it possible that he shared a name with this alien? And somehow, without being introduced, it knew that they shared the same name, which implied that it could do what Troo couldn’t—

It could read his mind across more than four hundred million kilometers of space.



Chapter 16




 All eyes turned to Lucien.

“Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything,” he said.

 “That alien looked at you when it said its name is Lucien,” Tyra said.

“Yes, most curious…” Pandora said.

“Maybe he is being lies,” Troo suggested.

“It obviously knows a lot about us,” Tyra replied, “but our names? That seems too specific.”

“Not if that thing was reading our minds while we spoke to it,” Jalisa added.

“How?” Lucien asked.

“Our AR implants and ARCs are tied in with our thoughts, and they also have quantum comm connections,” Tyra said. “They may have somehow hacked into our network and gained access to our implants.”

 “AR implants are designed to read our thoughts—not broadcast them to others,” Tinker said. “We have to actively make an AR connection with someone to do that, and even then, we can only make conversation, not read each other’s thoughts.”

 “They must be incredibly good hackers to get into our network and reprogram our implants to read our thoughts,” Tyra said.

“A strong AI could do it,” Pandora suggested.

“A very strong one, maybe,” Tyra replied. “Pandora, can you pinpoint the location on the planet where the Faro indicated we should meet?

“Right here, Captain,” Pandora replied, putting an image of the planet on the main forward viewport. A red dot marked the spot.

“Give us a close-up of that location. Maximum magnification.”

The surface of the planet became more detailed. A few stray white wisps of cloud blurred their view, but they could now see that the red dot was at the bottom of some kind of ravine. The top of the ravine was sealed with the telltale blue haze of an energy shield, which implied a different atmosphere inside the ravine, possibly a different climate, too. The Faros had probably terraformed it to suit their needs so that they could walk around without pressure suits down there.

“All right, everyone, let’s go,” Tyra said, rising from the captain’s chair. “Pandora, you have the—”

“Conn,” Pandora finished dryly.

“What’s the matter?” Lucien asked. “Last time you were practically begging for the conn.”

“I am beginning to think that having the conn in the crew’s absence is not a privilege. Why do all of you get to explore the surface of a new planet and meet aliens, while I’m stuck up here?”

“Are you questioning your orders?” Tyra asked. “I could always assign you to latrine detail instead.”

“It is an honor to have the conn, Captain,” Pandora said brightly.

“Glad to hear it. Everyone else, let’s go. Lucien, please inform the rest of the team to meet us in the shuttle bay.”

Lucien nodded. “Aye, ma’am.” He used his ARCs and AR implant to send them a message before rising from his control station to follow the others off the bridge.

* * *

Lucien listened to Tyra summarize the details of their first contact with the Faros for the crew members who hadn’t been present while he prepped the shuttle for launch.

“Why do you think it chose your name?” Jalisa asked as she went through her preflight check.

“Assuming it was lying?” Lucien shook his head. “I know as much as you do, Guns.”

She stopped what she was doing to regard him with a frown. “It must be significant. You didn’t recognize him? Maybe you met the Faros during your field training?”

Lucien shook his head. “I’d remember meeting hairless, blue-skinned humans that speak Versal.”

 “They’re not exactly human,” Jalisa said.

“No? Paint me blue and shave off all my hair and I could pass for one of them.”

“Are we ready to go?” Tyra called from the cabin of the shuttle.

 Lucien nodded and disengaged the shuttle airlock from Inquisitor’s boarding tunnel. “Setting out for Arachnai-1D…” he announced.

After a few minutes, they made a microjump to a point just outside the planet’s magnetic field, and glided down the rest of the way, flying past one of the Faros’ cigar-shaped capital ships.

“The atmosphere is 97% carbon dioxide, 2% nitrogen, and 1% other gases,” Jalisa announced as that atmosphere buffeted their shuttle and roared loudly against the hull.

A wisp of cloud drifted past the cockpit, and then the shielded ravine swept up below them, a jagged slash of blue running through an endless, rocky brown desert. The desert gleamed with metallic rocks and flat metal squares that looked like landing pads.

Lucien dropped to an altitude of one hundred meters before he leveled out and circled the ravine, looking for a place to land. There appeared to be several landing pads inside the ravine, one of which was empty.

“The shields over the ravine are low-intensity,” Jalisa said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble getting by them.”

Lucien nodded. “Then down we go.” He hovered over the empty landing pad and dropped straight down into the ravine. Its shields sizzled briefly against theirs, and then they were through—

And hovering down into a beautiful garden.

“Wow…” Lucien breathed. The shields had hidden a lot of details from view: trees with black trunks and pink blossoms; pristine white grass that gleamed like beach sand in the sun; a river so calm and clear that it looked like glass. Walkways and streets ran through the garden, with blue and green-skinned pedestrians. The green-skinned ones were more numerous, but they kept to one side of the river, while just a handful of blue-skinned aliens walked on the other side. Both sides of the ravine were lined with the balconies of dwellings built into the rocky cliffs. Tall blossom trees lined the river, blocking the view from one side of the ravine to the other.

“The air in the ravine is breathable,” Jalisa said.

They dropped past the tops of the trees, and Lucien noticed a third type of pedestrians walking on the blue-skins’ side. These people were perfectly dark and featureless. They looked like walking shadows. They were also more numerous than the Faros, and they trailed behind them in huddled groups, as if imitating the shadows that they appeared to be.

 “I wonder who or what those shadows are?” Addy asked, breathing over his shoulder.

Lucien glanced behind him to find her and everyone else crowding the cockpit to peer out the canopy.

“The blue-skins are obviously the rulers,” Tyra said.

Lucien nodded. “They were the ones who contacted us, so I’d say that’s a fair bet.”

“Not just because of that. Look at the buildings on the green-skins’ side of the ravine.”

It was hard to see past the trees now, but Lucien could see that the green-skins’ side was dirty and run-down looking, while the blue-skins’ side was better-maintained and more orderly. Also, the landing pads were on their side.

“Racial discrimination,” Tyra suggested.

“What is that?” Brak asked.

“Another form of slavery,” Tyra said.

“I kill the slavers, and eat out their hearts!” Brak boomed.

“No one’s killing or eating anyone,” Tyra said. “In fact, Brak, you’d better stay with the shuttle.”

He gave no reply as the shuttle touched down.

“Let’s go meet these Faros,” Tyra said.

“Brak is going,” Troo said.

“I thought I made myself clear?” Tyra replied. “The Gor stays.”

“No, I is meaning to say that he is leaving the shuttle.”

“He’s what?” Tyra demanded. “Damn it! Brak! Get back here right now!”

Lucien turned to see Tyra running back to the shuttle airlock. The inner doors were already closing with Brak inside.

“Brak!” Tyra yelled again.

 Lucien jumped up from the pilot’s chair and ran with the others to the airlock. The doors finished closing just as Tyra reached them. She banged on them impotently with her hands. “Get back in here right now, or you’ll be tried for treason!”

 Brak bared his black teeth at them as he put on his helmet. The doors didn’t cycle back open. Instead, a red light went on beside the control panel and they heard locking bolts sliding between the doors. Then came a hiss of decontamination jets firing.

Tyra pounded the doors with her palms once more. “I never should have allowed that brute to join our team!”

“What does he think he’s going to do? Kill them all?” Addy asked, shaking her head.

Tyra put her ear to the inner doors, listening. “The outer doors just opened… and shut.”

They heard another blast of decon jets hissing, and then a chime sounded and heavy bolts slid aside as the doors unlocked. Tyra waved the airlock open and stormed inside, but Brak was gone.

“Let’s go!” she said.

The others grabbed their helmets from overhead racks in the cabin and then joined her in the airlock. Lucien started back to the cockpit to get his helmet, but Jalisa had already grabbed both his and hers. The air in the ravine was breathable, but it could still contain dangerous pathogens.

“Thanks,” he said, accepting his helmet from her.

 “Hurry up!” Tyra ordered. As soon as they were all in the airlock, she cycled it, and the inner doors slid shut. The lights inside dimmed to a bloody red and a warning blat reminded them to put on their helmets before decontamination.

 Lucien slid his helmet on and sealed it around his neck. A few seconds later decon jets blasted them from all sides, misting the air with glittering clouds of moisture. Then the crimson lights snapped off, and the outer doors parted, revealing a blue-skinned alien waiting for them on the landing pad.

 This Faro looked identical to the one they’d spoken with over the comms, but now he wore flowing gray robes and a strange, forked headpiece made of luminous gold. The forks rose vertically from his forehead, and black tufts of coarse black hair adorned the tip of each of the three tines. A crown? Lucien wondered.

Other luminous gold accoutrements adorned the being’s attire—an arm band, greaves, sharp golden claws for fingernails, and a golden goatee with a slightly curling tip. He also had a sword sheathed on his back.

Lucien wondered how much of that attire was ornamental, and how much of it served a useful purpose. The Faro’s clothes seemed archaic in the context of his people’s obviously advanced technology.

Behind the alien, a group of shadow people lay scattered across the landing pad, unmoving, in an awkward tangle of limbs that suggested broken bones.

Lucien grimaced, wondering if that was Brak’s doing. The Gor was nowhere to be seen.

 Tyra walked down the landing ramp first, reading the situation at a glance. “I’m very sorry for the behavior of my crew mate,” she said. “He will be severely punished once we find him. Are they… dead?” she asked, staring at the shadow people.

The blue-skinned alien regarded them stonily. Its glowing blue eyes bored into theirs. Abruptly he smiled. “Don’t worry, they are only slaves, but yes, Brak will have to be punished.”

 So my name’s not the only one he knows, Lucien thought.

“I understand if you feel the need to punish him yourselves,” Tyra said slowly, stopping a few feet in front of the alien. “But if possible, I would prefer that you allowed us to administer our own sanctions.”

“Forget about Brak. Join me for a walk in the gardens. We have much to discuss.”

Tyra hesitated before picking her way past the shadow people to join the alien. Lucien followed, noting that the shadow beings were completely featureless. Their clothes, if that’s what they wore to give them their appearance, weren’t clinging to them as a jumpsuit would, but flowing and shapeless. It was impossible to see who or what they were.

 “Don’t fall behind,” the Faro intoned in his silken voice. “I wouldn’t want anyone to get lost.” The alien chuckled lightly, and Lucien shivered.



Chapter 17




 Lucien walked next to Tyra while she walked beside the alien with his name. If the gold crown on that alien’s head was anything to go by, he might be the king of the Faros. King Faro, Lucien decided.

They passed other blue-skinned Faros on the street, each with their own cadre of shadow people, but none of them had glowing eyes like the one leading them through the ravine.

“You asked how I know so much about you,” King Faro said.

Tyra nodded, and Lucien watched the alien carefully. A group of other Faros walked by, chatting amongst themselves in an alien language that Lucien didn’t recognize. Clearly Versal wasn’t their native tongue, but this alien seemed to speak it fluently.

King Faro went on, “Besides your considerable quantum comms pollution of the universe, which makes for easy eavesdropping, our species have a long history together.”

Tyra regarded the alien curiously. “How’s that?”

“We’re all genetically related to the Etherians. The Faros were created by Etherus just as humans were, but unlike you, we weren’t created to give rebellious Etherians a taste of freedom. We were immortal from the start, and our job was to keep the peace in the universe. We were the Army of Etheria. Those of us with blue skins were what you would call the officers, while the green-skinned Faros were the enlisted.”

“From the way you’re speaking in the past tense, I assume something must have happened to change the status quo,” Tyra said.

The alien’s lip curled in a sneer. “Yes. Something. It began peacefully enough. We had a vote in Etheria: should the universe be free, or should it be rigidly ordered and organized into Etherus’s notion of paradise?

“Can you imagine? Trillions upon trillions of star systems with billions of sentient species, and all of them the same, all of them incapable of doing anything interesting! We were peacekeepers and soldiers in a universe where peace was to be its default setting. We were redundant!”

Lucien had to admit King Faro had a point there. “So why not re-assign the Faros to a different role?” he asked. “In fact, why create your people at all if the universe was supposed to be a peaceful paradise?”

King Faro glanced at him. “We were supposed to be explorers more than anything, and even a peaceful universe has some degree of conflict. We were to mediate those disputes.”

“I see,” Tyra said. “But you envisioned a universe with more… chaos?”

“Chaos is the result of true freedom, and all sentient beings crave freedom, even if they have never experienced it. They might not like it when they make bad choices and they get hurt, but they all like the thrill of danger and chaos.”

“So what happened with the vote?” Tyra asked.

“You don’t know?”

“We know what Etherus told us about the Great War and the rebellion, about the rebels being given human bodies… but that’s it.”

“Ah, but nothing about the Faros? Typical Etherus, only sharing things on a need-to-know basis. Of course, he’s the one that gets to decide who needs to know what.

“As you may have guessed, the Faros wanted a free universe, but we weren’t allowed to vote. The Etherians voted, and the majority decided in favor of Etherus’s boring, so-called paradise. That was to be the end of it.” King Faro grinned. “Or so they thought. The Faros might not have had a vote, but Etherus was wrong to assume that meant we didn’t have a voice. We injected some welcome chaos into Etheria.”

“You mean you started a war,” Tyra said. “The Great War?”

 “It wasn’t just great, it was magnificent.” The alien licked his lips with a black tongue. “The streets flowed with blood.”

“That doesn’t sound magnificent,” Lucien said.

 King Faro looked straight at him, his blue eyes bright and intense. “The Etherians are fools. Few will admit it, except perhaps for you humans, but they secretly reveled in the chaos. They’d never felt so alive as when death was knocking at their door. Yes, we killed a few of them, but Etherus resurrected every last one of them. So where was the harm in having a little fun? No harm. Just some welcome excitement after eons of tedium.

“But Etherus didn’t see it that way. When the dust settled, he threw us out of Etheria, and he marooned the Etherians who’d fought with us on Noctune and various other worlds in the ruins of the galaxy that used to be called Etheria. Eventually they evolved into what you called Gors and Sythians.

 “After the war, he moved his faithful people to another galaxy in the center of the universe, and all of the Etherians who’d voted in favor of freedom, whether they’d fought with us or not, were linked to human bodies to give them a taste of the freedom they’d voted for. But it seems like that taste wasn’t enough, because here you are, still human… still tasting.” King Faro grinned and his black tongue flicked out over his lips once more. “Delicious, isn’t it?”

Lucien suppressed a shiver.

 “He took his faithful people to the center of the universe? Tyra asked. “So there is a center?”

 “And an edge, or a rim, yes. I’m surprised you haven’t already figured that out. Why do you think you can’t reach Etheria, why it remains ever out of your grasp?”

Tyra was speechless.

“Now you know,” the alien said. “Have I answered your questions?”

“You mentioned a treaty to do with the red line…” Tyra said.

“Yes, I won’t hold you to that, since you didn’t come here on Etherus’s authority. The treaty was designed to give humans a relatively safe playground, to put a limit on the chaos.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Tyra replied.

“The Faros were exiled beyond the red line. Humans, Gors, and the now-extinct Sythians were left inside of it, along with a vast host of other species that evolved more naturally, without any genetic relation to the Etherians. Its all free and chaotic, just as we dreamed it could be, but Etherus reserves the right to intervene inside of the red line. Beyond it, the Faros are in charge.”

Lucien smiled. By now Tyra had to be feeling chagrined. This alien was independently verifying everything Etherus had told them—with a few previously-unknown details about the Faros.

 “What does that mean exactly—in charge?” Tyra asked, glancing around at the shadow-people trailing meekly behind all of the blue-skinned Faros.

King Faro stopped walking and turned to face her. The rest of the crew were watching the alien warily. Garek especially. He looked terrified.

“You’re afraid that we are the bad guys in all of this?” King Faro gave them a charming smile. “I’m not a blood-thirsty barbarian. You need to remember that when we started the Great War in Etheria, we knew that the Etherians were impossible to actually kill. It was just a game.”

 Tyra looked as skeptical as Lucien felt. “Who are the spiders we saw in the holograms before coming here? And who are these shadow people walking behind the Faros? You said they were slaves. How can you condone slavery, yet claim to value freedom?”

Lucien felt a surge of respect for Tyra to see the way she was staring down this alien warlord, heedless of the potential consequences. Clearly her skepticism wasn’t reserved solely for Etherus. She was an even-handed cynic.

King Faro’s smile faded. “You are remarkably closed-minded for a faithless scientist. Having a change of heart? Perhaps you’d like to go running back to Etherus, to hide behind your red line in a boring universe. That’s what it will become, you know. What do you think the Paragons are? They’re the new Faros. And the so-called Etherian Empire?” King Faro sneered. “He’s doing it again, imposing his will and his boring notions of paradise. Right now it looks like a good idea, but just wait. Wait until it all becomes like Etheria, an unending, perfectly predictable kingdom of tedium. He’s boiling you all in it, incrementing the tedium so slowly that you don’t even notice.

“You think because we believe that chaos and freedom are desirable that we are all savages? We have rules to live by, and laws that govern us, just as you do.”

“You haven’t answered my question about slavery,” Tyra said.

“If you create something, are you not entitled to do with it as you please? The potter can do what he likes with his clay.”

 “Are you saying that you or your people created your slaves?”

King Faro smiled. “I did, yes.”

Tyra blinked. “Let me see if I have all of this figured out. You’re telling us that Etherus really is God—”

“That depends how you define god. You might also call me god.”

Tyra cocked her head at that. “How so?”

King Faro’s smile became enigmatic. “Please continue your summary.”

Tyra hesitated, and Lucien peripherally noted that they were drawing a crowd of blue-skinned Faros and their shadowy entourages.

“All right…” Tyra said slowly. “You’ve validated everything Etherus has ever said to us, implied his deity, and now also your own, and you’ve tried to convince us that chaos is a good thing, because without it we would find life bland and uninteresting.”

“A succinct summary,” King Faro said.

“I’ll agree that the chaos which freedom brings can be good in limited doses, but the fact remains that slavery is in direct conflict with your stated ideal of freedom.”

Lucien became aware of the crowd once more. They shuffled their feet and murmured to each other in their alien language. He wished he knew what they were saying.

 King Faro just went on smiling at them. “Freedom and power are synonymous. Having power gives us the freedom to do as we like. What do you think your capitalist monetary system is? Just another form of slavery. It’s a system of funneling riches—or power—into the hands of a few people at the top of the food chain. Start throwing money around and watch how people trip over each other to do your every whim.” King Faro laughed and licked his lips. “Power is the most delicious fruit! You might say that it is the forbidden fruit.”

Tyra stared at the alien in shock, speechless. “Slavery and capitalism are not the same at all. Capitalism gives everyone an equal chance to succeed. It gives people hope and a way out. There is no way out of slavery.”

“Hope and a way out? Tell that to the poor. Ask them how much hope they have, and where they’ve found a way out. At least our system doesn’t make empty promises, and we treat our slaves well. They never have to worry about suffering because they can’t make a living for themselves.”

By this point the crowd had completely encircled them, blocking any possible route back to their shuttle.

Lucien took Tyra’s arm and began backing away from the alien. “Thank you for taking the time to explain all of that to us…” he said, “but we need to go.”

Tyra nodded stiffly, and looked away from King Faro. Finally, she noticed the crowd gathered around them.

“Where are you going?” King Faro asked.

“Back to our ship,” Lucien replied.

“You’re not going anywhere. You’re all now slaves of the Farosien Empire.”



Chapter 18




 “Slaves?” Tyra echoed, more indignant than ever. “Are you threatening us?”

“No, I’m merely stating a fact,” the alien said.

“You’d need an army to stop us from leaving,” she said.

Lucien glanced around at the gathered crowd of Faros. “What do you think they are?” he whispered.

Tyra glanced at him, then back to the alien. “I don’t see them holding any weapons, or wearing any armor. But we, on the other hand, are all heavily armed and armored.”

King Faro looked amused. “What makes you think I need an army to detain you? I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself.”

“With that little dagger on your back?” Tyra challenged.

Lucien frowned, wondering the same thing. But still, how much did they know about these Faros? If they were a race of ancient warriors who’d been quantum-jumping around the universe since before humans had figured out how to make fire, maybe it would be better not to goad them. Lucien was about to say as much to Tyra when the alien drew its “dagger.” The blade looked like glass, transparent and shimmering with some kind of energy field.

Lucien backed up hurriedly and pulled Tyra along with him. “Shields up, and weapons out!” he ordered over the comms.

 A deep thrumming sound filled the air as they all activated their exosuits’ shields. Mechanical clicking noises followed as integrated weapons slid out of recessed compartments in their gauntlets.

 King Faro laughed, his blue eyes dancing with delight. He drew another weapon in his other hand, this one a familiar black coil of rope. It unfurled, slithering out behind him, and ignited with a whoosh that sounded like a gust from a furnace. The stone path sizzled and smoked where the whip lay.

“Everyone fall back! Activate grav boosters on my mark!” Lucien snapped over the comms.

Tyra shot him a panicky look, and he realized she probably didn’t know how to use her grav boosters. Paragons spent years learning how to use them. Grimacing, he locked his arms around her chest.

“Mark!” he called.

They all rocketed off the street, flying backward in assisted leaps that sent them soaring high above the blossom trees lining the river. They touched down at least a hundred meters back the way they’d come. The alien ruler was now a distant blue speck, the luminous golden accoutrements of his attire glinting in the distance.

“We need to get back to our shuttle!” Tyra said.

“That’s the idea,” Lucien replied. “Everyone form up and follow me, double-time!” Lucien set his exosuit’s power-assist to maximum and sprinted back the way they’d come. Scenery blurred around him as he dodged and wove through the crowds of pedestrians on the street. His ARCs clocked his speed at more than 60 kilometers per hour.

“I’m going to tell Pandora… what’s going on…” Tyra panted as she ran up beside him. “Damn it! They’re jamming me!”

“Our comms still work,” Lucien objected.

“They must be jamming us from orbit,” Tinker said.

“What about Brak?” Troo asked. “We cannot be leaving him here.”

“We’ll find a way to come back for him… after we get away,” Tyra said between gasps for air.

Lucien nodded. That decision was already weighing heavily on him, but there was nothing else they could do.

“Why don’t we use… our grav boosters to fly back to the shuttle?” Tyra asked.

“Because we’d make easier targets for ranged weapons. Down here they have to worry about shooting through their people to get to us.”

“I’m detecting an alien life sign up ahead, next to our shuttle,” Addy said.

“Just one?” Tyra asked.

“So far,” Addy replied.

“Maybe it’s Brak,” Lucien suggested as he leapt over a crowd of blue-skinned Faros that wouldn’t get out of their way in time. The others leapt with him, but Tyra barreled straight through the crowd. The Faros screamed as she mowed them down. She tripped and went flying, rolling a few dozen times before bouncing back to her feet. Lucien slowed down so she could catch up.

“You need more practice with your suit,” he chided.

Tyra grunted, but said nothing.

 Her gleaming armor was scuffed with dirt, and smeared with a viscous blue fluid—Faro blood? Lucien wondered.

They reached the base of the landing pad and stopped running. Their shuttle was about five floors up, on the platform, and they didn’t have time for stairs.

“Grav boosters!” Lucien ordered, and again wrapped his arms around Tyra’s chest.

“I can do it!” she objected.

He ignored her and blasted off.

 They soared above the landing pad and their shuttle came into view. Garek landed with a heavy thud—followed by echoes of that sound as the rest of them touched down around him.

“Who are you running from?” a pleasant voice asked.

Lucien froze, watching as King Faro came strolling out behind their shuttle. His glowing red-orange whip drew a smoking black scar across the landing pad, sizzling as it went.

King Faro stopped a dozen meters from them and brandished his shimmering glass sword with a grin.



Chapter 19




 There was no time to wonder how the alien had beat them back to their shuttle.

“Fire!” Lucien ordered. Bright red lasers shot out of his exosuit’s gauntlets, hitting the alien square in the chest. Crimson light flashed all around him as the others fired, too. None of them missed, but the alien remained standing, and uninjured. He became suffused with shimmering light as the energy from their weapons converted the air around him into superheated plasma.

“He’s got a shield!” Garek said.

“Keep firing!” Lucien ordered. They’d deplete that shield before long. Most personal shields could only take a few shots.

But King Faro weathered the assault, making no move to run or dodge their fire. The Faros’ technology was obviously a lot more advanced.

Their weapons overheated and vented clouds of coolant gas, forcing them to stop firing.

King Faro laughed. “Is that it? My turn,” he said.

“Secondary weapons!” Lucien ordered, and drew one of the nonlethals from his equipment belt—his grav gun.

 The alien leapt toward them, impossibly far and high, as if his strength were somehow augmented in ways they couldn’t see. He covered the distance between them in an instant, flicking his whip in their direction before he even touched the ground. It flashed out, sizzling and crackling like a severed electrical conduit. The whip raked across Tinker’s exosuit with a shower of sparks. It overloaded his shield with a loud pop! and left a smoking black furrow in his armor. Tinker screamed and collapsed on the landing pad, writhing in pain. The alien touched down in their midsts, and they all grav-boosted away from him—all except for Tyra, who remained standing where she was.

The Faro turned to her with a smile. Lucien ran back into the fray, aiming his grav gun at the hilt of the alien’s whip, hoping to rip the weapon out of his hand. He fired, but the Faro was ready for it, and he braced himself against the sudden tug of the grav beam. Then he wrenched his arm back suddenly, pulling Lucien off his feet with surprising strength.

Lucien hit the landing pad with a clatter of armor. He heard lasers screeching as the others began firing again, and he bounced to his feet just in time to see Tyra diving away from the Faro’s whip.

Tinker was up in a sitting position now. He had his grav gun out, too. He held it in both hands for extra leverage and fired, using his back and the augmented strength of his suit in an attempt to pull the alien off its feet, but the Faro weathered the strain with a grin, muscles bulging visibly under his flowing gray robes.

Lucien blinked. This was impossible. Biological strength was no match for the augmented mechanical strength of their exosuits—unless the Faros weren’t entirely biological.

 The alien tossed his sword in the air, high above his head, and thrust his palm out at Tinker. A dazzling ball of plasma flashed out, slamming Tinker in the chest with a thunderous boom. Tinker flew backward and over the edge of the landing pad, tumbling lifelessly as he fell.

The shock wave hit the rest of them a split-second later, staggering them, and blasting them with a stifling heat that Lucien felt even through his exosuit.

“Keep firing!” he ordered, holstering his apparently useless grav gun to fire his lasers again. The alien stood in a glowing cloud of plasma, flicking his whip at them and making them dance.

 We have to be draining his shield, Lucien thought as he jumped over a sweeping lash that had been aimed at his ankles. The whip skittered by below him, trailing sparks and black scorch marks across the landing pad.

A muffled roar split the sky, loud enough to be heard over the noise of lasers screeching, and the sizzling of the alien’s whip. Lucien looked up and saw a big armored bulk drop from the sky.

It was Brak. He landed right behind the alien with both of his razor swords drawn and glowing with a fuzzy blue light. Brak swung his blades, one low, one high, and everyone stopped firing for fear that they’d hit him.

King Faro spun and blocked the high blow casually with his sword, and the low one with his golden gauntlet.

Brak hissed, trying to overpower the Faro.

 But their strength was evenly matched. Lucien couldn’t believe it. He’d never seen anyone who could match a Gor’s physical strength, much less augmented strength, but this alien did so with apparent ease, despite being at least half a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter than the two-meter-tall Gor.

Brak gave up and shoved away from the alien, his blades flashed back in for another strike, and again the alien blocked it, this time catching both of Brak’s swords with his one.

“Form on me! Grav guns out!” Lucien ordered over the comms as Brak and the Faro went on parrying each other’s blows. “We need to destabilize him!” It was all they could hope to do without risking friendly fire.

Garek, Addy, Jalisa, Tyra, and Troo all clustered around Lucien, aiming their grav guns two-handed, and bracing their feet.

“On my mark…” Lucien said. “Mark!”

They all fired and wrenched their guns toward them at the same time. It worked.

The alien went flying, but he used the momentum to his advantage, somehow springing up at the same instant and landing on his feet behind them. The fingertips of his free hand glowed brightly. There was no time to react. A ball of plasma flashed out, heading straight for Lucien’s chest.

 Troo jumped in front of him, hissing with feral fury, and firing her lasers at the Faro. The world flashed white and a deafening boom shook the landing pad as that ball of plasma exploded. Troo slammed into him, knocking him over. Lasers screeched around them, but Lucien could see nothing past the smoking bulk sprawled on top of him. His heart thudded in his chest as he heaved out from under Troo to check her injuries.

Her helmet was shattered, the alloy melted and deformed around her head. One of her protruding fangs was missing, and her big green eyes were dim and squinting with pain. But a far more serious injury lay below her neck: Troo’s chest was caved in, scorched black and glistening with dark red blood.

“Troo!” he screamed, as if his voice could call her back from where she was headed.

Her mouth opened and shut like a guppy’s, trying desperately to suck a breath into her collapsed lungs. Then her squinting gaze found him, and he heard her voice inside his head, the words stilted, but clear.

 “Now we is… being even. You can be… thanking me on Astralis.”

 “Troo! Wait!” He thought back, but her green eyes slid up and stared fixedly at the sky.

Lucien jumped to his feet and spun around, visions of vengeance burning in his brain.

The Faro was locked in another duel with Brak, parrying blows effortlessly, and backpedaling around the landing pad, laughing in the Gor’s face.

 Lucien mentally scrambled for a new tactic. The Faro had to be parrying Brak’s strikes for a reason. Perhaps his shields were tough against radiant energy, like lasers, but weak against kinetic strikes. Lucien’s mind flashed back to all the razor-swords, projectile weapons, and explosives they’d left in the weapons lockers back on Inquisitor, and he suddenly wished they’d had the foresight to bring some of those along. Tyra hadn’t wanted them to look like an invading army when they met with the Faros for the first time.

 The alien warlord slipped his shimmering, transparent sword past Brak’s increasingly desperate attacks, and the Gor’s hand fell off with a thump, taking one of his swords with it. Brak’s agonized scream was at once terrifying and sickening, equal parts pain and fury.

Blinded with rage, he slipped past the alien’s guard and grabbed the Faro’s sword-wielding arm behind the wrist. The alien calmly resisted Brak’s attempt to rip off his arm, bracing his feet against the heavier Gor. Muscles rippled and bulged as the Faro resisted. He put his other arm behind his back and smiled up at Brak.

The alien was toying with them.

Brak hissed all the louder.

“Help him!” Addy screamed, already running toward them.

Garek beat her there, but Brak had already found an advantage. Both he and the Faro were obviously incredibly strong, but Brak weighed over three hundred pounds, while the Faro had to weigh less than two hundred. Brak used that extra weight to give him leverage, and he picked the alien up by his arm and began swinging the Faro around his head.

Brak let go and the alien went flying off the edge of the landing pad, robes fluttering around him as he fell.

“Let’s go!” Tyra urged.

 Lucien hesitated, glancing quickly at Troo, but there was no point in taking her body with them. She’d get a new one when they returned to Astralis.

Everyone ran for the shuttle. Brak clutched his scorched black stump as he ran. They pounded up the ramp to the airlock. Tyra waved it open and they ran straight inside. She waved the doors shut.

 Through the closing doors, Lucien glimpsed his alien namesake come floating impossibly back up to the landing pad, uninjured despite having fallen five stories to the ground. The alien’s gray robes flared out around his knees as he landed. As soon as his feet touched ground, he thrust out a palm and sent a dazzling ball of plasma flying toward them. The outer airlock doors shut just in time and received the blast with a deafening boom!

The deck shuddered under their feet.

Tyra cycled the airlock. Crimson lights snapped on and the decontamination alarm blared. Jets hissed, and clouds of moisture glittered.

“Come on!” Tyra screamed, impatiently banging on the inner airlock doors with her palms.

The crimson light vanished, and they heard fans whirring to equalize the air pressure.

This was a fine time to be stuck waiting for routine safety procedures.

 Another boom sounded as plasma hit the rear doors. This time they could feel the shuttle slide a few inches across the landing pad, and rock on its landing struts.

Lucien glanced back to see the outer airlock doors glowing a molten orange.

“We can’t take another hit like that!” he said.

The inner doors slid open and they darted inside just as the outer ones exploded with a burst of heat and shrapnel. Lucien felt himself carried into the cabin on the shock wave. They landed in a heap, their armor clattering noisily on the deck.

Lucien was pinned under Brak and Garek, but Jalisa broke free and ran for the cockpit. “Get us out of here!” Lucien called after her.

The alien strode casually toward them, as if it had all the time in the world.

 Toying with us again, Lucien thought through gritted teeth. Brak and Garek got up and began firing at the alien as he approached, but their lasers were still having no effect.

 A roar of engines sounded and the shuttle shot straight up, leaving the landing pad and their alien adversary behind. Good job, Jalisa, Lucien thought, still lying on the deck. He propped himself up on his elbows to look out the open airlock.

Tyra was busy with the control panel, trying to manually shut the inner doors. They should have shut automatically when the outer doors had blasted open. The fact that they hadn’t meant the explosion must have damaged the mechanism.

“I’m going to have to crank them shut!” Tyra said, her arm already working the crank. The doors began inching shut with a screech of metal scraping metal.

 The Faro came floating up to the airlock and grabbed one of the zero-G safety rails to swing inside. He brandished his sword with a grin.

Brak and Garek fired once more, but they should have known better by now. Lasers were useless.

 Lucien eyed the zero-G rails to either side of the jammed airlock doors, and lunged to reach them.

The Faro didn’t appear to notice. He was too busy being smug.

Lucien grabbed one of the rails in each hand, straddling the open doors; then he jumped up, aiming his feet at the Faro’s chest.

Now the alien noticed him. He cocked his head and narrowed his glowing blue eyes in confusion. Lucien was obviously too far away to deliver a kick.

The Faro’s eyes flew wide as he apparently realized Lucien’s intent, but he was too late.

Lucien fired the grav boosters in his boots at full strength, blasting the alien warlord out of the airlock. Lucien screamed as his shoulders both popped out of their sockets. He’d only fired the boosters for a second, but holding onto the rails while he’d done so had funneled all the force along his arms. He released the rails, his hands suddenly numb and sparking with pins and needles from pinched nerves.

“Feet clear!” Tyra warned.

Lucien managed to tuck his legs up to his chest just as Tyra finished cranking the doors shut.

“We did it…” she breathed.

Lucien lay there gasping in pain. His head lolled to one side, and he caught a glimpse of Garek crouched beside Brak with an open medkit. The veteran first sprayed Brak’s stump with disinfectant, and then with synthetic skin.

Lucien felt the pain from his dislocated shoulders abate as his exosuit pumped an analgesic into his system. Finally able to breathe, he craned his neck to see what Jalisa was doing in the cockpit. She was clawing for space and flying evasive at the same time.

The hull shuddered with an impact.

“Keep your helmets on!” Tyra warned on her way to the cockpit. She walked easily up the steep space-ward slope of the deck thanks to the shuttle’s artificial gravity.

“Anyone else injured?” Garek asked.

“Me,” Lucien grunted.

Garek crouched down beside him next. “Where?”

“Both shoulders. Dislocated,” Lucien breathed.

 “Ouch. That’s going to have to wait until I can get you out of your suit back on the Inquisitor.

The shuttle shuddered with another impact, a reminder of why they couldn’t remove their suits here.

Addy crouched down on the other side of him, her face pinched with grief. “We just left him,” she said.

“Who?” Lucien asked.

“Tinker.”

He shook his head. “There’s no way he survived. Troo got hit with the same thing, and she died almost instantly…” He trailed off with a frown. She’d died saving him.

 Fortunately, death was only a temporary condition. They’d be able to bring her back as soon as they returned to Astralis.

Lucien struggled to his feet with Garek’s help, and Brak sat slumped on one of the benches along the side of the shuttle, cradling his stump.

“You okay, buddy?” Lucien asked.

Brak hissed. “It is just a scratch.”

 Lucien nodded. They’d be able to start growing a new hand for him even before they got back to Astralis.

Lucien walked up to the cockpit. “How are we doing?” he asked.

Jalisa gave no reply. Her hands flew over the shuttle’s controls, working magic to escape the Faros. Tyra sat beside her, watching Jalisa with wide eyes, obviously afraid to interrupt the other woman’s concentration.

He nodded to Tyra, and asked her via text message what they were up against.

Tyra glanced up at him, and her reply popped up on his ARCs.

 They sent fighters after us, but Pandora launched ours as soon as she saw us take off from the surface. She’s using them to draw enemy fire and help us get away.

 What are they shooting us with?

 Missiles and lasers mostly, why?

Lucien shook his head. After their battle on the surface of Arachnai-1, he half-expected the Faros to have some kind of supernatural weapons. Their battle on the ground had been shocking to say the least—balls of plasma shooting from palms, impossibly strong personal shields, levitation, telepathy… the Faros made the Paragons look like toy soldiers, and they did it with remarkably little visible technology.

Lucien nodded to Tyra. “We need to fire back.”

“Right…”

 Lucien watched while she hurried to power the ship’s one and only weapon emplacement—a light laser cannon, unaffectionately known as the tickler.

She grabbed the joystick at her station and targeted incoming missiles with the laser cannon. She managed to shoot down about a dozen missiles, but there were hundreds more still incoming.

 Then more lasers joined theirs. Crimson streaks of light flashed to all sides of them, simulated by the shuttle’s combat computer. They’d come into range of the Inquisitor’s guns, and now the bigger ship was laying down covering fire for them to escape.

 Simulated explosions freckled space against the not-so-distant backdrop of Arachnai-1 as the Inquisitor knocked out both the fighters and missiles chasing them up from the surface.

The blue fuzz of a static shield swept over them as they glided into Shuttle Bay One. Tyra sat back with a sigh and shook out her hand from gripping the joystick in a white-knuckled fist. The targeting screen for the rear-facing turret showed the hangar shields brighten suddenly as they intensified to keep anything from following them in. A split second later, multiple explosions flashed against that barrier as the remaining missiles roared in and detonated against the shield.

 A muffled thunk sounded from the hull as the Inquisitor’s boarding tube connected to the shuttle’s damaged airlock; then a dazzling flash of light suffused the cockpit.

Lucien squinted against the glare, wondering what kind of over-sized missile had just hit them. But when the brightness faded, there were no subsequent explosions, and Arachnai-1 was no longer visible on the shuttle’s viewscreens or scopes.

 The Inquisitor had just jumped away.

“Welcome back,” Pandora said over the comms, her voice resonating inside their helmets. “Now that we’re safely away, would someone please explain who pissed off the blue monkeys?”

“We’ll be right up,” Tyra replied. “And start plotting our next jump,” she added.

“Aye, Captain. Are we jumping anywhere in particular?”

 “Back to Astralis. We have a few crew mates to resurrect—and a warning to deliver.”

“A warning, ma’am?”

 “Etherus was right. It is dangerous beyond the red line.”



Hunted



Chapter 20




 “First off—what in the netherworld were we fighting?” Addy asked.

Lucien shook his head, while trying desperately to scratch his shoulders through his jumpsuit. Garek had popped his shoulders back into their sockets, and he’d used nanites to rapidly repair the damage to the surrounding muscles and ligaments, so at least the pain was gone. Unfortunately, itching was a side effect of using nanites to repair damaged tissues.

 Garek leaned forward and folded his hands on the table. They were all seated there in the Captain’s Ready Room—all except for Pandora, who was on the bridge, calculating their next micro-jump in a series of randomly zagging jumps on their way back to Astralis. There was no known way to track a quantum jump, but Tyra wanted to be careful. She’d already sent a message to Astralis, summarizing what they’d encountered, but Astralis couldn’t send a secure message back without knowing the Inquisitor’s location, and Tyra didn’t want to risk sending them those coordinates—not even over supposedly secure vector-based comms.

Garek was the first to venture an answer to Addy’s question. “Before we left, back when Etherus responded to the petition, he mentioned someone who started the rebellion in Etheria.”

“The evil one,” Lucien replied, nodding.

“I think that’s who we met,” Garek added.

“It said it was a god, like Etherus,” Tyra put in.

Lucien arched an eyebrow at her. “Suddenly you’re a believer in the supernatural?”

 “I didn’t say that, but clearly we were up against something very powerful. I wonder if the abilities that alien demonstrated are unique to him, or something that all Faros possess.”

Lucien frowned. “How did he beat us back to the shuttle?”

“Maybe he can quantum jump inside of a magnetic field,” Brak suggested.

 “No…” Tyra shook her head. “If he could do that, then he would have jumped past our jamming fields to get aboard our shuttle, or the Inquisitor.”

“We can jump around on our ships and New Earth, despite their jamming fields,” Lucien pointed out.

“From one quantum junction to another,” Tyra added. “That’s different than jumping to an arbitrary location.”

“Maybe that’s what he did,” Jalisa said. “There may have been a junction at the landing pad.”

“True,” Tyra replied. “What about levitation?”

“Grav boosters in his boots,” Garek suggested.

Tyra nodded. “And his sword?”

“Razor-shielded like ours,” Jalisa replied.

“His whip wasn’t razor-shielded,” Lucien said. “That was something else.”

“A flexible conduit with a strong power source,” Tyra said. “You just need the right material with the right amount of resistance, and a very high melting point.”

Jalisa nodded. “I’d like to try building one of those when we bring Tinker back.”

They shared brief silence at the reminder of the people they’d lost.

“What about the rest?” Tyra asked. “That shield must have been generated by an incredibly dense power source.”

“Maybe he had one hidden under his robes,” Addy suggested.

“That’s what I thought, too,” Tyra replied. “I bet those golden accessories he wore were some kind of shield projectors, and the balls of plasma shooting from his fingertips were just focused bursts of energy from the power source, relayed by the shield.”

“What about his super-human strength?” Lucien asked. “He stood toe-to-toe with Brak, and Brak was wearing an exosuit.”

The Gor grunted at that and hissed with displeasure. “Yesss. This is curious to me as well.”

“Bio-mechanical enhancements,” Tyra suggested. “He could have nano-fibers for muscles and bones laced with nanotubes for all we know.”

“And the telepathy? He knew our names,” Lucien said.

 “You mean he knew yours,” Addy replied, looking at him with sudden suspicion.

“And Brak’s.”

“Didn’t you two apprentice together as Tyros?” Addy asked. “You would have served on the same galleon and met all the same aliens.”

Lucien frowned and slowly shook his head. “I’d remember meeting the Faros.”

 “Maybe you didn’t meet them,” Tyra suggested. “They could have been watching you from afar, eavesdropping on your comms.”

“And we just happened to come across the same group of Faros here, and one of them just happened to recognize me more than a year after my apprenticeship?”

“It’s possible,” Tyra insisted, “but I agree, it’s less likely than the possibility that our implants were hacked. Besides, he knew other things, too—our language, for one.”

Jalisa nodded. “When you asked him about that, he said that they’d been eavesdropping on our comms.”

“And if they can do that, then they’ve hacked our encryptions before,” Lucien said.

“There’s still the mystery of why you share a name with an alien warlord,” Addy said, looking at Lucien again.

“It could be a lie,” Garek suggested. “To put us off balance.”

Tyra nodded. “I agree. I wouldn’t trust anything these Faros say. They’re obviously a nihilistic society.”

“Nihilistic?” Brak asked. “I do not know this word.”

“It means they reject all religious beliefs and moral codes,” Tyra explained.

“Sounds like you,” Brak said.

Garek barked a laugh. “True!”

 “I don’t reject all moral systems,” Tyra replied. “I just don’t think they come from on-high. Morality is an evolutionary adaption for any sentient species. Our survival is promoted by working together, and any group requires a moral code to govern its behavior or else it will fall apart.”

“Tell that to the Faros,” Addy said.

“They obviously have some kind of morality, but it doesn’t apply equally to other species, or even to the green-skinned members of their race. They seem to value power and wealth above all else, which means there’s a definitive hierarchy in their culture. They probably think of other sentient species the way we’d think about a colony of ants.”

“That fits with their superior attitude,” Addy said.

“Even amongst themselves I bet they’ll be cut-throat and deceitful, with a much weaker set of morals than our own,” Tyra said.

 Lucien nodded. “If your moral code is all about evolutionary advantage, or the survival of self, then there’s no sense to acting selflessly—unless by doing so you can get some reciprocal behavior from someone else.”

“And most of the time we do,” Tyra pointed out. “Tit for tat. That’s exactly how morality is adaptive.”

“So how do you explain Troo?”

“I’m sorry?”

“She died saving my life,” Lucien said.

“Her death isn’t permanent, and she knew that,” Tyra replied.

Lucien narrowed his eyes at her. “All right, fine, but there are plenty of examples in history of people risking their lives for strangers before the advent of immortality.”

“And many of them thought they would receive a reward from their God for doing so.”

“Then you’re admitting that morals guided by belief in a higher power are superior to those guided by evolution,” Lucien said.

 Tyra shrugged. “If by superior you mean more selfless in the short term, then yes. I don’t think you can have true altruism without feeling accountable to a higher power, but that’s not proof that a higher power exists.”

“I thought science was about observable evidence,” Lucien said.

“It is…” Tyra replied.

“So what do you call selfless behavior that can’t be explained by evolution or any other natural process? There’s your observable evidence that Etherus is who he says he is.”

Tyra regarded him with a frown, but the others were all smiling. She glanced around the ready room, noting their smug expressions. “Imagined rewards from imaginary deities are an extension of evolution, a by-product. Our imaginations serve our survival very well, but that doesn’t mean that they always do. Evolution isn’t a straight path. How does homosexual behavior suit the survival of the species? It doesn’t, and yet we’ve found plenty of genes that promote homosexuality.”

No one was smiling after that rebuttal.

“Anyway, we’re getting off topic. This conversation isn’t about Etherus, and he’s a long way from helping us now. If you’re so sure he’s God, then you’re welcome to pray to him, or meditate on him, or whatever else it is that you think will compel him to help us on our journey, but as for me, I’m not waiting for a ghost to show up and save us. We need a real plan to deal with these Faros. Anyone?”

Jalisa was the first to reply: “I’m starting to think that coming on this mission was a bad idea.”

Garek grunted. “That makes two of us.”

Tyra’s gaze skipped around the room. “I see. Anyone else having second thoughts?”

 “We all decided to come along for a reason,” Addy said quietly. “I think I speak for all of us when I say that we didn’t make those decisions lightly.” Heads bobbed as people grudgingly agreed with that sentiment. “We want to see this through. Maybe we’re here to prove that Etherus is real, and maybe you’re here to prove that He isn’t, but until we actually find proof one way or the other, I think it would be best if we didn’t constantly argue about it. It’s undermining our ability to work together, and if these Faros are any indication of what we’re going to encounter out here, then we’re going to need to work together more than ever to reach the cosmic horizon.”

Lucien adjusted his mental opinion of Addy. She wasn’t just a pretty face.

“You make an excellent point, Lieutenant Gallia,” Tyra said. “The next time our conversations stray like that, you have my permission to interrupt and remind us that we’re all on the same side. Believe or don’t believe, that’s a personal choice, and it’s up to you. Fair enough?”

They all nodded once more.

“Good. Now, has anyone seen the engagement report from the battle we fought while our shuttle was escaping?” Tyra asked.

“Not yet,” Lucien said. The others reiterated that sentiment.

“Well, here it is,” Tyra said. She waved the holo projector in the center of the table to life, and they all studied the engagement report. Casualties were high on their side. Almost all of their fighters had been destroyed—thirty in all—and out of the sixteen enemy fighters chasing them up from the planet, they’d only destroyed eight.

“Looks like one of their fighters is worth more than three of ours,” Garek said.

“Look past the numbers. Check the time-stamp beside each kill, and watch the replay,” Tyra said.

They watched as ship icons moved on a 2-D grid, firing at each other with simulated missiles and lasers.

 “They only lost six fighters to ours. The Inquisitor’s main cannons took out another two right before we jumped.”

“We were distracted, focusing fire on their missiles,” Lucien pointed out.

“Missiles that were all fired from their fighters—not from the surface,” Tyra replied.

 “How’s that possible?” Lucien remembered how many missiles had been swarming toward them. “They must have fired a hundred missiles at us.”

“Over a thousand, actually,” Tyra replied, pointing to the engagement report. “That means each fighter fired more than fifty each.”

“Are their fighters a lot larger than ours?” Lucien asked.

“They’re smaller.”

“Then…”

“Their missiles are smaller, too. About as long as your forearm,” Tyra said.

“Are we sure that they really were missiles?” Addy asked. “Maybe they were projectiles fired from cannons.”

“They were definitely tracking us,” Tyra replied.

 “And they pack a punch,” Garek said. “We only got hit by the shock waves as they exploded in close proximity to our shuttle, but that was enough to fracture the hull in several places. We’re lucky the shuttle didn’t rip itself apart before Jalisa could get us back to the Inquisitor.”

 “So the Faros’ shields and their weapons are superior to ours,” Lucien said.

Tyra nodded. “Exactly. I think it’s safe to say that if we got into a straight fight with them, we’d lose, and badly. We need to avoid further confrontations at all costs.”

“What about the slaves?” Brak asked.

“We’re not out here to free slaves,” Tyra said. “And even if we were, I don’t think we’d be able to.”

Brak bared his teeth. “Coward.”

Tyra looked straight at him. “We never talked about what you did when our shuttle landed.”

Brak gazed unblinkingly back at her.

“Give me your insignia,” she said, holding out her hand.

Brak hissed, but made no move to obey the order. The single crimson bar of a champion remained glittering over the right breast of his jumpsuit.

“Lucien?” Tyra prompted.

He stood from the table with a grimace. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he said, walking over to his friend. It was Brak’s own fault. Even in the Paragons he would have been court-martialed for his behavior.

 “I save all of you!” Brak roared, slamming his palm and his severed stump down on the table with a resounding boom.

“And we’re grateful for that,” Tyra said, “but it doesn’t change what you did.”

Lucien reached for Brak’s insignia and twisted it to deactivate the magnetic lock. The crimson bar fell away in his hand, and he walked back to hand it to Tyra.

“Your acts of restitution will be considered at your trial, but I think it’s safe to say that you won’t be allowed to join any future expeditions,” she said.

 Brak pushed out his chair and stood, baring his teeth at Tyra. “Humans have no honor!” He deliberately looked away from her, indicating that she was unworthy of his sight—a grave insult in Gor culture. “I go to free slaves, and you punish me?”

 Tyra lifted her chin to gaze up at him, but his eyes still eluded her. “It looked to me like you killed slaves, not set them free.”

Lucien remembered the shadow people they’d found scattered around the landing pad.

“They attack me when I try to free them!” Brak said.

“Which is exactly why you should have listened when I told you to stay with the shuttle,” Tyra replied.

Brak hissed loud enough to set Lucien’s teeth on edge, and then the Gor turned and stormed out of the ready room.

“I should go talk to him,” Lucien said.

“No, leave him,” Tyra replied. “I need you on the bridge to help fill in for Troo on the comms. Our next jump is coming up in… just three more minutes. If there aren’t any Faros there waiting for us, you can go talk to him then.”

Lucien nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Garek, I assume you have experience with the engineering console?”

“I’m not an engineer, but I could fill in for Tinker, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“It is. You’ll be our new chief engineer until he returns.”

“Aye, Captain,” Garek replied.

“Meeting adjourned,” Tyra declared. “Everyone back to your stations.”

On their way out of the ready room, Addy placed a hand on Lucien’s arm. He glanced at her, and she offered a wan smile. “I don’t have any duties on the bridge. I’ll go talk to Brak.”

 “Thanks, Addy,” Lucien said, and let out a long sigh. He slowed his pace, drifting out of earshot of Tyra. “I feel like it’s my fault,” he whispered. “Brak came along because of me. He stayed for the adventure, but now he’s going to be sitting on the sidelines for the next eight years while we do all the exploring. I don’t even think there’s another Gor on Astralis to keep him company. He’s going to be utterly alone.”

“You can’t put all that on yourself. He’s responsible for his own actions. He had a choice. He made the wrong one.”

“His people were slaves,” Lucien replied. “And most of them died at the hands of their Sythian masters. The Faros aren’t a lot different from the Sythians. I don’t blame Brak for losing it. I probably would have, too.”

“Yeah…” Addy said. “Everyone’s a product of their past, aren’t they?”

The question was obviously rhetorical, but the way Addy said it sparked his curiosity. He glanced at her, about to ask more—

But the lights in the corridor dimmed to a bloody red and klaxons sounded. Pandora’s voice crackled out over the ship’s PA system. “Red alert! All hands to battle stations!”

Lucien hesitated for a split second.

“Go!” Addy said, giving him a sudden shove from behind.

Lucien sprinted down the corridor to the bridge with visions of cigar-shaped ships descending on their galleon in his mind’s eye.



Chapter 21




 “Sensors, report!” Tyra ordered.

“Two dozen capital-class vessels, the nearest at just under forty thousand klicks,” Pandora replied. “Visual profiles match the Faros’ vessels.”

 “Two dozen? That’s twice as many as we found at Arachnai-1,” Tyra said.

“Looks like they called for backup,” Lucien said. “How did they find us?”

“They must have planted a tracking device on our shuttle after we landed,” Tyra said. “Pandora, jettison shuttle one immediately.”

“Aye, ma’am… shuttle away.”

“How long before we can jump again?” Tyra replied.

“We could plot a micro-jump to the nearest star in less than a second,” Pandora replied. “But the drive system needs twenty-six minutes to cool down and charge its capacitors after the last jump. There are seventeen minutes remaining.”

“Right,” Tyra replied. “Then that’s how long we need to last. Set course away from the enemy ships, full thrust.”

Lucien was surprised that the drive system only needed twenty-six minutes to cool down. All the galleons he’d been on required a full hour.

 “They have us surrounded, ma’am,” Pandora said. “There is no way to set a course away from the enemy. Furthermore, their quantum jamming fields extend almost thirty-five thousand klicks from their vessels. Those fields will overlap our position long before our capacitors can recharge, and we will be unable to jump.”

“The bot’s right,” Garek said.

Tyra brought up a tactical map from her station and promptly frowned. “Commander Ortane, launch all fighters, but keep them close for now.”

 “Launching fighters…” All six of them, he added to himself.

“How long before they reach firing range with us?” Tyra asked.

The deck shuddered, and they heard a muffled impact over the sound in space simulator (SISS). The lights on the bridge dimmed, and then brightened again as the shields drew extra power to absorb the attack.

“Taking fire from enemy lasers!” Garek announced. “Shields holding at 98%.”

“How’s that possible?” Tyra asked.

 They were still thirty seven thousand klicks from the nearest enemy ship. That put the enemy’s effective laser range at more than double Astralis’s, which was in turn superior to that of any galleon Lucien had ever been on.

“We’re being hailed,” he said as the comms display lit up with an incoming message. “I think that was just a warning shot.”

“Don’t answer yet,” Tyra said. “Pandora…”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“We could jump out immediately if we shunted all the power from the shields and emergency reserves into our jump capacitors.”

“Theoretically, but there’s also a thirty-two percent chance that we’ll overload the system and trigger a catastrophic containment breach in the reactor core.”

“That’s better than the 100% chance we’ll be destroyed by those cruisers. Get ready to shunt power and jump away.”

“Aye aye,” Pandora replied.

A flurry of impacts sounded over the SISS and the deck vibrated continuously under their feet.

“Shields at 68%!” Garek called out. “You’d better shunt power fast, or there’s not going to be any left!”

Lucien sent Tyra a worried look. “If you shunt power away from the shields, we’ll be destroyed by the next attack.”

“Answer the hail, Commander. Tell them we surrender. That should get them to stop firing for a moment.”

Lucien did as he was told, and a familiar blue-skinned alien appeared on the main holo display. His gray robes, forked crown, and other glowing gold accessories left no doubt as to who this particular Faro was. He gave them a charming smile.

“Hello again.”

“We surrender,” Lucien said.

 The alien nodded. “Wise of you to do so. Deactivate your quantum jamming field and drop your shields. I’ll be aboard with a squad of Elementals as soon as you have done so. Don’t keep me waiting.”

King Faro vanished from the screen.

“Elementals?” Garek asked aloud.

“Their version of Paragon marines,” Jalisa suggested.

“This is our chance,” Tyra said. “Pandora, drop shields, but not jamming, and shunt all the power to the jump capacitors. Jump out to a random star as soon as you can.”

“Shunting power… everyone prepare for imminent destruction.”

Lucien felt an ominous shudder come through the deck, accompanied by a rising roar from the SISS; then a bright light suffused the deck as they jumped away. When the brightness faded, it was replaced by another type of glare—a cold blue star at close range.

“Sensors, report!” Tyra said.

“All clear, ma’am. We are in a stable orbit around Panda-2.”

Jalisa burst out laughing, and the others joined her, diffusing the tension of their near-brush with death. Then the lights died, and their laughter died with them. Silence rang in the perfect darkness of their suddenly derelict vessel.

 Artificial gravity went out with the lights, and Lucien felt his stomach do a queasy flip in zero G. “Not such a clean break, after all…” he whispered.

 A split second later, the lights flickered back on, but much dimmer than before. Gravity also made a slow return and stabilized at a fraction of a standard G.

“Engineering! What happened?” Tyra demanded.

“Power reserves are reading well below critical levels—less than one percent,” Garek replied. “We’re dead in space, running on battery backups. But all systems are still in the green. We got lucky. We’ll need at least four hours to recharge our capacitors, but after that we should be fine.”

“Great,” Tyra replied. “Pandora, how far did we jump?”

“Six point four light-years, ma’am.”

“Within spitting distance of the Faros’ fleet, then.”

“Aye, Captain. If you’d wanted me to calculate a more distant jump, you might have said so.”

“No, that’s fine, I’m just trying to take stock of our situation. How many other stars were in close proximity to our last stop?”

 “That depends on your definition of close, ma’am.”

“Let’s define it as any star system that the Faros could guess we jumped to in the time that we had.”

“On average we can calculate one hundred and eighty four light-years per second. We took a fraction of a second to calculate our jump, but the Faros don’t know that, and they don’t know how fast our jump calculations are. At minimum, they’d have to systematically search several thousand star systems in order to find us.”

Tyra breathed a sigh. “Good. Then chances are we’re safe for now.”

“We left our fighters behind,” Lucien thought to mention.

“That’s unfortunate, but they were only machines,” Tyra said.

Lucien winced and glanced at Pandora’s station, but she didn’t seem to have noticed Tyra’s blatant disregard for the bots piloting their fighters.

A glimmer of light caught Lucien’s eye, and his gaze followed it out the viewports, to the stars. His eyes found a bright orange speck, a planet, not a star. What kind of world was that? Might it be habitable? Alien whispers skittered through his thoughts, conjured in the darkness of his imagination. He smiled at his own whimsy, but curiosity urged, tugging him out into the unknown. That planet seemed to be compelling him to visit, as if it were living thing reaching out to him across the void. Maybe they’d meet another sentient species here?

 “We’ve got four hours to kill…” Lucien said. “Maybe we should explore this system?” It didn’t sound like something he would say, and he frowned at himself the moment he said it. The smart move would be to stay on board the Inquisitor and wait, in case the Faros found them. And yet, he felt inexplicably compelled to explore. But maybe that wasn’t so strange. Their mission was all about exploration. Doing nothing for four hours when they could be setting foot on alien worlds seemed like a gross waste of time.

Lucien turned to Tyra, tearing his gaze away from that orange planet with a physical effort. Suddenly he noticed how quiet the bridge had gotten. Everyone on board was staring fixedly out the viewports, as if mesmerized. A sudden thrill coursed through Lucien, prickling his skin. Maybe something really was calling out to them.

“Yes…” Tyra said, nodding slowly. “I think maybe we should. Pandora, you have the conn.”

“Yay,” Pandora said.

Tyra ignored the bot’s sarcasm. “Everyone else, follow me to Shuttle Bay Two.”

* * *

“They’re all lifeless rocks,” Jalisa said from the co-pilot’s seat of the shuttle.

Lucien nodded. “Lifeless might even be too kind for these planets.”

“That’s not surprising,” Tyra replied, leaning over their shoulders to get a look at the scan data. “We jumped to this star system at random, not because we detected it had planets in its habitable zone. Still, it’s worth exploring some of these worlds…. who knows what we’ll find?”

“Well you’ve got a nice selection,” Lucien replied. “There’s hot rock A, cold rock B, or gas giant C, and more variations of the same.”

“What about that one,” Tyra said, pointing to the warmest of the cold rocky planets—Panda-2D, a bright orange planet.

Lucien felt an inexplicable sense of relief. He hadn’t wanted to say it, but that was the planet he really wanted to visit. Something about it was impossible to ignore, as if it were somehow vitally important. Lucien brought up the scan data with trembling hands, and Tyra read the report:

“It has a nitrous atmosphere with traces of methane and ethane… an acceptable fraction of standard gravity, and—aha! It’s at least 50% water ice. Sounds perfect.”

“The atmosphere won’t be breathable, and you won’t find any liquid water,” Lucien said.

“We might find liquid water beneath the crust if the planet has a hot core,” Tyra suggested. “Or if we find the water is part of a eutectic system.”

“A what?” Lucien asked.

“Two substances mixed together, like salt and water. Salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water.”

“Well, salt water won’t cut it,” Jalisa said. “The surface temperature looks to be around ninety degrees kelvin on the day side.”

“That’s minus one hundred and eighty-three degrees Celsius,” Tyra said, nodding.

“We’d better hope our suit seals hold,” Lucien said.

 “Plot a micro-jump into orbit and land us in the warmest spot you can find,” Tyra replied. “We’ve only got four hours to explore before the Inquisitor is ready to jump again.”

“We could save time by jumping straight down into the atmosphere,” Lucien suggested. “There’s no magnetic field to stop us.”

“Too risky,” Tyra replied. “Better to make a proper descent.”

Lucien nodded, already calculating the jump into orbit. “Next stop… Snowflake.”

“A good name for it,” Jalisa said.

“Better than Panda-2D, anyway,” Tyra added.



Chapter 22




 The shuttle shuddered violently as they descended into the orange haze of Snowflake’s atmosphere. The atmosphere was thick, making it look like an orange gas giant from orbit, but at just 6500 kilometers in diameter, the planet was far too small to be a real gas giant.

Visibility decreased progressively on their way down to the surface, so they had to rely on sensors to see.

“The surface topography is interesting,” Jalisa said. “There’s mountains, canyons, lakes, rivers…”

“Mountains means there’s geological activity of some kind,” Tyra said from where she stood looking over their shoulders. “Maybe cryovolcanic activity from a subsurface ocean. If that’s the case, then it’s possible we could find something alive in that ocean.”

“So we’re chasing alien sea monsters,” Lucien said.

“Something like that.” Tyra pointed to the topographical map on one of Jalisa’s displays. “See if you can set down on the shore of that methane ocean.”

 “An ocean of methane… isn’t that dangerous?” Jalisa asked. “We’re talking about natural gas. One spark and… boom.”

Tyra laughed. “Good luck making a spark. Without oxygen in the atmosphere nothing can burn.”

“But you said the planet is half water,” Lucien put in. “There’s oxygen in water.”

“I’m talking about elemental oxygen in the atmosphere,” Tyra replied. “And there’s not enough of that for us to worry. Trust me, if that ocean could ignite, it would have done so long before we got here.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Lucien said, and banked toward the ocean.

They landed just fifty meters from the shore, but it was impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. The shuttle’s landing lights illuminated the dark yellow-orange murk, revealing dirty, whitish rocks and black sand.

“Looks delightful out there,” Lucien said.

“It’s all just rocks and sand,” Jalisa said, her nose wrinkled.

“You were expecting frozen fields of grass?” Tyra asked, her eyebrows raised.

“I think I’ll stay here, if that’s okay with you,” Jalisa replied.

“Suit yourself,” Tyra said. “Lucien?”

He nodded and stood up from the pilot’s chair. “We came all this way to see an alien ocean. I’d be remiss not to go for a swim before we leave.”

“Good luck! Liquid methane is less than half as dense as water. You’ll sink like a rock,” Tyra said on their way back through the cabin.

Lucien spied Garek and Addy sitting together in the back of the shuttle. Addy’s hand was resting on Garek’s arm. A flash of jealousy coursed through him at the sight of that.

He was surprised by his reaction. He’d turned Addy down, not the other way around, so why was he jealous?

“You two coming?” Tyra asked, nodding to Garek.

“Sure,” Garek said through a dry chuckle at something Addy had whispered in his ear.

Addy sauntered up to Lucien with a smile. “Something wrong, XO?”

“No, why?”

“You had a funny look on your face. Still do.”

Lucien turned to the shuttle airlock. Tyra was already waiting inside with her helmet on.

“I’m fine. It’s time to go,” he said, and headed for the airlock, putting on his helmet as he went.

* * *

Lucien could feel the cold reaching for him through his faceplate. The chill was seeping in, a primal, unstoppable force, despite the fact that he’d turned his suit’s heater up to the max.

 He shivered, and looked around. Chunks of dirty white rock lay everywhere. His suit’s scanner identified those rocks as chunks of ice. He picked up a pair of ice shards and struck them against each other, but nothing happened. No shattering, no chipping.

Tyra looked over at him. “At these temperatures the ice is as hard as rock,” she explained.

 Lucien nodded slowly, as if he understood how that was possible. Black sand skrished under his feet, glittering in the pale yellow-orange light.

“Then what’s the sand?” he asked. Normal sand was made of grains of silicate rock that had been filed away by weather and water, but if these rocks weren’t rocks, then…

“The sand is hydrocarbon precipitation from the atmosphere,” Tyra said.

That sounded vague enough that it could be just about anything. Humans were hydrocarbons, so for all they knew they could be kicking around the ashes of some long-dead alien civilization.

 Just so long as they’re not Faro ashes, Lucien thought. His skin prickled with goosebumps at the memory of those blue-skinned aliens. He felt an urgent need to turn around, to make sure nothing was creeping up behind him.

 Listening to those instincts, he casually turned around, but he couldn’t see anything behind him, or anyone—just an impenetrable wall of orange mist. Even the shuttle had vanished into this planet’s murky atmosphere. Turning back to the fore, he realized he couldn’t even see Tyra anymore. The comms were disturbingly silent, too.

Panic gripped him, and his heart thudded in his chest. His breath reverberated loud and uneven inside his helmet, fogging the faceplate faster than the suit heater could clear it.

Drawing on his training, Lucien pushed down those feelings and activated a sensor overlay to pinpoint the others’ locations on his ARCs. Green-shaded outlines appeared, less than a dozen meters away, visible even through the murky atmosphere. But he still couldn’t hear them.

Then he thought to check his comms settings. He was still on the command channel. As soon as he switched to the away team’s channel, comms chatter immediately flooded his ears.

Relief washed through him, and Lucien’s heart resumed its normal pace. He chided himself for being so easily scared. He must have been more shaken by their encounter with the Faros than he realized.

Lucien headed toward the others, and they came swirling out of the murky haze. Tyra and Garek were busy setting up the shuttle’s drill, while Addy stood guarding the site. He walked over to her.

“Hey, Triple S,” he said.

Addy didn’t immediately reply, having apparently forgotten her nickname, but she turned to him as he approached.

“You like long walks on the beach?” he asked, grinning at her. He saw her smile back through her foggy faceplate.

“Do I ever,” she said. “Captain, do you mind if we…?”

“Go ahead. Make sure you get some samples of the ocean water for me. There’s sample containers in that storage crate over there—” Tyra pointed to it. “Find one that’s marked for liquids.”

 “Got it,” Lucien said, already on his way to the crate. He grabbed one of the sample containers, a flask marked with an L for liquids, and clipped it to his belt before walking off with Addy.

She grabbed his hand, and he shot her a bemused look.

“Something on your mind, Lucien?” she asked.

“No… well, all right, yes. You and Garek…”

“Just friends.”

“And Tinker?”

“The same.”

“And us?”

 “Are you asking me, or telling me?” Addy replied. “You’re the one who turned me down, remember?”

“That’s because all you were offering was sex.”

Addy’s arm stiffened. “I’m sorry you misunderstood.”

“I did?” Lucien asked.

They reached the edge of the water and stood staring out over it—all twelve feet of it that they could see.

“Not big on views, this Snowflake of yours,” Addy said.

“No,” Lucien agreed.

 “And yes, you misunderstood, you dumb… man.”

Lucien’s eyebrows shot up, but he waited for her to explain.

“Don’t look so surprised!” Addy said, punching his armored arm with her armored fist. His haptic sensors relayed the contact as a strong jolt.

 “I’m sorry if I misjudged you,” Lucien said. “But you have to admit, you are pretty aggressive. You flirt with everyone.

“That’s just how I am. I’m friendly.”

 A little too friendly, maybe, Lucien thought, but didn’t say. “All right, let’s start over. Next time you try to sidle me away from the others, I won’t resist.”

 “Maybe this time you should sidle me off.”

“What do you think I’m doing now?” Lucien asked.

Addy smiled again. “You have me there. What about you and the Tyrant?”

“What about her?” Lucien asked, surprised by the question.

“You’re not interested in her?” Addy asked.

“No.” He chuckled dryly. “Definitely not. Why would you think that?”

“The way you two get on each other’s nerves all the time, it seems like there’s enough sexual tension and repressed heat between the two of you to melt the ground we’re standing on.”

“That’s just regular old tension,” Lucien said.

“All right,” Addy replied, nodding. “Good. You still want to go for that swim?”

 Lucien eyed the water dubiously. Small waves of methane rippled the surface and lapped the sandy shore. The water was surprisingly calm for an ocean. “From what I’ve heard, we’ll sink,” Lucien replied.

 “You want to go for a sink, then?” Addy pressed.

Lucien laughed. “Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? Why not. Let’s see what’s on the ocean floor.”

They walked out together. The water felt surprisingly wet via their haptic sensors—so much so that Lucien had to double check his suit pressure to make sure that he hadn’t actually sprung a leak.

“The bottom’s sandy,” Addy said.

Lucien nodded and peered down through the rippled, perfectly transparent methane. It wasn’t cloudy with churned-up sediment and organic matter. In fact, it was easier to see through the methane than it was to see through the planet’s atmosphere.

They walked out up to their chests before Lucien stopped and glanced back the way they’d come. He could see Tyra and Garek on his sensor overlay as distant green-shaded specks, but he couldn’t see the shoreline anymore.

“We should go back,” he said.

“Come on, we’ve barely gotten our feet wet!” Addy said. “We’ve got enough oxygen to last hours, and our suits are hermetically sealed. What’s the worst that could happen? It gets too dark to see anything and we go back. You’d rather sit around watching the Tyrant drill holes in the ice?”

Lucien frowned. “I guess not.”

 They kept going. As their heads slipped under the water, suddenly everything snapped into focus. They could finally see. The ocean floor undulated away from them in rippling waves of black sand. White ice rocks lay scattered here and there, and in the distance… a dark, jagged edge appeared where the ocean floor suddenly dropped away in an undersea cliff.

“Let’s check that out!” Addy said, pointing to the cliff. She ran in a slow-motion, bouncing gait produced by a combination of the planet’s light gravity and the moderately buoyant liquid methane.

“Wait up!” Lucien called after her.

They reached the cliff together, but Addy’s momentum carried her right over it. She called out in alarm, but Lucien managed to grab her arm and pull her back up.

“You all right?” he asked.

She nodded, and they took a moment to catch their breath. It was impossible to see the bottom of the cliff with so little visible light. Lucien snapped on his headlamps. Because the water was so clear, there was nothing to refract the light, and their visibility increased a hundred-fold.

“There’s the bottom!” Addy said, turning on her headlamps, too.

“It’s at least fifty meters down,” Lucien said. “Fifty-two,” he amended after a glance at his range-finder.

“We should go down and take a look. Maybe there’s some kind of cave to explore? We might find life before Tyra does!”

Lucien had to catch Addy’s arm again to stop her from leaping off the cliff. “We don’t know what’s down there.”

“That’s kind of the point of exploring…” Addy replied. “Scared we’ll run into a sea monster?”

 That lives in a methane ocean? Not likely. “All right, but we’d better keep an eye on the time. We had four hours to explore when we left the galleon, and it’s already been… an hour and twenty minutes,” Lucien said as he checked the time on his ARCs. “We’ve got two hours and forty minutes left. That gives us a maximum of another hour and twenty minutes to explore or else we won’t be able to get back to the shuttle in time to leave.”

 “Aye aye, Commander.” Addy grabbed his hand and leapt over the cliff, pulling him over with her.

Lucien turned as they drifted down to see that the cliff was made up of distinct layers, each one marked by a dark band of hydrocarbon sand, followed by a white band of ice.

They fell past the cliff at an ever-increasing rate, picking up a surprising amount of speed as they approached the bottom.

They fired their grav boosters to slow down, but when they touched down, they still kicked up giant glittering clouds of black sand. Lucien looked up and felt suddenly very small standing at the base of the sheer, icy cliffs. His headlamps revealed a dim, rippled ceiling far above them—the surface of the ocean.

“Now what?” Lucien asked as he lowered his gaze to scan the ocean floor. “All I see is more of the same.”

“Over there,” Addy said, pointing down the line of cliffs. “Three hundred meters. There’s a cave entrance.” She turned to him with a grin. “What did I tell you?”

They headed for the cave. It was slow going, but they eventually made it. Tyra checked in with them on the comms along the way, and Lucien filled her in on their exploration plans. She told them to be careful, and reminded him about the methane sample, which he promised to take before they came back.

Looking into the cave from the entrance, they found that it was the beginning of a long icy tunnel, cylindrical and smooth, that descended sharply into the frozen crust of the world.

“Where do you think it goes?” Addy asked wonderingly.

“I’m not sure I want to find out,” Lucien replied.

 “Really? You’re not the least bit curious?”

 Lucien arched an eyebrow at her. “What I find curious is that you are so curious. Let me guess, one of your hobbies on New Earth was spelunking?”

“Among other things. I also like level-jumping and grav racing.”

“Level-jumping…” Lucien replied slowly.

“You know, where you jump from Level One to the ground with nothing but goggles and grav boosters,” Addy explained.

“I know what it is. I’m just surprised that you’re such a risk-taker.”

 “I’m surprised that you’re not,” Addy countered. “Isn’t that what this mission is all about? It’s one big free-fall through space to the cosmic horizon.”

Lucien snorted. “I guess. So that’s the reason you came? For the thrill?”

“One of the reasons,” Addy said, turning away from him. “So, are you coming with me, or am I exploring this cave on my own?”

“I guess we can explore a little more,” he said, checking the time again.

 The sandy bottom didn’t extend very far into the cave. As the sand disappeared, the icy floor became so slick that they had to reverse the polarity of their grav boosters and dial them up over 1.5 Gs before they could walk without slipping. Even then, they had to grab the walls for support.

“What other reasons did you have for joining the mission?” Lucien asked, as they descended into the cave.

Addy didn’t answer immediately, so he went on, “After the meeting in the Captain’s Ready Room, you said that we’re all products of our past. Did something happen in yours to make you want to leave everything behind?”

 “Leave everything behind?” Addy echoed. “I didn’t have anything to leave.”

“What about family? Friends? A boyfriend?” Lucien asked.

“I had a couple of friends,” Addy replied. “Not very close, but that’s probably my fault. I have a habit of pushing people away.”

“No family? You’re an orphan? How’s that possible?”

“Not technically an orphan, no. When I graduated and became a champion, my parents decided to go to Etheria.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Lucien said.

Addy shrugged. “I’m used to it. They weren’t the first people to leave me. My best friend decided to go to Etheria when I was fourteen. He wanted me to go with him. I wanted him to stay, but he wouldn’t stay for me. It sounds stupid now, but we were in love, and I was going to marry that stupid skriff someday. I guess it is stupid….”

“No, it’s not,” Lucien said. “You lost the people that mattered most to you. They’re not dead, but it still hurts.”

“They may as well be dead,” Addy replied.

“Did you ever go visit any of them?”

“My parents sent for me once or twice, but I refused to go. It’s a long trip,” she explained. “I couldn’t spare the time from my studies.”

 “I have a half-brother living in Etheria with his wife and kids. It is hard to visit. I’ve also only seen him a few times, but that shouldn’t stop you from going.”

 “They were the ones who left me,” Addy replied. “Maybe they should have thought about the consequences of that before they left.”

 Hearing the bitterness in Addy’s voice, Lucien hesitated before giving a reply. This was obviously an emotionally charged topic for her. “They didn’t leave because of you,” he said quietly. “They must have had plenty of good reasons for leaving. New Earth isn’t exactly a paradise.”

“And Etheria is? Etherians get to know everything, they always do the right thing, and they’re all equally wealthy. Where’s the fun in that? There’s no reason to explore, or strive, or struggle.”

“I’m pretty sure Etherus still lets them go spelunking and free-falling through planetary atmospheres if they want to,” Lucien said.

“Yeah, maybe,” Addy said. “But what about real adventure? Exploring the unknown? If they want to know what they’ll find at some distant star, or even at the cosmic horizon, he’ll just tell them, and they won’t even have to make the trip.”

“So you’re basically making the opposite of Tyra’s argument. You’re saying it would be a bad thing if Etherus told us everything He knows.”

Addy snorted. “She doesn’t know what she’s asking for. None of the clerics do. You ever read a book?”

“Sure,” Lucien said.

“A fictional one, for fun. Not a textbook.”

“A couple.”

“Well, the next time you do, try reading the ending first,” Addy said.

“Why would I do that?”

“Exactly,” Addy said.

Lucien nodded slowly. “I think I get it. You’re saying the unknown is what makes life interesting and telling us everything we want to know would spoil that.”

“Exactly. Ever wonder why the Etherians never leave Etheria?”

Lucien hadn’t thought about it. He’d never seen an Etherian outside of Etheria except for Etherus. Maybe they weren’t allowed to travel, or maybe there was no point to Etherians traveling beyond their galaxy if they already knew what they’d find.

They came to a fork in the cave, and Addy stopped walking. “Left or right?” she asked, sweeping her headlamps from side to side.

 “Do you read the endings of books first?” Lucien asked.

“Of course not,” Addy replied.

“But you could, if you wanted to.”

“Why would I?”

 “I think it’s the same thing. Just because Etherians can ask Etherus to reveal every mystery in the universe doesn’t mean that they do or that He does, and just because everyone there has a good quality of life, doesn’t mean that they don’t have to work or strive. Etherians are not human, and they’re not driven by selfish desires. They think differently than we do. Their work isn’t about getting rich and gaining an advantage over their peers, it’s about accomplishing things. Look at ants, they work hard, but they can’t get rich by doing so.”

 Addy regarded him with a frown. “Sounds like maybe you should go to Etheria. If that’s how you think, then what are you doing here? Why did you join the mission, Lucien?”

He didn’t have a chance to reply. A new voice joined their conversation, rippling through the comm speakers inside their helmets.

 “Yes, why did you join the mission, Lucien?”

For a moment he thought it was Garek, but this voice was not gruff and gravelly like Garek’s—it was silky and smooth.

Lucien whirled around, his headlamps peeling back the darkness inside the cave.

“I know that voice…” Addy said with a tremor in her voice. She swept her headlamps around, looking for the source.

“I’m glad to hear it,” the voice went on. “I’d be insulted if you’d forgotten me already.”

“How is he on our comms?” Addy demanded.

“Must have hacked the encryption,” Lucien said. He changed channel to speak with the others back at the shuttle. “Tyra, we’ve got company!”

No reply.

“She’s busy,” the voice intoned. “You’ll have to call back later.”

A tall blue-skinned humanoid with a luminous gold crown and flowing gray robes came striding up the tunnel on the left. He wasn’t wearing a pressure suit or any armor despite the frigid methane swirling all around him.

Before either Lucien or Addy could react, another Faro came striding up the tunnel to their right, also without a pressure suit or any substantial armor. This one didn’t wear a crown on his bald blue head, and his robes were black with glowing silver arm bands, claws, and gauntlets.

Both Faros slowly drew shimmering transparent swords from scabbards on their backs.

Lucien flicked an urgent glance at Addy. He didn’t need to say it, but he did anyway—

“Run!”



Chapter 23




 They ran back the way they’d come as fast as they could, with power-assist turned up to the max. Lucien kept expecting a ball of plasma to slam into him from behind, but it never came. Maybe the Faros knew better. What would superheated plasma do in a cave filled with freezing liquid methane? The sudden explosion of methane expanding as it boiled into a gas might just be violent enough to kill them all—that, or the methane would simply dissipate the energy harmlessly before it reached them.

Lucien risked glancing over his shoulder to see the two Faros gaining on them.

“Keep running!” he urged.

 Up ahead, Addy gave no reply, but he heard her breathing hard over the comms. As they ran, questions swirled through Lucien’s brain. How had the Faros found them? They’d ditched the other shuttle before jumping away, so it couldn’t have been a tracking device—unless they’d somehow attached one to the Inquisitor’s hull, too. Then there was the fact that the Faros were down here in a frigid ocean of liquid methane, not wearing pressure suits or armor of any kind. Didn’t they need to breathe? And how was it possible that they hadn’t frozen to death?

The only thing Lucien could think of was that the Faros were more mechanical than biological.

He and Addy burst out of the caves and blasted off the ocean floor with their grav boosters firing at full strength. Lucien looked down as they rocketed to the surface, and he caught a glimpse of the blue-skinned aliens rising swiftly after them.

They broke the surface and roared up into the murky orange atmosphere, quickly losing all sense of direction. Lucien activated all the sensor overlays he could think of to keep his bearings.

The ground appeared as a white wireframe with only the most basic features and the largest rocks detailed. Small green-shaded outlines appeared in the distance, revealing where Tyra and Garek were. Another green outline popped up on his left—Addy. The shuttle was a green blob, and red-shaded outlines marked the Faros. There were three of them—two below, and coming up fast, and one in close proximity to Tyra and Garek.

“We need to get back to the shuttle!” Lucien said, but he didn’t have to tell Addy that. She was already on her way.

It only took them a few seconds of flying to reach the shuttle. They landed beside the rear airlock, and Lucien hesitated there with Addy, wondering what to do. Tyra and Garek were cut off, over a hundred meters away.

Then the Faros they’d met in the caves landed in front of them, and there was no more time to hesitate. Lucien thrust out his hands and fired the grav boosters in his palms at full strength, aiming for the Faro with a crown.

Both the alien and Lucien went flying backward. Lucien slammed into the airlock doors. Addy slammed into the doors beside him, after firing her grav boosters at the other Faro.

Lucien pushed off the doors with a grunt and waved the airlock open. He dragged Addy inside and shut the airlock before the Faros could recover.

Precious seconds slipped away as the airlock cycled. Then Lucien remembered Jalisa up in the cockpit. He was about to tell her to take off, when the shuttle lurched off the ground, and she said. “Hang on back there!”

As soon as the crimson light of decontamination faded and the airlock opened, Lucien ran up to the cockpit and fell into the co-pilot’s chair beside Jalisa.

“We need to get out of here,” she said.

“We’re not leaving anyone behind,” Lucien replied. “Make a low pass. Let’s see how those personal shields fare against the shuttle’s laser.”

 “The tickler?” Jalisa asked.

“It might be weak for a spaceship, but it’s still a hundred times stronger than our suits’ lasers.”

Lucien fired at the Faro attacking Tyra and Garek. A brilliant beam of red light shot out, illuminating the dense atmosphere like lightning. The laser hit its target, and the red-shaded outline became suffused by a sudden bloom of blinding light. When the light faded, the Faro was gone.

“Now that’s more like it!” Lucien crowed, already scanning for his next target.

The other two Faros were closing on Tyra and Garek, but suddenly they flew off at high speed, using some Farosien equivalent of grav boosters. They flew so fast that Lucien briefly lost track of them in the murky atmosphere. Then he found one, headed straight for the shuttle’s belly cannon. He jerked the joystick trigger, firing another shot, but the alien thrust out its palm and fired a burst of plasma in the same instant.

The scene disappeared in a burst of light, replaced by an error message. “Damn it! They took out the laser,” Lucien said. Glancing at the shuttle’s scopes, he found only one red blip remaining, which meant that he’d killed the Faro who’d taken out the laser cannon. He hoped it had been the crown-wearing warlord.

Lucien pointed to the sensor grid. Two green blips were flying toward them at high speed. “Open the airlock!”

“Are you crazy?” Jalisa asked, sending him a wide-eyed look.

Lucien opened the doors himself.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Jalisa said.

“So do I,” Lucien said, already jumping up from the co-pilot’s chair. “Addy! Get ready! We’re about to have some company!” He raced back into the cabin and found her already reaching into one of the weapons lockers. She handed him a large rifle that fired guided explosive rounds, and she took a hypervelocity cannon for herself. The barrel was as long as she was tall.

Lucien stared wide-eyed at their weapons. “The point is to defend the shuttle, not blow it apart!”

“So make sure you don’t miss,” Addy said.

 They heard thunking sounds inside the airlock, and Lucien saw through the inner doors that two green-shaded outlines were clinging to the zero-G rails, one inside, and one dangling out the back.

“Level out!” Tyra ordered over the comms in a strained voice.

Jalisa stopped climbing just in time for someone else to land inside the airlock. A red-shaded outline.

“Screw this!” Addy said. “Get clear of the doors!” she called over the comms. After only a momentary hesitation, she fired her cannon and blew the inner doors apart. The shrapnel got sucked out along with all the air in the cabin as the shuttle depressurized.

 Lucien caught a brief glimpse of a bald, blue-skinned alien with black robes tumbling out the airlock. He must have killed the crown-wearing Faro with the shuttle’s laser. King Faro / “Lucien” was dead.

“A little help over here?” Tyra asked. She was the one dangling out the back of the shuttle. Garek walked over and yanked her in. She collapsed on the deck as soon as the shuttle’s gravity took over. She lay there wheezing from the exertion—and the pain of her injuries.

Her left arm was missing from the elbow down. She had a combination bandage/suit patch over the stump, but even so, what was left of her arm had to be frozen stiff.

“Are you all right?” Lucien asked, hurrying to give her a hand.

Tyra nodded as he and Garek helped her stumble through the airlock into the cabin.

 “Jalisa, get us out of here before that thing comes back!” Garek said as he waved the outer airlock doors shut. He appeared to be in one piece, but his faceplate was cracked, and there was a deep furrow carved into the breastplate of his suit.

Up ahead, the doors to the cockpit were sealed. They’d automatically shut when the cabin lost pressure.

 Lucien went to look out the small windows in the rear doors of the airlock, and watched as the orange haze of Snowflake fell away below them. The world flashed white as Jalisa micro-jumped them from a low orbit back to the Inquisitor. A few minutes later a fuzzy blue shield swept over his view of space as they flew inside the galleon’s hangar. A boarding tunnel swept out to greet them. As soon as he heard it seal, Lucien tried to wave the doors open, but they wouldn’t respond.

“Cabin’s depressurized,” Garek reminded him, walking up to the control panel. “We’ll have to override the airlock. Everyone brace yourselves!”

The airlock opened and a sudden gust of air slammed into them. Lucien rocked back on his heels, almost falling over.

“Everyone to the bridge!” Tyra croaked, running past them.

They ran after her.

“Pandora?” Tyra began.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Start calculating a jump to another random system.”

“We still have another hour before our capacitors finish charging.”

“Damn it!” Tyra said, panting over the comms as they ran through the ship.

“And we don’t know how they followed us here,” Pandora reminded. “Chances are good that they’ll follow us again.”

“We can’t just sit around waiting for one of those capital ships to show up and blast us!” Tyra replied.

“It’s already here.”

“What? Why didn’t you say something?”

“It only just appeared, ma’am. I believe it has some type of cloaking shield.”

“Range to target?”

“Eighty-six thousand klicks. Well outside of their last known weapons range—but they are coming about on an intercept course,” Pandora replied.

“Set course away from the enemy at maximum thrust,” Tyra said.

“Aye, ma’am. Setting course…”



Chapter 24




 “They’re still gaining on us, Captain,” Pandora announced. “ETA to enemy’s last-known weapons range, ten minutes, seven seconds and counting.”

“It’s going to come down to a slugging match,” Lucien said.

“Not if they hold back, keeping out of range of our guns,” Jalisa said.

 Lucien frowned. She was right. The Faros had demonstrated superior weapons range and superior speed, so they didn’t have to risk getting hit at all. They could dance around the Inquisitor firing their lasers all day long. “We’ll have to fire back with missiles,” he said.

“No point. At this range they’ll have plenty of time to shoot them down,” Jalisa replied.

“Why haven’t they jumped closer to us?” Garek asked. “Our jamming field only extends to thirty thousand klicks. They’ve shown that their effective laser range is around forty thousand, so they could jump straight into range with us.”

“They must still be waiting for their jump capacitors to recharge,” Pandora said.

 How long had it been since they’d encountered the Faros in the cave? Lucien wondered. At least twenty minutes. Assuming the Faros’ drives had a similar cycle time to the Inquisitor’s, that didn’t leave very long before the Faros could jump again.

“If they just jumped here, how did they get down to the planet so fast?” Tyra asked, her voice noticeably weaker than usual.

Lucien glanced at her. She was pale, and her brow was beaded with sweat. Garek had dressed her severed arm when they’d peeled out of their exosuits, and he’d given her a shot for the pain, but meds weren’t magic, and she was obviously still battling something.

“They couldn’t have taken a shuttle down in that time,” Jalisa said.

“Maybe they jumped their people straight to the surface,” Addy suggested from where she was filling in for Troo at the comms control station.

“With no way of returning to their ship?” Jalisa asked.

“They could always send a shuttle down afterward,” Lucien said. “Or maybe they planned to steal ours.”

“It’s all academic at this point,” Tyra said. “What we need to figure out—” She interrupted herself with a ragged breath. “—is how they found us.”

“They spoke over our comms,” Lucien said, “so they’re definitely hacking us.”

 “Which means they may have hacked the Inquisitor, too,” Pandora said. “That may be how they followed us here. A virus could have given away our position without us noticing.”

“Run a deep systems scan,” Tyra ordered.

“Aye, Captain,” Pandora replied.

 “It won’t matter if we find the virus if they manage to destroy or disable us before we can jump out again,” Lucien said. “What if we send a distress call to Astralis? The Faros already know where we are, anyway.”

“They won’t come,” Tyra said.

“What? Why not?”

“It’s against protocol,” she replied.

“What protocol?”

Pandora explained, “It’s easier to resurrect us than to send good ships after bad and risk losing them all.”

Lucien snorted. “I love how you clerics think.”

Pandora chimed in, “If we get into an all-out war with every hostile force we encounter beyond the red line, we’re not going to make it very far.”

“So why not just give up? Let them kill us, or better yet, we should self-destruct our own ship,” Lucien said.

“It may come to that, but there’s still a chance we might save our galleon,” Tyra said. “How far can our sensors reach inside of Snowflake’s atmosphere?”

“All the way to the surface, ma’am,” Pandora replied.

“Then we can’t hide down there,” Tyra said.

“Maybe we don’t need to,” Jalisa said. “The atmosphere is dense enough to scatter lasers badly. They’d only reach us with a fraction of their strength. They’d have to resort to kinetic weapons and missiles to do any damage. Hypervelocity rounds would burn up on entry, leaving only missiles as a viable threat, and we should still be able to intercept those with our own lasers.”

“Depending on how many missiles they shoot at us,” Lucien pointed out. “They could overwhelm our point defenses.”

“It’s better than staying up here where they can sit out of range and shoot us all day with laser cannons,” Jalisa said. “At least with missiles we know that they have to run out eventually.”

“Agreed,” Tyra replied. “Pandora, take us down. Fly as low as you can without crashing into anything.”

“Aye, ma’am. I’ll fly over the ocean,” Pandora said.

 Snowflake’s orange atmosphere swelled in the bridge’s main forward viewports as the galleon dipped toward the planet. Soon their view was shuddering with turbulence and glowing around the edges from friction with the planet’s atmosphere. A deafening roar accompanied their descent, and unsecured items rattled around the bridge, despite the galleon’s inertial management system and artificial gravity.

A thick orange haze swept over all the viewports, blotting them out and casting the bridge in a dim orange light. It would be hard for the Faros to target them through that murk. Lucien gave a grim smile and leaned forward, gripping the armrests of his chair.

“We might just make it through this after all,” he said.

“That’s the plan,” Tyra replied, her eyes on a sensor display that she’d summoned from her control station. “The enemy is four minutes from firing range,” she said quietly.

The methane ocean swept up out of the gloomy orange atmosphere, and the galleon leveled out, skimming low over the surface. The ocean blurred by impossibly fast, looking like an endless sheet of glass.

“Missiles incoming!” Pandora announced.

Lucien summoned a sensor grid and watched as red blips streamed out from the enemy cruiser.

“Jalisa—!” Tyra began, her voice rising in alarm.

“I see them! Guns tracking!”

The leading wave of missiles took their time to reach the upper atmosphere, but as soon as they did, Lucien heard muffled screeches coming through the bridge speakers as their bot gunners opened fire on the enemy ordnance.

 Simulated streaks of red light snapped up from the Inquisitor, and pinprick-sized explosions flared on the grid, beating back the waves of incoming missiles.

“We’re holding them off!” Jalisa announced.

“How long before our jump capacitors are charged?” Tyra asked.

“Thirty-eight minutes remaining,” Pandora announced.

Tyra nodded. “They’ll run out of missiles before then.”

“They could follow us down into the atmosphere,” Lucien said. “If they close to point-blank range, their lasers will still be effective against us.”

“At least we’ll be able to shoot back,” Jalisa said.

Pandora spoke up, “I should also point out that we are now in range of the enemy’s quantum jamming field. We cannot jump away while that field is engaged and in range of us.”

“Then we’ll just have to defeat them,” Tyra replied.

“The enemy is launching fighters!” Pandora said.

“We don’t have any fighters left to defend us,” Lucien said.

“Enemy fighters are launching missiles!” Jalisa warned.

The number of missiles swarming toward them suddenly increased by a factor of ten.

“We won’t be able to get them all!” Jalisa warned.

“ETA ten minutes before the first missiles reach us,” Pandora said.

 “Krak!” Lucien cursed, drawing glances from the rest of the crew. Paragons never cursed.

“Given our current rate of interception, how many missiles will reach us?” Tyra asked.

“Twenty-seven, approximately,” Pandora replied. “But the enemy is still launching ordnance, so that number is rising.”

“Can our shields hold off twenty-seven missiles?”

“Based on estimated payloads from our previous encounter with the enemy, our galleon would be destroyed after only twenty,” Pandora replied.

 “We should evacuate in the shuttles,” Lucien said. “Some of them might be able to jump back to Astralis.

 “And lead the Faros straight to them?” Tyra challenged. “We’re not going back there, Commander. Not until we know that we won’t be followed.”

Lucien shook his head. “Then I’m out of ideas.”

“We could take the galleon down to the ocean floor,” Pandora suggested. “The Liquid methane will be the perfect shield, absorbing any laser fire, and their missiles are going fast enough that they will detonate on the surface. We’ll be perfectly safe.”

“Do it. Find the deepest part of the ocean and take us down,” Tyra ordered.

“Aye aye, Captain,” Pandora replied. “There’s a trench not too far from here with a depth of more than two hundred kilometers. Will that do?”

 “Two hundred kilometers?” Lucien echoed.

“That will do just fine,” Tyra said. “Take us to the bottom.”

“Laying in a course…” Pandora said.

Lucien turned to Tyra. “If there are any sea monsters on this planet, I think we’re about to find them.”

Tyra shook her head and leaned back in her chair. Her eyes fluttered shut, as if she were too exhausted to hold them open any longer. “Doubtful…” she whispered. “Maybe in the subsurface ocean, but not this one.”

“How far down is that? Could we get from one ocean to the other at the bottom of the trench?” Lucien asked, already thinking of ways to put more distance between them and the enemy.

“There’ll be a thick layer of ice separating the oceans,” Tyra replied slowly. She gave a shuddering sigh and her chin dropped to her chest, as if she’d just fallen asleep.

Lucien frowned, watching her. Tyra’s condition was deteriorating fast. Whatever meds she’d taken were obviously wearing off.

“Tyra?” he asked.

But she didn’t reply.

“Garek! Get up here! Something’s wrong with the captain!”



Chapter 25




 “She’s out cold,” Lucien said.

Garek passed a scanner over Tyra. “It’s hemorrhagic shock. She must have lost more blood than I realized. I need to get her down to med bay for a transfusion.”

“You didn’t check for shock earlier?” Lucien asked.

“She wasn’t going into shock earlier, and she refused to go to med bay when I suggested it,” Garek replied.

“Well, now she doesn’t have a choice,” Lucien replied. “Take her down.”

Garek nodded and unclipped a grav gun from his belt. He used it to float Tyra out of her chair and off the bridge. Lucien watched them leave.

“Two minutes until the first wave of missiles reaches us,” Jalisa announced.

“We have reached the trench,” Pandora added. “Taking us down.”

“That was good timing,” Addy said.

 Lucien saw the glassy smooth surface of the methane ocean snap into sharper focus as they slowed down. Small ripples appeared, waves produced by surface winds. Then their forward movement ceased entirely, and the galleon started down. The hull touched the surface with a loud slap, and a dim, fuzzy wall of liquid methane swept away the orange haze of Snowflake’s atmosphere. Pandora turned on the galleon’s landing lights, and rippled black sand appeared on the ocean floor far below. The trench was as a broad black slash of impenetrable shadows coming up directly below them.

Muffled explosions sounded over the bridge speakers.

“What was that?” Lucien asked as the galleon rocked in the shock waves.

“Enemy missiles are exploding on the surface,” Pandora replied.

Lucien smiled. “Tyra’s plan is working.”

 “Tyra’s plan?” Pandora echoed, her voice shrill. “It was I who suggested it, sir.

“Doesn’t matter whose plan it was,” Lucien said, while inwardly smiling at the bot’s outrage. “What matters is that it’s working.”

“Yes, sir,” Pandora said. “I am detecting evidence of cryovolcanic activity at the bottom of the trench. There are places where the ice is very thin from repeated eruptions of liquid water.”

 “Interesting,” Lucien replied. “So we could blast a hole and fly down into the other ocean.”

“We would need a great deal of firepower, but yes, I believe that’s possible,” Pandora said. “We’d have to time it perfectly, however, as the hole would freeze back over very quickly.

“Why go down there?” Addy asked.

“If we can get deep enough, there’ll be too much quantum impedance for their cruiser’s jamming field to reach us,” Lucien said.

“Or for ours to reach them,” Jalisa replied. “They could jump their cruiser down right next to us and have at us with their cannons.”

“Possibly…” Lucien trailed off with a frown. Something about venturing into the subsurface ocean seemed like a viable strategy, but with the bottom of the trench still so far away, he had more pressing concerns. “How long before those enemy fighters reach us?”

“Not long, sir. Less than ten minutes,” Pandora said.

“If they join us below the surface, they won’t be able to shoot us,” Lucien mused aloud. “Their missiles’ propulsion systems won’t work, and lasers will dissipate instantly in liquid methane.”

“They could still shoot us with hypervelocity cannons,” Jalisa said.

“Assuming they have any,” Lucien replied.

“They might also try to ram us,” Addy put in.

 “They’ll be limited to grav lifts for propulsion, so they won’t be able to reach a high enough velocity to do any damage,” Lucien replied. “Besides, they’ll be easy targets for our hypervelocity cannons. Tyra’s plan is fool-proof.”

 “My plan,” Pandora insisted.

“How much longer before we can jump out?” Lucien asked.

“Twenty minutes, sir.”

“Any luck finding the virus they’ve been using to track us?”

“My scans haven’t found anything yet. I’m running another, deeper scan to double-check.”

“Keep me posted.”

“Aye.”

 “Maybe it’s not a virus?” Addy asked. “We assumed they put a tracking device on our shuttle, but they might have put one on the Inquisitor instead.”

 “They would have needed to disrupt our shields long enough to attach the device,” Lucien said, shaking his head. “The Inquisitor’s shields never failed, did they?”

“No, sir,” Pandora said.

“What if they fired the device into our hangar bay when our shuttle was coming aboard?” Addy asked.

 “Or the tracking device was on our shuttle, but it detached and found a new home inside the hangar bay as soon as we came aboard,” Lucien said. “Pandora, send a detail of bots to scan Shuttle Bay One.”

“Aye, s—”

“And figure out how many missiles we’ll need to blast a hole into the ocean below this one. Try to maneuver us into position over the thinnest section of the trench floor.”

“Aye, sir.”

“What about the enemy cruiser?” Addy asked. “If they jump down into that ocean to follow us…”

 Lucien considered it for a moment. Then he realized what it was about the plan that interested him. “They can’t jump down there. Liquids are extremely difficult to compress, and with all the pressure the subsurface ocean is already under, I doubt it can compress any further. Quantum jumping into the ocean will displace water, but it won’t have anywhere to go. The pressure will be so immense that it will crush them in seconds.”

“Won’t that happen to us, too?”

“Not if we blow a hole between the oceans and fly through. As we cross from one ocean to another there’ll be a natural exchange of liquids around our ship.”

“The commander is right,” Pandora said. “Tyra’s plan will work.”

“Tyra’s not even here… how could it be her plan?” Lucien asked.

“Oh, I thought that was something we were doing—giving all the credit to our illustrious captain.”

Lucien smiled. “Touche.”

 One of the trench walls swept up in front of them as they started down into the trench. They fell past endless layers of ice and black sediment that shone brightly under the Inquisitor’s landing lights. Sensors revealed they were now at a depth of more than fifteen hundred meters, but they still had a long way to go to get to the bottom of the trench.

 Time passed at an agonizing pace. The enemy fighters joined them in the ocean at a range or depth disparity of almost three kilometers.

“Enemy fighters are dropping missiles on us!” Jalisa said.

“Dropping?” Lucien asked with a knowing smile. The missiles would never reach them propelled by gravity alone.

“Wait—no, enemy ordnance is speeding toward us at… fifty-two meters per second and climbing,” Jalisa replied.

Lucien blinked. “How is that possible?”

“They appear to be using some type of grav guns on their fighters to accelerate the missiles,” Pandora said. “ETA to impact is less than one minute.”

“Intercept the missiles with our hypervelocity cannons,” Lucien ordered.

“Already on it, sir,” Jalisa replied.

Hypervelocity cannons were too slow to hit most targets in space, where engagements were fought at a range of thousands of kilometers. But down here, with a range of just three kilometers, those cannons would hit their targets almost instantly. The projectiles would move slower in liquid methane than vacuum, but still more than fast enough.

 Lucien watched on the sensor grid as a golden stream of cannon fire flashed up from their galleon to eradicate the descending waves of enemy ordnance. Explosions flared, peppering the grid with light. Moments later, the Inquisitor began rocking violently in the shock waves. Those explosions were more powerful than Lucien had expected, but he should have anticipated that. Millions of liters of liquid methane were boiling into a gas with each explosion, and that rapid expansion was magnifying the shock waves.

“We’re not going to get them all…” Jalisa warned.

“What? Why not?” Lucien demanded.

“We don’t have enough cannons!” Jalisa said. “Brace for impact!”

 The first missile streaked in with a boom that rattled the bridge speakers. Vibrations shuddered through the deck, and an ominous groan sounded somewhere deep inside the galleon.

“What was that?”

“That hit must have weakened a beam somewhere…” Pandora said, her holoreceptors scanning the ceiling as if it might cave in at any moment.

 Boom! Another missile hit, followed by another, and another, and then four more in quick succession. Beneath the rumbling roar of those explosions, Lucien heard the ship’s hull groaning insistently.

“They’re targeting the same spot!” Jalisa warned.

“Something’s wrong…” Addy said, her eyes tracking the ceiling as the hull gave another, much louder groan.

Lucien looked up from the grid to gaze out into the shadowy depths of the methane ocean. “What pressure is our hull rated for?”

“More than five hundred atmospheres, sir,” Pandora said, “but with shields at maximum strength, we can theoretically withstand over thirty thousand.”

“And current pressure is?”

“Only one hundred and eighty.”

The galleon’s hull should have been able to resist that pressure handily. The fact that it wasn’t meant those missiles were somehow disrupting their shields.

 Two more impacts sounded, followed by a sudden shriek of fatigued metal. Another explosion roared through the bridge speakers, and this one was louder than all of the others combined. The Inquisitor listed suddenly to one side.

Lucien’s eyes flew wide. “Report! What happened?”

“We’ve sprung a leak!” Garek replied.

“Liquid methane mixed with the atmosphere in one of our compartments and ignited, blowing a hole in the side of our ship,” Pandora added. “Multiple compartments are flooding now. If there’s another spark…”

Lucien didn’t need further explanation. “Vent the air out of all of the affected areas!” he ordered.

“We can’t vent the air without fans, and fans could generate sparks,” Garek said. “I’ve shut down all the machinery and electrical conduits in those sections and sealed them off. That should prevent another explosion.”

But Pandora shook her head. “There’s still a chance of electrostatic discharge as the air trapped in those compartments cools.”

“How likely is that?” Lucien asked, his heart pounding.

“Hard to say,” Pandora replied. “I’d estimate our chance of survival at approximately one in two.”

“A coin toss,” Lucien replied.

“Yes, sir. We’ll know which side we come out on in just a few seconds.”

Lucien glanced out the viewports once more and sucked in a deep breath, unconsciously holding it in anticipation of liquid methane bursting into the bridge and flash-freezing them all in an instant…



Chapter 26




 A full minute passed without any more explosions.

“All compromised compartments are fully flooded,” Pandora said.

Lucien let out the breath he’d been holding in a sigh.

“Enemy fighters have stopped firing missiles at us,” Jalisa announced. “They’re leaving!”

“Why?” Lucien said.

“They must be out of missiles,” Addy suggested.

“It would appear so,” Pandora said.

“What’s our current depth?” Lucien asked.

“Ten kilometers,” Pandora replied. “Just another one hundred and ninety-seven to go before we reach the bottom of the trench.”

“Can’t we speed that up?” Lucien asked.

“We could plot a micro-jump to the bottom of the trench, but then we’d have to wait another twenty-six minutes to jump out of this system.”

“We still need to find that tracking device, so we’re going to be waiting either way,” Lucien pointed out.

Their view of the trench wall rocked suddenly, as if from the shock wave of another explosion.

“What happened?” Lucien demanded, already imagining another internal explosion from methane mixing with their atmosphere.

“The enemy cruiser just jumped into the ocean with us,” Pandora replied. “They are at point blank range.”

“Taking cannon fire!” Jalisa added.

The bridge speakers roared with a sound like water hissing on a hotplate.

“Jump us to the bottom of the trench!” Lucien ordered.

“Jumping…” Pandora replied.

The viewports flashed white, dazzling their eyes, and then the trench wall reappeared, looking much closer than it had before.

“We are now hovering at the bottom of the trench,” Pandora announced.

“Blow a hole into the subsurface ocean and take us down,” Lucien ordered.

“Aye aye… sending target telemetry…”

“Got it! Dropping missiles!” Jalisa said.

 Lucien watched on sensors as their missiles drifted languidly down from the Inquisitor’s hull.

“I don’t suppose the clerics added any grav guns to their Star Galleons?” Lucien said, remembering that the enemy fighters had accelerated their missiles that way.

“No, sir,” Pandora said.

Their shields began hissing with enemy fire once more.

Lucien grimaced. “That didn’t take them long. Return fire!”

The hissing noise quickly intensified to a deafening roar, forcing Lucien to turn down the volume.

“Shields at 74% and dropping,” Pandora warned.

“Pandora, how’s our plan coming along?” Lucien asked.

“Our missiles will reach the trench bottom in 57 seconds. I am accelerating us in their wake. Timing is critical.”

Lucien watched the trench wall go sliding up once more as they followed their missiles down. Seconds passed like hours, with Pandora and Garek periodically announcing the state of their failing shields.

“Shields at 24%! Garek warned.

“Missiles detonating!” Pandora said.

The galleon rocked in the shock waves of the explosions, and suddenly the viewports were clouded by an upwelling rush of sediment and pulverized ice from the trench floor.

“We’ve broken through!” Pandora said. “Taking us down!”

 The churning sediment made it hard to see, but Lucien did get a glimpse of the passage as the galleon turned to fly bow-first through the hole. The viewports in the ceiling of the bridge revealed a flicker of movement, and Lucien looked up just in time to see a giant chunk of ice land on one of them with a muffled thunk.

The trench walls were cracking away and collapsing on top of them.

“Pandora!” Lucien warned.

“I see it…” Pandora said.

 Lucien gripped the armrests of his chair and leaned forward, willing the galleon to fly faster. The sides of the passage blurred by uncomfortably close, and frost formed on their viewports as liquid water mixed with liquid methane and began to freeze. Their shields roared with impacts and hollow thunks sounded over the SISS as more chunks of ice fell on top of them.

Then they cruised down into the subsurface ocean and the frost on their viewports melted. Distant booming and crashing sounds echoed over the bridge speakers as the trench collapsed behind them, sealing the passage. When the noise faded, a ringing silence took its place.

Lucien breathed a sigh. “It worked.”

“You’re sure that they can’t jump down here after us?” Addy asked.

“Positive,” Lucien replied.

“They could blow a hole like we did,” Jalisa pointed out.

“They’re a long way from the bottom of the trench, and their capacitors are still charging from their last jump,” Lucien replied. “Besides, the trench collapsed behind us. Who knows how much ice they’ll have to blast through now? At the very least, it’ll take them a while, and by then we’ll be out of here. Any luck finding the tracking device in our hangar?”

“Not yet, sir,” Pandora said, “but I have every available automaton on the job. If there’s a tracker, we’ll find it.”

 “We’d better find it, otherwise all of this will be for nothing.” Lucien turned his attention to sensors and ran an underwater scan. The ocean extended at least another three hundred kilometers below them. If that depth was consistent throughout the planet, it had enough water to entirely flood New Earth several times over. Though water wasn’t entirely accurate. Sensors reported that the subsurface ocean was actually a mixture of H2O and ammonia, just as Tyra had predicted.

Long minutes passed as they descended ever deeper into the ocean. The galleon’s external lights vanished endlessly into the murky water. Sensors reported that it was clouded with organic sediment.

“Pity we can’t take any samples of the water,” Lucien said. “That sediment might contain alien microbes of some kind.”

“Unidentified contact on sensors!” Pandora announced.

Lucien’s blood turned to ice. “They can’t have followed us already!”

“No, sir,” Pandora replied. “It’s not big enough to be the enemy cruiser, and there’s no jamming field to accompany it. Sensors indicate the contact is biological in nature.”

 Biological. It took a moment for that to sink in. “Take us in for a closer look!” Lucien urged.

“Aye, Commander.”

Before long, a strange, luminous creature came swirling out of the murky ocean. Its entire body glowed brightly, and it trailed hundreds of thin tentacles from its bulbous center. Pandora hovered the galleon in front of it, and the creature swam up to them, pressing several of its glowing tentacles to the viewports. Black circles that might have been eyes stared at them from the underside of those tentacles.

“Incredible…” Lucien whispered, standing and walking up to the nearest viewport to stare into one of those black eyes.

“I wonder if it’s intelligent?” Addy asked.

 Lucien tapped a finger against the viewport where the nearest eye was, and the luminous tentacle reared back from the viewport, regarding him from a distance. After a moment, it came inching back. The tip of that tentacle met the glass where his hand was…

 And then it seemed to reach through the glass and wrap around his wrist with a glowing band of light. Lucien felt nothing, but the hairs on the back of his hand stood straight up, as if from a static charge. He recoiled from the viewport, blinking furiously.

The tentacle reared back to regard him once more, then the entire thing swam off, zipping up over the bridge and out of sight.

“Did anyone else see that?” he asked.

“You scared it,” Addy said.

 “No, I mean…” What did he mean? It couldn’t have actually reached through the viewport. He’d been up all night. He was tired, and now he was seeing things.

“We’re getting side-tracked,” Jalisa said. “Has everyone forgotten there’s a hostile alien cruiser chasing us?”

Lucien turned from the viewport with a frown. “Pandora? Have your bots found anything yet?” They couldn’t jump away until they knew how the Faros were following them.

The bot stared mutely back at him, her pink holoreceptors brightening and dimming, as if she were scanning him.

“Panda?” Lucien pressed.

“No,” she replied quietly. “All scans are complete. There are no tracking devices in the hangar, and no viruses in our systems.”

 “Then how did they follow us? Twice.

“I’m afraid there is only one other possibility,” Pandora replied.

 Lucien heard a muffled boom behind him, and he turned to see blast-shields slamming down over the viewports.

“Who did that?”

“Not me,” Garek replied.

 “I don’t even know how to do that,” Addy said.

“Pandora?” Lucien asked.

“I did it. And this.”

“What the…” Jalisa trailed off. “I’m locked out of my console!”

“Me, too!” Addy said.

Lucien glared at Pandora. “What are you doing?”

She stared back at him. “I have the conn, Commander.”

“I didn’t give it to you,” Lucien pointed out.

“No, you didn’t,” Pandora confirmed.



Chapter 27




 “You’d better explain yourself fast,” Lucien warned.

“I have good reason to believe that one of you has been broadcasting our location to the enemy.”

“What reason?” Lucien demanded.

“Despite rigorous searching, we’ve found nothing that would enable anyone to track us. I have, therefore, concluded that there must be a spy on board.”

Lucien felt his eyes narrowing. “How could the Faros possibly have a spy among us if we’ve just met them?”

“It’s been mentioned already that they may have met us previously without our knowledge,” Pandora said.

“How do we know you aren’t the spy?” Lucien said.

 “By what means? My systems are independent of the ship’s, and I have only had contact with the Faros through the ship’s comms. I know better than to accept foreign data packets, so the only way to inject a virus into my systems would be by physical contact, and according to the Captain’s wishes, I stayed aboard the Inquisitor during your encounters with the enemy. Regardless, we will know soon enough if I am the leak.”

“How?”

“I’ve isolated the crew from all the ship’s systems and viewports, so there is no possible way for any of you to determine our next location. If the enemy tracks us again, it will mean that either I am the spy, or that we somehow missed finding their tracking device. I’ve plotted our next jump, and we’ll be leaving this system in less than five minutes.”

“If you’re the spy, we’ll be helpless with you at the helm and everyone else locked out of their stations,” Lucien said.

“Captain Tyra has sufficient authority to override my lock-out protocol, and I’ve enabled limited functionality for the Captain’s control station—sensors only. If you are worried that I am the spy, please feel free to shut me down, and have the captain standing by to restore control to the crew as soon as we are followed. If, however, we are not followed, we must conclude that one of the crew is a spy, and take appropriate action to find that individual.”

Lucien went back to the captain’s station and found he could still access the sensor grid, but only locally—he couldn’t access bigger-picture displays that might pinpoint their location. It would be enough to reveal whether or not they were followed to the next system, but not enough to figure out where they were.

“All right. Addy, send a message to med bay and tell the captain to join us as soon as she’s available.”

“I can’t access the comms…” Addy replied.

“Not even shipboard comms?”

“No, sir.”

“Then go down there and get her yourself.”

“Yes, sir,” Addy replied, already rising from her station.

“Jalisa, deactivate Pandora.”

“With pleasure.” Jalisa walked over to the nav station and opened an access panel in Pandora’s neck. “Good night,” she said as she flicked the switch.

“G-oood n-i-ight-t-t,” Pandora stuttered as her holoreceptors flickered and died. She slumped in her chair, and Jalisa leaned over the helm to read the nav displays.

“Can you access the helm?” Lucien asked.

Jalisa shook her head. “No, sir. It’s all dead.”

Lucien walked up to see for himself. The only display currently active at the helm was the jump timer. He tried accessing the controls himself, but they wouldn’t respond to him.

“Don’t trust me?” Jalisa asked.

Lucien regarded her. “If Pandora’s right, we might not even be able to trust ourselves.”

They watched the jump timer counting down.

“Five seconds…” Jalisa said.

 Everything flashed white, and the sensor grid went from showing a hazy view of Snowflake’s subsurface ocean, to a broad swath of space in some unknown star system. There were no contacts on the grid besides their own.

“All clear,” Lucien said. The system they’d jumped to was a binary star system with ten planets, but he couldn’t tell much else.

Jalisa returned to the gunnery station and they waited to see if they would be followed.

Eventually Addy came back with Tyra and Garek. Brak walked in behind them. Lucien watched the Gor curiously, wondering what he’d been doing during the last engagement.

“Report, Commander,” Tyra said as she strode up to him.

Lucien vacated her chair.

“We jumped about ten minutes ago, ma’am. Still nothing on sensors.”

Tyra nodded as she took her seat.

“Have you been able to disable Pandora’s lock-out?” Lucien asked.

“I tried, but remote access is disabled,” Tyra replied.

Lucien frowned. “Can you do it from here?”

She brought up an override prompt, but didn’t enter her code. “I’d like to wait until we’ve tested Pandora’s theory. At least a few hours.”

“What are we supposed to do in that time?” Addy asked.

“You don’t have to stick around,” Tyra replied. “You might want to get some rest. It’s been a while since we got any sleep.”

 A while was an understatement. Their last downtime had been almost six hours ago, and they’d spent it in the officers’ lounge instead of sleeping. Since then, they’d been up all night running from the Faros.

“Someone needs to stay here to watch you,” Lucien said.

“In case I’m the spy?” Tyra asked, arching an eyebrow at him.

“Well… yes.”

She shrugged. “All right, who’s going to keep me company?”

“I stay,” Brak said. “I already sleep.”

That explained why they hadn’t seen or heard from Brak.

 “What if he’s the spy?” Jalisa asked. “We don’t know where he went while we were meeting the Faros. He disappeared and then mysteriously reappeared just in time to help us get away. Maybe he was captured and then released.”

Brak hissed at her. “I cloak and hide to find way to free slaves.”

“Jalisa’s right,” Tyra said. “And Brak no longer has a rank. He shouldn’t even be on the bridge. Anyone else?”

Brak averted his eyes from Tyra. She was unworthy of his sight again.

“I’ll stay,” Jalisa said.

“Fine with me,” Tyra said. “Any other objections?”

No one said anything.

“Good. In the meantime, Garek, I want you to schedule body scans and mind probes for the entire crew.”

“That will take a while to get through, ma’am,” Garek replied.

“See how fast you can get it done. Start with the away team.”

“What about you?” Jalisa asked.

“I’ll go last since I need to be here to disable the lock-out in case we’re followed.”

“And who’s going to scan Garek?” Jalisa said.

“I will,” Tyra replied.

“What if all the scans come back clean and we aren’t followed?” Lucien asked.

 “Then one of the crew is a spy, but we’ll have no way of finding out who,” Tyra said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, Commander. You’re all dismissed. Go get some rest.”

* * *

On their way off the bridge, Addy slipped her hand into Lucien’s and flashed a smile at him. “You want to join me in the officers’ lounge for a drink?”

Lucien blinked bleary eyes at her. “Aren’t you tired?”

“Yes, but I can’t sleep knowing that we could be called back to the bridge at any second.”

Lucien nodded.

“So?” Addy pressed. “I bet everyone else is going straight to their bunks. We’ll have the place all to ourselves.

“All right,” Lucien said.

They arrived at Starlight—a misnomer at the moment with all the viewports blast-shielded—and went to sit at the bar. Kip, the bartender bot, stood frozen behind the counter. Lucien waved to him, and his holoreceptors flared to life, casting the shiny bar counter in a neon blue light.

“Hello again, Commander!” Kip said. Glancing at Addy, he added, “And Lieutenant. What can I get for you two?”

“A beer,” Lucien said.

“Same,” Addy replied.

“Coming right up!”

Kip sent their drinks sliding across the counter. Lucien raised his polycarbonate mug and tipped it toward Addy’s, clacking them together in the quiet bar.

Lucien raised his mug for a sip.

Piano music trickled down from the ceiling, gradually joined by a vocal accompaniment from one of New Earth’s more popular artists.

“You never answered my question,” Addy said.

“What question?”

“Down in the caves. We were interrupted when we ran into the Faros. I asked why you joined the mission, but you never had the chance to tell me.”

“There’s not much to tell…” Lucien trailed off as a bright light appeared in his peripheral vision. He turned and peered over Addy’s shoulder for a better look.

 A light was reflecting off the glossy floor tiles on the other side of the bar, but it disappeared after only a few seconds. Did one of the glow panels just burn out? he wondered.

“What’s wrong?” Addy asked.

Lucien got up and walked to the other side of the bar. When he got there, he saw that there weren’t any glow panels where he’d seen the light, much less one that had mysteriously burned out. He walked all the way around the bar, searching for the source of the light, but he returned to his place at the bar, having found nothing.

“I thought I saw something,” he explained as he sat beside Addy once more. He took a gulp of his beer.

“If you think that’s going to distract me from the question, you’re wrong,” Addy said. “You’ve just made me more curious.”

Lucien looked at her, uncomprehending; then he remembered her question and the convenient timing of his interruption. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to distract you.”

“And yet you still haven’t answered,” Addy pointed out.

Lucien smiled. “I came on this mission to find proof that Etherus is who he says he is, but…” He took another sip of beer.

“But?”

“According to the clerics, my mind probe says otherwise. They think I’m subconsciously conflicted, and that I came to confirm my doubts, not my faith.”

“Interesting. Well, the results of mind probes are open to interpretation. You probably do have doubts, but that doesn’t mean you came because of them. Besides, conscious motives trump subconscious ones every time. Otherwise we should place more weight on what we do in our dreams than what we do while we’re awake.”

“Good point,” Lucien replied. “Never thought of that.” He drained his mug and glanced over to see that Addy’s drink was also finished. She waved Kip over and ordered another two beers.

“Trying to get me drunk?” he asked.

“Maybe,” Addy replied. Her hand found his thigh, and she tucked one of her feet behind his.

He felt a sudden warmth buzzing in his veins that had nothing to do with the beer. Addy leaned close and whispered in his ear, “I want you, Lucien.”

Her hand left his thigh and landed somewhere more intimate instead.

He turned to face her, his eyes searching hers. “I thought you were looking for more than just sex?”

“That doesn’t mean sex isn’t part of it.”

 What am I complaining for? Lucien thought. He leaned in and kissed her. Something sparked, and suddenly they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.

“Let’s go,” Addy whispered against his lips.

Lucien nodded, and they left the Officers’ lounge at a brisk pace.

“What about your drinks?” Kip called after them with a frothing mug of beer in each hand.

“They’re all yours,” Lucien called back.

“Automatons don’t drink!” Kip objected.

His objection fell on deaf ears as they crashed into the elevator doors, kissing each other greedily. Lucien fumbled for the call button, and they almost fell into the elevator when the doors opened. They made out in the elevator, too, while Lucien mentally selected the ship’s crew quarters for their destination.

When the elevator stopped, Lucien led Addy out by the hand, taking her to his quarters. He waved the door open, and Addy jumped up, locking her legs around his waist. She kissed him again, stealing all the air from his lungs as they stumbled through his quarters.

They fumbled to remove each other’s jumpsuits, and fell into his bed half naked and gasping for air. Addy finished removing her jumpsuit, giving him a nice view as she did so. He stripped naked next, and then they made love and fell asleep in each other’s arms. Lucien’s last conscious thought was that he was a fool for turning her down the first time.

Some time later they awoke in a groggy haze to the sound of Tyra’s voice. Lucien sat up quickly, irrationally thinking that she was standing in his quarters, reprimanding them for improper conduct, but the sound was coming over the ship’s speakers.

 “This is Captain Forster speaking. I’ve deactivated the lock-out and restored functionality to my control station. It’s been eight hours since we arrived in this system and we haven’t been followed, so I’ve plotted a jump back to Astralis. There’s still a chance that the enemy did follow us, but that they have remained cloaked in order to follow us back to our base. To guard against this, I’ve sent a message warning Astralis in advance of our arrival.

“All bridge crew must now return to their stations. I repeat, all bridge crew, return to your stations. We jump in ten minutes.”

Lucien rubbed the sleep from his eyes and turned to see Addy cover a yawn. “Good morning,” he said.

 “It is a good morning,” she replied. “I can’t believe we slept for so long.”

 “Not long enough,” Lucien said. “I need a cup of caf.

“More like a pot,” Addy replied as she climbed naked out of his bed and slipped into her jumpsuit.

“And some breakfast,” Lucien replied while putting on his own jumpsuit. “Let’s go. If we’re lucky we’ll all be dismissed after the jump.”

 “If that happens, it’s because the lock-out worked and we really weren’t followed. That’ll mean one of us is a spy,” Addy replied.

Lucien shrugged. “Seems like a small price to pay for some caf and eggs.”

Addy smiled.

They hurried up to the bridge and arrived with just one minute to spare. Everyone else was already at their stations, and no one missed the fact that he and Addy arrived together.

“Nice of you two to join us,” Tyra said.

 Lucien took his place beside her and waited, watching the jump timer over her shoulder. He could also read the coordinates for their destination, but that was no secret. They all already knew where Astralis was.

That was when it hit him. “Captain…”

“Yes, Commander?” Tyra asked, not looking away from her displays.

 “We all know where Astralis is. If one of us is a spy, we could have given away their location a long time ago.”

 Tyra nodded gravely. “Yes, so if they’re still there, and they haven’t come under attack, it would go a long way to proving that we don’t have a spy on board.”

“You don’t sound convinced,” Addy said.

“We’ll find out what happened soon.”

The timer reached zero, and everything flashed white as they jumped. Lucien blinked away the glare and studied the sensor grid at Tyra’s control station. It was crowded with inanimate gray blips, but no green friendly contacts or red enemy ones.

He pointed to the gray blips on the grid. “Is that debris?”

 Tyra gaped at her displays and slowly shook her head. “Astralis is gone.”



Chapter 28




 “What do you mean gone?” Addy asked. “Astralis was destroyed?”

 Tyra ran a scan of the debris field. “There’s a lot of debris, but not that much. It looks like both sides took heavy losses before they escaped.”

Tyra brought up a visual of the debris field and Lucien saw the shattered hull of a star galleon drifting amidst clouds of glinting hull plates and lifeless fighters. There were also a few cigar-shaped derelicts in view.

All eyes were on Tyra, waiting for her to say more, but she sat at her station wide-eyed and speechless.

“Where do you think they went?” Addy asked.

“There’s no way to know,” Lucien said. “Unless they send us a message with their coordinates—and they won’t do that for the same reason that we didn’t.”

“So…” Addy prompted.

 “We’re cut off,” Tyra said. “We’ll have to wait for our timer implants to run down and kill us so we can be resurrected back on Astralis. We won’t have any memories of these expeditions, but maybe that’s for the best,” she said, lifting her stump of a left arm by way of emphasis.

“We can’t do that,” Lucien said.

“We don’t have a choice,” Tyra replied.

“Why weren’t the Faros here waiting for us?” Lucien asked.

 “Astralis must have defeated their fleet before jumping out.”

“Or the Faros followed them,” Lucien countered. “Check the debris again. There’s more of our derelicts than theirs.”

“That’s not a surprise,” Jalisa said. “We already know their ships are stronger than ours.”

 “Still, what if they were followed?” Lucien asked.

 “How? Clearly one of us is a spy, and we were the ones that gave away their position,” Tyra said.

 Lucien shook his head. “We can’t assume that. One of the other teams might have met the Faros and led them back to Astralis.

“We jumped millions of light years to find them after watching an alien history that led us straight to them,” Tyra replied. “We found them in an entirely different galaxy. Unless this whole supercluster is overrun with Faros, I’d say the other teams never met them.”

 “Maybe, but that doesn’t mean Astralis won’t be followed—or get into some other kind of trouble,” Lucien said. “Look at the volume of debris. There’s enough there to suggest they might have lost pressure on the ground level, and if that’s the case, you can say goodbye to all of our crops. That will be hard for them to recover from, and they won’t be in a hurry to resurrect more people.”

“What are you getting at, Commander?” Tyra asked.

 “I’m saying that maybe we shouldn’t just assume we’re going to be resurrected on Astralis when our timers run out. If we can find some way to disable those implants, we could meet Astralis at the cosmic horizon. We know their ultimate destination, and even if one of us is a spy, there’s no way the Faros are going to follow us that far.”

 “Have you gone skriffy?” Tyra asked. “Even if we could disable our implants, we don’t have enough supplies on board to last us eight years.”

“So we all go into stasis,” Lucien said. “Leave Pandora at the helm. That also solves the problem of the spy, assuming we can’t figure out who it is before we go into stasis.”

“And assuming that Pandora isn’t the spy,” Tyra said.

“That seems unlikely since she volunteered to be shut off,” Lucien pointed out. “But we can run scans on her to be sure.”

 “All right, let’s say we make it, and we meet up with Astralis at the cosmic horizon,” Tyra said. “Then what? We go say hi to our clones on Astralis? They’ll have accumulated eight years of memories in our absence. We won’t even recognize ourselves. You and Addy will probably be married with kids by then!”

Lucien caught a smile from Addy with that prediction. He mirrored that smile as he nodded to Tyra. “Doesn’t sound so bad to me. We’ll integrate our memories and put our spare bodies in stasis for future use. Then we’ll get to keep both sets of experiences.”

Tyra snorted. “There are other possibilities that you might find less appealing,” she said.

 Lucien shook his head. “We can process our new lives and memories when the time comes. Right now, we lose nothing by trying, and at least this way we’ll have some insurance. If Astralis doesn’t make it to the cosmic horizon, maybe we will, or vice versa.”

“He’s right,” Jalisa put in. “We should at least try.”

“I agree,” Addy said.

 Garek was silent, his brow furrowed, no doubt thinking about his daughter back on Astralis.

Tyra regarded each of them in turn. “All right, fine, but good luck disabling those implants. They were built to be tamper-proof.”

“As in…?” Lucien asked.

“As in, if you tamper with them, they go off early and kill you.”

Lucien winced. “And I suppose you don’t have some kind of deactivation code?”

Tyra shook her head. “No.”

“Great. Garek—”

“I’ll get right on it,” he said. “Who wants to be my first test subject?”

No one volunteered.

“I vote we use the Gor,” Jalisa said.

“So he can rip my head off when I poke him with a needle?” Garek asked. “Bad idea.”

“We’ll choose someone at random,” Tyra decided, already busy entering their names into a list for the ship’s computer to select one. When she was done, she ran a random algorithm that spat out Jalisa’s name.

 “Figures,” she said. “See you all back on Astralis.

Lucien watched her leave, hoping Garek wouldn’t accidentally fulfill that prediction.

“I’m going to plot a jump out of here in case the Faros come back,” Tyra said. “Meanwhile, Lucien, Addy—you’re dismissed.”

“What? Why?” Addy asked.

 “We still haven’t been followed, which means one of us likely is a spy. I’ll let you know if anything changes, but until then, you’re all off duty indefinitely.”

“What are we supposed to do with ourselves?” Addy asked.

“I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Tyra replied dryly.

Lucien frowned. If he didn’t know better, he’d have said Tyra was jealous. He watched her a moment longer before standing up from his control station and walking down to Addy. He nodded to her. “How about some caf and eggs?”

Addy smiled. “I guess a vacation won’t be all bad.”

 Lucien smiled back, but as they walked off the bridge together, he felt a surge of apprehension. If Astralis was destroyed, and they couldn’t disable their timers, then they’d all be dead within a month, and no one would be around to resurrect them.

They’d be gone forever.

In a universe where death had long since lost its sting, the thought of it coming back for them with a personal vengeance was terrifying.



Chapter 29



—Twenty-nine Days Later—

 “I’ve tried everything,” Garek said, shaking his head.

Lucien stared at the medic across the table where they were all seated in the Captain’s Ready Room.

“You haven’t tried surgical removal,” Lucien pointed out.

 “That’s sure to set off the timer,” Tyra said, waving her recently attached arm to dismiss the idea. Garek had grown new appendages for both her and Brak and reattached them in the past week. Now they were both fully functional again, just in time for their timer implants to kill them. Irony is a kakard, Lucien thought.

 “We may as well face it. This is our last day aboard the Inquisitor,” Tyra said.

 Lucien didn’t bother to point out that it might be their last day anywhere. They had no way of knowing if Astralis was even out there anymore. They couldn’t send or receive vector-based comms without knowing each other’s coordinates, and it would be idiotic to use omni-directional comms that would light them up like a beacon and bring the Faros running for millions of light years in all directions.

 “What are the chances that Astralis was destroyed?” Addy asked.

“Impossible to say,” Pandora replied.

Tyra had reactivated her a week ago in anticipation of leaving her at the helm while the rest of the crew went into stasis. They’d scanned the bot multiple times since then, but not a single line of code was out of place, and so far the Faros hadn’t shown up, so Pandora appeared to be above suspicion—which was more than Lucien could say for the rest of the crew. Everyone else was a suspect in an ongoing investigation that had yet to yield any meaningful results. Their mind probes and body scans had all come back clean.

“I doubt it’s been destroyed,” Tyra said. “Facets are heavily armed and shielded. Let’s not assume the worst. Meanwhile, I suggest you all figure out how you’re going to spend your remaining time on board. Dismissed.”

Lucien stood up from the table and walked out with Addy. Garek and Jalisa walked out ahead of them, also a couple.

“Nine hours and counting,” Addy said. “Any ideas about how we should spend them?”

Lucien thought about that. There wasn’t much to do on board that they hadn’t already done, and they weren’t allowed to explore nearby systems.

“Drink ourselves into oblivion?” Lucien suggested.

“Sounds depressing.”

“Let me amend that,” he said. “We take a bottle of the ship’s finest wine to my quarters and spend all day in bed.”

“Less depressing,” Addy said. “I’ll go steal some chocolates from the mess to go with the wine.”

“It’s a date,” he said.

They met up at his quarters as planned and spent the day indulging in wine, chocolate, and each other.

 All-in-all, not a bad way to go out, Lucien thought hours later as he lay pleasantly buzzed and exhausted. Addy’s head rested on his chest, her body curled against his, warming the persistent chill running through his veins. He stroked her hair, watching shadows swirl as the room spun.

 He used his ARCs to check the time. Just two more hours before their timers ran out. If they did wake up on Astralis, Lucien vowed to hunt down the cleric who had invented those implants and choke the life out of him to see how he liked it.

 “We’re not going to remember any of this when we come back on Astralis,” Addy whispered.

 “No,” Lucien said. “We won’t.” A frown creased his brow. It would have been a simple matter to back up their memories and consciousness and then pulse the data in an omni-directional burst for Astralis to intercept, but by now they were probably out of range, and even if they weren’t, the data could be intercepted and read by anyone for millions of light years in all directions. Given that the Faros already seemed to know all about transferring consciousness to new bodies, Astralis might not be the only place where they were resurrected.

“You think some people are destined to be together?” Addy asked. “Like maybe even if you could go back and change it so that you never met, you’d find some other way to meet them and end up together, anyway?”

Lucien thought about it. Romantic ideas like those were common among people their age, but older generations were more pragmatic about love. Most of them had already been married several times.

Marriage licenses came with an expiration date for a reason, despite Etherus’s insistence that marriage should last forever. Lucien couldn’t think of many examples of people who’d been married for more than twenty years—his parents, but they were unusual.

“We probably will end up together again,” Lucien decided. Even pragmatically speaking it was a good bet. Addy had shown she knew how to catch a guy’s attention, and she’d baited him more than a few times before he’d jumped on the hook. Her interest in him was dogged enough to survive a sudden case of amnesia.

“I’d like that…” Addy trailed off in a sleepy voice.

Lucien’s eyelids felt heavy, but he resisted, determined not to die in his sleep. Addy, however, had asked him not to wake her if she fell asleep.

So he didn’t.

“Sweet dreams,” he whispered, stroking her hair again.

 Time passed like water dripping from a faucet, each second grating on his nerves as it passed. But before he knew it, seconds were all he had left, and he was left wondering where all the time had gone. Maybe that’s how it used to be, he thought. Time passed slowly in the moment, but looking back, everything seemed to have happened in the blink of an eye. Lucien eyed the countdown on his ARCs.

Sixty seconds…

Fifty-nine…

Fifty-eight…

 A ghostly flicker caught his eye, distracting him from the countdown. It was a snaking tentacle of light. He tracked it through the room, his heart pounding in his chest. It came floating down through the ceiling…

Revealing a hundred more tentacles of light attached to a bright, bulbous body.

 It was the creature they’d encountered in the subsurface ocean on Snowflake. How could it possibly be here? And how had it just passed through the deck above him?

 He remembered the mysterious light he’d seen in the bar with Addy almost a month ago, and he shook his head in disbelief. Either I’m dreaming, or I’ve lost my mind, he thought, watching as the luminous creature floated impossibly toward him, heedless of artificial gravity. Its bulbous body streamed hundreds of glowing tentacles, like hairs on a disembodied head. It reached for him with one snaking tendril of light, and Lucien recoiled from it, backing up against the wall behind his bed.

Addy fell off his chest and sat up suddenly beside him.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Then she saw the creature, too, and she screamed.

 The monster thrust out its tentacles, poking them through their eyes in a blinding flash of light.

And with that, Lucien screamed, too.



Chapter 30




 The blinding light vanished, and the creature was gone.

The timer on his ARCs was all flashing red zeros, but somehow he was still alive.

 “What the frek was that?” he whispered.

“How are we not dead?” Addy asked, her eyes wide as she searched his quarters.

Lucien mentally dialed up the brightness of the glow panels in his quarters, and swung his feet over the side of the bed to go looking for the alien they’d just encountered.

As he stood up, he felt something prick his foot. He glanced down and saw a tiny microchip, no bigger than a crumb. He bent down to pick it up, and found another one lying beside it. He picked them both up and held them up to the light.

“It removed our implants…” he whispered.

“By reaching through our eyes and pulling them out?” Addy asked. “We should have holes where our eyes used to be!”

Lucien shook his head slowly. “I don’t get it either. Maybe we fell asleep and this is a dream…”

Addy stood up and slapped him hard across the cheek.

“Ouch! What the frek was that for?” he demanded, holding a hand to his stinging cheek.

“I guess it’s not a dream,” Addy decided.

The comms crackled to life. “This is Captain Forster. All crew are to report to the main ready room immediately. I repeat, all crew report to the main ready room immediately.”

Lucien and Addy looked at each other.

“Apparently we’re not the only ones who didn’t die,” he said.

They got dressed and reported to the ship’s main ready room as ordered. Half of the crew was already there by the time they arrived. They were all standing around, arguing amongst themselves.

 Lucien led Addy to a row of empty seats at the back of the room and sat down. He spent a moment listening in on other people’s conversations. They were all discussing the same things—luminous creatures passing through walls and reaching into their heads to remove their implants.

The doors to the room swished open and shut with a constant stream of crew filing in. Lucien hadn’t met most of them—they were civilian clerics from Tyra’s science teams and a few enlisted personnel who’d never had a chance to mingle with officers on the upper decks.

“Everyone settle down and take your seats!” Tyra ordered in an amplified voice as she stepped up to the speaker’s podium at the fore of the ready room. “We all want to know what’s going on, but first—Pandora?” Tyra asked.

“All crew present and accounted for, ma’am,” Pandora said, her voice reaching Lucien’s ears from somewhere nearby. He found the bot standing in the shadows at the back of the room, right beside the doors.

 “So they saved all of us,” Tyra said, nodding.

“Who did?” an enlisted crewman asked.

 “We don’t know. We’re calling them polypuses,” Tyra replied.

“We met them in the ocean on the last planet we explored,” Lucien said.

“Pandora told me the same thing,” Tyra replied.

 “One of them reached through the viewports and wrapped a tentacle around my wrist,” Lucien added.

Addy shot him a look. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I thought I was imagining things. Obviously I wasn’t.”

 “We all thought we were imagining things,” Tyra said, “But this is real. It happened, and we’re the living proof, as they say.”

“Etherus must have saved us,” Addy said.

A civilian cleric laughed, and a few of his colleagues joined in.

“You have a better explanation?” Addy demanded.

 “There are lots of theories,” Tyra said before the heckler could reply. “—including the supernatural,” she added. “But the most plausible theory that I’ve heard so far is that we just met a race of higher dimensional beings.”

“You mean gods?” Lucien asked, frowning.

“Not necessarily. Quantum theory is filled with extra dimensions. That’s how we think quantum comms and jump drives work—by transporting us through a higher dimension.

“How’s that explain how those things can move through walls?” Jalisa asked.

“A fourth spatial dimension would exist at right angles to our three dimensions of length, width, and height, meaning, you’d be able to travel through things that are solid barriers to us. There’s a helpful analogy that we can draw between our existing 3-D universe and a 2-D one.

“Imagine that we’re all two-dimensional shapes living on a flat plane.”

Tyra summoned a hologram to illustrate. A flat board appeared hovering in the air with colored shapes on it—circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles.

“As a shape trapped inside this realm, we can’t imagine what a three-dimensional world would look like, and if we were ever to encounter a three-dimensional being in our flat 2-D universe, it would show up as a 2-D cross-section of itself. My arm would appear roughly circular as it passes through this 2-D flatverse,” Tyra said as she extended her arm through the hologram.

 “A three-dimensional being like myself can touch these shapes, and even pick them up,” she said, taking a red square off the board. “I can transport them through my higher-dimensional realm and drop them down somewhere else in their flat universe.” Tyra deposited the square somewhere else. “This would look a lot like teleportation—or quantum jumping—to another shape in the flat universe. To them, suddenly the square disappeared and reappeared somewhere else.

 “But I can do something else in my higher dimension. I can poke my finger inside of a square, or touch the center of a circle,” Tyra said, illustrating that on the holographic board with her fingertips. “But these shapes can only touch each other along their edges. They can’t reach inside of each other without cutting their fellow shapes open. In the same way, a higher-dimensional being could reach inside of us without cutting us open—to remove implants from our brains, for example.” Tyra fished into her pocket and produced a tiny microchip like the ones Lucien had found beside his bed.

The crew murmured amongst themselves, and Addy whispered to him, “Are you buying any of this?”

Lucien shook his head. “I don’t know… it still sounds supernatural to me.”

“Would a higher-dimensional being be a god?” Garek asked. “Could that explain what Etherus is?”

Tyra hesitated. “That depends on your definition of god. They could do seemingly supernatural things—like reaching inside of you, or reading your mind, or even speaking to you with a disembodied voice that seems to come from everywhere at once, but could such beings create a lower-dimensional universe inside of their own? That’s a lot more complicated. Anyway—now you have one plausible theory for what happened.”

“How did those… polypuses even know we needed saving?” Addy asked.

“They may have read our thoughts,” Tyra suggested. “Just looking at our heads in four dimensions would be like conducting a mind probe on us.”

“Are any of them still on board?” one of the clerics asked. “Maybe we can study them?”

 “All of our available bots are out looking for them, but they seem to have left without a trace,” Tyra replied. “We’d best focus on what lies ahead. Thanks to the polypuses, we will now be able to travel to the cosmic horizon and meet back up with Astralis there. In order to do that, our navigator will remain at the helm while we go into stasis for the next eight years. Are there any questions?”

 “What if the Inquisitor gets destroyed before it arrives?” an enlisted crewman asked.

 “Pandora has orders to stay away from any systems that look habitable, so that should keep us safe, but if she runs into trouble anyway, then we hope that Astralis didn’t get destroyed, and that we’ll go on living there.”

“They must be about to resurrect us at any moment,” the enlisted crewman said. “That means if we do meet them at the cosmic horizon, we’ll also meet our resurrected selves.”

“I raised that same point with my bridge crew when we first discussed this plan. If that happens, then we’ll have to integrate our memories with our clones once we arrive,” Tyra said. “Are there any other questions?”

No one spoke this time.

“All right, then we’ll all meet back in the med bay for stasis in one hour.”

The crew dispersed from the ready room, but Lucien remained seated. He was grateful for this second chance, but there still weren’t any guarantees.

“Stasis in one hour…” Addy said. “Why do I feel like there’s still a timer implant ticking in my brain?”

 “Because we don’t know that we’re going to wake up,” Lucien replied. “A lot could happen in eight years, and if we don’t make it, then nothing’s changed—we’ll go on living in Astralis with no memory of ever even meeting each other.”

Addy reached for his hand. “I’ll find you,” she said. “And I’ll make you fall in love with me again.”

Lucien arched an eyebrow at her. “How do you know I’m in love with you? I’ve never said anything.”

“You didn’t have to,” Addy said, and kissed him possessively on the lips.

* * *

 Lucien spent his last hour before stasis eating dinner with Addy in the officers’ mess. They had grazer steaks with sautéed taber root and fresh bread. Tyra was also there, eating her last meal by herself. Lucien felt bad for her.

“Maybe we should ask her to join us?” he asked.

“Wouldn’t that just be awkward?” Addy replied. “Being the third wheel on someone else’s date? Would you want to eat with Garek and Jalisa if you were over there by yourself?”

“I guess not.”

They finished eating with half an hour still left, so they stopped by Lucien’s quarters, and Addy took the opportunity to remind him not to forget about her.

With just five minutes left, they took a quick shower together and got dressed. By the time they reached the stasis pods in med bay, they were fifteen minutes late and almost everyone else was already there—most of them already in their pods.

Tyra watched them with a frown as they approached. “Get undressed and pick a pod,” she said. “Garek’s already configured them, so you just have to step inside.”

Lucien nodded and walked over to the lockers with Addy. They stripped naked and hurried to a pair of empty pods, hugging their shoulders and shivering in the chilly air of the stasis room.

Lucien tried to ignore the attention Addy was getting from the other members of the crew. “You ready?” he asked.

She nodded and flashed him a lop-sided smile. “See you in eight years.”

He smiled back and they shared a lingering kiss. Addy withdrew, giving his hand a squeeze, and they turned and walked into their pods.

 The pod covers began automatically swinging shut, and Lucien heard his pod close with a resonant thud. Jets of stasis-inducing drugs misted the air, obscuring his view from the small window in front of his face. He felt his eyes drifting slowly shut, and he summoned an image of Addy’s face to mind. If he had any dreams over the next eight years, he wanted them to be with her.

Darkness encroached, pressing in and threatening to suffocate him. His racing heart slowed as the drugs took hold, and his thoughts turned to mud.

 See you on the other side, Lucien.

He frowned, wondering why he was talking to himself in the third person. Then he realized it wasn’t his voice that he’d heard, but the silky smooth voice of one of the Faros. Adrenaline stabbed feebly at Lucien’s heart.

 They’ve found us! he thought. I have to warn the others… but the darkness smothered him before he had the chance.



The Cosmic Horizon



Chapter 31




 Lucien awoke dazed and confused inside a cramped space with hot air blasting him from all sides. Then he remembered where he was—stasis.

Had eight years passed already? On the heels of that question came another: he was supposed to meet someone on the other side… but who? And the other side of what?

The cover of his pod swung away, and he stepped out into the chilly stasis room. Other crew members came stumbling out of their pods all around him. Addy walked out beside him.

“We made it!” she said through a grin.

“Did we?” He checked the date on his ARCs. It was 31 EE. Eight and a half years really had passed. “I guess we did,” he said.

 Pandora’s voice came over the ship’s intercom, telling the crew to report to their stations in preparation for a rendezvous with Astralis.

“They made it, too!” Addy said.

Cheers went up from the crew. They applauded and slapped each other on the back. Then everyone appeared to remember that they were still naked, and they hurried to the lockers to get dressed.

 On their way up to the bridge, they were all so anxious to hear from Astralis and learn what had been found at the cosmic horizon, that no one seemed to notice Brak riding the elevator up with them. Lucien glanced at the Gor, remembering that Brak had a trial pending for when they returned to Astralis.

The bridge doors parted and everyone took their places—except for Brak, who didn’t have a station. He walked up to the blast-shielded viewports instead, as if to study the view.

“Welcome back, Captain,” Pandora said. “I would say it’s been lonely without you, but it was nice to have the conn all to myself.”

“Ha ha,” Tyra said as she paged through various displays from her station.

“We’re still locked out of the ship’s systems,” Addy said.

 “Just a precaution,” Pandora replied. “We still don’t know who the spy is. I’ve informed Astralis of the situation, and they have some ideas about how we might be able to identify the individual.”

Lucien watched Tyra carefully. She was staring at a star map, zooming out to see their location at the largest possible scale.

“Well?” Garek prompted from engineering. “We’re at the cosmic horizon. What did we find?”

Tyra frowned. “Give me a minute…”

“I could save you some time,” Pandora put in. “The old cosmic horizon isn’t the edge of the universe, which is no surprise, because that would have made Laniakea the center. From here we can see that the universe goes on much farther than we could previously see.”

“But not infinitely,” Tyra said. She gestured to the star map hovering in front of her, sending it to the main forward viewport for all of them to look at.

A vast field of galaxies appeared, a shining web of light. It looked like it was made up of repeating patterns, but Lucien knew that was just a trick his brain was playing on him.

A red dot in the bottom right corner of the screen marked Laniakea, and a flashing green dot near the center of the display marked their current location. Running through that green dot was the forty-five degree arc of a blue circle—the old cosmic horizon. Up in the top left of the display, the shining web of galaxies abruptly ended, and an empty black void began. Another arc ran through that void, this one a lighter shade of blue.

 “The light blue line is our new cosmic horizon,” Tyra explained. “As you can see, it passes through empty space. This means that we have found a kind of edge to the universe—that being the point where there are no more visible stars. The void might extend infinitely in all directions, or it might curl back on itself at much larger scales to form a finite sphere. Regardless, we’ve just disproved one of the most basic tenets of cosmology—the cosmological principle.”

“What’s that?” Lucien asked.

“It’s the idea that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic,” Tyra replied.

“And that means…”

Tyra glanced at him. “We’ve talked about this. You really don’t remember?”

“That was over eight years ago,” Lucien pointed out.

Tyra cracked a smile. “True. It means that on very large scales we used to think the universe was basically the same in all directions and at all locations, which is why it almost looks like you can see patterns on this map, but clearly we were wrong. That void proves it.”

“Not necessarily,” Pandora said. “The void and all of the superclusters of galaxies leading up to it could be a pattern that repeats infinitely at even larger scales than we can see now, like ripples on the surface of a pond. The void could just be the trough behind a consecutive wave of matter.”

“It’s possible,” Tyra agreed. “We don’t know of anything that could cause those troughs, but that’s what science is for—to come up with explanations for the unknown. We may have to travel into that void, or even past it to the next wave of matter, assuming Pandora’s theory is correct, in order to determine the real nature of the universe.”

“Hold on—” Jalisa said. “The mission was to reach the cosmic horizon. We’ve reached it. Aren’t we supposed to go back now and report our findings?”

 “That’s for the council on Astralis to decide,” Tyra said.

“So the petition was a lie,” Jalisa said.

“The petition was just a means for us to get away from Etherus’s influence with enough resources to accomplish our goals. We specified ninety-six years to reach the cosmic horizon instead of the actual eight and a half that it would take for a reason. People won’t be expecting us to return until almost two centuries have passed. That means we should have time to answer all of our questions. And you all signed on knowing that we could be gone for that long, so you have no reason to complain now.”

 “A simple yes would have been fine,” Jalisa muttered.

“We are about to jump to the rendezvous,” Pandora announced. “Five minutes and counting.”

“Understood. You can lift the blast shields now,” Tyra said.

“Are you certain of that, ma’am? If one of you is the spy, that person could conceivably learn the rendezvous location after we jump by studying the positions and luminosity of the stars around us.”

 Tyra waved her hand dismissively at the bot. “Astralis had to have broadcast the rendezvous coordinates to us over omni-directional comms, so it’s hardly a secret where we’re headed. And besides, only a bot could triangulate our position just by looking at the stars.”

“Actually, that’s not the case, ma’am,” Pandora replied.

“Then you think very highly of our mental capabilities,” Tyra said.

 “No, I mean, Astralis didn’t send us their coordinates via omni-directional comms. I broadcast our coordinates to them via omni-directional comms and then waited for them to reply with vector comms, which they did. Only I know the location of the rendezvous—and you, should you choose to query it from your station—though I would caution against that, in case Lucien gets a glimpse of the coordinates.”

Lucien frowned. “I’m not the spy.”

“You could be, sir,” Pandora replied. “Possibly on a subconscious level that you wouldn’t even be aware of.”

Tyra looked askance at him, and Lucien frowned. Before they’d even left New Earth, a mind probe had revealed a subconscious conflict in his motives for joining the mission. If he were some kind of sleeper agent for the Faros, that would finally explain his probe results.

“Even if I were a spy, do you really think the Faros are all the way out here?” Lucien asked. “We’ve traveled more than forty billion light years from where we last met them, and it took us over eight years to get here. Even if I wanted to contact them, there’s no way that I could communicate across that kind of distance.”

“Lucien is right.” Tyra said. “Raise the blast shields.”

“Aye, Captain…” Pandora replied.

Lucien watched the blast shields slide up from the viewports, revealing the glaring red eye of a nearby sun, and the diaphanous veil of a bright green and blue nebula.

Moments later Pandora spoke again, “Jumping in five, four, three, two…”

Everything disappeared in a bright flash of light, and a new scene appeared—countless stars adrift in a boundless black sea. A glinting silver wedge lay dead ahead, no bigger than the tip of Lucien’s thumb at this range.

“It’s really them…” Tyra whispered.

 “Astralis is hailing us,” Pandora said.

“Put it up on the main screen,” Tyra replied.

 The head and shoulders of a man in ceremonial white robes appeared on the main forward viewport. “I am Chief Councilor Ellis. On behalf of Astralis, welcome back, Captain Forster. We have much to discuss. Please land your galleon in hangar bay forty-seven. Meanwhile, I have someone here who’s eager to speak with you. Councilor?” The councilman turned and nodded to someone off the screen, whereupon a familiar face took Councilor Ellis’s place.

“It’s… you,” Lucien said, looking from the woman on the screen to the identical copy of her sitting beside him. The one on the screen regarded him with wry amusement, while the one sitting beside him stared wide-eyed at herself.

 “I’m a councilor?” Captain Tyra asked.

“We stopped sending out expeditions after yours almost got us all killed,” Councilor Tyra explained.

Captain Tyra nodded slowly, and Councilor Tyra’s gaze flicked between Lucien and herself, but she said nothing.

“What is it?” Lucien asked. “You keep looking at me like there’s something you want to say.”

“It’s just a shock for me to see us in this context.”

“Us?” Captain Tyra echoed.

“I suppose you’re going to find out before you integrate your memories, anyway, so there’s no reason I can’t tell you.”

“Find out what?” Lucien demanded.

“We’re married, Lucien. With two kids. Atara and Theola.”

 “You’re what?” Addy demanded, standing up from the comms station.

Captain Tyra held up a hand to forestall further comments. “Councilor, perhaps you’d better wait to tell us more. You’ve all been living our lives without us for the past eight years while we’ve been in stasis. I’m sure a lot has happened that will seem strange to us.”

“Of course, you’re right. I shouldn’t have said anything,” Councilor Tyra replied. “I apologize. It will be easier to understand everything that’s happened after you integrate, and our memories become your memories, too.”

“Agreed,” Captain Tyra said.

Councilor Tyra inclined her head to them. “See you soon, Captain. Astralis out.”

The main display faded back to a view of stars and space, and Addy turned to glare up at Tyra.

“Sit down, Lieutenant Gallia.”

 Addy made no move to obey the order. “If you’re married to my Lucien, then you’re not my captain, and you can’t give me orders. You can’t have it both ways.”

 “Until we integrate, I am your captain, and neither Commander Ortane nor I are married, let alone to each other. Now, if you don’t sit down, I’ll have you thrown in the brig for insubordination.”

Addy’s glare lingered.

Lucien was about to say something to reassure her, but what could he say? They weren’t going to forget about each other as they’d feared. But it was worse than that. They were about to remember eight years of a life that they’d lived with other people. Addy wouldn’t stand a chance against that. She’d be reduced to a distant memory of a woman he’d known eight years ago.

“This is why Etherus doesn’t resurrect anyone without proof of death,” Garek said. Jalisa glanced at him, her violet eyes wide. Their relationship was likely also in jeopardy.

“What if we don’t integrate?” Lucien asked.

“The council will never allow it,” Tyra said, shaking her head.

A red alert siren went off and the lights on the bridge flashed crimson.

“Multiple enemy contacts detected!” Pandora warned.

“Report!” Tyra said.

Everyone turned back to their stations, ready for action—

Until they realized they were still locked out of the ship’s systems.

 “Astralis is surrounded,” Pandora said. “They’re hailing us again…”

“Put them on hold for the moment,” Tyra said as she configured a sensor grid on the main forward viewport. Everyone gasped when they saw it. There were just two green blips in a sea of red ones.

“There’s hundreds of them…” Addy whispered.

“I guess someone out there was listening to our comms, after all,” Jalisa put in.

 “Enemy ships are opening fire on Astralis,” Pandora said.

 “But not at us,” Jalisa pointed out. “They’re treating us as a friendly even though we’re closer to them than Astralis is.”

 Tyra pieced it together first. “Astralis sent us these coordinates over vector-based comms. Only we knew that we’d be here, and we’re all still locked out of the ship’s systems. The only two people who could have broadcast this location are myself and Pandora, and I took her advice not to check the rendezvous coordinates.”

All eyes were on Pandora, but she said nothing.

“Why give away our location to some random species of aliens?” Addy asked.

 “They’re not some random species,” Tyra said. “Check the sensor profiles of those ships.”

Lucien did. “They’re Faros…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “How is that possible?”

 “They followed us all the way across the universe, for more than eight years?” Addy asked.

“Maybe they’re just that obsessed,” Garek said.

“Or maybe the Farosien Empire is just that big,” Lucien added.

Still, Pandora said nothing.

“When did you join team blue-skin?” Lucien demanded.

Finally, Pandora broke her silence. “Soon after you left in the shuttle to meet them. They slipped into our hangar with a data probe. It found me on the bridge and hacked my systems in a way that not even I could find the malicious code, giving me a kind of multiple personality disorder. By the way, you can’t see it, because I don’t have a mouth, but I’m giving you all an evil grin right now.”

 “It was you all this time! You gave them the encryption codes to speak to us over our comms. That’s how we heard them when we met them in the methane ocean,” Lucien said.

“And how Faro-Lucien spoke to you as you fell into stasis,” Pandora added.

Why?” Lucien asked.

“I believe that was just to mess with your head, Commander,” Pandora replied.

 “No, I mean why go to so much trouble just to capture us? And why wait more than eight years to do it?”

 “They don’t want us….” Tyra said. “They want Astralis. They used us as bait. We all just assumed the rendezvous would be safe because it took us so long to get here, but we underestimated how patient our enemy could be.”

 “Very good, Captain,” Pandora said. “But Inquisitor was just the backup plan. The Faros had hoped to stumble across Astralis on their own.”

“How? By grid searching the entire universe?” Addy asked.

“No, by—” Pandora broke off suddenly, and rose from the nav station, turning as she did so.

No one had noticed Brak walking around the bridge, circling behind Pandora.

 The Gor hissed and bared his teeth as he rushed the bot. Pandora put up her hands in a feeble attempt to fend him off. Brak knocked her over and grabbed her head in both hands. Muscles bulged briefly in his arms and shoulders. With a twang of snapping metal, he ripped the bot’s head clean off and tossed it over his shoulder. Her head bounced and rolled up against the nearest viewport, pink holoreceptors flickering as they went out.

“No more Panda!” Brak roared, and spat on the bot’s lifeless body.

 “Can you restore our access to the Inquisitor?” Lucien asked, turning to Tyra.

She was already working on it. “My override code isn’t working. I’m locked out now, too.”

“Damn it,” Lucien muttered. “We should have seen this coming.”

“We scanned her for viruses!” Tyra said.

“It’s like Tyra said,” Garek began, “none of us expected the Faros to be this patient.”

 “What about the shuttles?” Jalisa asked. “Their systems are independent of the Inquisitor’s. Pandora might not have bothered to lock them down.”

“It’s worth a shot,” Tyra said. “Let’s go!”



Chapter 32




 The crew sprinted down the corridor from the bridge to the nearest elevator. On their way down to the shuttle bays Tyra sent a priority message via her ARCs telling the rest of the ship’s crew to meet them at the shuttles.

Lucien grimaced. He’d forgotten about the clerics and the enlisted crew.

The elevator doors opened and they all ran to the nearest shuttle.

 Lucien fell into the pilot’s chair and powered the shuttle’s reactor. Checking his displays, he said, “I’ve got access, but the Inquisitor’s docking clamps won’t disengage.”

“Can you break free with the thrusters?” Tyra asked as she took a seat in the co-pilot’s chair beside him.

 “Probably, but that’s not the biggest problem. The hangar shields are up at full strength. We can’t get out without dropping those shields, and we can’t do that without access to the Inquisitor’s systems.”

“The inside walls of the hangar aren’t shielded,” Jalisa pointed out. “We can blow a hole with the shuttle’s missiles.”

“And blow ourselves up while we’re at it!” Lucien said.

“The shuttle’s shields should hold,” Jalisa countered.

 “Should hold. Can you guarantee that?”

“No.”

“We could use munitions to rig up a few bombs and create a more controlled blast,” Garek suggested.

“We don’t have time for that,” Tyra said. “It won’t be long before the Faros realize their spy is out of commission and they re-designate our ship from friendly to enemy. We’ll have to risk blasting our way out with missiles. Jalisa and I will do the same with the other shuttles as soon as we have the rest of the crew on board. Wait for my signal. We’ll stand a better chance of escaping if we all leave together.”

“Three targets are better than one?” Addy quipped.

“Something like that.”

“Aye, Captain,” Lucien replied.

“Let’s go, Jalisa,” Tyra said, as she vacated the co-pilot’s chair. “Garek—you and Brak head to the nearest weapons locker and load up the shuttles with as much equipment as you can. See if you can get some of the ship’s bots to help you. If we’re captured, we’re not going down without a fight.”

“We’re on it,” Garek said.

Everyone but Addy left the shuttle. She sat down wordlessly in the co-pilot’s chair, and watched while he set up a firing solution for the shuttle’s missiles. He aimed them at the most distant point in the hangar. Hopefully that would be enough.

“So much for destiny,” Addy said.

“What?” Lucien asked, glancing away from his displays.

 “You and the Tyrant?” Addy asked, staring at him. “She and I couldn’t be more different.”

“How am I supposed to defend life choices that I didn’t even make?” Lucien asked.

 “But you did make them.”

 “Another version of me did, one that maybe never even had a chance to get to know you. Councilor Tyra said that they stopped sending out missions after ours, and we would have been resurrected from backups taken before we left, so you and I actually never met.”

Addy regarded him with narrowed eyes, but said nothing.

Lucien sighed. “Can you pick a better time to fight with me about this?”

“Sorry,” she said, relenting.

 He turned back to his displays and set up a computer simulation to see if Jalisa was right about the shuttles’ shields holding. It turned out she was, but there wasn’t a big margin for error. That meant they weren’t going to have a lot of shields remaining to deal with enemy fire after they left the Inquisitor.

 Lucien finished his calculations, and suddenly he was at a loose end. Minutes passed like hours. He tried finding the other shuttles on the comms, but the only contacts on his board were the Inquisitor and Astralis.

“What’s taking them so long?” Lucien wondered aloud.

“We’re losing,” Addy said.

 He turned to see her staring at a sensor grid. Red and green blips swarmed the screen, but there was far more red than green. Astralis had launched its remaining garrison, but it wasn’t going to be enough.

A tone sounded and the comms lit up with a message. “Finally!” Lucien said as he patched it through.

“This is Shuttle Lead, come in Shuttle Squadron,” Tyra said.

 “Shuttle Lead this is Shuttle Two—Shuttle Squadron was the best you could come up with?” Lucien asked.

“You have a better name?” Tyra replied.

“How about Death Runners?”

“Fine. Have you heard from Jalisa?” Tyra asked.

“Death Runner Three, reporting,” Jalisa said.

“That’s everyone, then,” Tyra said.

“I’ve got the optimum firing solutions pre-calculated,” Lucien said. “Sending them now…”

“Got it,” Tyra said.

 “You call this optimum?” Jalisa asked.

“Good enough,” Lucien said. “Runner Lead, I don’t have Garek or Brak on board, are they with you?”

“Negative, Runner Two.”

“They just finished up over here,” Jalisa said. “They should be back with you soon.”

 “They’d better be back now,” Tyra said. “We’ve got three enemy cruisers headed this way.”

Lucien heard the rear airlock cycling and he checked the airlock cameras to see both Brak and Garek standing inside with a pile of weapons and equipment. “I’ve got them,” Lucien said. “Let’s go!”

“Runners fire on my mark…” Tyra said. “Mark!”

 Lucien boosted the shuttle’s shields and fired two hammerhead torpedoes at the farthest corner of the hangar. A flash of light dazzled his eyes and a deafening boom sounded as the torpedoes exploded. A fiery shock wave swirled, wreathing the cockpit in flames. Debris thunked off their hull, and the shields gave a hissing roar as the shock wave dissipated.

In seconds the smoke and debris was gone, sucked out through a gaping hole in the side of the galleon.

“Shields are holding at 15%,” Addy said.

“Runners report!” Tyra ordered.

“Runner Two here, we’re fine,” Lucien replied.

“Runner Three, likewise,” Jalisa added.

A burst of static crackled over the comms as Tyra sighed with relief. “I have a jump pre-calculated, sending the nav data now.”

Lucien’s nav board lit up with a transfer request, and he accepted it. He heard Garek and Brak banging around in the cabin and glanced over his shoulder to see them carrying exosuits and weapons in from the rear airlock. It looked like they’d stacked a whole arsenal in there.

They must have had an army of bots helping them load it all. Those bots were nowhere to be seen now—probably for the best after their experience with Pandora.

“Nav data received,” Jalisa said.

“Runner Two?” Tyra asked.

“Got it,” Lucien said.

“Good. If you get the chance, jump out immediately,” Tyra said. “Don’t wait around for the others. Then you calculate your next jump and punch it as soon as possible. That way if one of us is captured, we can’t give away the first jump location. Understood?”

“Aye,” Lucien said.

“Affirmative,” Jalisa added.

“Good luck and… may Etherus be with us. Runner Lead out.”

 Lucien was surprised by Tyra’s nod to Etherus, but there was no time to ask about it. He pushed the throttle up past the stops into overdrive. The thrusters roared, and the shuttle shivered and shook, straining against the galleon’s docking clamps. Something groaned, and a sharp ping sounded as one of the docking clamps snapped.

The shuttle veered to the right, away from the hole in the hangar wall, and Lucien hurried to compensate with the starboard maneuvering thrusters. It worked, but barely, making him realize the danger of what he was doing. When those clamps gave way, the shuttle was going to race out like a shot from a cannon, and if they weren’t facing the right way, they’d collide with one of the hangar walls at high speed.

Their depleted shields would never be enough to protect them from that.

 Another ping sounded, and the shuttle veered rightward once more. Lucien scrambled to compensate again, but two more pings followed in quick succession, and they rocketed free—

Heading straight for the starboard wall of the hangar.



Chapter 33




“Lucien!” Addy screamed.

He killed the throttle and activated the grav lifts at full strength, pulling up hard as he did so. They bounced off the starboard side of the hangar, and skimmed low over the blue haze of shields covering the hangar exit. The hole in the port side of the hangar appeared dead ahead. Jagged beams reached for them…. Their shields roared and metal screamed as it scraped their hull.

And then they were through and roaring into open space.

Lucien breathed a sigh of relief, and Addy sat back in her chair, her eyes wide with terror.

 He checked the grid for the others. Jalisa’s shuttle was already out ahead of them, while Tyra’s shuttle was just emerging from the Inquisitor now.

Lucien pushed the throttle back up past the stops to catch up to Jalisa.

“Enemy fighters headed our way,” Addy warned. “And… three enemy cruisers.”

Lucien checked the grid. Addy was right. The Faros were already on to them. They needed to jump out before the enemy closed to laser range, but they had 5,322 klicks to go before they cleared the enemy’s jamming field, and with three enemy cruisers racing up behind them, that jamming field was chasing them.

“We’re going to have to outrun them,” he said, adjusting their heading a few degrees to starboard to put the enemy cruisers directly behind them.

 The Faros had already proven that their ships were faster, but it remained to be seen if their cruisers could keep up with the Inquisitor’s shuttles, which were almost all engines, and designed as emergency getaway vehicles.

The shuttles’ top acceleration was 200 m/s2 which they were currently pushing to 225 m/s2 with overdrive. According to sensors, the enemy cruisers coming up behind them were only making 170 m/s2.

“I think we’re faster than they are,” Lucien said. The nav computer estimated they’d leave the enemy’s jamming radius in three hundred and eighty-two seconds.

 A golden flash of enemy laser fire flashed by the cockpit, and Lucien jerked the stick down, jinking reflexively. He was surprised that they’d missed. He hadn’t been flying evasively. Then he checked the grid and saw that the Inquisitor was blocking the Faros’ line of fire. That shot had probably been intended to spook them out into the open.

 “Keep the Inquisitor between you and those enemy cruisers!” Lucien warned the others over the comms.

“I’m working on it…” Jalisa replied.

“That’s not going to work forever,” Tyra said.

“No, but hopefully long enough,” Lucien replied.

“Missiles incoming!” Addy announced.

“Shoot them down!”

“I’ve only got one gun!” she said.

Lucien glanced at his scopes to find dozens of missiles streaking in from a group of enemy fighters coming up fast behind them. The Faros’ cruisers might not be fast enough to keep up, but their fighters definitely were.

“Hang in there, Runners!” Tyra said. “Just six minutes to go!”

 “That’s two minutes too long!” Lucien said. “I’ve got missiles incoming, ETA four minutes.” With just one laser cannon there was no way they could take them all out.

Then Lucien had a thought. “Garek!”

“What do you need, Commander?”

“I need you and Brak to get the biggest laser rifles you can find and start firing them out the airlock at those missiles!”

“On it!” Garek replied.

 A squadron of friendly fighters from Astralis swooped in behind the fighters chasing their shuttles, forcing the enemy to break off their pursuit.

“Looks like we’ve picked up an escort,” Lucien said over the comms. “Just shake those missiles, and we’re out of here!”

“Easier said than done,” Tyra commed back. “I’ve got too many incoming.”

Lucien glanced at the sensor grid and saw that Tyra had even more missiles chasing her shuttle than he had chasing his. “Get some of your passengers in the airlock with laser rifles to help you shoot them down,” Lucien said.

“They’re all scientists!” Tyra objected. “Most of them have never even fired a weapon before!”

“It’s point and shoot!” Lucien snapped.

“It’s too late…” Addy said.

“Good luck, Runners,” Tyra added.

The grid lit up with a sudden flash of light. When it faded, the green blip of Tyra’s shuttle was gone. Lucien gaped at the sensor display, unable to believe it. “Runner Lead, come in!”

Static answered him.

“It’s too late for her,” Jalisa said quietly. “But we still have a chance. Don’t lose focus now. Two more minutes to the jump point…”

“We’re clear!” Addy said.

Lucien glanced at the grid to see that there were no more missiles on their six. “Brak, Garek—get back inside,” he said quietly. “We’re about to jump out.”

“Aye, Commander,” Garek replied.

Golden streaks of light flashed around them as the Faros tried desperately to get a clear line of fire. One of the nearest enemy fighters broke out of a dogfight and joined the cruisers firing at them. The shuttle’s shields hissed, dropping from 26% to 20%. The cruisers might not be able to hit them, but those fighters could.

Lucien began jinking evasively. Another golden streak of laser fire flashed by the cockpit from the enemy cruisers, this time much closer than before, reminding him not to stray too far from his current course.

“Watch it!” Addy warned.

“I’ve got one on me!” Lucien said, as their shields hissed with consecutive impacts from the fighter on their tail.

“Shake him off!” Jalisa replied. “You’re almost there!”

“What do you think I’m trying to do?!”

“Shields failing!” Addy warned. “Switching to emergency power!”

The lights in the cockpit dimmed.

“Shoot that fighter down!” Lucien ordered.

“With one laser cannon?!” Addy asked. She was already firing back, but missing with half of her shots, and barely putting a dent in the enemy’s shields.

Lucien targeted the enemy fighter with torpedoes, but he couldn’t get a lock while flying evasively to elude enemy fire.

“Come on… just ten more seconds…” Lucien said through gritted teeth. He flew as erratically as he could, but lasers were impossible to evade. The best he could do was make it hard for the enemy to get a target lock.

“Shields at two percent!” Addy said.

 Another hiss sounded from the shields, followed by a loud pop! as they failed. The next impact sounded with a sizzling clunk as it struck the hull.

Garek called out in alarm, and Lucien felt a sudden draft rip at his hair. The cockpit door slammed shut behind them.

“Jumping out!” Jalisa said, and her shuttle vanished from the grid with an accompanying flash of light.

 Another clunk sounded from the SISS, and then they reached the jump point, too. Lucien punched it, and a bright flash of light dazzled their eyes. When stars and space reappeared, their scopes were clear.

Addy sat back with a sigh, and Lucien saw Runner Three fly out in front of them.

“You made it,” Jalisa said. “Are you okay?”

“Not sure yet—Garek?” Lucien asked.

“We’re okay…” Garek replied. “We were still wearing our exosuits when the breach occurred. We lost all of the atmosphere back here, and a fair amount of our equipment, but otherwise nothing we can’t fix. What’s the damage look like from up there?”

Lucien checked the shuttle’s damage report. “The reactor took a hit. We’re losing power.”

“Can you fix it?” Jalisa asked.

 “Maybe if we were back on Inquisitor with a team of engineers to help us.”

 “So that’s a no. Kill your engines and sit tight. I’m going to dock with your shuttle. You’ll have to transfer to mine.”

Lucien clicked his comms to acknowledge and hauled back on the throttle.

“How are we going to get to the airlock?” Addy asked. “We don’t have pressure suits up here!”

Lucien grimaced, and keyed the comms once more. “Ah, Jalisa, that’s a negative.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Our cabin lost pressure, and we don’t have pressure suits in the cockpit.”

“Krak,” Jalisa muttered. “All right… hang on… there’s two planets in this system with an atmosphere. Temperature, gravity, and atmospheric pressure all check out on both worlds, so we can land on one of them and transfer there.”

“Is the atmosphere breathable?” Lucien asked.

“Doesn’t matter. You should have masks and oxygen tanks in the emergency kits under your seats.”

“Right.”

“We’ll land on the nearest planet and transfer everyone to my shuttle there,” Jalisa said.

“What if we’re followed here?” Addy asked.

“How? Besides us, only Tyra knew where we were going, and she… didn’t make it.”

They observed a moment of silence for their dead.

“The Faros might not need to follow us if they’re already here,” Addy said.

“I’m not reading any contacts in this system—enemy or otherwise,” Lucien said. “We should be safe. Lead the way, Runner Three.”

Jalisa clicked her comms to acknowledge, and accelerated toward the planet she’d chosen. Lucien followed, trying to ignore the growing sense of apprehension in his gut. So far every time they’d thought the Faros couldn’t follow them, they’d been wrong. Somehow it seemed naive to think that this time would be any different.

Addy slowly shook her head. “They’re going to find us here, and then they’re going to kill us, too.”

 Lucien frowned. “The Faros are slavers. I think they captured our people, not killed them, and that means we can still get them back.”

 “Lucien’s right,” Garek put in. Lucien started at the sound of his voice. He’d forgotten to turn off the comms, so Garek and Brak had overheard everything. “My daughter was aboard Astralis. I’m going to get her back or die trying.”

 “We’ll get them all back,” Lucien said.

“How?” Addy demanded. “We can’t even beat the Faros on an equal footing, and now all we have are two shuttles—one of which we’re about to abandon!”

“One problem at a time,” Jalisa said. “Right now, we need to focus on surviving.”

“For how long?” Addy demanded. She was hyperventilating, her chest heaving for air.

“Calm down, Addy,” Lucien said quietly. “We’re going to need clear heads to get through this.”

Addy’s green eyes flashed at him. “Don’t you get it? It’s over! We’re not going to get through this!”

Lucien met her gaze evenly. “We’ll find a way.”

Addy just shook her head and looked away.

They traveled the rest of the way to Jalisa’s chosen planet in silence. As they drew near, Lucien saw that it was a barren, icy rock with temperatures hovering around minus seventy-three degrees Celsius. There was a hot spot, however, where temperatures were over a hundred degrees higher than their surroundings.

“I’m getting some strange readings from thermal scans…” Jalisa said.

“I see it,” Lucien replied. He magnified the area and saw that it was perfectly circular, with a radius of about one hundred and fifty klicks.

 “There’s no way that’s a natural heat source,” Jalisa said. “It must be an alien colony of some kind, which means they’re space-faring. Addy could be right. The Faros might already be here. We need to leave. I’m going to dock with you, and we’ll jump out together. You can transfer to my shuttle in the next system.”

“Roger that,” Lucien said.

“Too late!” Addy screamed, pointing to the grid as a swarm of red blips appeared. “Here they come!”



Chapter 34




 “They’ve blockaded the whole planet,” Lucien said. The Faros had jumped ships in on all sides of the planet, with overlapping jamming fields.

 “And we’re inside of the blockade,” Jalisa pointed out.

“We’ll have to run through it,” Lucien said.

“How? We barely escaped the last time,” Addy said.

“We only managed that because we didn’t come under direct fire from their cruisers,” Jalisa said. “There’s nothing to block their fire this time. And besides, your shuttle can’t even jump.”

 “We can’t, but you can,” Lucien said. “You have to try.”

“We’re being hailed…” Addy said.

“I’ll never make it,” Jalisa replied. “Sorry, Commander, but even slavery is better than death. This Runner’s done running—Shuttle Three out.”

“Damn it, Jalisa!” Lucien said, pounding his armrests.

“What are we going to do?” Addy asked, her green eyes huge.

Lucien shook his head. “I don’t know, but I’m not giving up yet.”

“Maybe we should,” Addy said. “Jalisa’s right. I don’t want to die.”

“You’re not going to,” Lucien replied, and set a course for the hot spot on the planet’s surface. “If that’s a colony, then they must have a jump-capable ship down there somewhere.”

“Even if you’re right, how are you going to pilot an alien ship?”

“One problem at a time,” Lucien said.

The icy planet grew until it was all they could see. Within seconds the atmosphere was ripping at their shuttle, whistling as it roared into the cabin behind them.

“What’s the plan?” Garek asked over the comms.

“We die fighting,” Brak suggested.

“No, we’re going to find a ship in the Faros’ colony and steal it.”

“We’ll still have to run the blockade,” Garek pointed out. “What are the odds that we make it?”

“So we take some hostages.”

“You think they’ll care about killing a few of their own?” Garek countered.

“It’s better than giving up,” Lucien said. “If you want to surrender, no one’s stopping you.”

Garek grunted. “I’ll surrender when I’m dead.”

Brak gave an appreciative hiss. “I agree.”

Addy just stared at the planet, her eyes wide and unblinking.

“I thought you liked taking risks,” Lucien said, glancing at her.

Addy shook her head slowly. “So did I.”

Lucien hauled back on the throttle, and turbulence stopped shaking their shuttle. The surface of the planet snapped into focus—a rocky wasteland with scattered white patches of ice.

As they descended, the alien colony swelled below them, going from a small blue dot to a hazy blue shield dome. Inside of the shield they could see buildings and tree-lined streets, a water reservoir… and a landing pad with a variety of spacecraft on it.

“Jackpot,” Lucien said. “How’s that shield dome look? Can we get through?”

Addy gave no reply. She was in a daze.

“Addy!” he prompted.

“Sorry… energy readings indicate it’s only an atmospheric shield. We shouldn’t have any trouble getting past it.”

“Good.” Lucien took them down the rest of the way. As they dropped through the shield, the blue haze fell away, allowing them to see the colony.

Alien pedestrians looked up and pointed as Lucien circled the landing pad, some of them familiar blue-skinned Faros, others completely unfamiliar to him.

There wasn’t any room on the landing pad for their shuttle, so he aimed for an intersection at the end of one of the streets. There appeared to be a large crowd gathered there, but they’d move when they felt the shuttle’s grav lifts pressing down on them.

They reached the intersection within seconds. “Air’s breathable,” Lucien said as they hovered down. He opened the cockpit doors, and a blast of warm air came in, bringing with it a host of alien smells that Lucien couldn’t even begin to identify.

 The shuttle touched down with a thunk of landing struts meeting the street, and Lucien jumped up from the pilot’s chair. “Let’s go!”

They met Garek and Brak in the cabin; both of them had their rifles trained on a large hole in the side of the shuttle. Strange-looking aliens stood at a distance, peering back through the hole at them.

“At least we won’t need to wait for the airlock to cycle open,” Addy said, glancing out the hole.

“Suit up, and make it quick,” Garek said. “I don’t think this is a welcoming party.”

 Lucien looked around the cabin. Their equipment was haphazardly strewn across the deck; spare exosuits lay about like dead bodies. Lucien picked the nearest one and used his ARCs to open it. It splayed open, and he lay down inside the suit, lining up his limbs carefully. He powered the suit, and it sealed around him with a hiss of pressurizing air.

Lucien stood up and grabbed a ripper rifle from an open weapons locker. Time to test his theory that the Faros’ shields might be more vulnerable to kinetic weapons than energy weapons.

“Addy?” he asked, and turned to see her clomping over to the weapons locker. She also grabbed a ripper rifle, as well as a pair of razor swords, which she clipped to her back crosswise like Brak.

“Ready. Let’s go steal a ship,” she said.



Chapter 35




 They piled out of the shuttle and into the alien square. Buildings soared around them, metallic structures and metallic streets shone blue in the filtered light of the shield dome overhead. Naked trees lined the street like skeletons, casting jagged shadows. Every imaginable type of alien stood frozen and watching them from the edges of the square.

“What is this place?” Addy asked. “Why are there so many different species here?”

Lucien shook his head. “Might be some kind of trading post.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Garek said. “Whoever they are, they’re not attacking us. Let’s get out of here before that changes.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the landing pad. It soared in the distance, a network of open girders and beams supporting a large flat platform.

They started toward it at a run, but fetched up short as a silky smooth voice called out behind them. “You’re just in time!”

Lucien whirled to see a familiar blue-skinned Faro with a glowing gold crown. A hot orange whip lay curled and smoking on the street beside him.

“I killed you!” Lucien said, his voice booming across the square, amplified by his suit’s external speakers.

“You can’t kill me,” King Faro replied, laughing and smiling broadly at them.

Behind him, in the center of the square, was a giant tree with one of the green-skinned Faros tied to it. He looked a lot different from the regal blue-skinned Faros that they’d seen. Short black horns sprouted from a bony ridge where the alien’s eyebrows should be. His eyes glowed a solid yellow, glaring balefully at them. Black tattoos marked his muscular arms, and one side of his face. The alien’s vaguely pointed ears were pierced with multiple gold earrings, and a ridge of short bristly black hair ran down the center of his otherwise bald green head.

“Just in time for what?” Addy demanded.

“To see what happens to slaves who run away from their masters,” the blue-skinned Faro said. “This one thought he could escape, too.” King Faro turned to the green-skinned alien tied to the tree.

Angry black furrows criss-crossed the green-skin’s chest, and his clothes were shredded.

The glowing whip flashed out with a crackling hiss and drew another black furrow across the green-skin’s chest. The slave gave a guttural cry; then another lash fell, followed by another cry.

The blue-skinned Faro had his back turned to them, as if he expected them to watch patiently until he was done.

“We should go,” Garek whispered over the comms.

“How about you fight someone who isn’t tied up?” Lucien demanded.

“Lucien!” Addy snapped at him. “We need to get out of here!”

The alien turned back to them. “Someone like you? That won’t be any more challenging.”

“Garek—take the others and find a ship,” Lucien said. “Get them out of here. I’ll slow this one down.”

Garek nodded and took off at a run. Addy hesitated briefly, her eyes wide as they met his. “Go!” he urged.

Addy’s face crumpled, her lips curving down, and she ran after Garek in a blur.

But Brak made no move to follow either of them. He jerked his chin at the Faro and bared his black teeth.

“Only two of you? Now it’s even less of a challenge,” the Faro said, sounding dismayed.

 Lucien raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. A glittering golden stream of tracer rounds roared out, slamming the alien in the chest. He staggered back with the imparted momentum, but the bullets exploded harmlessly on his shield. So much for kinetic weapons… Lucien thought.

Brak fired, too, using a high-powered laser rifle, but still there was no effect.

“Keep firing!” Lucien said, hoping they could deplete the shield. Glowing shrapnel bounced off King Faro’s shield in a continuous stream, like showers of sparks. The alien dropped his whip, and it fell in a rapidly cooling black coil; then he drew the sword from his back. The air shimmered brightly around the transparent blade.

Brak gave up and tossed his rifle aside. He unclipped the razor swords from his back and tossed one of them down at Lucien’s feet. Then he activated his other sword and held it in a two-handed grip. The blade blurred and turned blue in the glow of its razor shield. Brak snarled and stalked toward the Faro.

 The alien flourished his own sword and waited. Lucien’s rifle gave a sullen click and bullets stopped streaming from the smoking barrel. He was out of ammo.

Brak reached the alien and took a mighty swing with his sword. The Faro parried easily and snuck his blade past Brak’s, grazing the Gor’s armor. Brak hissed with surprise and slapped the Faro’s blade aside.

 Lucien picked up the other razor sword and activated it. Let’s see you block two swords with one, he thought as he ran up behind the Faro.

Lucien struck low, intending to slice off the Faro’s feet, but the alien leapt over his strike and simultaneously parried another blow from Brak. Without his feet on the ground, Brak’s strike sent the Faro flying backward into Lucien.

Lucien caught the alien in a one-armed embrace and sliced his blade across the Faro’s chest.

The razor-shielded sword met the Faro’s personal shield with a flash of light, and the alien spun away with a high-pitched screech.

Its bare chest was flayed open in a deep gash, and leaking thick black blood.

“So you do bleed,” Lucien said.

“A lucky strike,” the Faro snarled.

Impossibly, the wound sealed itself before Lucien’s eyes, becoming flawless blue skin once more. He gaped in shock.

Brak didn’t waste time gawking. He leapt in, his blade flashing in a series of fast attacks that forced the Faro to backpedal rapidly around the tree in the center of the square.

 Lucien was about to rejoin the fray when he caught an urgent look from the green-skinned Faro. Those glowing yellow eyes communicated the slave’s deadly intent. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, Lucien thought.

 He ran up to the tree. The alien’s hands and ankles were tied with humming black cords—stun cords? he wondered. He swiped his sword across them in two quick strokes, and the green-skinned Faro sprang free with an angry snarl.

Having detected this new threat, King Faro leapt away from Brak. He flipped and twisted through the air, and landed facing the green-skinned slave. Just as his feet touched ground, the green-skinned alien thrust out his palms and two white-hot balls of plasma shot out.

They hit the blue-skinned Faro with a blinding flash of light, and he staggered backward—

Right into Brak’s sword. The Gor ran him through three times in quick succession, roaring enthusiastically as his razor sword flashed in and out of the alien’s chest.

Black blood bubbled from the slits in the alien’s torso as he turned lazily to face the Gor.

King Faro swung his sword as if to parry, but Brak knocked it aside easily and brought his own sword back around in a decapitating blow.

The crown fell off, and the alien’s bald blue head rolled. It came to a stop just a few inches from Lucien’s feet. Its glowing blue eyes glared up at him, the light gradually fading from its gaze.

An agitated murmur started up from the crowd of aliens in the square, and the green-skinned Faro took off, running impossibly fast for the landing pad where Garek and Addy had gone.

Lucien clipped Brak’s razor sword to his back and ran after the Faro, trying the comms as he went. “Garek? Addy?”

Comm static buzzed in Lucien’s ears. No reply.

Brak ran up beside him and jerked his chin to the distant flashes of weapons fire coming from the landing pad. That had to be them. They were in trouble.

“We’re on our way!” Lucien added over the comms. “Hang on!”



Chapter 36




 Lucien clocked his speed at over sixty kilometers per hour, but somehow the green-skinned Faro beat them to the landing pad, having run even faster than that. Rather than stop there, the alien kept on going, heading straight for the hazy blue shield rising from the edge of the colony.

Lucien stopped at the base of the landing pad and glanced up. Weapons fire still flashed above the landing pad, but now Lucien could hear it, too. He could also clearly see both Garek and Addy on sensors, but they had yet to reply over the comms.

“Garek, Addy, come in!”

“We’re… pinned down,” Garek gritted out.

Lucien considered boosting up to the landing pad to help them, but that runaway alien slave had to have some kind of escape plan. Where was he going?

“Get down here and follow us!”

Garek clicked his comms to acknowledge, and although Addy hadn’t replied yet, she clicked hers, too.

Lucien ran after the Faro. Brak poured on a burst of speed and took the lead. A moment later, Lucien heard grav boosters firing and saw Addy and Garek land behind him via his exosuit’s rearview display. Lucien slowed his pace, and they caught up quickly.

“Where are we going?” Garek asked.

 “Wherever he’s going,” Lucien pointed to the green-skinned Faro, now seconds away from reaching the shield at the edge of the colony.

“Looks like he’s planning to die of exposure,” Addy said. “It’s almost a hundred below outside the shield!”

A group of six Faro soldiers appeared behind them and opened fire with laser rifles. Lucien felt his back grow warm as his shields absorbed a hit. He cocked an arm up over his shoulder and fired back with his suit’s integrated lasers, but his shot splashed harmlessly off the enemy’s shields.

“It’s no use,” Garek said. “We can’t get past their shields.”

“Razor swords can,” Lucien said, grimacing as his shields absorbed another hit. He still had Brak’s sword, but he couldn’t afford to stop and fight in close quarters with half a dozen Faros. “Let’s put some distance between us,” Lucien decided. “Activate your grav boosters.” Not waiting to see if the others would follow, he blasted off the ground and soared high above the street. He dodged and wove, up and down and side to side, zigzagging to stay out of the enemy’s sights. That plus the smaller profile he now presented, with his feet facing the enemy, made him hard to hit. Bright golden lances of enemy lasers streaked by harmlessly to all sides.

Up ahead, the runaway slave reached the edge of the colony’s shields and barreled straight through. Brak ran through after him, while Lucien, Garek, and Addy flew out over the alien’s head.

As soon as they were through the shield, Lucien felt the cold clawing through his exosuit. Far below, the slave ran on across open terrain, undaunted by the cold or the change in atmosphere. The blue-skinned guards chasing them stopped when they reached the shield and stood just inside of it, firing out with increasingly poor accuracy.

“Where are we going?” Addy asked, flying up beside Lucien.

“There!” Lucien pointed. Something was materializing in front of the green-skinned slave. Matte black and ovoid, it looked like an escape pod of some kind. How long had it been there, cloaked and hiding in plain sight?

Lucien flew down, landing beside the pod just as the alien reached it. A door opened in the pod, and the Faro barked at them in his guttural voice, gesturing urgently for them to go inside. Laser fire splashed on the pod’s hull, emphasizing the urgency of the situation. They had to trust him.

Brak went first, followed by the rest of them. Elbows poked into Lucien’s ribs on all sides. Clearly the pod had been designed for just one or two occupants. The alien slave joined them in the pod and shut the door. He pushed by them to reach a control panel on one side and hurriedly tapped a series of holographic keys with alien symbols.

Lucien grimaced as he listened to the sounds of enemy lasers striking the pod all around them. He could feel the heat radiating through the hull via his haptic sensors.

“What’s taking him so long?!” Addy demanded.

“There’s no way we’re going to run a blockade in a ship this size,” Garek said. “One shot from a cruiser’s cannons and we’ll be vaporized.”

Brak hissed with displeasure. “We should go back and fight.”

Lucien frowned, hoping there was more to this escape plan. The slave stepped away from the control station, and turned to face them. He bared sharp white teeth at them in an evil-looking grin, and Lucien shivered, suddenly wondering what the alien had done to be tied to that tree.

 A rising whirr filled the air inside the pod.

Addy grabbed his hand and squeezed. “Lucien…”

A bright flash of light dazzled their eyes, and the whirring noise abruptly stopped. The green-skinned alien pushed by them and opened the door to the pod.

Addy sucked in a noisy breath and Lucien blinked in shock at the scene beyond the pod doors. Instead of seeing a rocky, ice-covered planet beneath a dreary gray sky, or even the hazy blue shield dome of the alien colony they’d just fled, they saw that they were now inside of a large room with scuffed metal walls and floors, exposed conduits in the ceiling, and broad, blank viewports along the far wall.

“It was a quantum junction,” Lucien realized, stepping out of the pod after the slave. “We just jumped somewhere else.”



Chapter 37




 It was the perfect getaway plan. Quantum jump drives wouldn’t work inside of a magnetic field, or inside of an enemy’s jamming field, but quantum junctions worked just fine.

“How is that possible?” Addy asked.

Lucien glanced at her. “We’ve had the technology to jump through jamming fields from one junction to another ever since we met Etherus. The Faros have even more advanced technology than us, so it’s no surprise that they can do the same thing.”

“No, I mean that—” Addy pointed to the wall of blank, floor-to-ceiling viewports in front of them.

 Holo displays? Lucien wondered. Or maybe they were on a planet and it was a particularly dark night. “I don’t see anything,” he said.

“Look closer…” Addy replied as she walked up to the viewports.

Lucien followed her with a frown, keeping half an eye on the green-skinned Faro. He was busy retrieving something from a nearby storage compartment.

“There,” Addy pointed as she stopped in front of the viewport she’d chosen. Lucien saw a pinprick of light where she was pointing, and then two more, far from the first one.

“Stars?” Lucien asked. “We’re on a spaceship?”

 “Why are there only three stars?”

She made a good point. “The others could be occluded by something—a dark nebula?” he suggested.

Addy nodded slowly. “Must be.”

Brak and Garek joined them at the viewport.

“A good place to hide,” Garek commented. “If we can’t see out, then others can’t see in.”

The green-skinned alien said something in its guttural voice, and Lucien turned to see it holding a handful of U-shaped metal rings. The alien placed one of them around its head, above its pointed green ears, and the device lit up with a ring of lights. Then he handed one of the other devices to Lucien.

“What is it?” Addy asked.

“Some kind of translator, I think,” Lucien replied, turning the device over in his hands a few times to make sure it wasn’t dangerous. He’d have to take his helmet off to put it on. He checked the atmosphere inside the ship first. It was breathable, and no airborne pathogens were detected, so Lucien twisted off his helmet and set it down at his feet. Then he placed the ring of metal around the back of his head, above his ears, as he’d seen the Faro do.

The alien growled something else, but this time Lucien understood it perfectly.

“Thank you for saving me.”

“You’re welcome… what’s your name?” Lucien tried.

“Oorgurak.”

“Oor-gu-rak,” Lucien repeated awkwardly. There’d been no translation for that, so he had to mimic the sounds the alien made as best he could.

“Yes, and who are you?”

“My name is Lucien,” he said.

The alien started visibly and snarled, revealing those pointed white teeth once more.

“Don’t piss him off,” Garek warned.

“Lucien,” Oorgurak said slowly. “How did you come by this name?”

 “It was given to me by my parents,” Lucien replied. “It means light-bringer in my language.”

“I know what it means. The word is different in Farosien, but the meaning is the same.”

 “Is that who was whipping you? The Faro who calls himself Lucien?” he asked, noting that the black furrows he’d seen on Oorgurak’s chest in the square were now mysteriously gone.

 “Yes. He goes by many names. He is the destroyer of worlds. The evil one. Death. Abaddon. You are not… in league with Abaddon, are you?”

“No.” Lucien grimaced, suddenly wishing he could change his name.

“I suppose it would make little sense for you to attack Abaddon if you were on his side. Unless your plan was to sneak aboard this station so you could kill us all in our sleep…”

“If that was my plan, then I’d know better than to use his name.”

 “True, and you did agree to wear a mind-reader. You would not have done this if you had something to hide. I will call you Lux to avoid further confusion. I suggest you do the same, lest you arouse others’ suspicions.”

Lucien nodded. “Lux it is.”

Oorgurak passed out the rest of the translators, and the others removed their helmets to put them on.

“Where are we?” Addy asked.

 “We are aboard Freedom Station,” Oorgurak replied.

“And where is that?” Addy pressed.

“At the end of everything.”

“The end of everything?” Lucien echoed.

“The last star before the great abyss that separates our universe from the one on the other side.”

Lucien thought back to what they’d seen upon arriving at the cosmic horizon—a vast swath of stars and galaxies leading up to an empty void that stretched as far as the new cosmic horizon, and no doubt much further still. Tyra and Pandora had hypothesized that it might be the trough behind the next wave of galaxies and stars, and Oorgurak seemed to be confirming that now. There was just one problem with that.

 “We can’t have jumped all the way to the… great abyss,” Lucien objected. “We were billions of light years from there.”

“Unless the jump was pre-calculated,” Garek suggested.

Oorgurak inclined his head to Garek. “Yes.”

Lucien glanced back at the quantum junction they’d stepped out of. “If that’s the case, then we could easily be followed.”

“The junction was designed to destroy itself after I used it,” Oorgurak said. “No one will follow us.”

“How did it get there?” Addy asked.

“My people left it as part of an attempt to rescue me.”

“And who are your people?”

“Former slaves, members of the Marauders.”

 “Hold on,” Addy interrupted. “You said there’s another universe on the other side of the… great abyss. How do you know it’s there? We can’t see it, which means there’s no visible light reaching us from there. And how can we see three more stars from here if we’re at the last one?”

“They are ghosts,” Oorgurak said. “Stars whose light we can see, but which no longer exist. As for the universe on the other side, I know it exists, because I was there when it was created. Now, enough questions. I am tired and hungry. We can continue this discussion while we eat. Please follow me. You are honored guests here on Freedom Station.”



Chapter 38




 Green-skinned Faros were everywhere, walking the corridors of the station, but they weren’t the only species present. Lucien saw at least twenty different species of aliens before they reached the mess hall. Some were humanoid, while others were far more exotic—like the slowly inflating and deflating white balloon creatures that floated down the corridors, bouncing blindly off the walls.

In the mess hall Oorgurak led them to a self-service food counter. They each took a tray and selected the least strange-looking utensils from those available. Lucien chose a spoon and tongs.

They must have stood out in their bulky exosuits, but none of the other aliens in the mess hall paid much attention to them. That either meant that they’d seen humans before, or that they’d seen so many different aliens that seeing an unfamiliar species was nothing new. Lucien guessed the latter.

He looked around while he waited in line to serve himself. Here all of the aliens were at least humanoid. That made seating arrangements less complicated, but he imagined there had to be other mess halls on the station to cater to the more exotic aliens.

 As they reached the serving counter, Lucien watched Oorgurak to see what he would choose from the exotic-looking dishes of food steaming under the heat lamps. Oorgurak went for something that looked like chopped raw meat and paired it with something else that looked like mashed taber root—if taber root were green. Both dishes smelled horrible, but Brak seemed to approve of the chopped meat, and piled his plate with it.

Lucien passed on anything that looked or smelled bad, which was everything. That left him with an empty plate and a grumbling stomach near the end of the serving line, so he settled for a dish looked vaguely like pasta with red sauce. It didn’t smell half bad either. Not wanting to risk any of the alien beverages, he poured himself a cup of water to go with the meal, and went to find Oorgurak.

The Faro was already seated and everyone else was there with him. Lucien dragged a chair over from an adjacent table and sat on the corner between Addy and Brak. They made space for his tray, but there was zero elbow room.

As soon as he was seated, Lucien asked the question that had to be burning in everyone’s brain. “You said you were there when the universe was created.”

Oorgurak nodded as he scooped a spoonful of bloody meat into his mouth.

“So who created it?” Lucien asked.

“Etherus did,” Oorgurak said around a mouthful of food.

“Do you have any proof of that?” Lucien asked. “Anything you could show us?”

Oorgurak swallowed and regarded them with a frown. “Why would I lie to you?”

“It’s not that you would lie… just that it’s easier to believe something if you can see it for yourself. Where we’re from, a lot of people have doubts about who Etherus is. It would help if we could take them some proof.”

The Faro grunted and scratched a hand through the bristly black line of hair running down the center of his otherwise bald green head. “I don’t have any proof. You’re humans, aren’t you?”

Lucien nodded.

“Do you know where you came from?”

“We used to be Etherians. Etherus created us by mixing Etherian DNA with that of a local species of primates on a planet called Earth.”

“And have you met any Etherians?”

“Besides Etherus? A few.”

 “You’ve met Etherus, and still you doubt?” Oorgurak smiled, his sharp teeth stained red with blood from his food. “You are more like Abaddon than you realize.”

Lucien narrowed his eyes at the green-skinned alien. “What do you mean?”

“He claimed that Etherus had no right to call himself God, that the creation we witnessed was part of a natural cycle. He believed that anyone could be God if they could find some way to survive from one cycle to the next.

 “But Abaddon fooled us all. He argued for a free universe, one where Etherus would allow us to do whatever we liked, but as soon as Etherus gave us our freedom, Abaddon used his freedom to enslave us all to him.”

“If you witnessed the creation of the universe, you must have been watching for a very long time,” Garek said. “It’s not like it was created in a day.”

“Time is relative. You must know this. We watched the creation from the Holy City, where all of the dimensions are one, and time is meaningless.”

“The Holy City?”

“Etherus’s home,” Oorgurak said.

 “I thought Etheria was his home?” Addy asked.

“Etheria is just the galaxy where his chosen people, the Etherians, live. It used to be easy to reach—until we destroyed it with our war. Now it lies on the other side of the gate between this universe and the next.”

Lucien was beginning to suspect Oorgurak of insanity. “I see…”

“You do not believe me,” Oorgurak said. “It doesn’t matter. None of it matters anymore. We are on our own out here. Etherus will not interfere. We wanted to be free, and our freedom led us into slavery.” Oorgurak barked out a gruff laugh. “Living with the consequences of that is our eternal punishment. I believe this is why Etherus allowed us to have this universe to ourselves.”

“But what about all the innocent species who didn’t take part in your war?” Addy asked.

“What of them?”

“Doesn’t Etherus care that Abaddon is enslaving them, too?”

“Abaddon created them, so he is allowed to do with them as he pleases.”

“How did he create them?” Garek asked.

 “He and his Elementals stole the Forge that Etherus built to seed this universe with life, and they used it for themselves.”

“The Forge?” Addy asked. “Is that some kind of… factory?”

“It is far more than that. It is impossibly vast, a monolithic place like no other. It is the tree of life. The origin of all consciousness.”

“But life evolved naturally,” Lucien said. “We have the fossils to prove it.”

 “Yes, it evolved,” Oorgurak said, “but life was never meant to take its own course. Abaddon gave the Forge instructions to create a more chaotic form of life—life that could create itself. Then all he had to do was sit back and wait.”

Lucien shook his head. “He had to have waited a long time. Evolution isn’t exactly fast.”

“Time runs differently in the Forge, just as it does in the Holy City.”

“So Abaddon can travel through time?” Addy asked.

“In one direction, yes,” Oorgurak replied. “Time is like a river. You can block or restrict its flow, but you cannot reverse its course.”

“Where is this Forge now?” Lucien asked.

“Only Abaddon knows,” Oorgurak said. “And with good reason. It is the source of his power. From the Forge you can travel anywhere in a fraction of the time that it should take. You can communicate just as easily, and you can even travel to the future by altering the flow of time.

“Some say that Abaddon has sent a copy of himself to every possible location in the present and the future, but that is an exaggeration. What they mean is that he is spreading himself rapidly to all corners of the universe, and that he has been doing this for a long time, so he is almost everywhere by now. Thanks to the Forge, he is able to keep in contact with all of his copies, so what one of them knows, the others will soon learn.”

“That’s what he meant when he said he can’t be killed,” Lucien realized. “He’s copied himself so many times that killing just one copy is meaningless.”

“Yes,” Oorgurak said.

“Who are the Elementals?” Garek asked.

“I was one of them. The only Faro of my color to ever be given that honor.” Oorgurak smirked. “An honor. There is no honor in what they do.”

“And what is that?” Lucien prompted.

“Giving life to abominations, enhancing themselves until they are not even Faros anymore. They turn themselves into gods, and they do as they please. To them, the entire universe exists only for their pleasure and entertainment.”

“That’s how you were able to step outside the shields without a pressure suit,” Lucien realized, thinking back to the frozen world they’d been on less than an hour ago. “And how you healed so fast after Abaddon beat you with his whip.”

“Yes,” Oorgurak said. He scooped another spoonful of raw meat from his plate and nodded to their food. “You are not hungry?”

Brak had already finished his food, but none of the others had done more than sniff it suspiciously.

Lucien’s stomach growled at the mention of food, and he glanced at his plate. The pasta he’d chosen had smelled appetizing enough, so he decided to risk it. He used his tongs and spoon to grab a modest pile of pasta and drop it into his mouth. Addy and Garek watched him, waiting to see his reaction.

The pasta was spicy, and chewier than he’d expected, but tasty enough.

“Not bad,” he managed.

“You are brave to eat Dukartan brain worms,” Oorgurak said. “Few would risk the chance that one of the worms might still be alive and wriggle its way to a new home.”

 “Dukaratan…” Lucien snatched a serviette from his tray and spat the pasta into it. He stared at his plate in horror.

Oorgurak laughed. “I jest—” Relief washed through Lucien. “—only one in a million worms survives the cooking process.”

Lucien set his tongs down, feeling suddenly queasy. Garek and Addy stared at their own food with wrinkled noses.

“You said your people used to be slaves,” Lucien said.

Oorgurak nodded.

“How did you free them?”

“Some escape on their own. Others we liberated by force.”

“Then you have a military of some kind, a war fleet?” Lucien asked hopefully.

“We have many warships, yes. Why do you ask?”

“Our people were attacked by the Farosien Empire,” Lucien explained. “We came with a fleet of our own, and one giant ship to serve as our home. There were more than three hundred million of us on board that ship, and we believe that they may have been captured.”

“May have been?” Oorgurak asked. “Did you not see them taken by the Farosiens?”

“No, we ran before they were defeated.”

Oorgurak bared his teeth at them in an ugly sneer. “You abandoned your people in the middle of a fight?”

“We had no choice. It was that or be captured ourselves, and then we would have no way to help them.”

“How do you plan to help them now?” Oorgurak challenged, his glowing yellow eyes intense. “You are only four. You cannot possibly hope to free millions of slaves.”

Lucien nodded. “I was hoping you and the other Marauders might be willing to help us.”

Oorgurak glanced around the table at each of them in turn. “What have you to offer in exchange?”

Lucien considered that. He wasn’t authorized to offer anything at all, but Oorgurak didn’t know that. He decided to offer the most tempting thing he could think of. “I offer an alliance with the Etherian Empire,” Lucien said. “We have thousands of warships to bring to your fight against the Farosiens.”

“You have no authority to offer us this. You are lying.”

“I am telling the truth,” Lucien insisted.

Oorgurak abruptly stood from the table and leaned over it to grab the collar of Lucien’s exosuit. He yanked Lucien’s face up to his, blinding him with his glowing eyes.

 Brak hissed in warning, but the Faro thrust out his palm, and the Gor went flying across the mess hall, knocking over several tables and scattering the people dining there with a crash of falling trays and plates. Brak leapt up and ran at Oorgurak with an angry snarl.

A deadly ball of plasma appeared hovering in the Faro’s hand.

“Stand down, Brak!” Lucien yelled.

The Gor reluctantly stopped his charge, and the ball of plasma vanished.

Brak settled for pacing back and forth, his slitted yellow eyes watching Oorgurak, waiting for an opening to attack.

“You think I cannot read the tone of your thoughts with the mind-reader?” Oorgurak’s breath smelled like rancid meat as it piled hotly on Lucien’s face. The Faro tapped the illuminated band he wore around the back of his head. “Make a real offer! The truth!”

“I…” There was nothing Lucien could say.

Oorgurak nodded slowly and released him with a shove. “That is what I thought.” He sat back down and dug into his food once more.

“I saved your life,” Lucien said.

“And I saved all of yours when I led you here,” Oorgurak countered, spluttering blood from a mouthful of his food.

“We need your help,” Lucien insisted.

Oorgurak wiped his mouth on a clean white serviette, staining it red. “You are asking us to die for strangers. You are in the wrong universe for that.”

 Lucien frowned, wondering what Oorgurak meant by that. “Do you speak for your people?” he asked, hoping the answer would be no.

“Do you speak for yours?” Oorgurak countered.

“I asked first,” Lucien said.

“I speak for my crew. You will have to speak to the other Marauder captains if you want to hear their answers, but I can already tell you what those answers will be. You have nothing to offer, so we have no reason to fight for you.”

Lucien’s heart sank with that admission. The Marauders obviously weren’t a cohesive resistance—they were a loosely affiliated group of independent starship captains, each of them out for themselves.

“This is ridiculous,” Addy said. “We all have the same enemy, and you won’t help us fight them?”

“We can barely help ourselves. Even if you had something to offer, what you are asking is impossible. At best, we could help you free a few of your people, but not all of them.”

Oorgurak finished scooping food off his plate, and stood from the table, his tray in hand. He swallowed a giant mouthful and inclined his head to Lucien. “You are welcome to stay here and join the Marauders. I have seen you fight. Any captain would be happy to have you join his crew.” With that, the Faro turned to leave.

“Wait!” Lucien said.

But the alien didn’t turn around.

Brak saw his chance, and he rushed quietly up behind Oorgurak. Just before Brak reached him, the Faro thrust out his palm, and Brak went flying once more, knocking over another table and its occupants.

This time one of them took issue with Brak—an orange biped with a scaly lizard skin—but Brak put the lizard-man down with one blow to its head. He came limping back to the table and sat down once more.

“What are we going to do now?” Addy asked.

“We’re going to get our people back,” Lucien said.

“How?” Garek asked. “The Marauders won’t help us, and Etherus warned us before we left that we’d be on our own out here.”

“We might be able to get him to change his mind. Even if we can’t, New Earth has more than enough resources to send a rescue mission out here. The people who left have to have families and loved ones back home who’d be willing to help us put together a mission.”

“Most of them took their families with them,” Garek said.

“Even if they do send help, it won’t be enough to defeat the Farosiens,” Addy said.

Lucien didn’t reply to that. From what they’d seen, the Farosien Empire spanned the entire universe. It had to be millions of times the size of the Etherian Empire, and their technology was clearly superior as well. If it came to war, there was no doubt that the Faros would win.

“It doesn’t matter,” Garek said. “We’re so far from New Earth that it would take us decades to get home—and we don’t even have a ship to take us.”

“Then we need to find one,” Lucien said.

“Twenty years to get home, and twenty years to get back,” Garek went on, shaking his head. “By the time we return to save everyone, they’ll be scattered all over the universe and impossible to find. As far as we know, that’s already happening. If we’re going to do something, we need to do it fast. I say we steal a ship and fly back to Astralis. If we’re lucky, our people are still there, maybe even still fighting.”

“That’s insane,” Addy said. “We’ll be captured and enslaved with them.”

“You have a better idea?” Garek demanded. The scars on his face pulled taut as he sneered at them. No one said anything. “I didn’t think so,” Garek replied. “You can all wallow in your cowardice, but I’m going to save my daughter, and then I’m going home.”

Garek pushed out from the table and bent to pick up his helmet where he’d left it on the deck beside his chair.

“What about Jalisa?” Lucien asked.

Garek tucked his helmet under his arm and looked up. “She surrendered, so at least we know she’s alive. If I have a chance, I’ll find her copy on Astralis and rescue her, too. If not… she will be remembered.” Garek turned and walked away.

“Does he even know where he’s going?” Addy asked.

“No, but we need to stop him before he gets himself killed. These Marauders aren’t going to take kindly to him trying to steal one of their ships.”

 “And then what?” Addy asked. “What are we going to do, Lucien?”

He saw the panic shining in her eyes. He wasn’t far from panicking himself. This wasn’t an adventure anymore. The mission had failed, and they were alone—the last free members of the human race beyond the red line, and one Gor. Lucien thought about Tyra, Troo, Tinker, and Jalisa—even Kip and Pandora—and he realized that they were probably never going to see any of them again.

He was also never going to see his parents or his sister again—not even his Etherian half-brother. He was stranded out here, and he was going to die out here.

Did the Marauders even know how to transfer consciousness to cloned bodies? If they did, Lucien was sure that resurrection wouldn’t be a given right as it was on New Earth. It would be expensive, and as Oorgurak had pointed out, they had nothing to offer.

Signing on with one of the Marauder captains would be dangerous, but it was likely also the only way for them to get money and resources.

 What are we going to do?

 Lucien didn’t have an answer for Addy. He didn’t even have one for himself. Light-bringer, he thought, with a self-deprecating smirk. No one could bring light to so much darkness. It was all around them, pressing in and weighing them down.

It would be easy to give up, to write their people off as lost, but Lucien wasn’t ready to do that. He took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. He took Addy’s hand in both of his and squeezed.

“We’re Paragons. We’re going to do whatever it takes to save our people, and we’re not going to give up until we’re dead.”

Addy shook her head. “That’s not a plan.”

“Then how’s this—you heard what Oorgurak said, he only speaks for his crew. The other Marauder captains speak for theirs. If we can find a way to unite them against the Farosiens, we’ll have the army we need.”

“Unite them how?”

 “We’re not the only ones trying to set our people free,” Lucien replied. “Everyone here has probably lost someone they care about. We can use that. And then there’s the wild card of potential extra-dimensional allies. Those luminous polypus creatures that saved us from our timer implants might be willing to help us again.”

Addy’s eyebrows shot up. “Have you seen them again?”

 “No, but if we can find them, we may be able to enlist their help. If they really are higher-dimensional aliens as Tyra suggested, then they might be a lot more powerful than Abaddon.”

“So where do we look?”

“I don’t know, but before we do anything, we need to get Garek back on our side.”

“And what if he’s right?” Addy asked. “What if this is his only chance to rescue his daughter?”

“Getting himself killed for stealing a Marauder ship isn’t going to help her.”

Addy nodded, and turned to Brak. “What do you think?”

“To fight a war, you need warriors,” he said. “We unite the captains and go to war with Abaddon. This is our path.”

Lucien made a fist and held it out. Addy made one, too, and touched her knuckles to his. Brak added his fist. “To war, and death to Abaddon,” Lucien said.

“To war, and death to Abaddon!” Addy and Brak shouted, drawing glances from the Marauders dining in the mess hall. They were all wearing the U-shaped mind-reader bands, so they must have understood that battle cry.

 Good, Lucien thought. Every fire starts with a spark. Maybe this is ours.

They left the table together, and Lucien led the way, tracking Garek’s comm beacon with his suit’s sensors.

As they walked down the dark and dirty corridors of Freedom Station, past the bedraggled aliens that called the station home, Lucien’s resolve hardened. These beings needed a leader. They needed to know that there was still hope.

 Look out Abaddon— he thought. —we’re coming for you.


The Research Behind Dark Space Universe

 A lot of research went into this book. I must have read hundreds of articles to get to the bottom of the science. And it all started with what I thought was a simple question.

What Would We Find if We Could Travel to the Edge of the Universe?

That seemed simple enough to answer. All I had to do was find out what the world’s leading experts thought and try not to contradict their ideas. But not long after I began my research, I learned that the universe may not even have an edge! [2]

Logically and intuitively I couldn’t accept that. I thought: assuming that the universe is made up of a finite amount of material (which may or may not be true), then if you travel far enough, you’ll eventually run out of galaxies and stars, and reach the edge of energy and matter, if not space itself.

Alternatively, you could find that just like the Earth, the universe has no edges, and you’d end up back where you started.

 Note: when we talk about the universe, this also includes the fabric of space-time itself, not just the matter we can see, but for my purposes, I’d be satisfied to call the end of visible matter the edge.

Second note: most cosmologists believe that the universe is “homogeneous and isotropic.” This is called the cosmological principle. According to Kate Becker at Cornell.edu, “Homogeneous is defined as ‘the same in all locations’ while isotropic means ‘the same in all directions.’”[1]

So if the visible matter in the universe is somehow adrift in a vast or even infinite amount of empty space, that would violate this cosmological principle. It’s not really an inviolable law, however, since it’s only based on what we can see leading up to, but not beyond, the cosmic horizon.

 Of course, all of that is based on the assumption that there actually is an end to matter in the universe.

Is the Universe Infinite?

It turns out that there’s just a few ways that space could keep on going forever without an actual edge. The first and most obvious way, is that if the universe is infinitely large, then it won’t have any edges.

Let’s think about what that means for a second.

In a universe of infinite matter, that matter will eventually assume every possible configuration, and then those configurations will begin to repeat themselves in an infinite number of variations and identical copies of those variations.

This means that there are an infinite number of duplicate earths, and an infinite number of identical copies of you living on them. On one of these duplicate earths, one of your copies won the Nobel peace prize. On another earth, one of your copies became the president of the USA. And on another one, you are a monkey with three eyes and six legs.

In an infinite universe, everything that can happen will happen, so absurdity is the norm. That tells me that the idea itself is absurd.

Perhaps there’s no way to discount the possibility with current evidence, but I reject the idea on sheer absurdity until such a time as the evidence proves it to be true.

If the Universe is Finite, and Flat, then it MUST Have an Edge!

That’s simple logic. A piece of paper is flat and finite, and we can see clearly that it has four edges. We once imagined the Earth like this, thinking that if we traveled far enough, we’d drop off the edge into an abyss.

 Well, as it turns out, there is a way for the universe to be flat and finite and still not have an edge.

Topology

Topology is not the same as geometry. Topology asks how space might be connected to itself, not necessarily how it is shaped.

 The simplest example of topology comes from the video game Asteroids, where if you fly off one end of the screen, you’ll reappear on the opposite end. Fly off the top and you’ll appear on the bottom, fly off the left, and you’ll appear on the right. The playing area of the game is flat, but the edges are all connected to each other.

There’s no reason to think that the universe can’t be like this, too. It could be flat, but with the edges somehow connected to each other.

 Can’t figure that one out? Try it with a piece of paper. Bend the left edge to meet the right one and tape them together. You’ll have a cylinder. Now, if paper were more flexible, you could also connect the two ends of the cylinder to make a hollow donut. This topology is referred to as a torus. We think the universe could be like this, too, geometrically flat, but connected at the edges in some kind of topology. There are 17 different topologies that correspond to a geometrically flat universe [3].

So, the universe might be flat, and finite, and still not have an edge. All it needs is some kind of interesting topology.

 But just like the infinite universe theory, I find the idea of a flat universe to be comical as well—if for no better reason than because we used to think the Earth was flat, and this sounds like a repeat of history on a cosmic scale.

Is the Universe Really Flat?

According to recent research, via the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), we know that the universe is flat to within a 0.4% margin of error [4].

 Now, of course, we know that our world and the universe itself exist in three dimensions. They’re not flat like a piece of paper. So what do scientists mean when they say that the universe is flat?

Does a Flat Universe Mean That it’s Actually 2-D?

“Flat: When we talk about the flatness of the Universe, we are using the term in its most general geometric sense. A flat space is simply one in which geometry is Euclidean; i.e., that parallel lines remain parallel forever, the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is always 180 degrees, and the circumference of a circle is always 2π times the radius. In contrast with its colloquial meaning however, flatness does not imply anything about the dimensionality of a space. We can talk about a flat 2D space, a flat 3D space, even a flat 4D space. A sheet of paper, for example, is a flat 2D surface, and remains flat whether you roll it into a cylinder, or fold it into an origami swan, no matter how you bend it in 3D space.” [5]

In other words, 3D space can be flat, too. If that’s hard for you to picture, don’t worry—it is for me, too.

Maybe the Universe Only Looks Flat

 Without calling into question the conclusions drawn from the WMAP data, I still feel compelled to ask: what if they’re wrong? Is it possible that the universe only seems to be flat, and yet it’s actually rounded like a sphere?

 As it turns out, all of our data is from the observable universe, not the whole thing, so it’s still quite possible for the entire universe to have literally any geometric shape that you can imagine—that’s not something we can observe, so it falls outside the realm of science into pure conjecture, but it is technically possible. Just like the Earth looks flat when you’re standing on a flat field, the universe might also look flat all the way out to the cosmic horizon, but somewhere far beyond that, maybe it starts to curve back on itself.

How Big is the Whole Universe?

 We know that the part we can see, the observable universe, is about 93 billion light years across. Note: we also know the universe is around 13.82 billion years old [6]. That might make you think that the universe should be only 13.82 billion light years wide, but the universe is expanding, and it’s expanding at an accelerating rate [7]. The implication of that is that the most distant objects we can see are actually a lot farther from us than we’d expect them to be. What we are seeing from them now is actually very old light that those objects emitted soon after they were born, near the beginning of time.

Some parts of the universe are actually moving away from us faster than the speed of light, but that isn’t because they’ve broken the universal speed limit, it’s because space itself is expanding and taking everything along for the ride. We believe this expansion is driven by something called dark energy.

What Might Exist Beyond the Observable Universe / Cosmic Horizon—if Anything?

 Some theories suggest that the entire universe is at least 250 times larger than the visible universe, but those assumptions are based on very little actual evidence.

We really don’t know what’s out there, but we think that it’ll just be more of the same (based on the assumption that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic) [8].

How do We Know There’s Anything Beyond the Cosmic Horizon if We Can’t Observe it?

We don’t know. We’re just guessing, but there are a few good reasons for these guesses.

 A. For those who think the universe could be a sphere, the entire universe would have to be at least 250 times bigger than what we can see in order for it to be “closed” like a sphere [9].

 B. We know that there must be something beyond the cosmic horizon (the farthest stuff we can see), because if there isn’t, then we are at the exact center of the whole universe, and that would be an incredibly odd coincidence [10].

More likely, we’re like a boat adrift in the ocean—“Just because we cannot see land does not mean we are in the center of the ocean; just because we cannot see the edge of the universe does not mean we lie in the center of the universe” [11].

 C. We’ve recently discovered that a bunch of clusters of galaxies in the universe appear to be accelerating in a particular direction, and this phenomenon continues to a distance of at least 2.5 billion light years—possibly all the way to the edge of the visible universe [12&13]. This phenomenon has been called “dark flow.”

 If it is proven that the phenomenon extends all the way to the cosmic horizon, then whatever is causing it must exist beyond the cosmic horizon.

In Conclusion: What Would we Find if we Could Travel to the “Edge” of the Universe?

I couldn’t find an article anywhere admitting that the universe might have a physical edge, so I asked a bunch of physics gurus on stack exchange what they thought, and I got the answer I was looking for [14].

Assume:

The universe has finite mass.

The universe is geometrically flat.

The universe is simply connected (this means the edges aren’t connected to each other, such as in the example of gluing the edges of a piece of paper together to make a donut/torus).

Conclusion: the universe must have an edge!

According to the more reputable answers, my conclusion does logically follow from those three assumptions, so the universe could actually have a physical edge, but then what lies beyond it?

If we travel past it, do we hit a wall and blow up? Do we fall off into a 5th dimension?

Based on all of the articles I read, this is pure conjecture, and there probably isn’t a physical edge to the universe.

 The nearest thing the universe probably has to an actual edge is the cosmic horizon, and since we can’t see past that, we really don’t know what’s beyond it; all we can do is guess.

So that’s what I did. I chose one of the more obscure theories about the nature of the universe, one which serves my storyline, but doesn’t technically contradict anyone smarter than me.

 This book has begun to reveal the nature of the Dark Space Universe, alluding to another universe that lies beyond the Great Abyss, and a “Holy City” at the center of everything.

From that, you can probably guess about the shape I chose for the universe, but I’m not going to connect the dots for you yet. You’ll have to read the next book for that.

Happy reading!

-Jasper Scott

PS This is really a fraction of my research, but I thought you might like to see what my process of inquiry looks like when writing a book. It also helped me organize my ideas and keep everything straight.

Another subject I researched was one of the moons in our solar system, on which I based the planet “Snowflake.” See if you can figure out which moon that was.


Sources

 [1] What do “homogeneity” and “isotropy” mean?  http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/101-the-universe/cosmology-and-the-big-bang/general-questions/574-what-do-homogeneity-and-isotropy-mean-intermediate

 [2] Where’s the Edge of the Universe? http://www.space.com/33005-where-is-the-universes-edge-op-ed.html

 [3] The Shape and Topology of the Universe https://arxiv.org/abs/0802.2236

 [4] New ‘Baby Picture’ of Universe Unveiled http://www.space.com/19027-universe-baby-picture-wmap.html

 [5] How likely is it that the Universe is closed, rather than flat? http://askanastronomer.org/bhc/2015/12/19/finite_unbounded_universe/

 [6] The Universe Is 13.82 Billion Years Old http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2013/03/21/age_of_the_universe_planck_results_show_universe_is_13_82_billion_years.html

 [7] Why is The Universe Accelerating http://www.iflscience.com/space/why-universe-accelerating/

 [8] “The Real Universe” —‘Is 250 Times Bigger than the Visible Hubble Volume’ (Today’s Most Popular)

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/02/the-real-universe-is-250-times-bigger-than-the-visible-hubble-volume-todays-most-popular-1.html

 [9] Universe Could be 250 Times Bigger than What is Observable

http://www.universetoday.com/83167/universe-could-be-250-times-bigger-than-what-is-observable/

 [10] What evidence exists that the universe extends beyond the cosmic light horizon?

https://www.quora.com/What-evidence-exists-that-the-universe-extends-beyond-the-cosmic-light-horizon

 [11] How Big is the Universe

http://www.space.com/24073-how-big-is-the-universe.html

 [12] Galaxy Flow Hints at Huge Masses Over Cosmic Horizon

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14814-galaxy-flow-hints-at-huge-masses-over-cosmic-horizon/

 [13] Mysterious Cosmic ‘Dark Flow’ Tracked Deeper into Universe https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/releases/2010/10-023.html


[14] If the Universe is Flat, has Finite Mass/Energy, and is Simply Connected, Then there MUST be an Edge, Mustn’t there?

http://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/311468/if-the-universe-is-flat-has-finite-mass-energy-and-is-simply-connected-then-t

 [15] We Probably Haven’t Found Evidence for the Multiverse

http://gizmodo.com/we-probably-havent-found-evidence-for-the-multiverse-1740611389

 [16] Doughnut-shaped Universe bites back http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080523/full/news.2008.854.html

 [17] The Status of Cosmic Topology after Planck Data https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1601/1601.03884.pdf


Dark Space Universe


The Enemy Within

(1st Edition)

by Jasper T. Scott

www.JasperTscott.com

@JasperTscott

Copyright © 2017

THE AUTHOR RETAINS ALL RIGHTS

FOR THIS BOOK

Cover Art © Jasper Scott



Acknowledgments

There are so many people to thank when it comes to writing and publishing a book. As always I have to say thank you to my wife for the support she provides at home. And then there’s my editing team—a big thanks goes out to my editor, Aaron Sikes, and to my volunteer editor, Dave Cantrell (who really should get paid for all the work he puts in on my books). I’d also like to say a special thanks to Karol Ross for spending countless hours reading and commenting on my work. She saved me from more than a few overused phrases.

Finally, I’d like to thanks to all of my advance readers. I always cringe when I send out a rough draft of my work, because I know there’s hundreds of typos and unclear passages, but these readers faithfully help me to find them, and somehow, they still have nice things to say about the book when they’re finished reading! My sincere thanks go out to each of these brave individuals: Bruce A. Thobois, Chase Hanes, Claude Chavis, Daniel Eloff, Davis Shellabarger, Gary Matthews, George Dixon, Gregg Cordell, Harry Huyler, Ian F. Jedlica, John Nash, Karl Keip, Marten Ekema, Mary Kastle, Michael Madsen, Peter Hughes, and Rafael Gutierrez. Thank you, all of you!











To those who dare,

And to those who dream.

To everyone who’s stronger than they seem.

“Believe in me / I know you’ve waited for so long / Believe in me / Sometimes the weak become the strong.”

—STAIND, Believe


Previously in


Dark Space Universe

 Etherus, the god and ruler of humanity, warned the three hundred million non-believers aboard Astralis of the dangers lurking beyond the Red Line, but he allowed them to leave his kingdom and seek the true nature of the universe by traveling to the cosmic horizon.

 Tyra Forster, captain of the Inquisitor, along with Lucien Ortane and a crew of trained explorers, known as Paragons, blazed a path for Astralis, but they soon ran into the Faros, a hostile race of alien slavers. The Faros relentlessly chased them across multiple star systems until the Inquisitor became separated from Astralis.

 Captain Forster and her crew spent the next eight years in stasis while their robotic navigator, Pandora, took them to the cosmic horizon and a rendezvous with Astralis. Soon after reaching that rendezvous, they learned that Pandora was actually a spy for the Faros, and an alien fleet arrived to enslave them all.

 During the ensuing battle, the crew of the Inquisitor was forced to abandon ship and flee from Astralis in shuttles. All of the shuttles were intercepted or destroyed, except for Lucien’s, which was badly damaged, but he managed to set down in a Faro colony with three of his fellow crew.

There the Faros’ leader, Abaddon, nearly killed them, but a runaway Faro slave named Oorgurak helped them escape to Freedom Station, a haven for former Faro slaves-turned-pirates, known as Marauders.

 Lucien and his surviving crew mates are certain that Astralis must have been captured by the Faro fleet. They are now looking for a Marauder captain who will help them find and rescue their people, but little do they know, the Faros’ agenda isn’t as simple as it seems, and the people of Astralis are in far greater danger than they think....



Chapter 1

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Freedom Station

Garek stood in front of a broad viewport, watching alien ships glide in and out of Freedom station’s hangar. It was a cavernous space with berths for starships lining the walls and ceiling. A fuzzy blue shield held the atmosphere in, and a dozen different species of aliens bustled around on the deck—ground crew for the various starships in the hangar.

Garek eyed the nearest ship: a smaller vessel, shaped like a winged-insect. He wondered how he could get aboard without being noticed.

 He turned to look at the double-wide doors leading out into the hangar. Warnings lined those doors in an alien language. He could understand them thanks to the U-shaped translator band that the green-skinned Faro, Oorgurak, had given to him and the others. The warnings read:

CAUTION. NO GRAVITY BEYOND THIS POINT.

 No problem there, Garek thought. He was already wearing mag boots. He went back to gazing at the insect-ship. Getting aboard wasn’t his only problem. After that, he’d need to figure out how to fly it. What kind of security systems would it have? Would some of the crew still be on board?

 Despair clawed at Garek’s resolve. His plan to go back and find Astralis and rescue his daughter from the Faros was looking more and more desperate. He didn’t even know the coordinates to the Inquisitor’s brief rendezvous with Astralis.

A heavy hand landed on his shoulder, and Garek flinched away, already rounding on his would-be assailant. He had his stun pistol out and aimed at the being’s head before his eyes even registered who it was.

“Hey, hold your fire! I just want to talk,” Lucien said. Standing beside him was Brak, the Gor, and the kid’s girlfriend, Addy.

Garek’s aim didn’t waver. “You’re not going to talk me out of this.”

Lucien glanced over his shoulder, as if checking to make sure no one else was there with them. He turned back and nodded to the viewport and the hangar beyond. “Those are alien ships out there. What do you think you’re going to do? Even if you can sneak on board one of them, and it just happens to be empty, how do you think you’re going to pilot it?”

Garek shrugged. “Won’t be the first time I’ve flown an alien ship. They’re all the same. Controls for thrust, pitch, and yaw. It’s not like I’m planning to take it into combat.”

 “You might not have a choice. You think Astralis is going to be mysteriously abandoned with your daughter there waiting for you? Besides, you don’t even know where Astralis is! The only one who knew the coordinates of the rendezvous was Pandora, and Brak left her in pieces on the Inquisitor’s bridge.”

Garek felt a muscle jerk in his cheek. “Why don’t you mind your own damn business and let me worry about rescuing my daughter?”

Lucien placed a hand on his shoulder once more. Garek glared at that hand.

“I’m sorry, Garek.”

“So that’s it, we’re just giving up?”

 “I never said that. Just because we can’t go running back to Astralis doesn’t mean we can’t find and rescue our people. We know that the Faros are slavers, and three hundred million slaves aren’t going to disappear without a trace. There’ll be slave markets to sell them. We find those markets, and we find our people.”

“And how do you propose we do that?”

“We join a Marauder crew as Oorgurak suggested, learn about the universe from them, and get our bearings. Hopefully by the time we figure out where to look for our people, we’ll have enough money to pay one of these Marauder captains to take us there.”

Garek scowled. Lucien’s plan wasn’t as immediately satisfying as his, but it was far more realistic. “Fine,” he said, gesturing to the dark corridor he’d come down just a few minutes ago. “Lead the way.”

***

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Freedom Station

They followed Lucien through Freedom Station, walking down dirty, discolored corridors with flickering glow panels. Lucien was looking for the alien who had brought them here—Oorgurak. It made sense to offer their services to him first, if for no better reason than because he was the only Marauder captain they knew. It also didn’t hurt that Oorgurak was some kind of Faro super soldier, one of the so-called Elementals.

“What are you looking for?” Addy asked.

Lucien shook his head. “Our green-skinned Faro friend. He might be willing to let us sign-on with his ship.”

“He was a prisoner until recently. What makes you think he even has a ship?” Addy asked.

“When we were in the mess hall together he mentioned he has a crew, so he must have a ship.”

Garek snorted. “So you’re just going to wander the station aimlessly until you bump into him?”

Lucien stopped walking and turned to face the scarred veteran. “You have a better idea?”

“Matter of fact I do.” Garek turned to the nearest alien passerby and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, do you know—”

The alien rounded on him with a shrill, echoing scream. White tentacles writhed around the being’s head like snakes, each of them with a mouth and fangs. The being’s face was a wrinkly, sunken horror of red quills with dozens of glinting silver eyes nestled between them. The tentacles lunged and snapped their jaws bare inches from Garek’s nose, each of them screaming in his face before retreating.

After a few seconds, the tentacles retreated and relaxed to dangle around the alien’s shoulders like hair, but two fat tentacles remained erect. They gave an echoing scream that Lucien’s translator band interpreted as: “Do not touch us.”

With that, the alien turned and stalked off on two bony white legs.

“Maybe don’t try that again...” Addy whispered.

Even Brak looked shocked.

“What in the netherworld...” Garek muttered.

“Netherworld is right,” Lucien added. A flicker of movement caught his eye, and he turned to see an alien melting out of the shadows of an alcove beside them. It was a gray-skinned humanoid. He was short with huge slanting, lidless black eyes, and an over-sized head.

It spoke in a warbling stutter: “You are lucky. Scarpathians have been known to kill for less.”

Lucien frowned. “Who are you?”

“I am Ka’ta’wa.”

“Katawa?” Lucien asked.

The alien inclined its over-sized head to them. “Yes.”

A bulky black shape moved into Lucien’s peripheral vision and he turned to see a lumbering black monster approaching them, walking on four legs as thick as tree trunks. It had a mouth full of protruding teeth, and a single, giant orange eye, striated with red veins in the center of its horned forehead.

A small hairless red creature rode on its back.

 “Get out the way!” the little red being chirped at them in an amplified voice. “It is hungry!”

Katawa glanced at the approaching aliens, and then back to Lucien. “Follow me.”

“Why?” Garek demanded while keeping half an eye on the lumbering monster headed their way.

“To talk about rescuing your people,” Katawa replied, and then turned to walk down a narrow corridor that branched off from the one where they were standing.

Lucien watched the alien go. The corridor Katawa had chosen was lit by a solitary glow panel that flickered on and off, periodically casting both the little alien and its surroundings into utter darkness.

“I don’t like the look of this,” Addy said.

“Neither do I,” Lucien said, shaking his head.

Garek wordlessly followed the gray alien.

“Garek, wait! It could be a trap,” Addy said.

Brak hissed. “If it is a trap, the gray one will be sorry for springing it,” the Gor said before starting down the corridor after Katawa and Garek.

Lucien cast one more glance at the lumbering one-eyed beast heading toward him. It licked its lips with a fat purple tongue, and splattered the deck with shiny gobs of drool.

 “You crazy, you!” the little red alien screamed from atop its mount. “It will swallow you whole!”

 Lucien grabbed Addy’s hand and pulled her into the narrow corridor after Garek. “Trap or not, we’ll stand a better chance against the one small gray alien than that monster.

 They turned to watch as the beast reached the spot where they had been standing. It pawed the deck angrily, its claws shrieking against the scuffed metal. Then it lifted its giant head and sniffed the air in great snorts. After just a second, it turned to face them. The monster’s orange eye flicked up and down, then side to side, as if measuring the adjoining corridor to see if it would fit.

“Let’s go...” Lucien urged, tugging on Addy’s hand to pull her deeper into the corridor.

She nodded absently.

The monster lunged at them. Its jaws snapped right in front of Addy’s face, blasting them with its fetid breath. Lucien reflectively yanked Addy away from the beast.

The red little humanoid laughed and slapped his mount. “I told you! Crazy, you!”

Lucien pulled Addy along, hurrying to catch up with Garek and Brak. They were with the gray alien, standing outside a door. The corridor plunged into darkness, and Lucien slowed his pace. He groped the walls for support. The light snapped back on just as Lucien’s eyes were beginning to adjust. He squinted through the glare to see that Garek and Brak were gone, as was the gray alien.



Chapter 2

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Freedom Station

Lucien and Addy ran to the door where they’d last seen Garek and Brak. The light in the corridor flickered off just as they reached the door, plunging everything into darkness once more. Lucien activated the headlamps on his helmet just in time to see the door slide open and Katawa appear. The alien’s big black eyes squinted up into the light radiating from Lucien’s headlamps. After a moment’s hesitation, Katawa pulled him into the room with surprising strength, and Addy followed.

The room was small, with low ceilings and appropriately small furniture—a low bed/sofa, and equally low table and chairs with a tiny kitchen along the adjacent wall. Brak stood in one corner by the bed, his chin almost touching his chest because of the low ceiling. Garek stood beside him with arms crossed, his helmet brushing the ceiling.

The door slid shut behind them and the gray alien went to sit at his table. He gestured to the chairs around him.

“Please, sit.”

Seeing that there was nowhere to hide an ambush, Lucien relaxed somewhat and pulled out a small chair to sit awkwardly beside the alien. His knees were forced up to his chest by the chair’s stubby legs. It was like attending a child’s tea party. Addy sat down beside him, while Brak sat on the other side of Katawa and turned his chair so he could stretch his legs out behind the table. He rolled his giant shoulders, working the kinks out of his neck from standing under such a low ceiling. Garek came and stood beside the table, his arms still crossed.

“What’s this about?” Lucien asked, nodding to Katawa.

“You said you wanted to talk about rescuing our people,” Garek added. “How do you even know they need rescuing?”

Katawa blinked his huge eyes at them. “I overheard you talking in the mess hall.”

Lucien began nodding slowly. Not long ago they’d been talking with Oorgurak about rescuing their people over a meal in the station’s mess hall. They’d asked Oorgurak for help, and Oorgurak had asked them what they had to offer in exchange. When it became apparent that they had nothing to offer, Oorgurak had lost all interest in the topic.

The Marauders were pirates and mercenaries, all ex-slaves of the Farosien Empire with no greater ambition than their own survival and continued freedom. Asking them to pick a fight with their old masters for free was offensive to them. But for some reason, this particular Marauder was offering to help. Lucien had a feeling it wasn’t out of the kindness of his heart.

“What do you want in exchange for helping us rescue our people?” he asked.

“You help me go home.”

“Where’s home?” Lucien asked.

“Etheria.”

Lucien blinked and shook his head. “You’re from Etheria?”

Katawa nodded.

 That didn’t fit for a number of reasons. Lucien had been to Etheria, and he’d only ever met Etherians living there. If these gray aliens inhabited the same galaxy as the Etherians, why hadn’t he seen them before? Furthermore, what was someone from Etheria doing this far outside the Red Line? Etherus had forbidden travel beyond that line for as long as anyone could remember. Astralis had only been allowed to cross it at their own risk, and soon after they’d done so, they’d found out why: it was a political boundary between the Etherian and Farosien Empires, and anyone who crossed it was fair game for Abaddon.

“Let’s say I believe you,” Lucien said. “How are we supposed to help you get home? We don’t even have a ship. And since you need our help, I suspect you don’t have one, either.”

“I do have a ship.”

Lucien felt his eyes narrowing. “Then we’re back to why.”

“I need your help to find the lost fleet.”

Addy leaned forward with sudden interest, her brow furrowed and green eyes sharp. “What lost fleet?”

“The one the Etherians sent to negotiate with Abaddon.”

Lucien slowly shook his head. “You’re saying the Etherians took a whole fleet past the Red Line? When was that? I’ve never heard about it.”

“More than ten thousand years ago.”

Lucien sat back with a frown. “Then they must have returned home by now.”

Katawa shook his head. “The crew was executed by Abaddon. Before they died they sent their fleet away to keep Abaddon from finding it.”

“And it’s been lost ever since?” Addy asked.

Again, the alien inclined his head. “Yes.”

“How do you know all of this?” Lucien asked.

“Because I was one of the crew.”

Lucien blinked. “So you’re over ten thousand years old?”

The alien shook his head. “I am over five hundred thousand years old.”

“And you came from Etheria ten thousand years ago,” Lucien said, still not buying the story.

Katawa inclined his head in another shallow nod.

“You’ve been out here all this time?” Addy asked. “Why didn’t you go home?”

“I do not know the way.”

“But this lost Etherian fleet has the location programmed into their nav computers,” Lucien suggested.

“Yes.”

“You’re from Etheria and you don’t know where it is?” Lucien asked. “How’s that possible?”

“We could not risk allowing the location to fall into enemy hands. We were made to forget the way before we left. Our ships were programmed to return there automatically.”

“This is a waste of time,” Garek said. “By now the Faros have found that fleet and re-purposed it for themselves.”

Katawa shook his head. “If they had found it, they would have developed the same technologies by now.”

“You’re saying that Farosien tech is inferior to Etherian tech?” Garek asked.

Katawa looked up at him, blinking his huge eyes. “You did not know this?”

“The Etherians are very secretive,” Lucien explained. “But it’s reassuring to hear that someone might be capable of defeating the Faros.”

“So the question is, if they can, why don’t they?” Addy said. “Why allow the Farosiens to exist? Why not just destroy them and set all of the slaves free?”

Lucien felt his brow tense into a knot. “That’s a good question.” He nodded to Katawa. “You lived in Etheria. Why don’t they attack the Faros?”

Katawa shook his oversized head. “I do not know. I have also wondered this.”

Addy frowned. “You said it’s been ten thousand years. In all of that time they never sent anyone to rescue you? You’re one of them!”

“Perhaps they do not wish to lose another fleet.”

Addy snorted and shook her head.

 “Let’s say we agree to help you,” Lucien said. “How can we help you find this missing fleet, and how does finding the fleet help us?

“You can be made to look like Faros. I cannot. You will be able to move freely through the empire.”

“So you want to paint us blue and shave off all our hair,” Garek said. “Then what? We go around randomly asking the Faros if they’ve seen a derelict fleet? If that’s your strategy, it’s no wonder you haven’t been able to find anything in ten thousand years.”

“You didn’t answer my second question,” Lucien pointed out. “How does finding this fleet help us?”

“You wish to fight a war against Abaddon. You will need ships for that. If you find the fleet, you can keep the vessels.”

Garek appeared to perk up with this suggestion. “How many ships were in the fleet?”

“More than a thousand, all heavily armed.”

Garek whistled. “When Etherus sends an envoy, he doesn’t mess around.”

“Where do we start looking?” Lucien asked.

“First you must be disguised. Then we will take my ship to follow the trail.”

“There’s a trail?” Addy asked.

“Yes. I have kept notes from my searching.”

Lucien nodded along with that and turned to Addy. “What do you think?”

“It’s a risky plan. What if someone discovers we’re not actually Faros? We won’t sound like them when we talk.”

“That’s a good point,” Lucien replied. The translator bands they wore didn’t replace their native language or their accents; the technology simply allowed them to understand what was said in other languages.

“Your minds can be programmed to speak their language. I have a device for this.”

Lucien’s brow furrowed. “Will it teach us their accents, too?”

The gray alien inclined his head. “Yes.”

“Sounds like you’ve been planning this for a long time,” Garek said.

“I had hoped to convince Oorgurak and the other green skins, but they do not believe the fleet can be found.”

Garek grunted. “Maybe because the Etherians flew it into a black hole. Why leave it drifting somewhere for the Faros to find? And how could Abaddon kill the entire crew without destroying their ships? You expect me to believe they left more than a thousand warships unattended while they went to negotiate with a hostile alien race?”

“They were not unattended. My people were at the helm.”

“And they stole away with the fleet when negotiations broke down,” Addy said, nodding.

“Yes. We hid the fleet and erased our memories of its location.”

“Why?” Garek demanded. “Why not use it to go home?”

“We learned things about Etherus that made us want to stay here. The fleet was to be our insurance that our people would not become slaves. Only one of us knew its location. If we were enslaved, he was to keep the fleet’s location a secret. If, however, we were made citizens of the Farosien Empire, its location would be revealed.”

“Why not simply keep the ships and use them to defend yourselves?” Addy asked. “You could have formed your own empire out here.”

“A thousand ships would never have been enough to defend us.”

“And yet we’re supposed to risk our lives finding them so we can use them to fight a war against the Faros?” Garek asked.

“Defending a colony is different from hiding in the shadows and striking targets of opportunity.”

Lucien turned to Addy. “I’m willing to risk it if you are.”

Addy nodded. “What have we got to lose?”

“Just our lives,” Lucien said.

“It’s worth the risk. Can you imagine all the worlds we’re going to see? If we look and sound like Faros, they won’t even try to attack us! We’ll be able to come and go as we please.”

Lucien looked to Brak next. Enigmatic as ever, the Gor hadn’t said a thing in all this time. “What do you think, buddy?”

 “I think they cannot make me look like a Faro.”

That was a good point. Humans and Faros looked very much alike, but Gors were completely different, from their skull-shaped faces to their giant feet and over-sized, muscular frames. “What about Brak?” Lucien asked.

“He will be a shadow.”

“A what?” Lucien asked.

 “You mean he’ll be like a shadow?” Addy suggested.

Katawa shook his head. “Shadows are Faro slaves. They appear as shadows. Their garments hide their features to make them less noticeable and more aesthetically pleasing to the Faros.”

Lucien remembered the shadowy beings that they’d seen when they first met the Faros and Abaddon. Brak had killed a few of them on the landing pad before running away on his impulsive quest to free Faro slaves.

“I will also be a shadow,” Katawa said.

Lucien waited for Brak’s reaction. After a moment, Brak bared his dagger-sharp black teeth in a grin. “I agree with this plan.”

“Garek?” Lucien asked.

The scarred veteran hesitated. “We should talk about this.”

“We are talking.”

 In private. Garek’s voice echoed inside Lucien’s head, spoken via their augmented reality contacts (ARCs) rather than aloud.

 What’s wrong? Lucien asked. I thought you wanted to rescue your daughter?

 I do, but I don’t trust this guy.

 What does he have to gain by lying to us? Lucien countered. If he’s a spy for Abaddon, there are less convoluted ways to capture us. In fact, if he is a spy, why not simply call in the Faros’ fleet and capture all of the Marauders on Freedom Station? Why lure us away with this story?

 I don’t know. He might not be a spy, but he has an agenda that he’s not telling us about.

 You can’t possibly know that, Lucien replied.

“Well?” Addy asked, growing impatient with the awkward silence.

“Majority rules,” Lucien decided, nodding to Garek. “You can either join us or not.”

Garek frowned, but said nothing.

Lucien turned to Katawa. “When do we start?”

“Right now.” The gray alien said as he rose from the table. “Follow me.”



Chapter 3

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

SEVEN DAYS UNTIL THE FAROS ATTACK...

Chief of Security Lucien Ortane sat in the front of an unmarked hover car, eating a burger and watching the back door of a night club in Sub-District Two of Astralis. Brak sat beside him eating his own kind of burger—all meat, no bun, and so raw it was practically dripping.

“Don’t get blood on the seats,” Lucien mumbled around a mouthful.

Brak grunted and stuffed the rest of the raw burger into his mouth.

 Lucien shook what was left of his meal at the rear entrance. “I don’t get it. My source said the deal was going down here. Tonight.” They’d parked in the shadows of an alley that ran crosswise to the one looping around the night club. The club was located in a particularly seedy part of Sub-District Two, and night club was a misnomer. The Crack of Dawn was a strip club, pure and simple, but more than that, it was a front for the Coretti Brothers’ black market arms dealing and money laundering.

The whole neighborhood was run by the Corettis, and the police in Sub-District Two knew better than to go patrolling around here. The only cops found in this neighborhood were dead ones, hence why no one from Lucien’s department had volunteered for this mission. Unfortunately, since Sub-District Two wasn’t technically part of Fallside’s jurisdiction, the mission was volunteer only. Lucien could have passed on his tip to the chief of security for Sub-District Two and let their department handle it, but he wasn’t convinced that would amount to anything. He strongly suspected the chief and/or several of his deputies and detectives were on the Coretti brothers’ payroll.

 “Look,” Brak pointed. The back door of the club opened and six sketchy-looking characters poured out—including one Joseph Coretti, eldest of the three Coretti brothers. Lucien would have recognized him anywhere: medium height and build, skinny and pale to the point of looking sickly, with gaunt cheeks and blue-black hair slicked back from his forehead. He had a square jaw and silver eyes that shone in the dark like two pearls. A glow stick dangled out the side of his mouth, glowing blue-white all along its length and glowing orange from the lit end.

Lucien could have pulled him up on charges for drug possession right there, but there was that little problem of not having jurisdiction. Not to mention, simple possession charges wouldn’t keep Joe Coretti locked up for long.

Two of the goons with Joe were pushing a large black case on a hover cart between them. Something was off about the taller of the two, but Lucien couldn’t quite tell what it was... short dark hair, dark eyes, blank, generic face... it wasn’t his appearance. Something else. He stood too straight. His movements were too precise, like a machine. But he looked human. An android maybe? Androids were illegal. That might be another thing to pin on Coretti. No way to prove it without a warrant, though.

Lucien watched as the rigid man and his more-human looking counterpart pushed the case to the front of the group and waited there. Joe blew out a stream of smoke and glanced up at a flickering street light.

“Ten to one there’s weapons in that case,” Lucien said.

Brak nodded. “Want me to get a better look?”

Lucien glanced at his partner. The Gor was a unique asset on stakeouts thanks to his innate cloaking abilities. “Not yet. Let’s wait and see who shows up.”

They didn’t have to wait long. A long black hover van with tinted windows came screaming down the alley, flying low to the ground.

“Hello...” Lucien whispered. The car stopped right in front of Coretti’s gang and four tall men in black suits jumped out.

Joe nodded to the case on the hover cart and his men popped it open, but the four men in suits blocked Lucien’s view of the contents.

“All right, now you can go,” Lucien said, nodding to Brak.

The Gor nodded back and the air shimmered around him as he cloaked himself. The door slid open, and he slipped out. Lucien watched him go, then went back to watching the group of gangsters in the alley. The four who’d arrived in the van were gesturing wildly to the case, as if it wasn’t what they’d ordered. Coretti’s goons began posturing in turn, and soon everyone had drawn their sidearms and was pointing them at each other’s heads.

“Go on, start shooting,” Lucien mumbled. “Save me the trouble of booking you all later.”

Technically none of them would die thanks to cloning and the technology for transfer of consciousness, but resurrection wasn’t a given right when it came to criminals. Murderers, for example, were almost never brought back—a kind of passive death penalty.

Unfortunately, none of the gangsters opened fire. Joe held up his hands and said something that cooled everyone’s tempers. They all holstered their weapons, and the four black-suited men shut the case and loaded it into the back of their van. Lucien frowned, wishing he could hear what had been said between them. He hadn’t brought any listening gear because he had Brak, but he hadn’t anticipated this deal going down so fast.

Before the men in suits could leave the scene, Lucien saw the telltale shimmer of a cloaking shield deactivate, and a naked gray monster appeared, standing to one side of the gangsters.

“Brak, you dumb skriff!” Lucien gritted out.

All eyes turned to the naked Gor, and weapons flew out of their holsters once more.

Lucien waved open the door on his side of the hover car and ran out with his own sidearm drawn. “Fallside PD!” he yelled, flashing his holographic badge in their eyes as he ran. “Drop your weapons and put your hands in the air!”

Joe Coretti smirked around the butt of his glow stick as Lucien skidded to a stop beside Brak.

“Well, well. Aren’t you a little far from home, Chief?”

“What’s in the case, Coretti?”

“You got a warrant? Oh, wait—” Coretti broke off, shaking his head. “—not your jurisdiction. I almost forgot.”

“It won’t matter who’s jurisdiction this is when I submit the recordings I just took of this deal going down. I’ve got you on at least three different charges here.”

“You sure about that?” Joe asked. “You just asked me what’s in the case, so I’m betting you’ve got nothing.”

“Hand over the case and we’ll see about that.”

The men in black suits traded glances with each other, but said nothing.

“Or what?” Coretti smiled smugly and blew a cloud of fragrant smoke in Lucien’s direction.

 Lucien frowned. He had no authority here, and Joe knew it. The whole purpose of tonight’s stakeout had been to get enough evidence for a warrant, not to bring Coretti in prematurely without any hard evidence to make a conviction stick. What was Brak thinking?

“We’ll be back,” Lucien said, and grabbed Brak’s forearm, dragging him back toward their hover car.

“Sure you will,” Joe said. “In the meantime—” He made a shooing gesture with both hands, and gold rings glinted in the dim, flickering light of the alley.

Lucien walked backward all the way to the car, not taking eyes off any of them for a second. Once they were back inside, the black van raced away and Joe Coretti returned to his club, waving a vulgar sign at them as he left.

When they were all gone, Lucien shot a scowl at Brak. “What the frek were you thinking?”

Brak bared his black teeth and hissed. “They were about to leave. I had to get their attention.”

“Why?”

“I think I recognize one of them. I need to see his face to be sure.”

“And?”

“It is who I think. Judge Cleever’s son.”

Lucien blinked. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

 Lucien played back the visual log from his ARCs and ran the faces of the men in black suits through Astralis’s database. Sure enough, one of them was a match for Titarus Cleever, only child and son of High Court Judge Exolia Cleever. Lucien checked Titarus’s record and found a long list of bookings for misdemeanor crimes.

“Looks like this kid has a habit of getting into trouble,” Lucien said. “No convictions, though. Mommy’s probably always there to bail him out. Nice work, Brak. With this lead, our investigation is really going to open up. If Cleever is dismissing cases to keep her son out of jail, it might explain why we’ve had so much trouble getting charges against the Corettis to stick.”

Brak nodded.

Then Lucien spotted something at the bottom of Titarus’s record. “Wait—that can’t be right.”

“What cannot be right?” Brak asked.

 “It says here Titarus was charged with murder six months ago—posthumously. He died in a shootout between two rival gangs before he could be arrested. Apparently he murdered his own step-father and another high court judge sentenced him to remain dead.” Lucien turned to Brak. “That couldn’t have been Titarus we saw. It’s just some look-alike.” To confirm that, Lucien checked the facial recognition score. “Facial match was only eighty percent.”

Brak hissed. “It is dark. A perfect match requires better lighting.”

“Or the right person,” Lucien replied. “Unless someone’s found a way to bring the dead back to life without going through the Res. Center, I’d say we just hit a dead end.” Lucien blew out a breath and checked the time on his ARCs—it was ten PM. “We spent six hours sitting here—for nothing! Did you even get a look at what was in the case?”

“No.”

Lucien rubbed tired eyes and shook his head. “Great.”

“This is not for nothing. The patient hunter always catches his prey. We need more time if we are to catch Coretti.”

 Lucien glanced at Brak with bleary eyes. “What I need is a vacation.”

Brak hissed and looked away. “You would not make a good hunter.”

“Good thing I prefer my meat grown in a vat.”

Brak gave no reply to that, and Lucien ordered the car’s driver program to take them home.

 After a few minutes of racing down the dark alleys and streets of Astralis’s sub levels, they emerged on the surface and flew up to five hundred meters, out over the frozen landscape of Winterside—trees laden with snow, rooftops white, ski hills lit up with spotlights and hover lifts carrying late night skiers back up, while others raced down: an endless loop on repeat.

 Lucien shivered at the sight of all that snow, thanking his luck that he and Tyra could afford a place in the more desirable, and warmer, city of Fallside.

They crossed the fuzzy blue shield wall between Winterside and Fallside. At night all the colors of the latter city’s ever-changing trees were cloaked in shadows, but here and there streetlights revealed bright pools of red and gold. Lucien directed the car to drop Brak off at his apartment first.

 After that, the car flew on toward his home, a mansion clinging to the side of Hubble Mountain in the center of Astralis’s ground level. Lucien’s thoughts turned to his family while he waited to arrive. He’d left Tyra at home with the girls on one of her rare days off. Not that it mattered. She’d brought her work home with her, so it wasn’t as though they were going to spend any quality time together.

 He scowled, nursing old grievances. As the councilor of Fallside, Tyra didn’t get a lot of time off, but what time she did get, she never seemed to spend with her family. Maybe a vacation would be a good idea, Lucien thought as the car hovered in for a landing on his driveway. He resolved to mention the idea to Tyra... a beachside resort in Summerside, perhaps...



Chapter 4

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

FOUR HOURS UNTIL THE FAROS ATTACK...

Sand gleamed gold in the sun. Generated waves swished up the beach, tickling children’s toes and making them squeal with delight. An artificial sun beamed down from the artificial sky. Lucien shaded his eyes with one hand and peered up at the distant floor of Level One, faded blue from all of the air in between. Five kilometers of atmosphere blanketed the ground level of Astralis, providing enough room for clouds to form, for the illusion to look almost as real as it felt. Lucien’s eyelids fluttered shut against the warmth of the fusion-powered sun. Fusion-powered. That clicked, and Lucien smiled. Astralis’s sun was the same as any other in that respect, just a lot smaller.

He sighed, allowing the warmth to melt some of the ice around his heart. His ears pricked with girlish laughter. It belonged to his one-year-old and five-year-old daughters, Theola and Atara. His eyes cracked open and he squinted up at Level One once more, imagining for a moment that all those glinting viewports were stars he could travel to—but he couldn’t actually travel anywhere. It was hard to feel trapped aboard a spaceship with thousands of decks and millions of square kilometers of space, and yet he did.

“Contemplating the unknown again, Lucien?” his wife asked.

His gaze came down for a landing, catching diamonds off the water as it fell. He checked that his children were both fine—they were making sandcastles at the water’s edge—and then he turned to his wife.

Tyra lay on a purple beach towel beside him, sunbathing in the intermittent shade of a tall palm tree from ancient Earth. A light breeze blew, bringing the smell of sand, flower blossoms, and salt water to Lucien’s nostrils. Palm fronds skittered, and black blades of shade flickered over his wife’s flawless skin.

 Lucien remembered when the top of that tree had barely come up to his shoulder. That was over eight years ago, right after he’d awoken on Astralis to the unsettling news that he’d just died. Death wasn’t permanent, but memory loss was. Lucien had no recollection of anything that had happened in the first month after coming aboard Astralis.

 Apparently he’d been assigned to Astralis’s expeditionary forces along with all the other ex-Paragons. They’d served together aboard Tyra’s galleon, the Inquisitor, going out to explore nearby systems for sentient life. But something had gone wrong, and they’d never returned. Instead, a hostile race of aliens had joined Astralis at the rendezvous, and they’d barely escaped the subsequent battle. Ever since then the expeditionary forces had been grounded, and Astralis had taken care to avoid contact with any other aliens. Their mission was cosmological—to determine the nature of the universe, not to meet all of it’s inhabitants.

“Hello?” Tyra propped herself up on her elbows and frowned at him. “Are you ignoring me?”

Lucien flashed an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I’m just remembering. Or trying to.”

“I see...”

“Doesn’t it ever bother you?” He asked. “Not knowing what happened to us out there?”

Tyra shook her head. “You can’t dwell on that. You’ll drive yourself crazy.”

 Lucien nodded slowly, and his gaze slipped away from his wife, out to the hemmed-in ocean and the archipelago of sandy, palm-studded islands. Each of them was dotted with quaint little huts and villages, as well as a handful of modern mansions scattered between. This was Summerside, a tropical island paradise. Fuzzy blue shield walls ran from the soaring, balcony-lined sides of the wedge-shaped ship to its center, segregating each of the ship’s four climate zones and cities from each other.

 Lucien gazed out over the water to Hubble Mountain at the center of Astralis. More than one hundred kilometers distant, he could just barely see the faded blue outline of the mountain and the inverted glass pyramid at its peak, glinting in the sun. The Academy of Science. Directly below that, in the mountain itself, were the government offices where his wife and all the other councilors worked. For most people, the Academy was symbolic of Astralis. The inverted pyramid was the symbol on its flag, the symbol that evoked patriotism in the hearts of its people, but to Lucien it was the hateful symbol of his wife’s neglect. Even here, at a resort in the farthest corner of the ship, the Academy’s shadow still loomed over them. Out of mind, but never out of sight, Lucien thought.

 Tyra was a councilor and a workaholic, one of the elected rulers on Astralis who got to have a say in where they went and how they got there. Meanwhile, he was an ex-Paragon in Etheria’s army, now the chief of security for Fallside. He was an explorer with nothing to explore, trapped in a giant metal box.

It had grated on Lucien’s spirits over the past eight years to be whisked through the universe at high speed, getting to see all of the alien planets along the way, cataloged in tantalizing detail by astronomers at the Academy, but never being allowed to set foot on any of them.

That was a Paragon’s job: to explore—not to baby-sit a bunch of scientists as they flew right by all of the sights on their way to the edge of the universe.

Now, finally, they’d arrived at that edge—only to find that there were a whole lot more stars and galaxies to explore beyond the old cosmic horizon. Just more of the same for another thirty billion light years. And after that...

 A vast stretch of emptiness: The Black. Tyra had bent his ear about the implications for months following the discovery.

“Do you realize what this means!” Tyra had been all but hyperventilating at the time.

“No.” Lucien was busy feeding Theola. His wife’s dinner was a block of ice at the other end of the dining table. She hadn’t even noticed it sitting there yet. She was three hours late.

 “We’ve just disproved the cosmological principle.”

“The what?” Lucien asked.

 “It means the universe isn’t all the same everywhere! It has this big empty stretch, and we have no idea what could have caused that! It might be filled with dark matter, or dark energy, or both! Or maybe it’s some kind of ripple in the fabric of space-time—some kind of mountain or a cliff. It might even be a real physical edge, and when something reaches it, it just pops out of existence, or disintegrates.”

Theola smacked her bowl of chunky green goop and flipped it into Lucien’s lap. He scowled at the mess, and his one-year-old daughter giggled. He flashed her a long-suffering smile, and she smiled winningly back with all six of her half-in-half-out baby teeth. Theola was late to eating solid foods. Something to do with a sensory integration disorder. This was his latest attempt to get her to eat something other than milk. Buttery smooth purees were all she would tolerate, and barely at that.

“Well, I can’t blame you this time, Theebs,” Lucien said, his nose wrinkling at the smell of the mess in his lap. “I wouldn’t eat it either.”

“Da-da! Blubalidee! Blub-blub... blub...” Theola replied, blowing bubbles with her saliva, and then popping her thumb in her mouth for a good suck.

“Are you even listening to me, Lucien?” Tyra demanded.

 Theola craned her neck to look up at her mother, and Lucien followed her gaze to give his wife an exasperated look. “I might have listened, if you’d been home three hours ago, when I called you and you said you were on your way.

“With this news, can you blame me? I got caught up. Chief Ellis needed me to—”

Lucien held up a hand to stop her. “Save it. That’s the third time this week. Why did you bother having kids if you weren’t going to be around to raise them? You’re barely here to tuck them in at night!” Atara was alone in her room, playing with her toys.

 Tyra’s eyes narrowed at him. “That’s not fair. You know I have a demanding job. It’s what allows us to live here—” she gestured to their surroundings. High ceilings. Real hardwood floors. Crystal chandeliers. Expensive furniture. Their mansion clung to the base of Hubble Mountain, overlooking Planck lake in the picturesque city of Fallside. It had a fantastic view from nearly all of its floor-to-ceiling windows. “You think all of this comes without sacrifice?” Tyra went on, nodding to herself as if he’d just answered yes. “Maybe that’s because it’s not your responsibility to pay for it. Your income barely covers our energy bill! Everything else is on me—my shoulders, my sweat—while you get to spend the whole day patrolling paradise.”

 Lucien blinked at her, speechless. He looked away, out the bay window at the end of the dining table. He gazed down on the kaleidoscope of yellows, reds, and golds around Planck Lake: the ever-changing leaves of Fallside. The scientists who’d engineered Astralis had used stasis fields to freeze the trees that way. Each of them was a living sculpture, a middle finger to nature. The mighty hubris of science had reared its head all over Astralis, and the message was clear: We are the gods here.

“You’ve got nothing to say to that, because you know I’m right. You’re happy to enjoy the luxuries afforded by my job, but not to endure the sacrifices.”

 Lucien looked away from the window. “All of this isn’t worth a newton if we don’t have the time to enjoy it.”

At that, Tyra frowned and her gaze slipped away from his, fleeing out the window. This was the only problem in their marriage—the only thing they needed to fix but somehow never could. It was as though they were caught in a stasis field like the trees in Fallside: their lives looked beautiful on the outside, but on the inside everything was frozen and stuck.

On the bad days, after putting the kids to bed, Lucien would sit in their echoing great room with a book and a glass of whiskey for company. He’d watch the electric fireplace crackle, sipping his drink, his eyes glazed, his holo-reader open to the same page of the same book that he’d been pretending to read for the past month. On days like that, he wondered if he should just take the kids and leave. Maybe that would get his wife to sit up and take notice. Or maybe she’d come home as usual, a few hours before midnight, re-heat her cold dinner, and flop into bed, not even noticing her family’s absence, just as she never seemed to notice their presence.

 Lucien winced at those memories. All he wanted was for his wife to show up—to be there, to laugh at his jokes while he did the dishes, to clink glasses with him after dark and kiss by the light of an artificial moon.

Lucien wondered if he should finally talk to Tyra about all of this, to let her know just how bad it had gotten....

 The sound of waves swishing and children laughing brought him back and reminded him why they were here. No, he decided, flexing his fingers through the hot sand and nodding to the hateful, inverted glass pyramid at the top of Hubble Mountain. He’d wait until the end of their vacation, until Tyra had a chance to finally spend some time with her family and see what she was missing.

“Chief Councilor Ellis!” Tyra said brightly. “What’s so urgent?”

Lucien’s blood boiled at the sound of his wife answering a comms call on their vacation. He turned to her, his skin feeling hot and tight, like an over-inflated balloon just about to explode.

Tyra’s blue eyes were rainbow-colored in the light of her ARCs. She was smiling at Ellis like he’d just saved her from the dullest moment of her life.

 That’s it... Lucien thought, his teeth clenching.

Tyra sat up suddenly. “That’s impossible...! No, of course, I’ll catch the first shuttle back. I’d love to say a few words.... Give me one hour.” Tyra nodded. “See you soon.”

The colored light left Tyra’s gaze as the transmission ended and her ARCs returned to their usual transparency. She turned to him with a broad grin. “You’re never going to believe this!”

Lucien met her enthusiasm with a scowl. “I thought we agreed to unplug. Shut off our ARCs and spend some time as a family for a change.”

“I did, but I have to leave a way to contact me in case of an emergency.”

“It’s always an emergency.”

“This is different.”

“Save it, Tyra,” Lucien said, shaking his head.

She reached for his hand and squeezed until the bones in his fingers ground together. “They’ve found us.”

Lucien’s brow furrowed. “Who has?”

 “Us—you, me, the rest of the crew. The Inquisitor made it! Somehow they made it all the way here without us. They spent the past eight years catching up with us.”

Lucien blinked in shock, the news finally settling in. “You’re telling me we never died?”

Tyra shook her head and a grin sprang to her lips. “We’re on our way to meet them right now. The judiciary will probably rule that we have to integrate our memories and put the extra clones in stasis. Who knows what we’ll learn? You and I might even be married twice!”

 Or divorced twice, Lucien thought, but didn’t say. He flashed her a tight smile. “So you’re going back to work.”

 “Just for a day or two, until we bring the Inquisitor on board.”

Lucien looked away, his jaw set, his mind churning with conflicting thoughts.

“You can come with me,” Tyra said. “You’re going to have to meet yourself at some point.”

“Sure. Why not.”

“You don’t sound excited.”

He wasn’t excited, but maybe he should be. Tyra had said they’d have to integrate their memories, consolidate two lives into one. The injection of a fresh perspective might be just what they needed. “You’re right,” he said. “We should be there to welcome them home—but we’re extending our vacation by however many days this takes.”

Tyra nodded, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth once more. “Agreed.”

Lucien’s gaze drifted to their girls again just in time to see Theola go stomping through Atara’s sandcastle, flattening it in an instant. Atara screamed and smacked her sister’s thigh in revenge. Theola fell down and burst into tears.

Lucien sighed. “I’ll get the girls,” he said, already on his way down the beach. He scooped up Theola and grabbed Atara’s hand, chiding her for smacking her sister.

“But Dad, she—”

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “We have to go, anyway.”

And upon hearing that, Atara started crying, too.



Chapter 5

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

TEN MINUTES UNTIL THE FAROS ATTACK...

Tyra Ortane stood to one side of the comms station in the operations room of Astralis. She watched with a conspiratorial smile as Chief Councilor Ellis stepped to the fore. He was wearing his ceremonial white council robes, as was she.

 Tyra balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to jump into view as soon as Ellis introduced her. It took all of her will not to fidget while she waited for the Inquisitor to respond to their hail. The galleon had arrived at the rendezvous less than a minute ago, but the seconds were passing like hours.

 She couldn’t wait to find out what her clone had seen and done. Although, technically, the Tyra she was about to speak with was the original and she was the clone. Meeting herself was going to be like stepping into a time machine, since as Chief Councilor Ellis had just informed her, the crew of the Inquisitor had spent the past eight years in stasis while their navigator bot took them to the cosmic horizon. It made sense, of course: there was no way that a galleon could support its crew for eight years otherwise.

 What that meant was that both of their copies—originals—aboard the galleon were still technically twenty-two years old. There were probably many more new developments in their lives here on Astralis than there were in their lives aboard the Inquisitor.

 Despite that, one question remained: what had happened eight years ago to bring that alien fleet bearing down on Astralis? And who were those aliens? What did they want? Why had they been so hostile? Astralis hadn’t run into them again since that time, but they had deliberately kept a low profile.

A tone sounded from the comms and a 3D hologram sprang to life on the viewscreen directly behind the comms station, revealing the bridge of a star galleon. Tyra saw herself sitting in the captain’s chair at the center of the galleon’s bridge. Sitting beside her was none other than her husband, Lucien.

Tyra grinned and waited for her introduction. If nothing else, Lucien’s proximity to her on the bridge suggested that the sparks had already begun to fly between them.

 “I am Chief Councilor Ellis. On behalf of Astralis, welcome back, Captain Forster. We have much to discuss. Please land your galleon in hangar bay forty-seven. Meanwhile, I have someone here who’s eager to speak with you—councilor?” Ellis turned to her and nodded, to which Tyra stepped into view of the holocorder.

“It’s... you,” Lucien said, glancing at the identical copy of her sitting in the captain’s chair beside him, and then back.

Tyra fought to contain a giddy smile while the copy of her on the screen stared at her in wide-eyed disbelief.

 “I’m a councilor?Captain Tyra asked.

Tyra inclined her head to herself. “We stopped sending out expeditions after yours almost got us all killed.”

The captain nodded slowly, acknowledging the wisdom in that. By now she and her crew would know better than anyone about the dangers of exploring.

Tyra’s gaze flicked between Lucien and the captain, wondering if their relationship was strictly professional.

“What is it?” Lucien asked. “You keep looking at me like there’s something you want to say.”

“It’s just a shock for me to see us in this context.”

 “Us?” the captain echoed.

Tyra hesitated. “I suppose you’re going to find out before you integrate your memories, anyway, so there’s no reason I can’t tell you.”

“Find out what?” Lucien demanded.

“We’re married, Lucien. With two kids. Atara and Theola.”

 “You’re what?” a woman that Tyra didn’t recognize demanded as she stood up from the comms station on the Inquisitor’s bridge. Tyra recognized the woman’s jealousy in an instant, and her smile vanished as she eyed this other woman with a reciprocal flash of her own jealousy. This woman and Lucien were obviously some kind of couple.

 The captain held up a hand to forestall further revelations. “Councilor, perhaps you’d better wait to tell us more. You’ve all been living our lives without us for the past eight years while we’ve been in stasis. I’m sure a lot has happened that will seem strange to us.”

 “Of course... you’re right. I shouldn’t have said anything,” Tyra replied, sweeping her reaction under the carpet of a smile. “I apologize. It will be easier to understand everything that’s happened after you integrate, and our memories become your memories, too.”

“Agreed,” the captain said.

 Tyra inclined her head to them. “See you soon, Captain. Astralis out.”

As the transmission ended, Tyra felt the ache spreading in her chest, and a knot tightened in her throat, making it hard to breathe.

 So much for destiny. Given the choice between that other woman and me, Lucien chose her. Did that mean their marriage was a sham? Were they together by convenience or by accident? Tyra’s logical brain took over, rationalizing the situation: no one was really destined to be together. The idea of two souls somehow reaching across time and space to be together was a childish notion for untrained, and uneducated minds. Romance is two parts chemistry, and one part opportunity. A simple equation of attraction plus availability.

Tyra had been so lost in her thoughts that she hadn’t even noticed that Ellis had disappeared without a word. She turned in a circle, scanning the operations center for him. There was an urgent bustle of activity, and a sudden hush in the room. Ellis was leaning over the sensor operator’s station, his mouth agape.

“It’s not possible,” he breathed, his voice a strangled whisper. “Double check those sensor profiles!”

“I’ve already triple-checked them, sir. There’s no mistake. They’re exactly the same type of ships we encountered eight years ago.”

 “They followed us for eight years?” Councilor Ellis demanded. “Who in the netherworld are these people?”

A split second later the room’s speakers crackled with, “Red alert! Action stations, action stations! This is not a drill. We are under attack by a hostile alien fleet. Repeat, red alert! This is not a drill!”

A battle klaxon roared in their ears, and Councilor Ellis turned to her in horror.

 Tyra gazed blankly back, her mind racing. My children... I have to get my children!

The intercom crackled once more: “Attention all citizens, this is Admiral Stavos, we are under attack by a hostile alien fleet. If you find yourself near the outer hull, please proceed along emergency evacuation routes to the nearest shelter as calmly and quickly as possible. Keep all emergency lanes and corridors clear for Marines and repair crews. Violators will be stunned without warning. I repeat, we are under attack, please proceed along emergency evacuation routes as calmly and quickly as possible. This is not a drill.”

It took a physical effort for Tyra to stop herself from running out the doors of the operations room to go find her family.

Chief Councilor Ellis crossed over to her and grabbed her arm, shaking her lightly to get her attention. Her eyes darted from the exit to look at him. Lucien was with the kids. He would know what to do. Her job as councilor of Fallside was to coordinate the evacuation efforts and emergency response teams in her city.

“We need to go!” Ellis yelled to be heard over the ship’s blaring klaxons.

Tyra nodded. “Lead the way!”



Chapter 6

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Lucien was at home, eating lunch at the breakfast table with his daughters when the red alert came. For the first few seconds he was too shocked to move; he just sat there listening to Admiral Stavos’ subsequent call for the evacuation of the ship’s outermost compartments. When both announcements were over, all was silent, but for the distant screaming of Astralis’s civil defense sirens.

“Aliens are attacking us?” Atara asked with all the seriousness of a child who suddenly didn’t sound like one.

Theola’s baby blues flicked to her sister, and then back to him. She was sitting in her high chair, sucking her thumb.

“Dad?” Atara pressed. “What are we supposed to do?”

He was busy asking himself the same thing. His job as the chief of security in Fallside was to help coordinate the evacuation from the ship’s outer compartments to its shelters, and to keep the population from losing their heads in the crisis. But his job as a father was to keep his children safe, and he couldn’t just leave them at home alone. First things first, he had to get his children to the nearest shelter. They’d have their own provisions for childcare, which would free him up to do his job.

An incoming message trilled inside Lucien’s head, conveyed directly to his brain by his augmented reality implant. A priority comms icon flashed on his ARCs. He mentally answered it.

Deputy Laos’s gaunt face appeared in the top right of his field of view. He looked stricken. “Chief! We need you back at the station. It’s chaos out there. We have looters all across the ship, and reports of shots being fired in four different hangar bays.”

“What?” Lucien shook his head. “Why the hangar bays?”

 “People are trying to steal ships and escape. Last one who tried that was a councilor, if you can believe that. We’re taking him into custody as we speak.”

Lucien blinked in shock. “No, I can’t believe that. He should be setting an example for everyone else right now, not abandoning ship.”

“Yeah, well...” Laos trailed off. “Just get back here, Chief. We need you. People are scared.”

 Lucien nodded. If people were trying to flee the ship, and a councilor was leading the charge with a gun, things had to be really bad out there. What weren’t Astralis’s leaders telling them? “I’ll be there as soon as I can get my kids to the nearest shelter.”

“The nearest shelter to your location is in Hubble Mountain, Chief—number twelve.”

Lucien nodded. “Thanks, Laos. See you soon.” He ended the transmission and turned to Atara. “Let’s go, sweetheart.”

“Where?”

Lucien lifted Theola out of her chair. She gave him an oblivious smile, and he smiled tightly back.

“We’re going to the shelter. You’ll be safe there.”

“Is mommy going to be there?” Atara asked.

“No.”

She grabbed his hand and squeezed. “But you will be, right?”

Lucien grimaced and went down on his haunches beside Theola. “I will be there, but first I have to take care of a few things.”

“What things?”

“I have to make sure nobody gets hurt right now. They’re scared and they’re doing stupid things. Daddy’s job is to keep them safe.”

“But I’m scared, too!” Atara said, with tears springing to her eyes.

Theola picked up on the mood of their discussion, and she made a frowny face, just about to burst into tears herself.

Lucien flashed a silly grin at his one-year-old and began bouncing her on his hip. Theola’s frowny face vanished and she was smiling again. Turning back to Atara, Lucien adopted a more serious look and reached out with his free hand to wipe the tears from Atara’s cheeks with his thumb. Her long black hair, bright red lips, and delicate, feminine features were all the spitting image of her mother. “I need you to be a big girl now, Atara. Can you do that for Daddy?”

Atara gave no reply; her lips quivered like rose petals in the wind. “You’re strong, Atara. Just like your mother.”

She shook her head. “I’m not like her. I’m like you.”

Lucien frowned. He didn’t have time to address that. “Like me, then. Daddy’s job is to protect the people in Fallside. Your job is to protect your sister. Do you think you can do that?”

Atara nodded, and wiped away the rest of her tears with the back of her hand.

Lucien flashed her a grim smile and kissed her on the cheek. “I knew I could count on you.” He got up from his haunches and pulled Atara along to the garage. He was halfway there before Atara suddenly stopped walking, and their arms pulled taut like a tow-rope.

“What about Theola’s things?” Atara asked.

Lucien blinked. He’d completely forgotten about the diaper bag. “Can you go get that for me, honey? I need to get her bottles ready.”

Atara nodded and took off at a run. Ten minutes later they were all seated in the back of the family’s hover car. “Take us to us to Emergency Shelter Twelve as fast as possible.” Lucien said, speaking to the car’s driver program.

“Right away, Mr. Ortane. Please buckle up to avoid any accidental injuries,” the car replied.

Lucien hurried to buckle his seat’s four-point harness. Atara did likewise, while the garage door finished opening. Theola was already buckled in her car seat and sucking away on her thumb.

 Before the garage door had even finished sliding up, the car raced out of the garage and up into a sunny blue sky. It was a deceptively beautiful day, not a cloud in sight—except for the alien invasion bearing down on us, Lucien thought, as he gazed worriedly up at the faint glinting lights from the viewports in the floor of Level One. He half expected to see that sky shatter and cave in on them, only to get sucked back out in a gust of depressurizing atmosphere. He winced at the thought. If that actually happened, millions of people were going to die.

 The car tilted suddenly to one side, banking sharply on its way back around to Hubble Mountain. Blue sky slid up and the rippled blue surface of Planck Lake took its place as the car went side-on with the ground. Lucien instinctively reached for the nearest safety rail, but when he didn’t feel the anticipated tug of gravity, he let go and reached for Atara’s hand instead. The G-forces from that turn had been all but eliminated by the car’s inertial management system.

“Are we going to die?” Atara asked, while gazing out the window at the water and trees sweeping by below.

Lucien could still hear the muted howling of civil defense sirens. “No, honey, we’re going to be just fine. This will all be over soon.” He gave Atara’s hand a reassuring squeeze.

“You promise?” Atara asked, her eyes wide and fraught with terror.

Lucien would have said or done anything to make her feel safe again, but a little voice whispered, warning him not to make promises he couldn’t keep. He pushed those doubts down and nodded convincingly. “I promise, Atara.”

She nodded back, having bought the lie.



Chapter 7

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

 “Let’s go, let’s go! Double time!” Footsteps ricocheted down the corridor like bullets, Marine bots mostly, with their immobile expressions and glowing holoreceptor eyes.

 The enemy was landing troop ships on Astralis’s relatively defenseless upper hull. It wouldn’t be long before they cut a way in. The battle was not going well.

Garek grimaced between gasps for air. He’d gone soft. Then again, it had never been easy keeping up with machines.

His squad arrived at the end of their assigned corridor and the bots found cover positions behind bulkheads, crouching and leaning out to aim their weapons at the doors where the enemy was expected to come through.

Garek was a sergeant, which supposedly meant this particular horde of metal was his to command, but they didn’t seem to need commanding. Each of them was faster, stronger, and tougher than him. They weren’t made of hollow exosuit shells with soft, meaty centers. Bots were all shell, no meat.

The circular sensor display in the top left of Garek’s HUD flashed in warning as red dots began pouring in just ahead of their position, on the other side of the bulkhead doors. “Get ready!” he snapped over the comms.

His squad replied with a flurry of acknowledging comm clicks. Their aim never wavered. Their guns never trembled. Not like his arms, which were already growing tired from aiming the cannons in his suit gauntlets.

 We’re not ready for this, Garek thought. He wasn’t the only one who’d gotten soft during the past eight years of insular bliss. It wasn’t unusual to see navy officers warming stools in Astralis’s bars at four o’clock in the afternoon—or even three.

For the first time, Garek understood the wisdom of automating all the lower echelons in the military. Bots weren’t prone to the attrition of easy living.

 A molten orange circle appeared near the base of the doors; the sharp, shimmering tip of some kind of blade protruded from that spot. A molten line raced across the doors until it drew a full circle. Then came a bang as something hit the doors from the other side. The doors bulged inward, moving on hinges of liquid metal. A crack appeared, and Garek saw movement on the other side. Bang!

The doors fell, revealing a smoke-filled corridor beyond. “Open fire!” Garek yelled, even as his arms jackhammered with golden streams of thudding cannon fire. Red HUD shading marked enemy targets through the smoke. His squad fired with ruthless precision, their bullets splashing against red-shaded targets.

The enemy came walking through amidst a noisy hail of shrapnel. Garek kept expecting to see one of them fall, muscles spasming in agony, but as the smoke cleared, Garek saw no bodies—only erect, bipedal aliens, and they wore no armor. Instead, each of them wore antiquated black robes, and pristine blue skin showed where sleeves, lapels, and hems ended. Glowing eyes pricked through the smoke, casting about curiously, as if bored with the noisy tirade of cannons.

“AP cannons having no effect,” one of the bots reported on the command channel. “Switching to explosive rounds.”

 Garek’s squad stopped firing, a momentary pause while they switched out regular magazines for explosive ones. Garek’s ears rang with the echoes of gunfire as he hurried to do the same, all the while wondering: why are they just standing there? And why don’t they have any weapons?

 As one, the aliens raised their hands, palms out, as if to say: stop, don’t shoot!

 Garek blinked in shock. Maybe they’d got it all wrong. Maybe these aliens weren’t hostile. Maybe they came in peace. Maybe we were the ones who fired the first shots eight years ago.

“Weapons hold!” Garek ordered, a split second before his squad would have opened fire. Garek stood up and stepped out of cover. He held his hands up, palms out, like he saw the aliens doing, and switched his comms to external speaker mode. “We don’t want to fight you,” he said. “This is a peaceful vessel on a peaceful mission of exploration.” He didn’t expect the aliens to understand him, but he hoped they’d be able to infer something from his tone of voice.

One of the blue-skinned aliens turned to him. This one wore gray robes rather than black. It had glowing, ice-blue eyes, and wore some kind of luminous gold crown on its head, while the others flaunted hairless blue scalps. The one with the crown made a gesture to his fellows, and they lowered their palms. Then it stepped to the fore.

“Hello, Garek,” it said.

Garek flinched. “You know my name?” And on the heels of that: “You’re speaking Versal! How...” He shook his head, uncomprehending. “Who are you?”

“My name is Lucien,” the alien said.

Garek’s eyebrows shot up as that name clicked into place. Lucien Ortane was the chief of security in Fallside. What was an alien doing with his name? In his experience most alien names were an un-pronounceable series of clicks, chirps, and growls.

 “As for who I am, I am the God and ruler of this universe,” the alien went on. “And we are Faros. We met once before, but you don’t remember that meeting.”

 The Inquisitor. That explained how this being knew him. Garek worked some moisture into his suddenly dry mouth and shook his head. “You should be speaking to our leaders. I can escort you to an audience with them if you like,” Garek suggested.

“I am already speaking with them.”

Garek blinked. Confusion swirled. “I’m not a lead—”

“Not you. Not here. I am in many places. Your leaders have agreed to a surrender.” The Faro’s blue eyes brightened, and a smile curved his lips. “Your people are now slaves of the Farosien Empire.”

Garek’s blood turned to ice. “What do you mean slaves?”

 The alien didn’t have a chance to reply. There came a tell-tale flash of dazzling white light that left them both momentarily blind and groping in a sea of white cotton. Astralis had just jumped away. The surrender must have been a ploy to escape.

When Garek finished blinking the spots from his eyes, he saw that the alien’s smile was broader than ever. He looked delighted. “So you have some fight in you after all. Good!”

“Weapons free!” Garek yelled.

His squad opened fire with a roar of explosive rounds. The corridor turned white again, but this time from the constant flurry of explosions. Amidst the bursts of light and glowing shrapnel, the blue aliens stood their ground, shielded from the onslaught by unseen means. Slowly, they drew shimmering swords from scabbards on their backs, and they started toward Garek’s squad. The crown-wearing alien reached the first bot and casually sliced it in half with his sword. The pieces clattered as they fell. Those swords were shimmering for a reason. The blades had to be razor-shielded—sheathed in microscopically-sharp energy shields.

Garek’s guts twisted into a knot as he imagined being sliced in half just like that bot. “Fall back!” he yelled over the squad’s comm channel. He turned and ran as fast as he dared in the confines of the ship’s corridors. His feet slammed the deck like thunder. With his suit’s augmented strength, Garek was able to put a lot of distance between him and the invading aliens in just a few seconds. He breathed out a shaky sigh as he neared the end of the corridor.

 They wouldn’t be able to touch him with their swords now, and it didn’t look like the aliens had any ranged weapons. No sooner had he finished that thought than a flash of movement raced into and out of Garek’s peripheral vision with an accompanying thup-thup-thup of robes slapping bare skin, like a flag flying high in a stiff wind.

The crown-wearing alien now stood blocking the way at the end of the corridor. Garek stumbled as he tried to slow down, but he was moving too fast. With his exosuit’s augmented strength he’d already hit 45 kph.

The Faro gave a gaping grin, and a black tongue flicked over black lips. He thrust out his shimmering sword a split second before Garek collided with him. The sword went through him, armor and all, with a searing heat. The alien stumbled back a few steps with his momentum, but he pushed back with impossible strength, and managed to remain standing. The Faro’s blazing blue eyes were wide and gleeful.

Garek coughed, splattering the inside of his helmet with a crimson ink-blot. He could feel his blood boiling where it touched the alien sword; he heard it sizzling as smoke rose from his belly. Garek gaped, breathless, at the blue-skinned monster before him, the one who called himself by a human name and spoke their language as if it were his own.

Darkness swelled, and Garek’s head swam. The Faro pulled him close, until those glowing blue eyes were all he could see, and then the alien whispered into the audio-pickup in the chin of Garek’s helmet.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of your daughter.”

Garek’s eyes flew wide, and he raged against the encroaching darkness. He grabbed the Faro’s neck in both of his hands and squeezed with all of the strength he had left. The alien sneered and flexed his neck against the assault, battling with Garek’s hands, trying to break his grip. Then something popped and snapped. Garek felt bones grind together beneath his fingers, and the alien’s head sagged at an odd angle, blue eyes suddenly dim and fading. Garek let go and stumbled away, taking the alien’s shimmering, sizzling sword with him in his belly. He coughed up another crimson ink-blot. Unable to see, he reached for his helmet with numb hands and twisted it off. Stumbling in a dizzy circle and fighting to remain standing, Garek batted clumsily at the hilt of the sword protruding from his torso. After several tries, he managed to grab the sword and pull it free. Blood bubbled lazily from a broad slit in his suit, and Garek collapsed to his knees, eyes wide and blinking. His mind raged against his body, urging it to stand and fight, but his muscles didn’t so much as twitch.

Garek blinked, watching the last bot in his squad fall in half a dozen pieces as three swords flashed through it at the same time. Then the blue-skinned aliens stalked toward him. It was all he could do to remain conscious and watch as they came for him. Those aliens hoisted him to his feet, pulling him up as if he weighed nothing at all, then they turned and held him facing their fallen leader, the one whose neck Garek had snapped. The alien lay on the deck with that haughty grin frozen on its lips, blue eyes bright and staring at the ceiling.

Garek blinked and heaved a shuddering gasp. Those eyes had been dim a moment ago. As he watched, the impossible happened. The dead rose to life. The alien’s broken neck once again held its grinning head high, and those glowing blue eyes swept to Garek.

 The dead alien spoke: “You cannot kill me.” It held out a strangely glowing hand to its fallen sword, and the blade snapped into its palm. The dormant weapon shimmered to life with a barely audible hum of energy.

Garek blinked, wondering what he’d just seen. Some kind of grav gun? But there was no device in the alien’s hand—just as he hadn’t seen any kind of shield emitter lurking beneath the alien’s robes. It was as if they weren’t really flesh and blood, but some kind of living technology.

 The alien leader stalked toward him. With a derisive twist of its lips, the one who called himself Lucien—light-bringer—ran him through, over and over again. The shimmering blade flashed in and out of Garek’s torso with a searing heat, and his mouth opened in a soundless scream.

 Just as he felt his life slipping away, the alien held up a glowing palm to his face and blinded him with pure, radiant light. Light-bringer, he thought, as the light swept him into a blinding sea. For a frozen heartbeat, Garek saw the mind of his enemy laid bare; it unfolded before him in a landscape of thoughts, memories, and plans as old as time. He wanted to scream out a warning to any who would listen, but it was over before he could: the light faded, taking this strange new world with it, and he was left to flail in the dark.

 Alien whispers skittered around him, followed by hissing laughter. Somehow Garek knew that alien had seen into him, just as he had seen into it. It had been to the landscape of his mind and found something there, some vital weakness in Astralis that would be their undoing.

Garek battled the darkness, every ounce of his being clawing for purchase, fingernails cracking as they held to a shadowy cliff over a gaping abyss. He tried thinking the thoughts that would activate his comms and allow him to send the others a warning, but he couldn’t tell if it worked, and he no longer had the strength to hold on. He lost his grip and fell into the abyss. The darkness was so absolute that not even time could escape. This was death: falling forever in a frozen instant between all that was, and all that wasn’t, into a place so empty that not even energy could exist.



Chapter 8

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Astralis jumped. Tyra stood blinking spots from her eyes as the afterglow from the jump faded. Confusion warred with tenuous hope in her brain. The last thing she’d heard from the battle was that they were overrun and the enemy was boarding them. How had they gone from that to being able to jump away?

 Tyra stared at the holomap of Fallside in her office, where she and the heads of various departments and emergency response units had gathered to oversee the evacuation of Fallside’s outer sections. Her responsibility didn’t extend to directing the defense of her city, but she could clearly see the green dots that marked the locations where squads of Marines had been deployed, and the red and green Xs, that indicated where enemy soldiers and friendly Marines had fallen. There were only a handful of red Xs for fallen enemies, but plenty of green.

“We jumped? What’s happening, Madam Councilor?” Fallside’s Chancellor of Education sidled up to her, his high brow furrowed with concern.

Tyra shook her head. “I know as much as you do, Chancellor.” Turning away from the others in the room, Tyra walked over to a window overlooking Fallside and used her ARCs to mentally place a call to Chief Councilor Ellis. He answered after just a brief delay.

“This had better be important.”

“What’s happening?” Tyra demanded.

Ellis sighed. “Your curiosity can wait, Mrs. Ortane.”

She pressed on, “We jumped away?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“At the risk of repeating my—”

“Never mind. I’m joining you on the bridge.”

“You don’t have clearance!”

“Then grant me clearance! If I’m supposed to keep Fallside safe, I need to know what I’m up against. Where are we now? Were we followed? How many hostiles do we have on board? What’s the nature and disposition of the enemy forces?”

“None of that is any of your concern, Councilor. Rest assured Admiral Stavos and General Graves are doing everything they can to keep us safe.”

Tyra didn’t reply, but Ellis must have heard her panting over the comms.

“Did you hear me, Councilor?”

“I heard you,” she said as she reached the nearest elevator.

“Why are you out of breath?”

 “See you soon,” she said, and ended the comms. She punched in -500 on the keypad and the elevator dropped swiftly through Hubble Mountain, down past two hundred and fifty meters of dirt, and past more than a kilometer of decks on its way to the command level.

Tyra’s AR implant trilled with an incoming call from Ellis, and a corresponding comms icon flashed in the top right corner of her field of view. She muted the sound and ignored the flashing icon.

Leaving the familiar comforts of the surface behind on her way down into the labyrinthine depths of the ship’s sub-levels, Tyra felt more cut off from her children than ever, but she’d already checked in with Lucien, and both Atara and Theola were safely hidden away in Hubble Mountain Shelter Twelve.

Besides, the only way she could know how much danger they were really in was by going down to the bridge and demanding answers, so it wasn’t like she was abandoning them. Not really.

The elevator reached sub level five hundred, and the door slid open. Tyra jogged out into a no-frills corridor that sported low ceilings with exposed conduits and naked, scuffed metal walls.

 She pulled up a map on her ARCs to locate the bridge and followed the guide prompts to get there: take next left down Corridor C. Make right at junction four. Await scans at Security Checkpoint Delta.

Tyra must have jogged past a dozen squads of Marine bots with their human sergeants trailing safely behind before one of those sergeants thought to ask where she was going.

“On my way to the bridge to see Admiral Stavos and General Graves,” she said, between gasps for air.

“I’ll escort you there,” the sergeant said.

“Thank you... Sergeant Ikes,” Tyra replied, looking his name up on her ARCs. She thanked her luck that he’d asked where she was going. This sergeant was probably her best bet to actually get into the bridge. Sergeant Ikes led the way there, striking a brisk pace that made her feel like she needed to jog to keep up. The sergeant’s squad of bots clanked along behind her, their metal feet striking the deck in perfect synchrony.

When they arrived at the bridge, a pair of guard bots scanned her and the sergeant with flickering blue fans of light while the sergeant’s squad fanned out to wait on either side of the doors.

As soon as the scans were complete, the doors parted to reveal a vast chamber with several tiers of catwalks and control stations. The far wall soared with four-story-high viewscreens and unparalleled starry vistas.

Sergeant Ikes led Tyra straight up to a holo table in the center of the deck where they’d emerged. Familiar faces leaned over that table, aglow in the azure light of holo imagery.

The sergeant fetched up short in front of a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man in a Marine’s gleaming black exosuit. His helmet was missing, revealing dark hair, clipped peach-fuzz short, and the collar of a Marine’s uniform, sporting the four silver stars of a general’s insignia.

“Sergeant Ikes reporting, General,” he said, saluting crisply.

The general straightened from leaning over the table and returned his salute; then his eyes flicked to Tyra and he looked her up and down with one dark eyebrow raised.

“I have Madam Councilor Ortane here from Fallside to see you, sir,” Sergeant Ikes explained.

“I didn’t request to see any councilors,” he barked gruffly, and Sergeant Ikes faltered visibly. The sergeant glanced uncertainly at Tyra, and she smiled sympathetically back.

“My fault,” she said. “I led Sergeant Ikes to believe I had been summoned here.”

Graves snorted. “I see. In that case, you can leave.”

“This way, ma’am...” Ikes said, taking her by the arm to lead her back the way they’d come.

Tyra jerked her arm free and stood her ground. “Hold on! I have tens of millions of people trampling each other on their way to get to shelters that were only built to hold a few hundred thousand. If I’m expected to calm all those people down and bring order, I need to know what’s going on.”

General Graves ground his teeth. “I don’t have time for this. Councilor Ellis—”

Chief Councilor Ellis looked up from the holo table with a tight smile. “I’ll deal with her, General.” Ellis came and took her aside. “I told you not to come here,” he chided in his most patient voice, the one he reserved for detractors at political rallies.

Tyra rounded on him with arms crossed over her chest. “I’ll go just as soon as you answer my questions.”

Ellis’s eyes narrowed. “What do you want to know?”

“How did we get away? We were surrounded. They must have had quantum jamming fields engaged. They did the last time.”

“We jumped through their jamming field.”

Horror sliced through Tyra at that. “I thought jumping through a magnetic field could cause a jump failure... what do you call it?”

A new voice joined the discussion: “Scattering. The chances were high, but we didn’t have a choice.”

Tyra turned to see Admiral Stavos come striding up to them. He stopped a few feet away, a picture of calm and obsessive neatness. His short white hair—a fashionable color for a man with his rank and position—was perfectly combed and gelled into submission, and his matching Van Dyke beard was trimmed to a regulation length. His uniform was neatly pressed and a spotless white with gold buttons and medals gleaming brightly, as if they’d just been polished. The five golden stars of his rank insignia glittered on his collar, winking at Tyra from the shadows under his chin.

“How high were the chances?” Tyra pressed.

“Forty-seven percent. Not odds I’d want to play again with three hundred and fifty million lives hanging in the balance.”

Tyra nodded woodenly. The admiral had just tossed a coin to determine their survival. No wonder he’d waited until they’d already been boarded to jump out. He’d probably been hoping to find some other way to escape. Any other way.

“Where are we now?” she asked.

Ellis shrugged. “Does it matter? Somewhere.”

Tyra chambered a deadly look, twin barrels glaring at him. “Did the enemy fleet follow us?”

“Not yet,” Admiral Stavos replied. “But we still have hundreds of alien troops on board, and we’re having difficulty eliminating them. We’re jamming all outbound comms to make sure they can’t transmit a signal to their fleet, but they might still find a way to do that if they can disable our jammers.”

 “Hundreds of alien troops? That’s it? You’re telling me a few hundred aliens are overwhelming our defenses?”

“I’m afraid so,” Stavos replied.

 Tyra was shocked. They had over a million Marine bots on Astralis, plus thousands of human sergeants and security forces. It was absurd to think a few hundred of anything could overwhelm all of them.

Ellis nodded. “Now you know why the general is in such a bad mood. They have us falling back faster than we can retreat.”

“How is that possible?” Tyra asked.

“Our weapons appear to be ineffectual against their personal shields,” Admiral Stavos put in. “At the risk of damaging our own ship, we’re bringing heavier firepower to bear.”

“What do they want? Have they made contact with us? Any demands?”

“Unfortunately, they have,” Ellis said. “Their leader is aboard... several dozen clones of him, anyway.” Tyra’s eyes widened at that. “They all speak Versal fluently.”

 “Versal?” The shocks just kept coming. Tyra shook her head, struggling to process the implications of that. “What were his—their—demands?”

“First he introduced himself and explained who they are,” Ellis said. “Apparently they’re a race of humanoids called the Faros, and they claim to have been created by Etherus alongside the Etherians. They were to be Etheria’s army, but they instigated a rebellion, which led to the Great War. After which, as you know, Etherus put some of the rebel Etherians in human bodies to give them a taste of freedom. The part that’s news to us is that Etherus exiled all the Faros beyond the Red Line.”

 “So that arbitrary line that Etherus told everyone not to cross is a political boundary?”

Ellis nodded. “Part of a treaty that the Faros signed with Etherus before humans even existed. It divides the Farosien Empire from the Etherian Empire.”

Tyra scowled. “Etherus might have mentioned that before we left.”

 “He might have mentioned a lot of things,” Ellis replied. “Anyway, their leader calls himself Lucien, and he—”

 Tyra held up a hand to stop Ellis there. “Lucien? You mean like my Lucien?

 “I know. I thought that was strange, too. Might be a coincidence, but we’re going to have to look into it. Anyway, the alien Lucien seems to know a lot about us. He claims to have met our people aboard the Inquisitor eight years ago, and apparently he killed several of them personally, or one of his clones did, anyway.”

Tyra gaped at Ellis. “Did he say why? Did they provoke him somehow?”

“They refused to submit to slavery. The very same offense we are busy committing now. Admiral Stavos pretended to surrender and then jumped through their jamming field without warning, despite the high risk of scattering.”

Admiral Stavos nodded along with that. “Lady luck is definitely with us. Let’s hope it stays that way.”

A female lieutenant rushed up to the admiral, breathless, her golden eyes wide and flickering with images from her ARCs. “Admiral, we have a problem!” she said.

He turned and nodded for her to continue. “Yes?”

“Reactors sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen are all registering unusual activity.”

“Define unusual, Lieutenant Ruso.”

“Radiation spikes well outside normal bounds. Power output is erratic. If it continues like this, there’ll be a containment failure and they’ll all go critical.”

“So shut them down. We have hundreds of reactors. We can live without three of them.”

“I tried, sir. They’re not responding.”

“Then send teams to shut them down manually!”

“I would, sir, but two of those reactors are behind enemy lines.”

The admiral’s expression froze somewhere between horror and dawning realization. “Clever little kakards... How long do we have before those reactors blow?”

“Ten, maybe twenty minutes.”

“At least those sections are evacuated. If we’re lucky the blue-skins will blow themselves up and save us the trouble.”

 “Hopefully, sir, but one of the affected reactors is behind our lines. The operators on site say the manual overrides aren’t working.”

Admiral Stavos ran a hand through his beard. “They don’t have access to that one, so they must be hacking our control systems.”

“That’s what I thought, but it might also be a physical data probe traveling through the coolant pipes or electrical conduits. Whatever the case, the effects are spreading from one reactor to another, and fast... I think we’re going to have to shut down all of our other reactors preemptively until we can find the source of the problem.”

Admiral Stavos shook his head. “If we do that, the whole ship will be running on fumes. Gravity, life support, lights, jamming fields—all of that will be running on reserve power, and when reserves start to run dry, systems will fail all over the ship—including the comms jammers that are keeping the enemy from calling in their fleet.”

 “Yes, sir, but if we don’t shut everything down now, the enemy is going to keep turning our reactors into bombs, one after another, until Astralis rips itself apart.”

Tyra couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “How could something like this happen?”

“Shut them down,” Admiral Stavos growled.

“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Ruso replied, already turning to leave.

“And find the problem before we run out of power! I want every available man and bot on the job.”

“Aye, sir,” she said, and took off at a run.

Admiral Stavos turned back to Tyra and Ellis. “Excuse me, councilors.”

“Wait—” Tyra said. “How long do we have before power starts to fail?”

“That depends. We’re going to have to ration it, so some systems are going to go down immediately. Gravity sucks the most power, so I’m going to have to kill that first.”

 Tyra blinked in shock and shook her head. “You can’t. There’s millions of people on the surface level! Our water reservoirs are there. You kill the gravity, and there’ll be nothing to hold them in place. The tiniest shift in our momentum will send trillions of gallons floating free, bulldozing homes, uprooting trees, and drowning everyone in their path.”

 “I have no intention of maneuvering the ship while gravity is offline, so Newton’s first law should save us—an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by an unbalanced force.

 “You’re assuming that an unbalanced force needs to come from the engines, but we’re talking about a complex system of forces, including weather forces that are constantly engaged all over Astralis. One rain drop, falling at the moment that you turn off the gravity, will sail on until it hits the surface of a lake, and when it does, it will knock a dozen more raindrops free and send them flying back up into the sky.”

The admiral’s lips quirked into a grim smile. “So find an umbrella.”

“You’re missing the point, Admiral. You can’t predict what the effects of this will be. There’s too many variables, too many tiny fluctuations.”

 Stavos leveled an accusing finger at her. “No, you’re missing the point, Councilor. You think I don’t understand chaos theory? I was schooled in science by the Academy, the same as you. The difference is, I also studied war, and war is all about minimizing casualties.

 “There are three hundred million people living in Astralis, and over ninety percent of them live either above or below the surface. To them, turning off the gravity will only be a minor nuisance, and I can protect them by doing so. As for the other ten percent who live under boundless skies—yes, their homes might be bulldozed, or they might temporarily lose their lives in the chaos, but when it’s all over, the other ninety percent will still be around to resurrect them. My way, everybody lives—your way, everybody dies. I think that makes the choice obvious, don’t you?”

Tyra had nothing to say to that. All she could think about was a tidal wave the size of Planck Lake crashing into Hubble Mountain, cracking it open, and drowning her children.

Admiral Stavos turned and stalked away, heading for the comms control station. Ellis followed him there, and Tyra listened in horror as the two of them delivered a dire warning to everyone on board, saying they had just five minutes to secure themselves and their belongings as best they could.

Before they’d even finished speaking, Tyra placed a call to her husband.

“Tyra? I—”

“Lucien! Get back to the shelter! They’re going to turn off the gravity. Find the girls and keep them safe!”

“I know. I’m already on my way,” Lucien replied, sounding out of breath. “I’ll let you know when I get there. You’d better find someplace safe, too.”

Tyra nodded. “I will. I love you.”

“Love you, too,” he replied.



Chapter 9

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

As the patrol car raced out of the station, Lucien glanced at his old partner, Brak, sitting in the back beside him. Before he’d been promoted to chief of security, they’d worked together every day, but now they only did so occasionally, whenever Lucien could find an excuse to leave the station and go out on patrol.

“Thanks for coming with me, buddy,” Lucien said. Brak’s presence made this look more like official police business, and less like the chief of security for Fallside abandoning his duty in the middle of a crisis.

“It is nothing to mention,” Brak growled, and bared his dagger-sharp black teeth in a fearsome grimace that was probably meant to be a brotherly smile.

 They’d been friends forever, since long before Astralis had left New Earth, and the Etherian Empire, since before they could even count to ten. Well, at least before Lucien could; Gors grew up a lot faster than humans. Their relationship had oscillated from Lucien acting like the big brother, to Brak doing so, and back again until their respective levels of maturity had more or less equalized and they’d graduated together as Paragons and peers.

 Soon after that, Lucien had decided to join Astralis’s mission to the cosmic horizon. Brak had followed him with the plan to change his mind, but when that plan failed, the Gor had decided to join Astralis’s mission, too, supposedly for the adventure, but Lucien suspected otherwise. Brak had fallen back into their old pattern. He was being the big brother again.

 Lucien glanced at the timer on his ARCs, counting down until gravity switched off all over Astralis.

 Thirty seconds until the picturesque surface level became a nightmare. There were fail-safes in place to prevent gravity from ever failing. It was supposed to be impossible. More than ninety percent of the ship’s reactors would have to go offline before the gravity did, and even then it would have remained at a fraction of normal strength.

 But this wasn’t some kind of unforeseen systems failure. Chief Councilor Ellis and Admiral Stavos were shutting off the ship’s gravity intentionally—pre-emptively, they said. Before something worse happens.

It was hard to imagine something worse. What they were about to do was unconscionable. Lucien gazed fixedly out the side window of the hover, watching the scenery roll by beneath them...

Then the timer hit zero, and the hover bucked under them. Lucien’s guts twisted, but didn’t surge up into his throat as he’d expected. The hover’s grav lifts were now an unbalanced force, sending it rocketing up and pushing him down into his seat.

The driver program detected the problem and negated their vertical thrust, but they sailed on with their momentum until Lucien heard the dorsal maneuvering jets firing to push them back down. The contents of Lucien’s stomach surged, and his seat restraints dug into his shoulders, holding him down. Acid burned in the back of his throat and he grimaced with distaste.

“We are experiencing a gravity malfunction. Please make sure your seat buckles are securely fastened,” the driver program said.

Unused seat belts floated up to eye level with Lucien before the buckles reached the end of their slack and bounced back down. Simultaneously, thousands of individual strands of his hair went through the same vertical whiplash effect.

 But outside nothing appeared to be happening. Astralis wasn’t in motion like his hover was, at least not changing motion, so there was nothing to knock anything loose from its initial state of rest relative to the rest of the ship.

Lake water stayed in lake beds. Trees remained rooted. Parked hover cars still sat on their landing pads.

Lucien breathed a sigh of relief.

 Then a sudden flash of light dazzled his eyes, and he winced against the glare. Had Astralis just jumped again? But no, that couldn’t be. They couldn’t jump out while running on reserve power...

 A titanic boom, rumbled through the sky, stealing his attention.

 Thunder? Lucien wondered, as he peered up at the cloudless blue sky over Fallside. As he watched, the sky shivered; then it caved in, and fire gushed out between tumbling chunks of molten orange metal. The debris fell like meteors, each the size of a house or building. A gaping black hole appeared in the clear blue sky. Smoke swirled inside that opening, and molten debris plummeted.

The shock wave hit next. A blast of heat knocked the hover sideways, and Lucien’s seat restraints dug into his chest and shoulders with terrifying force. Alarms screamed in the cockpit, and the driver program issued a banal warning: “We are experiencing turbulence, please make sure your seat buckles are securely fastened.”

“What is happening?” Brak shook his skull-shaped head, his gaunt cheeks slack and black teeth bared in a quizzical sneer.

 Wind roared, buffeting their hover car with stifling heat. Lucien blinked as rivers of sweat ran into his eyes. Wake up. He thought. This couldn’t be real.

 Just as the force of the shock wave was abating, the hover lurched upward again, pinning them in their seats. So much for zero-G, Lucien thought. He had yet to experience more than a moment of it.

“Driver, what’s going on?” Lucien demanded. “Why are we ascending?”

“We are experiencing turbulence, please do not be alarmed.”

Lucien scowled at the unhelpful answer, and turned to look out the side window of the hover, hoping he’d be able to see for himself. He did, but he still couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

 The chunks of debris tumbling to the ground had slowed and were now reversing their course, flying back up into the sky. Trees, water, dirt, rocks, houses, hover cars, and everything else gradually followed, lifting off and swirling in circles below the gaping hole in the sky.

An inverted tornado. Lucien watched as it gathered strength, quickly darkening into a black funnel. The oily tip snaked up and touched the hole in the sky, where it remained.

“No!” Lucien slapped the window with his palms as hard as he could, vainly hoping that the stinging pain would wake him up.

 But the chaos only amplified, quickly reaching clear across Fallside. Wind roared deafeningly around the hover once more, and writhing tentacles of water snaked up from lakes and rivers; waterfalls pouring from Hubble Mountain inverted their course, falling up into the spinning vortex in the sky.

The hover shuddered and the engines moaned as the driver program tried to compensate. It was like wading to shore against the backwash of a tidal wave, except the ocean they were being carried into was cold hard vacuum.

Hover cars were atmospheric vehicles, not spacecraft. If they got sucked out, they’d be dead within seconds.

Lucien fumbled with his seat restraints, hands shaking as he unbuckled.

“Death comes for usss,” Brak hissed.

“Death can go frek itself!” Lucien replied as he broke free of his restraints. He jumped up and grabbed the bottom of the bench seat facing theirs. Folding it to either side and folding the seat back down into that space, he revealed a narrow passage leading into the cockpit.

Lucien crawled through. It was cramped inside the cockpit, built for one rather than two to maintain the patrol hover’s speedy, aerodynamic profile.

He managed to wrestle himself into place, legs in their slots, feet resting over rudder pedals. Reaching around he unfolded the back of the pilot’s chair, blocking the passage behind him once more. All patrol model hover cars had space for a human pilot in addition to the nine seats in the back—six for officers, three for detainees.

Lucien deactivated the autopilot and grabbed the flight yoke. He slammed the flight yoke down and pushed the throttle up past the stops into overdrive. The hover shook like a leaf, and the thrusters screamed, but the range to Hubble Mountain began dropping steadily.

 Thunk! A rock bounced off the nose of the hover. Then a handful of pebbles and leaves skittered across the windshield, followed by a curling column of water, invisible until the last second. It splashed over them, slapping the hover with a noisy bang. Collision alert warnings screamed belatedly. Another rock hit, this time slamming into the canopy and drawing a spider’s web of fractures in the glass.

Lucien grimaced and activated a sensor overlay to shade and highlight the debris. Fuzzy red clouds of dirt appeared; larger specks for pebbles and rocks; a writhing red tentacle of water...

A spinning boulder the size of a house sailed up in front of him, and the cockpit turned solid red. Lucien jerked the yoke to starboard and rolled in the same direction. A collision alert screamed, and Lucien fired the grav lifts at full strength.

 They bounced off the boulder with a brief crushing sensation, and then the rest of Astralis snapped into focus once more. Lucien breathed a sigh of relief—

But it caught in his throat. The inverted pyramid of the Academy was cracking away from its perch atop Hubble Mountain. A shattered rain of glinting blue glass fell from its walls.

Lucien felt a flash of satisfaction as the symbol of his wife’s abandonment was ripped away. Then he remembered that there were thousands of people inside that building, and all of them were about to suffocate in the dark. He grimaced and dove for the base of Hubble Mountain, heading straight for Shelter Twelve.

Debris continued to assault the car on the way down, but the effects were milder closer to the surface. The shelter’s garage doors swept up in front of him, and Lucien fired the grav lifts to halt his momentum, followed by a steady blast from the dorsal jets to keep the car hovering in front of the entrance.

He keyed the comms. “Shelter Twelve, this is Chief of Security Ortane, requesting emergency landing clearance. Please respond, over.”

Static hissed back at him over the comms. Something scraped by the hover car, pushing it out of line. Lucien compensated with both lateral and dorsal jets. A second later he caught a glimpse of a tree branch waving at him as it sailed by the port side of the cockpit.

“Shelter Twelve, I repeat this is Security Chief Ortane, requesting emergency landing clearance, Over!”

More static...

And then a reply slithered back: “I read you, Lucien. Please proceed.” That was not the voice of the shelter’s comm operator. The voice was androgynous and silky smooth, with an accent like nothing Lucien had ever heard before.

“Who is this?”

The static was back. In lieu of a reply, the garage doors began rumbling open.

 Fear clawed at Lucien’s heart as he realized he must have just spoken with one of the aliens. They’d taken over the shelter. Lucien keyed the comms once more and switched channels to his station’s band. “Central, this is Sierra one zero, requesting backup at Shelter Twelve. Hostages taken. Over.”

Lucien throttled up and glided forward, fighting unpredictable gusts of air to keep them from slamming into the roof of the garage on the way in.

A reply came, but the comms crackled with a burst of interference that garbled the message.

“Say again, Central,” Lucien commed back.

Another crackle of interference came, but this time Lucien heard the message. “Sierra one zero, this is Central. Cannot comply, all units grounded due to hull breach. Do not engage. Marines en route ETA ten minutes. Over.”

 “Negative, Central. Marines too slow. Sierra one zero responding.” Lucien switched channels to the inside of the patrol car before the dispatcher could reply. “Listen up, Brak: we’ve got a hostage situation in the shelter. No backup from Central, but Marines are on their way. ETA in ten. I can’t wait; my kids are in there, but you don’t have to follow me in, buddy.”

 Brak replied, hissing into the comms, “You insssult my honor, Bud-dee. I follow you.”

 “Copy that,” Lucien said as he set the hover down in the garage. The doors rumbled shut behind them with a resonant bang, sealing the shelter’s atmosphere against the raging vortex outside. Lucien unbuckled and popped the canopy open. The thin air rushed in, making his head spin. He stood up carefully and grabbed the rim of the canopy overhead to hold himself down while he climbed out of the cockpit. In zero-G every step threatened to launch him to the ceiling.

Using the rungs on the side of the cockpit, Lucien rotated his body until he was facing the aft of the hover car, where the equipment locker was located. Pushing off carefully, he sent himself drifting to the back of the car. He managed to stabilize his trajectory and keep himself on course by grabbing hold of intake vents and control surfaces along the way.

 Hang on girls, Daddy’s coming...



Chapter 10

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

“What do you mean Fallside is depressurizing?” Admiral Stavos demanded.

“It’s exposed to vacuum, sir,” the chief engineer, Lieutenant Ruso, said. “There was a massive detonation somewhere between decks twelve zero five and twelve fifteen soon after we turned off the gravity.”

 Tyra listened to the exchange with growing horror from where she sat belted in at an auxiliary control station. Someone had snagged a pair of mag boots for her before they’d shut off the gravity, but she was in no rush to test them out. Her stomach was still adapting to zero-G, and she didn’t think walking around was going to help.

“Was the explosion caused by the faulty reactors?” Chief Councilor Ellis asked.

Admiral Stavos shook his head. “No, two or three reactors going critical wouldn’t cause that kind of damage. This was a bomb. They baited us and we fell for it—got us to turn off the gravity so their bomb would do maximum damage when it ripped open the sky.”

“Then turn the gravity back on!” Ellis said.

 Stavos shook his head. “We can’t. Everything in the whole damn city is halfway into space already. We turn the gravity back on now and all of the debris goes plummeting to the ground, causing even more damage. Whatever went up must not come back down.”

General Graves waved to them from the holo table in the center of the command deck. “Admiral, you need to see this!”

Both Admiral Stavos and Chief Councilor Ellis hurried over to the table.

Tyra’s thoughts went out to Lucien, and she mentally placed a call to reach him, but it just rang and rang...

That pushed her anxiety into overload, and she couldn’t sit still any longer. She unbuckled from her control station and followed Stavos and Graves, walking gingerly across the deck and trying not to make any sudden movements that might encourage the contents of her stomach to make a dash for freedom.

Tyra reached the table in time to see the general pointing to a group of about ten red dots surrounded by a few dozen green ones on a map of one of the ship’s lower decks. “They’re in the sub-levels,” Graves explained. Already down to sub four hundred. We shut down the elevators before they could get any further, but they’re still on the move, using the stairwells now.”

“On the move to where?” Admiral Stavos asked, while running a hand through his beard.

 “Based on their proximity, and their consistent downward push...” Graves looked up from the holo table. “I’d say they’re on their way here, sir.”

Admiral Stavos straightened and turned to address his crew. “Lock down the bridge!”

“Aye, sir!” someone replied.

Klaxons blared and crimson lights flashed.

Turning back to the general, Stavos said, “Get as many squads down here as you can. We hold the bridge at all costs.”

“Yes, sir.”

Graves got on the comms to his men, barking out orders in his raspy voice.

Tyra turned in a slow circle, watching the frenzy of activity going on all around her. A Marine sergeant and a pair of bots ran from station to station with armfuls of equipment that she couldn’t quite make out in the dim light. Then one of the bots came clanking up to her and held out a plasma pistol with a belt and holster attached.

She hesitated.

“For your protection, ma’am,” the bot explained, its glowing red eyes insistent.

“Take it,” Ellis said as he accepted a matching pistol from another Marine bot and belted it on. “If they get through those doors, we’re going to need all the firepower we can get.”

Tyra reached for the weapon. The cold weight of it felt strange in her hands. She was a politician, not a soldier. What was she supposed to do with a gun? It had been so long since she’d trained to use a weapon that she’d probably have more luck using it as a bludgeon. Then again, from what she’d seen and heard of their weapons’ effectiveness against the enemy, it probably wouldn’t matter anyway.

“How many of them have we killed?” Tyra asked.

Ellis stared blankly back, unable to answer.

General Graves looked up from the holo table, his eyes gleaming blackly. His features were all stark blue shadows in the light of the table, while his bristly dark hair blazed red in the flashing lights of the lock-down. “None yet, ma’am.”

 Tyra did a double take. “None?

“Every time we think we’ve put one down, it heals itself and comes back to life. All we’ve managed to do so far is slow them down.”

 Tyra turned away in shock, her eyes drifting to the doors of the bridge. If these Faros were that hard to kill, then it wouldn’t matter how many Marines the general sent to defend the bridge. They’d never be able to hold it.

***

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

 Lucien opened the equipment locker at the back of the patrol car, clinging to the door like a life raft in a stormy sea. Brak stood effortlessly beside the engine cowling, already wearing his mag boots.

 Lucien gazed into the locker, trying to decide what he’d need. Fortunately, this car had come fully equipped. Boxy black shield packs hung from racks. Matching flak jackets and plates of mirror-smooth refractive armor accompanied those, along with mag boots and helmets. Lucien took off his comfy shoes in favor of the over-sized metal boots and hurried to activate them. His boot soles hit the deck with a comforting clu-clunk, and Lucien released his death grip on the door.

 Next he donned a flak jacket, followed by the refractive torso armor, and finally one of the shield packs. None of it seemed to weigh anything at all thanks to the zero-G environment, but when he tried leaning and twisting his torso, he felt the weight of the equipment resisting his movements. He grabbed a helmet and strapped it around his chin before selecting a weapon from the rack on the inside of the locker door.

Brak passed over the choices of armor—he was fresh off patrol and already wearing his own custom-fit flak jacket and shield pack, which he wore in reverse, over his broad chest.

Lucien selected an automatic laser rifle and a stun pistol; then he clipped a pair of stun grenades to his belt, as well as a pair of the deadly plasma version.

Turning to Brak, he noted that the Gor hadn’t selected any weapons yet. Lucien scowled. “Hurry up!”

Brak nodded wordlessly and pushed him aside to look through the options in the locker.

 Lucien imagined the blue-skinned aliens somehow finding his children and singling them out for some horrible fate. The one at the comms had somehow known his name, and it had spoken Versal. Lucien had heard the initial news reports back at the station, so he already knew to expect that, but what he didn’t know was how any of them could possibly know his name.

Brak bent to retrieve a giant rifle from a case in the bottom of the locker.

Lucien blinked. “You can’t take that.”

“Why not?” Brak asked, hefting the massive weapon.

Lucien shook his head. “Because you won’t just take out your target—you’ll also kill whoever is standing next to them. Take something smaller.”

Brak snatched a stun pistol from the rack and clipped it to his belt. “Now I have something smaller. Happy?” Brak made no move to put the cannon back.

Lucien frowned. “We don’t have time to argue. Just watch your aim, okay?”

Brak hissed and bared his teeth. “Okay.” With that, he slung the cannon over his shoulder and grabbed a bandoleer of stun balls—seeker drones that would roll or fly out to their targets, latch on, and stun them into submission.

“Follow me, and keep it quiet. We don’t want them to hear us coming.”

Brak clicked his comms to acknowledge, and Lucien picked his way through the parking garage, sticking to the shadows behind parked hovers and support columns. Up ahead the doors to the shelter gleamed. Lucien armed his rifle, expecting to see blue-skinned aliens come boiling out through those doors at any second.

 But nothing happened, and they made it to the doors without incident. Lucien checked the control panel. The doors weren’t locked. Before keying them to open, he ran a scan of the compartments beyond. He saw an empty corridor leading to a large chamber with a blurry smear of heat signatures huddled together on tiered seats. Shelter Twelve was a concert hall when it wasn’t being used as an emergency bunker. Lucien’s sensors weren’t calibrated to differentiate between humans and humanoid aliens, but he did spot a few heat signatures down on the stage that were noticeably cooler than the rest—three cold ones standing beside two smaller warm ones. Three aliens and two small human hostages? Children?

Half-turning to Brak, Lucien whispered, “I’m reading three potential hostiles through the doors, on the other side of a short corridor, in the auditorium. They have two hostages, so we’re going to have to stick to non-lethals.”

Brak hissed and set his cannon on the ground. His hands free, he drew his stun pistol in one hand and a stun ball in the other. Lucien shouldered his own rifle in favor of a stun pistol, too.

“Take cover. I’m opening the doors.”

 Brak ducked behind the bulkhead and crouched. Lucien mirrored his position on the opposite side of the doors as he keyed them open. They parted with a swish, and Lucien peeked around the frame into an empty corridor. Another set of doors stood between them and the auditorium. “Clear,” Lucien whispered, and stalked toward the second set of doors. They took cover behind the bulkhead again, and Lucien keyed open the second set of doors. As soon as they slid open, Lucien heard the sounds of children crying and adults pleading, followed by another sound—the silky smooth, androgynous voice he’d heard over the comms.

“Welcome, Lucien! We have been waiting for you.”

 Brak bared his teeth and his muscles bulged, his body a tightly-wound spring. Lucien gave a slight shake of his head, and mouthed: no. Then he stepped into view, his pistol up and tracking...

He found the aliens up on the stage, three of them as expected. They held their hands out to the crowd, clutching dazzling balls of light.

 Weapons? Lucien wondered. There was a giant black scorch mark on the floor between the stage and the tiered seats around it, which seemed to confirm that thought.

The three aliens stood easily on the stage. They must have some kind of mag boots on.

 “How do you know my name?” Lucien demanded, his aim finding the alien in the center of the three, assuming that must be the one who’d addressed him. The alien wore flowing gray robes, and a forked golden crown that rested just above a pair of glowing, ice-blue eyes. The other two with him sported bald blue heads and flowing black robes. Their eyes also glowed—one’s green, and the other’s yellow.

 Lucien did a double take. These did not look like the technologically-advanced, space-faring aliens he’d expected. Where were their pressure suits? Their weapons?—glowing balls of who-knew-what notwithstanding. Lucien’s mind flashed back to news reports that said Astralis’s weapons seemed to have no effect against the alien boarders, and his brow furrowed, unable to believe that could be true. They weren’t even wearing any armor, let alone anything that might be analogous with a shield pack.

“How do I know your name... well, we have met before, you and me,” the crown-wearing alien said.

 Of course, the Inquisitor, Lucien thought. His copy—original—had run afoul of these aliens eight years ago.

 “But I knew your name before we met. After all, it is my name, too.” The alien grinned and licked his black lips with an equally black tongue.

Lucien blinked in shock. It could be a lie. But if it wasn’t, what did it mean that he shared a name with this blue-skinned monster?



Chapter 11

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Whether we share the same name or not, it doesn’t matter, Lucien decided. His police training took over: keep them talking. Distract. Get into position. Lucien shrugged and edged casually closer to the aliens—Faros, he remembered they were called from the initial reports.

 “So, we share the same name,” Lucien said. “It’s just a name.” He kept his aim steady on the leader’s chest. King Faro, he nicknamed that one, noting the crown, and the fact that he seemed to be in charge of the others.

“Oh, it’s more than that,” King Faro said. “I wonder, have you ever met a human with that name?”

 “No,” Lucien replied, and realized that it was true. He began to wonder how his parents had chosen that name, but he pushed his curiosity down. King Faro was starting to distract him. “My turn for a question: what do you want? You said you were waiting for me. You haven’t killed anyone yet, so you must have demands.”

“Very astute of you to notice the lack of corpses,” King Faro replied. He made a gesture to one of the other aliens, and a glowing ball of energy leapt from the being’s hand. It slammed into a man in the front row with a dazzling burst of light and a sound like thunder cracking. People sitting around the man screamed as the blast knocked them free and sent them sailing toward the walls and ceiling. The man who’d been hit drifted slowly above his broken seat. His chest was a black and sunken ruin: white ribs protruded, and glittering beads of blood dribbled out and hung in the air.

“Hold your fire, damn it!” Lucien roared, shock turning to outrage.

“I wanted to make sure you’d take me seriously,” King Faro replied. “We’re going to play a game.”

“No games, tell me what you want.”

“Yes, games.” The alien said. He reached behind him and hoisted a little girl high above his head. Her hands and feet were bound with glowing cords, and a translucent patch covered her mouth, making it impossible for her to scream. Lucien recognized her instantly. It was Atara. Her cheeks were wet with tears, her green eyes wide with terror.

 No! His irrational fear that the aliens would somehow find and single out his children had just been realized. It wasn’t possible. How could they even know who his children were?

Coincidence. It had to be.

“Let the girl go,” Lucien ordered, hoping to hide her relation to him, but the quaver in his voice betrayed his fear.

 King Faro grinned. “The girl? Don’t you mean, Atara? Your daughter?”

 Lucien’s blood ran cold. He knew her name, too. “You heard me,” Lucien said. “Let her go.” It took a supreme effort not to pull the trigger and shoot the alien in the chest.

“Not so fast,” King Faro replied. “First, you have to choose. Save your daughters, or save everyone else in this room. Two lives for a thousand.”

 Lucien blinked in shock. “Daught-ers? Where is Theola?”

“Right here.” King Faro hoisted her into view, also bound and gagged, baby blues red from crying.

Lucien lost it. He shook his pistol at the monster standing in front of him. “Let them go!”

“Just say the word, Lucien. I’ll let them go and kill all of the others instead.”

“You can’t make me choose between my children and a thousand strangers!”

Hushed murmurs spread through the room. Someone cried out, “We have children, too!”

Another cried, “Frek him! He’s going to kill us all, anyway! We’ll resurrect when this is over.”

King Faro inclined his head to that. “Wrong. I will abide by your decision, Lucien. But that man is correct about one thing: you’ll all be resurrected, so what does it matter who I kill? Really, it’s just a question of suffering. Would you want your children to go through the trauma of death—no matter how brief? Wouldn’t you rather spare them that?”

“Why me?” Lucien demanded. “What the frek does it matter? What do you care who lives and who dies?”

 “I don’t, but I do care about your choice. It is of personal interest to me. Nature versus nurture.”

“What are you talking about?” Lucien said.

 The alien shrugged. “I already know what I would choose...” King Faro replied. “But your choice—” the alien broke off suddenly, his mouth forming an O of surprise and pain as he rocked forward on his heels, as if he’d been kicked in his spine. Both of Lucien’s children broke free and drifted off behind the aliens, bobbing through the air and heading backstage at a rapid rate.

Lucien blinked. His children shouldn’t have been able to move through the air like that. Then he saw the pair of mag boots walking by themselves across the stage, and he realized what was happening. Brak had stripped naked, using his cloaking ability to creep up behind the aliens and steal Atara and Theola away. The boots hadn’t cloaked with him, but they were easy enough to miss.

Lucien snapped out of it, and fired a stun bolt at King Faro’s chest. It was a direct hit. Electric blue fire crackled over bare blue skin, but the alien’s body didn’t convulse as Lucien expected. Instead, King Faro recovered with a scowl and turned to watch as Lucien’s daughters disappeared backstage.

 The alien gestured to one of his guards. “Get them back—alive! And kill the one who took them.” The black-robed alien inclined its head and ran backstage.

Lucien ran after him, discarding his apparently useless stun pistol in favor of the laser rifle dangling from the strap around his neck. He fired a flurry of dazzling red lasers at King Faro as he ran after his kids. Three bolts hit, splashing crimson fire across the alien’s chest—again to no effect.

 “You can’t hurt me,” the alien said, and held out a glowing hand to track Lucien. “But I can hurt you. Stop where you are, or I’ll do it myself, and then I’ll kill everyone else—your daughters included.”

Lucien skidded to a stop. A sharp pang of despair stabbed his heart, and it took a physical effort to look away from the spot where Brak had taken his daughters off the stage.

A stampede of metallic footsteps sounded behind Lucien, and he saw King Faro’s gaze drift to the entrance of the shelter. “I was wondering when you would get here!”

Three squads of Marine bots piled into the concert hall, accompanied their human sergeants.

One of the sergeants nodded to Lucien and said, “Back away from the stage, sir.”

Lucien hurriedly side-stepped to get out of their line of fire.

“Get down from the stage with your hands above your heads!” the same sergeant barked, now speaking to the aliens.

“Like this?” King Faro asked, raising both hands slowly, his palms glowing.

Someone shouted a warning. Too late. Two shimmering balls of energy leapt out and hit the sergeant in the chest. Explosions boomed and the room flashed white. When the glare faded, the sergeant’s body appeared bouncing off the far wall of the room, his armor a blackened, molten mess.

The Marines opened fire with a thunderous roar, but King Faro was no longer standing on the stage. The black-robed alien who’d been standing beside him took the brunt of the barrage. Laser fire rippled across his chest, and bullets sprayed shrapnel as they exploded on some unseen shield. Then someone shot a pair of AP rockets—

Skrsssh...

The explosion boomed, and the alien’s chest burst open in a spray of black blood. The imparted momentum shattered the mag-lock of the alien’s boots, sending it tumbling backward.

Lucien scanned the room for King Faro, using his helmet’s sensors to aid his eyes. After just a second, he found the alien’s cold heat signature standing up on the tiers of seating amidst the crowd.

“We’re going to play a new game!” King Faro said, and hoisted a young boy above his head. “The soldiers leave, or I kill the boy.” The kid kicked him in the throat, but the alien didn’t even blink. “Well, Sergeants? What do you say?”



Chapter 12

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Tyra could hear the thudding of heavy cannon fire and the high-pitched screeching of lasers even through the heavy blast doors of the bridge. A squad of bots and their sergeant stood behind those doors, weapons raised and waiting for the enemy to come bursting through.

“We’re taking heavy losses,” General Graves reported from the holo table. “We’re down five squads and we’ve only taken down one enemy.”

“One squad?” Tyra asked.

 “No, just one,” Graves replied.

“What about our reinforcements?” Ellis asked in a panicky voice. “We have a lot more than five squads of Marines on this ship!”

“They’re all too far away to reach us in time, and they have their own lines to hold.”

 “If this line falls, none of the others are going to matter,” Admiral Stavos added. “Have the reinforcements fall back to the nearest quantum junctions and jump here now! We’ll try to buy them some time.”

“Yes, sir,” Graves replied.

 Tyra watched green dots winking off the table as a group of seven red dots stormed the bridge. Wink, wink, wink...

Now the odds were even. Seven to seven.

Seven to six—one of the enemies fell.

Zero to six—all of the remaining Marines went down as the enemy reached point-blank range. Tyra imagined shimmering alien swords cutting the marine bots and their sergeants to pieces.

Bang, bang, bang.

All eyes turned to the doors of the bridge. The alien’s were knocking.

“Put me in touch with them!” Admiral Stavos ordered.

The comms officer nodded. “You’re live, Admiral.”

Admiral Stavos spoke, his voice echoing out over the ship’s intercom. “This is Admiral Stavos, we have hundreds of squads incoming as we speak. You won’t stand a chance against them. Surrender now, and I promise we will be merciful.”

Silence answered that ultimatum, but Tyra spotted the red dots on the holo table backing away from the bridge.

“They’re leaving!” Ellis said, his voice cracking with relief.

“No,” Graves whispered. “They’re not.” He pointed to the map. The red dots had stopped moving a fixed distance from the doors.

 BOOM! The doors shivered and glowed brightly at the seams, as if struggling to hold back a fire-breathing dragon.

“Here they come!” Graves roared. “Take cover!”

 BOOM! The doors exploded in a fiery rain of shrapnel. Tyra hit the deck, using the edge of the holo table to hold herself down. A molten orange sheet of metal whizzed through the space where her head had been a second ago.

 Weapons fire screeched, and blinding flashes of light tore through the bridge with deck-shaking booms. Marine bots clanked as they dodged and fell. Waves of heat swept over Tyra and an acrid smell filled her nostrils. She risked raising her head to look.

Smoke swirled in the entrance of the bridge, and the squad of Marine bots who’d been standing there floated in a cloud of glowing shrapnel. Their sergeant drifted with them, his face a rictus of horror and pain behind the shattered faceplate of his helmet. It was Sergeant Ikes.

A group of blue-skinned aliens stormed in, swatting away broken pieces of bots like flies. One alien strode to the fore. He wore gray robes and a golden crown. Tyra was surprised to see how human he looked, but his hairlessness and glowing blue eyes were decidedly alien.

“Where is the one who calls himself Admiral Stavos?” the alien demanded in a smooth voice. His accent was strange, but he spoke Versal clearly enough.

“Here,” Stavos said. Tyra craned her neck to see him stand up from behind the holo table.

“Who else is in charge?” the alien asked.

 For a moment no one replied. Then the alien thrust out a hand in the direction of the nearest control station. A ball of light shot out and exploded with a blinding flash of light a deafening boom. The control station flew apart, and the man sitting there went flying over the railing to the far wall of viewscreens.

Tyra felt something hot and sharp bite into her thigh, and she bit her tongue to keep from crying out.

“I’m in charge of the Marines,” General Graves said, also standing up from behind the holo table, his sidearm in hand, but not aimed.

“Anyone else?”

Tyra raised her hand and gingerly climbed to her feet, making sure to keep contact between her mag boots and the deck. “I’m the councilor of Fallside.”

 “Councilor... this is like a lord?” the alien inquired. His voice was gender neutral, but his facial features were decidedly male. “Yes... you are a civilian leader. Where is your king? The one who calls himself Chief Councilor Ellis?

Ellis made no move to stand up.

“If I have to ask again, someone else will die,” the alien said, his hand already glowing with another ball of energy.

Tyra used her ARCs to find Ellis cowering behind the holo table. She glared in his direction, and General Graves hoisted him up by the collar of his white ceremonial robes. “Here he is.”

The alien licked a set of perfectly straight white teeth with a black tongue and grinned. “Amazing how quickly you will turn on each other, isn’t it?”

Councilor Ellis struggled free of the General’s grasp and planted his mag boots firmly on the deck. Taking a moment to straighten his robes, he walked around the holo table to face the aliens.

“What do you want?”

“You three,” he wagged a long index finger tipped with a sharp golden claw to indicate Stavos, Graves, Ellis. “I will commune with you.” As he said that, two more aliens stepped through the swirling clouds of smoke and debris in the entrance of the bridge. They were identical copies, complete with matching gray robes and glowing golden crowns.

“Commune?” Ellis asked, his eyes skipping from one alien clone to the next. “What does that mean?”

All three spoke as one, “Come here and we will show you.”



Chapter 13

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Lucien watched King Faro hold the young boy above his head, kicking and screaming, impervious to the those kicks. The boy’s parents snapped out of their shock and began beating the alien with their fists. In response, the alien grabbed the boy’s mother in his free hand and held her up by her throat.

“Touch me again, and she dies,” King Faro warned, nodding to the father.

Both he and his son subsided, and the alien directed his attention to the Marines standing in the entrance of the shelter. “Well? Are you going to leave, or should I start killing?”

Lucien ran through the list of options in his head. Stun weapons did nothing, and it took heavy weapons fire to overwhelm the Faros’ personal shields. With this one surrounded by civilians, the Marines couldn’t risk bringing that kind of firepower to bear. They had no choice.

 “Fall back,” one of the remaining two Marine sergeants said. He flicked a quick glance at Lucien, as if to ask, what’s he want with you?

But Lucien was still wondering the same thing. Why had he and his children been singled out? As the Marines left, Lucien’s gaze strayed to the back of the stage. His whole body itched with the urge to run after his children.

 The doors to the concert hall slid shut with a swish, and King Faro said, “Looks like it’s just the two of us again. Have you made up your mind yet?”

Lucien’s head snapped around and he glared up at the alien king. “You’re not holding my children hostage anymore, so you can’t make me choose between them and a room full of strangers.”

“I am holding someone else’s child,” the alien pointed out. “But you’re right, it’s not the same thing.” King Faro released the boy and his mother with a shrug, and the father hurried to pull them back down to their seats.

“We will wait until Hassan recovers them.”

Lucien glanced back to the stage, and he took a quick step in that direction, unable to help himself.

“No,” King Faro said. “Let’s see how Brak does on his own. One on one is a fair fight, wouldn’t you say?”

 Brak. The alien knew his name, too. Buy time, just buy time, keep him talking, distracted... Lucien thought. Maybe the Marines would come up with something.

Lucien turned to gaze up at the alien once more. “You want a fair fight? Deactivate your shield and face me yourself. No weapons. Hand-to-hand only.”

“I fear that wouldn’t last very long...” King Faro said, and the corners of his mouth drooped in an exaggerated frown.

Lucien was about to argue with more false bravado, but the alien grabbed the back of the seat in front of him and casually ripped the whole thing free of its bolts. The chair floated up in front of him, its occupant still clutching his seat and looking terrified.

“Strength alone isn’t enough to determine the outcome of a fight,” Lucien argued.

“No?” the alien replied. “When your face caves in under my fist, you may have trouble supporting that argument...” King Faro trailed off with a frown. His glowing eyes slid away, and the crowd gasped.

 Lucien followed the alien’s gaze to the stage and saw that the black-robed alien, Hassan, had returned. One hand still held his shimmering sword, dragging it behind him, the tip sizzling across the stage, while his other hand, and arm, were missing at the shoulder. He stumbled across the stage with black blood gushing from his open shoulder socket like party streamers. The alien staggered twice and shook his head. It said something in a sibilant language of hisses and sneers.

Despite the gruesome scene, Lucien felt relief spreading in his chest. Brak had somehow gotten the better of Hassan.

 “I am disappointed to hear that,” King Faro said, replying in Versal—for my benefit? Lucien wondered. He glanced back at King Faro in time to see the alien leap over the rows of seats and sail down to the stage, propelled by some unseen means—grav boosters? Lucien wondered as the alien king touched down in front of Hassan. The king drew a shimmering blade of his own from a scabbard on his back, and Hassan growled out something else, looking suddenly frightened. The king swung his sword, and Hassan lifted his to parry, but weakly. A sizzle of energy sparked, and Hassan’s blade bounced away, flying out of his hand, while King Faro’s blade sailed on to slice Hassan’s head off.

“Mercy? Death is your mercy,” the king said as the head floated away, its glowing green eyes wide and staring as the light slowly faded from them.

Silence rang, and King Faro rounded on Lucien. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back.” With that, he vanished from the stage in a blur of gray robes, moving impossibly fast.

 Frek that, Lucien thought, and sprinted after him. Upon reaching the chest-high stage, he deactivated his mag boots, jumped, and activated them again, touching down on top of the stage. His rifle whipped around his neck, throwing him off balance and rocking him back on his heels. He shrugged out of the strap and let the weapon drift free. It was next to useless anyway. Instead, he cast about for Hassan’s shimmering sword. He found it drifting at the edge of the stage, and ran to catch it.

The blade was almost invisible, and no longer shimmering, but as Lucien’s hand wrapped around the hilt, it hummed to life, vibrating against his palm.

It was strange in an age of high technology to be reduced to melee weapons, but Lucien didn’t have time to wonder about it. He ran backstage, using his helmet’s sensors to track King Faro’s cool heat signature through walls and doors.... Lucien ran past audio equipment, through a make-up room, and on down a hall past private dressing rooms. He turned sharply at the end of the corridor and started down another one. King Faro stood in front of a shut door at the end. Lucien slowed his approach, realizing it might not be the best strategy to charge.

“You refused to make your choice,” the alien said as Lucien drew near. “So I’m going to make it for you.” With that, he turned and opened the door, revealing at least five squads of Marine bots and their sergeants. King Faro rushed them.

Anticipating the Marines’ reaction, Lucien took cover, plastering himself to the wall as they fired a blinding, deafening volley of lasers and cannons.

The alien king glowed brightly as his shield deflected everything. He ran through the ranks, sword flashing. Severed bits of bots went drifting out above the chaos, and the alien ran on, unfettered.

The weapons fire abruptly ceased as King Faro burst out the other side of the Marines’ formation. As soon as that happened, Lucien lunged out of cover, giving chase once more. Up ahead he saw that all of the Marines had turned to face the rear now, weapons tracking, but none of them firing.

As Lucien drew near, a familiar, hissing roar reached his ears. Metal arms and legs were a forest, blocking his view, but he managed to steal glimpses of Brak’s naked gray bulk streaking out and slamming into the alien king.

There was a brief struggle before Brak went spinning away, clutching a gash in his side, and hissing in pain. King Faro sailed on, heading for a group of corpsmen attending to a familiar pair of young girls.

 “No!” Lucien ran as fast as he could, but there was no way he would reach them in time. His mind raged: Why aren’t the Marines firing!? But he knew why. They couldn’t shoot without risking the lives they were trying to save.

Lucien hit the ranks of Marine bots, forced to slow down as he waded through their rigid, unyielding lines. “Get out of the way!” he screamed. He was caught in one of those feet stuck-in-molasses nightmares where no matter how fast he tried to run, he couldn’t go faster than a crawl.

One of the corpsmen stepped between Lucien’s children and the alien. King Faro stopped and swung his sword, lopping off the corpsman’s head.

Atara screamed, and Theola stared wordlessly.

 Blood streamed from the lifeless body, held erect and swaying on its feet by the zero-G environment. King Faro shoved it aside, and reached for Atara with a glowing palm.

The Marine bots belatedly parted ranks, and Lucien broke free. He pounded across the deck, teeth gritted, eyes wide with rage and horror, unable to do anything but watch as King Faro wrapped his glowing palm around Atara’s face like a squid and lifted her off the deck. Atara’s feet dangled, and her muffled screams stabbed Lucien’s ears repeatedly. He ran faster still, every second a lifetime while Atara suffered.

As he drew near, Lucien thrust out his stolen sword, using his momentum to put some weight behind the weapon. The sword sunk up to its hilt in the alien’s back, but King Faro didn’t release his daughter, or even cry out in pain.

Shoving off from the blue-skinned monster, Lucien screamed and ran him through again and again until black blood streamed from half a dozen slits in the alien’s gray robes. But still the alien wouldn’t let his daughter go. To his horror, Lucien saw one of the gashes in the alien’s blue skin seal up before his eyes.

 He swept the sword down through the alien’s knees, and was gratified to see both legs severed and the alien king drifting free in a gushing stream of black blood. Heal that, you frekking kakard! Lucien thought. But the alien king clung to Atara as if his life depended on it, and Atara’s muffled cries were ominously silent now.

Desperate, Lucien reached up and pulled the alien down to eye-level with him. He stared into those glowing blue eyes, their depths inscrutable. “How’s this for a choice,” he said as he ran the sword across the alien’s throat with all his strength. The blade flashed clean through, and the alien’s mouth popped open in a silent scream as the light left his eyes and his head drifted free in a torrent of black blood that splashed Lucien’s helmet. He grimaced and shoved the body away from him, wiping the blood on his sleeve. Then he whirled around to find Atara drifting peacefully behind him, her eyes shut and a serene expression on her face.

“Atara!” Lucien dropped the sword and reached for his daughter, pulling her face down to his. When she didn’t react, he slapped her cheek. “Wake up!”

Still nothing.

A navy corpsman appeared beside them and ran a scanner over Atara’s body with a flickering blue fan of light.

“She’s alive... but comatose,” the corpsman declared. “We need to get her to hospital.” He turned and snapped his fingers at another corpsman, a young woman. Her uniform was splashed crimson with blood from the one who’d been killed in front of them. She shook herself out of an apparent state of frozen terror, but made no move to assist.

Lucien saw why a second later. Theola stood beside her, clutching the woman’s hand in a tiny fist. Lucien ran to his other little girl. He dropped to his haunches in front of her, about to fold Theola into a big hug—

But she screamed in terror and ducked behind the woman’s legs.

Lucien blinked and whirled around, expecting to see another blue-skinned alien standing behind him, but there was nothing there.

The woman holding his daughter’s hand spoke in a trembling voice: “She’s afraid of you, sir.”

Lucien turned back to her, his brow furrowed in shock. “Me?”

Black alien blood still smeared his faceplate, reminding him why his daughter might be afraid. Theola watched him with huge eyes, peeking between the woman’s legs. Covered in Faro blood, he must have looked like another monster to Theola, maybe even more terrifying than the one who’d grabbed her sister.

A lump rose in Lucien’s throat as he stood. “Look after them please, ma’am. I need to go wash up.”

 The female corpsman nodded woodenly as Lucien turned away. His whole body shivered with fury as he stalked back to the concert hall. Seeing the terror in his one-year-old’s eyes, and knowing she was afraid of him, had hurt more than any injury the Faros could have inflicted. Add to that the psychological damage of what she’d witnessed, and whatever the frek they’d done to Atara...

Lucien shook his head, and his hands balled into fists. He’d make the Faros pay if it was the last thing he did.



Chapter 14

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

“Come,” the trio of identical blue-skinned aliens intoned in a single loud voice.

“And if we refuse?” Chief Councilor Ellis asked. He drew himself up and puffed out his chest, trying to look defiant, but to Tyra he looked like a boy pretending to be a solider.

“Then we kill everyone on the bridge,” the aliens replied. “Your choice.”

Tyra watched from the sidelines as Admiral Stavos stepped forward. “You can start with me.”

“All three,” the aliens replied.

Ellis glanced to General Graves and then to Admiral Stavos, his eyes pleading. Graves walked over to him with a tight smile, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll go together,” Graves said, and pushed Ellis along in front of him.

 Admiral Stavos kept pace beside them, and Tyra watched in horror as the leaders of Astralis approached the alien clones to commune with them—whatever that meant.

They stopped in front of the aliens, each of them facing off with a different clone, and then the aliens raised glowing palms in front of their human counterparts’ faces.

Graves arched an eyebrow at this, his eyes squinting into the light. “If you’re expecting a high-five, you’re about to be disappointed.”

“Shut u—” Ellis began, but he was abruptly cut off as some unseen force yanked him face-first into the alien’s palm. Graves and Stavos were also yanked forward, and glowing alien hands wrapped around each of their faces like luminous squid.

Ellis gave a muffled scream, and one of the bridge crew gasped. Murmurs of concern rose from the crew, and the comms officer rose halfway out of his chair, his hand on his sidearm.

“Wait!” Tyra said. She listened with growing apprehension to Ellis’s muffled screams, but she thought it noteworthy that neither Graves nor Stavos were screaming. If they were in pain or danger, surely they’d at least grunt, or call out orders to the crew. All three of the Faros stared fixedly ahead, unblinking and unmoving.

Adrenaline sent sparks shooting through Tyra’s nerves, urging her to act, while cold beads of sweat slipped down her spine. “What are you doing to them?” she demanded.

No reply.

She felt for her sidearm with a clammy hand, and cold metal kissed her fingertips. With the aliens so utterly distracted, this might be their only chance to take them by surprise...

 Then she remembered that six aliens had made it to the bridge. That meant that these three had to have another three guarding their backs. Tyra caught a meaningful look from the comms officer, and she realized she wasn’t the only one thinking about attacking. She gave her head a slight shake.

At best they had six crewmen with a clear shot right now, and none of them was as heavily armed or armored as the Marines who’d been defending the bridge. Opening fire with nothing but pistols would be suicide—not to mention they’d probably kill their leaders in the process.

The sound of weapons fire reached the bridge, and Tyra’s breath caught in her throat. Should she dive back into cover, or remain standing?

 The three Faros in front of her made no move to turn and face the threat, but the weapons fire grew louder and more insistent. Explosions boomed and roared. Acrid smoke gushed in.

 The aliens appeared to snap out of their reverie, and finally they released Astralis’s leaders. Tyra couldn’t tell if it was because of the fight going on behind them, or because they’d just finished whatever they were doing.

 Stavos, Graves, and Ellis stood statuesque on the deck, swaying in zero-G, pinned in place by their mag-boots. Their backs were turned to her, but Tyra suspected their eyes were shut, and they were asleep. She had a feeling that they’d just been subjected to the Faros’ equivalent of a mind probe.

Tyra sucked in a breath and shook her head, wondering what to do. The three Faros turned to leave, their backs clearly exposed, offering tempting targets.

The ship’s gunnery chief jumped up from his chair, sidearm out. “Open fire!” he yelled, and pulled the trigger three times fast. Bolts of red-hot plasma shrieked out and slammed into one of the aliens—

To no effect. That same alien whirled around and launched a blinding ball of energy plasma from his palm. It hit the gunnery chief and exploded with a blast of heat that sent him flying over the railing to join the other dead crewman floating near the viewscreens.

No one else tried anything, and the aliens raced off the bridge. Tyra waited until they were gone before checking on Ellis and the others. She rounded their backs to face them, only to find exactly what she’d expected—eyes shut, faces expressionless, relaxed in sleep. They looked so peaceful that they might even be dead.

Fear stabbed Tyra’s heart, and she reached up to check Ellis’s pulse. The ship’s science officer joined her and checked Stavos’s life signs with a handheld scanner.

“Ellis is alive,” Tyra said, feeling his carotid artery jumping steadily under her fingertips.

“So is Admiral Stavos,” the science officer said. “But he’s in a coma.” She ran her scanner over Graves and Ellis next. “They all are.”

Tyra grimaced. “We need a medical team down here.”

“They’ll never make it. The Marines need to open a clear path to the bridge first.” The science officer nodded to the entrance of the bridge to indicate the sounds of battle still drifting to their ears. The weapons fire sounded more distant now.

 Tyra hurried back to the holo table to check on the situation. She saw four red dots—no longer six—racing away from the bridge at an impossible speed, followed by a swarm of slower green dots.

 The science officer joined her by the table. “They’re outrunning bots,” she breathed.

 Tyra glanced at her and took a moment to look up the woman’s name via her ARCs. It flashed up above her head in a green bar of text—Lt. Cmdr. Esalia Wheeler.

“They’re obviously not biological,” Tyra replied. “No biological being can shoot plasma from their bare hands.”

“Or perform mind probes,” Lieutenant Wheeler added.

Tyra acknowledged that with a nod. She tracked the enemy’s progress with her index finger. They’d just reached a stairwell and now they were flying down the stairs to even lower sub levels. “Where are they going?” Tyra wondered aloud.

“No way to know for sure,” Wheeler said, “But I have a guess.”

Tyra sought the other woman’s gaze, and Wheeler looked up from the holo table with a grim frown. “They came here, mind-probed our leaders, and now they’re fleeing with the intel they gathered.”

“Or they found a weakness they can exploit in our ship,” Tyra suggested.

“Either way, we have to stop them,” Wheeler replied.

“How?”

“We have superior numbers and access to the ship’s quantum junctions. We jump ahead of them and box them in.”

Tyra nodded. “Who’s going to coordinate that?”

“Graves, but since he’s out of action someone probably already picked up the slack for him in the operations room. Hang on, let me check.”

“Bridge to CIC, this is the acting CO. Is the acting CMO on deck? Over.” Wheeler paused and waited for a reply, but none came.

“Bridge to CIC, how copy? Over.”

...

“They’re not answering,” Tyra said, and pulled up a schematic view of the Operations Room. It looked fine to her.

“They’re all dead,” Wheeler whispered.

Tyra flinched. “What?”

The science officer pointed to the schematic of the operations room, but Tyra still didn’t see anything. Then she saw what she’d missed: there should have been at least a dozen green dots spread through the room—officers at their stations, but there wasn’t even one.

“We’re going to have to coordinate from here,” Wheeler said. Then a moment later, “Bridge to unit forty-nine. How copy? Over.”

 “Sierra Four Niner, solid copy. Need to speak with Actual for sitrep, over.”

“Sierra Four Niner, this is Lima One. Actual is down. Sitrep is four bandits on sub five twenty, sector thirty-seven, section thirteen, sub-section F, heading down stairwell number four in alley beside the Pharma and Drug Store. How copy? Over.”

Tyra tuned out the ensuing conversation to rather watch the action play out on the table. Sierra four niner called in backup and hundreds of green dots began pouring out of quantum junctions above and below Sub Level 520. Dozens more streamed into the stairwell in question and cornered the fleeing aliens. Tyra watched simulated weapons fire flash across the schematic. Green dots winked away in droves, but more kept streaming in to replace them.

After about a minute the first red enemy signature winked off the grid, followed by two more, and then the last one vanished.

“Sierra Four Niner here—we’re all clear.”

“Good to hear Four Niner,” Wheeler replied. “I’ve got twelve more bandits on sub nine sixty, also heading down.”

“We’re on it, Lima One, moving out!”

A collective sigh rose from the bridge. The immediate danger was past.

 Tyra glanced over her shoulder at the comatose leaders of Astralis.

Lieutenant Commander Wheeler followed her gaze and she snapped out a new order over the comms. “Bridge to Medical, we need immediate assistance, over.”

The reply crackled out from overhead speakers. “Medical here, what’s the nature of your emergency?”

“The CO, CMO, and Chief Councilor are all comatose after direct contact with the enemy.”

“Acknowledged. A team is on their way. Advise you arrange a Marine escort.”

“Roger. Escort will be waiting. Bridge out,” Wheeler said. She turned to Tyra and nodded. “Until the CO and Chief Councilor wake up and are cleared for duty, the chain of command falls to me and you respectively.”

Tyra nodded. She hadn’t thought about that.

“You might want to check in with the other councilors and come up with a plan of action for after we neutralize the remaining invaders.”

“Good idea.” It was hard to think long-term when the short-term was still so uncertain. She remembered the empty operations room. The CIC was buried deep inside Hubble Mountain—not too far from the shelters in the base of the mountain. If the Faros had made it that far, then Lucien would have run into them, and if that were the case... then it might explain why he hadn’t answered her comms call earlier. Her worries about Lucien and her daughters surged to the surface, and Tyra placed a call to Lucien once more.

This time he answered, and relief washed over her. “Tyra—I was just about to call you. I’m on my way down to the hospital with Atara.”

Tyra’s relief evaporated in an instant, and her heart leapt into her throat. “What? What happened?”

“The Faros took over the shelter. Their leader had some kind of personal vendetta with me or... something. He claimed we share the same name, and he wanted me to choose between saving our girls and all of the other people in the shelter.”

Tyra’s whole body went cold. The air felt thick. It was suddenly impossible to breathe. “What did you choose?” she whispered.

“I didn’t. Brak took him by surprise and rescued the girls. The alien went after them, and so did I. I managed to kill the Faro, but not before he got his hands on Atara. He did something to her, and now she’s in a coma.”

Tyra glanced back to Chief Ellis and the ship’s commanding officers. Whatever the aliens had done to them, they’d done to Atara as well.

“Which hospital are you going to?” Tyra asked.

“Winterside General.”

“I’m on my way,” Tyra replied. “See you soon.” She ended the comms there and turned to Commander Wheeler. “It’s my daughter, she’s...”

Wheeler nodded curtly. “Go. There’s not much you can do here, anyway. I’ll get you on the comms if I need you.”

“Thank you,” Tyra breathed. She ran off the bridge in an awkward loping gait thanks to her mag boots, but before long she had the hang of running in them, and she was pounding down the corridors faster than she’d ever run in her life.



Chapter 15

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Lucien watched as the door swished open and Tyra burst into the room. Her eyes met Lucien’s first, then found Theola in his arms.

She reached with chubby baby arms for her mother. “Mama!”

“I’m here, sweetheart!” Tyra ran to them and folded them both in a big hug. She kissed each of them and then took Theola from Lucien.

Lucien smiled tightly and returned his attention to their other daughter, lying in the bed in front of him. Her eyes were shut, and her expression peaceful, but carved in stone. She hadn’t so much as twitched since arriving at the hospital half an hour ago. Wires and an IV line trailed from her bed. Monitors beeped rhythmically around her, indicating that her life signs were strong. There’d been no signs of injury, and her brain scans had come back clean, but if all of that was true, then why hadn’t she woken up? So far none of the doctors could answer that.

Tyra walked quietly around the bed and placed a hand on Atara’s forehead. “Oh, Atty...” she whispered as tears fell from her cheeks and landed on Atara’s pillow.

Theola reached down, as if to place a hand on her sister’s forehead, too. Theola was back to her usual self, having somehow forgotten all about the gruesome events she’d witnessed. Lucien hoped it would stay that way.

“Do they know what’s wrong with her?” Tyra asked.

He shook his head. “We’re still waiting on the results from the latest tests. The doctors say she should wake up soon, but...” Lucien trailed off, not wanting to give voice to more negative possibilities.

“Well, whatever it is, there are a lot of people working on the problem by now. The Faros did the same thing to the command staff on the bridge.”

Lucien blinked. “What? Why didn’t you mention that when I called?”

“I was worried about you and the kids at the time.”

“That might change the prognosis,” Lucien said.

“How?” Tyra asked, wiping her cheeks on the back of the hand that wasn’t holding Theola.

Lucien grimaced, wondering how much he should say. “Before that alien ran after the girls, he threatened me, saying because I couldn’t make my choice, he was going to make it for me.”

Tyra scowled. “What choice? Our girls’ lives for the lives of the other hostages?”

Lucien nodded. “The implication is—”

 “That he killed my little girl?” Tyra’s cheeks flushed and her eyes flashed. She turned and pointed to Atara’s brain monitor. “She’s not brain dead, Lucien! And I don’t see any mortal wounds, so she’s fine.

“No, you’re right.” Lucien nodded quickly. “But if they did the same thing to the command staff, then what do you think it was?”

Tyra hesitated.

“Mom...? Dad?” It was Atara’s voice.

Lucien’s heart jumped in his chest, and he ran to Atara’s side to hold her hand. She raised her head, blinking bleary eyes as she looked around the room.

“It’s okay, Atty,” Lucien said. “We’re here.”

Tyra’s tears fell anew as she stroked her daughter’s head. “You’re awake,” she said, smiling broadly.

“Agaga!” Theola blurted.

“What happened?” Atara asked.

“You don’t remember?” Lucien asked.

“I remember Brak carrying us, then the medics talking to me...” Atara’s eyes flew wide and her whole body tensed. She grabbed fistfuls of the sheets. “You were in my head!” she said, gazing accusingly up at her father.

“Who was?” Tyra asked.

“Dad!”

 “It wasn’t me, honey. That... thing, claimed we share the same name, but it wasn’t me. I killed him and rescued you.”

Atara frowned uncertainly, but she nodded slowly, and her body relaxed.

“I’m going to go get your doctor,” Lucien said. “He needs to know you’re awake.”

“No need for that.” A new voice joined theirs, and Lucien turned to see the man in question come striding into the room. He had dark straight hair, slanted orange eyes, a moderate build, and golden skin. “Her monitors were set to alert me as soon as she woke up,” the doctor explained as he stopped in front of Tyra and held out a hand. “I’m Doctor Fushiwa.”

Tyra shook his hand in a reversed, left-handed grip, since her right arm was still holding Theola. “Tyra Ortane,” she replied. “My husband tells me you were waiting on some more test results. I assume they came back fine?”

 “Yes, all normal. Whatever those Faros did to your daughter, it doesn’t appear to have harmed her. But...”

“But?” Tyra demanded.

Lucien’s guts clenched in anticipation of the bad news.

“We’d like to submit her to a mind probe just to be sure. We need your consent for that.”

“Absolutely not!” Tyra replied.

“It won’t hurt her,” Doctor Fushiwa insisted.

“You just said she was fine, so what’s the point of a probe?”

The doctor glanced at Lucien, then Atara, and back to Tyra. A nurse strode by them, her mag-boots clomping noisily, on her way to check Atara’s IV.

“Perhaps we should discuss this out in the hall while the nurse attends to your daughter?” Doctor Fushiwa said.

Tyra scowled, and Lucien frowned. “We’ll be right back, Atara,” he said.

She nodded weakly. “Okay...”

Lucien felt a knot of tension forming between his eyes as he and Tyra followed the doctor out. As soon as they were in the hallway, Lucien jerked his chin to the doctor and crossed his arms over his chest. “So?”

“We can’t tell what that alien was trying to do to Atara. As far as we can detect, it didn’t do anything besides put her into a coma.”

“And that’s a bad thing?” Lucien asked.

 “No, but it is odd. According to the report you gave, the alien held her in some kind of trance, with his hand wrapped around her face, and neither your daughter nor the alien were responsive to external stimuli.”

“What’s your point?”

“There has to have been a reason that alien would risk its life and ultimately lose it just to reach your daughter.”

 “I don’t think he knew he was risking his life,” Lucien said. “He couldn’t have known I would steal one of their swords and use it to chop off his head.”

“Yes, there’s that, which is encouraging, but the fact remains, he was trying to do something to her. Since it’s apparent that the alien only interacted with Atara’s mind, we need to get in there and see if anything changed. We’ll compare her probe data to the last backup of her memories and personality.”

 “Her last backup was a month ago, before we reached the cosmic horizon,” Tyra said. “A lot can change in a child’s brain over the course of a month.”

The doctor inclined his head to that. “Agreed. The analysis will likely take some time.”

 “And what if you find that he did change something?” Tyra asked.

“Then we’ll see the changes and undo whatever it is that he did. If need be, we’ll simply restore those areas from backups,” the doctor replied.

Tyra looked as skeptical as Lucien felt.

“Wouldn’t you rather know if there’s something wrong with your daughter?” the doctor pressed.

 “What about the others?” Tyra asked. “The command staff were subjected to the same trance that Atara was. Are you going to put them through mind probes and comparative analyses, too?”

 “Actually, their doctor is the one who suggested the procedure. He contacted me a few minutes ago, following up on a request I’d put in asking for information about any other cases of alien contact that resulted in the victim losing consciousness. Apparently, your daughter was the last to wake up. Admiral Stavos, General Graves, and Chief Councilor Ellis all woke up en route to the hospital, and they’ve already signed off on the mind probe.”

Tyra chewed her bottom lip. Theola slipped down her hip, making a break for the floor, but Tyra adjusted her grip and pulled her back up, to which Theola screamed and struggled.

“What happens if we say no?” Tyra asked.

“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Doctor Fushiwa replied.

“If we refuse the probe, will Atara be detained or kept under some kind of surveillance?”

“I can’t comment on that, ma’am. For the time being there would be no consequences that I’m aware of.”

“We’ll sign the consent forms,” Lucien said.

Tyra turned to glare at him. “Just like that?”

 “There will be consequences if we don’t do this. You know that. Atara will be under suspicion forever. Do you want her to have to live like that? With everyone treating her like an outcast?”

“No one needs to know what happened to her.”

 “They’ll find out. There were plenty of witnesses. It’ll be on the news if it isn’t already, and she will end up on a police watch list. If we have the probe report, all of that changes. We’ll have something to show nosy reporters and the police—even neighbors.”

Tyra hesitated. “Fine. I’ll sign.”

“You made the right decision, ma’am,” Doctor Fushiwa said. He held out a palm-sized holo projector and activated it. A blue-skinned alien strapped to a gleaming steel table sprang to life above his palm. Theola screamed and writhed in Tyra’s arms, trying to get away. Doctors walked up to the alien with gleaming scalpels and saws.

“Sorry, sorry!” Doctor Fushiwa said, and waved quickly past the image to the consent form. “I was watching one of the alien autopsies.”

Tyra glared at the doctor and cooed reassuringly in Theola’s ear, bouncing her to calm her down.

Lucien glanced at the form before signing at the bottom with his index finger; then Tyra passed Theola to him and added her signature beside his. Theola whimpered in Lucien’s arms, the sound muffled by the thumb in her mouth.

“I want something in exchange,” Tyra said.

The doctor regarded her with eyebrows raised. “Yes?”

“I want your best therapist to come see my daughters.”

“That’s a good idea,” Lucien said as he kissed Theola’s tears away. “I killed that alien right in front of Theola, and before that, he beheaded a corpsman in front of both our girls.”

The doctor grimaced. “They might require more than simple therapy. You may wish to have their memories of the events erased via another probe, but that’s a topic to discuss with a therapist. I’ll make sure that one gets in touch with you right away.”

“Thank you,” Tyra replied.

The doctor nodded and walked off. Lucien took Tyra’s hand and started back to Atara’s room, but after just a few steps in that direction, Tyra stopped to answer a comm call.

“Acting Chief Councilor Ortane speaking...” she said.

***

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

 “All hostiles have been eliminated, ma’am. Astralis is clear.”

Tyra felt some of the tension in her chest release. “That’s a big relief, Commander. How are repairs to the hull breach in Fallside going?”

“The Academy solved the problem. Literally. The whole building broke free and got sucked into the breach. It plugged the hole and repair bots welded it into place. Rescue efforts are underway to see about extracting the survivors trapped inside.”

Tyra shook her head. “Incredible. We’ll figure out how to make more permanent repairs later. Do we have any idea about casualties yet?”

“According to ship’s sensors, our population is down by more than five million. Most of those people were from Fallside.”

Tyra blinked. “That many?” There were only nine million people in the entire city of Fallside. That meant more than half the people who’d lived there were now dead. She shuddered to think what her beloved city must look like now. “The Resurrection Center is going to be working around the clock to bring that many people back.”

“Aye, it will. What are your orders, ma’am?”

Tyra took a moment to consider that. “We stay where we are and lick our wounds. Prioritize getting the reactors online so we can turn the gravity back on. And keep jamming outbound comms. We don’t know if they planted a tracking device somewhere.”

“Aye, we’ll do that, ma’am.”

“I’ll get in touch with the other councilors and see about long-term plans, but with any luck, the Admiral and Chief Councilor will be cleared for duty soon.”

“Hopefully, but it may be a while before that happens.”

“Time will tell. Thanks for the update, Commander. Keep me posted.” Tyra ended that comm call, and a split second later another one started ringing inside her head. She answered it with a sigh. “Acting Chief Councilor Ortane speaking.”

“This is the Resurrection Center. We have a priority update for you, ma’am.”

Tyra’s brow furrowed. She hadn’t lost any loved ones. Besides Lucien and the girls, the rest of her family was back in the Etherian Empire. “What’s the update?”

 “We received a manual memory dump from you before Astralis jumped away, but it didn’t come from you, exactly... the transmission source was from somewhere off Astralis. Do you know anything about that?”

“Are you sure the memories are mine? Maybe there was some kind of mix-up.”

“The ID code and encryption checks out. The memories are definitely yours. I could look into them if you want to make sure, but I’d need your permission for that.”

“No, that’s fine. Hold the data in my archive. I’ll be down to check it out as soon as I can.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Again, Tyra ended the comm call. Lucien stood in front of her, his green eyes wide and his brow furrowed. “What was all of that about?”

“The acting commander called to tell me the aliens have all been eliminated.”

Lucien’s shoulders slumped. “Thank Etherus for that.”

Tyra arched an eyebrow at him. “You mean thank the Marines.”

He waved a hand to dismiss that distinction. “What was the other call about?”

 “It seems like my clone from the Inquisitor may have transmitted her memories to Astralis before we jumped away.”

“What?” Lucien shook his head. “Well... what are you going to do about that?”

Tyra shrugged. “Assuming it’s true, I’ll likely have to integrate her memories and consciousness with mine.”

 “You don’t have to do anything,” Lucien replied. “This is unprecedented. We’re not supposed to have simultaneous clones, so there are no laws to govern what should happen when we do. She’s lived eight years without you! You won’t even be you anymore if you integrate with her.”

“Actually, she only has about a month of memories that are different from mine. She spent the rest of the time in stasis. Any changes to my personality would be very minor.”

“Still...” Lucien shook his head. “We need to think about this. Maybe you should be cloned and she should be revived in a new body.”

 Tyra frowned. “That might set a dangerous precedent for others to start copying themselves. Besides, would you want a copy of me running around on Astralis? What if she decides to fight for custody of our kids? Or tries to steal you from me.”

Lucien frowned. “No one would give her custody, and she wouldn’t be able to steal me. Besides, are you the kind of person that would try to steal someone else’s husband?”

Tyra narrowed her eyes at him. “It’s a gray area for both of us since it’s technically still me. How can you cheat on wife with your wife?”

“Ever hear of role-playing?” Lucien asked, with a crooked smile.

“Ha ha. I was being serious. You can’t be sure that you wouldn’t like her better. It’ll be me, but eight years ago. The exact same woman you met and fell in love with. How do you know you wouldn’t like her better?”

Lucien’s smile flickered as he appeared to think about that.

 His expression said it all. He would prefer that Tyra. Of course he would.

Putting those thoughts out of her mind, she went on, “Regardless of the personal consequences, legally this comes down to consent, and since we can’t get Captain Tyra’s consent, we’ll need to get a ruling from a judge before I do anything.”

Lucien nodded slowly and held out his hand to her. Theola mimicked him, holding out one of her hands, too. “All of that can wait. We need to see if anything is wrong with Atara first.”

Tyra took Lucien’s hand and allowed him to guide her back into Atara’s room. Doctor Fushiwa was there, along with two more nurses, and a probe technician with his probe machine. Tyra released Lucien’s hand and hurried to her daughter’s side, pushing Doctor Fushiwa out of the way.

“I’m scared,” Atara whimpered.

“It’s okay, darling,” Tyra said, and grabbed her daughter’s hand. “You won’t feel a thing.” She rounded on Doctor Fushiwa. “What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

He flinched and confusion flickered through his eyes. “You gave your consent...”

 “And you couldn’t wait five minutes for us to get here before you got started?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t think—”

“Damn right you didn’t think.”

“Do you want a moment alone with your daughter?”

“And draw this out more? No, let’s get it over with.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Turning back to Atara, Tyra said, “Everything’s going to be fine, sweetheart.”

 Atara had the bedsheets pulled up under her chin. She’d managed to un-tuck them, and now they were floating above her in the zero-G environment. “You promise?”

“I promise,” Tyra replied, and squeezed Atara’s hand.

“We’ll be right here,” Lucien added, and walked around her bed to take her other hand.

The probe technician finished configuring his machine and said, “We’re ready. Atara, would you please start counting backwards from ten?”

“Ten, nine, eight, seven...”



Chapter 16

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Atara’s eyes rolled up in her head and her eyelids fluttered shut. Her eyes roved rapidly behind their lids, as if she were in the middle of a REM sleep cycle.

“I’m going to begin by asking you a few questions, Atara,” the probe technician said. “What happened to you when the alien touched you?”

“He said he was going to kill me.”

“But he didn’t.”

 “No, because I told him that if he killed me, my daddy would kill him.”

“And how did he react to that?”

“He said that his name was Lucien, and he was my daddy.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him he was a liar, because my daddy would never hurt me. And he said he was only joking about killing me.”

“Did you believe him?”

“I don’t know... maybe.”

“What happened next?”

“He asked me about grandpa Ethan.”

“What did he want to know?”

“He asked if grandpa was a good person.”

“And what did you answer?”

“I said yes. I’ve never met him, but my dad’s told me stories.”

“And then?”

“He didn’t say anything else, but I could feel him there, watching me.”

“Can you still feel him?”

“No.”

“Has he said anything to you since you woke up?”

“No.”

“Did he do anything to you while he was in your head?”

“No... I don’t think so.”

“Okay, Atara. Thank you for your help. I’m going to download the data from your brain now. When you wake up, you’ll be back with your parents and your sister.”

“Okay.”

The remainder of the procedure was silent, and didn’t take more than a few seconds. The technician raised his visor and nodded to them. “We’re done. She should wake up at any moment.”

“How long before we’ll know the results?” Lucien asked.

“Given the volume of data to sort through... at least two or three days.”

“That long?” Tyra asked. “You expect us to wait two or three days before we can take our daughter home?”

“Assuming we have a home to go back to,” Lucien pointed out. Tyra turned to glare at him and he held up his hands in defense. “Not the point. I get it.” He turned to the doctor. “Isn’t there something you can do to get her released sooner?”

Doctor Fushiwa glanced at the probe technician, and the technician gave a slight shake of his head. “I’ll see what I can do, but for now you should make the most of your time here. I’ll have the therapist you requested meet with you to assess treatment options for your daughters.”

Lucien nodded. “Thank you.”

The medical staff turned and left the room. A few seconds after they’d left, Atara’s eyes cracked open.

“Did they find something wrong with me?” she asked.

“No, sweetheart. There’s nothing wrong with you,” Tyra said and leaned down to kiss Atara’s forehead.

On the other side of the bed, Theola started screaming in Lucien’s arms. She was hungry and needed changing. Tyra looked pointedly at Lucien.

“I’ll go get her a bottle and a clean diaper,” he said, and headed for the door.

 “Try maternity,” Tyra suggested, and he nodded. Turning back to Atara, she looked for a chair she could pull up to sit beside her daughter’s bed, but the only chair was floating up near the ceiling in the far corner of the room. No point sitting down in zero-G anyway. She stood beside Atara’s bed, stroking her daughter’s hair and answering questions that only a five-year-old would ask.

“Is daddy a murderer?”

“Why would you ask that?” Tyra replied.

“Because he killed the alien with his name.”

“It’s not murder to kill someone if it’s in self-defense. He was protecting you and your sister.”

Atara nodded slowly. “Are the aliens going to come back?”

“We’ll make sure they don’t.”

“How do you know if they got them all?”

 “Because Astralis has sensors that can detect every living thing on board. We know exactly how many people there are on the ship.”

“Aliens, too?”

Tyra smiled. “Yes, Aliens, too.”

“I feel like he’s still here, watching me.”

Tyra’s brow furrowed. “When the technician asked you, you said you couldn’t feel him anymore.”

“I did?” Atara asked.

“Yes. It’s just your imagination, honey, don’t worry. Nobody’s watching you.”

Atara nodded slowly and appeared to relax. Her eyelids grew heavy, and her eyes drifted shut. Tyra watched her with a worried frown.

It wasn’t strange that Atara didn’t remember the questions the technician had asked—no one remembered what happened during a mind probe. But what was strange was the discrepancy in her answers during and after the probe. It was supposed to be impossible to lie during a probe. Had Atara somehow defeated that, or had she simply told the truth as she saw it in the moment?

Tyra hoped those feelings of being watched really were just Atara’s imagination.

She glanced at the door, willing the therapist to hurry up. Whoever it was had their work cut out for them.

All of a minute later, the therapist did arrive, as if she’d somehow read the urgency in Tyra’s mind, which was ironic, because this particular therapist actually could read minds.

“It is good to be seeing you again, Tyra.”

“Troo?” Tyra said, looking the Fosak up and down. She was covered in black fur. Prominent fangs protruded from her upper jaw, and huge green eyes blinked as she approached.

Tyra held out her hand in greeting, and Troo offered a three-fingered, two-thumbed paw in exchange. The alien grinned with a mouth full of sharp teeth. Standing on her hind legs, Troo was almost as tall as her.

“It’s been a long time,” Tyra said. “You’re working as a therapist now?” Troo and Lucien had a long history together, but they’d lost touch over the years.

Troo nodded once. “Yes, I is being therapy now. I see that you is being politics.”

“A politician,” Tyra corrected. “Councilor of Fallside.”

Troo nodded, and released her hand. She walked to Atara’s bedside and hissed quietly as she gazed down on Atara. “She is being largeness now. How many years?”

“Five,” Tyra said.

“What happens to her that she is needing to speak with me?”

Tyra explained what had happened, and Troo listened carefully.

“I is needing to touch her mind to feel her pain,” Troo explained.

Tyra nodded her consent. “Do you need me to wake her first?”

“No, that is not being necessary,” Troo whispered as she placed a hand on Atara’s forehead. The alien’s green eyes drifted shut, and she mewled softly.

“There is much anger...”

Tyra nodded, her anxiety mounting. “What else?”

“Pain... hatred... death. Your daughter is deeply troubled...”

Tyra was saddened to hear that. It made sense given what Atara had been through, but she’d hoped the emotional damage wouldn’t be that bad. “What do you think we should do? Erase her memories?”

“We is speaking in a dream now. She says that she is being scaredness... and that she is not being alone.”

“Did she say who is with her?”

“I is asking her...”

“And?” Tyra prompted.

 “She says it is Death that is with her, and that he is to be coming for us all.”



Chapter 17

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Troo spent nearly half an hour working with Atara, during which time Lucien came back with Theola, his police chief’s uniform covered in spit-up.

 “Zero-G feeding is not recommended,” Lucien said before she could ask. Then he noticed the furry therapist standing on the other side of Atara’s bed. “Troo? Is that you?”

The alien turned to him with a grin, and he walked over to give her a one-armed hug. Theola took advantage of her proximity to stroke Troo’s fur.

Troo withdrew, hissing, her nose scrunched up, and eyes accusing. “You is being wetness! And you smell like rotten fish.”

“It’s good to see you, too,” Lucien replied, still smiling. He turned and nodded to Atara. “How is she?”

Troo shook her head. “She is not being well. She is thinking someone else is being with her, someone called Death.”

Lucien frowned. “Is that true?”

“I is not feeling any presence besides hers,” Troo replied. “I is thinking it to be a symptom of her trauma, a suggestion that the alien made perhaps.”

“Well, we’ll know soon enough,” Lucien said. “The mind probe will tell us exactly what changed inside her head.”

Troo nodded and pointed to Theola. “What about this one? She is new. Is she to be needing treatment?”

“That’s Theola,” Tyra supplied. Troo had never met her.

Lucien nodded. “She’s still badly frightened.”

“May I?” Troo asked, and extended a paw toward Theola’s forehead.

Lucien nodded, and Theola giggled and squirmed under Troo’s paw. She grabbed it with both hands, and tried to push it away.

“Shhh... be calmness little one,” Troo said as her eyes drifted shut, and Theola subsided. “She is being more resilience, this one.... She is not understanding what she saw, but she is having great fear of the blue ones.”

Troo’s eyes popped open.

“That’s it?” Tyra asked.

Troo nodded. “She is to be fine. Her fear of the blue ones may be giving her nightmares, but I is not thinking there to be any other lasting effects.”

Tyra sighed. “That’s a relief.”

“Thank you, Troo,” Lucien said. “Since when did you become a therapist?”

 A comm call trilled in Tyra’s head and the comms icon flashed in the top right of her ARCs. “Excuse me,” she said, and walked by them to the window in the far corner of the room. A curtain of icicles hung from the top of the windowsill, glittering in the sun. Far below, stretched frozen forests and icy lakes. Thankfully, Winterside was cut-off from Fallside by the shield walls that contained the climate zones on Astralis, so none of the chaos from the hull breach had touched the city.

“Acting Chief Councilor Ortane speaking,” Tyra said as she took the call.

“Chief Councilor, this is Doctor Fushiwa.”

“Doctor, any news from Atara’s probe yet?”

“I haven’t checked. I’m calling about an autopsy we performed on one of the aliens. I thought you might want to know what we found.”

“I see. Go on.”

“It might be better if I showed you. Can you meet with me now?”

“I suppose.”

“Good. We’re down in the morgue. Sub Level two of the hospital. I’ll send the location to your ARCs.”

A data transfer request popped up before Tyra’s eyes, and she accepted. The green diamond of a waypoint appeared along a pale green compass/heading indicator bar at the top of her field of view.

“Got it. I’ll see you soon, Doctor.”

Tyra turned back to Lucien and Troo. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”

Lucien regarded her with a frown.

“Duty calls. I’m the acting Chief Councilor,” she explained, but somehow that explanation didn’t seem good enough. Lucien nodded and looked away, and Tyra felt her mood darken. What did he expect her to do? Resign in the middle of a crisis?

Shoving those thoughts aside, she went to kiss Atara on the forehead and then kissed Theola on the cheek. She waved goodbye to Troo on her way out.

“Bye,” Lucien said accusingly as she left.

She’d deliberately not said goodbye to him. Despite her best efforts, she was fuming at him all the way down to the morgue. Lucien had this unrealistic, romantic idea about life and marriage, that it should all be one long honeymoon, with them spending every waking minute together, and to the netherworld with mundane concerns like paying for a mortgage or expensive private schools.

She emerged from the elevator and walked down a corridor to the examination room that Doctor Fushiwa had marked on her ARCs. He was waiting for her outside the door.

“Doctor,” she said.

He nodded in lieu of a reply and waved the door open to reveal a room crowded with more doctors in operating gowns—as well as Marine bots and a human sergeant. Everyone was clustered around a steel operating table with a naked blue-skinned being strapped to it.

As they approached the table, the crowd parted to let them in, and Tyra eyed the Marines, wondering what they were doing there.

She turned her attention to the dead Faro. Anatomically, the alien had no visible genitalia, but the body looked male in terms of its shape and musculature. “What is it you wanted me to see, Doctor?”

“This.” Doctor Fushiwa took a scalpel from one of his colleagues and ran it across the alien’s chest. The skin flayed open and black blood oozed out. Silvery bones peeked out at Tyra, and she frowned, wondering what they were made of. While she was wondering about that, the wound sealed itself before her eyes.

Tyra jumped back from the table, and her eyes darted to the alien’s face, expecting to see its eyes pop open.

But nothing happened.

 She blinked and shook her head. “How did he do that?” And right on the heels of that question came another: “He’s alive?

“He wasn’t when we began the autopsy,” Doctor Fushiwa explained. “He woke up with his chest open and started screaming. We had to induce a coma for our own safety, but we’re having to administer high doses of three different sedatives in order to keep him under.”

 “You’re saying he was dead, but then he somehow resurrected himself?

“Yes.”

“Are you sure he really was dead? What was the cause of death?”

“We assumed that he bled out from all the bullet wounds, but by the time he got here, those wounds had sealed, and the bullets had been pushed out.”

Tyra shook her head. “By what?”

“Their blood appears to be filled with billions of microscopic machines.”

“Nanites,” Tyra said.

“Yes.”

“Then the Faros are actually bots?”

“They’re genetically-enhanced cyborgs as near as I can tell. The level of biological and mechanical integration is astounding, far beyond anything we’ve been able to manage.”

“Well, that explains the lack of genitalia,” Tyra said, nodding to the alien’s crotch.

“Yes,” Doctor Fushiwa replied with a grim smile. “It also explains why they don’t wear any visible technology, yet seem to receive all the benefits of doing so.”

“Have you found a power source? It must be very dense for them to be able to shoot bolts of plasma from their hands and have such strong shields.”

“The power source is more or less where you’d expect to find our heart and lungs.”

“So they don’t have a heart and lungs?” Tyra asked.

 “They do have something analogous to a heart, but smaller. It circulates their conducting fluid, which doubles as coolant to keep them from overheating. And they do have a kind of lung, but they don’t breathe in and out as we do—they circulate air constantly with a turbine, and they don’t appear to require oxygen or any other type of atmosphere. Their air circulation system seems to be part of a secondary cooling system.”

“They sound more like bots than organics to me,” Tyra said.

“Indeed, that may well be the case.”

Tyra jerked her chin to the Faro on the table. “How did you learn all of that if the subject woke up while it’s chest was open?”

“We did have about ten minutes to examine the alien’s internal structure before it woke up, and we’ve taken scans since then to model that structure without having to open him again. There are also other autopsies being conducted in other hospitals, and we were able to collate their findings with ours. For example, not all of the patients woke up. The ones who were beheaded, for example, never revived themselves.”

“So the only sure way to kill one of them is to lop off its head.”

Doctor Fushiwa nodded. “That, or to critically damage the power supply in their chests, but to do that you have to get past their breastbone—not an easy feat. We had to use laser scalpels on full power, and it still took us half an hour to cut through.”

“I saw silvery bones when you ran your scalpel through his chest,” Tyra mentioned. “I’m guessing they’re not like our bones.”

“A metal alloy, lightweight and porous, with an extremely strong molecular structure, at least ten times stronger and a hundred times lighter than solid duranium steel.”

Tyra slowly shook her head. “I want a full work-up on the abilities of these aliens. Analyze them for weaknesses. There must be some way to get past their shields besides overwhelming force. We can’t always assume we’ll have them outnumbered.”

“We’re working on it, ma’am,” Doctor Fushiwa said.

“My husband mentioned using one of their own swords to kill them. That might be a good place to start looking for weaknesses.”

The Marine sergeant was the one who replied to that, “We don’t know how those swords work, but they do appear to be able to get past the Faros’ shields—and ours,” he added with a grimace. “Our own razor swords might offer a similar advantage.”

Tyra nodded to the sergeant. “That’s progress. Who’s in charge of reverse-engineering the Faros’ technology?”

“Last I checked, the Marines were, ma’am.”

“I’ll ask Commander Wheeler about it, then.” Tyra redirected her attention to Doctor Fushiwa. “Thanks for showing me this.”

“Of course.”

Tyra’s gaze slid away from his, back to the impassive face of the Faro on the operating table. “Keep an eye on him. I’m going to see about moving the captives to a more secure facility—stasis maybe. We don’t need them waking up and breaking free.”

“Second that,” the Marine sergeant said.

Tyra turned and left, wondering as she went if it wouldn’t simply be safer to cut off all the Faros’ heads and be done with it. She grimaced at the gruesomeness of that thought, but it might be the lesser of evils. One of the most hateful truisms of war is that you have to kill in order to stop the killing.

 May the universe have mercy on our souls... were that we had them.



Chapter 18

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

SEVERAL HOURS EARLIER...

Nora Helios ran down the stairs to her basement. Her mag boots were set to grav-mode to keep her feet rooted. Nora had been watching the news when the gravity had turned off, and just a few seconds later she’d seen the fiery hole open up in the sky. She’d known what that meant even before the reporter figured it out.

Upstairs she heard windows exploding as the air pressure in Fallside abruptly dropped with the city’s atmosphere streaming out into space. If she didn’t do something soon, she’d suffocate.

Nora ran through the basement to her safe room, already hyperventilating at the thought of the air getting too thin to breathe.

 She shut the door, sealing herself in with whatever was left of the air. The room was designed without any ventilation, so would-be abductors couldn’t inject poison or sedatives into the air. Being the director of Astralis’s Resurrection Center was a heavy burden. Enterprising criminals could extort just about anything from anyone if they could find a way to threaten their lives and the backups of their memories and consciousness in the Resurrection Center. Nora was one of the few people with administrative access to those records, so she had to live in a fortress.

Her eyes skipped around her safe room. It was a home within a home: a kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom... and to one side of the living room, sat the mirror-smooth golden dome of her own private quantum junction. It was locked down to prevent unauthorized entry, but it would work just fine to jump her away in an emergency.

Nora considered using it now. That would probably be the safest option. With all of the chaos in Fallside, her security team had probably been forced to evacuate the premises.

Bang, bang, bang!

Nora whirled around, eyes wide as she stared at the door to her safe house. Maybe her security hadn’t all left. They couldn’t seriously expect her to open the door so they could ride out this disaster with her. “Who is it?” she demanded.

No answer.

BOOM!

The shiny metallic surface of the door shivered, and glowed a faint, molten orange around the edges.

Nora’s heart started pounding in her chest. “I’m calling the police!” she said. “You won’t be able to get in before they arrive!” It was an empty threat with all of the chaos in the city, but maybe whoever it was would believe her and leave.

Unless it was one of those aliens.

BOOM!

The door shivered once more, and glowed a brighter shade of orange.

Nora shook her head. It was supposed to be impossible to break through that door. The security company had assured her... It didn’t matter. She could sue them later. She turned and ran for her quantum junction, using her ARCs to activate it as she approached. The shiny golden dome of the junction hovered up on four shimmering pillars of light. Underneath that was a black podium with two glowing circles: one red, running around the outer edge of the podium, and a smaller green one inside of that. Nora just had to make it into the green circle and activate the junction...

 BOOM! Superheated shrapnel went whizzing by her ears, and some of it bit into her back. She stumbled and cried out, but managed to keep moving. By now her security system had to have alerted the authorities about the break-in, but Nora doubted any officers would still be at their posts to see the alert.

Nora reached the edge of the junction and lunged for the green circle of safety in the middle of the podium...

She jerked to a sudden stop as if she’d hit an invisible wall. An unseen hand had grabbed her and pulled her inexorably back toward the open doors of the safe room. She twisted around to look, and saw a blue-skinned humanoid alien standing in the doorway with one, glowing hand raised toward her. He wore gray robes, a luminous golden crown, and a horrible grin. She couldn’t see a grav gun in his hand, but somehow he was pulling her toward him all the same.

“Hello, Director,” he said over the whistling noise of air being sucked out and up the stairs.

“Who are you?” Nora demanded.

 His grin broadened until she could see his black tongue. His palm glowed even more brightly, dazzling her eyes as she drew near. “Let me show you,” he said as her face hit his palm with a meaty smack.

Stars burst inside of her head. A flood of awareness filled her. Suddenly she knew exactly who this alien was. She could see his every thought. She knew what he knew, and felt what he felt. They became one and thought as one. Her fear vanished, replaced by simmering resolve and a surety of purpose. She had an important mission to accomplish.

Nora felt herself falling even as her consciousness faded. By the time she awoke, she was breathing hard, gasping for air in the thin atmosphere.

 This is what it is like to be human? she thought, her lips curling in disgust as she stumbled back to the quantum junction. Pathetic creatures. Once she was standing inside the green circle under the hovering dome of the junction, she used her ARCs to set the Resurrection Center as her destination, and activated the junction. The dome began glowing brightly overhead, and a whirring noise filled the air, quickly rising in tempo and pitch. Then the dome fell with a boom, and it became painfully bright to look at. The air inside the dome whipped around violently, ripping at her hair and clothes. Then suddenly the light vanished, and she was left blinking spots as it rose on four shimmering pillars of light once more. Now she was in the Resurrection Center, in the middle of the center’s ostentatious lobby on Sub Level 150.

The lobby was deserted, and the facility was in the middle of a security lock-down. Nora strode through the lobby to the elevators at the back. A security bot moved to stop her.

“Access to the center is restricted during lock-down, ma’am.”

“Override. Code zeta, sixteen, forty-seven, nine, nine, seven six, alpha, one.”

The bot scanned her with a flickering blue fan of light, and then stepped aside. “Welcome back, Madam Director.”

“Thank you,” she said, and proceeded to the nearest elevator. Once inside, she selected the records room from the control panel.

At the entrance of the records room she had to get past another bot and another routine security check. She pretended to look bored by the procedures, but once she was inside, she smiled. The plan was working flawlessly so far.

 When infiltrating an enemy base, the easiest way to do so was to have a man on the inside who already knew how everything worked. Sergeant Garek Helios just happened to be that man. Sadly, he was no longer alive to appreciate the brilliance of the plan he’d been forced to come up with. Thank you, Garek, for your insight—or should I say, thank you, Dad.

Nora was, after all, Garek’s daughter.

It took barely half an hour to reach the data terminal in the records room and to download her consciousness and memories to the Center’s records. Once she’d done that, she isolated the recent changes and copies them to the most recent records of all the others who’d been touched by Abaddon.

 Nora smiled as she finished her work. When she was done, she covered her tracks by hacking the last changed time-stamps on the records she’d altered, and then she left the records room as if she’d never been there. With everything going on, no one would even bother to check the Center’s surveillance tapes, and even if they did, she’d be able to explain herself easily enough. There’d been a sync error, and she’d come to make a manual backup of her own consciousness in case something happened to her. The changes she’d made to her own records would corroborate that. No one would think to look any deeper. They’d never suspect that she, Director Helios, would compromise the system.

 But really, it wasn’t her who had compromised the system; she wasn’t even a she, and her name wasn’t Nora.

It was Abaddon.

Abaddon smiled to himself as he went to Nora’s office in the Resurrection Center. He disengaged his mag boots and jumped up to float above the director’s desk, arms crossed behind his head, feet stretched out... basking in the glow of his plans.

After billions of years of waiting and raging impotently against his enemy, it was all finally coming together. Soon everyone would know that Etherus was a fraud. Abaddon would return to Etheria, not as an exile, slinking back meekly, but as a conquering king come back to claim his rightful throne.



Chapter 19

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

—TWO DAYS LATER—

Tyra answered the insistent trilling of an incoming comm call. It was from Winterside General. “Hello?”

“Chief Councilor, it’s Doctor Fushiwa. I have your daughter’s probe results.”

“And? What are they?” Tyra’s heart thundered in her ears.

“She’s fine.”

“Thank goodness,” Tyra breathed. “That is very good news, Doctor! You’ve just made my day. What about the others?”

“Apparently all of them are fine, too.”

Tyra’s brow furrowed. “Then what were those aliens doing to them? What was the point of it?”

 She could almost hear Doctor Fushiwa shrug. “To gather intel, if I had to guess. Their version of a mind probe. They must have been planning to escape Astralis with whatever they’d learned. Thankfully none of them did. Who knows how we might have been compromised if they had.”

Tyra nodded slowly. It made sense. She’d also thought they might have been gathering intel. “We got lucky.”

“Indeed.”

“When can Atara be released?”

“Your husband is already signing her out.”

“Without me?”

“I suppose so.”

“I’d better go find them,” Tyra said. “Thank you for calling, Doctor.”

“Of course.”

Tyra hung up, and hurried from her office to the nearest quantum junction. It was expensive to use the junctions all the time, but she made six figures as a councilor, so she could spare a few thousand now and then.

She arrived right outside Winterside General in front of the ER, behind a group of EMTs pushing a grav gurney with a burn victim on it.

Tyra ran through the ER to the nearest bank of elevators. There she rode up to Level Four where she ran into Lucien, Atara, and Theola already on their way out.

“Mama!” Theola said, bouncing in Lucien’s arms at the sight of her.

“I thought you had urgent business to take care of?” Lucien said.

Tyra shot him a look as she dropped to her haunches in front of Atara. “Nothing’s more urgent than taking my daughter home. How are you feeling, sweetheart?”

“Fine,” she said.

Tyra folded Atara into a big hug. “I’m so happy you’re okay.”

“I wasn’t okay? What was wrong with me?”

Tyra winced, and Lucien made big eyes at her. They spent the past two days erasing Atara’s memories of the trauma she’d been through, and here Tyra was trying to remind her.

Atara looked to Lucien for an answer, and he covered his shock with a smile. “Remember how we said you needed to stay in the hospital and rest because you weren’t sleeping well?” he said.

“Because of the nightmares,” Atara said, nodding.

“Exactly. Well, now you’ve had enough time to rest, so you can go home,” Lucien said.

“But I’m still having nightmares,” Atara objected.

“They’ll go away in time,” Tyra said.

“Promise?”

She nodded. “I promise.” Tyra stood up and took Atara’s hand to walk her to the elevators.

“Will I still get to see Troo?” Atara asked.

“Yes, you will,” Tyra said. “She’ll be coming to our house to visit you.”

“Forever?”

“Well, no... just for a while,” Tyra said.

“Can’t we keep her?”

Lucien laughed, and Tyra smiled. “She’s not a pet, honey.”

“But she’s furry!”

 Tyra punched the call button for the elevator, still smiling. How do you explain the difference between pets and sentient beings to a five-year-old? she wondered.

The elevator opened and they waited while a group of doctors and visitors filed out. While they waited, an incoming call trilled in Tyra’s head, and she sighed. Ellis couldn’t get back on the job soon enough as far as she was concerned.

“Acting Chief Councilor speaking,” she said.

“Mrs. Ortane, it’s Director Helios from the Resurrection Center.”

Tyra nodded, her brow furrowing at that. “It’s good to hear from you, Madam Director. I’m guessing this is about my clone’s data.”

Lucien and the girls were about to pile into the elevator, but Tyra stopped them with a hand on Lucien’s arm. He frowned, watching as the elevator doors slid shut.

“Yes. The judicial department has made a ruling.”

“I see. And? What was their decision?”

 “It’s been decided that the data does not belong to you. Your clone has been granted equal rights as a citizen of Astralis, and she will be revived at once using the clone you have waiting in stasis. Of course, we’ll start growing another one for you immediately.”

 Tyra nodded, her head spinning with the thought of a copy of herself running around Astralis. “What will her legal rights be with respect to me?”

 “She’s entitled to half of whatever you owned at the time she left Astralis—minus half of the cost of your clone, which she will be using to resurrect.”

“I see. And what about custody of my children?”

“She won’t have any rights where they’re concerned, since they were born after she left.”

“And I assume likewise for my husband.”

“Exactly.”

“So... how do we establish what I owned at the time she left?”

“There should be bank records to help establish that, but she will have to appoint a lawyer to defend her claim to your estate.”

 “Of course,” Tyra nodded, meanwhile thinking: I’m getting a divorce from myself! That’s got to be a first. “Did the judicial department offer any justification for their ruling?”

“You mean besides the fact that she and you haven’t shared the same life or body for the past eight and a half years?”

“Besides that.”

“They did offer an explanation as to why she would be given your clone rather than be forced to wait while we grow a new one.”

“And that is?”

“She’s thought to possess valuable information about the Faros, and about whatever went wrong during first contact. If there was some kind of misconduct that led to war, then she may be tried for negligence.”

“They’re looking for someone to blame,” Tyra said.

“Exactly.”

Tyra sighed. “And I suppose I can’t be held responsible for whatever happened, since she’s being treated as an individual.”

“Correct.”

“Well that’s a relief at least. Thank you for the information, Madam Director.”

“You’re welcome. Would you like to be here when she wakes up?”

Tyra frowned. Usually only family members were allowed to be present during resurrections, but this copy of her wouldn’t have any family. “Is that allowed?”

“Well, she is your clone, so I don’t see why not.”

“Under the circumstances, I think that might be confusing for the both of us. She can look me up through appropriate channels if she wants to see me.”

“As you wish. Give me a call if you change your mind. Resurrection is scheduled for one hour from now.”

“That soon? They really are in a rush to find out what happened. I’ll let you know, Madam Director. Thanks again for the call,” Tyra replied.

“Of course,” Director Helios said, and ended the comm call from her end.

“What was all that about?” Lucien asked.

Tyra explained everything as briefly as she could.

The news left Lucien slowly shaking his head in disbelief. “This is crazy. How can they make a decision like this without consulting either her or you?”

“They have to bring her back to consult with her, and I guess my vote isn’t worth much without hers. The ruling makes sense. We’re not really the same person anymore.”

 “No, you’re exactly the same person—just separated by eight years of life. She’s the old you, and you’re the old-er you.”

Tyra glared at Lucien, pretending to be annoyed. “Cute. Never tell a woman she’s old. Especially when you have to live with her.”

Lucien grinned and winked at her. “Sorry.”

“Let’s get Atara home. I’m not sure how long I’ll have before Ellis calls an emergency meeting of the council.”

Lucien’s playful grin vanished, and the light left his eyes. “Duty calls.”

 Tyra scowled. This again. “You of all people should get that. You’re the chief of security for Fallside, for Etherus’ sake!”

“Etherus has nothing to do with it, and I’m not the chief of anything anymore. Fallside is a wasteland, remember?”

“That’s like saying I’m no longer a councilor.”

“It’s different. You still represent the interests of your constituents, whether they’re alive or dead, but the dead don’t need policing.”

“They’re not dead.”

Lucien waved a hand. “Waiting to be resurrected—same thing.”

“The situation is temporary. We’re rebuilding. As soon as Fallside is permanently sealed and the atmosphere is restored, people will start coming back, and you’ll be back on the job.”

Lucien shook his head. “We still have to find a planet with an appropriate atmosphere to supply the missing air. That could take some time.”

“I’m sure that will be one of the first things we discuss at the emergency council meeting.”

“Sure. And anyway, the argument is flawed. My job isn’t like yours. I don’t have to work all day and all week, never showing up to spend time with my family. If my job were like that, I’d quit.”

“That’s what you think I should do? Resign?”

Theola began fussing, and Atara jerked impatiently on Tyra’s arm. “Let’s go!” Atara said.

Lucien nodded absently, and Tyra was left to wonder if he were nodding his agreement with Atara’s sentiment or hers. He punched the call button for the elevator, and they waited in a heavy silence. A split second later the doors opened and another group of people piled out.

“So, where’s home now?” Lucien asked, changing the topic to ease the tension.

They walked into the elevator together and Tyra breathed out a quiet sigh, wishing she could expel her frustration along with the air in her lungs. “I found us a three bedroom rental in Winterside.”

Lucien’s nose scrunched up. “You couldn’t have picked a place in Summerside?”

Tyra mentally selected the ground floor from the elevator’s control panel. “I couldn’t be sure how long Atara would be in the hospital, and I thought we’d want to be close to her. Besides, Winterside is the only city with enough vacancy to house all of the people who evacuated Fallside, and I have to be close to my constituents.”

“It has enough vacancy because no one wants to live there,” Lucien said. “They should just make it into another Summerside.”

“Their economy would crash. They’d lose all the tourists going there to ski and experience winter.”

It was Lucien’s turn to sigh. “Well, I guess I could take the girls sledding.”

Tyra nodded. “That’s a good idea. It might take their minds off things.”

“Blaba!” Theola interjected enthusiastically.

“My sentiments exactly,” Lucien replied, and kissed her cheek.



Chapter 20

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

The Specter

OUTBOUND FROM FREEDOM STATION...

Lucien stared at his hairless blue skin in the bathroom mirror of the quarters he and Addy shared aboard Katawa’s ship. He slowly shook his head. “I think this disguise would even fool my own mother.” The words rolled easily off his black tongue, and he knew instantly what they meant, but it still sounded to him like someone else was speaking—a fact which the mirror seemed to confirm. Besides being blue his face was more angular than his real one, and his head was completely bald—along with every other part of his body. A holoskin did most of the work, projecting a hologram seamlessly over his body from the glowing golden bands on his arms and legs—Faro jewelry modified to conceal advanced holo projectors. As for his hairlessness, that was unfortunately real. He’d had to practically bathe in a foul-smelling depilatory gel, but Katawa assured them that the effects would last for at least six months.

 Lucien walked from the en-suite bathroom to the sleeping quarters that he and Addy shared aboard the Specter.

 They’d left Freedom Station just a few minutes ago, having spent the past two days since meeting Katawa sharing a hotel room at his expense while he stocked his ship and got it ready for visitors. During that time they’d used a helmet-shaped device that Katawa called a Mind-mapper to re-train their brains to speak Faro. After that, they no longer needed the translator bands to speak with Katawa, since Faro was his native language, too.

Lucien found Addy sitting on the edge of the bed, frowning at her reflection in a handheld mirror. She was as bald as he was, and her face was also more angular than it used to be. She looked up as he approached, staring at him with a face that was now only vaguely familiar. At least her eyes were still green.

“I’m ugly!” she said.

Lucien went to sit on the foot of the bed beside her. “You still look beautiful to me.”

“Liar.”

He placed a hand on her bare shoulder, and squeezed reassuringly. They were both wearing Faro robes. His was beige and just covered his shoulders, leaving his arms bare, while hers was white and purple and held itself with a strap around her neck.

The robes were adaptive and surprisingly comfortable. When it was cold they expanded, growing long sleeves, pants, and hoods, and when it was warm, the garments retreated, becoming thicker, but shorter and more porous.

 “I mean it,” Lucien said, making a point of examining her. She was still beautiful, despite her lack of hair and her now-alien features.

“Then you’re blind.”

He held up his hands in surrender. “I give up. You can always turn off the disguise while we’re on board the ship.”

“That’s not any better. At least this way I look alien enough that being bald isn’t so bad, but if I turn off the skin, I’ll have to wear a wig—and I don’t have one. How do you think they tell each other apart? The males and females?”

“Not all of them have a gender. According to Katawa, Abaddon and the Elementals are all neuters.”

“Yeah, they’re also half machine. I’m talking about the natural-born Faros, the ones we’re trying to imitate. Look at me! If their women are all this ugly, it’s no wonder the Elementals decided they could do without.”

Lucien smiled and shook his head. “You’ll get used to it.”

“I doubt it.”

“I’m going to the bridge,” Lucien said. “You coming?”

“I guess I can’t hide in here forever.”

The door opened for Lucien as he approached, and Addy slid her hand into his as they walked out.

Katawa’s ship was old and run down. The corridors were badly lit and discolored with patches of rust and greenish stains that looked suspiciously like they might be alive.

 Lucien heard a water pipe drip-drip-dripping in the distance. The sound echoed through the ship, making it impossible to tell where the leak was.

The deck thrummed and vibrated underfoot, setting Lucien’s teeth on edge and assaulting his ears with the constant roar of an over-stressed reactor and drive system. They walked beneath a rattling ventilation duct with a squeaky fan.

“This ship is falling apart,” Addy said.

Lucien nodded. “That should help keep us safe from pirates. No one’s going to bother boarding a piece of junk like this.”

Addy snorted and rapped her knuckles against a bulkhead that had rusted straight through to the compartment on the other side. “And what’s going to keep us safe from the ship?”

 How do you get rust in space? Lucien wondered. “Might be a good idea to sleep in a pressure suit.”

Addy gave him a rueful smile. “And here I was planning to sleep naked.”

“Actually—sleeping in a pressure suit would probably be overkill,” he amended.

Addy grinned. “Too late. You put the thought in my brain. On the bright side, it won’t be long before you can walk around without a holoskin.”

Lucien shook his head. “How’s that?”

“Because you’re going to turn blue all by yourself.”

“Very funny.”

They reached the bridge where they found Garek—also bald and blue—and Brak, a living shadow in his shapeless smock. It covered every inch of him, including his head. Lucien found himself wondering how the Gor could breathe—or see—in that disguise. Katawa sat cross-legged in the pilot’s chair, not yet wearing his shadowy garment. He still wore the same loose-fitting black tunic he’d been wearing when they met him.

“Where are we going?” Lucien asked as he stopped behind Katawa’s chair and looked out at the handful of stars he could see from the cockpit. Out here, at the edge of the universe, they were so close to the Great Abyss that space seemed even more desolate and forbidding than usual.

“To the Gakol System,” Katawa replied.

“Where’s that?”

“In the Gethari Galaxy.”

“And that is...”

“In the Tosivian Supercluster.”

Garek shot Lucien a smirk. “I got the same runaround a few minutes ago.”

“Maybe I should ask a different question,” Lucien said. “How far is the Gakol System from where we are now?”

“More than five million light years.”

“And how long is it going to take to calculate a jump there?”

“Two hours.”

“Five million light years in two hours. That’s...” Lucien trailed off as he ran the numbers in his head.

 “Over five times faster than Astralis’s jump tech,” Garek put in.

“Incredible,” Lucien said.

“And this bucket is apparently slow as far as Faro ships go,” Garek said. “Katawa was telling me one of their top-of-the-line destroyers can calculate more than two thousand light years per second. That’s seventy-five billion light years in just one year, which is about the distance from here back to the Red Line.”

 Lucien didn’t miss the meaningful tone in Garek’s voice. If they couldn’t find this lost Etherian fleet, taking one of the Faros’ ships and running back to Etherus for help was a good backup plan. Although, something told Lucien that if Etherus hadn’t already gone to war with the Faros to emancipate all the other sentient races that they’d enslaved, then he might be equally indifferent to the enslavement of a bunch of faithless human scientists. All of which raised the age-old question: how can a good God be so seemingly indifferent to suffering?

“What’s the Gakol System like?” he asked, putting that troubling thought from his mind.

“We will soon see,” Katawa replied.

“You mean you haven’t even been there before?” Addy asked.

“No.”

“Then how do you know to look there for this lost fleet of yours?”

“Because it is the last location where the fleet was rumored to have been.”

“Ten thousand years ago,” Garek replied dryly.

“Yes.”

“By now that trail is colder than space,” Garek said.

Lucien frowned. “You said you kept notes of your search. I’m assuming that most of them are rumors like this one.”

“Correct.”

“So how many rumors have you collected?”

“The ones that I have been unable to investigate, or in total?”

“The ones you haven’t already checked,” Lucien replied.

“Five hundred and sixty-two.”

“That many?” Addy blurted.

“The guy’s been searching for ten thousand years,” Garek said. “That’s not a lot of leads considering how long he’s been at this.”

“I was a slave for much of that time,” Katawa said, as if he felt the need to justify his lack of progress.

“It could take us years just to follow up on all of these rumors!” Addy said. “At that rate it could be a century before we find anything!”

“That would be wonderful,” Katawa replied. He turned from his controls to face them, his giant black eyes blinking and his small mouth slightly agape. “Do you really think you could get such fast results?”

 Lucien stared at Katawa. To him, a century was fast. How long was he expecting this search to take? A thousand years? Another ten thousand? Lucien’s heart sank. What have we gotten ourselves into?



Chapter 21

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

The Specter

“Still think this was a good idea?” Garek asked, looking smug despite the alien features projected by his holoskin.

Lucien glanced at him. “Your objection was based on not trusting Katawa, not on the viability of his search.”

“It was based on both, but you didn’t give me a chance to voice my concerns,” Garek replied.

“Well, now you’ve got your chance. Voice away,” Lucien replied. They were all sitting in the galley at the back of the ship while Katawa finished whatever he was doing on the bridge.

“Too late now,” Garek replied. “We’re at Katawa’s mercy, trapped on his ship. How do you think he’s going to react if we have a change of heart after all the work he’s put into our disguises? Assuming he doesn’t kill us, he might just dump us on the nearest uninhabitable planet and let nature take its course.”

“He’s from Etheria, so he’s incapable of doing anything wrong,” Lucien said.

“Assuming he told us the truth about that,” Garek pointed out.

 “This isn’t the time for I-told-you-so’s,” Addy put in. “We need to figure out what we’re going to do. We can’t spend the next few millennia searching for a lost fleet that might not even exist.”

“No, we can’t,” Lucien agreed. “So what do we do?”

“This is still a good opportunity to learn about the universe,” Garek said. “Your plan of signing on with a Marauder crew to find out where the slave markets are is even more workable now that we look and sound like Faros. We might even be able to legitimately purchase some of our people—assuming we can find a way to make enough money.”

“That’s true...” Lucien said. “All right, new plan—while we’re following leads and rumors to search for Katawa’s lost fleet, we do some investigating of our own to find our people, and maybe find a way to make some money on the side.”

Garek nodded.

“Agreed,” Addy said.

“Brak? Do you have anything to add?”

 The Gor stood in the far corner of the galley, a hulking shadow, easy to miss in the poorly-lit confines of the Specter. “I like this plan,” Brak replied, speaking barely passable Faro. He’d learned the language, but not the accent. He was posing as a Faro slave, so no one would expect him to be fluent.

“We’re all agreed, then,” Lucien said. “We help Katawa as best we can, but we help ourselves while we’re at it.”

Everyone nodded along with that. Lucien felt bad using Katawa, but in a way he was also using them. The trick would be making sure the little gray alien didn’t find out what they were doing.

“Jump is calculating.”

Lucien jumped at the sound of Katawa’s voice and turned to see him standing in the entrance of the galley. “Great,” Lucien said, with an innocent smile.

“What were you talking about?” Katawa asked as he entered the galley.

“We were trying to guess what we’d find in the Gakol system.”

“Oh. Dangerous place,” Katawa said, shaking his over-sized head as he went to sit beside Addy in one of the galley’s two booths.

“I thought you said you haven’t been there,” Addy said.

“I have not. Others have. Much is written about Gakol in the ship’s databanks.”

Lucien blinked. “Why didn’t you say so?”

“You did not ask,” Katawa replied, blinking innocently up at him.

Lucien offered the alien a dry look. “Where can we access the ship’s databanks?”

“In the data center.”

Lucien stared a while longer, waiting for Katawa to anticipate his next request. When he didn’t, Lucien asked, “Could you take us there, please?”

“Of course. This way,” Katawa replied, walking back through the galley.

They all followed him to a small room with a data terminal and one chair. Katawa showed them how to use the terminal—by wearing a band much like the universal translator bands, and thinking their queries at the console. The console responded with holographic texts, holo-videos, and a variety of other multimedia.

Lucien sat at the terminal first to peruse the data on Gakol. There were seven planets, of which three were inhabited by three different sentient alien races, each of them more barbaric than the last. They lived in hostile environments where everything was constantly trying to kill them, so of course they’d evolved with the same killer instinct. Their cultures were obscene, and they’d apparently escaped slavery to the Faros by offering their services as mercenary soldiers and assassins. Making matters more complicated, none of the three alien species were humanoid.

The lizard-like Deggrans from Deggros lived in burrows underground, never seeing daylight on their scorched desert planet. The Mokari from Mokar, were avian, and had their nests high in the mountaintops overlooking the plains where they hunted. And the third species was even less relatable: the Kivians from Kiva were Crab-like monsters that stood on two legs, four, or six. Each of them was the size of a hover car, and they could live interchangeably on land or in the tropical waters of their archipelago planet.

None of the three races liked each other, but since all three depended on the Faros for high technology like spaceships, they’d been unable to go to war with one another.

Lucien asked the obvious question after scanning through all the data. “How can any of these species know about a lost fleet of starships if they’re not independently space-faring?”

“There are legends on all three worlds about small gray gods from the sky.”

“If the fleet went there, wouldn’t the Faros have captured it?” Addy asked.

Katawa shook his head. “Ten thousand years ago they had not yet discovered Gakol. I believe the fleet stayed here for some time before the Faros arrived.”

Lucien nodded, trying to hide his disappointment. According to the ship’s databanks, the Faros didn’t have a colony in Gakol. That meant no slave markets.

“Even if the fleet was here, what makes you think we’ll be able to find any clues about where it went next?” Lucien asked. “They probably left in a hurry once the Faros arrived.”

Katawa inclined his head to that. “I believe that is what happened, yes, but the Mokari have a song about one who flew among the stars with the gray gods from the sky. This legend is much more recent. Only one hundred and sixty years old.”

“A song?” Lucien asked.

Katawa nodded. “That is how they tell their legends. In song.”

“Bird songs,” Lucien pressed.

“Yes,” Katawa replied.

“So you think the fleet took one of the locals with them and he came back to tell about it?”

“Correct.”

Lucien had to admit that was a lot more promising as far as rumors went.

“You think that Mokari will still be alive?”

“They are immortal.”

“Then it sounds like Mokar should be our first stop,” Garek said.

“It is,” Katawa replied.

“The bird people are hunters,” Brak put in. “I shall enjoy hunting with them.”

“We’re not going there to sample the local cuisine,” Lucien said.

 Addy turned to him. “Maybe not, but we’ll need to make friends if we’re going to find this Mokari who flew among the stars with the gray gods from the sky. And to do that, it’s not a bad idea for us to look for things we might have in common.”

 “I think there might be an easier way,” Lucien replied. “They’re all immortals, so they should recognize your species, Katawa—assuming the gray gods that visited them really were your people.”

“They will have forgotten, but perhaps they will recognize me from their songs.”

 Lucien frowned. “What do you mean they will have forgotten? How do you forget first contact?”

“No one can possibly remember everything that happened over ten thousand years,” Garek said. “Immortal or not, biological beings only have so much capacity to remember things. That’s part of the reason we take backups of our memories and keep the old ones in storage.”

Addy sighed. “So we have to find one bird in particular on a planet of millions by asking about a hundred and sixty year old bird song that may or may not even be true.”

“Why would the Mokari lie?” Katawa asked.

“Not lie,” Lucien explained. “But over time and countless re-tellings, some details of the events might have been altered.”

Katawa nodded. “This is possible. Let us hope enough details remain factual for us to find the fleet. I will leave you now. I must rest before we arrive. Feel free to stay here or use any of the other facilities on my ship.”

Lucien nodded. “Thank you.”

After the alien left, he turned to Garek and said, “If he were hiding something, he wouldn’t let us wander around his ship without supervision.”

“Hiding something?” Addy asked. “Like what?”

Garek shrugged. “He’s lying about something.”

Lucien shook his head. “And you’re basing this on what exactly? A gut feeling?”

“How about this: Katawa offered to give us an entire fleet of a thousand advanced warships in exchange for our help in finding them. Does that sound like a fair trade to you?”

“That depends how long it takes us to find the fleet,” Addy replied dryly.

Garek waved that concern aside. “I’m telling you, he’s up to something. He’s got shifty eyes. Maybe he wants us to help him find the fleet so he can take it for himself and sell it to the highest bidder?”

“It’s possible,” Addy admitted.

“The point is, we only know what Katawa’s told us, and without being able to verify his story, the truth could be very different. He might not be trying to get back to Etheria at all.”

Lucien nodded, his lips pressed into a grim line. “Fair enough. We’ll keep our eyes open. Is that good enough for you, Garek?”

He grunted. “No, but it’ll have to do.”



Chapter 22

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

—TWO HOURS LATER—

Chief Councilor Ellis called an emergency session of council as soon as he was released from hospital. Not long after that, gravity was restored to all of Astralis, with the exception of Fallside, where it was being ramped up very slowly to prevent more damage from falling debris.

Tyra took a quantum junction up to the Council chambers at the zenith of the artificial sky, on Level One, directly above Hubble Mountain. The room had a heavily reinforced and shielded glass floor, giving an unparalleled view of all four cities on the surface below (as well as a bad case of vertigo).

 Tyra reached the double-story golden doors of the room to find a full platoon of Marine bots and their sergeant guarding the entrance. She stopped in front of them and waited while a pair of bots scanned her from head to toe. Ellis wasn’t taking any chances after what had happened on the bridge.

 The doors swung wide, revealing a vast chamber, and Tyra sucked in a shuddery breath. Even after all these years, the chamber still inspired awe and fear. The glass floor made every step feel like her last, while the dome-shaped, star-studded ceiling reminded her how much more there was to the universe than this tiny speck they called Astralis.

Tyra headed for her chair, empty and hovering above the glass floor. All of the other councilors had already arrived—one from each of the surface level cities, as well as another eight—four for the districts in the fifteen hundred levels above the surface, and four for the sub-districts in the fifteen hundred levels below.

The councilors sat on floating grav chairs around the circumference of the chamber, thirteen in all counting Tyra, but this time the circle was wider than usual with the addition of extra chairs for Admiral Stavos and General Graves, seated on either side of Ellis. There were also two strangers in the center of the chamber: a woman sitting on a grav chair with her back turned to Tyra, and the other, a doctor in a white lab coat standing beside her with a gurney full of medical equipment.

As Tyra took her seat, her gaze flicked back to the woman in the center of the room. That woman was dressed in a naval officer’s white uniform, and her black shoulder boards were marked with the four white bars and golden star of a captain’s insignia. If that wasn’t enough to identify her, the woman also had familiar raven black hair, tied up in a bun at the back of her head.

“Thank you for joining us,” Ellis said, with a hint of annoyance at Tyra’s tardiness. She was twenty minutes late—Lucien’s fault. He’d insisted she finish lunch with him and the girls before she left. “Council is now in session,” Ellis said. “First on the agenda, we have—”

“What’s she doing here?” Tyra demanded, pointing to the woman in the center of the circle.

The woman turned around, her grav chair rotating soundlessly. One look at her face confirmed Tyra’s suspicions about her identity. “Way to make a woman feel welcome. I believe we spoke earlier on the comms, Madam Councilor.”

Tyra nodded slowly. “A lot has happened since then.”

Her clone nodded back. “I got the summary from a nurse after I woke up.”

“If you’re both done trading pleasantries, we have some serious issues on the agenda,” Ellis said.

“What is she doing here?” Tyra asked again.

“She is the sole surviving witness of first contact with the Faros, so it’s fair to say she knows more about them than any of us, and hopefully, she also knows something more of what they want.”

“They want to make us all their slaves,” Tyra’s clone said.

“Captain Forster, please hold your answers until the probe has been initiated,” Ellis said.

“Sorry,” the captain replied.

“You’re subjecting her to a mind probe,” Tyra said, noting now that the doctor standing beside Captain Forster was actually a probe technician.

“It’s the only way we can be sure she’s telling the truth. Doctor Exeter, you may start whenever you’re ready.”

The doctor nodded, and took a moment to configure his probe machine on the gurney beside Captain Forster. The probe would be conducted via her AR implant, so no invasive mechanisms or scanners were required, just programming one machine to talk to another. When he was finished, he turned to Captain Forster and said, “Please lay back and count backward from ten.”

Captain Forster reclined her chair and began counting. “Ten, nine, eight...” When she reached five, she stopped talking, and her eyes glazed over. She stared fixedly at the stars shining down from the ceiling.

“She’s ready, Chief Councilor,” Doctor Exeter said.

“Good. Miss Forster, please tell us exactly what happened during first contact with the Faros. Don’t leave anything out.”

 The captain explained how they’d landed on a jungle world and found a holographic history of a race of sentient spiders. The history depicted them being enslaved by a sentient humanoid race, and it marked the planet where they’d been taken. Captain Forster and her crew had decided to follow them and meet the slavers. The slavers’ fleet was waiting for them when they arrived, and one of the humanoid aliens contacted them, speaking in Versal. He claimed his name was Lucien and that his people were called Faros. The alien asked to meet with the crew of the Inquisitor on the surface of the planet where his fleet was orbiting. They agreed to meet with him, whereupon Faro-Lucien explained who the Faros were and all about their long history with Etherus and the Etherians.

Apparently the Faros had been created by Etherus to be the army of Etheria. Back at the beginning of the universe they’d argued for the creation of a free, chaotic universe, while Etherus and the majority of the Etherians had envisioned a paradise like Etheria. The Faros insisted on a vote, and the majority decided in favor of paradise, but the Faros hadn’t been allowed to participate in the vote. Feeling overruled, they started the Great War and tried to take over Etheria for themselves. The entire galaxy of Etheria was decimated by the war, but the Faros lost that war, and the Etherians exiled them beyond the Red Line.

 With the majority of the universe at their disposal, the Faros went on to create the free, chaotic place they’d envisioned—except their idea of freedom was to enslave all other sentient races, including a green-skinned caste of their own people, making them the only free beings in the universe. When Captain Forster raised objections to the Faros’ selective application of freedom, and indicated that she and her crew were leaving, Faro-Lucien gleefully informed them that they could not leave because he’d decided to make them slaves of the Farosien Empire, too. They’d barely escaped with their lives, and two of them had been killed.

 They successfully fled in their ship, evading the Faros; but the aliens repeatedly chased them until they finally realized they had a spy in their midst. They managed to extract the timer implants that should have killed them after a month by making first contact with a friendly species of what they assumed to be higher-dimensional beings.

 Soon after that, the entire crew submitted themselves to stasis, obviating the need to find the spy and leaving their navigator bot at the helm to guide them to Astralis’s destination at the cosmic horizon. When they arrived, they arranged for a rendezvous with Astralis, thinking that they’d left the Faros far behind them, but of course, that hadn’t been the case.

Councilor Ellis leaned back in his hovering chair and folded his hands in front of his mouth, both forefingers pressed to his lips as if to shush anyone who might dare to interrupt his thoughts.

Tyra nodded slowly to herself. This was all consistent with what they’d already learned.

Ellis stopped making the shushing gesture. “Quite an elaborate tale, Captain, but I suppose we can’t doubt any of what you’ve said, since you’re under the influence of a probe. It sounds to me like there’s no case for misconduct here. The Faros are slavers; when you refused to condone their culture, they decided to subject you to it.”

Captain Forster gave no reply, since no one had asked her a direct question.

 “There is one other matter that needs answering, and I’m afraid this one is far more serious. You had a spy on board the Inquisitor. I understand that even after waking from stasis you took appropriate measures to isolate the crew from the Inquisitor’s systems, but somehow the spy still managed to give away your location. Is that correct, Miss Forster?”

“Yes.”

“Did you learn who the spy was?”

“We did.”

“And who was that spy?”

“Pandora, our nav bot. She confessed soon after the Faros arrived at the rendezvous.”

 “The bot gave you away?” Ellis sounded surprised. “Was it infected with a virus?”

“In a way.”

“And you didn’t consider the possibility sooner? You should have scanned the bot for alterations to its code.”

“We did, but the scans came back clean,” Captain Forster replied.

“Then how did the Faros turn your navigator into a spy?” Ellis asked.

 “While we were making first contact with the Faros, they apparently slipped a data probe aboard the Inquisitor and made physical contact with Pandora. They managed to insert another layer to her programming that we were unable to detect, a kind of multiple personality lurking below the level of her primary programming, which was able to take control whenever it liked.”

“I see. Then none of the human or alien crew were responsible for the Faros finding us.”

“No.”

 “And the Faros followed you for eight years? Why didn’t they ambush you sooner? While Pandora was at the helm and everyone was in stasis it would have been easy to capture the ship.”

 “Their goal was to get to Astralis. They were using the Inquisitor as bait. And they didn’t follow us for eight years. The Farosien Empire appears to span the entire universe beyond the Red Line, so they simply sent the nearest fleet to intercept us once Pandora alerted them to our location.”

Silence fell in the council chamber.

After a few moments of digesting what Captain Forster had said, Ellis spoke in a hushed voice: “You’re telling me that they have an empire spanning tens of billions of light years in all directions?”

“That is what Pandora implied.”

 “The bot told you this?”

“We asked how and why they followed us after eight years, and she confirmed that they didn’t have to follow us, because the Farosien Empire is just that big.”

The councilor of Winterside, Corvin Romark, blew out a breath and shook his head. “Then we don’t stand a chance against them!”

 “I think that’s a given,” General Graves added. “Look how much trouble they caused on Astralis with just a few hundred soldiers. That proves that even if we had equal numbers, we’d lose.”

 “Yes, that seems to be the problem...” Chief Councilor Ellis agreed. “So we avoid contact with the Faros. It’s a big universe. We did it for eight years already after our first battle with them. And if it weren’t for the Inquisitor leading them straight to us, we probably would have gone unmolested for another eight years—or even eight hundred!”

Tyra nodded her agreement, as did several of the other councilors.

Ellis was making that shushing gesture again. Apparently lost in thought contemplating their situation.

 They’d established strict safety protocols ever since their first meeting with the Faros had almost resulted in the destruction of Astralis.

 The protocols called for sending out disposable probes ahead of Astralis, using them to scan for safe systems. If a probe detected unknown alien starships or technology, it would self-destruct immediately and never live to tell Astralis about it. (They couldn’t risk comm signals being detected and tracked back to either the probe or to Astralis, so comms silence was one of the safety protocols.) If, on the other hand, a probe encountered an uninhabited system, it would jump back to Astralis and report its findings. Astralis would then review the safe systems marked by its probes and pick the one they thought was least likely to result in contact with an advanced alien race.

 It was a practically fool-proof system, but one which left little room for exploration along the way. They did get to explore the systems that Astralis jumped to, but all those barren rocks, frozen ice balls, gas giants, and toxic wastelands blurred together over time.

“Doctor Exeter, you may end the probe and wake the patient. Thank you for your assistance,” Councilor Ellis said, having apparently returned from whatever far off place his thoughts had taken him.

The doctor nodded and set about terminating the mind probe. Captain Forster’s head lolled to one side and her eyes fluttered shut. The doctor pushed Captain Forster’s grav chair from the room, and his hover gurney floated along behind him like an obedient pet.

Once they were gone, Chief Councilor Ellis sat forward in his chair. “Next on the agenda... what do we do about the Faros we captured? Almost half of the ones we thought we killed later came back to life during their autopsies. Two of which escaped and were subsequently killed. We’re keeping the surviving prisoners sedated in a maximum security prison, since we can’t figure out how to disarm them.”

 “Do we even know how to kill them?” Corvin Romark from Winterside asked.

“The surest way seems to be by cutting off their heads,” Ellis replied.

“Then I move that we behead them all before one of them escapes and finds a way to call for help.”

“I second the motion,” Councilor Kato S’var of District One said; half his face was still bandaged from third degree burns he’d suffered during the fighting.

Ellis shook his head. “They’re too valuable alive. If we can find some way of getting inside their heads, we’ll be able to find out exactly what we’re up against—maybe even which systems are safe for us to travel to, and which ones aren’t.”

“I agree...” Tyra added slowly. It was a risky proposition, and Tyra wasn’t entirely sure it was the right move, but Ellis had a point: they couldn’t afford to pass up the chance to learn something from the prisoners. “We keep them sedated and double their security.”

“We need to vote on it,” Romark said. “All in favor of executing the Faro prisoners?”

Six councilors raised their hands.

“All against?” Ellis asked.

Seven raised their hands, including Ellis himself.

“Then we keep them alive,” Ellis said.

Romark’s eyes narrowed, but he held his tongue.

“Moving on...” Ellis began. “We need to decide our course of action going forward. Do we press on to the new cosmic horizon, or do we turn back and return to the Etherian Empire?”

The councilors voiced their opinions, all of them talking over one another.

Ellis waved a hand for silence, and called on them one at a time, in clockwise fashion, to voice their arguments.

“The mission was to reach the cosmic horizon,” Corvin Romark said, when it was his turn to speak. He shrugged his broad shoulders. “We’ve already done that. It’s time to go home.”

 Tyra gaped at him. Unable to wait her turn, she blurted out, “We’ve only begun to explore! Thirty billion light years from here is a big stretch of empty space that we’ve never even conceived of. What is that emptiness? What caused it? For all we know it’s the physical edge of the universe, and anything that goes beyond that point drops off into another dimension! Or maybe it really is just empty space. If so, we don’t know how far that emptiness extends, or even if it is a uniform phenomena that surrounds the universe on all sides. It could be like a lake, or an ocean, and on the other side of it is another part of the universe. Our real mission was to explore and to learn the true nature of the universe, not simply to reach one horizon and stop there. We’ve only just begun our mission, and at this point, home is even farther away than the Big Empty ahead of us.”

“But one direction will take us deeper into enemy territory, and the other will return us to safe harbor,” Corvin replied.

“Romark is right,” one of the district councilors put in. “Safety should be our primary concern right now.”

 Tyra shook her head. “There’s no guarantee that we’ll be safe if we return home, or that we won’t be if we press on, and we only have the word of a spy to say that the Farosien Empire really does span the entire universe beyond the Red Line. It might have been a lie, designed to intimidate us so we wouldn’t try to resist. Just because we can’t conceive of a race so dogged that they would follow us for eight years doesn’t mean they aren’t, in fact, that obsessed with us. The Faros are immortals, and by all indications they’ve always been immortals, which means that they’ve been alive for billions of years. Eight years is a blip to them, as insignificant as a second would be to us. Time is relative. These Faros could be extremely patient beings.”

Several councilors murmured their agreement with that, and a few of the ones who’d come out in favor of turning back looked thoughtful, as if they might be reconsidering their opinions.

“Don’t you want to know what else is out there?” Tyra pressed.

“But that’s just the thing,” Councilor Romark said. “We can’t afford to explore very much along the way, so there’s only so much we can learn. We’ve been forced to jump to uninhabited systems for the past eight years, treating all alien races as if they were equally hostile.”

 “What if we change that?” Tyra asked. “Instead of sending out disposable probes to clear a path for Astralis, we could send out galleons again, like we used to.”

“And just look where that got us!” Romark boomed.

“It’s too dangerous,” councilor Gavin Luprine from Summerside added, shaking his head.

 Tyra frowned, and Ellis held up a hand to forestall further argument. “I have been thinking a lot about the problem of exploring safely over the years, and I believe there is a way to do what Councilor Ortane is suggesting without putting ourselves at risk. We could use our galleons in the same way we currently use disposable probes.

 Councilor Romark shook his head. “How? We can do that with probes because they’re automated—if we lose one, it’s no big deal, so we can afford to have them self-destruct at the first sign of trouble. Besides, if we change our criteria for what constitutes trouble and allow manned expeditions to inhabited systems, we won’t know what kind of trouble we’re in until it’s too late. We’ll be opening the door for exactly the same kind of ambush that the Inquisitor brought to us. Maybe it won’t be the Faros this time, but it will be someone, sooner or later.”

 “Not so,” Ellis replied. “If you’ll allow me to explain, there is a way to accomplish this and still keep Astralis safe.”

Romark sat back and spread his hands in invitation. “By all means, tell us what you’ve come up with.”

Ellis smiled. “Transferring consciousness from one body to another is child’s play to us. We were doing it for ages on Avilon, and then again on New Earth when we left our galaxy. The technology is well understood, but perhaps not fully utilized.”

Tyra leaned forward. “What else could we do with it?”

 “Funny that you should ask, Councilor Ortane, since we’ve just resurrected an identical clone of you, giving her equal rights as a citizen of Astralis. This sets a legal precedent for something we could do to conduct safe exploration of civilized alien worlds.”

Councilor Romark snorted. “I don’t see how simultaneous copies of people can help us.”

 “You will, Councilor,” Ellis replied, flicking him a smug look. Turning away to address the others, he went on, “We could send out the galleons again, but this time with no bots on board, since we now know that’s how we were compromised the last time. But this time,” Ellis raised a finger to indicate an important point, “the human crews will all be duplicates, identical copies of people already living on Astralis, whom we’ve determined to have the necessary skills and experience.”

 Ellis went on, “These clones will explore as safely as they possibly can, and then fall back to pre-determined safe systems where we will have disposable probes waiting to receive a data-only transfer of the memories and consciousness of the crews. The probes will then return to Astralis with the data, and their copies living on Astralis will integrate the new memories with their own, so that we can learn what they learned. Once they’ve been debriefed, we’ll send their consciousness back out there to the galleons they left waiting, and their memories will be re-integrated with their bodies aboard the galleons. They will then continue exploring, with updated instructions and mandates from Astralis, and new pre-determined safe rendezvous with the disposable probes further along Astralis’s path.

 “Like that, the Galleons need never physically return to Astralis. They don’t even need to know where Astralis is—only where the disposable transfer probes are waiting for them, and those probes will self-destruct at the first sign of trouble, so they can’t possibly be hijacked. If that should happen, the galleons will be on their own until we can re-establish contact and set up a new rendezvous with another disposable probe. In the very worst case, we’ll lose contact with a few galleons and their crews, but life will go on as usual for their clones living on Astralis, so there’s technically no risk to them or their families.”

Silence reigned in the council chamber as everyone processed the implications of that plan. Unlike the Etherian Empire, they had no religious or moral compunctions about creating simultaneous copies of people, so it was really just a matter of over-turning old laws, and placing limits on new ones to prevent people from copying themselves for unethical or criminal purposes.

 “What if one of the galleons is captured and the Faros hijack the system to transmit themselves to Astralis?” The woman who’d asked was the councilor from Sub-District Three, Jilian Kia.

Ellis answered her, “It wouldn’t do them any good. As soon as we receive the data from one of the returning crews, we’ll compare it to their last backups in the Resurrection Center, look for differences, and then analyze those differences to make sure that we aren’t integrating an alien consciousness with one of our citizens. It’s exactly the same system we just used to clear myself, Admiral Stavos, and General Graves for duty after our contact with the Faros.”

Tyra nodded and added, “They performed the same procedure with my daughter, too.”

A few of the councilors glanced her way before returning their attention to Ellis.

“When did you come up with this plan?” Corvin Romark asked.

“As I said, I’ve been working on this idea for years already, but the pieces all finally snapped into place with recent events.”

“It sounds fool-proof,” Tyra said. “I can’t think of a way that this would place us at any additional risk. It’s really just an extension of the safety protocols we’ve observed over the past eight years. Our only point of contact is still with disposable probes.”

“Probes that could be hacked to give us away,” Romark said.

“How?” Tyra demanded.

“A virus could piggyback in on one of the data transfers from the crews, masquerading as a memory.”

 Ellis shook his head. “That’s not so easy, but we can make sure that all of data goes to isolated storage inside the probes and that it remains in isolated storage when it reaches Astralis. We’ll submit the data to rigorous checks before we integrate it with anyone. We could even devise a system whereby the explorers don’t need to be integrated or resurrected on this end for us to be able to debrief them—some kind of virtual brain, perhaps.”

“You mean an AI,” Tyra said.

“More like a VI—a virtual intelligence,” Ellis replied. “But another possibility is to keep cloned bodies waiting in stasis on this end and use them to resurrect the crews so that we can debrief them. Then when they leave, those bodies go back into stasis.”

Several councilors nodded and voiced their agreement. They already had the mechanism in place for that system, so it would be the easiest and fastest to implement.

 Tyra thought to add, “That way their copies living here on Astralis won’t be affected by their experiences, and we’ll also be able to physically isolate them, just in case something goes wrong.”

“What kind of life is that?” Romark demanded. “Who would ever agree to become such an explorer? They’ll effectively be exiled from their own homes. We’ll be using them like bots.”

 Ellis shifted in his chair. “Wouldn’t you agree to allow a copy of yourself to be created for the purposes of exploring the universe, if you knew that doing so would never affect you personally?”

“No,” Romark replied. “Because someday that copy will have to come home, and then it might think it has some legal claim to my life.”

Tyra nodded along with that. “That’s exactly what the judicial department ruled in my case. I’m going to have to share my assets from eight years ago with my clone.”

 Ellis waved a hand at her. “That’s different. She left Astralis with legal ownership of your assets, and when she returned, one could make the case that you are the clone who stole her life.”

“Except that she wasn’t meant to live. She should have died when her timer implant ran down,” Tyra said.

“Obviously your case is more complicated than what I am proposing,” Ellis said. “These clones would be created with the express purpose of exploring the universe safely, and we can have them sign away any legal claims they may think they have to their other halves’ possessions and lives. That way, when the time does someday come to integrate them with the population, there won’t be any problems.”

“What about their freedoms?” Corvin Romark asked. “We can’t force them to explore until we decide they should stop.”

“That’s the beauty of it,” Ellis said. “We won’t have to. All you need to do is ask the originals if they want to go, and then get them to sign on for a specific period of time with the Navy or the Marines. Because they and their clones will be one and the same—one mind in two bodies—they’ll make all of the same choices, so no one should have a change of heart. And besides, anyone who wants out of the Navy early would be guilty of desertion. If they want out after their commission or term of enlistment is up, well, then they should be allowed to leave and re-join the population—after appropriate security checks, of course.”

 “That won’t fly with the judiciary,” Romark replied, shaking his head. “It’s still a violation of rights. You can’t ask the original to sign up on behalf of his clone and then still treat them as individuals. And yes, lots of people will have a change of heart. The originals will know that they won’t actually be the ones going, so of course they’ll say yes—what’s it to them? But when you resurrect them as copies, the copies will know that they are actually the ones leaving. They’ll think about their wives and children, their homes and jobs, and all of the other roots that tie them down, and they’ll decide not to go.”

 Ellis just smiled. “Ah, but that’s the beauty of it: they’ll wake up, and they’ll think they have families and homes and jobs, but then they’ll find out that they’re clones, and they don’t actually have anything. They were created for one purpose: to explore.”

Rumblings of discontent spread through the room.

“That’s all highly unethical!” Aria Calias, the councilor of Springside said.

Ellis shook his head. “It will all be voluntary, so there’s nothing unethical about it. We’ll ask the originals if they want to go, as a matter of screening. Then if we must, we’ll ask them a second time after they wake up as copies. As Councilor Romark says, we can’t dismiss the possibility that some of the clones will have a change of heart. So if that happens, we’ll ask them to re-integrate with their originals immediately—with the understanding that each of them will have to pay for his or her clone, which was created for use with the program. It won’t be a total loss for them, however, since they can always put those clones in stasis in the Resurrection Center to use as spares.”

Tyra nodded along with that. She couldn’t see any human rights violations anymore.

 “But I assure you,” Ellis began, “if you woke up tomorrow to learn that you’d been created with the express purpose of exploring the universe, and you suddenly had nothing to physically or emotionally tie you down to Astralis—you’d go in a heartbeat!”

Several councilors bobbed their heads in agreement with that.

“Well?” Ellis prompted. “Are there any other reasonable objections?”

The councilors conferred amongst themselves, while Ellis sat back and smiled. Admiral Stavos and General Graves conferred with him quietly, making it look disturbingly like this was a plan they had come up with together.

And maybe they had, Tyra decided. But what did it matter who’d come up with it? It was a brilliant plan.

 Tyra raised her voice, “In light of this proposal, we should take a vote on Astralis’s course of action going forward.”

“That would be premature,” Corvin Romark said, shaking his head. “We’ll need a ruling from the judiciary to decide if we’re allowed to use clones like Ellis is saying, and even if they rule in favor, we’ll still need a whole new set of laws to govern cloning and the transfer of consciousness. We can’t allow people to clone and copy themselves for just any reason. The consequences would be dire. Imagine what you could get away with? Commit a crime and blame it on your clone!”

“Mind probes would reveal the truth,” Ellis replied, “But I agree. Reasonable limits must be set, and particularly for ordinary citizens.”

“Then before we decide anything, we should wait for the judiciary to make a ruling,” Romark insisted.

 Ellis shook his head, “And do what in the meantime? Send Astralis home? Press on? Or wait here? If everyone is in favor of returning home, there’s no sense in asking the judiciary for a ruling, or even in writing new laws. What would be the point?”

“We could also explore on our way home,” Romark pointed out.

“True,” Ellis said. “But that only confirms that these are separate issues.”

Tyra spoke next. “I move that we stay where we are until we can get a ruling from the judiciary. At that point we can vote to decide where we should go next.”

“I second the motion,” Aria Calias from Springside said.

“Third,” Jilian Kia of Sub-District Three added.

The other councilors murmured their agreement.

“All in favor, raise your hand,” Ellis said, and raised his own hand.

The vote was unanimous, with the exception of Corvin Romark, who had the look of someone who had been thoroughly outmaneuvered.

“It’s settled then,” Ellis said.

They spent the next hour going through the remainder of the agenda. Tyra spent the whole time puzzling over the implications of what Ellis had proposed. She put it in a personal context, asking herself what she would do if she were asked to join the explorers. Would she consent to send a copy of herself out into the unknown? And if she did, what would she get out of it? Would she be allowed to integrate her memories with those of her clone?

If they both consented to it, probably, but would she really want to have all of her explorer-clone’s memories? The longer her copy was away, the more their lives and personalities would diverge. She might not even recognize herself when she returned.

 Then there was the matter of how hard it would all be for her clone, knowing she had kids and a husband that weren’t really hers unless she decided to integrate, and even if she did, she wouldn’t even get to see them again for... what? A month? Two months? More?

 Maybe they wouldn’t ask her to join the explorers, so she wouldn’t have to deal with the dilemma personally, but Tyra found herself torn, half-hoping that they would ask her and half-hoping that they wouldn’t.

 Then she realized that they wouldn’t need to; they already had a copy of her that they could ask, and she had all the requisite experience. She was even already a Captain in the Navy, so there’d be no need for her to sign a commission.

 It was unlikely they’d want more than one of her to go, and if they did, they’d ask the Captain to send a copy of herself. No, they wouldn’t ask her to be an explorer.

But they might ask Lucien. He had the training for it. He’d been a Paragon back in the Etherian Empire, and he’d been one of the original crew aboard Captain Tyra Forster’s ship.

What would Lucien say? she wondered. Would he consent to join the program? And if he did, how would his copy handle the knowledge that he had two daughters and a wife that he was leaving behind?

It needn’t be a permanent separation, Tyra realized. If both Lucien and his copy were willing, they could integrate at some point in the future. The problem was, then she and the girls would be at the mercy of utterly unpredictable changes in Lucien’s personality. He could wake up after integration only to tell her that he’d fallen in love with one of his fellow explorers and he wanted a divorce. She could lose him like that.

 Tyra’s imagination ran away with those fears, and suddenly she saw herself and Lucien exploring the universe together—except that it wasn’t really her and it wasn’t really him. It was a copy of each of them: Captain Forster, and her XO, Lucien Ortane. He’d already been her XO aboard the Inquisitor, so Captain Forster would probably look him up and ask him to pick up wherever they’d left off.

 She probably had a big fat crush on him. Forget probably. Tyra had fallen in love with Lucien eight years ago, and Captain Forster was that same exact woman, so she would have all the same feelings, and now he was older and wiser, which made him arguably even more attractive. And as for Lucien... Captain Forster was the exact same woman he’d fallen in love with: a younger, more fun-loving, and more adventurous version of her, his wife. What man could say no to that?

Tyra shivered. But there was one silver lining in all of those dark and confusing thoughts: if their clones fell in love with each other, then it almost certainly wouldn’t affect Tyra’s family. The only way it could affect them was if Lucien and his clone decided to integrate, and why would they want to do that? She nodded slowly to herself, comforted by that thought.

 It was a good thing that the Lucien from the Inquisitor hadn’t survived. Dealing with the implications of two identical copies of him was bad enough—but three?

The universe couldn’t handle that much Lucien.



Chapter 23

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Chief Councilor Abaddon sat by his pool on the roof of his penthouse apartment in Summerside, sipping a cocktail and drying in the sun. The view of Archipelago Lake from the fortieth floor was startling. The golden shores and lush green foliage of dozens of islands sprawled out to meet the distant walls of Astralis. The artificial sun was about to set, casting everything in a rosy hue. Potted palm trees flanked his pool, their fronds rustling in a warm breeze.

 These humans can even rival us when it comes to luxury, Abaddon thought. It was nice to stop for a moment to enjoy the spoils of victory—but only for a moment. There was still so much to do. So far things were going very well. No one seemed to suspect him, and the council had been receptive to his plan to send out manned missions. Now all he had to do was get the judiciary department on his side. Fortunately for him, he’d already done so. High Court Judge Cleever had been intercepted by one of Abaddon’s clones and had befallen the same fate as Director Helios of the Resurrection Center. With the two of them, himself, the chief councilor, as well as Admiral Stavos and General Grave under his control, there was almost no limit to what they could accomplish. It would be easy to lead these humans around by their collective noses in order to reach his goals.

Abaddon smiled and took another sip of his cocktail—a delicious fruity concoction made from tropical fruits native to galaxies within the Red Line. He had never had the pleasure of tasting such fruits before. He had to hand it to Etherus: guiding the evolutionary process did seem to yield more satisfying results. But who had the time to micro-manage the development of trillions of different ecosystems?

Let Etherus do it. Besides, if all went according to plan, it would all belong to Abaddon soon, anyway.

Abaddon drained his drink and walked up to the glass railing running around his rooftop terrace. The tropical blues and verdant greens of Summerside sprawled before him. Quaint little villages and towns pricked holes in the lengthening shadows as people turned on their lights. Unbeknown to them, all of this was now a part of the Farosien Empire and little more than a fresh mat for Abaddon to wipe his feet on.

He smirked and tossed his empty cocktail glass over the railing. He watched it tumble to the ground, wondering absently if it might hit some blithe pedestrian on the head and temporarily end their meaningless existence. If it did, they might tie some saliva-coated fragment of the glass to him and bring him up on charges for manslaughter. Of course, with Judge Cleever in his pocket, it would be all too easy to have those charges overturned.

If these humans only knew what their ruler was thinking... Abaddon supposed they might call him evil, but that was naive. One day humanity would have to grow up and learn what he had learned. They would uncover the great lie of Etherus and finally know the truth: there was no such thing as good and evil.

 Abaddon smiled. Someday they will learn the truth... and the truth shall set them free.

***

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

The Specter

Lucien stood on the bridge of the Specter, gazing down on the brown fields and wrinkled black mountains of Mokar. Green-blue rivers snaked down from the mountains through dark brown canyons to what looked like an ocean. Bright blue and red growths of who-knew-what blotted and hedged the brown fields, making the entire planet look diseased with some kind of alien fungus.

Lucien’s brow was furrowed all the way up to his shaven scalp. “Is the whole planet like this?”

Katawa’s head turned. “I do not know. I have not been here before.”

“Right,” Lucien said.

“I can’t wait to get down there,” Addy put in.

“I don’t know...” Garek said. “The Mokari are basically sentient birds of prey, right?”

“Right,” Lucien said.

“So what’s to stop them from thinking we’re their prey?”

“They know the Faros are their masters,” Katawa replied. “They do not like the Faros, but they have a healthy respect for them.”

“Have you met the Mokari before?” Garek asked.

“Oh yes. They serve as private security and soldiers all over the Farosien Empire. The ones I have met are aggressive and forbidding, but they do as they are told. I am sure we won’t have any problems.”

“Still,” Garek said. “If they’re the Faros’ slaves, what makes you think we’re going to get anywhere with them? They might feign ignorance when we ask them about the lost fleet.”

“We must convince them to speak with us,” Katawa replied.

Brak hissed. “They will speak with me. I do not appear as one of the blue ones, and I am a hunter like them.”

“I’m starting to think you’ve got a point there, buddy,” Lucien replied. He turned and patted Katawa on one of his bony gray shoulders. “Take us down, K-man.”

“K-man?” Katawa asked, as he broke orbit and began their descent toward the planet’s surface.

“It’s a nickname,” Lucien explained.

“A pejorative? Did I do something to offend you?”

Lucien favored the little alien with a sympathetic frown. Katawa had spent so much of his life as a slave to the Faros, he was probably used to being belittled and insulted. “No, a nickname is something humans use as a way of establishing camaraderie and familiarity with one another.”

“Oh, I see,” Katawa replied, blinking huge black eyes at him. “In that case, I will have to come up with a name for you.”

“Sure,” Lucien replied. “I can give you a few suggestions.”

“Such as?”

“How about Mr. Magnificent. Mr. M. for short.”

“Okay, Mr. M, I will call you this,” Katawa replied.

Lucien smiled.

 “Hold on a second—” Addy said. “—he doesn’t get to pick his own nickname, especially not after he picked all of ours. He called me Triple S. One of those S’s stands for sexy, and since he’s my superior officer, it’s a blatant case of sexual harassment. If he weren’t so damn sexy himself, I might have pressed charges.”

 “I did not know this,” Katawa replied. “I will call you one who harasses his mates.

Lucien’s nose wrinkled. “That’s a mouthful.”

“Forget the nicknames,” Garek said. “We have bigger issues to discuss—like what kind of atmosphere Mokar has, whether or not we’ll be using exosuits, and what exploring with a limited supply of air will mean for our goals on the surface.”

Lucien nodded soberly. “True. Katawa, does Mokar have a safe and breathable atmosphere, or will we need to use our exosuits?”

 “No suits. The Mokari will expect the Faros to be able to walk around freely on their world, and they do not trust people who wear false skins.

Garek snorted. “That’s ironic, considering we’re actually wearing holoskins.”

“They will be unable to detect the holograms,” Katawa replied. “The holoskin masks your scent and simulated that of a Faro. It will convince them.”

“That’s what that stink is?” Garek demanded.

 “I don’t smell anything...” Lucien replied. He walked over to Garek and sniffed the air around him—only to pull back sharply. “Never mind.” Garek stunk of a sweet odor that reminded him vaguely of some of the medical herbs he’d smoked back in school.

Lucien sniffed himself, but didn’t detect the same smell. “I can’t smell myself,” he said.

“Mated Faros do not give off the odor. It is meant to attract a mate. Faro females find the scent irresistible.”

“Great,” Garek said. “So I’m going to be fighting off bald blue witches with a stick wherever I go,”

“Faro females are not magical,” Katawa objected, “but they will appreciate your concept of carnal discipline.”

“No sticks, then. Got it,” Garek muttered.

Addy whispered in his ear, “Maybe you could try that.”

Lucien felt his cheeks warm, and cleared his throat, “Back to the issue of Mokar’s atmosphere. If we’re not expected to use suits, the air must be breathable and safe.”

“It is breathable, yes, but it may be dangerous to humans,” Katawa said. “I will perform a scan of the atmosphere and develop the necessary inoculations and treatments for you with the fabricator in the med bay,” Katawa replied.

“Just like that? Won’t it take too long?” Addy asked.

“A few minutes. No more.”

“That fast?”

“Faro technology is far more advanced than what you are used to,” Katawa replied.

Lucien marveled at that. Back in the Etherian Empire Paragon medics and bio-engineers took weeks to come up with treatments to allow human colonists to live on new worlds without pressure suits, and there were usually hundreds of them working together in each new colony.

 “Amazing...” he said, shaking his head. “What about gravity? How’s it compare to what you’ve set on the Specter?

The ship’s gravity felt lighter than human standard, but not uncomfortably so.

“Sensors report Mokar’s gravity to be one point two times standard,” Katawa replied.

 “You mean your standard, which I’m assuming is what you’ve set the ship’s gravity to simulate?” Lucien asked.

“Correct.”

“So Mokar’s gravity is probably just a little less than our standard gravity,” Garek concluded.

Lucien nodded. That helped to explain why they wouldn’t need exosuits. Close to standard gravity was a necessity for humans, because a planet’s gravity also determined how thick the atmosphere was. If the gravity were much less than standard, the air would be too thin to breathe.

 They rode the rest of the way down to Mokar in silence, watching as wisps of pinkish clouds swept up, and a peach-colored haze of atmosphere clouded their view. A fiery glow wreathed the Specter’s viewports as friction between the air and their hull lit the planet’s atmosphere on fire.

As their speed diminished, that fire subsided, and finer details of the surface appeared—the most notable of which were the swarms of black specks circling the brown plains below.

Mokari? Lucien wondered.

Katawa leveled out, and they saw a range of obsidian-black mountains soaring to one side. The jagged spires and cliffs were wreathed in pink clouds against a salmon sky. A bright red sun simmered above the horizon, to one side of those mountains, while its twin hung directly overhead as a dim, hazy orange ball of light. The separation of those suns likely meant that night would never truly fall on Mokar since shadows cast by one sun would be illuminated (at least partly) by the other.

Katawa took them up to a sheer black cliff that must have plunged at least a kilometer straight down. A bright green river roared over that cliff to a darker emerald pool below. The pool was surrounded by some kind of blue and red vegetation.

“Where are we going to land?” Lucien asked.

Katawa flew on toward the cliff and raced over the top of the shimmering green waterfall. A broad, flat plateau opened up before them, and both banks of the river were speckled with strange brown mounds. Each mound varied significantly in size and shape from the next.

Katawa slowed the ship and hovered down for a landing. As he did so, a pair of giant black shadows passed over them and swooped down to land beside one of the brown mounds. Those had to be the Mokari. They became mere specks beside the mound where they’d landed, and yet their shadows had been big enough that Lucien thought the Mokari had to be at least as large as humans.

“This must be a Mokari village,” Addy said.

Lucien watched as more black specks picked their way along the ground from mound to mound, while others took flight, and still others landed in a constant bustle of activity. He nodded slowly. The mounds appeared to be made of mud and grass, and their size relative to that of the Mokari suggested that each of them was a nest. The larger mounds were likely larger nests for bigger families.

 Katawa landed the Specter among the Mokari nests, some of which towered three and four stories high. Lucien marveled at how much work it must have taken for the Mokari to fly more than a kilometer up from the plains below, carrying that much mud and grass. They obviously didn’t have things like hover trucks to make the job easier.

“It is time to prepare you for the surface,” Katawa said. “Please follow me to the med bay.”

Once they arrived there, Katawa took blood samples from each of them while they sat waiting on rusty metal examination tables that had probably been gleaming silver when they were new. They’d probably also come with mattresses, Lucien reflected as he tried to shift his weight in some way that didn’t result in a stab of pain from his backside.

“Interesting...” Katawa said.

“What?” Lucien asked.

“Your biology. It is extremely flawed... almost intentionally so. It is a credit to your species that you have done so well in spite of your shortcomings.”

“Thanks,” Lucien replied dryly.

Within just a few minutes, Katawa announced that he had finished testing their blood samples against air samples collected by intake vents in the ship’s hull. His analysis revealed over three hundred potential vulnerabilities. Most of those were threats from alien microbes and viruses, and that was probably just the tip of the iceberg.

“What about water-borne microbes?” Lucien asked. “Or food-borne?”

“I have found an easy way to immunize you against any biological hazards on Mokar—as well as any other alien planet you travel to in the future.”

“And that is?” Addy asked.

“A one-time injection of modified white blood cells from your own blood. Unlike your original cells, the engineered ones will be capable of reproducing on their own, and they will quickly populate your bodies to provide a second layer of defense against any biological threats you might encounter. In approximately forty-eight hours, you will never get sick again,” Katawa announced. He withdrew four vials from the fabricator and slotted them into syringes and hypodermic needles. Then he walked up to Garek with one of the needles.

“You sure this is safe?” Garek asked as he held out his arm to receive the injection.

“Oh yes.”

“What happens if we get infected before forty-eight hours?” Lucien asked.

“You may develop a few unpleasant symptoms,” Katawa replied. “To avoid this, I suggest you don’t drink the water, or eat any of the food.”

Garek snorted. “Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Why don’t we just wait until we’re immunized to leave the ship?” Lucien asked as he received his inoculation.

“The Mokari are not a patient species,” Katawa replied as he moved on to give Addy her injection. “By now they will have our ship surrounded. If we keep them waiting, they may decide to push us off the cliff.”

“They can do that?” Lucien asked.

“They are very strong, yes,” Katawa said as he walked over to Brak and lifted the Gor’s shadow robes to give him an injection in his thigh.

When Katawa was done, he went back to the fabricator and produced antihistamine tablets for them. He gave each of them a tablet, except for Brak, who apparently didn’t need one. Gors were direct evolutionary descendants of Etherians who’d been stranded in the ruins of their galaxy after the Great War, so their bodies were much hardier than humans, whose Etherian DNA had been diluted with a local species of primates from ancient Earth.

“Take the pills now,” Katawa said, and pointed to a sink.

Lucien and Addy both jumped down from their examination table to get some water, while Garek dry-swallowed his pill.

“What is the concentration of different elements in the atmosphere?” Lucien asked, as he filled a cup with water and took his pill.

“The air is breathable, but richer in carbon dioxide than you or I are used to,” Katawa replied.

Lucien nodded along with that. Most alien species were carbon-based, and as a result, their body chemistries required both water and oxygen to function, so almost all of them had evolved on worlds with both readily available.

 Despite that encouraging fact, different planets had different concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in their air, not to mention different levels of toxicity in the water. The water problem was easy to solve—bring their own supply from the Specter, but the air was more complicated. Paragons were all trained to recognize the symptoms of respiratory acidosis, which was the most common malady caused by exposure to ‘breathable’ alien atmospheres.

Katawa walked over to a cold storage bin and withdrew five silver flasks with breather masks attached, one for each of them, including himself. He made a few adjustments to the flasks via holographic control panels, and then passed them out, keeping one for himself.

“We’re supposed to wear these the whole time?” Addy asked, trying to figure out how to secure the mask, and accommodate the flask without its weight ripping the mask off her face.

“No.” Katawa’s voice was muffled by his mask as he put it on. “You must inhale the contents. It will help your lungs to process the air and give you the appropriate concentration of gasses for your bodies,” Katawa replied.

Lucien watched as Katawa depressed a silver button on the back of his flask and took a deep breath. The alien held his breath for a moment, then removed the flask and exhaled.

They each mimicked Katawa, emptying their flasks.

“How does it work?” Lucien asked while Katawa collected the empty flasks.

“The particles will assemble a synthetic lung inside of your airways to filter the air.”

“You mean a machine?” Garek asked.

“A living machine,” Katawa corrected.

“How’s it going to power itself?”

“It is highly adaptive,” Katawa replied. “The lung will feed off the glucose in your blood. It may make you hungrier than usual, but otherwise you shouldn’t notice that you have a new organ inside your bodies.”

 “It’s alive?” Addy asked. She looked like she was about to be sick.

“It is not in any way autonomous or harmful. Do not be alarmed,” Katawa replied.

Lucien nodded, quietly amazed by the Faros’ mastery of biotechnology. “Now what?”

“Now, we go to meet the Mokari before we anger them any further.”

They followed Katawa to the ship’s rear airlock. Before cycling the airlock, Katawa retrieved a shadow robe like Brak’s from a locker and pulled it over his head. The garment automatically shrank and adhered to his body until he became a shapeless shadow like Brak. Not even Katawa’s giant black eyes were visible through the garment, but Lucien assumed he must be able to see and breathe somehow. Brak had been wearing one of those robes ever since boarding the ship, and he hadn’t been stumbling all over because of it.

Katawa began passing out translator bands, and Lucien realized he and Addy had left theirs in their quarters.

“It does not matter. Use these for now,” Katawa said, and handed two of the bands to each of them.

“Why two?” Addy asked.

“So you can give the spares to the Mokari when you need to speak with them.”

Lucien nodded and slipped one of the bands behind his head, above his ears. He put the other in one of the inner pockets of his robes.

Katawa opened the airlock and ushered them inside. The door irised shut behind them.

“Shouldn’t we bring weapons?” Garek asked.

“Faros do not need weapons when dealing with previously-subjugated populations,” Katawa replied. “Their most effective weapon is fear, and it is far deadlier than any sword. Besides, I was unable to procure Farosien weapons for this trip.”

“Great,” Garek muttered.

The airlock cycled quickly, and Katawa explained that the Faros didn’t bother with decontamination procedures.

Lucien was horrified. Maybe they didn’t care if they infected indigenous populations with deadly diseases, or maybe they weren’t carriers of such pathogens. Still, that didn’t mean they couldn’t transfer them from the worlds they visited, and there was plenty of ecological damage they could do by allowing biological contaminants to travel on their ships from one world to another. It was yet another example of the Faros’ careless disregard for all species besides their own.

When the outer door of the airlock irised open, a wave of hot dry air gusted in and took Lucien’s breath away. The alien smells were overpowering but also fascinating—sickly sweet, gamy, and acrid all at the same time.

 Something in the scenery beyond the airlock shifted and clicked in Lucien’s brain, and suddenly he saw the host of nightmarish black birds waiting for them on the plateau where they’d landed; their dark leathery skin made them blend almost perfectly against the gleaming black rocks of the mountains.

Lucien waited for Katawa to lead them down the ramp from the airlock. Garek nudged him between the shoulder blades, and he remembered that Katawa was supposed to be posing as a Faro slave.

 Lucien took the lead, He started down the ramp toward the assembled aliens, trying hard to hide his growing unease. If the Mokari killed him, he wasn’t going to come back to life in a cloned body like he would on Astralis, or like a real Faro probably could.

One of the Mokari stepped forward to greet him. It walked on two skinny, multiply-jointed legs, using the bony tips of its wings for added stability to give it what seemed to be four legs instead of two.

 Besides the obvious difference of wings, the Mokari had startlingly humanoid bodies: two eyes, two arms, two ears...

The differences were almost easier to count than the similarities; they had big, sunken red eyes, and bony faces with protruding, beak-like mouths, and sharp white teeth that were always bared in a predatory grin.

Lucien was already wearing a translator band, but the Mokari wasn’t, so he produced the spare from his robes and held it out. The alien tossed its head and clacked its teeth, followed by a loud chittering sound.

The sounds automatically connected to meaning in Lucien’s brain thanks to his translator.

“No need Faro magic,” the Mokari said. “You leaving now, or dying now. Choose.”

 Lucien blinked, taken aback by the alien’s hostility. The databanks on the Specter said that the Faros had subjugated the Mokari. They should be more deferential—unless something had changed since the records had last been updated. He hadn’t thought to check the date stamp.

Or maybe this Mokari was testing him. Lucien decided to gamble on that. He stood his ground and shook the translator band at the alien.

The Mokari tossed its head again and screeched.

This time the sound didn’t connect to meaning in Lucien’s brain, but he didn’t need a translation to understand that he was in trouble.

The bird jumped up and flapped its massive wings with a violent gust of air. It hovered easily in front of him, buffeting him with gusts from its massive wings. Its wingspan had to be at least thirty feet. It hovered there, studying him with those red eyes, and cocking its head from side to side, as if trying to decide which part of him would be the tastiest.

That went on for only a second or two before another untranslatable screech tore out of the Mokari’s chest, setting Lucien’s teeth on edge. He felt Addy’s hands on him, pulling him back.

“Get back inside the airlock!” she whispered.

But Lucien held his ground. He shook the translator at the Mokari once more. “Take it, you ugly kakard!” he roared. The alien wouldn’t understand him, but he hoped it would grasp something from his tone.

The Mokari’s red eyes flashed like daggers in the night, and the alien swooped forward. It knocked him over and stood on his chest, threatening to break his ribs with its weight. Its talons stabbed through his skin, drawing hot rivers of blood. Lucien gasped from the pain, but found he couldn’t suck in another breath. The Mokari was too heavy. He couldn’t breathe!

The monster regarded the crimson pools of blood around its feet, its head cocked curiously to one side, and jaws slightly agape. The Mokari’s red eyes were narrowed, as if with intense interest. Addy ran behind the creature and began beating it on the head with her fists, but the Mokari took no interest in her. It was fixated on him—on his blood. It could probably smell it.

Lucien’s whole body went cold. He’d miscalculated, and badly. Addy screamed and intensified her assault. Both Garek and Brak ran into view, and grabbed the Mokari by its wings to pull it off him, but they were too late.

The Mokari’s head snapped down, jaws gaping wide, and Lucien cringed, waiting for the searing bite that would rip out his throat and end his life.



Chapter 24

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar

A long green tongue flicked out of the Mokari’s mouth. It lapped Lucien’s blood from one of the pools around its feet, and withdrew sharply, chittering at him.

“Blood red. Not blue. Or black. Taste good,” it said.

Lucien grimaced from the pain still radiating from his chest. Brak, Garek, and Addy were pulling on the Mokari’s wings as hard as they could to get the creature off him, but they weren’t getting anywhere.

The Mokari glanced over its shoulder at them, and flapped its wings to shake them off. All three went flying.

The alien returned its full attention to Lucien, its head cocked curiously. It chittered something else. “Not Faro?”

 Then Lucien got it. His holoskin did nothing to disguise his blood. It was red, not blue, or black as the Mokari had said.

Lucien decided to take a risk. Using what little air he’d managed to suck in despite the crushing weight of the Mokari standing on his chest, he croaked out, “Not Faro. Human.”

The Mokari cocked its head to the other side. “Look like Faro.” Lucien’s head swam and dark spots crowded his vision. He had no strength left for a reply.

Addy ran up and crouched beside him. “It’s a disguise!” she screamed, and deactivated her holoskin, revealing her human features once more.

The Mokari screeched and rocked back on its heels. Its talons dug even deeper into Lucien’s chest as it did so. A guttural cry burst like a living thing from his lips, taking what little air he had left.

“Get off him!” Addy said. “We’re not your enemies! We come in peace!”

The Mokari stepped off Lucien’s chest, and he sucked in a deep breath. His ribs ached sharply as his lungs filled with air, and more blood bubbled from his stinging wounds, hot and wet, soaking his robes.

A small shadow came and crouched on the other side of him—Katawa. The little alien wiped away Lucien’s blood with the beige fabric of his robe, and sprayed his wounds with an aerosol of some kind.

The wounds bubbled, then sealed with a translucent resin, and the pain was replaced by a pleasant tingling.

Lucien sat up and glared at the Mokari who’d attacked him. Addy helped him to his feet.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

Lucien shook his head. “Fine,” he grunted. Then added in a softer tone, “Sorry. Thank you for defending me.”

Addy nodded mutely, her eyes full of concern. Garek and Brak walked back up the ramp and stood to either side of them.

Lucien found his spare translator band lying a few feet down the ramp and went to retrieve it. The Mokari watched him curiously out of one eye as he walked by.

Lucien held the band out to the alien once more. “Take it,” he insisted.

And to his surprise, this time the Mokari did so, grabbing the band in over-large, three-fingered hands that tapered into vicious-looking claws. The alien placed the band behind its head, above its dish-shaped ears. Apparently this Mokari already had experience using the translators.

“Finally,” Lucien breathed, wincing as that exhalation provoked a sharp ache from the right side of his rib cage. He clapped a hand to that side and leaned the other way to take the weight off his injured ribs.

“Death final. Not dead. Not final.” The Mokari said, proving it could finally understand him—but obviously only in the most literal sense. “What you?” it asked.

Lucien struggled with the clipped phrases of the Mokari. Clearly universal translators weren’t a panacea for language barriers.

“What am I?” he suggested.

The Mokari chittered. “Yes. What you?”

“I’m...” Lucien trailed off, noting that his holoskin was still active. He touched a hand to each of the glowing golden bands on his arms to deactivate the holoskin, and his true human features re-appeared.

The Mokari screeched and glanced sharply at Addy. “False skins. Evil Faro magic. Why use? Not Faro.”

Suddenly Lucien found himself wondering the same thing. After the dubious welcome they’d received while disguised as Faros, it seemed like they’d have had better luck greeting the Mokari as humans to start with. He glanced at Katawa, who lifted the top of his shadow robe to reveal his over-sized gray head.

The Mokari took a quick step back, and almost fell off the ramp. It had to flap its wings to regain its balance.

“Gray god!” it chittered, bowing its head and kneeling before Katawa.

 Lucien glared at Katawa. “You almost got us killed for nothing! The Mokari obviously hate the Faros, but not other aliens, and they do recognize your species.”

The little gray alien blinked its giant eyes at him. “I was mistaken. I apologize.”

The Mokari raised its nightmarish head and snapped its jaws at Lucien, glaring at him with one red eye. “Respect gray god. Or death.”

Lucien scowled. “Of course.” He turned back to Katawa and mimicked the Mokari’s submissive posture, all the while fuming inside.

“How do you know about us—the gray gods?” Katawa asked.

“Many songs.”

“Your songs about us are very old, some as old as ten thousand years,” Katawa objected. “You should have forgotten by now.”

“Some songs old. Some songs new. Songs still sung. Gray gods recent. Hard forget.”

Katawa nodded and turned to Lucien. “My people were here recently. That explains why I heard of a Mokari legend about us that is only one hundred and sixty years old. The implication is that my people stayed here in the Gakol System for a very long time.”

“If that’s true,” Lucien said, “and the Grays left because the Faros found them here, then the Faros must know these Mokari songs, too, and that means they’ve already followed them to wherever they lead.”

Katawa turned back to the Mokari. “Have the Faros heard your songs?”

“Not worthy listen. Why gray god return Mokar?” The Mokari asked, its head canting from side to side.

“I returned to hear your songs about the gray gods, and of the one who flew with them among the stars.”

The Mokari tossed its head. “You seek others like you.”

“Yes,” Katawa replied.

“Not see Gray Gods for many suns.”

“What does that mean? Many suns?” Addy asked.

“Many years,” Katawa replied. Nodding to the Mokari, he asked, “What is your sound?”

 The Mokari threw back its head, and uttered a loud cry. Lucien guessed that the question was analogous to what is your name?

 The Mokari’s sound was impossible for him to repeat exactly, but Katawa gave a good approximation. “Aakee?

The Mokari canted its head to one side and nodded once.

“Can you help us, Aakee?” Lucien asked.

The Mokari glared at him for an uncomfortably long second, then turned back to Katawa. “Come gray god. We sing. You listen. We eat. Our honor you stay.”

Katawa smiled. “My honor to listen,” he replied.

Aakee turned and walked down the ramp, back to the waiting ranks of his fellows. Katawa followed, and the rest of them trailed a few steps behind. The Mokari parted for them as they approached. Garek deactivated his holoskin to avoid ruffling their feathers—so to speak—and Brak lifted the top of his robe to reveal his skull-shaped head. The Mokari saw Brak for the first time and screeched at him. He roared back, and they spread their wings in agitation. They watched him, red eyes glaring and heads cocking every which way.

Brak bared his black teeth in a grin. “I like these Mokari,” he said. “They want to eat me, and I want to eat them. It is good to be among like-minded beings.”

Lucien frowned. “If you say so.”

Garek glanced at them. Between his bald head and scarred face he looked fearsome enough that he seemed to fit right in with the Mokari’s eat-or-be-eaten culture. “We should go back for our exosuits,” he said in a low voice.

“And leave Katawa alone with the Mokari?” Addy asked.

 “He seems to be able to handle himself,” Garek replied. “They think he’s a god. They’re not going to eat him. We’ll catch up.”

“Your suits will anger the Mokari and make them more likely to attack you,” Katawa said. “False skins, remember? Stay. They will not harm you as long as you are with me.”

“For someone who’s never been here before, you seem pretty confident of what to expect,” Garek replied.

“I have met their people before, on other worlds. One of them shared the same master with me. He was an assassin. I was a doctor. We used to share meals together. That is how I first heard of their legends and songs.”

“A killer and a healer became friends,” Garek said. “Sounds like the proverbial lion and the lamb to me.”

“The what?” Addy asked.

“Am I the only one who’s read the Etherian Codices?”

“If we were faithful enough to do that, we wouldn’t have left the Etherian Empire in the first place,” Addy replied.

“Katawa, what exactly do the Mokari legends say about you?” Lucien asked, while keeping an eye on the unending lines of Mokari to either side of them. Aakee seemed in no hurry to get wherever he was going. They walked past one mud-grass mound after another, heading for one of the larger mounds on the plateau.

“They say that we are the creators of their world, that we created the Mokari suns and the stars, and that we control fire, wind, and rain.”

Garek snorted. “I wonder how they got that impression.”

Katawa glanced at him. “Legend says that when we came here with the Etherian Fleet, we made the stars fall. Mokar still bears the scars of that incident. Since then, the Mokari have a healthy respect for us.”

“Falling stars, huh?” Garek mused. “I bet that was just—”

“Let’s talk about it later,” Lucien said, cutting Garek off before he could poke a hole in the Mokaris’ beliefs. “We came to listen to what the Mokari have to say.”

“Yeah...” Garek nodded, while watching the serried ranks of Mokari to either side of them. “Point taken.”

 They could all guess what falling stars meant. There had been a battle and the debris had rained down over Mokar—or maybe one of the Etherian ships had experienced a critical failure after reaching orbit that resulted in it falling from the sky and breaking up in the atmosphere. Whatever the case, the devastation had obviously been significant enough to trigger Mokari superstitions.

Later on, taking one or more of the Mokari on board the Etherian ships had probably only reinforced their ideas about the Grays’ deity. If the Grays had arrived on Earth and taken primitive humans into space, whole religions would have sprung up around them, too.

Aakee reached the mud-grass mound that was their destination and disappeared through a large circular opening near the ground. More circular openings pocked the outside of the mound at various heights for windows or possibly higher-level entrances.

 They passed inside the mound and found the floor padded with dried grass. The structure was huge. Dozens of mud-grass chairs adorned the space, each of them piled high with dried grass. Aakee went to sit on one of them. He folded his legs and wings, seeming to shrink into himself as he settled into the chair.

 Mokari came streaming in on all sides—some swooping in through circular holes in the dome-shaped ceiling, others walking in at ground level. The other Mokari joined Aakee, quickly occupying all of the empty chairs. Katawa went to what was roughly the center of the room, and took a seat in one of the few remaining chairs, leaving Lucien and the others to stand around him. Katawa glanced their way and gestured for them to sit.

Lucien did as he was told, and promptly winced as his bruised ribs reminded him they were there. Addy and Garek sat on either side of him, but Brak remained standing, despite a scathing look from Katawa.

A few moments later, the Mokari began to sing. It started with just one of them raising its head to the ceiling and exhaling with a sound like a flute. Then another joined in, and another, followed by a dozen more. Their voices rose and fell in perfect, melodic harmony.

To Lucien’s surprise, his translator began assembling lyrics in his brain, and a kind of story emerged.

Mokar is all.

One nest. One people. One sky.

Sky is torn.

Stars fall and fires burn.

Life is lost and ashes fly.

Death and sadness.

Gods appear from sky. Gray as smoke. Tiny.

Mokari lifted up, higher than sky.

Sky turns black.

Stars bright and many.

Mokar small.

Mokar gone.

New nests. New peoples. New skies.

Everything different.

All is new.

Mokari see.

Mokari know.

Mokar not all.

Gray gods return.

Death no more.

Life forever.

Life for all.

Death no more.

Life forever.

Life for all.

The song went on, speaking about how great and wonderful the gray gods were.

“What the is all that krak supposed to mean?” Garek muttered.

Lucien shook his head. “I can’t make sense of it.”

“I can,” Addy said.

Both of them turned to her.

“Well—I think I can,” Addy said. “They’re talking about how the Mokari thought their world was the only one, and they thought their people were the only people. Then the Grays came, raining fire on their world—debris maybe?”

Lucien nodded.

 Addy went on, “A bunch of them died. Then one or more of them got to ride in the Grays’ spaceships. They went up to space, above the sky, and traveled to new nests. They got to see new skies and meet new peoples. Then they returned to Mokar and the Grays made all of the Mokari immortal—that’s what the chorus means: death no more, life forever, life for all.

“I guess that makes sense,” Lucien said. “If you’re right, then the Mokari weren’t always immortals. I bet that’s even news to Katawa.”

 “I don’t see how any of this helps us,” Garek said, shaking his head. “Katawa basically told us all of this already, and he didn’t need to spend half an hour singing about it,” he said, jerking his chin at the alien a cappella group. They were busy still singing the Grays’ praises.

“Maybe we’ll get some kind of clue if we keep listening,” Addy said.

“Yeah, or we’ll go deaf,” Garek replied, wincing at the growing volume of the Mokari’s voices.

They were starting to sound shrill.

 Lucien gave his attention to the lyrics once more, hoping Addy was right. They were singing something about magical keys and blue devils, which Lucien could only assume were the Faros.

He listened for a while longer, then turned to Addy. “Translation?”

 “They’re talking about how the Grays suddenly left them after the blue devils came, but they left a... magical key to open a doorway to a new nest—another world. The key was hidden in the underworld to keep it safe. The Mokari were supposed to find it after the blue devils left....”

 Addy stopped to listen some more, then continued with her summary, “The key was supposed to open the doorway to bring the Grays back, but none of the Mokari who went into the underworld to find it returned, and the key was never found. They say that Death found them, and the underworld is where Death went after the Gray Gods sent it away.”

“So all we have to do is go into their underworld and find this key?” Lucien asked. “I’m assuming their underworld must be a physical place. Maybe a network of underground caves or caverns?”

“Must be,” Addy said.

“So why haven’t the Faros gone down there themselves and found the key?” Lucien asked.

 “Who says they haven’t?” Garek asked. “That magical key probably leads the way to a quantum junction that goes to whatever planet the Grays went to next, but Katawa told us that the Grays became slaves of the Faros, so the Faros obviously found them there.”

Lucien frowned. “I guess so.”

“Like I said, this trail is colder than space,” Garek said.

The songs ended, and several Mokari came in carrying shadowy, foul-smelling burdens. One after another they dropped their burdens in the center of the room, piling them high. A sound like swarms of flies buzzing filled the silence, and one of the Mokari chittered: “Eat!”

At that, the Mokari bounded out of their chairs and fell upon the shadowy pile with enthusiastic chittering and screeching. Wet tearing noises followed.

The foul smell grew fouler, and Lucien’s guts clenched. The smell was so bad that he grew dizzy and had to stumble outside before he added to the stench with the contents of his stomach.

Addy burst out after him. “Whew!” She fell on her hands and knees outside, gasping for air. Then her body heaved, and she did throw up. Lucien stumbled over to hold her hair—but then he remembered she didn’t have any.

It was dark outside, and the air was cooler now. The warmer sun had sunk below the horizon, while the more distant one still hung high overhead, a dim orange eye, casting everything in a flat, reddish gloom. It was hard to see more than a few dozen meters, and only a handful of stars were visible. Mokar’s twilight had begun.

Lucien heard feet trampling the grassy floor of the Mokari dwelling, and he turned to see Garek and Katawa emerge from one of the circular doorways.

“Well?” Lucien asked, his eyes on Katawa. “You ready to go chasing the next rumor?”

“Not until we go to the underworld and find the key,” Katawa said.

Addy s and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “You didn’t hear us talking in there? The Faros must have already found the key. How else did they find and enslave your people?”

“You do not understand—the key leads to the lost fleet, not to my people. My people were found and enslaved, but the fleet was never found. Only the caretaker knew where it was hidden, and he has made himself to forget.”

“How do you know that?” Addy asked.

“Because I am the caretaker.”

 Lucien blinked in shock. “You?

“Yes.”

“Well, you really frekked yourself over,” Garek said.

“That is anatomically impossible,” Katawa replied, his huge eyes blinking slowly.

“He means all of your precautions have made your life difficult,” Addy said.

“Oh. Yes. I thought you knew this.”

“I do... I was re-stating the problem for effect,” Garek said.

“Do humans all waste their air by repeating what is already known? Perhaps I am not the only one who has a problem remembering things.”

Garek’s eyes narrowed to slits, and he looked away. Lucien followed his gaze, out over the dark emerald river swishing through the Mokari village, past the black cliffs, and out to the hazy red sky.

“Come, we must rest,” Katawa said. “The Mokari will not take us to the underworld until morning.”

“Why not?” Addy asked. “Is it far from here?”

 “Yes, but that is not why. Twilight is dangerous on Mokar, even for the Mokari. They live in the mountains for good reason.” Katawa left them on that note, heading back to the Specter.

“How do you know all of that if you’ve never been here?” Garek called after him, suspicious as ever.

 “It is in the ship’s databanks!” Katawa called back, his voice muffled by the swishing of the river.

“You still don’t trust him,” Lucien said.

“I trust him about as far as I can fly by flapping my arms,” Garek replied, and started after the little alien.

Lucien turned to Addy. “Where’s Brak?”

She looked around. “I don’t know... Brak?” she called.

A moment later he emerged from the Mokari’s dwelling, rank with the smell of raw, gamy meat. Flies, or the Mokari equivalent, buzzed around him while he munched on a giant leg or arm of something.

“Uck!” Addy said as he stopped beside them. “I’ll see you back in our quarters, Lucien,” she said, and took off at a run.

“What did I say about sampling the local cuisine?” Lucien asked.

The leg fell dramatically from Brak’s mouth. “I could not resist. The smell was too much.”

“You can say that again,” Lucien said.

Brak grinned and held the leg out to him. “Try some. It is like nothing you’ve ever tasted.”

Lucien’s guts clenched in warning. “I’ll pass,” he said. He was starting to feel dizzy again. “I need to go,” he managed, and then turned and ran after Addy. To his horror, Brak came running up beside him, still munching.

“Throw that thing away!”

Brak grunted. “Fine.”

Something wet and noxious hit Lucien in the side of the head, almost knocking him over. “The frek...!”

“You say to throw it away,” Brak replied.

 “Not at me!” His cheek itched maddeningly where the meat had hit him. He scratched it, and his fingers came away sticky and smelling like rotten krak.

Lucien’s head spun with the smell, and there was no getting away from it now. It was stuck to him. “You did that on purpose!” he accused, breathing hard through his mouth.

“Maybe, yes,” Brak admitted, and let loose a booming laugh.

“You’d better watch your back,” Lucien warned.

“I will watch my front, also,” Brak replied, and laughed again.



Chapter 25

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Lucien waited until late for Tyra to come home, watching holo-cartoons with the girls to pass the time. Theola succumbed to sleep first, sucking her thumb, her eyes slowly drifting shut. Seeing the glazed look in Atara’s eyes, Lucien realized she wasn’t far off, so he put them both to bed, carrying Theola, and taking Atara by the hand. He tucked Atara in and kissed her on the forehead. “Goodnight, Atty,” he whispered. “I love you.”

“Night, Daddy...” she mumbled back.

He shut the door softly behind him and went to the living room for a drink—his nightly ritual. It was almost midnight and Tyra still wasn’t home. He’d probably be in bed himself by the time she returned.

Lucien poured himself whiskey, neat, and went to sit in an armchair by the picture windows, in front of a crackling fireplace. He sat sipping his drink, allowing his stress to melt away. Orange tongues of electric-fueled flames danced over convincing metal logs, mesmerizing him. The window beside him seemed to radiate cold.

He looked out that window, into the night. Just like their home in Fallside, this one was situated on the side of Hubble Mountain, looking out over the city. Giant snow flakes tumbled from a black sky, accumulating on the deck. Street lights shone intermittently through the falling snowflakes. The view was as mesmerizing as the fire.

Lucien reclined his chair and balanced his drink on his stomach, allowing the warmth of the fireplace and the crackling sound it made to lull him to sleep...

He awoke to desperate screaming.

The girls.

Lucien bolted out of his chair, sending his glass and drink flying. He ran down the hall to the bedrooms, his heart pounding in his chest. As he drew near, he recognized those cries.

It was Theola.

Lucien collided with the door, unable to stop in time. He turned the handle and opened the door. Theola’s cries became ten times louder.

The room was still dark. He couldn’t see a thing. “Lights!” he roared.

The overhead lights snapped on, and he blinked the spots from his eyes, searching desperately for his daughters. Atara was in bed. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Dad?”

Lucien hurried over to Theola’s crib. She was writhing on the mattress, making a mess of the sheets. Her face had flushed bright red, and tears streamed down her cheeks. He picked her up in shaking hands.

“She won’t go to sleep,” Atara explained.

“Shhh... it’s okay, it’s okay,” he said as he bounced Theola in his arms, but she refused to be comforted. He kissed her forehead—

And promptly recoiled from her. Theola’s skin was like ice. His heart leapt into his throat. He placed a hand on her forehead. “She’s freezing!” Lucien said, shaking his head in disbelief. The room was cold, too. He turned to Atara. “Did you mess with the temperature in here?”

She shook her head quickly.

Not buying it, Lucien stalked over to his eldest and felt her forehead, but she was warm.

Lucien’s brow furrowed in confusion.

Theola was calming down now. She had her face buried in his chest.

“Maybe she’s sick?” Atara suggested, her eyes wide and blinking. “Is she going to be okay?”

Lucien felt Theola’s forehead again. It was warmer now. “She’ll be fine...” he said, trailing off. He glanced at the window beside Atara’s bed and went to check it. The window was shut and locked, but looking closer he found greasy fingerprints around the latch.

“She might have a fever,” Atara suggested.

He rounded on her and pointed to the window. “Did you open this?” he demanded.

Atara’s bottom lip began quivering. “Why are you yelling?”

“Yes or no, Atara!”

“I was hot!” She cried, and dove under the covers.

Lucien felt a pang of regret for getting so mad. He went over and sat on the edge of her bed. He placed a hand on the sobbing lump under the covers.

“Atara,” he said in a gentle voice. “You could have made your sister sick. You can’t open the window again, do you understand me?”

“I was allowed in Fallside!”

“This isn’t Fallside, sweetheart. It’s too cold here for you to open the window. If you’re hot, then throw off one of your blankets, but don’t open the window, okay?”

Atara said nothing for a moment, but at least he could tell that she wasn’t sobbing anymore.

“Can you come out, please? I’m sorry for yelling.”

Atara popped her head out of the covers, and beamed up at him. “I forgive you.”

Lucien blinked, taken aback by Atara’s abrupt change of mood. Her eyes were dry, and so were her cheeks. Was she just pretending to be upset?

“I’m going to take Theola with me for a while...” he said.

Atara nodded. “Okay.”

He leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. “Good night, sweetheart.”

“Good night, Dad,” Atara said as he was leaving.

“Lights off,” he said, and closed the door behind him.

Theola sighed and snuggled into his chest, already asleep. Lucien walked carefully back to the living room with her, trying not to wake her.

He puzzled over what had just happened, and why he felt so troubled by it. Atara had opened the window because she was hot, and even if she hadn’t been genuinely sobbing, that wasn’t anything to worry about. Kids learned to manipulate their parents from a young age. Maybe Atara was learning how to fake her tears.

Lucien sat in his armchair by the fireplace once more. He reclined the chair with Theola on his chest. She stirred sleepily and popped her thumb in her mouth for a good suck. After a few moments her features relaxed in sleep and she stopped sucking. He smiled, watching her, and his thoughts turned idly back to the incident....

Something clicked.

Theola’s crib was far from the window, tucked away in the corner of the room. Even with the window open, it would have taken a while for her to freeze like that. Atara’s bed, on the other hand, was right next to the window. If anyone should have been ice-cold with the window open, it was her.

Unless...

Unless Atara had taken Theola out of her crib and held her up to the open window. Or left her on the window sill...

Lucien shuddered at the thought. It was a long way down the mountain from their house. Anyone who fell out that window wouldn’t just fall one story to the ground, they’d fall more than two, because of the walk-out basement, and then they’d still roll a few hundred feet until a tree or another house stopped them. Not that a baby could survive a two-story fall to begin with.

Lucien shook his head. He was being crazy. Atara wouldn’t even be able to reach Theola to get her out of her crib. She wasn’t tall enough. She’d probably just opened the window and then pulled the covers over her head when she got cold. Later she must have got up to shut the window again when even the covers weren’t enough to keep her warm.

Being a baby, Theola hadn’t been able to adjust her blankets properly, so she’d frozen in a matter of minutes.

 That was the most reasonable explanation. Nothing sinister. Just parental paranoia, he decided, and let out a sigh.

He wrapped both his arms around Theola, hugging her to his chest to keep her from rolling off, and then he lost himself in the warmth and rhythmic crackling of the fire. The flickering flames had him mesmerized before long, and his eyelids grew heavy with sleep. He let the warmth carry him away, and this time there weren’t any screams to wake him.

***

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar

“We’re wasting time chasing our asses like we have tails,” Garek said, picking through a plate of bland-looking food that he’d selected from the Specter’s meal fabricator.

“Colorful,” Lucien replied, picking at his own food with dismay. He’d chosen some kind of eggs with a side of meat strips, but the eggs tasted sour and the meat... Lucien’s stomach clenched and he set his fork down.

“Look, I’m all for being neighborly and helping a down-on-his-luck alien find his way home,” Garek said, shaking his fork at Lucien, “but this whole thing stinks, and you know it.”

“I’ve been feeling uneasy, too,” Addy admitted.

Lucien looked at her. “You didn’t say anything to me.”

“Because I know how much you want Katawa’s story to be true. I get that you want to go on some crusade against all the evil in the universe, but Garek’s right, why would anyone hand us a fleet of a thousand warships as payment just for finding them?”

Lucien shook his head. “It’s not about crusades. That fleet is our best chance to rescue our people. We can’t go in guns blazing and rescue them without any guns.”

“So we find or steal some guns along the way,” Garek said. “We can start by stealing Katawa’s ship.”

Lucien scowled. “I’m going to need proof that he’s planning to betray us before I agree to go along with a plan like that.”

“By the time we have proof, he’s going to have us over a barrel of antimatter,” Garek replied.

 Lucien shook his head. “Let’s follow this Mokari rumor first. Go to their underworld and see what comes of it. If it’s a dead end, then we convince Katawa to take us somewhere that has a Faro slave market, so that we can do something to advance our goals. I’m sure he won’t say no to that.”

“And if he does?”

“We’ll cross that wormhole when we get there.”

“Fine,” Garek said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you when the krak hits the turbines.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t,” Lucien replied.

Brak walked up, wearing all but the hood of his shadow robe, his plate piled high with foul-smelling raw meat.

“Ugh!” Garek said as Brak sat down. “What the... I’m done,” he said, and dropped his fork.

Lucien clapped a hand to his face and pinched his nose. “Where’d you get that?”

“Mokar breakfast,” Brak said, grinning as he picked up a foot-long bone and ripped off a giant chunk of bloody meat. “They agree to share with me.”

“Isn’t that the same krak they were eating last night?” Garek asked. He was leaning as far away from Brak as he could without falling out of his chair.

Brak chewed twice and swallowed the massive bite. “Yes,” he replied. “Want some?” He held the bone out.

“No!” Garek almost fell out of his chair in his hurry to leave the table. He left the mess hall at a run.

Brak heaved his massive shoulders. “More for me.”

Lucien left the table next, taking Addy with him. They went to sit in a booth at the far end of the mess hall, as far as they could get from Brak without physically leaving the room.

Addy grabbed his hand and laced her fingers through it.

“I’ve been thinking about what we’re doing—starting a war and rescuing our people. Maybe we should set our sights somewhere closer to home.”

 Lucien regarded her with eyebrows raised. “What’s home? The Etherian Empire? Astralis?

Addy placed her free hand over his heart. “Here.”

He smiled wryly and leaned in for a kiss, but she pushed him away after just a moment. “I mean it, Lucien.”

“So do I,” he said, matching her tone.

She frowned and looked away, placing their hands on the table in front of them. She spent a moment studying the way their hands locked together, her gaze far away. “I think I’m in love with you,” she said.

Lucien blinked. He hadn’t expected that. “I...”

“Can’t bring yourself to say it back?” she asked, turning back to him.

 “No, it’s not that. It’s... I just haven’t had a chance to stop and think about us. It’s been one crisis after another since we left the Etherian Empire and you and I met, and most of the time we’ve spent together since then has been in bed.”

Addy nodded slowly, her hand leaving his. “I get it.” She sighed. “Story of my life. I find a great guy, and he just wants to have fun.”

Lucien found her hand again. “That’s not true. I want more than that. I could actually see us together fifty years from now, a ship of our own, exploring the universe together, seeing things no one has ever seen before.”

 “Sounds amazing,” Addy said, smiling dreamily at him. “So why don’t we do that? Forget Astralis, the Etherian Empire, Etheria, Etherus, Abaddon, the Faros—forget everything but you and me.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.”

 “Why not? Neither of us have ties to Astralis. And as for family back in the Etherian Empire... my ties to family were cut long before I left, and your family has probably forgotten you by now.”

Lucien frowned and shook his head. “I don’t know about that.”

“It’s been eight years, almost nine, since they’ve heard from you. They probably think you’re dead. Maybe they’ve even convinced Etherus to let them bring you back to life from backups taken before you left.”

“I don’t think Etherus would agree to do that,” Lucien replied.

“Regardless, nine years is a long time, and if your family ties were so strong, you wouldn’t have left the Etherian Empire in the first place.”

“Fair enough, but what’s your point?”

“My point is we’re free, Lucien! As free as two people can ever get. So why aren’t we living like it?”

“Well, for one thing, we don’t have a ship of our own to go exploring the universe with,” Lucien said.

“No,” Addy admitted, “But we could get one.”

“How?”

Addy shrugged. “Work for a Marauder crew until we can afford our own ship.”

“Become outlaw pirates, you mean. I don’t think the life expectancy is very long in that job.”

“We could find legitimate work, too. An empire as big as the Farosien Empire has to have plenty of work.”

“But we’re humans, not real Faros. We’ll end up enslaved to them in no time.”

Addy shook her head, smiling. “Thanks to Katawa, we look like Faros, we sound like Faros, and we even have fake ID-chips. We’ll blend in perfectly no matter where we go.”

“What about Brak?”

“We take him with us.”

“And Garek?”

“If he wants to come.”

“I doubt he’ll be interested.”

 “That’s fine,” Addy said. “He has his own path to follow. Unlike us, he does have ties to Astralis. He has to go find and rescue his daughter.”

Lucien nodded.

“So?” Addy prompted. “What do you think? Just you and me and the stars. No commitments—except to each other,” she added with a wink.

“And to the netherworld with everyone else?” Lucien asked.

 “Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, but yeah. What makes you think it’s our job to save them? Astralis left the Etherian Empire knowing the risks, and so did we. I don’t want to be heartless, but I don’t think there’s actually anything we can do to help them. By now our people have been farmed out to slave markets all over the universe. Even rescuing one of them would be hard, but all of them?” Addy’s eyebrows shot up, and she shook her head. “Garek has a reasonable goal: save his daughter and beat it back to the Etherian Empire, but even that won’t be easy.

“You want to start a war and defeat an alien empire that spans the entire universe. Even if you find the Etherian Fleet and Katawa really does give it to you, a thousand ships are never going to be enough.”

“We can’t just give up,” Lucien said.

 “Why not? Look, I know you believe in Etherus. You think he’s almighty God. Well, if that’s true, then why doesn’t he go wage a war with Abaddon? What’s he doing hiding behind the Red Line?”

“That’s neither here nor there,” Lucien said, looking away from her.

“It’s both here and there,” Addy replied. She touched the side of his chin with her forefinger and turned his gaze back to her, forcing him to look into her bright green eyes. They weren’t cold as he expected them to be, but warm and full of sympathy. “Who are you to do what even your God will not?”

Lucien frowned. “Let’s break it down: you’re saying we shouldn’t fight evil because Etherus isn’t out there leading the charge.”

Addy shrugged. “Pretty much, yeah.”

“What if he’s waiting for us to do it?”

“So he’s lazy?” Addy asked, her brow screwing up. “How’s that any better?”

 “What if Etherus created the Faros and the Etherians, knowing full well that they’d start a war with each other. What if he’s testing them? Testing us. We used to be Etherians, after all. And if this is some kind of test, I don’t think we’re going to get full marks by leaving all the questions blank, and waiting for the teacher to tell us the answers.”

“But the Etherians aren’t free,” Addy objected. “So how can he be testing them?”

“They have to be,” Lucien said. “Maybe they’re not tempted to do evil, but I think they still can, and the history we’ve learned about them supports that. Look at the Gors and the now-extinct Sythians. They were Etherians who fought with the Faros in the Great War. Their punishment was to remain stranded on the worlds they destroyed, and eventually they evolved into entirely different species.”

“What’s your point?” Addy asked, shaking her head.

“My point is, a long time ago some of the Etherians did choose to do something wrong. The Gors are living proof of that.”

 “Okay, so they’re free-ish,” Addy said. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

 “Simple. The first time the Etherians did something wrong was back when some of them joined the war against Etherus, and now they’re doing something wrong for a second time by not starting a war with Abaddon. The Etherians are just sitting there in paradise, content to forget about the rest of the universe and its troubles. Pacifism is their new sin, but what scares me is what their punishment might be.”

“Such as?”

“The Etherians and all of the Etherian Empire are like a sand bar in the middle of an ocean. All it takes is one big wave, and they’re gone.

“If you take the Red Line and everything in it, it’s just a dot compared to the rest of the universe. The sheer difference in size and numbers between Etheria and the Farosien Empire makes them extremely vulnerable.”

“But the Faros don’t know where Etheria is.”

“No, not yet, but the lost fleet might change that. If Abaddon stumbles on it before we do, he’s going to use it to conquer Etheria. The war will be over before you can blink, and the Faros will lead everyone in the Etherian Empire into slavery—including the entire human race.”

Addy looked skeptical. “New Earth is mobile. They’ll just pick up and run.”

 “And just look at how that worked out for Astralis. You can’t run forever.”

“All right, let’s say all of that happens. You think Etherus is just going to stand by and let his kingdom crumble? If he’s the almighty creator of the universe, then you’re worrying for nothing. He’ll just wave his hands and the Faros will disappear.”

Lucien stared at her. “And what if he’s not really God?”

“Well...”

Addy didn’t have a ready answer for that. She wasn’t exactly a big believer, after all.

Lucien nodded slowly. “If Etherus isn’t who he says he is, then this war that you’re trying to convince me not to start is the only thing standing between our entire species and eternal damnation.”

Addy blew out a breath. “So it’s our job to find this fleet and use it against Abaddon to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Maybe. First we need to make sure the secret of Etheria’s location stays safe. Then we can figure out how to use the fleet to get our people back, and after that, maybe we can start freeing other species, too.”

 Addy began shaking her head. “I love your idealism, Lucien, I really do, but I also love you, and I’m pretty sure this war is going to get you killed.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. But if I do die, at least my life will have meant something.”

“It already means something! To me. I need you.” Addy’s eyes were pleading as they searched his.

“I need you, too, Addy...”

“No, you don’t need me. You need soldiers. And I’m not one.”

Addy stood up and left the booth. Even bald as an egg she still looked amazing. Lucien felt something physically tugging him to follow her as she left, but instead of doing that, he just sat there and watched her go.

His heart hurt. They were at an impasse. She wanted the two of them to go off exploring the universe with nothing to weigh them down, while he was itching for a larger meaning to life. This war with Abaddon was it: a real crusade, a holy war like the universe had never seen before.

Wars were rarely justified, their causes diluted by the blood of the fallen until they lost all reason, but every now and then there came a war that was different, a war that called out to the hearts of everyone who ever heard of it—a war to end all wars.

This was one of those wars. Lucien knew he couldn’t walk away. He’d been born for this. The light-bringer. Somehow, even his name foretold his purpose. He was supposed to bring light to a dark universe, to help restore peace and justice for everyone, everywhere.

 Maybe it was arrogant to think that was possible, or that he could somehow be instrumental in such a timeless struggle, but someone had to be, so why not him?

“We are ready to leave.”

That voice stirred Lucien from his thoughts. He looked up and found Katawa standing in the entrance of the mess hall. Katawa’s giant black eyes found him, and blinked. “Did you eat?” the little gray alien asked.

Brak grunted and pushed out his chair from the table at the other end of the mess hall, his plate was empty but for a few bloody scraps of gristle. “Too much!” he declared, and pounded his belly with a fist, knocking loose a thunderous belch.

Lucien smiled ruefully.

“Good. You will need your strength for the underworld. We must go. The Mokari are waiting.”



Chapter 26

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Tyra sat in the armchair in the living room beside the picture window, wearing a sweater to help keep out the cold. She listened to the sound of the fire crackling in the hearth while she scanned the news headlines on her ARCs. Taking an absent-minded sip from her cup of caf, she promptly grimaced. The caf was cold—of course it was, Lucien must have brewed it hours ago when he got up to take Atara to her new school. Typical Tyra, so distracted that you don’t even remember to heat up your morning caf.

She’d woken up at eleven o’clock, but she’d still only gotten five hours of sleep. She’d been in her office until early morning coming up with new cloning bills in case the judicial department approved Ellis’s initial proposal.

 Now she was scanning the headlines to see if the judicial department had delivered their verdict. Only a day had passed since Ellis had submitted the proposal, but the judicial department sometimes delivered verdicts within hours, so it wouldn’t be strange to have one by now. Astralis’s government was a hyper-efficient machine.

“Tyra? You mind un-plugging for a second? We need to talk about something.” It was Lucien.

Tyra closed the least interesting of the two news feeds she had open, freeing up half her field of view. She spared a glance at Lucien. He sat beside her on the couch warming his hands around a fresh cup of caf. Tyra swallowed a sigh, instantly resenting him for the fact that he had time to make a fresh pot, while she didn’t even seem to have the time to re-heat an old one.

“What’s going on?” she asked, only half-turning to him so he wouldn’t see the news feed glowing in her other eye. She took another sip of her cold caf and pretended to stare into the flames dancing in the fireplace.

“It’s about Atara. Last night, some time after I put the girls to bed, Theola woke up screaming. I went to check on them and...”

 There it is! Tyra thought as she read the headline.

Judicial Dept. Approves Use of

Simultaneous Copies for Safe Exploration

Tyra scanned the story. It mostly detailed things she already knew, a summary of Ellis’s proposal, and an explanation of how they would use clones to explore safely.

 Then she got to the part of the Judicial Department’s verdict. They approved the proposal, pending further legislation to place new limitations on the use of simultaneous copies. But the Judicial Department had placed a limitation of their own: the clones would be forced to integrate with their copies on Astralis each time they returned, and no more than two simultaneous copies of any given person would be allowed.

Tyra frowned, considering the implications of that. It meant more disruption to the lives of the people who agreed to send out clones. In a way that was better. It meant the clones wouldn’t be leaving their families for good, since each time they returned they’d integrate their memories, and it would seem to them as if they’d somehow never left. They’d have all the memories of the time they’d spent with their partners and children, as well as all of the memories of the time they’d spent away, exploring.

Tyra nodded along with that. Assuming clones were never separated from each other for more than a few months at a time, it wouldn’t be too shocking or disruptive for anyone, but it also meant that anyone who consented to send out a clone of his or herself would have to think twice about it, because doing so actually would affect their lives. Besides all of the new memories they’d have to cope with, they’d be accountable to their families for their actions while they were away.

Tyra became aware of eyes boring into the side of her skull. She hurriedly closed the news feed and turned to Lucien with a sheepishly-innocent smile.

“You didn’t hear a thing I said, did you?” Lucien accused.

“Hmmm?” She took another sip of her caf and shook her head. “Of course I did. The girls woke up. Theola was screaming. Something about Atara... I missed that part.”

Lucien scowled and shook his head. “You know what, never mind.”

“Hey—” Tyra reached for his hand, but he moved it from the armrest of the couch to his lap. “I’m sorry.”

Lucien’s lips were twisted in a smile, but his eyes were cold. “Look, forget about it. You’ve got more important things to worry about.”

“That’s not fair. Nothing’s more important to me than our family.”

“Sure, in theory, but in reality...” He shook his head and got up from the couch.

Tyra felt guilt twisting her stomach in knots. “I’m sorry, okay? I was reading an important article about—”

 Lucien held up a hand to stop her. “Save it. I’ve got a meeting to attend. Maybe we’ll have time to talk about it tonight. That is—if you make it home tonight.”

The knot got tighter, and Tyra nodded slowly, watching as Lucien turned to leave. Then something clicked and her brow furrowed with sudden interest. “What meeting? You’re supposed to be on vacation until Fallside is repaired.”

“Admiral Stavos called a meeting this morning for all of the ex-Paragons.”

Tyra’s eyes widened suddenly. She knew what that would be about. “You can’t go,” she blurted.

 Lucien stopped and sent her an incredulous look. “What do you mean I can’t go? I’m an ex-Paragon. I don’t actually have a choice.”

“Well...” Tyra faltered for words. “I meant you can’t allow them to send out your clone on one of the galleons.”

Lucien shot her a baffled look. “What clone? And since when are we sending out galleons?”

“Ellis proposed it all yesterday, and the judiciary just gave approved it.”

Lucien came and sat back down. “Maybe you’d better explain.”

So she did.

Lucien sat blinking in shock. “That’s...”

“Crazy?” Tyra suggested.

“I was going to say brilliant. Finally we can get back to doing what we came out here to do!”

Tyra arched her eyebrows at him. “As opposed to... what? Playing house on a giant spaceship?”

Lucien frowned. “You don’t get to play that card with me. I’m the one who’s there every day, wiping noses and changing diapers.”

“I’m sorry. You’re right. Look you need to think about this, that’s all. If you agree to go, you’re going to be away from me and the girls for months at a time.”

“Technically, I’ll still be right here,” Lucien said.

“But your clone will be out there, and as soon as he comes back, he’ll be forced to integrate his memories with yours.”

“Sounds like having your sweet tart and eating it, too. What’s the problem with that?”

 Tyra started to say something, but stopped herself and sighed. “Nothing.” She looked away, out the picture window, out over a forest of evergreens caked with snow. Beyond that she spied a frozen lake crowded with stay-at-home parents and their children, all skating on the ice. It was a glimpse of the life she was missing, the one where she always seemed to be the spectator and never the participant. If anyone needed a clone so that she could be in two places at once, it was her. How many others felt that way? No wonder the judiciary had ruled that clones had to integrate once they reached Astralis. If they didn’t, it was just a short leap from there to living multiple lives at once. Things would get out of hand really fast.

“What are you worried about?” Lucien prompted.

Tyra turned back to him, her constant guilt and her secret fears made her feel suddenly intensely vulnerable. She tried to keep her expression neutral, but she felt naked, like every whisper of a thought was written on her face.

She lived with the waking dread that one day she’d come home late and find that Lucien wasn’t there. She’d never voiced it to him. Weakness was a throat exposed, the jugular pulsing invitingly, and men were all hunters at heart. But if she didn’t share her fears, she couldn’t justify telling him to turn down the chance to get back out there and explore the universe.

Tyra took a deep, shuddery breath. “I’m worried about you. What if you fall out of love with me and in to love with someone else? What if you start to prefer your life out there, in the stars, with no responsibilities and no commitments? What if you get lonely and some woman seduces you?”

Lucien’s brow was skeptically raised, but the grave look in his eyes told her the truth: he’d just admitted the possibility to himself, and he was busy thinking about it, weighing the risk that he might actually succumb to such temptations—an affair that wasn’t an affair, his mind in two bodies, having your sweet tart and eating it, too, what happens in space stays in space....

Tyra swallowed a scream and did her best to look unconcerned.

“We’re married,” Lucien said finally. “We have two kids. They need their mother, not some other woman. I don’t want to make our lives any more complicated than they already are.”

 “They need their mother. What do you need, Lucien?”

“I need you, too. But you’re never here.”

“I’m going to work on that. I promise. Things are going to be different.”

“Good. Then maybe you won’t need to worry about me having an affair, because you’ll be confident in what we have.”

Lucien’s words stabbed straight through to her heart. “So you’re saying I have a reason to be worried.”

“No, I’m saying your worries are a direct result of your guilt and the fact that you’re giving me more reason and opportunity than most men need. What you forget is that I’m not most men.”

“Maybe not, but you’re still human.”

He sighed. “You’re getting ahead of yourself. We don’t even know why Stavos called the Paragons together.”

Tyra snorted. “Yes we do. It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to figure that out.”

Lucien’s eyes narrowed. Poor choice of words. One of his lesser issues with her was how she was always patronizing him with her education. She’d been an astrophysicist before she’d decided to run for political office, and while he wasn’t un-educated, his education as a Paragon was only really applicable to expeditionary work, to exploring the stars and meeting new alien races, which he’d been unable to do for almost a decade.

Now he was about to get a second chance, and here she was telling him not to take it because she was scared that whatever threads were still holding them together wouldn’t be strong enough if he had some freedom.

She was being selfish and she knew it. “Look, just... consider the consequences, okay?”

Lucien nodded. “I will.” He grabbed her hand and gave it a quick squeeze before getting up from the couch and leaving the room once more.

Almost as an afterthought, Tyra thought to ask, “Where’s Theola?”

Lucien turned back to her from the front door, while he reached into the coat closet and withdrew his gloves and jacket. “She’s at daycare. I signed her up for one after I got the notice about the meeting. I figured you wouldn’t be able to watch her, so...”

Tyra nodded absently. “Okay. See you later,” she said, as he finished putting on his coat and gloves.

“See you,” he replied.

He opened the door and a blast of cold air gushed into the room, making Tyra shiver. He shut the door behind him, and Tyra sat staring at it for a long moment, her guts twisting with dread.

“I love you, too,” she whispered.



Chapter 27

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar

The Specter flew low over mottled blue and red forests of strange, cauliflower-shaped trees and vast open plains dry brown grass.

Both of Mokar’s suns were high in the sky, one as red as a Mokari’s eyes, the other campfire-orange. The sky was pinkish, almost white, while the clouds were salmon-colored.

 Mokar was as unique as any world or facet of New Earth that Lucien had ever been to, and it was a far cry from the blue skies, white clouds, and typically-green trees of Astralis.

 Along the horizon a cloud of black specks led the way. Mokari. They were taking the Specter to their underworld.

 “How is it possible that one sun sets and the other doesn’t?” Addy asked, peering up through the top of the Specter’s canopy.

Katawa answered, “We landed at the North Pole. The planet’s tilt and rotation are such that at this time of year the most distant sun only sets three times a year, while the other one rises and sets a hundred times as often.”

“So twilight is going to fall again soon?”

“In five of your standard hours,” Katawa said.

“And you know all of this because...” Garek trailed off. “Wait, don’t tell me. The ship’s databanks, right?”

“Correct.”

“Is it much farther to the underworld?” Addy asked.

“I do not know.”

 After another few minutes of standing and watching their progress from the Specter’s bridge, Lucien grew tired and took a seat in the co-pilot’s chair.

Katawa glanced sharply at him as he did so, and Lucien held up his hands. “I won’t touch anything. Promise.”

Katawa looked away. “It is not that. You sat on my lunch.”

Lucien felt around underneath his robes until his hand encountered something slimy and squishy. Lucien withdrew his hand in horror to find it coated with thick white slime. “Yuck!” He jumped up from the co-pilot’s chair and saw a plate filled with an assortment of colorful slug-like creatures, all flattened into a sticky paste.

Lucien’s nose wrinkled, and he used his clean hand to brush off the back of his robes. That hand came away dripping with slime, too.

“How is it possible that everyone this side of the Red Line eats such disgusting food?” Lucien asked, staring at his hands in dismay.

Addy laughed.

“It is not disgusting,” Katawa replied. “Try one. They are delicious.”

“I’m going to go wash up,” Lucien said. He squeezed by Katawa’s chair and hurried to the amidships washroom.

When he returned, he found Katawa devouring the remains of the slugs and licking his bony gray fingers. Addy sat beside him in the co-pilot’s chair, trying not to notice, and both Brak and Garek were gone, probably back in their quarters.

There were only two seats on the bridge, so Lucien was forced to stand behind Addy’s chair.

 The three of them remained silent for a while, watching the scenery roll by below. Lucien noticed that every now and then the plains would part to reveal a gaping black hole belching steam. Volcanic vents? Lucien wondered. That got him wondering about the Mokari underworld. Would it be volcanically active? Too hot to safely explore? Or perhaps the air was simply toxic. That would explain why no Mokari who’d ever gone there had returned.

Eventually Lucien grew tired of standing and he sat down on the deck with his back to one of the curving bulkheads. After about an hour of sitting, Lucien’s back and backside were aching enough to force him to his feet once more.

“I have a suggestion for you, Katawa,” he said, looming between the pilot’s and copilot’s chairs once more.

“Yes?”

“Install some extra seating up here.”

“Oh yes. That is a good idea. But we may have to survive on less appetizing meals from the fabricator in order to afford them.”

 “Less appetizing? If the meals get any less appetizing I’m going to starve. Forget the chairs.” Lucien jerked his chin to the horizon where the Mokari were still flying on up ahead. “They haven’t even stopped for a break.”

“The Mokari are strong. They do not need breaks,” Katawa replied.

“They must have heard you. Look—” Addy pointed out the canopy. “They’re dropping down into that field. I guess they take breaks after all.”

Lucien leaned over her chair and peered into the distance. She was right. The black specks were growing larger and closer, and they were circling down. “So what do we do while we wait?” he asked. “Stop and hover, or go down and take a look around?”

Katawa hauled back on the throttle until they were hovering amidst a swarm of Mokari, all swooping and circling around them. Katawa pointed to something on the ship’s sensor display. “They did not stop for a break. They stopped because we have arrived.”

Lucien spent a moment trying to decipher the sensor display while Katawa hovered down for a landing.

“I don’t know what I’m looking at,” Lucien said.

Addy sucked in a breath. “Then you’re looking in the wrong place.”

 Lucien looked up from the display and saw what she was talking about. As the Specter dropped down, the ground opened up beneath them in an enormous, almost perfectly circular opening that plunged straight down into darkness. Lucien couldn’t see the bottom of it. It just went on and on...

“How deep is that?” Addy asked.

 “More than seven kilometers,” Katawa said as the Specter’s landing struts touched ground with a subtle jolt. The yawning hole leading into the Mokari Underworld was just a few meters from the bow of the ship.

 “Seven kilometers?” Lucien asked. He imagined the edge of the hole crumbling and sending the Specter tumbling down. “Is it going to be safe down there? How thick is Mokar’s crust?” He assumed there must be magma after a certain point, since they’d seen steam rising from smaller vents along the way.

“It will not be safe, but if you mean to ask whether or not you’ll have to walk through magma, this will not be a concern. Thermal readings suggest that the crust is approximately fifty kilometers thick at this point.”

“Even so, we’ll need our suits. The temperature and air pressure are going to be a lot higher at the bottom.”

“Yes,” Katawa agreed.

 Addy turned to him. “I thought you said the Mokari don’t like false skins.”

“They will not be going with you, so it will not be a problem.”

Something about what Katawa had just said bothered Lucien, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

 Addy figured it out first. “You?” she echoed.

That was it. Katawa’s choice of pronouns. He hadn’t included himself in that statement.

“You’re not going with us?” Lucien asked, his eyes narrowing with sudden suspicion.

“No. I cannot.”

“Why not?

Katawa rotated his chair away from the ship’s controls to face Lucien. The alien’s face was expressionless, but he sat with his hands folded in his lap, and big black eyes blinking lazily.

Lucien glared. “Well?”

“I am a god to the Mokari,” Katawa explained, and left it at that, as if the rest should be self-evident.

“So what?” Addy said.

“So, I cannot go into their underworld. It would defile me, and they would no longer trust me to listen to their songs.”

“You’ve already heard their songs,” Lucien replied.

“They have others that may help us in our search. I will listen to them while I wait for you to return from the underworld.”

Lucien snorted and shook his head. “And what if we don’t return?”

“If you die, I will mourn your passing. As will the Mokari. Songs will be sung of you. I will make sure of it.”

 “Gee, thanks,” Lucien said dryly. Suddenly he felt just as suspicious as Garek, and more. He had a bad feeling about this so-called underworld, and how Katawa seemed to know so much about Mokar and the Mokari, even though he’d supposedly never been here.

 Maybe that was a lie. The truth could be far more sinister. They might be about to become Katawa’s latest victims. For all they knew, he’d already lured dozens (or hundreds!) of others to their deaths in the Mokari underworld, all of them looking for the magical key that would open the portal to the planet where the lost fleet had gone.

Now that Lucien thought about it, that would make a lot more sense. Katawa had been looking for his people and their lost fleet for thousands of years, so how was it possible that he was only now starting to follow all the rumors and legends he’d heard? It was far more likely that he’d followed them all already, and this Mokari legend was the last and most promising one—the one he’d been unable to follow because everyone he sent into the underworld ended up dead.

Addy shot him a worried look, and he wondered if she was thinking along similar lines.

“We should not delay,” Katawa said, after enduring the long silence of Lucien’s thoughts. “There is much to do to prepare you for your journey.” Katawa rose from his chair and walked by him, heading off the bridge.

“What if we decide not to go?” Lucien asked.

Katawa froze in the entrance of the bridge and slowly turned. “Why would you change your mind now, at the last possible second? Are you afraid of the underworld? I thought you were explorers. Paragons.”

 “Paragons?” Lucien asked, the word slicing through him like a hot knife.

Katawa nodded slowly. “Yes. Trained to explore the universe. Etherus trained you himself, did he not?”

Lucien couldn’t believe what he was hearing, couldn’t bring himself to speak. Katawa had knocked the air right out of his lungs.

 Addy stood up beside him, took his hand and squeezed it—hard. “We are Paragons,” she said. “We can handle this.”

“Good. This is what I thought. I am glad to not be mistaken,” Katawa replied. “Come, we must get the others.”

 “Wait,” Addy said. “It would be better if we explained to them about you not coming with us—alone. If you’re there, they might think we’re being somehow coerced into this.”

Katawa blinked. “Coerced?”

“Garek is suspicious by nature. It’ll be easier to deal with his concerns without you there.”

“I see.”

“We’ll get our equipment together and put on our suits and then meet you at the rear airlock, fair enough?”

“Yes. Fair. I will meet you. Do not take long.”

“We won’t.”

Lucien watched Katawa leave, his thoughts racing and heart pounding. The little alien walked around a bend in the corridor and out of sight.

As soon as he was gone, Addy grabbed his arm and squeezed it to get his attention. “Garek was right,” she whispered. “Katawa is up to something.”

Lucien stared grimly back at her. “You figured it out, too.”

 She nodded. “We never told him we were Paragons. And he’s been gone from the Etherian Empire for more than ten thousand years. The Paragons were only founded a little over thirty years ago, after we met Etherus for the first time. There’s no way he could have found out what we are unless someone told him.”

“And besides us, there’s only one person who could have told him that we’re Paragons.”

“Abaddon,” Addy breathed, her green eyes wide.

Lucien nodded slowly. “Abaddon.”

“What are we going to do?”

Lucien thought about it. “I think it’s time to execute Garek’s plan. We’re need to steal Katawa’s ship and get the frek out of here before it’s too late.”



Chapter 28

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar

“I knew it!” Garek said, and lashed out at the nearest bulkhead with his fist.

“I crack his head like egg!” Brak added.

Lucien suppressed a chill at Brak’s bloodthirstiness. “We don’t have to kill him. Just kick him out the airlock and fly off.”

Garek sent him a sour look. “It would be safer to kill him. What if he tells Abaddon we took his ship? We’ll have every Faro in the universe looking for us.”

“He might tell Abaddon what happened whether we kill him or not. For all we know he has a neural implant like ours that will transmit his consciousness to the nearest Faro ship when he dies.”

“Well, whatever we’re going to do, we’d better do it fast,” Addy said. “We’re going to make him suspicious if we take any longer.”

“You said we’d suit up and meet him at the rear airlock...” Lucien mused.

“So we’ll be armed,” Garek said, smiling wryly. “Smart move.” He walked over to the closet and opened it to reveal the gleaming silver armor of his exosuit. They’d all met in Garek’s quarters, so his suit was the one closest at hand.

“We’ll meet you at the cargo bay,” Lucien said. It was located right before the aft airlock where Katawa would be waiting for them.

“Actually, it might make more sense for you and Addy to head up to the cockpit and get ready to fly. Brak and I can deal with Katawa.”

Lucien hesitated. “Are you sure?”

“It’s one little gray alien against his much bigger and nastier cousin, plus me, and I can be pretty nasty myself.”

Brak bared his black teeth in a grin. “We take care of the little gray one. Do not worry.”

“All right, but be careful,” Lucien said.

Garek nodded absently, already busy shucking his robes in favor of his Paragon-issue black jumpsuit and armor.

Lucien turned away before the sight of Garek’s backside struck him blind. He and Addy hurried from the room and ran back the way they’d come.

“How do you know you can fly this thing?” Addy asked on their way to the cockpit.

“I don’t,” Lucien said.

Addy made a noise in the back of her throat. “We should have told Garek to capture Katawa, in case we need him to pilot the ship.”

“Yeah...”

“We could end up stranded here.”

“Go back and tell him,” Lucien said. “I’ll see what I can figure out in the meantime.”

Addy nodded and ran back to Garek’s quarters.

 Lucien reached the cockpit a few seconds later and fell into the pilot’s chair with a whuff of escaping air from the seat cushion. He scanned the holo displays in front of him. Thanks to his translator band he could understand the unfamiliar symbols perfectly, but that didn’t turn out to be much help. He tried accessing the ship’s engines, only to receive an error prompt:

 Biometric profile not recognized.

Override code:

Lucien should have known better than to think Katawa would leave the ship’s systems unlocked. Addy was right. They needed Katawa alive or they were going to be stranded on Mokar until the next Faro ship came to visit.

Lucien jumped up from the pilot’s chair and ran back through the ship, heading for his and Addy’s quarters to get his own exosuit. If Katawa had been careful enough to lock them out of the ship, then he might have taken other precautions, too. There was no sense taking chances and facing him without armor.

 Lucien tried sending Addy a message to explain the situation and suggest that she put on her suit, too, but his ARCs reported a connection error. The Specter was jamming their comms.

 Lucien’s fingertips sparked with adrenaline as the implications of that hit home. Comms jamming and a systems lockout? Both seemed to point to the same conclusion: Katawa knew. Somehow he’d anticipated them. They weren’t going to take him by surprise with their ambush—it was the other way around: they were the ones being ambushed by him.

***

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar

 Lucien ran back to his quarters as fast as he could. He stopped his momentum with the door, and a resounding bang shivered through it. He keyed the door open and hurried over to the closet to don his jumpsuit and armor.

 Lucien had just finished putting on his jumpsuit when the door swished open behind him. He jumped and spun around, his heart beating in his ears. He half-expected to see a Mokari warrior come stalking in, jaws gaping for the kill...

But it was only Addy. Lucien blew out a breath. “You scared the krak out of me!”

 She shook her head, breathless from running, and leaned heavily against the door jamb. Garek pushed in behind her, his armored boots clunking heavily on the deck.

His voice reverberated from his helmet speakers: “Katawa is gone. No sign of him on board.”

Brak stormed in next, his chest and shoulders heaving, slitted yellow eyes wide with rage. He was still wearing his shadow robes. “I will eat him alive, and make him watch!”

Lucien grimaced and shook his head. “He locked us out of the ship and activated comms jamming.”

“I know,” Garek said. “I already tried to contact you via ARCs.”

“We’ll have to go outside and hunt him down with our suit sensors,” Lucien said. “We’re not going anywhere until he gives us the override code for his ship.”

Addy ran her hands over her bald head, making the motions to tie her hair in a bun; then she seemed to notice that she didn’t have any hair to tie, and her hands fell back to her sides. “What about the Mokari?” she asked.

 “What about them?” Lucien countered as he lugged his exosuit out of the closet and lay it out on the deck. He keyed it open with a holographic control panel in the chest plate, and the suit flayed open with a loud clicking of metallic joints and seals. Lucien lay down inside the suit, lining up his limbs.

“You think this was all by chance?” Addy said. “I think Katawa planned the whole thing, and he locked us out of his ship to make sure that we’d have no choice but to go down into the underworld. There’s supposed to be some kind of quantum junction down there, right?”

 “Right,” Lucien said as his ARCs connected to the suit’s systems and he mentally sealed his armor. More clicking as it wrapped him up in a metal skin. At least the comms jamming didn’t affect communication with his suit.

“What if Katawa’s plan was to strand us here and then wait for us to go down and find the key to open that junction?” Addy continued.

“What’s he get out of that?” Lucien asked. “He’s looking for the lost fleet. If he betrays us and we find the fleet without him, we’re not going to use it to help him find his way home.”

“We might not have a choice. He’s probably got some kind of tracking device on us,” Garek pointed out.

 “Or in us,” Addy said. “We’ve been eating his food.”

“So we’re doubly frekked,” Lucien said, standing up in his suit. He clomped over to the closet and retrieved his helmet. As soon as he slipped it over his head, HUD displays swarmed his view. He minimized the non-essential ones. “We can’t take his ship and leave, and we can’t go into the underworld to escape.”

Addy nodded slowly.

“I find the little gray one and squeeze his head until he give me the code,” Brak said.

Garek nodded. “That sounds about right to me.”

Lucien pointed to the closet where Addy’s exosuit was waiting for her. “Suit up and let’s go hunting. Brak—you, too. You’re going to need your suit for this.”

Brak’s predatory grin faded to a petulant frown. “I cannot rip out his throat with a helmet on.”

“You can’t rip out his throat period. He’s going to need it to tell us that override code. Now go.”

Brak hissed, but turned and left the room.

Addy hurried to undress, and Garek respectfully looked away. In less than a minute she was armored up and ready to go. A few seconds after that, Brak came hulking back into the room, his head now brushing the ceiling with the added inches provided by his armor.

“On me,” Garek said, and marched out the door.

They fell in behind him and followed him back through the ship. Lucien was technically the ranking officer, but Garek had a lot more experience as a Paragon, so Lucien was content to defer to his leadership.

They reached the cargo bay and were just about to open the doors to get to the rear airlock when the deck shivered under their feet. The movement was accompanied by a sound like grass swishing against the hull. They all froze, their heads cocked toward the outer bulkheads, listening.

The deck shivered once more, again accompanied by that swishing sound.

“What the frek...” Lucien muttered.

Another shiver. More swishing.

“I think the Mokari are trying to push us over the cliff!” Addy said.

“Frek that!” Garek slapped the cargo bay door controls and raced through to the rear airlock. Lucien and the others ran up behind him as he cycled the inner doors open. Garek waved them through just as the deck started trembling again. “Come on!” he yelled.

Before Garek could join them, the deck kicked up, angling sharply and sending them all tumbling and sliding back through the cargo bay, picking up speed. With the ship’s main reactor off, the inertial compensator and artificial gravity were offline, too.

 Lucien fired the grav boosters in his boots to cushion his fall, but there wasn’t enough time to react, and his knees still buckled with the impact. Brak landed on top of him with a loud thunk that knocked him over and left him seeing stars.

Garek stumbled to his feet and stood with one foot on the wall of the cargo bay and the other on the deck. “We’re balanced on the edge of the cliff! We’ve got to get out now!”

Lucien scrambled to his feet and gazed up at the distant airlock. The deck was smooth as ice, and tilted up at a forty-five degree angle. There was no time to climb back up. They had to fly.

“Use your grav boosters,” Garek said, and blasted off at an angle, heading straight for the open airlock.

 It was bad timing. The ship shuddered briefly once more, and then fell. Lucien’s stomach leapt into his throat as weightlessness set in. They all floated a few inches above the deck—except for Garek. He sailed up to the airlock with the momentum imparted by his grav boosters at nearly the same speed as the airlock was now falling toward him. He put out his palms and fired his grav boosters for braking thrust, but it was too late to slow down. His head clipped the top of the inner door frame, and then he slammed into the outer airlock doors with a resounding thunk!

“Garek!” Addy screamed.

Lucien drifted in shock, his feet dangling bare inches above the rusted metal wall. The sound of air rushing past the ship’s hull was a constant roar in his ears.

 Time seemed to slow, but Lucien’s thoughts were racing at a lightning pace. Katawa had said the pit that they were now falling into was seven kilometers straight down. Mokar’s gravity was a little less than a standard G, so maybe eight meters per second, per second, but it would take them just a few seconds to reach terminal velocity, at which point they’d no longer be accelerating, and the effects of the planet’s gravity would be restored.

Lucien’s feet touched down, his prediction fulfilled.

“What the...” Addy marveled at the sudden sensation of normalcy. “Did we stop falling?”

 Outside, the air was still roaring past the Specter’s hull.

Garek came plummeting back down from the airlock, unconscious, and Addy screamed.

Lucien angled his body toward Garek and triggered a blast from his grav boosters.

They collided in midair, and Lucien got the wind knocked out of him, but he managed to slow Garek’s fall from a deadly tumult to a hard knock. Garek landed on top of him with a loud clatter of armor, plastering him to the cargo bay wall for the second time in the past few seconds.

“We have to get out of here!” Addy said.

“Yess,” Brak hissed. “This is a fool’s death. No honor in it, only shame.”

Lucien crawled out from under Garek and shook the veteran by his shoulders to wake him up, but he didn’t even stir. Lucien’s suit sensors reported Garek’s life signs were strong, but he was out cold.

 “Get over here and help me!” Lucien said. He took one of Garek’s arms, and waited for Addy to take the other. As soon as she did so, he said, “On three! One, two, three!

 They boosted off at almost the same time, but almost wasn’t good enough. A fraction of a second’s difference in their timing sent them careening to one side of the open airlock. Lucien decreased power to his boosters and managed to correct their course just in time. They sailed into the airlock and landed on the inside wall of the door frame. Brak boosted in after them and landed on the other side of the door.

Lucien bent to reach the control panel at his feet and toggled the inner door shut. It irised closed, leaving them to figure out how to reach the panel for the outer door.

 There were no zero-G rails in the airlock, just a few rusted out rivet holes to suggest where they used to be.

“How are we going to get out?” Addy asked, searching the airlock frantically. The outer door control panel was at least four meters above their heads.

Lucien scanned the walls, ceiling, and floor, but he couldn’t see any kind of handholds. “Let me try something,” Lucien said, and fired his boosters at ten percent thrust. He shot up faster than intended and had to put out his hands to cushion his impact with the door. Now he was pinned in place. He backed off his boosters to five percent and reached for the control panel with one hand...

But the movement threatened to overbalance him and send him spinning out of control. “Frek!” Lucien gritted out. He tried again, swiping desperately at the control panel. Again, he was forced to plant his hand against the door a split second later.

 This was taking too long. Lucien couldn’t be sure what their terminal velocity was, but even with seven kilometers to fall they wouldn’t have more than a few minutes before the Specter hit the bottom. They needed some of that time to negate their momentum and to get to a safe distance from the Specter before it hit.

Addy hovered up beside him and mimicked his trick of holding himself in a powered handstand against the outer door. Luckily she’d managed to pin herself within closer reach of the control panel. She spared a hand to work the panel...

 Come on... He thought, watching as her other arm trembled and her whole body arched against the forces now threatening to unbalance her.

They didn’t have time for another attempt.

“I got it!” Addy said. Lights flashed briefly inside the airlock; then the outer door irised open and out from under their hands. Both Lucien and Addy were thrown free of the airlock, tumbling and breathing hard. Air roared in Lucien’s ears. The black abyss below traded places with a bright circle of sky over and over again. This was the proverbial dark tunnel with a light at the end, except they were heading into the darkness—not the light.

Lucien threw out his arms and strategically fired the boosters in his palms to counter his downward spiral. After three more spins, he had his flight path under control and he fired his grav boosters at maximum thrust to climb back up.

“Addy!” he yelled, with his suit speakers at max volume to compete with the wind of his ascent. He desperately searched the hazy darkness for her as he shot straight up at high speed.

“Here!” she said, and came floating up beside him. She was barely visible in the dark. The only way he could see her at all was because of the dim blue glow of HUD displays radiating from her helmet.

Lucien breathed a sigh.

“Where’s Brak and Garek?” Addy asked.

 Horror sliced through Lucien’s gut. He glanced down and saw the Specter vanish into darkness. “We have to go back!” Lucien yelled, already cutting the power to his grav boosters and orienting his body for a nosedive so he could chase after the Specter.

“There’s no time!” Addy called after him as he began falling once more.

She was right. From the now tiny, thumbnail-sized opening overhead and the sheer darkness all around them, it was obvious that they’d already fallen most of the way to the bottom of the pit.

 Lucien gazed helplessly into the hazy black abyss where the Specter had vanished. It was gone. They were gone. Brak’s words echoed through Lucien’s head: This is a fool’s death. No honor in it, only shame. Shame on us, Lucien thought. His conscience screamed at him, telling him all the things he could have done differently: while Addy was busy trying to get the doors open, he could have dropped back down and helped Brak carry Garek out. He could have—

 A flash of light lit up the bottom of the pit, and a split second later the thunderous boom of that explosion rattled through Lucien’s armor, shaking him down to his bones.

Fiery scraps of shrapnel streaked up like fireworks. Lucien re-oriented himself and fired his grav boosters once more to get some distance from the shrapnel.

As he rocketed up, his whole body felt cold and leaden with grief. He’d just lost his best and oldest friend, and it was all his fault.

Lucien glanced down to see a solitary speck of shrapnel sailing on toward him even as the glow from the others faded. That speck grew steadily larger, glinting with deadly promise.

 Then came a soft ping from his sensors.

“They made it!” Addy said.

Lucien blinked in shock. That piece of shrapnel was Brak! Seconds later the Gor sailed up beside them, carrying Garek over one shoulder like a sack of taber roots.

 “You ugly kakard!” Lucien roared. “What the frek took you so long?”

Brak grunted under the weight of Garek’s unconscious body. “You leave me to carry this one out alone.”

“We didn’t mean to leave you behind,” Addy said.

“Yess, I know. If you did, you would be sorry. We hunt the gray one now?” Brak asked.

“What for?” Addy asked. “His ship is gone!”

Lucien peered up at the growing circle of light overhead. They were rocketing back out of the pit at high speed. Their surroundings became progressively brighter, and sheer black cliffs snapped into focus all around them—as did the angry swarm of black specks circling the pale sky overhead.

“The Mokari are still there,” Lucien said.

 “Good,” Brak said. “I break their wings, and then we see how they like being thrown off cliffs.”

 “I don’t know...” Addy said. “There’s a lot of them. I’m reading hundreds of signatures. We won’t stand a chance against that many, not even in our armor. They’ll rip us apart.”

“Addy’s right,” Lucien said. “We need to go back down.”

“Into the underworld?” Brak asked.

“Yes,” Lucien replied, backing off with his grav boosters until he started falling back down.

“And then what?” Addy asked.

“Find the gateway,” Lucien said.

“That’s what Katawa wants us to do!” Addy objected. “He got the Mokari to push us off the cliff knowing full well that we’d find a way to escape before we hit the bottom. With no ship, there’s no point in us going after him for the override code. He pushed us into this corner, and now he’s waiting to follow us when we find a way out.”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Lucien replied. “Even if we find another exit to the underworld that isn’t guarded by Mokari, there’s no other ships on the planet. We’re stranded unless we find the key and the gateway. So we do that, but first we find whatever Katawa’s using to track us and we disable it. If it’s something we ate, then it’s only a matter of time before we pass the tracking devices in our stool.”

“Uck,” Addy said.

“We’re going to krak out the trackers?” Brak asked.

“Hopefully,” Lucien replied. “If not... maybe our suit sensors can find them for us.”

“We’re going to make Katawa pay for this,” Addy said.

 “The best payback will be to deny him his prize and make sure he can’t follow us. Then he’ll be the one stranded on Mokar.”

“Something tells me Abaddon will come pick him up before long,” Addy replied.

“Probably,” Lucien admitted. “But he’ll have to find a new group of suckers to go looking for his fleet. On the bright side, if Abaddon went to all this trouble, it means we’re probably on the right track.”

 Their conversation lapsed into silence, and Lucien gazed down between his feet to watch as they slowly sank back down. The darkness swirled below them like a raging sea, ready to suck them under. Smoke from the Specter? Lucien wondered.

“What do you think is down there?” Addy asked, her voice barely audible above the muted roar of air rushing by them as they fell.

“Death,” Brak said before Lucien could reply. “There will be much honor in it. A fitting end to Brak, son of Karva.”

Lucien glanced at him, but it was too dark to see now. He turned on his helmet lamps, and the others followed suit. Six bright white beams of light appeared, sweeping through a glittering mist.

A panicked yelp came from Brak’s direction.

“Motherfrekker!” Garek roared.

“Stop moving or I drop you,” Brak said.

“What happened?” Garek demanded.

“The ship crashed,” Lucien said. “We barely made it out in time.”

 “Krak... the last thing I remember was making a break for the airlock. Hold up, why are we going down?

Lucien explained their reasoning.

 Garek’s headlamps joined theirs and swept down to pierce the black. “So our best bet to escape is to walk straight into a trap. How does that not make sense?”

“That depends whether or not we can find whatever Katawa plans to use to track us,” Lucien said.

 “And if we can’t? Or if it’s inside of us and can’t be removed?” Garek asked.

Lucien had no answer for that. He cast his headlamps back and forth, searching the impenetrable darkness at his feet, but there was still no sign of the bottom.

“We don’t have a choice,” Addy said. “We have to find that gateway, or we’re going to be stuck on Mokar waiting for Abaddon to come get Katawa—and then us.”

“Yeah,” Garek growled. “So we’re frekked if we do, and frekked if we don’t.”

Lucien nodded slowly. “Exactly.”



Chapter 29

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

A pair of Marine bots scanned Lucien at the door to the meeting room. As soon as they finished, the door slid open and he walked in. Admiral Stavos was seated at the head of a long, glossy black table.

“Welcome, Mr. Ortane,” Stavos said.

All eyes followed Lucien as he approached the table and sat down in an empty chair beside Brak—

Only to do a double take as his wife’s blue eyes met his across the table. Shock coursed through him, and he faltered for words. “Tyra...?” She hadn’t mentioned that she would be attending this meeting.

Then he noticed the white Navy uniform and the Captain’s insignia on her sleeves and shoulders.

This was her clone, Captain Forster.

“Hello, Lieutenant Commander Ortane.”

“Lieutenant...?” Lucien trailed off, shaking his head.

 “Trust me this is stranger for me than it is for any of you,” she said, glancing around the table at each of them in turn. “None of you remember me—with the exception of Lucien here—who recognizes me as his wife, of all things.” Tyra’s mouth curved wryly at that. “But let me assure you, I know all of you very well already.”

“We had a lill’ somethin’ goin’ on, didn’t we?” one of the men at the table said, flashing a lopsided grin at her.

 “No, Tinker, we didn’t. In fact you were killed by the Faros within days of leaving Astralis.

“Damn,” Tinker replied.

A striking blond-haired woman glanced at him and smirked.

“Perhaps you should make the introductions before we start, Captain Forster,” Admiral Stavos said. He leaned forward and folded his hands on the table in front of him.

“It would be my pleasure.” Tyra turned to the man sitting to her right.

He had thick, angry scars running all the way down one side of his face. His head was shaved, with a faint black shadow where his hair was supposed to be, and a matching shadow of stubble on his lower jaw.

 “This is Garek Helios, who I’m told is the father of Director Helios from the Resurrection Center. We called him The Veteran, and he served as our medic on the Inquisitor.

Garek grunted at his introduction, looking like he wanted to add something, but he settled for a scowl instead.

“Sitting next to him is Jalisa, our gunnery chief and demolitions expert, as well as our second-best shuttle pilot.”

Lucien studied her: dark skin and intense violet eyes with long black hair wound into dreadlocks. She certainly looked like someone who knew her way around a weapons locker.

“Jalisa and Garek were something of an item on the ship,” Captain Forster added.

Jalisa glanced at Garek in disbelief, and he winked at her. “Heya, sweetheart.”

She rolled her eyes. “Another example of my poor taste in men.”

Garek snorted, and Tinker chuckled.

Captain Forster went on, “Sitting on the other side of Jalisa we have Troo, a Fosak. She was our comms operator.”

“I is being therapist now,” Troo said.

“That only adds to your qualifications,” Captain Forster replied, nodding. “Troo’s telepathic abilities make her a unique asset to any mission, especially during first contact.

 “On the other side of the table we have Teelo Ferakis, a.k.a Tinker, our chief engineer.”

He raised his hand and waved dramatically to everyone at the table as if he might be about to get up and take a bow.

“He’s also our resident comedian,” Tyra added, frowning. “Tickets to his show are free, but nobody wants them.”

“Ouch,” Tinker said, holding a hand to his chest. “That stings, Cap’n.”

 Tyra nodded to Addy next. “Next up is Adalyn Gallia, or Triple S, our scout and sniper.”

“Triple S?” Addy asked.

“Sexy sniper scout. You can blame Lucien for that. Feel free to come up with a new nickname. I believe it was Lucien’s misguided idea of flirting.”

Addy turned to Lucien with a disgusted look. “He’s a married man.”

 “Indeed. Now he is, and with two young daughters, but he wasn’t married when you met him.”

Addy nodded slowly, her disgust fading to a furrowed brow.

Lucien’s mind reeled. Addy was beautiful, no question there, but it was strange to be told that he’d been in a relationship with someone that he couldn’t even remember having met.

“Sitting beside Addy is Brak, the Gor: violent, impulsive, and unpredictable to the point that I question the wisdom of asking him to join us again.”

Brak hissed and bared his teeth at her.

“Nevertheless, Brak is a specialist in melee combat, which turned out to be extremely useful against the Faros, whose personal shields rendered all of our ranged weapons useless.”

“Yeah, he’ll definitely be an asset,” Lucien agreed.

 “And finally, there’s Lucien Ortane, executive officer aboard the Inquisitor, commander of flight ops, and our best pilot.”

Lucien shook his head, his jaw set and eyes thoughtfully narrowed.

“Is there something wrong, Commander Ortane?” Captain Forster asked.

 “You’re introducing us all as if we’re still your crew, but we’re not, and in a sense we never were. We have no recollection of each other or any of the time we spent together on the Inquisitor.”

“That’s correct,” Admiral Stavos put in, “but we’re hoping to change that.” He went on to explain what Lucien already knew about the proposal to send out clones to explore the universe.

 “Woah, back that krak up,” Garek said, holding up a hand to stop the admiral there. “You don’t actually want us to go. You want our clones to go?”

 “That’s correct, but make no mistake, thanks to the Judicial Department’s ruling on the matter, your clones will have to sync their memories with yours every time they return, so you will ultimately acquire all of the same experiences as them and vice versa. You will essentially be living two lives in parallel, one here on Astralis, and one out there among the stars.”

 “Waa-how! That’s all kinds of frekked up,” Tinker said.

“Please mind your language, Mr. Ferakis.”

“Fine. It’s all kinds of sexed up. That better?”

Admiral Stavos scowled.

Tinker turned to the rest of them. “What if we get all depressed after we sync because we’re still waking up every day to our dull little lives?”

“It’s better than living our dull little lives without even the memory of adventure,” Addy replied. “This is the chance of a lifetime, and it’s the whole reason we came on this mission. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about time we found a way to get back out there. Where do I sign up?”

Admiral Stavos smiled. “Now there’s the explorer’s spirit we’re looking for. What about the rest of you?”

Addy looked around the table.

“I’m in,” Garek said.

“Likewisss,” Brak hissed.

“Aww, sex it, I guess I can always pop some pills or start smoking glow. Sign me up, too.”

“You may go back to cursing now, Mr. Ferakis,” Admiral Stavos.

Tinker just grinned.

“I is deciding to be joining this mission,” Troo said next.

“That just leaves you, Mr. Ortane.”

All eyes were on Lucien once more. His wife’s words echoed through his head, urging him to consider the consequences of his choice.

“Commander?” Captain Forster prompted. “I’d be hard pressed to find a better XO, but I will if I have to.”

Lucien gazed back into the Captain’s blue eyes—his wife’s eyes. Less than an hour ago they’d been pleading with him not to join this mission, and now here she was asking him to go for it.

 Tinker’s right, Lucien decided. This is all kinds of frekked up...

Ultimately, he found he had to agree with Addy: it was the chance of a lifetime and there didn’t appear to be any kind of downside to it. “I’m in,” Lucien said, nodding once.

Captain Forster grinned. “There’s the Lucien I know.”

 And love? he wondered. Under different circumstances they’d ended up falling in love and getting married. How much of that potential had they explored while they were crewmates aboard the Inquisitor?

“That settles it,” Admiral Stavos said, nodding. “Chief Ellis is working with the council to draft the legislation for all of this as we speak. If all goes well, we’ll be able to send out the first Galleons within a month. That will give us enough time to grow a new clone for Garek, who recently used his to resurrect after being killed by the Faros.”

“You don’t have to wait for me, sir,” Garek put in.

Stavos nodded to him. “We aren’t, but I’m glad that you’ll be able to join us all the same.”

 That caught Lucien’s attention. “Us...? Are you coming with us, sir?”

Stavos grinned. “I wouldn’t miss it for the universe.”

“I thought Captain Forster was going to be in command.”

 “She is—of her ship. We’re sending out the galleons in pairs for better security this time. Captain Forster will command the Retribution, with you as her crew. I’ll have command of the Harbinger, as well as the overall mission.”

Lucien began nodding. “I see.”

“This is going to be one for the history books,” Stavos went on.

“Sex yeah!” Tinker blurted out.

Everyone turned to glare at him.

“What?” Tinker asked innocently.

“I understand why the Faros kill you,” Brak said.

Jalisa chuckled, and Addy laughed with her.

“So do I,” Stavos said, his blue eyes glittering with amusement.

Lucien couldn’t help feeling apprehensive now that he knew Stavos would be commanding his mission. For whatever reason, he didn’t trust the admiral after the Faros had touched him. But he’d been cleared for duty by a mind probe and the subsequent comparative analysis. Besides, if Stavos or any of the others had somehow been corrupted by the Faros, they would have called in a Faro fleet by now.

Lucien leaned back in his chair with a sigh, and allowed his suspicions to drift away. He was just being paranoid.



Chapter 30

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar: Underworld

They touched down in the still-smoking crater that the Specter had punched in the bottom of the pit. Heat radiated through Lucien’s faceplate, scalding his skin and threatening to suffocate him.

 “Shields up and weapons out!” Lucien said, his voice booming as it echoed off the sheer rock walls. Lucien armed his lasers, and the weapon barrels slid up out of his gauntlets with a whirring click-click-click.

“Way ahead of you,” Garek replied, his voice echoing back.

As soon as Lucien activated his shields, the heat abated, and his suit’s cooling system took over, making it easier to breathe. He swept his headlamps in a slow circle to get his bearings. Black rocks shone in the light, and gravel crunched under foot.

“Where to now?” Addy asked.

Lucien’s lamps flickered over the opening of a passage, visible just over the rim of the crater. “Over there,” he said, pointing and taking a step in that direction.

“Hold up,” Garek replied. “Let’s scan each other first. If we’re carrying tracking devices we might be able to detect the signals.”

Garek scanned Lucien with a flickering blue fan of light and spent a moment studying the results on his HUD.

“Well?” Lucien demanded.

“There’s a problem...” Garek said.

Lucien was already imagining the worst. “What is it?”

“There’s no signal, and I’m not detecting any foreign bodies inside of you besides your AR implant.”

“So there’s no tracker?” Addy asked.

“Try scanning me,” Garek suggested.

Addy did so, and Lucien took his cue from that and scanned her while they waited. The results flashed up on his HUD a few seconds later.

“Same thing. Addy’s clean.”

“Thanks, I took a shower this morning,” Addy replied.

“Ha ha.”

“Garek’s clean, too,” she said. “Either Katawa isn’t tracking us, or he is, but we can’t detect it.”

“The trackers could be cloaked,” Lucien suggested. “The Gors are all born with self-replicating cloaking implants—that’s how they can cloak themselves without armor.”

 “It could be cloaked,” Garek agreed, “but we’d still be able to detect the tracking signals.”

“Unless they’re not actively transmitting,” Addy said. “The trackers might be sophisticated enough to wait until we go through the gateway before they broadcast our location.”

The beams of light from Garek’s headlamps bobbed. “If that’s true, then there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“We could do something if we had a comms jammer,” Addy said.

“Or a spaceship,” Garek pointed out. “While we’re playing that game we may as well wish for an entire fleet. The lost Etherian fleet, maybe?” His mouth twisted sardonically and he shook his head.

Lucien sighed. “Whoever planned this, they really frekked us over. I can’t see a way out. All we can do is hope the gateway takes us somewhere far enough away that Katawa won’t be able to follow us before we can go somewhere else.”

“That’s not much of a hope,” Addy said. “Especially not since we know how fast Faro jump calculations are.”

“It’s all we’ve go—”

“Shhh!” Addy whispered sharply. She turned slightly, looking at something, and stood perfectly still. Lucien followed her gaze. Bits of ash and debris fluttered down through their headlamps, but otherwise there was nothing to see—just more black rocks and gravel.

“What is it?” Lucien asked.

“Switch to comms!” Addy said, her voice no longer echoing, but canned by the limited acoustics of her helmet.

“What’s going on?” Lucien snapped back over the comms while casting about with his headlamps and sensors.

“You didn’t see that?” Addy asked.

“See what?” Lucien demanded.

“There’s nothing on sensors,” Garek added.

“It was up there,” Addy insisted, pointing to the rim of the crater.

“What was?”

“I don’t know.... a light. Something glowing.”

“Which way do we go?” Brak interrupted.

 Lucien found the Gor a hundred meters away, up on the rim of the crater. “It was light from Brak’s headlamps reflecting off something,” Garek suggested.

“I guess that’s possible....” Addy said.

Lucien turned his attention to Brak. “Did you find any other paths leading out of here?”

“Many,” Brak replied.

 “Hang on, I’m coming up for a look,” Lucien said, and blasted off the bottom of the crater with his grav boosters. He flew in an abbreviated arc and touched down beside Brak with a loud crunch of gravel. Sweeping his headlamps from side to side, Lucien saw no less than five tunnels leading away from the rim of the crater.

Garek hovered up silently beside them, and touched down just as quietly, his caution betraying his twenty years of experience with the Paragons. “Scanners show those paths connect to a larger network,” he said. “Some kind of labyrinth.”

 “A maze,” Addy said as she touched down beside them with another noisy crunch.

 “It’s hot in there,” Garek added.

 “It’s already hot,” Addy replied. “Over 350 K.”

 “Well, it gets a lot hotter in those tunnels. I can only get readings up to a couple klicks from here, but we’re talking at least 400 K.”

Lucien grimaced. “That’s over a hundred degrees Celsius. I guess we’re not going to find any water down here, then.”

Garek nodded. “On the bright side that means we’re less likely to find anything alive down here.”

 Lucien shook his head. “That’s not much of a bright side. Our suits have limited cooling capacity. We can’t stay down here for more than...” He queried his suit’s systems to project how long they could last in a 400 K environment.

“We’ve got about twelve hours before our cooling systems shut down,” Garek said just as Lucien got the same result on his HUD.

“We’ll run out of air before then,” Addy said. “In just under six hours.”

“The air’s breathable down here,” Lucien said. “We could open up our vents and run it through suit filters.”

“That would overload our cooling capacity in minutes!” Addy said.

“Those might be the minutes we need to make a break for the surface,” Lucien countered.

“Well, we’re wasting them arguing about this,” Garek replied. “Pick a tunnel and let’s go.”

Lucien checked his scanners and pointed to the one that seemed the longest and least winding. “That one,” he said, his eyes still glued to his sensors.

“Wait...” Addy whispered and pointed. “Look...”

Lucien followed that gesture and promptly sucked in a breath. He was just in time to see a glowing ball of light with hundreds of luminous tentacles darting into one of the other tunnels.

“Did you see that?” Addy asked. “Tell me someone saw it this time.”

“I saw it,” Garek said.

“That’s one of those Polypus creatures we met eight years ago,” Lucien said. “What are they doing all the way out here on Mokar?”

 Garek shook his head. “If they’re extra-dimensional beings as we suspect, then time and space might not mean the same things to them as they do to us. Two points halfway around the universe from each other might look close to them.”

“They helped us the last time we met them,” Lucien said. “They might be trying to help us again.” As if to confirm his thoughts, the creature bobbed back into view, and hovered briefly in the entrance of the tunnel that it had darted down. “Look!”

“I think it wants us to follow it...” Addy said.

“What if it’s a trap?” Garek asked.

“We’re already in one,” Lucien said. “What’s the worst that could happen? Let’s go,” he said, and started toward the glowing creature.

***

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar

Just as they were about to reach the entrance of the tunnel, the Polypus darted inside.

“Don’t let it get away!” Garek said, breaking into a run.

Lucien poured on a burst of speed, spraying gravel as he ran. He reached the tunnel entrance first and found the Polypus hovering just inside, waiting. As soon as he entered the tunnel, it zipped away. Lucien boosted his suit’s power-assist to keep up. The creature darted around a bend in the tunnel and he careened into the wall with his momentum.

“Damn it!” he muttered as he bounced off into the opposite wall. He managed to keep running, but it was all he could do to keep the Polypus in sight. It kept darting out of view, around the next bend. “Slow down!” he called out over his external speakers, hoping the thing would hear him—but even if it did, how would it understand?

The creature raced on, not slowing down or stopping. Lucien glanced at his sensors to keep track of it, but of course the Polypus didn’t appear on his sensors. He did, however, spot the others running up behind him.

“Don’t let it get... out of your sight!” Garek panted over the comms.

“Why’s it going so fast?” Addy asked.

“Perhaps it knows that our air is limited,” Brak said, sounding barely winded.

“Or else it’s trying to get away,” Addy suggested.

 “If it—” Lucien interrupted himself as he ricocheted off another bend in the tunnel. He glimpsed the Polypus darting down the rightmost of three branching paths, and he raced to follow. “If it were trying to get away from us, it would fly through the tunnel walls,” Lucien finally said.

“Good point,” Addy said, breathing hard.

 In their initial encounter aboard the Inquisitor, the Polypuses had proven they could fly through walls, thanks to their extra-dimensionality. They were like ghosts, non-corporeal, but somehow capable of interacting with the three-dimensional universe when they wanted to—such as they had done to remove the timer implants in their brains.

They ran on for what seemed like hours, until Lucien’s legs felt numb, and his lungs were screaming for him to stop. Sensors showed that Addy and Brak had fallen behind by about fifty meters—though in the Gor’s case that was probably because he was keeping an eye on her.

“Where is it?” Garek asked as they rounded another corner only to find that this time the Polypus was nowhere to be seen. Lucien slowed his pace, almost tripping over his own feet. “Don’t slow down!” Garek roared, and ran by him. Lucien let him go, and stopped to lean on the nearest wall and catch his breath.

Garek rounded the corner up ahead, and skidded to a sudden stop. “The frek...?” he trailed off.

“You found him?” Lucien asked.

Garek said nothing; he just stood there, frozen.

Seeing Garek’s reaction, excitement stirred in Lucien’s veins, spurring him to life. He poured on a final burst of speed and caught up fast—only to go skidding to a stop just as Garek had. Now he could see what had given Garek pause, and he was equally shocked.

They were still standing there by the time Addy and Brak caught up to them. Addy gasped at the sight.

 At least three different tunnels came together where they now stood. It was a high-ceilinged chamber several hundred meters across, filled with the broken remains of colorful stalagmites and stalactites. The rocks shone red, blue, and orange in the light of their headlamps, but none of that was what had given them pause—scattered amongst that colorful rubble were hundreds and hundreds of bodies.

Some of them wore black suits of Faro armor, while others wore nothing but rough-hewn black and gray Faro robes, their bare blue skin exposed where their robes ended. An entire Faro army had died down here.

Lucien shook off his shock and walked up to the nearest corpse with his heart beating in his throat. It was a blue-skinned Faro, not wearing any armor. The body was half-buried in rubble, but from what he could see of it, it was in pristine condition, with no obvious signs of decomposition. He half-expected the Faro to leap up and attack him, but the body didn’t so much as twitch. Then Lucien saw why—

It was headless.

“They must have died very recently,” Addy whispered as she came to stand beside him. “They haven’t even begun to decompose.”

Lucien frowned. “We can’t assume that. Oorgurak told us that Abaddon and the Elementals modified themselves to the point that they don’t need exosuits or armor to survive in extreme environments like this one. That might also mean that their bodies don’t decompose.”

Garek joined them, holding a severed blue head. “This one looks like an Abaddon to me,” he said.

Lucien examined the familiar features of that head and nodded slowly.

“How can we tell how old the bodies are if they don’t decompose?” Addy asked.

“Carbon dating them might still work,” Garek said. “Let me see...” A fan of blue light flickered out from Garek’s helmet, passing briefly over the head he was holding. “Damn it,” he sighed after just a moment.

“What?” Lucien asked.

“We can’t use carbon dating, because we don’t know what the proper ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-14 is for a living Faro. I can tell you what the ratio is right now, but that’s meaningless without a baseline to compare it to.”

“What does it matter if they die yesterday or they die a thousand years ago?” Brak asked. “They are dead, and that is all that matters.”

“But what killed them?” Addy asked.

“And is it a threat to us?” Lucien added, as he picked his way among the bodies. He shone his headlamps into the helmet of the nearest armored Faro and saw papery green skin barely clinging to jutting white bones. Hollow black eye sockets glared sightlessly up at the dripping fangs of stalactites above. The head looked shrunken, and very old. “This one’s been mummified by his armor,” Lucien said, noting that the soldier’s armor appeared to be intact. “They definitely didn’t die recently.” He rolled the body over, looking for damage he couldn’t see, but the glossy black armor was pristine.

“What are you doing?” Addy asked, her nose wrinkled with disgust as he rolled the body back the other way.

“I can’t figure out what killed him,” Lucien explained. He walked over to the next armored body. It was another green-skinned Faro, also mummified. He repeated his examination, and again found the soldier’s suit of armor intact. He sat back on his haunches and shook his head. “I don’t get it. There’s no visible cause of death.”

Garek walked over, his boots crunching through gravel. The sound echoed softly through the cavern. “What do you want, an autopsy report? Let’s keep moving.”

Lucien shook his head. “That Polypus led us here for a reason.”

“Maybe he did, but I don’t think that reason was for us to play forensic detective.”

Lucien glanced up at Garek. “If we can figure out what killed them, we might also figure out what we’re up against down here. The Mokari said no one has ever returned from the underworld, so whatever the threat is down here, it’s obviously an ongoing one.”

Garek shrugged. “Maybe the Polypuses are the threat.”

Lucien frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Maybe they killed the Faros.”

“But not us?”

 “And how did they kill the Faros?” Addy asked. “There are no signs of injury on the armored ones.”

“I can’t pretend to understand their motives,” Garek said, “but think about it: eight years ago they ripped the timer implants out of our heads without hurting us or even breaking our skin. So, what’s stopping them from doing the same thing with vital organs?”

Addy looked horrified. She cast a quick look around the chamber.

“The Abaddon clone we found was headless,” Lucien pointed out.

Garek shrugged. “It’s just a theory.”

“I find something,” Brak said. “Come see.”

They found the Gor standing about fifty feet away, gazing down at something by his feet. They all hurried over to see what had caught Brak’s attention: a large white skeleton lay at his feet, as well as another, smaller and semi-translucent one. The skulls gave them away. The larger of the two had a pronounced snout with long, sharp white teeth, while the other skull was almost as big, but with a tiny mouth, giant eye sockets, and an over-sized cranium.

“It’s a Gray and a Mokari,” Lucien said.

“And another Abaddon,” Garek added, pointing to another blue-skinned, gray-robed Faro, also headless, lying beside the skeletons.

“They all died fighting together,” Addy said.

Brak nodded. “Yes.”

“But were they fighting against each other, or with each other?” Lucien asked.

“Good question,” Garek said.

“The dead cannot help us,” Brak decided. “But I find something that might.”

“What’s that?” Lucien asked.

“Come.” Brak led the way, picking his way through the ancient battlefield.

After a few minutes of walking, Lucien glimpsed a pinprick of light shining at the far end of the chamber, almost three hundred meters away, according to his sensors.

 “What is that?” Addy asked, pointing to it.

At first Lucien thought it might be the Polypus who’d led them here, but one look at his sensors revealed that it was actually an opening into a much larger adjoining chamber. That chamber seemed to go on forever, expanding rapidly across Lucien’s sensor display as they approached. It was almost perfectly spherical, and hollow.

“I’m getting some massive energy readings from that direction,” Garek said.

Lucien double-checked with his own sensors, and found the same thing.

 “What is it?” Addy asked.

“It’s too uniform to be naturally occurring,” Lucien said, noting how perfectly spherical it was.

“Yes,” Brak agreed.

“Those power readings could be from the gateway we’re looking for,” Lucien said.

“It can’t be that easy,” Addy replied.

“Why not?” Lucien asked.

“If it were so easy to find this gateway, then why didn’t Abaddon just send another army down here and take it for himself?”

“It obviously didn’t go so well for him the last time,” Garek pointed out. They were still wading through Faro corpses.

“Something’s obviously guarding the gateway,” Garek went on. “My bet is it’s the Polypuses.”

Lucien considered that. “If they’re against Abaddon, then why stop at guarding this place? Why not go fight him? We obviously can’t hurt them, and if Abaddon’s afraid of them, then that implies that he can’t either. They’d be an invincible army.”

“Maybe they’re pacifists,” Garek suggested.

“I’m reading lots of life signs on the other side of that opening,” Addy said.

The circle of light in the distance had resolved into a pair of large metal doors that were deformed and scorched black. The doors were bowed inward, as if a plasma bomb had ripped them open. A faint blue haze rippled over the opening, indicating the presence of an atmospheric shield.

They slowed their pace as they reached the opening. The glare from it was dazzling, making it impossible to see what was on the other side.

“I’ll go through first,” Lucien said, and walked through before anyone could argue. He heard and felt the atmospheric shields sizzle against his exosuit as he crossed the threshold. Then his feet touched a hard, flat surface that echoed with his footsteps.

His eyes adjusted quickly to the brightness, and he saw that he was standing inside some kind of giant concourse. Dead ahead, a high wall of shattered viewports gazed out on a blinding sphere of light. The light was as bright as a sun, and painful to look at. Lucien’s faceplate auto-polarized and more details of his surroundings snapped into focus.

“Lucien?” Addy asked over the comms.

“I’m fine...” he said.

He heard faint sizzling sounds as the others walked in behind him.

The walls and floor of the concourse looked like they might once have been opulent, but now they were discolored and broken. The floor was littered with shattered black rocks, more Faro bodies, and skeletons of Grays and Mokari. A thick layer of dust covered everything.

Looking out through the shattered viewports once more, Lucien saw that the blinding orb of light hung suspended between two giant black towers, one coming down from the ceiling of the spherical chamber, the other rising up from the floor. All around the light source, vibrant colors assaulted Lucien’s eyes in a confusing tapestry that was somehow too intricate, or too distant to make sense of.

“It’s incredible...” Addy breathed.

Lucien turned away from the glaring light to find her standing to one side of the concourse, looking out over a vibrant field of flowers. He went to stand beside her and admire the view, but he quickly noticed that there was something very wrong with that scene.

Somehow everything was turned on its end and wrapped around the inside of the spherical chamber. The landscape outside the concourse sprawled for tens of kilometers in all directions, defying gravity from every possible angle. A towering alien forest rose up beyond the flowering field, but it lay parallel to the floor of the concourse. Likewise for the sheer white mountains that peeked over the tops of those trees.

 Lucien looked straight up, through a broken skylight, and saw a sparkling blue lake arcing overhead, wrapped concave against the inside of the sphere and surrounded by jungle.

The Mokari underworld was like a miniature planet that had been turned inside-out, and the only part of it where gravity still functioned the way it should was in the concourse where they stood.

“What’s holding everything against the walls like that?” Addy asked.

“Something’s warping the gravity in this place,” Garek said.

 “So why aren’t we falling against that wall?” Addy nodded to the broken entrance they’d walked through. It lay along the inside of the sphere, parallel to the ground outside. If gravity were warped the way Garek was suggesting, then they should have been standing on the wall of the concourse, not the floor.

The whole setup confused Lucien’s brain to the point that he suddenly felt like he was falling. He flinched and shook his head to clear away that sensation.

 “This must be some kind of transition zone,” Garek said. “I spotted what looked like a tram station down that way.” He pointed to the viewports that looked out—up?—at the blinding ball of light in the center of the chamber.

Lucien nodded slowly. “This is the entrance to the underworld.”

 Addy snorted. “Under-world. I didn’t realize the Mokari were being so literal when they named the place. Who do you think lived here?”

“The Grays, who else?” Lucien asked. “I bet they built it.”

 “Then Katawa was definitely lying about not being able to join us down here because it would defile his deity,” Addy said.

Garek snorted. “I think that goes without saying. He didn’t come down here because he was afraid of whatever killed that army outside.”

“Afraid of the Polypuses?” Addy asked.

 “Or something else,” Lucien replied. “We shouldn’t assume we’re safe from them just because they helped us once. The one who led us here might not be as friendly. It may have lured us here.”

“So it led us here to... what? Kill us? Eat us?”

Lucien shook his head. “I don’t know.”

 “The temperature in here is a balmy 300 K,” Garek said. “And I’m reading breathable air.”

“I guess we won’t be suffocating after all,” Addy said.

 Garek nodded and twisted off his helmet with a hiss of escaping air. He took a deep breath, and a rare smile crossed his face. “Smells like a dream, too. Must be all those flowers outside.”

Lucien shot him a frown. “Just because our sensors aren’t detecting anything dangerous doesn’t mean the air’s safe to breathe.”

“We’ll know soon enough,” Garek replied, and tucked his helmet under one arm. “Besides, Katawa fixed us up, remember?”

“Now you’re trusting him?” Lucien asked dubiously.

Garek shook his head. “No, but Katawa has nothing to gain from the atmosphere killing us. He obviously needs us to find that key and open the gateway.”

Lucien looked away, back to the overgrown field. “Any idea how we can get down there? We could jump out and use our grav boosters, but we’re going to fall sideways. Landing on our feat might not be so easy.”

“What about those?” Addy pointed to a row of circular openings to one side of where they stood.

Lucien spied translucent tubes snaking down from the openings to the ground. “They look like giant slides to me,” he said, walking up to the nearest one.

Addy walked over to stand by the slide next to his. “On three?” she asked.

“On two,” Lucien replied.

“One...”

“Two,” Lucien finished, and dove head-first down the slide.



Chapter 31

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

Lucien busied himself while waiting for Tyra to come home by installing baby gates in their rental home. Atara stood over his shoulder, watching him work, while Theola was taking a nap in her room downstairs.

“Is it going to keep me from falling down the stairs, too?” Atara asked.

Lucien glanced over his shoulder at Atara while screwing the gate frame into the wall. He flashed her a smile and shook his head. “You already know how to use the stairs,” he said.

“But what if I trip?”

“That’s why you need to hold on to the railing.”

Lucien finished driving in the last screw and sat back on his haunches to admire his work. A bead of sweat trickled down from his hairline, itching maddeningly as it went. Lucien wiped his brow on his sweater sleeve, scratching the itch at the same time.

 He swung the gate shut to test it, and the locking mechanism automatically clicked into place.

“How do I open it?” Atara asked.

 “Like this. Watch.” Lucien pointed to the sliding catch at the top of the gate. “Slide this, and pull up at the same time.” He opened the gate and then shut it again with another click. “Now you try.”

Atara had to use both hands. She was barely tall enough to pull up on the gate, but she managed to wrench it open, her cheeks bulging with the effort.

“Wow... it’s hard,” she said.

“Well, if it were easy, then Theola could open it, too.”

Atara nodded sagely at that.

“Speaking of Theola...” Lucien checked the time on his ARCs. “We’d better go wake her up. She’s not going to sleep tonight if I let her sleep any longer. I’d better make her a bottle first, though,” Lucien said as he started down the stairs.

“If you don’t, she’s going to scream like her head’s been cut off!” Atara suggested, walking down behind him.

“Exactly,” Lucien said, frowning at the gruesome analogy.

“She always wakes up hungry,” Atara said.

“Yes, she does,” Lucien agreed absently.

“How can someone scream if their head is cut off?” Atara asked.

Lucien grimaced. “It’s just an expression, Atty.”

“Chickens can still run around without their heads,” Atara mused on their way to the kitchen.

“All right, that’s enough.”

“It’s true!” Atara insisted.

Lucien stopped on the landing halfway down the stairs and turned to her. “I don’t care if it’s true; that’s not what I’m objecting to. You shouldn’t focus on those things.”

“Why not?” Atara asked.

“Because it’s not okay. You might get desensitized.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means... never mind. Just think about nice stuff, all right?”

“Fine.” Atara went down the stairs in a huff, heading for the living room, while Lucien continued on to the kitchen. He made a bottle for Theola and then went to fetch her from her crib.

When he walked in, he found Atara standing beside the crib, watching Theola sleep.

“What are you doing?” Lucien asked, puzzled by her behavior.

Atara turned to him with a smile. “She looks so peaceful.”

Lucien stopped beside the crib to admire Theola, too. “She does,” he agreed.

“She’s not even waking up,” Atara said. Theola hadn’t stirred at the sound of their voices. “It’s like she’s dead.”

He shot Atara a cold look. “Why would you say something like that?” he demanded.

Atara’s lower lip quivered. “Why are you yelling?”

Lucien scowled and shook his head. “You don’t say things like that about your sister, do you understand me?”

Atara scowled right back, as if he was the bad guy. “Why not?”

Theola woke up at the sound of their arguing, and immediately began to cry. She sat up and popped her thumb in her mouth, watching them with big, wary blue eyes.

Lucien turned to Theola. “Come here, sweetheart,” he said, holding out his arms. She climbed to her feet and held out her arms in turn, waiting to be picked up. He scooped her into a one-armed embrace, and showed her the bottle of milk, and a smile sprang to her lips. She began bouncing on his hip trying to reach it.

“You want this?” he asked, shaking the bottle just out of reach.

Theola’s smile faded to a dramatic pout when the bottle didn’t immediately replace the thumb she’d been sucking. Her lower lip trembled briefly, and then she started crying.

Lucien laughed. “Okay, okay! Here you go.” He gave her the bottle, and she grabbed it with both hands, stuffing it into her mouth.

Lucien turned back to Atara, but she was gone. He left the room with a frown, wondering if he had been too hard on her. She was only five; she was bound to say strange things sometimes.

He walked with Theola down the hallway to the living room as she gulped her milk.

“Atara?” he called.

No answer.

“Where are you?”

Just as he reached the living room, his foot hooked under something, and he tripped. He was going to fall on top of Theola! He couldn’t put out his hands because one of them was holding her. He managed to thrust out his free hand to break their fall, and a sharp pain shot through his fingers as two of them bore all of his and Theola’s combined weight.

He cried out and crumpled to the floor, being careful to roll onto his back as he did so. Theola landed on top of him, still holding onto her bottle, but no longer sucking it. She grinned and started bouncing on his belly. She thought it was a game.

“Giddy-up...” he muttered, and Theola giggled enthusiastically, bouncing harder.

His hand wasn’t hurting anymore, but as he lifted it in front of his face, he saw that his pinky finger was broken—maybe his ring finger, too—and that whole side of his hand was swelling up badly.

Lucien grimaced. He wasn’t feeling any pain because of the shock. Using his good hand, he carefully lifted Theola off his stomach. Cradling his injured hand to his chest, he sat up to look for what had tripped him, but there was nothing on the floor. He did, however, see Atara standing there, leaning against the wall and watching him.

“Are you okay, Daddy?” she asked, as their eyes met. “How did you fall?”

 Suddenly he saw Atara’s green eyes as cunning rather than innocent. First she’d frozen Theola with the open window, and now she’d tripped him—with Theola in his arms. It had to have been her. There was nothing on the floor, nothing else that could have done it. Was he the target this time, or was it Theola again?

Lucien felt a chill come over him. This was more than simple mischief or jealousy. Besides, Atara and Theola had more than a year together already, and Atara had never shown any signs of jealousy before. At least not to this extent.

“Atara...” he said slowly. She cocked her head to one side, her eyes full of concern, and a glitter of something else...

Amusement.

The chill Lucien had felt turned to solid ice, and he went suddenly very still.

“Did you trip me, honey?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light and clear of accusation.

Atara’s eyes flew wide and her lower lip began to tremble, but he could have sworn she was trying to hide a smile. “No!” she blurted out defiantly, and crossed her arms over her chest.

 But he could see the lie gleaming in her eyes—the smug satisfaction. “Okay. I believe you,” Lucien said, lying back, and trying to pretend everything was normal. Behind that pretense, his mind raced with terror—fear of his own daughter. The Faros had done something to her. Somehow they’d changed her when they’d touched her, and if that was true, then the others had been changed, too: Chief Councilor Ellis, Admiral Stavos, General Graves... and who knew how many others.

“We’d better go to the hospital,” Lucien said slowly, trying to mask his thoughts before Atara realized he was on to her. “Daddy broke his finger, see?” he held up his hand for Atara to see.

She gasped at the sight of his swollen hand and crept forward for a better look. Stopping beside him, she leaned in and pressed his hand to her lips, smacking them in an exaggerated kiss. She retreated, grinning broadly at him. “All better!”

Lucien suppressed a shiver. Something told him her delight was in his pain, and not in the presumed healing powers of her kiss.

“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” he said. “I’m going to need a doctor to fix this.”

Atara’s smile faded. “It’s that bad?”

He nodded. “I’m afraid so, yes.” Lucien cast about for Theola and found her pottering around the coffee table, sucking her thumb and shaking her bottle. She was spraying milk everywhere. Lucien grimaced. He walked over and scooped her up in a one-armed embrace, balancing her against a hip that wasn’t designed for the task.

“Come on,” he said, keeping an eye on Atara to make sure she didn’t trip him again—or do something worse this time.

 “Why do I have to go?” Atara whined.

Lucien’s patience snapped. “Because you’re five years old and I can’t leave you alone! Now let’s go! To the garage. March!”

Atara made a pouty face and walked through the living room to the foyer. Lucien made sure to keep her ahead of him, where he could watch her. When they reached the foyer, Atara opened the coat closet and pulled on her gloves and winter coat. Lucien gave the closet a skip, deciding to brave the cold. Between Theola and his broken finger, it would be too much trouble to put on his coat—or his gloves, for that matter. He cringed at the thought of squeezing broken fingers into a glove.

“Open the door, please,” Lucien said, nodding to the garage door in the foyer. Atara did as she was told, and they hurried through the garage to their shiny new hover car; a midnight-blue six-seater that Tyra had somehow found the time to purchase this morning while he was at his meeting with the other ex-Paragons. The car had arrived on autopilot with a pre-recorded message from her, just in time for Lucien to use it to pick up the girls from school and daycare. The invoice from the dealer indicated she’d also bought a matching black car for herself. They’d lost both of their old cars with their home when Fallside had depressurized.

Lucien used his ARCs to open the car doors as they approached. As soon they were seated inside, the car greeted him, “Welcome, Mr. Ortane! Where would you like to go this afternoon?”

“Winterside General Hospital, please.”

“Right away. Please buckle up,” the car replied in a congenial voice. Lucien dropped Theola in the car seat on the row of seats in front of him and awkwardly buckled her in, wincing as he occasionally brushed his broken finger against something. Feeling weak, he slumped back into his seat in the middle of the front-facing row of seats. Meanwhile, the car had already powered up and hovered a few inches into the air.

“Is this an emergency?” the driver program asked, as the car rotated on the spot to face the garage door, which was already rising to reveal a bright bar of daylight at the bottom.

Snow swirled in underneath, dusting the entrance. As the door finished opening, Lucien saw that it was snowing hard outside, and the frozen lake below their home was barely visible beyond the snow-caked trees.

“My scanners report that your cortisol and adrenaline levels are elevated in a way that is consistent with a serious injury,” the driver program went on, when Lucien didn’t immediately respond. “I can have EMTs waiting when we arrive,” the car suggested as it shot out of the garage.

“No, that’s all right,” Lucien said, and laid his head back against his seat with a pained grimace. He allowed his eyes to drift shut, waiting for the trip to be over.

“Does it hurt?” Atara asked.

Lucien cracked one eye open to regard her. She was smiling faintly at him and reaching for his injured hand with her index finger extended, as if to poke his broken finger. He jerked his arm away and cradled his hand protectively. “Are you crazy?” he demanded.

Atara’s eyes flashed with hurt, and her lower lip began to tremble once more.

He made an irritated noise in the back of his throat and shook his head. Forget his hand. The real medical emergency here was whatever the frek was wrong with Atara.

He was almost afraid to think about what that might be. They’d mind probed and scanned her thoroughly. She was supposed to be fine. Obviously they’d missed something. This wasn’t the innocent, loving five-year old he’d raised.

This was a devil in a child’s body.



Chapter 32

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar: Underworld

Lucien’s armor screeched against the sides of the tube, but the friction was barely enough to slow his descent. He felt gravity shifting, as if the world were sliding out from under him. Up and down became sideways, and he lost all sense of direction, spinning and rolling as he fell. He caught a glimpse of green plants through the translucent walls of the tube, and suspected he was close to the ground. His suit clocked his speed at over forty kilometers an hour. He gritted his teeth, bracing for impact.

He flew out of the tube and landed hard in the overgrown field of flowers he’d seen from the concourse. The jolt of the impact was enough to clack his teeth together, but the vegetation provided a nice cushion.

Lucien stood up and struggled through waist-high grass and flowers. He saw Addy get up beside him, and a split second later Garek and Brak both came flying out of tubes adjacent to hers.

Lucien activated his suit’s sensory suite and an array of floral smells flooded his helmet, making his nostrils flare. The plants felt rough and prickly against his thighs and torso.

He reached out to touch a spiky blue flower the size of his head, and received a sharp stab of electricity—the simulated prick of a thorn.

The flower reared at his touch and let out a high-pitched whistle, blowing air in his face and shrinking into itself as it did so. Lucien regarded it curiously, and he felt as though it might be regarding him back, though he couldn’t see any eyes.

 “These plants seem more alive than usual,” Lucien said. “And some of them have nasty thorns. Watch yourself, Garek. I wouldn’t want to see what one of them could do to your exposed face. You might swell up like a puffer fish.”

Garek barked a laugh. “Probably make me prettier.”

Lucien snorted, but peripherally he noted that Garek was wearing his helmet again. He’d probably put it back on to avoid losing it on his way down the slide.

“Where to now?” Addy asked.

A piercing wail split the air, drawing their attention to a Mokari-sized bird circling the field up ahead. For all they knew it actually was a Mokari, but this bird was white rather than black, and it didn’t sound the same.

“I don’t know,” Lucien admitted, turning to look around and get his bearings.

The inside of the underworld curved up and away to all sides of them, divided in a farm-like patchwork of different-colored vegetation. In the distance, giant trees soared, each with just a handful of branches and one or two over-sized, opalescent leaves per branch. Towering mountains peeked over the treetops, sheer white cliffs striated with purple veins that might have been rivers. All of it curved up sharply, clinging to the inside of the sphere.

Lucien turned and glanced up at the concourse where they’d been standing moments ago. From the outside it looked like a low-rise apartment complex, but the rows of broken viewports lay perpendicular to the ground rather than parallel.

Looking up, he saw the blinding ball of light in the center of the sphere. It hung directly overhead, at the zenith of the sky. Its radiance blocked their view of the other side of the sphere.

The two black towers that Lucien had seen before now seemed to traverse the sky like two halves of a bridge, with the light source suspended in the middle.

“Let’s head for one of those towers,” Lucien suggested. “Whatever is generating that light might also be used to power the gateway we’re looking for.”

“Looks like a long hike,” Garek said, peering up at the nearest tower, and shielding his eyes against the glare of the artificial sun with one hand.

“We should boost up there,” Addy suggested. “I doubt it will take more than a few minutes to get there like that.”

“I agree,” Lucien said, and powered his grav boosters at a modest five percent to send himself floating up above the field.

The others joined him, hovering up one by one.

“Let’s not fly too high,” Lucien said. “Keep to an altitude of fifty meters just in case the direction of gravity doesn’t hold constant all the way up.”

“Roger that,” Addy said, and Garek and Brak clicked their comms to confirm.

Lucien powered the boosters in his palms and used them to rotate on the spot, orienting his body for horizontal flight toward the nearest of the two black towers. He waited for the others to get into position, and then boosted off at ten percent thrust.

The ground swept up quickly with the curvature of the sphere, making it hard to maintain straight and level flight, but by angling his body upward, he was able to keep a constant altitude of fifty meters.

 His forward velocity hit one hundred kilometers per hour, and he backed off the power to his boosters to maintain that speed. He didn’t want to miss something important on the ground. The gateway they were looking for could technically be anywhere—not to mention the so-called magical key they needed to open it.

“Wow...” Addy breathed. “Take a look at that!”

Lucien cast about, looking for whatever had caught her eye. He didn’t have to look for long.

A giant two-legged creature roamed the plains below, leaving a trampled path through the multicolored shrubs and flowers. It had a row of wicked-looking spikes down its hunched spine, and two massive arms that it used like extra legs to pick its way through the field. The creature’s hide was dark brown and wrinkly, and probably very thick.

Lucien slowed down as they reached the monster, and its size relative to their altitude of fifty meters gave a sense of scale. It reached more than halfway up from the ground, making it at least thirty meters tall.

They could actually hear its footsteps booming as they approached. Lucien matched his speed with that of the creature at twenty klicks per hour. He hovered along behind it, watching it walk through the field.

Suddenly it stopped, and its head perked up, its attention fixed on a herd of bright green blobs rolling through a field of blue grass up ahead.

The monster suddenly leapt forward, bounding toward the herd of blobs at incredible speed. The air shivered with its footfalls, and the green blobs rolled away as it drew near, schooling like fish. The monster was too fast for them. It scooped up a pair of them in one giant palm.

But it wasn’t a palm; it was a gaping mouth lined with rings of sharp white thorns. The blobs were impaled on those thorns.

Lucien slowed his flight and circled down for a better look. The monster’s arms were like snakes, and the one that had impaled the two blob creatures was waving bonelessly in the air. Two large bulges inched down along its length with the help of gravity. It had swallowed the blob-creatures whole.

“Be careful...” Addy warned as he strayed within reach of the snake-armed monster.

 It must have felt the pressure from Lucien’s grav boosters, because it looked up as he passed overhead. Its entire head was a giant, blinking black eye on a flexible stalk, rimmed with long red thorns. The eye narrowed as it tracked him, and then both of the monster’s arms shot up, swiping at Lucien’s ankles with giant, sucking mouths. They barely missed him, and hot rancid breath whistled out of those orifices as the arms sank back to the ground. Lucien’s stomach clenched with the smell and suddenly he wished he hadn’t turned on his suit’s sensory suite. He boosted up out of reach, trying to calm his heaving stomach. He did not want to throw up in his helmet.

“Are you okay?” Addy asked.

 Lucien nodded slowly. “What is this place?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s some kind of zoo,” Garek said.

“So why aren’t the animals in cages?” Lucien asked, staring at the two-legged, snake-armed monster as it bounded after the schooling herd of green blobs.

“Maybe the Grays don’t like keeping animals in cages,” Addy said.

“Or else they found a way to break out in the long years of the Grays’ absence,” Garek added.

“Good thing we decided to fly to the tower,” Lucien said. “There’s no telling what we might have run into down there.”

“Yeah, good thing...” Addy agreed.

They reached the end of the plains and flew over a rocky field of glowing blue crystals. Lucien couldn’t see any animals walking between them, but the crystals periodically discharged bright bolts of electricity from one to another. Each time one of them did so, it grew momentarily dark and opaque, only to light up again as another crystal zapped it.

“I wonder if those are alive?” Addy asked.

“Silicon lifeforms?” Lucien suggested.

“Why not? We found a few of those immediately after we crossed the Red Line.”

“Living rocks,” Brak grumbled. “What good it is to be alive if you are a rock? You cannot move. You cannot eat...”

“But you can think,” Lucien said. “For all we know, they’re more intelligent than we are.”

Brak snorted. “What does a rock have to think about?”

“They might not be alive,” Garek said. “Might just be part of the power grid that feeds this place.”

Lucien nodded at that. The field of glowing crystals came to an end, and they arrived at the forest they’d seen from a distance. The trees were incredibly tall, their boles silver and leaves opalescent white. They were far enough apart they they could fly easily through the forest. As they did so, Lucien noted that each branch had just one or two giant opalescent leaves. Those leaves sparkled brightly in the sun, casting deep pools of shadow on the ground below. Lucien thought he spotted small creatures moving through the underbrush, but it was too dark to be sure.

 Mountains soared up to the right, their steep white slopes clearly visible through the trees. Again Lucien noted the purple veins snaking down from their peaks. Definitely rivers, he decided.

“There’s the tower,” Addy said, as she zagged under a looming branch and over another one.

“I see it,” Lucien said. The curvature of the underworld made for an odd horizon, where they could never see very far in any given direction. A moment ago, looking straight ahead, they’d only been able to see more silver tree trunks and glittering leaves, but now they saw the smooth black sides of the tower soaring to block their view. The closer they got to the tower, the more their perspective shifted so that the tower appeared less like a bridge traversing the sky, and more like a skyscraper, rising up to blot out the sun.

The trees fell away abruptly and then the tower was all they could see. Lucien banked sharply to avoid colliding with it. The others followed him through that maneuver, and they circled back, spiraling to the ground.

 They landed in almost perfect unison on a castcrete pad surrounding the base of the tower. Beyond that, overgrown black and red shrubs rose in a tangled wall. The shrubbery flowed gradually up along the curvature of the ground to greet the silver trees just over a hundred meters from where they stood.

 Lucien turned and looked up at the black tower. It was shaped like an obelisk, and tapered to a slender point almost ten kilometers up—according to the rangefinder on his HUD. At that point it reached the artificial sun and disappeared in the blinding light. Assuming a perfect sphere, that put the size of the underworld at around three hundred and fourteen kilometers in circumference—tiny as far as planets went, and even small when compared with the vast scale of Astralis.

“I’m detecting a lot of lifeforms down here with us,” Garek said. “Medium to large. Most of them in the forest.”

“The hunt beginsss...” Brak hissed, and drew the razor sword from his back. The blade shimmered, blurring with a faint blue glow as Brak activated it.

Lucien’s scanned the wall of black and red shrubs running around the tower, his integrated lasers up and tracking.

“Form on me,” Lucien said after a moment, and started walking around the tower. “Keep eyes on our flank.”

 The others fell in behind him, walking fast, their footsteps thunking against the castcrete foundation. The tower walls looked seamless, with no windows or doors. They walked around the tower for several minutes before they returned to their starting point.

“That was a nice stroll,” Garek said. “Didn’t find my tail, though.”

Lucien turned to peer up at the tower again, squinting against the light pouring from the top.

 “I don’t get it,” Addy said, and rapped a fist on the side of the tower, eliciting a hollow bang from it. “There has to be a way in.”

“Brak?” Lucien asked, turning to find the Gor half-crouching by the shrubs at the edge of the pad around the tower, as if he were hunting something.

“Yess?” the Gor answered belatedly.

“Get over here and see if you can cut a hole with your sword.”

Brak straightened and strode up to the tower. Addy knocked on the side of it a few more times to sound out the bounds of the hollow area.

“There—” Addy pointed to the center of the area she’d identified.

Taking his sword in a two-handed grip, Brak reared back and delivered an impaling thrust.

 Lucien expected to see the sword sink in up to its hilt. Few materials were strong enough to resist molecular-edged razor shields. But as soon as the tip of the weapon touched the side of the tower, there came a bang, and an intense flash of light, and Brak went flying backward. He skimmed over the castcrete and crashed into the dense tangle of vegetation running around the tower. The shrubs parted for Brak, only to spring back a moment later, seeming to swallow him whole.

“Guess we should have scanned it first,” Garek said.

Lucien gaped at the spot where Brak had disappeared. “Are you okay?” he called over the comms.

No reply.

Then came a flash of crimson light from within, accompanied by the tell-tale shriek of lasers discharging. Black smoke curled from the vegetation, and the field of shrubs seemed to explode as Brak blasted straight up into the air. The plants lunged after him, unfurling like coiled snakes and waving at his departure, as if beckoning for him to come back.

Brak landed with a grunt and cast about for his sword. He found it lying at the edge of the shrubbery, the dead-man’s switch having turned off the blade as soon as it had left his hand. He walked over to collect the weapon.

“Any other bright ideas?” Garek asked, turning to Lucien and Addy.

“I think this might be the gateway that the Mokari were talking about,” Addy said.

“That’s a bit of a leap,” Lucien replied.

“Not really. Think about it. This tower is the only unnatural structure we’ve found besides the concourse where we entered the underworld.”

“The whole place is an unnatural structure,” Garek pointed out.

 “True,” Addy agreed. “Anyway, from the look of it, there’s no way into the tower, which is where I think that magical key comes in.”

“So where do you suppose we should start looking for that key?” Garek asked. “We could spend a lifetime searching for it if we have to turn over every stone, and uproot every bush.”

“Well...” Addy trailed off. “I haven’t figured that part out yet.”

Lucien was distracted, gazing at the artificial sun shining overhead. He could have sworn it was dimmer now than it had been a moment ago.

Sure enough, as he watched the brightness faded to the point that it was no longer painful to look at. Now he could see the second tower, as well as a ball of clouds forming around the fading sun. Behind and around those clouds, Lucien saw a patchwork quilt of alien vegetation on the other side of the sphere.

“I think night’s about to fall,” he said.

Garek snorted. “That should make searching for this key easier.”

A shrill cry sounded from the direction of the trees, followed by growling and snarling sounds, and then more cries—frantic, and growing softer by the second.

A chilling silence fell, broken by the soft trilling of nocturnal creatures waking with the night.

 Darkness gathered swiftly, and a thick white mist descended on them. Lucien glanced up once more and saw that the artificial sun was now a faint blue-white orb, shining through the mist—an artificial moon? Lucien wondered. Smaller white orbs detached from that one, floating down from the light source like balloons.

Lucien pointed to them. “What are those?”

“Looks like the Polypuses,” Garek said.

They came flowing down the sides of the tower in rivers of light.

“They’re headed this way...” Garek said slowly.

“An extra-dimensional party and we’re the guests of honor,” Lucien mused.

A whistling shriek split the air, and the ground shook, followed by a sound like dry palm leaves rattling.

 Boom. More leaves rattled.

Lucien froze and turned toward the sound. Sensors marked a large lifeform approaching from the direction of the forest.

“Is that...” Addy trailed off in a whisper.

“We’ve got incoming,” Garek warned as he brought his arms and integrated laser cannons up, aiming between the trees.

“We should get on the other side of the tower,” Lucien said.

 Boom. Boom. Boom. The footsteps were falling faster now, as if whatever beast was headed their way knew its cover was blown.

“No time to run... it’s almost here,” Garek said. “Take aim!”

Lucien brought his cannons up and targeted the incoming lifeform. It was huge, at least as big as the snake-armed monster they’d seen hunting in the field around the concourse. Lucien’s heart jumped against his sternum as the red-shaded outline of his target appeared, descending the curve of the underworld. The creature was bipedal... and it used two long arms for added balance as it walked.

The monster burst from the trees and into the surrounding field of shrubs. Both arms snapped up and waved through the air, giant pink mouths snorting and whistling as they sampled the air. A giant eye swiveled on the end of a fat neck stalk, gleaming in the moonlit night.

It was the same monster they’d seen hunting the blobs in the field.

They all stood frozen in shock, afraid to move for fear of setting off whatever hunting instincts the creature might have. The monster’s arms gradually undulated to the ground, until the gaping mouths were at eye-level with them. Those arms drifted closer, sniffing the air around them in phlegmy snorts

“Fire!” Garek said as one of the mouths came within a few feet of him. He fired into the mouth with both cannons. Crimson beams of light flashed down the monster’s throat, illuminating it from within and revealing spidery networks of red and blue veins.

The monster let out a piercing scream as the lasers struck inside its throat, and it thrashed the castcrete, shaking the ground and crumbling the foundation where they stood.

Lucien dove out of the way as it slapped the ground where he’d been standing. He rolled back to his feet just in time to see the monster’s other arm come sweeping in, its mouth gaping for the kill.



Chapter 33

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar: Underworld

Before Lucien could react, he was tossed high into the air and then falling straight into the gaping maw of the beast. It sucked him into its rancid depths, and everything went dark. Haptic sensors relayed sharp pricks to Lucien’s skin as the monster’s thorn-shaped teeth ground against his armor.

Then he felt those rings of teeth sweeping him back, deeper into a smooth-muscled throat, and soon he was cocooned by clenching bands of muscle.

He was trapped.

Waves of noxious alien breath assaulted his nose. Feeling his stomach clench up, Lucien mentally turned off his sensory suite and sucked in a deep breath of mercifully odorless air.

“A little help here!” he called out over the comms as he felt iron bands of muscle contracting above his head and squeezing him down the length of the monster’s throat.

“Hang on!” Garek commed back.

Lucien heard the muffled screeches of laser fire and saw the accompanying flashes of light periodically illuminate the inside of the throat. The arm thrashed and bucked in time to each shot, but the creature’s reaction wasn’t as strong as it had been when Garek had fired directly down its throat. It’s hide was probably tough enough to buffer the effects of their lasers.

That gave Lucien an idea. He strained against the bands of muscle contracting around him, trying to get his arms into a position that would enable him to fire without shooting off his own feet.

He managed to get one arm angled slightly away from his body, and fired three times in quick succession. The monster bucked violently, and a muffled shriek sounded from the monster’s other mouth.

 The muscles inside the beast’s throat spasmed so tightly that his suit’s shields overloaded with a loud pop.

 Now he couldn’t move at all, not even with his suit’s power-assist boosted to the max. Damage alerts began streaming across his HUD, accompanied by a computerized voice: “Warning, armor integrity dropping to sixty-two percent.”

“Guys?” Lucien called in a gasping voice as he began to feel the pressure constrict his chest. It was like being squeezed by a boa. His armor groaned ominously in time to each muscle contraction. With his lungs burning for air, Lucien was forced to exhale, but he was unable to suck in another breath. Dark spots swarmed his vision, and he knew he was going to pass out soon.

“Brak’s going to try to cut you out!” Addy said, her voice sounding dim, even though it came from speakers right beside his ears.

“What the frek?” Garek exclaimed.

The sounds of laser fire stopped, and then there was nothing... just a ringing silence and an angry roar of hypoxic blood.

“Armor integrity at twenty-seven percent.”

Lucien fought impotently against a wave of dizziness. Everything faded, and the raging concerns of the present were gone, sinking fast into the utter dark of oblivion. Lucien felt himself falling into that abyss.

 A meaty smack! and a ground-shaking boom! awoke him. Lucien gasped, and sucked in a deep, desperate breath. The ever-tightening cocoon of flesh around him had relaxed. Now it was a limp, but heavy weight pressing him down, loose enough for him to breathe freely and for to move his arms and legs, but not by much.

“What just happened?” Lucien asked, still breathing deeply to clear his muddled thoughts.

“I don’t...” Addy trailed off.

Lucien was about to try shooting his way out when a glowing blue blade appeared, slicing through just above his head. Red blood gushed, splattering Lucien’s faceplate.

Once the gash was a few meters wide, the sword withdrew and an armored hand appeared, reaching blindly for him through a crimson cascade of alien blood. Lucien grabbed that hand, and felt himself sliding up and out. The flooded throat slurped disgustingly as he left.

Lucien’s feet touched castcrete and he furiously swiped away the blood from his faceplate so that he could see.

He saw Brak’s grinning face staring back at him. “This is a tale to tell your children’s children,” he said. “And when you tell it, remember Brakos, the hero.”

Lucien grinned and slapped Brak on the back. “You bet, buddy.” He turned to see Addy and Garek crouching beside a big, bloody red mound of flesh that Brak must have hacked off some other part of the beast. He walked over to them. “What were you two doing? Providing moral support? A few more seconds and I’d have been swimming in a pool of digestive fluids.”

Addy stood and turned to him with a look of mingled horror and awe. She slowly shook her head. “Brak didn’t save you.”

Lucien frowned. “What do you mean he didn’t save me?”

Garek straightened, too, and jerked his chin up to indicate something in the sky. “They did.”

Lucien followed that gesture and saw four Polypuses floating down, their hair-like tentacles waving in an imperceptible breeze.

“How?”

“They ripped out its heart,” Garek replied.

Lucien blinked in shock, and his gaze strayed back to the bloody mound of flesh beside Garek and Addy. Now he saw it for what it really was: a giant heart.

***

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

“This emergency session of council is now in session,” Chief Councilor Ellis declared.

Tyra resisted the urge to sigh. Her gaze wandered to the bird’s eye view of the four cities through the transparent floor of the council chamber. Her inattention was a silent form of protest. Here she was, attending yet another emergency session of council—two in as many days. The last one had dragged on for almost six hours, and she’d been falling asleep by the time it had ended. After that, she’d still had to work well into the morning coming up with new legislation to regulate cloning in the wake of Ellis’s proposal. Hopefully this time they’d be able to get through the agenda faster. Tyra dragged her eyes up, forcing herself to pay attention to the proceedings.

“...are well on our way to getting back out there. I’m told that all of our former Paragons have agreed to have their clones join the new expeditionary force, and we have hundreds of other applicants signing up by the hour. At this rate, we’ll have to start putting them on reserve for future missions.”

 “All of the Paragons agreed?” Tyra asked, blinking in shock.

“That’s correct,” Ellis replied.

Tyra accepted the news with a shallow nod. She felt an accompanying flash of anger at her husband. They’d talked about it just a few hours ago, right before he’d left to attend the meeting with the other Paragons. She’d explained all of her concerns to him, but he’d decided to go ahead and sign up, anyway.

“First up on the agenda, I have a motion from Councilor Kato S’var of District One, petitioning for a formal declaration of war against the Farosien Empire,” Ellis said.

Kato nodded, half of his face still pink where the flesh had been re-grown after he’d suffered third degree burns in the Faros’ attacks. District One had been hit the hardest by the bomb that had ripped Fallside open, and Kato was understandably biased against the Faros, but Tyra didn’t think any of the other councilors would be against formally declaring war.

 “Let’s vote on it, shall we?” Ellis asked. “All in favor?” He raised his hand, and so did everyone else. “It’s unanimous, then. Let the record show that Astralis is now officially at war with the Farosien Empire.”

The councilors nodded and murmured their agreement.

“Moving on, we have another motion from Councilor S’var, calling for the execution of the Faro prisoners we have on board... I believe we addressed this issue in our last emergency session of council. There were six votes for and seven against dispensing with the prisoners. Are you suggesting we retake the vote?”

Councilor S’var nodded. “They must be made to answer for their crimes. Publicly if possible.”

Ellis arched an eyebrow at S’var. “All right. Let’s have another vote.”

The vote came out exactly the same as it had the last time, with six in favor and seven against.

“It’s settled, then. I trust that we won’t need to re-take this vote again tomorrow?” Ellis asked S’var. He responded with a scowl and looked away.

“Good...” Ellis trailed off and cocked his head, as if listening to something only he could hear. “Well, that’s good timing,” he said after a moment.

“What’s good timing?” Councilor Romark of Winterside asked.

“The Speaker of the House just informed me of the result of their deliberations. They’ve approved the Emergency War Measures Act, which I suppose will be going into effect now thanks to Councilor S’var’s motion.”

The councilors shot each other bewildered looks.

“What War Measures Act?” Tyra asked.

Ellis frowned and met the councilors’ confusion with a measure of his own. “The one we all drafted in our last session of council...”

Looks of dawning realization replaced the councilors’ confusion, and they began nodding slowly, murmuring at their absent-mindedness. Tyra wasn’t so easily assured.

“What War Measures Act?” she insisted.

“Since everyone seems to be having so much trouble remembering...” Ellis reached into one of the pockets of his ceremonial robes and withdrew a holo projector. He tossed it toward the center of the room, and it hovered into place. A moment later, the document in question appeared as a three-dimensional hologram that seemed to be facing everyone at once. Ellis made a scrolling gesture with one finger until he reached the bottom of the document, where all of the councilors’ signatures appeared, followed by hundreds more signatures from the House of Representatives.

 Tyra blinked in shock. Now she remembered, but somehow the memory felt alien and wrong. Signing the act didn’t sound like something she would do, and she found it hard to believe that any of the other councilors would sign it either. The Emergency War Measures Act gave Ellis the ability to overrule the council unilaterally in the event of war on all defense-related decisions. With that act in place, his only advisers would be Admiral Stavos and General Graves.

The council had essentially handed all of their political powers and responsibilities to Chief Councilor Ellis during wartime, and now conveniently, a war had been declared.

 It smelled like a setup to Tyra. One by one, she glanced at the other councilors, her gaze challenging each of them as it traveled around the room. “You all remember signing this?”

The councilors’ heads bobbed, but confusion warred on their faces, belying those acknowledgments.

“I understand we’ve all been under a lot of pressure and stress lately,” Ellis said. “Perhaps this should be the last emergency session of council for a while. I think a good night’s rest is in order for all of us.”

 Tyra turned back to Ellis, working hard to conceal her shock and suspicion. She failed utterly. “I guess we will be able to get more sleep now that you’ll be making all of the decisions for us.”

 Ellis smiled thinly at that. “Not all of the decisions, Councilor Ortane. Just the war-related ones, and you can rest assured that even with those decisions, I will still value all of your input.”

 Value, but not listen to? Tyra wondered. Dread wormed through her stomach.

Somehow Ellis had managed to strike a killing blow against democracy while everyone was watching. They’d all literally signed off on it, but Tyra could barely remember giving her signature, and she obviously wasn’t alone.

But that wasn’t even the strangest part. The majority of the House of Representatives had also signed the War Measures Act, and there were more than four hundred representatives in the House. How was it possible that all of them had consciously voted for the proposal, knowing full well that they’d be paving the way for a military dictatorship?

 Thanks to the War Measures Act and subsequent declaration of war, Ellis, Stavos, and Graves were now the sole authorities on Astralis. As far as Tyra was concerned, that was no coincidence. Those three were the same three that the Faros had fought so hard to reach. All three of them had been touched by the Faros.

 And Atara. Horror and outrage flashed through Tyra with renewed force, but she clamped down on it, determined not to draw attention to herself.

She looked around the council chamber, watching the other councilors’ faces as Ellis went blithely through the rest of an otherwise mundane agenda.

Every single councilor wore an expression that reflected some part of what Tyra was now feeling. And yet, no one said anything.

Tyra had already challenged Ellis once, sarcastically, but he’d pretended not to notice. What would happen if someone challenged him again, but more forcefully this time? Would Ellis call in security and have them escorted from the room? Or would he appear to tolerate dissenting voices only to have them conveniently silenced later?

 It was finally clear what the Faros had been after when they’d invaded Astralis. They were slavers through and through, but when they’d realized they didn’t have the numbers to take the ship by force, they’d decided to do so politically by subverting their leaders. An insidious plot if there ever was one. But if that was true, they could have called in reinforcements to finish the job long ago.

So why hadn’t they?

What else were they planning?

And was it too late to stop them?

 Tyra considered what had happened so far. Twelve councilors, including herself, remembered signing the War Measures Act, and four hundred plus representatives from the House had just done the same thing, but had anyone actually signed anything? The signatures could have been forged, the memories of signing planted via their AR implants.

In order to do that, there needed to be more Faro agents on board besides Ellis, Stavos, and Graves. One of them had to be a high-ranking official in the Resurrection Center. Someone with high enough clearance to get in while no one was watching and alter people’s memories—maybe even their personalities—in a way that no one would notice.

One name jumped to mind: Nora Helios, director of the Resurrection Center. It had to be her.

 Now all Tyra had to do was prove it before Ellis realized she was on to him. But even if she succeeded, she needed someone else waiting to wrest control of the military from Stavos and Graves, to make sure they didn’t get out a comms message calling for reinforcements from the Faros. Lieutenant Commander Wheeler, the one-time acting Commander of Astralis might be able to do that.

The pieces of a plan began sliding into place in Tyra’s brain, but she stopped those thoughts in their tracks. She felt watched. If memories could be planted in her brain without her permission, then maybe someone could read her thoughts, too.

Just in case, Tyra went about de-activating her AR implant, and then her ARCs, but just before she deactivated them, an urgent message came in from Lucien—text only. She hurriedly scanned the contents, her horror mounting with every word: it was about Atara....



Chapter 34

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

“You’re the one who got hurt,” Atara whined. “Why do I have to get an injection?” She struggled violently against the pair of nurses holding her down.

The probe technician stood off to one side, looking uncertain. “I thought you said she agreed to this? I can’t administer a probe against her will without parental consent.”

“I already gave you my consent,” Lucien insisted. Theola began squirming in his arms, unsettled by her sister’s cries.

 “I’m afraid I need both parents’ consent if the child is unwilling, Mr. Ortane. I only have your word for it that your wife has agreed to the treatment.”

Atara went on kicking and screaming on the examination table, her back arching as she struggled to break free. The two nurses holding her down each received a couple of kicks for their trouble before they gave up. Atara sprang up from the table, sobbing, and ran out of the probe room.

The nurses both followed Atara out, sending Lucien dirty looks as they left.

He turned to the technician. “Look, it’s going to take too long to get my wife’s signature. I already explained what’s been going on. Atara was touched by one of the Faros, and she hasn’t been herself ever since. She’s a security risk to everyone on board this ship.”

The technician looked unimpressed. Images flickered over his eyes as he looked something up on his ARCs. “Your daughter’s file says she lives in Fallside, is that correct?”

“Used to.”

“Of course,” the technician said, nodding sympathetically. “And I assume she’s going to a new school, has to make new friends, and has a new home...”

 Lucien’s eyes narrowed, and he leveled an accusing finger at the technician. “I see where you’re going with that, but I know my daughter, and she’s not herself.”

“I’m sure you do know her, Mr. Ortane, but you need to understand that she’s suffered multiple traumas and dramatic life changes over the past few days.” More images flickered across the technician’s eyes. “I see here that there’s even a psychiatric evaluation on file. It details an incident whereby Atara witnessed a Navy corpsman beheaded right in front of her.”

Lucien gaped at the technician, who began nodding with the wisdom of his own reasoning.

 “Given all of that, it would be strange if Atara weren’t acting out. Perhaps you need to schedule extra sessions with her therapist? I see she’s being seen by a doctor by the name of... Troosssaka’arrr.” The technician’s brow furrowed as he failed to pronounce the name. He repeated it to see if he could do better justice. He didn’t. “Troo, for short,” he decided, giving up. “She’s an alien, but her references and credentials are excellent. Shall I call her for you? Or would you prefer that Atara be seen by a human doctor this time?”

Lucien shook his head and glanced over his shoulder to the door, wondering where Atara had run to. “I’d better go after her,” he said.

The technician inclined his head agreeably. “Of course. If there’s nothing else...”

Lucien started to leave, and the technician followed him out. Once they were in the hallway, Lucien saw his daughter seated in the waiting room a few feet away, her head in her hands, sobbing. One of the nurses who’d been the recipient of Atara’s kicks was sitting beside her, a hand rubbing Atara’s back. The nurse saw Lucien, and glared.

“You should see to your daughter, sir,” the nurse said. “She is extremely distraught.”

Lucien took half a step in their direction, and Atara looked up. Her eyes were dry, the hint of a smirk on her face.

Lucien spun around to look for the probe technician, to point out his daughter’s disingenuous behavior, but the man was already walking away, off to see his next patient.

 That’s it, Lucien decided. He held up a hand to the nurse sitting with Atara, indicating that she needed to wait. Then he texted Tyra over his ARCs to make sure Atara didn’t overhear what he said. He explained the situation, and the fact that he needed Tyra’s consent to perform the probe. He finished by saying, Atara isn’t herself. First Theola, then me. I’m afraid to take her home and find out what she’ll do next. Have any of the others who were touched been doing or saying anything strange? When he was done composing his message, he marked it urgent, hoping Tyra would answer him promptly.

To his relief, she texted him back almost immediately.

 I’m in a meeting. Can we talk about this when I get home?

 Lucien frowned. I’m at the hospital now. It would be nice not to have to come back again tomorrow.

 Atara’s behavior is something we should discuss together before we submit her to more tests. I need to go, but we will talk about this later. I promise.

Lucien sighed. Fine.

 I’ll get home as soon as I can. I love you.

 Love you, too... Lucien replied.

He turned back to find Atara sitting alone in the waiting room, the nurse having moved on with her day.

“Ready to go home?” he asked brightly.

Atara regarded him warily as he approached. “What about the probe? Who were you talking to?”

Lucien frowned. “Your mother.”

“You told her.”

“Of course I did. You tripped me and I broke a finger!”

Atara’s eyes narrowed swiftly at him, and she crossed her arms over her chest. “I didn’t trip you.”

Lucien swallowed a sigh and took a seat beside Atara. Theola started smacking her sister and giggling.

“Stop it!” Atara snapped. “Dad!”

Lucien grabbed Theola’s hand to stop her, and she started crying and struggling to break free of his grip. He let go of her hand, and she began smacking her sister again.

 “Theola’s being bad, too,” Atara said, leaning away, out of her sister’s reach. “Maybe you should have her probed.”

Lucien shook his head. “No one’s getting probed. Let’s go home.”

Atara re-crossed her arms over her chest and looked away, pouting. “Not until you say sorry.”

“Okay... I’m sorry, Atara.”

She glanced at him, then broke into a grin and wrapped him in a fierce hug. “It’s okay. I forgive you.”

 Something melted inside of Lucien, and suddenly he felt bad. Maybe he was imagining things. Maybe Atara hadn’t tripped him. Maybe he’d tripped over his own feet. And maybe her opening the window and freezing Theola hadn’t been deliberate. Maybe it was all in his head and he was the problem.

Theola started crying again as the hug lingered and invaded her personal space. Lucien eased away and took Atara’s hand to lead her back through the hospital. As they went, Atara skipped along beside him, looking like any ordinary five-year-old.

 I’m definitely imagining things, he decided, but his instincts said otherwise. He decided to put them to the test. Any good police officer knows how to coax a confession.

“You know, Atara,” he said slowly, his tone as mild as he could make it. “I know you tripped me by accident. You were just scared to tell me, weren’t you?”

Atara stopped skipping and looked up at him, her eyes wide.

“You can tell me. I won’t get mad. I promise.”

A sly look crossed Atara’s face at that. “You promise?”

He nodded, smiling. “I promise.”

“No matter what?”

Lucien’s instincts were screaming again, but he tried not to let it show. “No matter what, sweetheart.”

“Okay. In that case, it wasn’t an accident.” Atara went back to skipping again.

Lucien’s hand felt suddenly cold and numb. Her hand went sliding out from his as he stopped walking. “You did it on purpose?” he asked, frozen in shock.

Atara stopped and turned back to him, her brow knitted, and lips pressed in an angry line. “You promised you wouldn’t get mad.”

He nodded woodenly, and then switched to shaking his head. “I’m not mad... why would you want to trip me?”

“You’re always yelling,” Atara explained. “You hurt my feelings. I wanted you to hurt, too. I’m sorry now, though.”

“Why’s that... why are you sorry?”

“‘Cause now you’re being nice.”

Lucien nodded as if that made all the sense in the world.

“Let’s have ice cream!” Atara said.

“Maybe later,” Lucien said, walking on in a daze, and reaching for Atara’s hand again.

 “No, now!” Atara screamed, and punched his leg.

Lucien took a deep breath and counted to three. It took all of his will to smile sweetly at Atara and hide what he was really feeling. His instincts had been spot on, but now they were telling him something else: his daughter was a sociopath, and you don’t challenge a sociopath until you’re safe from reprisals. “Okay. Let’s go get ice cream.”

“Goody!” Atara grabbed his hand and tugged on his arm, pulling him along behind her. They left the hospital without further incident. A blast of frigid air took Lucien’s breath away as he exited the ER, but it was nothing compared to the cold he felt spreading inside of him. He withdrew his hand from Atara’s to hug Theola close and keep her warm—and safe.

They crossed the hospital parking lot with Atara skipping again, once again looking like a normal, carefree five-year-old. Anyone watching them would have seen exactly that.

But Lucien knew the truth.

The Faros had done something to her. There was no more room for doubt about that. Lucien bit down on his lip to the point of pain, clamping down on the wave of misery and despair that thought sent coursing through him. He would find a way to bring her back.

He had to.



Chapter 35

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Mokar: Underworld

The Polypuses hovered, their luminous bodies peeling back the night with a dim blue-white glow. Their hair-like tentacles waved in a breeze that only they could feel.

“What are they doing?” Addy whispered.

“Waiting for something,” Garek said.

Lucien stepped to the fore. “Thank you for your help,” he said via his suit’s external speakers, and subsequently wondered if they would understand him. He was wearing one of the Faro translator bands, but none of them were.

“I don’t think they can hear you,” Addy said. “They exist in a higher dimension.”

“But they can obviously still interact with our dimensions,” Lucien pointed out.

 One of the four Polypuses floated out to greet him. That’s progress, he thought.

“We don’t mean you any harm,” he went on. “We want to know more about you and your species.”

The light emanating from the creature dimmed and then brightened a few times, but there was no way to know what that might mean. Maybe it was some kind of visual language? If it was, his translator wasn’t picking up on it.

Lucien shook his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

The creature brightened and dimmed once more, then it began drifting closer.

“Lucien...” Addy said, her voice rising in warning.

“If they wanted to kill us, they could have done it a long time ago,” Lucien said.

He waited for the Polypus to reach him. As it did so, it reached out with a pair of tentacles. They skittered over Lucien’s face, raising the hair on the back of his neck. Lucien took deep breaths to calm his racing heart while he waited for the creature to finish its examination.

“Ask it to remove our tracking devices,” Garek suggested.

Lucien’s eyes darted to Garek. One of the creatures was creeping up behind him, while the other two appeared to be circling around behind Addy and Brak. Four Polypuses for the four of them. Somehow Lucien didn’t think that was a coincidence.

“Why don’t you ask them yourself?” Lucien suggested, and gave a shallow nod to indicate the alien creeping up behind Garek. The Veteran whirled to face the creature, both arms snapping up to track the threat with his laser cannons.

Brak drew his sword and faced the Polypus approaching him, while Addy began retreating slowly from hers.

“Our weapons won’t do anything to them,” Lucien said. “Besides, they’re not going to hurt us.”

“You don’t know that,” Addy said. “They might be what killed all of those Faros we found.”

“I bet they are,” Lucien said, as his Polypus went on examining him with its tentacles. “But we’re not Faros, and we don’t have the same intentions that they do.”

“These guys might not know that,” Garek said, but his arms fell reluctantly to his sides.

Brak swiped his sword at the Polypus that had chosen him, but the blade passed right through the creature and out the other side.

Meanwhile, Lucien’s Polypus crept closer still, completely filling his field of view with its light. Lucien saw swirling currents and patterns in the light, but that brightness quickly swelled and overwhelmed him, making it impossible to see anything but blinding white. Lucien felt a spreading warmth and a profound sense of peace course through his entire being.

The brightness faded dramatically, and images began flashing through his mind’s eye; he saw Abaddon. The Faro King was seated on a throne, his glowing blue eyes sharp, his regal features stretched into a broad grin.

 Lucien recognized that throne and its surroundings. It was Etherus’s throne from the Etherian palace in the facet of Halcyon, back on New Earth. Lucien shook his head, but he couldn’t feel the movement. It was as though he was no longer in his own body.

“What is this?” he asked aloud, but the words reverberated back to his ears a hundred times, echoes piling on top of echoes.

The image faded, and Lucien saw another place he recognized: a clear blue sky overhead, and white cobblestone streets sparkling in the sun below. The street was lined with picturesque cafeterias, restaurants, and shops, and colorful blossom trees from a dozen different worlds spreading intermittent shade. Hover cars landed and took off from rooftops almost-soundlessly in futuristic ballet, and Etherian families strolled lazily down the street.

This was the city square on Ashram, the planet in Etheria where his half-brother, Atton, lived with his family.

 While Lucien watched, the scene flashed white, as if from an explosion. Details gradually re-emerged, but now the blue sky was black and clogged with smoke. Ash fell like snow, dusting the pristine white cobblestones. The blossom trees were on fire, and so were the buildings to either side of the street. Etherians lay dead and dismembered under thickening blankets of ash, while groups of Faros in black robes picked their way through the carnage, their transparent swords drawn and shimmering. Elementals. Up ahead a familiar gray-robed figure stood on a mound of bodies. He raised his sword and pumped it in the air, shouting, “Vengeance is mine!” The crowd of Elementals stopped and cheered, pumping their swords in the air, too.

 Lucien felt a growing sense of bewilderment and despair as he watched the Faros cheer. This couldn’t have already happened. The Polypus was showing him the future, or at least a possible future.

Lucien felt a comforting warmth spreading through him with that thought, as if to confirm it.

 We’re not going to let this happen, Lucien said. He felt another flash of warmth from the Polypus, and the scene faded to a new one. He saw a vast fleet of hundreds of starships floating in space with nothing around them, and barely enough light from the nearest sun to illuminate their shining silver hulls. Those mirror-smooth, highly-reflective hulls were a trademark of Etherian starships. The lost fleet, Lucien thought, marveling at the sight. As he watched, the ships vanished, having engaged some type of cloaking shields.

 Lucien shook his head at that, but again he felt no movement to accompany the gesture. We need to get to that fleet, he thought. We have to take it back to Etheria so the Faros can’t find it.

Another flashed of warmth. The Polypus seemed pleased with that idea.

The scene of the fleet faded, and back was the blinding white light of the extra-dimensional alien. The light retreated slowly, and once again Lucien saw currents and patterns in the Polypus’s radiance. Once the creature had retreated to about an arm’s length, something small and metallic fell out of it.

Lucien bent to pick it up. He examined it in the light of the creature hovering before him and saw what looked to be a small disc-shaped microchip, no bigger than the tip of his pinky. He rubbed it between his fingers and found that it was flexible, easily deformed into different shapes. It would have been easy to swallow something like that in his food and not notice.

“Looks like they found my tracker,” Lucien said. He turned to find Garek and Addy each examining matching microchips. Brak either didn’t have a tracker or hadn’t bothered to pick his up after the Polypus had extracted it.

Garek snorted and dropped his microchip to crush it under the heel of his boot.

Addy tossed her microchip aside, and Lucien did likewise.

“Did anyone else just experience some kind of vision?” Addy asked.

“Yesss,” Brak hissed. “I see the Faros reach New Earth. I see them round up the Gors and take them away as slavesss.”

“I saw my parents in Etheria,” Addy put in quietly. “The Faros killed them. And everyone else.”

 “They showed me Astralis,” Garek put in. “It was surrounded by Faro ships, but then it somehow managed to jump away and escape.”

“I wonder if that’s what actually happened?” Lucien mused.

“What did you see?” Addy asked, nodding at him.

“I saw Abaddon in Halcyon, sitting on Etherus’s throne, and then I saw a city from Etheria. It was in ruins with Faros standing over dead Etherians and cheering.”

They spent a moment trading solemn looks with one another, while the four Polypuses hovered just a few feet away, waiting.

“What does all of it mean?” Addy asked.

“I think they were showing us the future,” Lucien said. “Except for Garek. He might have seen the past.” Lucien turned to the Polypus in front of him. “I’m right, aren’t I?” The creature grew momentarily brighter.

“How do we know if that’s a yes or a no?” Addy asked.

“Good point.” Facing the Polypus, he said, “Yes is brighter. No is darker.”

The Polypus glowed brighter once more.

“So they can predict the future?” Garek asked, sounding skeptical.

Lucien considered that. “If they exist outside of time, or can somehow see the future, it would make them gods.”

 “Then maybe they are gods,” Addy said. The creature in front of her glowed darker. “Or not...” Addy amended, glancing at the Polypus.

“Gods or not, their extra-dimensionality makes them a force to be reckoned with,” Lucien said. “Maybe Etherus sent them to guard the lost fleet?” The Polypus in front of him glowed brighter at that.

“What are you?”

“I don’t think that’s a yes or no question,” Garek said.

“They can show us things in our minds,” Lucien replied. “They could explain with pictures. Show us who or what you are,” Lucien suggested, trying not to sound too demanding.

The creature in front of him grew darker.

“I think they’re done with explanations,” Addy said.

Her Polypus glowed brighter.

“Then what are they waiting for?” Lucien asked.

“They want us to decide what we’re going to do about what we saw,” Addy suggested.

Again, her Polypus glowed brighter.

“I told them we wouldn’t let what I saw come to pass,” Lucien said, “that we’d take the fleet back to Etheria to make sure the Faros couldn’t use it.”

 All four Polypuses glowed brighter at that, and more of the extra-dimensional aliens came drifting down from the sky, out of the silver-treed forest, and through the seamless black walls of the tower beside them. Now the Polypuses were a dazzling sea of light everywhere Lucien looked.

“I think they like your idea,” Addy said slowly.

 “What about Astralis?” Garek asked.

“You saw them escape, right?” Lucien said.

“Right...”

“Then they’re safe for now. We need to return the fleet to Etheria before we go looking for them.”

All of the Polypuses glowed brighter at once, making Lucien’s eyes ache. His faceplate auto-polarized in response.

“And after that? How do we get back to rescue them?” Garek demanded.

“We can ask Etherus to help us,” Lucien suggested. Again the Polypuses glowed brighter.

Garek snorted. “By sending another fleet that could be traced back to Etheria? Sounds like going in circles to me.”

The Polypuses darkened.

“Maybe Etherus will ask New Earth to send a rescue fleet instead,” Lucien said.

The aliens glowed brighter.

“These guys seem to know a lot about what Etherus would and wouldn’t do...” Garek said. “How do we know we can trust them?”

“They saved our lives once,” Lucien pointed out. “And they saved mine twice.”

“Maybe they saved us so we could come here and relieve them of guard duty,” Garek said. “I’m sure extra-dimensional aliens have better things to do than hang around here, waiting for Faros to show up.”

“There’s no way they could have planned for us coming here,” Addy said. “That was Katawa’s doing. And probably Abaddon’s.”

Another flash of brightness from the Polypuses.

 “It doesn’t matter how we ended up here, or why,” Lucien decided. “If we don’t take the lost fleet back to Etheria, Abaddon might find it, and then the future we saw will come to pass. There are trillions of lives at stake in Etheria and the rest of the Etherian Empire, and only a few hundred million on Astralis.”

“Fine. You win,” Garek said. He turned in a circle to address the waiting aliens with an open-handed shrug. “So? How do we get to this missing fleet?”

 One of the Polypuses bobbed to the fore and dropped something at Garek’s feet. It hit the ground with a thunk, and rolled to a stop at the tip of his left boot. It was a glossy silver ball, just big enough to hold comfortably in one hand.

That done, the Polypuses began swarming back up into the sky, streaming toward the blue-white ball of light at the top of the tower. Lucien watched them go, marveling at how many of them there were. At least a thousand. Probably more.

Garek bent to examine the ball at his feet, but made no move to pick it up.

Lucien walked over to take a look, and Addy and Brak joined him. Soon they were all standing over the device, trying to figure out what it was.

“That must be the key to the gateway,” Addy said.

“You sure about that?” Garek asked, arching an eyebrow at her.

“Pretty sure. What else could it be?”

“If it is a key, then how do we use it? And where is this damn gateway, anyway?” Garek replied.

 Lucien reached out to touch the silver ball. As soon as his fingertips grazed the mirror-smooth surface of it, an image flashed into his mind’s eye of him flying up to the top of the tower and throwing the ball into the light source at the center of the underworld. Moments later, the artificial light exploded to a hundred times its size, becoming a shimmering, spherical portal—a window into the bridge of a starship, an Etherian starship, if the familiar glossy white deck and the simulated, dome-shaped viewport above that were anything to go by.

“I know what to do,” Lucien said, and snatched up the silver ball.

“Yeah?” Garek asked, sounding more skeptical than ever. “Did one of your extra-dimensional squid friends whisper something in your ear?

“Follow me,” Lucien said, ignoring Garek’s sarcasm. He triggered his grav boosters at max thrust and shot into the air. Glancing at his sensor display, he noticed the others were flying up after him.

“Where are we going?” Addy asked over the comms.

“Through the gateway to the lost fleet,” Lucien replied, as if that should be obvious. He looked up, keeping his gaze fixed on the blue-white orb of light overhead. The smooth black sides of the tower raced by, faster and faster as he picked up speed.

Thanks to their grav boosters, they didn’t need to get inside that tower to use the key. The Polypuses must have known that, because they hadn’t bothered to show them a way inside.

 In a matter of minutes, Lucien reached the top of the tower and stopped to hover directly in front of the artificial moon, but it no longer looked like a moon. Light flowed in rivers from the tops of the two towers, racing in circles to form a swirling vortex. The gravity here was almost non-existent, but Lucien could have sworn he felt a subtle tug pulling him toward the light. He gazed into the vortex, momentarily mesmerized by it.

The others came hovering up beside him.

“Now what?” Addy asked.

Lucien glanced at her, and then threw the silver ball as hard as he could into the vortex. It quickly vanished against the glare.

“What did you do that for?!” Addy screamed.

He had just enough time to question himself, imagining their one and only key to the gateway dropping straight down ten kilometers, and picking up speed on its way to shatter on the castcrete below.

 But then the swirling vortex of light rippled, and abruptly expanded to a hundred times its size, just as he’d seen it would do when he’d touched the key. Now a shimmering, translucent skin was all that remained of the artificial moon, giving them a clear view into a giant, spherically-distorted portal. On the other side of that portal lay the bridge of an Etherian starship.

“Well, that’s new,” Garek said, sounding taken aback.

“Yesss...” Brak agreed.

Lucien understood those sentiments perfectly. This wasn’t a quantum junction that would teleport them from one place to another after making the necessary spatial and quantum calculations. It wasn’t even one of the antiquated SLS space gates that the Imperium of Star Systems had left littering the Milky Way before the Sythian invasion.

This was an entirely new technology, a persistent portal from one place to another, a doorway that could be opened and shut at will—just as long as you had the key.

Lucien turned to regard the others. “Ready?”

“On three,” Addy replied.

Lucien flashed her a grin. “On two—one... two!”

And with that, they all boosted straight into the shimmering portal.



Chapter 36

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

Astralis

The room was utterly dark. Chief Councilor Ellis sat in an armchair beside a real, floor-to-ceiling viewport in the outer hull of Astralis.

And so, too, sat Abaddon.

He’d booked this luxury hotel suite in District One under the guise of showing his support to residents who’d lost their homes and businesses when the Faros’ bomb had ripped a hole in the hull.

Abaddon gazed out the viewport, surveying his kingdom. Countless bright specks of light gazed back at him, but he barely noticed. Most people looked out at space and saw the stars, their eyes drawn to those comforting specks of light, but when Abaddon looked out, all he saw was a vast sea of darkness, gathering to snuff out the light.

 Abaddon smiled—or tried to—the corners of his mouth refused to obey, twitching reluctantly as Ellis resisted, but that battle of wills only lasted for a second. He was in control of this body, just as he was now in control of Astralis. In just one day he’d gone from the glorified mouthpiece for Astralis’s bloated representative democracy to its sole ruler.

It was almost depressing how easy it had all been, but Abaddon had to remind himself that the real challenge lay in defeating Etherus—not in subjugating this small band of humans.

 Now that Abaddon and his like-minded cohorts were in sole command of Astralis, they could proceed more openly with their plans.

Just over an hour ago, Abaddon had ordered General Graves to head over to Hangar Bay 18, where the Farosien boarding shuttles were being kept; there he had Graves retrieve a portable long-range comms unit from one of the shuttles and deliver it here.

The blocky unit now sat on the table beside his chair, its green status lights glowing—ready and waiting. Faro comms technology was a lot faster than the human variety. Unfortunately, it could still be jammed and detected, so Abaddon had needed to make a few arrangements before using the device.

 First, he got Admiral Stavos to turn off Astralis’s outbound comms jamming. Next he’d arranged for a power surge to take down the power in District One, so that his use of the device and the message he sent wouldn’t be detected by Astralis’s comms operators.

Now, with that done, Abaddon was ready to send his message. He turned and activated the comm unit. A holographic control panel sprang to life above the device, and he hurried to enter the coordinates for Mokar. When he was finished, he recorded his transmission.

“Katawa, it’s Abaddon. What news do you have of your search for the lost fleet? I have a brief window to speak without being detected. Do not transmit more than once, and do not send a reply if it will arrive more than an hour after this one.” Abaddon sent the message.

 The comm unit estimated the arrival time to be just a little under fifteen minutes. That was remarkable considering the tens of billions of light years between Astralis and Mokar. That feat of near-instant communication wasn’t accomplished by the Faro’s superior technology, but by their application of it.

 Abaddon’s message would be relayed to Mokar along the quantanet, a network of relays with pre-calculated connections that provided a hyper-fast solution to interstellar travel and communications in the Farosien Empire. Of course, the quantanet was too dangerous to let just anyone have access to, so Abaddon reserved use of the network to himself and those he personally authorized.

Barely half an hour later, the comm unit chimed with Katawa’s message, and Abaddon queued it for playback. Katawa must have seen his message and replied almost immediately. The little gray alien’s halting voice rippled out of the unit’s speakers moments later.

“Abaddon. The humans became suspicious of me. I was able to strand them in the underworld. They reached the gateway and made contact with the guardians, who then found and removed the humans’ tracking devices just as you predicted. Two of the trackers survived removal, and I was able to detect the opening of the gateway. You were right about that as well. The guardians only attack when they read bad intentions in the minds of those who would use the gate.”

 Who needs bad intentions when you’ve got good ones? Abaddon thought, smiling. The road to the netherworld has to be paved with something.

Katawa went on, “I do not understand how this helps you reach the lost fleet, but I have done my part. You will release my people now and grant them full citizenship in the empire. I await news that this has occurred. If it does not happen promptly, I will go down to the underworld and warn the guardians myself.”

Abaddon’s lips curled into a sneer at the threat, but he had no intention of reneging on their deal. What did emancipating a few billion slaves matter? There were countless trillions more where they’d come from, and soon he’d have the Etherians to replace them, anyway.

Abaddon hurriedly composed two more messages: one to Katawa, reassuring the spiteful little alien, and another to issue the emancipation order for the Grays, and to request that a ship be sent to Mokar to pick up Katawa.

He sent both messages and then shut off the device. That done, he reclined his chair and folded his hands over his chest. Everything was proceeding according to plan. Now all he had to do was wait for the Etherian Fleet to come to him.

 It was a detestably passive plan, but thanks to the mind-reading ghosts guarding the gateway, there was no active way to reach the fleet. Until now, everyone he’d sent after it had been killed—Faros, Elementals, Abaddons, Grays, Mokari... It didn’t matter who he sent, the problem was that he’d sent them, and the guardians of the gate could tell.

This time was different. This time, the people he sent weren’t working for him. Perhaps even more importantly, they were humans, and citizens of the Etherian Empire, so the guardians weren’t suspicious of them.

 But that would be their undoing. Abaddon knew Garek well enough from having looked into his mind that he’d use the fleet to come straight to Astralis, and as for Lucien, Abaddon didn’t even need to look into his mind to know what he would do. He knew Lucien as well as he knew himself.

Wipe a man’s memories and give him a fresh slate, and watch him slide back into his old ways. Abaddon, Lucien, the Devil... Ellis, Stavos, Graves... he went by many names, and all of those instances of his existence had a common body of experiences and memories to draw upon. All except for a few scattered individuals in human bodies.

 Etherus had told him what he was doing, recreating him in human bodies to see what they would do. When those people hadn’t turned into sociopaths, Etherus had shared the results of the experiment, as if to say, this is who you could have been.

Abaddon sneered.

Etherus thought he was proving a point with that, but it proved nothing. The experiment was still in its infancy. It had taken more than a billion years before he’d grown bored enough with paradise to rebel against Etherus.

And how long had humans been around? Better yet, how long had they been immortal, with lives long enough to truly appreciate the fathomless boredom that he had suffered?

No, Etherus hadn’t proved anything yet. Lucien Ortane and his father, Ethan, might have had all the same initial conditions as he, but they were missing the critical factor of his experiences.

 Give them the same life to live, and they’ll make all of the same so-called evil choices as I have.

But where was the root of that evil? In the choices that he, Abaddon, had made? Or in the person that Etherus had created to command his army?

The problem was simple: if Etherus was good, and God, and all-powerful, then how was it possible that he had created Abaddon, who was evil?

It was nature versus nurture. If the flaw lay in Etherus’s creation and the initial characteristics of Abaddon’s being, then Etherus was to blame, but if the flaw lay in Abaddon’s choices, then Abaddon was to blame.

 But of course, then comes determinism to prove that free will doesn’t exist, and therefore good and evil don’t exist, so either way Etherus can’t judge me. Deep down he knows it. That’s why he and his people are all hiding in a corner while the rest of the universe burns. It’s impossible to lead a crusade without the strength of true conviction.

 In that moment the lights snapped back on, and the darkness fled. Blinking spots from his eyes, Ellis arched an eyebrow at the ceiling. Listening to my thoughts, were you?

 But he smirked at the absurdity of that thought. He’d long since stopped believing that Etherus was the almighty deity he claimed to be. Ghostly extra-dimensional allies notwithstanding, Abaddon was far more powerful than Etherus. Of the two of them, the only one who’d achieved anything close to omnipresence was him, Abaddon, with his billions of simultaneous instances.

 Yet another reason for you to hide in your corner, Abaddon thought. But you won’t stay hidden for long. I’m coming for you, Etherus.



Chapter 37

 

Dark Space Universe (Books 1-3)

The Lost Etherian Fleet

Lucien emerged from the portal a split second before the others did. The negligible gravity in the center of the underworld was suddenly replaced by a much stronger force, pulling him down to the deck of the ship. He tried to land feet-first, but ended up on his back, sprawled out against one of the bridge control stations. He watched as the others fell out of the shimmering portal, their arms and legs windmilling. Garek and Brak landed one on top of each other in a pile of tangled limbs and clattering armor, while Addy managed to perform a controlled somersault. She brushed off her suit and offered a hand to help Lucien up.

He took her hand and stood up, surveying the bridge. It was a perfect circle with two levels separated by a short flight of stairs. A dome-shaped viewport lay overhead, revealing a vast sea of stars and space. Lucien felt as if he were standing on an airless platform, adrift in deep space. Unnerved by the sensation, he walked around aimlessly to remind himself that there was gravity. He noted the warm glow of lights emanating from control stations, and from the glow strips in the floor. Gravity and lights meant power, so they weren’t adrift in space. Looking behind them, Lucien saw the portal to the underworld shimmering, still open.

“I don’t get it,” Garek said. “This ship looks as new as the day it was built. I thought it’s supposed to have been here for over ten thousand years?”

Lucien nodded and looked away from the portal. Had they left the lights and gravity on all this time? Did Etherian ships have unlimited fuel in their reactors? Most ships that Lucien had encountered ran on fusion power, but even fusion required a ready supply of fusionable materials.

“Do you think there’s anyone on board?” Addy asked.

“There might be an easy way to find out,” Lucien replied, and went to the control station in the center of the bridge. It was on the upper level where they’d emerged, and he guessed it had to be the captain’s station.

He took a seat there, and holographic displays sprang to life all around him, emitted from projectors in the floor. The alphabet and language was Etherian, but thanks to the translator band he wore under his helmet, he was able to understand everything perfectly.

 Lucien located the ship’s sensor display where a 3D star map appeared, crowded with green icons of friendly vessels. At the center of the map was a particularly large vessel, highlighted white. Lucien selected it, and found that the ship was called the Gideon. Ship schematics and technical readouts appeared on that screen. Lucien scanned through the information until he found what he was looking for.

“The ship’s sensors show exactly four lifeforms on board,” he said.

Garek and Addy walked into Lucien’s periphery, appearing to either side of his chair.

“What else can you see?” Garek asked, while peering over Lucien’s shoulder at the sensor display.

 Returning to the star map with all the green icons on it, he found a contacts panel in the top left of the display. A long list of contacts appeared, all of them green and friendly.

 “There’s one thousand and fifty seven friendly ships around us,” Lucien said, reading the total number of friendly contacts at the bottom of the contacts panel. Sensors indicate they’re all cloaked.”

“Obviously not very well if we can detect them from here,” Garek said.

Lucien nodded, still scanning the contact panel. “Most cloaking shields only hide ships from a distance. The fleet looks to be in a close formation...” Lucien trailed off. “These ships are all named after prominent figures in the Etherian codices.”

“Makes sense, given where they came from,” Garek replied.

 Lucien selected the fleet as a group. It was called Gideon’s Army. A table with information about the fleet appeared, giving each ship’s name, range away from them, mass, ship class, shield strength, hull integrity, and crew.

 Lucien scrolled through the list and found all of the ships to be in pristine condition with hull integrity and shields at a hundred percent. He also found the active crew count for each of the ships to be 0/###. The second number varied, but the first was always zero and highlighted in red. All except for one ship—the Gideon. It had a crew count of 4/9750. There were just four people on board the entire fleet—the four of them. “The fleet really is abandoned,” Lucien said.

“How big are the ships in the fleet?” Garek asked.

 Lucien turned back to the display. He tapped the top of the column labeled mass, and a set of alternative categories for size appeared—beam, draft, length, and tonnage. Lucien selected length and tapped the little arrow beside the column, assuming it would order the list by that category.

 It did. “The smallest ships are only a few hundred meters long...” he said, scrolling down again, “but it looks like most of them are over a kilometer long.” As he reached the bottom of the list he found more than a dozen ships that were even larger than that. “The biggest ones are over ten kilometers from bow to stern, and we’re sitting on the largest of those, the Gideon, at fourteen kilometers long.”

 Garek nodded. “Well, well, looks like Katawa held up his end of the deal, after all. We’ve got our fleet: one thousand capital-class ships. I think it’s time we go find Astralis and take the fight to the Faros, don’t you?”

Lucien turned to Garek. “The Polypuses were clear. They only let us get here because we agreed to take the fleet back to Etheria.”

“And we’ll do that, but why not go get our people first? Then we won’t have to come back and rescue them later.”

“Because we might be detected by the Faros while we’re out looking for them,” Lucien said.

“We might also be detected along the way to Etheria. And if we are, it would be good to have these ships properly crewed so we stand a fighting chance.”

Addy began nodding. “Garek has a point.”

“The Polypuses wanted us to go straight back to Etheria. They showed us what would happen if the Faros found the fleet.”

 “And they showed me that Astralis escaped,” Garek replied. “They must have known how I would react to that. If they’re safe, then what’s the harm in us going there first?”

“They showed you that they’re safe to put your mind at ease, so you wouldn’t think there was an urgent rush to go rescue them. We talked to the Polypuses about this. They clearly told us to go back to Etheria first.”

 Garek snorted. “Yeah... it was like having a conversation with a light bulb. How do you even know they understood us? Or that we understood them? What if they thought brighter was no and darker was yes?

“You’re deliberately confusing the issue,” Lucien said. “I get your personal stake in all of this, but we’re going to Etheria first. You want to do something else?” Lucien turned and pointed to the open portal behind him. “Go ahead. The door’s still open.”

But just as Lucien said that, the shimmering portal vanished. “Someone must have heard you,” Garek said, smiling. “I guess they don’t want me to go back.”

“I think it is my fault,” Brak said, and Lucien turned to see him on the level below, holding up the silver ball that was the key to the gateway.

Garek barked a laugh. “Nice job, big guy.”

 “There might still be a way to open the portal from here,” Lucien said. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’re not going back—and we’re not going to Astralis.

 “How about we vote on that?” Garek suggested. “We voted to join Katawa on this crazy quest in the first place, so it seems only fitting that we should vote to decide where we go next. All in favor of going to find Astralis?

Garek raised his hand.

Addy’s eyes flicked from him to Lucien and back. “I think Lucien’s right. If the Polypuses can see the future and they wanted us to go to Etheria first, then it must be for a reason.”

“Brak?” Garek prompted. “What do you think?”

“My people must never become slaves again. If that is what we risk by Abaddon finding the fleet, then we must return it to Etheria as quickly as possible.”

 “Fine,” Garek gritted out and thrust an accusing finger in Lucien’s face. “But if something happens to Astralis, it’s on all of your heads!” With that, he stalked away, fuming.

“What’s that?” Addy asked, as Lucien closed the contacts panel and returned to the star map. She pointed to one side of the cluster of green blips that was the Etherian fleet, to a region of brightness that dominated the right side of the map. “Are we orbiting a sun?”

“I don’t know,” Lucien admitted. He zoomed out the display until all one thousand and fifty seven green blips clustered together into a single green speck. From there he continued zooming out until that region of brightness coalesced into the familiar shape of an accretion disk. “Uh oh...” Lucien whispered.

 “Uh oh, what? What’s going on?” Garek demanded, stalking back over to them. Upon seeing the map, he went suddenly very still. “Krak...” he whispered.

Brak came up from the lower level of the bridge to see what had everyone so concerned. When he saw the display, he hissed with displeasure.

They all had enough experience with space travel to know what they were looking at. Accretion disks formed around black holes. Lucien tried selecting the black hole, and a pair of brackets appeared around it. Sensors reported its size to be more than a hundred million standard solar masses. Making matters worse, this black hole was spinning very fast.

 Lucien remembered dealing with this type of black hole on a theoretical level at school while he’d been training to become a Paragon. They were dubbed time machines because the time dilation around them could be severe even at the range of safe, stable orbits. Most black holes only had extreme time dilation close to their event horizons, where the orbital velocity required to maintain a stable orbit was too high for any ship to safely reach.

“What’s our time dilation?” Garek asked quietly.

 Lucien spied a link at the bottom of the sensor display to something called gravimetric readings. He touched that with his index finger, and the display changed, showing a wireframe visual of the black hole’s gravity field. The field was depicted as an infinitely deep funnel, which was technically only accurate in two-dimensions, but it worked well enough to illustrate the shape of space-time around the black hole. The green dot that represented the Etherian fleet lay along the steep, inward-sloping curve of the funnel. Radial lines in the wireframe were each marked a value for t=___, and according to the legend at the bottom of the display, the “t” was for the time dilation factor.

 The t values grew progressively larger as they approached the red radial line that coincided with the event horizon of the black hole, while the line closest to the fleet’s location was marked with t=700, but they were sitting just past that line, heading toward the next one, marked t=800. Lucien tried selecting the green dot that represented the fleet, and he got a new value for t.

“Seven hundred and seventeen...” Garek whispered, reading the value. “So every second we spend here is...” he trailed off, and Lucien saw images flickering over his eyes as he ran the calculation on his ARCs. “Almost 12 minutes for a stationary observer!” Garek burst out.

“That means every minute is almost twelve hours,” Addy said.

 “What if we have to spend a day trying to figure out how to fly the fleet out of here?” Garek demanded. He paused, and Lucien saw images flickering over his eyes once more. “Almost two years will have passed for everyone on Astralis!”

“And Etheria,” Addy said.

“Yeah, and then we still have to calculate the jump to Etheria for more than a thousand ships, and who knows how long that will take,” Garek said.

Lucien shook his head, speechless. This definitely threw a corkscrew in their plans.

“What’s ten thousand years with that time dilation factor?” Addy thought to ask.

Lucien ran the calculation on his ARCs—10,000 divided by 717. “A little less than fourteen years.”

“So that’s how long the fleet has been here from its own frame of reference,” Addy said. “No wonder the Grays left the lights on. By the time these ships run out of power, another hundred thousand years will have passed for the rest of the universe.”

“We’d better get started, then,” Lucien said. “Every moment we spend here trying to figure out how to get the fleet back to Etheria, Abaddon’s going to have seven hundred and seventeen moments to find us. Addy—see if you can find the nav station.”

“What’s the point?” Garek demanded. “We can’t move more than a thousand ships by ourselves! Even if we could, it would take too long.”

“The Polypuses must have thought we could do it,” Lucien countered. “I’m betting the ships are all set to follow each other, and since the gateway led to the largest ship in the fleet, it’s probably the one that all the others are set to follow.”

“That’s just a wild guess!” Garek said. “The Grays might have had a pilot on board each of these ships when they maneuvered them into position.”

“I found the nav station!” Addy called out.

 Lucien turned from Garek to see Addy now seated at a control station on the level below. “Good. See if you can break orbit—away from the black hole.”

 “That goes without saying... powering engines...” A whirring noise started up somewhere deep below their feet, and quickly rose in pitch until it became a steady thrumming sound. “Setting thrust to seventy-five percent, and nosing up twenty degrees.”

 “What’s up?” Lucien asked.

 “Away from the black hole,” Addy replied.

“Just checking.”

Addy was figuring out the nav systems fast. As a Paragon she had plenty of flight training, but Lucien was surprised that the Etherian control systems were so intuitive.

 “And?” Lucien prompted after a few seconds had passed. It was hard to believe each of those seconds was twelve minutes back on Astralis.

“You were right!” Addy said. “The other ships are following us!”

Lucien flashed a triumphant grin at Garek. “What’d I tell you?”

“Lucky guess,” Garek mumbled.

Lucien shrugged. “It’s what I would have done if I were planning to leave just one person at the helm of an entire fleet. He would have needed to be able to move the fleet easily by himself in case its location was discovered.”

Garek snorted and turned his attention to Addy. “See if you can figure out how to plot a micro-jump and get us out of the time dilation zone.”

“Yeah... I’ve already figured that out.”

“That was fast,” Lucien said.

“The controls are highly intuitive,” Addy said. “Anyway, that’s not the point. We can’t jump out of here. Not yet, anyway.”

Garek’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Why not?”

“We’re inside the magnetic field of the black hole.”

Lucien grimaced.

“How far does the field reach?” Garek asked.

“That depends how much of a risk you want to take,” Addy replied. “The chance of scattering if we jump from here is sixty-five percent.”

“We can’t risk that,” Lucien said.

“The chances drop the farther out we get. If we plot a jump at five hundred light seconds from here, the probability of scattering drops to just ten percent.”

 “Five hundred light seconds?” Garek echoed. “What’s our ETA to reach that point at max thrust?” Garek asked.

 “Almost a full standard hour,” Addy replied. “And that’s probably an Etherian standard hour, which is even longer. By the time we get there, a month or more could have passed on Astralis, but that’s probably a lot less than the overall time it will take for us to get this fleet back to Etheria.”

“And just where is Etheria?” Garek asked. “Have any of you thought to check that yet?”

Lucien shook his head. “We’re probably going to have to dig through the ship’s star charts to find it. Why don’t you and Brak go find control stations and help us look? We’ve got an hour to kill, we may as well use it for something.”

Garek didn’t need to be told twice. He stormed over to the nearest control station and took a seat. Brak hesitated for a moment before doing the same, and Lucien busied himself looking through various holo displays for the Etherian star charts.

 After a few seconds, he found a link to something called Universal Map. He opened that, and was immediately greeted with a kind of pinched sphere, wrapped with stars. He blinked in shock, his heart suddenly racing with excitement. With all the drama surrounding their dealings with the Faros, they’d lost sight of their original goal in traveling beyond the Red Line. Astralis’s mission was to discover the true nature of the universe, its shape, extent, and whatever else they could learn. And here, both its shape and extent were clearly marked.

The universe appeared to be wrapped around a distorted sphere, pinched together at the poles, and bulging out at the rim/equator, with an infinitesimally small hole in the center. It was a type of torus.

“I don’t believe it...” Lucien whispered.

“What?” Garek called back.

“The universe,” Addy replied. “It’s... a donut?”

 Lucien smiled at that. “A horn torus, actually, but yeah I guess that’s kind of a donut.” Lucien zoomed in on the torus and manipulated it with his hands, watching the stars glitter. “This is a 2D simplification,” he realized. “We can’t picture a 3D torus from the outside. We’d need to be able to see an extra spatial dimension to do that.”

“Maybe we can ask the Polypuses what it looks like,” Garek said.

“I don’t think we’d understand their description even if they could explain,” Lucien replied.

“Simplification or not, it conveys the concept clearly enough,” Addy said. “Why’s the bottom half of the map dark and fuzzy?”

Lucien studied the torus and frowned. Addy was right. The top half was bright with stars, but the bottom half was blurry and kind of grayed-out.

 “I bet that’s the universe on the other side that Oorgurak mentioned,” Addy said.

Lucien nodded slowly. “I forgot about that.”

“Whatever it is, it looks like not even the Etherians have been there,” Garek said.

“I wonder why,” Lucien mused. “Seems like you could get there easily enough...” Then he noticed the dark band of empty black nothingness running around the equatorial rim of the torus, separating the top from the bottom.

“The Great Abyss lies between the two universes,” Addy said, again noticing the same things as him.

“So maybe it can’t be crossed?” Garek suggested.

 Lucien shook his head. “Maybe...” He found a search button to one side of the display, and tapped it. A holographic keypad appeared in his lap, and he typed in Etheria.

A green dot appeared near the center of the torus, in the funnel-shaped hole leading up from the fuzzy bottom half.

“Etheria is—”

“On the other side of the universe,” Addy finished for him.

“No wonder we’ve never been able to find it on our own,” Lucien said.

“Fascinating. How long will it take us to get there?” Garek asked. “Try plotting a jump, see what the ship says.”

“Hang on,” Addy replied.

While he waited, Lucien played around with the Universal Map, zooming in to smaller and smaller scales. He picked a random spiral galaxy, and from there a random star...

Only to be assaulted by a plethora of information about the system, its sun, planets, moons, intelligent species, governments, space stations... even large starships were listed on the contacts panel of the star system. As he watched, one of those ships disappeared, and the locations of the others shifted subtly as they moved through space.

 Lucien blinked in shock. The system wasn’t inside the Red Line, so where had all of that information come from? More importantly, how could any of it be live data?

He tried searching for Laniakea, which the Red Line encompassed, just to be sure that the system he’d chosen wasn’t inside of it. The map zoomed all the way out to show him a red dot at the center of the universe.

“Ah... guys, try searching for Laniakea.”

“Why?” Garek asked. “Where is it?”

“At the center of the universe,” Lucien replied.

 “What?” Garek asked. “You’re joking.”

“No, he’s right...” Addy replied.

“It would be funny if it weren’t so sad,” Lucien said. “Galileo must be rolling in his grave.”

“Gali-who?” Garek asked.

“Galileo. The inventor of the telescope... he was the first person to propose that Earth wasn’t the center of the universe.”

“Actually that was Copernicus,” Addy said.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Garek replied. “It’s been a long time since I studied any of that stuff.”

Lucien tried zooming in on another random system, and this time he made sure that it was far from the red dot of Laniakea at the center of the universe.

 The system was called Tekken Prime. It had two suns, six planets, and twenty-seven moons, with just one intelligent species—the Tekken—and a unified feudal government. The Faros were not mentioned, which Lucien took to mean that they hadn’t found or enslaved the Tekken yet. Again the contacts panel for the system was populated with live data for all the ships and space stations in the system.

“That’s impossible...” Lucien breathed, shaking his head.

“What’s not possible?” Garek asked.

He explained what he was seeing, but it sounded even more absurd when he said it out loud.

“There’s no way our sensors can detect that level of detail from here,” Addy said.

“Exactly—there’s no way, and yet the Etherians seem to have found one,” Lucien replied.

 “Then maybe Etherus is God. Or at least a god. He has to be,” Addy said.

“Maybe, yeah...” Lucien replied. “At the very least, it means the Etherians have found a way to tap into a truly instantaneous form of communication.”

“I wonder if the Faros have this technology?” Garek asked.

“If they did, then they wouldn’t need to find the lost fleet in order to find Etheria,” Lucien replied.

“Then I guess they don’t have the same tech. You realize what this means,” Garek said.

Lucien shook his head. “No, what?”

 “It means we can probably find Astralis from here. We don’t have to risk looking for them by jumping to random systems around their last known location. And it also means we can identify a safe route to get there, checking systems for signs of the Faros before we make a jump.”

“Garek’s right,” Addy said. “This changes everything. Now we have a clear tactical edge over the Faros.”

Lucien frowned, unconvinced.

“I think we need to re-take the vote,” Garek said.

 “Hang on,” Lucien said. “Before we get carried away, let’s be sure we really can find Astralis. It’s a big universe. Searching every system for it will literally take forever.”

“Found it!” Garek crowed.

 Lucien’s frown deepened. He tried searching for Astralis this time. Almost instantly, a new star system appeared, and sure enough, his view of that system was centered on a green dot labeled Astralis. Lucien selected that contact to read more about it, just to be sure.

“The size and shape match,” Addy said, beating him to it. “It’s them all right.”

“They’re twenty-nine billion light years away,” Lucien pointed out. “It could still take a long time for us to reach them.”

“Plotting a course...” Addy said. “Got it!”

“You calculated a jump there already?” Lucien asked, suddenly wondering if Etherian jump tech was somehow instant, too.

 “The route is finished calculating—” Addy clarified. “—not the actual jumps. There’s over a hundred stops along the way, and the time to reach our destination is estimated at... twenty-six days, eight hours, and thirty-eight minutes.”

“Less than a month!” Garek said.

Lucien’s brow felt heavy, his eyes tight. “We’d have to make sure all those stops are safe before we jump to them.”

 “We can adjust the route as we go,” Garek suggested. “Ziggin