Shattered Destiny: A Galactic Adventure Episode One

Shattered Destiny: A Galactic Adventure Episode One

Chapter 1

Shar

Dawn split over the horizon like a sword of light renting the dark.

I pressed a hand over my sweaty brow as I watched it.

My face was covered in grit, a few smears of rust-colored mud tracking down my brow and along my neck.

Flicking my hand down my collar to dislodge the muck that had collected there, I tore my gaze off the horizon and pushed down to one knee.

I grabbed at the magnetic tool holster slung over my back, groping hands finally latching on the rotator lock.

“You there yet?” the foreman barked over my communicator.

I clenched my jaw muscles together to activate the communication implant lodged at the top left intersection of my jaw bones.

There was an audible click that ran through my inner ear. “I’m here.”

“Reset the pressure valves now. We can’t afford to lose another pipe.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Oh, and the weather network is detecting a sand storm headed your way,” the foreman added as an afterthought. “Hurry.” With that terse statement, he terminated the communication.

I clicked my jaw to power down the com link then pushed forward through the dust. I swiped at it with my bare, calloused hands. My violent moves sent clouds of grit billowing around my face. I ticked my head to the side, held my breath, and waited until the marching wind snatched the sand away.

As I pushed my hands further into the sand bank before me, my rough fingernails finally snagged against something metal.

I bent forward, my sand scarf bunching around my neck as I redoubled my efforts to push back the sand.

Finally I uncovered the pressure sensor. It was incased in a protective metal barrier made of inch-thick duverium, a compound substance so hard you could fire it into the center of a sun, and it would take a full year to melt.

Drawing a lock pen from my back holster, I engaged the tip and drew it across the metal case.

Inside, several locks unclicked, and the metal case opened.

Within it was a pressure sensor, a simple screen surrounded by a semi-circle of manual input controls.

I hunched over the controls, using the bulk of my back to ensure the wind didn’t scatter sand over them.

I worked methodically, checking the pressure sensors, one after another, trying to figure out where the problem was.

The wind began to roar through the valley around me. I glanced up to see it slice off the top of a dune to my left and send a billowing cloud of sand right at me.

I tugged up my sand scarf and covered my mouth, drawing a pair of goggles into place over my eyes. They sealed against my skin with a wet squelch.

“You found the problem yet?” the foreman barked in my ear.

“… I think there’s a problem with one of the secondary sensor arrays.”

“Goddammit,” the foreman spat, adding a few more colorful insults from his own native tongue. “Which array? Where is it?”

I crammed my fingers against the input controls. Now it was my turn to swear. “In the 12th district.”

The foreman sucked in a rattling breath. “Shit, that’s in breaker territory. Goddamn. Goddamn.”

I pushed back, hitting the close button and watching as the sensor pad disappeared back under the inch-thick sheet of metal.

I stood up, turning my back to the growing sand storm. Securing a hand over my scarf and ensuring it protected my mouth, I cleared my throat. “What do you want me to do?”

“Get your ass on your slider and head out to the breaker district. Get that sensor array back online before the breakers find you.” The foreman cut the call off without so much as a goodbye or a good luck.

I snarled, ticked my head to the side, and forced a ragged breath through my bared teeth.

The wind began to roar behind me, sounding like a starving pack of wolves chasing across the sky.

I flicked my gaze up to the once blue sky just in time to see it completely covered by the rusted-brown cloud.

I wasted no more time and trudged towards my slider. It was parked down a rise, and the sand scattered over my thick, well-worn boots as I descended towards it.

The slider was already covered in a mound of sand, and I had to kick it free as I mounted the bike.

Minimal shielding flicked into place around the front of the hover bike. It would take away the brunt of the sand, but it wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to eliminate it completely.

I secured my scarf higher over my mouth, ensured my goggles protected my eyes completely, and gunned the engine.

My bike shot out across the dunes, cutting a deep path through the sand as the downward directional thruster drives sent out waves of churning air.

Sand blasted against the blue shields at the front of the bike, sending arcs of electricity discharging into the air.

It wouldn’t take long to reach the breaker district. It might take longer, however, to get out of it.

As I kept one hand locked on the bike controls, I twisted around in my seat and clutched at the magnetic holster unit slung over my back. Though I often fumbled to secure the correct tool, this time I had no trouble grabbing what I needed.

A level III blaster. Worn, old, and with a hairline fissure running from the muzzle all the way down the barrel. It still worked, though, and that’s all I needed.

A gust of particularly ferocious wind managed to slip past the shield, and it buffeted my scarf from around my face. The fabric half unwound, and flicked out behind me, slamming about in the wind like a wet sheet being punched by an angry mob.

I didn’t bother to grab it and secure it back around my face – it was more important to keep one hand on the bike’s controls and the other on the blaster.

A second later the bike’s rudimentary sensors beeped a hollow warning. It was just audible over the shriek of the wind and the crackle of the shields.

I’d just exited the relatively safe territory of the refinery, and entered the breaker district.

Immediately I cast my wary, quick glance over the sand hills and craggy peaks pushing through the dunes.

My heart quickened, and a cloying sweat slicked my brow and travelled deep between my shoulder blades.

I would have to travel a further 10 minutes before I reached the sensor array.

My skin began to prickle as sweat marched down the back of my neck.

I’d always had a sixth sense for danger. It was the only reason I was still alive. Working in the gas refinery plants of the Argoza sector had taught me how to survive.

So with bare white knuckles wrapped around my blaster, I scanned the sand dunes without blinking once.

I managed to reach the sensor array before I heard the first eerie cries split the air. It was loud enough and punchy enough that it ricocheted over the roar of the wind, sounding like a cruiser screeching into land.

The sensor array was a large metallic tower sunk into the sand. It had a ladder that ran up to the top which was approximately 50 m off the ground. Even under ideal conditions, the ladder was treacherous. The multiple sand storms that ravaged this planet had worn the grips smooth. It would be all too easy to slip off the rungs with sweaty fingers.

Behind me another grating cry cracked through the air.

I began to throw myself up the ladder as fast as I could, jerky legs missing the rungs a few times but never forcing me to fall off completely.

Though fear threatened to climb my back, I pushed it back as I threw myself up the ladder.

I was holding my blaster in my mouth. The first week I’d arrived at this refinery, I’d modified it, adding a rubber ring to the butt which I could hold comfortably between my teeth. It was much quicker to grab the gun from your mouth then to grope it off the magnetic holster at your back.

The wind roared even louder, and it pounded into my back with all the force of 10 men trying to beat me off the tower. It clutched and groped at my clothes, my scarf whipping around and slamming into my back and smarting the flesh beneath.

10 meters. I could see the access ramp above.

Below me, I felt the ladder shake. It was such a violent move, as it travelled up the metal it threatened to pitch me right off.

I wrapped my stiff white fingers around the rungs so tightly I could have wrenched it off the frame.

I threw myself up the remaining 10 meters. But I could feel it behind me. It was faster. Desperate. I heard its shrieking breath even over the thunderous roar of the wind.

Finally. Finally I reached the ramp. I threw myself onto it, the wind catching my scarf in full and tearing it from around my throat. It blasted off into the sandstorm, never to be seen again.

I didn’t bother to try to clutch at it, and instead grabbed the gun from my mouth. Rather than train it on the ladder and wait for the breaker to climb to the top, I skidded around and threw myself towards the control room.

Where there was one breaker, there would be hundreds. My only option was to finish my task, get the hell off this tower, and force my way back into safe territory.

I reached the door into the control room, and slammed my hand on the biometric scanner next to it.

There was a dull beep that meant one thing – it was malfunctioning.

“Fuck you,” I screamed, sucking in a lungful of dust.

I coughed it back as I leaned backwards, brought up my blaster, and shot at the lock. A powerful round of energy sank into the metal, blistering what was left of the paint that hadn’t been scratched off by the sand.

I leant back, brought up my leg, and kicked the lock.

It was a powerful move. Strong. I hadn’t always been strong, but these days I had a reputation amongst the hardened workforce of the refinery. Nobody messed with me. Some of the other guys were big, better trained. None of them ever went as far as me. I couldn’t lose, and to date, I never had.

With one more pitching cry, I kicked the lock.

And it un-clicked.

The heavy duty metal door swung open.

I rounded my shoulder, thrust it into the door, and threw myself inside. I hit the ground, rolled to my feet, and punched towards the bank of control panels on the opposite side of the room.

Above the control consoles was a massive meter-thick viewing window. Not that there was ever much to view on this planet apart from endlessly encroaching storms. Still, it gave me a great view of the swirling dust and sand beyond. It scattered against the heavy duty glass.

My hands flew over the primary control panel as I ran the sensors through a diagnostic.

“Come on, you bastards,” I said through clenched teeth.

I heard something behind me. Most wouldn’t have. Most wouldn’t have been able to discern it above the grating cry of the sand-scattering wind.

I tensed, punching my blaster out behind me and firing at the door before I had even confirmed there was anything there.

My round slammed right into a breaker, sending it pitching back until it fell over the railing outside.

It was then that I saw them marching over the glass.

One, then two, then ten.

They were tall, sinewy creatures with flesh the color of rotting corpses. They had long, distended faces that ended in a pointed snout with two yellow tusks that glistened with perpetually renewed saliva.

They had one movable eyeball that could shift all the way around their head, travelling through their strange, gelatinous, almost water-like skin.

Though I couldn’t hear it now over the wind, I knew the sound well – as they stared at you, their eyes darting around to capture you in full, the movement was always accompanied with a spine-tingling squelch.

The breakers had adhesive paws that could lock onto most substances. They climbed over the window, heading towards the door.

“Goddamn you,” I spat at them as I hunched over the controls, begging my frenzied fingers to work as quickly as they could.

Finally the computer beeped. There was no critical problem with the array. It just had to be reset.

Before I could scream out in relief, I commanded the computer to go through a reset procedure, then I spun towards the door.

Just in time.

The breakers thrust through it and towards me.

Prince Xarin

I sat in my command seat, deep in the belly of my war cruiser.

The room was closed off to all other crew. Only a member of the Arterian Royal Family could enter this room, and I was the only one on board. Hell, I was the only one in the sector. The rest of my family always stayed safely behind our border. Leaving me alone to track down the Zorv.

As I thought of them, I clutched my chin harder, fingers drawing into the flesh until my nails dragged tracks down my skin.

Suddenly I shifted back violently, banging my shoulders against the headrest, my ice white shoulder-length blond hair scattering around my neck.

I opened my luminescent purple eyes and locked them on the bank of holographic screens that swarmed around me. If it weren’t for my superior intelligence and tracking abilities, I would not be able to pick up the information flowing off them. To an ordinary person, an ordinary alien, it would have simply been a confusing mess of light and sound.

I shifted forward in my seat, locked my elbow on the armrest, and propped my chin in my hand once more.

I stared at the data flowing across the screens. And every second I stared at it, my stomach clenched harder and harder.

There would be no end to this war. There was some powerful force behind the Zorv, there had to be. Though I had mooted that point to the rest of my family on many occasions, they refused to believe me. They kept saying that if I tried harder, that if I fought more bravely, I would soon uproot the Zorv and destroy their uprising.

I suddenly balled up a hand and struck it on the armrest as a true flash of anger swelled in my gut. I clenched my teeth, pared my lips back, and hissed through an expletive.

That’s when a screen on the far end of this blackened room caught my attention. It flicked on, just a burst of light in the darkness like a star being born in the depths of space.

My gaze sliced towards it and I lifted a finger up. It shot towards me, coming to a stop right by my face.

The Zorv were not the only problem I had to worry about. There was an issue of far more importance always playing at the back of my mind. It shadowed my every thought, always coming to the fore when I lay down at night.

My betrothed. I still had not found her. Most of the other members of the Arterian Royal Family had found their betrotheds long ago.

Me, I couldn’t sort her out from the rest of the noise constantly playing in my mind. If I was more powerful, theoretically, I would be able to find her anywhere in the galaxy. Instinctively know where she was. And yet, the most I could manage was this diffuse sense that no matter what I did, I would never find her.

I balled up a hand and struck it on the armrest once more. I felt the power in my muscles, the strength at my fingertips.

It wasn’t enough.

It never had been and never would be.

Arterian assassin

She strode through the crowded marketplace, purple cloak obscuring her features.

She cracked her neck from side to side, pushing past several alien traders.

As she did, she subtly used her scanner on them, using its sophisticated sensors to not just assess what goods they held, but to steal every scrap of data she could from every one of their devices.

There wasn’t a data encryption method known in the modern universe she couldn’t break.

Or rather, the old Illuminate technology she possessed couldn’t break.

As a member of the Arterian Royal Family she had full access to the royal cache of technology.

It was the Arterian’s edge.

Their birthright.

And also, conveniently, the means by which they maintained a stranglehold on power throughout the galaxy. Power he was threatening.

As she thought of him, of his hubris, of his goddamn arrogance, she clenched her teeth so tightly she could feel the muscles in her neck twinge.

She pushed through the crowd harder now, faster, not caring who she had to shove away.

They would all recognize the royal purple and yellow of her cloak, all know what it meant.

To wrong her would be a permanently fatal move.

Suddenly the device around her wrist beeped, and she brought it up, looking at it from under the protection of her cloak.

Close.

She’d been through here.

The one who could destroy everything.

The assassin walked faster now, gathering speed as she shoved through the crowd with all the force of a battering ram.

Finally she pushed her way into what looked like a Baryian merchant’s den.

She had to push past several electrified laser sheets.

Primitive security meant to keep intruders at bay. Suffice to say, it had no possibility of working on her.

As soon as her resounding footfall struck the metal floor beyond, several traders lurched for their weapons. Simple blasters and directional pulse rifles.

Child’s play.

With one hand behind her back, she clicked a button on her portable fire suppression device.

Static suddenly filled the air as the device kicked into gear.

The closest trader tried to shoot her, a sneer puckering its fat lips.

His gun clicked, but nothing could discharge.

Slowly she tilted her head to the side and smiled. “I suggest you take the talking option.”

“Talking option?” the nearest trader said as he latched a hand on his belt and withdrew a knife.

She didn’t pause as she faced the two remaining traders. Nor did she stay her hand, as she quickly, seamlessly spun forward, clutched the knife, and used it to split the merchant’s throat.

The blow was vicious enough that it almost lopped his head off. He was dead long before he struck the floor.

The other two traders lurched back, eyes opening with pure undiluted fear. She walked towards them, head tilting further to the side, cloak never moving from her face.

She reached them both, and they were smart enough to cower in the corner without foolishly trying to fight her.

She brought her face close to the nearest trader, until she could practically taste his putrid breath. “Where is she?” She began her familiar routine as she plucked the holographic drive from her pocket. She brought it out, thumbed it on, and waited for that perfect hologram to appear.

“Where – is – she?” she labored over every word, pushing her lips around them until they formed with full, punching clarity.

Though the idiotic traders may not be able to appreciate it, she possessed many arcane skills of manipulation.

And right now, she employed them in full.

She continued to stare into the closest trader’s eyes, even though he could not see her own.

“Where – is – she?”

“I… don’t… know…” The trader eventually managed.

She tipped her head all the way to the side until it felt like she’d wrench it off her neck. “I will break you in half if you do not tell the truth.” She put even more effort into snarling out her words. She also put more effort into controlling the man.

But when he stuttered out once more that he didn’t know, she balled up a hand and struck him in frustration.

She struck him once more, and he fell. Unconscious, and unlikely to ever wake again.

She now moved towards the last trader. He was down on his knees, hands pulled over his head, body shaking, practically convulsing with fear. She got down on one knee right next to him. She brought a hand up and brushed the cloying sweat from his brow. Then she brought that same thumb up and licked it. Letting the taste linger on her tongue she smiled. “You’re afraid. You’re right to be afraid. You have everything to fear in me. Everything,” her voice bottomed out low, ringing with a truly ominous note.

The man shook. She suddenly jerked a hand forward, locked it on his shoulder, and pushed him against the wall.

His eyes were so wide she could have scooped them from his skull with a spoon.

“You know where she is. She’s been here. I’ve detected her presence.”

With those wide shuddering eyes he continued to stare at her. She grabbed his head and pushed it down until his eyes locked on the hologram once more.

“Where – is – she?”

“I’ve… never… seen her.”

The assassin hissed with true frustration, and balled up her fist, anger ready to punch from it and tear into the man. But with a deep breath, she barely managed to control herself. “She’s been here. I’ve detected her presence.

Suddenly the man’s desperate gaze tore off her and locked on something at the far end of the room.

Still pushing him against the door with a grip that was impossible to break, she slowly arched her head and let her gaze dart around the room.

There. She could see something.

She pushed to her feet and languidly walked over. She had implants in her eyes, and she detected a familiar electronic signature.

The betrothed.

The only person in the entire galaxy with the power to destroy the perfect Arterian Empire.

The assassin bent over, sweeping an arm over the desk to get rid of the mess that covered it.

Finally she saw it.

A goddamn sand scarf. A mere scrap of fabric tied around a blaster gun.

“We… bought it off a refinery worker in the Argoza sector. Nothing more than a blaster. It’s yours. It’s yours,” the trader stuttered, obviously wanting to buy his life by volunteering information.

The Assassin inclined her head towards the merchant. “Argoza sector?”

“A fuel refinery worker. Blaster is yours. Take it.”

“The owner’s not here?” the assassin asked, though she knew the answer.

Anger started to burn in her gut. She’d come this far, but she would still have to crawl further….

“Argoza sector,” the merchant said, gurgling through his words as fear constricted his throat.

Bitter realization sank through the assassin’s gut as she shrieked with anger.

Without even thinking of it, she clutched the gun from her side, spun, and without even locking eyes on the man, shot the trader.

She shrieked, letting her full anger punch from her throat. Then she clutched the scarf and gun and strode from the room.

She would claim that woman’s body and burn it to ashes.

But first, the assassin would have to head to the Argoza sector….

Shar

I can’t tell you where I learnt to fight. It just happened. My life had never been an easy one, and destiny had somehow conspired to throw every danger my way since the day I’d been born.

I had always fended for myself. Belonging to a lower class of the socio-economic strata, there was no one I could rely on but myself.

If I wanted to live, I had to fight.

So I fought.

As the breakers kept throwing themselves at me, in a swarm of teeth and tusks and claws, I used every weapon at hand. At one point I even locked my blaster on a section of the door, blew it off, and used it as a ramp to push several breakers right over the edge of the rails.

I didn’t wait to hear their bodies crash below, because in all likelihood, they wouldn’t. The breakers didn’t just have an advantage in numbers, but they were some of the hardiest enemies I’d ever fought. They could latch those suckers on the ends of their hands and feet onto most surfaces. Sure enough, far below, down the base of the tower, I heard more rattling thumps as the breakers latched onto it. They, like the rest of their kind, would power up the side of the tower to join the fight.

I knew I had one option. Get out of here, get on my bike, and get back to the facility.

Though the breakers would give chase, they would not pass the border and back into the primary facility grounds. They weren’t that stupid. The perimeter was protected by ion pulse cannons that could easily isolate the breakers and pick them off through the sand. Why the facility engineers didn’t build more ion cannons this far out, had to do with one simple fact – it wasn’t worth the money. Losing the occasional refinery worker in breaker territory was much cheaper than building and maintaining sophisticated weaponry.

I swung to the side just as a breaker pushed itself through the door, bolted towards me, and stretched its yellow, glistening tusks towards my face. The tusks were not simply lodged in its jaw, but rather could protrude on stalks.

It meant the breakers could use them like nunchucks. They could swing them around, the perilously sharp tusks flying about their face and slamming into their prey with deadly force.

I dodged to the side just as a tusk whistled past my ear, slammed into the meter thick glass behind me, and sent hairline fissures cracking over it.

My foreman would not be pleased if I trashed the sensor array. So I did an impossibly brave, if extremely stupid thing, rounded my shoulder, and thrust towards the door, firing with my blaster as I screamed with an ear-piercing pitch.

My blaster caught several breakers just as they were pushing over the rails alongside, and my shoulder caught one more just before it could release its tusks and slice across my throat.

I let out another shriek for good measure, then powered forward towards the ladder.

This would undoubtedly be the most dangerous part of my plan. For it would leave me very exposed.

I actually had no other choice.

So I thrust forward, firing at a breaker just as it popped its head above the railing. My blaster bullet sailed over its shoulder, taking out a chunk of its neck. The thing managed one final shriek until its suckers detached and it fell back into the ever-growing dust storm.

I jerked my head up for a fraction of a second and stared at the sandstorm. It roared around me, clutching and grasping at my clothes as if it wanted to pull me apart.

I pushed forward, reached the ladder, and clutched my hands on it. Then I began the truly perilous journey down.

My mind became a blur, of action, of desperation, and of grit.

Fortunately my blaster didn’t cut out. It was my own personal weapon, and I looked after it as if it were a child. Every night I pulled it apart and lovingly cleaned the sand from its innards. Almost every scrap of spare change I had, I worked on improvements. Because there was no point in earning money if I’d never be able to use it. And down here, your weapon was almost as important as your food rations.

My first day on this godawful refinery planet, I’d had to sell a blaster and scarf to a Baryian trader to buy my uniform. The second I’d scrounged enough money, I’d bought another and treasured and preserved it as if it was my own child.

So I had supreme trust in my blaster as it fired off white-blue rounds into the swirling rust-colored sand.

As I desperately threw myself down the ladder, it happened again.

… I entered some kind of zone. Some peculiar realm where my body almost felt as if it were being controlled by an external hand, some ethereal force that reached in and told me where to fire. There was something uncannily accurate about each one of my shots.

I didn’t think about it. Just went with it. Let my body do what it knew best, until finally, finally I reached the base of the tower. At first I couldn’t believe it when the ladder below cut out – it wasn’t as if I could see the ground below through the storm. But then I took a leap of faith, let go of the rungs, and a second later, landed in the sand, rolling and punching to my feet immediately.

Somehow I still knew where my bike was, even though every landmark was totally obscured by the sand.

I pitched towards it, shooting two more breakers, until finally I threw myself astride.

Then I activated the engine. Or at least I tried to. For several terrifying seconds, it refused to start. The engine made some truly unwelcome clicking noises.

“No you don’t, you bastard,” I screamed, voice screeching through the broiling, pitching storm.

I balled up my hand and struck it into the control panel. Once, twice, then three times.

Just as a breaker bolted towards me, its glistening tusks snaking into my peripheral vision, the bike gunned to life, and I shot forward. The breaker missed me by mere millimeters.

I hunched over the controls, keeping the blaster in one hand, and firing off in every direction. To an untrained eye it would simply look as if I were laying down covering fire, and yet what should have been potshots into the dark were not. Every bullet found its mark.

Because that force – that force that told me how to fight, that told me where to turn – it was still controlling me, still keeping me safe.

And it shadowed me, protecting my every movement until finally I made it back into safe territory.

Chapter 2

Prince Xarin

Contacts. The ship had encountered the Zorv.

Though I expected a small battle, as there were barely any Zorv strike ships on the sensors, I underestimated them.

Again. For it seemed as if every single time I fought them, they evolved.

Before any of us knew what they were doing, they attached some kind of device to the underside of the ship.

All Royal Arterian war cruisers possessed organic technology, with the ability to self-repair.

But the Zorv weapon, whatever it was, managed to punch a hole right through the hull, and access one of the cruiser’s fuel lines.

It emptied half of our fuel in a little under five minutes.

Somehow Zorv bots managed to transport onto the lower deck, too.

They were overwhelming my security forces.

So I ran, in full royal armor, to the battle.

Before I punched out of the superfast lift and accessed the right deck, I brought my royal sword around. It was an ancient weapon, a traditional weapon that harkened back to the original founders.

The modern galaxy was built upon a universal empire that had fallen almost 2000 years ago.

We had little left from that time, for whatever grand war had destroyed that empire, it had done such a complete and thorough job, that every single planet had been stripped of its technology.

Amongst the Arterian Royal Family, however, a few weapon survived.

As I released the royal sword from the holster at my side, and it sprang to life, I felt its unique power. For it too was from that time.

It had belonged to the ruling elite of that once great universal empire – the Illuminates.

My family were, according to secret legend within the Arterian Royal Family, directly descended from the Illuminates.

That was why we alone could use the Illuminate weapons.

As soon as I sprang onto the deck, I saw chaos.

My security forces were being ripped to shreds.

The Zorv bots punched down the corridor, extending their metallic claws and clutching hold of every security guard in reach. They either tore them apart, pulling off their armor one section after another, or they simply tossed them through structural shields that were supporting hull breaches.

I wasted no more time. I drew my lips back and let a guttural bellow punch from my throat. I sprang forward, activating the Illuminate sword. Light, true power, charged down the blade.

It hinted at a force so great it simply shouldn’t belong in this galaxy.

But it did, and I wielded it.

Several bots sprang towards me, swarming around my position.

They were programmed to attack me. Because the Zorv knew that if they could take me down, my ship would follow.

I slashed forward, shunting one of my armor covered feet against the wall, pushing off it, and plunging into a tight roll. As I came up, I swept my blade to the side, and it caught all three bots that were at the vanguard, slicing them in half. Their electronic bodies were split apart and struck the floor. They twitched as great pulses of energy discharged from their remains and sank into the floor.

Several crackles of electricity caught around my armor, but none could push through. For my armor too was a vestige from the Illuminates. There was nothing as powerful as it in the entire modern galaxy.

So it resisted as several bots swarmed towards me and locked their metallic claws on my shoulder. Where they had been able to pull through my security guards’ armor with ease, they could not even dent my shoulder plates. Their claws slipped off as the armor shocked them with bolts of electricity.

It was enough that I could swipe around with my blade and slice them in half.

Another scream split from my lips as I thrust forward.

The battle became a blur, of shrieking metal, of my screaming guards, and of the constant red alert blaring through the ship.

But with every bot I sliced in half, the threat diminished, until finally I faced off against the last one.

I waited for a fraction of a second as I stared right at it. Though the bot was nothing more than a robotic security drone, I knew it would be streaming a live feed back to the Zorv. And it was them that I now stared at with all my anger, with all the rage that erupted from my heart.

They had cost me so much.

So I thrust forward, and without another second's hesitation, sliced the bot in half.

It was obliterated in a hail of sparks.

I ticked my head to the side and activated the internal communicator within my armor. “The last Zorv bot has been dispatched,” I informed the primary operation room.

“We thank you, Prince Xarin,” the captain said.

My jaw hardened at his tone. He wasn’t dismissive, just the opposite – too respectful.

The Arterian Royal Family was founded on tradition. A tradition we forced upon all those who served us.

While it fit the rest of my family, I often found myself drowning beneath it.

I set my jaw even harder as I jerked my teeth open. “Have you dispatched the remaining Zorv vessels?”

“Yes. The battle is over.” I heard those four words echo through my skull. They couldn’t sink in, because it was a lie.

The battle would never be over.

I twisted on my foot, marching through the singed, broken corridor until I reached one of the superfast lifts.

I went straight to the primary operations room, wasting no time.

When I reached it, I was met by the blare of several warning alarms.

The captain rose from his seat, and went through the full rigmarole of a traditional greeting, locking one hand against his stomach, leaving the other pressed straight against his leg, and bowing low for five seconds.

It was such a waste of time.

I strode past him, stood by his command seat, and looked up at his personal view screens. “How much fuel did we lose?”

He snapped to his feet. “Over half of our reserves.”

I swore. Perhaps I should have showed more dignity around my subjects, but I couldn’t.

Dignity would get me nowhere.

As I continued fighting this fruitless, unwinnable war, every tradition I had once held dear fell by the wayside. Because traditions, no matter how important they had once been, could not keep me safe, nor could they save the rest of the galaxy.

I pressed forward, and waved my hand to the left, instructing one of the captain’s holographic floating screens to scoot towards me. It stopped in front of my face, and I commanded it with several gestures of my hand. Soon it showed our exact fuel supplies.

“We have enough to make it back to Arterian space using priority transport routes,” the captain informed me.

I ignored him as I continued to scroll through the data. Soon enough I found a better option. “No,” I said as I brought up a hand and tapped it into the holographic screen, the light shifting and eddying around my fingers as if I’d thrown a stone into a pond.

“Your highness?” the captain questioned.

“There is a fuel refinery plant in this sector,” I continued to tap the hologram.

I had heard a tale that before the great fall that had wiped out the previous universal empire, they had possessed holographic technology so perfect you could not discern it from reality.

Our current holograms were far from perfect; they flickered and shifted, and simply could not keep up with reality.

I had also heard tales that the previous Great Empire had possessed ships that did not require constant injections of fuel, but were rather powered on specialized wormhole drives.

To think, you could traverse the galaxy without stopping off every few weeks to refuel. You could explore the universe without ever having to return to your home base. The galaxy and beyond would open up to you.

My mind became distracted by that huge thought.

The captain cleared his throat.

“We have to refuel,” I said, tone dropping low and becoming serious. “We have no idea when the Zorv will attack again. Though it is unlikely that they will come after our ship on primary transport routes, we can’t take that risk.”

I could tell the captain thought I was overreacting. His crew would think I was a fool, too.

They had not fought the Zorv as much as I had.

I turned and locked my imperial gaze on the captain. “Make it so,” I snapped as I turned on my foot and walked from the operations room. I was still wearing my full armor, and my boots slammed and rang out against the floor.

Before I reached the bank of lifts that would take me down into the center of the ship and my own deck, a man in white and silver armor peeled off and followed me.

Once we were safely in the lifts, I turned to him and smiled. “Where exactly were you during the fight?”

Mark, my personal guard, tipped his head low and mumbled through an apology.

I brought a hand up and slammed it on his back in a friendly move. “There is nothing to apologize for. You are protecting the rest of the ship, this I know.”

Mark straightened up and grinned.

I had known Mark for years, back on the Arterian Royal planet, in fact. Before I had been thrust into this impossible war, and given the responsibility for ending it, Mark had been a friend. Back then, I’d had very little responsibility, and had developed a reputation for being a somewhat infamous playboy.

Mark had followed me into space, to take up the position of an imperial star guard, and now – and hopefully forever – would stand by my side. For at least it was a window back into that old life, back into a time when I’d never known war.

The grin dropped from Mark’s face as he looked at me seriously. “What is it?”

I chose not to answer as I locked my gaze on the door. It took around 10 full minutes for the lifts to traverse this enormous vessel. It was around 3 km², and in many ways was a floating city.

It had to be. It took a lot of technology to traverse interstellar space. A lot of crew, too.

Mark continued to frown at me, that knowing look playing in his gaze. He tipped his head back and locked a hand on his chin. “You’re worried,” he commented knowingly.

I half turned and locked a hand over my face, letting it slide down slowly until it dropped to my side. “We’re low on fuel reserves. The Zorv attacked us out of nowhere. And in the past few weeks, their attacks have become increasingly more brazen. Of course I’m worried.”

“Not about that. About her.”

Electric nerves shot down my back. I couldn’t stop from twisting my neck around and staring at him.

Mark gave me another knowing look. “It’ll happen. Don’t worry.”

I didn’t answer. There was no point.

Instead I waited until the lifts stopped and the doors slid open.

I strode out of them without another word. But before I could walk away, I stopped, twisted, and inclined my head towards him. “It is taking too long,” I found myself saying through clenched teeth.

Though Mark was a friend, there were some things I should not discuss with him.

This was one of them.

It wasn’t just personal – it was dangerous.

My betrothed was more than the woman I would marry. She was my sanctuary. The greatest force who would ever stand by my side.

Without her, I was a target. Not just to the Zorv, but to certain members of my own family.

The Arterian Royal Family were not all related. There were over 5000 members of it, all with different statuses.

I was a prince to one of the most powerful houses – the Fays.

There were other families greedy for my power. If I failed tradition and did not find my betrothed, they would turn against me and depose me.

Mark’s gaze flicked between my eyes. That knowing look was still pressed over his brow. Mark had an almost preternatural ability to put people at ease. Even the most suspicious would grow to trust him in time.

And share their secrets.

Mark remained in the lift, never taking a step forward to join me in the corridor.

It was, after all, forbidden. This entire deck was my realm. Others could only enter with my permission.

He continued to look at me with an even stare. “You shouldn’t let this stop you, though. Princess Arteria is still waiting for you,” his tone dropped.

My heart rate went up. Doubled, perhaps tripled.

“You’ve told me yourself, there’s nothing wrong with having a real relationship beyond your betrothed. They’re nothing more than tradition. You can tick that box and get the rest of your family off your back, but you can still be with Arteria. Don’t keep her waiting forever.”

I couldn’t answer.

So I walked away from the doors, and they closed automatically.

Mark would not be able to follow to continue the conversation, and sure enough, with an electronic beep, the lift disengaged from the deck and continued down the shaft.

I stood there staring at the door, thoughts a thunderous mess.

Arteria….

Yes, she was waiting for me. But she would have to wait a little longer.

Chapter 3

Shar

I was lying on my bed, wrist pressed over my forehead as I stared between my fingers at the ceiling. There was a crack in the metal, a couple of inefficient perimeter shields in place around it to stop the persistent sand from pushing its way through.

My room was right on the edge of the compound. It was one of the few with a door back into the compound, and one into the world outside.

Despite the ferocious weather of this planet, I often kept the door open, a few scraps of old canvas and fabric in place over it to stop the majority of the sand from scattering through.

Through a small break that I had put in the canvas, I could always swivel my gaze and lock it on the sky above. At night, I’d even be able to see a few scraps of stars, twinkling in and out, always partially obscured by the relentless, marching sand clouds.

Now I frowned as I swore I heard an unfamiliar noise. It sounded like the soft constant shudder of a large ship coming in to land.

Sure enough, as I pushed up off my bed, a general alarm rang through the compound.

“Emergency refueling operation,” the electronic voice of the refinery’s main computer said.

“Emergency refueling operation?” I mouthed as I pushed up, lurched down to my knee, and grabbed up my dusty, well-worn boots from beneath my bed. I crammed them onto my feet as I ticked my head to the left and tried to see through the gap in the canvas.

I saw a huge body of metal suddenly obscure the view. It had to be a massive ship coming in to land at the primary refinery building. Though the building was a good 500 meters away, my canvas door started to flap and churn in the wind.

I thrust towards it, catching it with one hand as I used the other to manipulate the controls of the structural shield.

I increased them to maximum, and soon enough a flickering blue sheet of energy blinked into place beyond the canvas, protecting it from the buffeting winds.

I twisted to the side and grabbed a sand scarf from the empty desk to my left.

I crammed it around my neck, looping it several times until I secured it over my mouth. Then I pushed through the canvas and structural shields until I jumped down to the sand below. It scattered around my boots as I tipped my head back and whistled through my teeth.

Though I’d already figured out a big ship had to be coming in to land, I hadn’t been prepared for the sight that met me now.

It was massive, easily the largest ship that had ever docked at the refinery. I’d never seen anything on this scale. As my enquiring gaze darted over the girth of its slim line, silver-and-black hull, I wondered what the hell it was. It was too fancy looking to be a transport or a cargo ship. It was also too well-armed.

Though I could only see the underside of the hull as it loomed above the refinery and outbuildings, I could still discern the gun turret ports dotted at even intervals.

By now a few other refinery workers were pushing out of the main habitation compound and walking out towards the refinery, just like me. And just like me, they all tipped their heads back and stared in astonishment at the ship.

“What the hell is that doing here?” I heard a Narin ask his friend. “Isn’t that a Royal Arterian war cruiser?”

Something raced down my back and sank into my coccyx at that. It took a stiff cold pressure pushing through my chest until I realized it was nerves.

The Narin’s friends tipped his head all the way back and whistled through his fat green lips. “What in Farick’s name are they doing this far out? The Arterians patrol the central sectors.”

I listened carefully, a strange queasy feeling alighting through my gut. Quick and hard, it felt like I’d been punched by a brick.

Squeezing a hand under my thick tunic top, I curled my ragged nails against my stomach as I tried to dig the uncomfortable sensation out.

Suddenly a rattling alarm blared over the refinery main grounds. I had to jerk my head to the side and cram a hand hard over my ear, nestling the other against my shoulder.

“Incoming ship deploying security personnel. Refinery crew will comply,” the main computer instructed in a booming voice that echoed over the grounds.

My lip twitched.

I’d already made it half way across the massive dirt yard that separated the main habitation building from the primary refinery facility.

The refinery was a massive structure, though you couldn’t really tell that from the surface. The majority of its infrastructure was sunk under the sand like an iceberg. It was over a kilometer deep and two kilometers wide. And that wasn’t to mention the gas pipes that crisscrossed under the surface of this desert planet.

The Royal Arterian cruiser dwarfed everything. It was like a floating city.

More than its size, I’d never seen a more sophisticated ship dock at the refinery. We tended to get dilapidated tankers and cargo ships. Occasionally we’d get military vessels, even pleasure cruisers.

But this….

There was another blaring alarm, and I watched a hatch appear out of the side of the ship. A ramp built itself, smart metallic plating locking into place and slamming into the dust-covered earth.

I jerked my head to the side and tucked my scarf further over my mouth.

A second later, troops began to deploy down the ramp, their heavy metal armor echoing against the ramp, sending thumping, drumming beats reverberating through the facility.

The sun glimmered off the guards’ armor, off their guns, too.

My eyes narrowed.

“Obedience is expected,” the computer suddenly blared. “Every refinery worker will comply with every order given by the Arterian Security Forces.”

Obedience was expected, ha? More like mandatory. Step out of line, and it was clear these gun-toting guards wouldn’t think twice about mowing you down.

I tucked my head down and continued towards the facility.

Around me, my fellow workers continued to speculate about what the hell could bring an Arterian war cruiser down to our refinery. As I walked further under the shadow of the hull, I gazed up and realized why.

The ship had been in a fight. There were black swathes of burnt plating scattered over the hull, a few gun turrets nothing more than smoking pits.

The ship was sophisticated enough that it was self-healing – I could pick up the faint green crackle of organic technology fields encasing the damaged sections.

“Head down, worker,” someone suddenly snapped from my side.

I glanced over to see an Arterian guard. He gestured towards me with his gun, the muzzle of the gun, to be precise.

I darted my gaze to the side, locked it on my feet, and walked past the guard. As soon as he was behind me, I ticked my head back up and continued to assess the damage.

That’s when my gaze locked on an odd black protrusion.

I had great eyesight. Good hearing, too. And I swore I could hear an odd cracking sound above the steady whir of the cruiser’s engines cycling down.

“Get a move on,” someone snarled from behind me.

I half turned to see another security guard.

I flicked him an obedient if still petulant look, turned hard on my boot, and headed towards the refinery.

I didn’t reach it.

For at that moment, something truly strange happened.

I felt as if an ethereal hand reached out from nowhere and clutched my shoulder, stopping me in place. It was such a distinct, real sensation that I let out a startled gasp.

I shifted hard on my foot, swinging my gaze from left to right as I looked for the source of the strange sensation. That’s when my gaze locked on the ramp.

Another figure was cutting a path down the long metal ramp, its footfall heavier than most, every step ringing out like a deafening drumbeat.

I brought my hand up as a strike of sunlight glinted off the man’s armor. I protected my gaze as I stared at him through my fingers.

All of the security personnel appeared to react to his appearance. They straightened up, snapped salutes, and brought their guns down in respect.

The man ignored them. He reached the end of the ramp and strode off it. For whatever reason, he was wearing a cape. It was a deep rich purple color, and connected to a gold insignia on his left shoulder. It then swept across his back and connected to a point beneath his right shoulder.

Why anyone would wear a cape, I didn’t know, especially with armor. But it confirmed one thing – this man, whoever he was, had to be royalty. Arterian royalty, to be precise.

The Arterian Empire controlled most of the central galactic states. They had the most power, access to the most resources, and the most influence. Though the modern galaxy professed to be democratic, the Arterians held all the power in the Senate.

I had never seen an Arterian, let alone royalty.

The man stopped several meters away from the ramp, and began conversing with what looked like a senior guard. While most of the other members of the security force wore simple, drab, grey-black armor, this man wore white adorned with silver.

The man in white bowed down low, pressing a hand against his chest.

The man in purple waved him up.

I stopped.

I couldn’t move.

It wasn’t just the memory of the ethereal sensation that had pressed against my shoulder, it was the effect of the prince.

He was… I couldn’t describe it.

My whole body was suddenly beset with such violent emotions I had to stop and wrap a sweaty hand over my brow.

My head was spinning, my ears ringing like I’d fired a blaster in the center of my skull.

I pressed a shaking hand against my parted lips as I stared at him.

Even if the refinery had exploded behind me, I wouldn’t have been able to tear my eyes off him.

I couldn’t see his face. Didn’t need to. His whole body was obscured by his purple gold armor, but that didn’t matter. There was something about the man….

Suddenly an alarm blared out over the refinery. It was such a shaking, shrieking pitch that I had to clutch both hands over my ears as I practically fell to my knees.

The prince jolted forward, the man in white by his side.

The security forces ran around chaotically, obviously looking for the source of the alarm.

Me, my head suddenly ticked back as if somebody had jerked it there. My gaze locked on that odd black protrusion on the hull above.

That's when I heard a cracking noise, distinct, impossible to ignore.

Before I knew what I was doing, I pitched forward, throwing myself into a sprint, aimed at the prince.

I honestly had no control of my body. It felt as if somebody had reached inside and had wrapped their hands around every muscle.

The man in white saw me spring towards the prince, and grabbed up his gun.

But it wasn't in time.

And I had no intention of attacking the prince.

Just the opposite.

Something shot out of the black protrusion along the hull. Small at first, it grew in a fraction of a second.

It was a Zorv bot. A kind of self-replicating assassination drone.

Before I knew what I was doing, I leapt into the air and intercepted its course. I wrapped my arms around its middle as it slammed into my gut.

I was thrown backwards into the ground. But there I did not remain. Immediately I pitched my legs up and around, rolling, pressing the bot against my stomach with both hands.

I felt two metallic arms try to protrude from its back.

I jerked my hand away for just a second, then jerked it back once the legs had formed. I grabbed them, pitched around, and threw the drone on the ground by my feet.

By now the security personnel were acting – they were thrusting towards me, guns held high. They weren't as fast as the man in white, though. He pulled up some kind of directed energy blade from his side, and sprinted towards me.

None of them were close enough.

I doubled back, just as the bot tried to shoot me with a laser. It sliced over my arm, collecting the side of my top, but not powering through my shoulder below and slicing my arm off.

Immediately I jerked an arm around, intending to grab the blaster from my back, but it wasn't there.

We weren't allowed to be armed. I'd left it back in my room. Instead my prying fingers grasped against a lock wrench. It was a device designed to adhere onto most surfaces so you could pry back tricky panels or rock or what have you.

With no other weapon, I thrust forward, deliberately falling to my knees just as the bot sliced towards me with one of its pincer-like, impossibly sharp arms. It managed to slice off the end of my dust scarf, but missed my face by a good few inches.

Though it was fast, I was faster.

And desperate.

Though I'd been in my fair share of fights, a different kind of fear pumped through my veins. One I'd never experienced before.

People had often asked me if I felt fright. I seemed so composed most of the time, so cold.

I'd had more successful run-ins with the breakers than anyone else at the refinery.

That's why I had a reputation. But this – desperate, frantic emotions charging through me – I'd never felt them before.

They pushed me on, charged me up with a truly powerful energy that saw me dodge once more as the bot sliced towards my face.

It extended its metallic arms towards my throat.

I saw my opportunity. I brought the wrench around and locked it between the thing’s dangling arms.

The force of the magnetic field it emitted was just powerful enough that it locked the thing’s arms in place.

I pitched backwards, grasping along the magnetic holster along my back once more, desperately trying to find a more powerful weapon. Though I could hold the bot in place with this wrench for now, it wouldn't last. Soon the thing would pull free.

Just as I clutched hold of a rudimentary laser cutter, a blade swept past my side.

It didn't belong to the bot.

Instead it was bright, purple, and the most brilliant thing I had ever seen.

It missed me by a good few inches, for I was not its intended target.

Rather it slammed into the bot, slicing it in half with the ease of waving your finger through the air.

The bot twitched and fell apart at my feet, one softly smoking side rolling until it banged against my boot.

I swiveled my head to the side and saw him.

The prince.

He was still in his full armor, a burst of wind catching over his shoulder and sending his cape billowing around him.

He was holding a specialized kind of energy sword. It pulsed and crackled with light and charges of electricity, looking like tamed lightning.

I….

It was like a part of me shut down. As I stared at him – even though I still couldn't see his face – I lost all concept of where I was, time, and dimensionality.

Before I could stay too long in that strange reverie, I heard something whirr at my feet. It was such a subtle sound, I shouldn't have been able to discern it over the hubbub of the security guards and the continuous cycling down of the cruiser's engines.

But something reached inside and alerted me.

Before I knew what I was doing, I spun down, pushed to one knee, and brought the magnetic wrench forward. I stabbed it into one side of the bot just in time. For a split second later, it tried to divide. A great convulsive crackle of electricity cascaded off its form, sinking into the dust and seeing any organic matter trapped within burst into flame.

I had stabbed the wrench onto the bot's body just before it could split in half, and now it fought against the powerful field coming from the wrench.

It fought against me, but clenching my teeth and bearing my lips wide, I pushed the wrench down and down.

“Get back,” somebody said. That same somebody latched a hand on my shoulder and jerked me away.

The prince. He brought his massive purple blade down and sliced the bot in half. Then he wasted no time in clutching a strange, powerful gun from the holster around his hip, setting it to maximum with a smooth flick of his thumb, and obliterating all remaining parts of the bot.

I took a step back, then another, then one more.

My body was shaking. I even dropped the wrench from my hand as a powerful shudder crossed up my arm and deep into my shoulder.

I had… I had no idea what was happening to me.

The alarm kept blaring around the compound, louder now, so thunderous I was sure it would split my head in two.

And yet even above that truly torturous sound I still heard more cracking filter down from the cruiser's hull far above. I twitched my head back just in time to see more of those odd black protrusions split open, bots spewing forth.

The prince saw it, too. I heard a strangled gasp echo from his armor. “Move,” he suddenly snapped as he ground a hand into my shoulder and pulled me up. He was so strong my boots scattered over the ground.

He twisted me around and shoved me hard in the center of my back. “Get back.”

Despite the momentum of his push, I still twisted my head around, eyes pressed wide open as I stared at him.

He thrust forward, holding that strange purple blade high.

The bots snaked down from above, powering towards him. Despite the fact there were numerous security guards, many closer than the prince, the bots all concentrated on him. Swarming down and around him like locusts.

I couldn't help but bring a hand up and cram it over my mouth as I gasped. It was more than that, though. Again my body shook as a surge of emotion came from somewhere. It slammed into my sternum, pushed and burrowed until it reached my heart. It felt as if it would wrench me in two.

Though the bots swarmed upon the prince, he fought valiantly, brilliantly. Though his sword was undoubtedly powerful, and his armor looked as if it were some of the best in the galaxy, his ability accounted for more than his advantage.

He spun around, flipping on one hand, bringing the blade up and slicing it through two bots at the same time.

By now the majority of the security guards had streamed past me on their way to help the prince.

A full red alert was echoing through the compound, and I knew my duty – I should help evacuate. But I couldn't.

I couldn't move a goddamn muscle.

I watched in horror as the security guard beside me tried but failed to shoot one of the bots. It sprang upon him, sinking its metal arms right through his chest plate. They were so strong and so violent that they sprang out the other side, scattering blood over the rust-colored sand.

The guy dropped his blaster as he fell down onto his knees, then onto his back, his body giving one violent twitch until it lay still.

The blaster scattered towards me, bouncing against my boot.

I stared at it for a single second.

I heard the prince scream orders at his men, heard them all scatter forward as the sounds of heated battle filled the compound and mixed with the still shrieking blare of the alarm.

And yet time appeared to slow down.

Something happened to me, to my body, to my mind. I felt as if they stretched, as if that same ethereal hand from before punched into my skull and began to smear me thin.

Before I knew what I was doing, I jerked down to one knee and clutched up a blaster, squeezing my sweaty fingers through the trigger loop.

The frantic sounds of the battle drained way as an eerie ringing filled my ears.

I jerked my head up and my gaze locked on the prince of its own accord. There was nothing I could do to tug it off as I suddenly thrust forward.

Several of the bots attacking the prince suddenly veered off and shot towards me.

I fought them. Well. Though I'd managed to push my way through 100 breakers only that morning, there was something different about the way I fought now. Something natural, elegant. It was almost unstoppable.

Two bots powered towards me, and though I only had a blaster and they had sophisticated shielding, it didn't matter.

I fired three rounds into the closest bot, then ran into a sprint and fell to my knees, skidding under it as I fired one round into the small hole where its legs protruded from. My aim was perfect, and the blast aligned with the hole, sending a charge of energy right into the center of the bot.

It was enough to see the thing explode, chunks of metal spewing forth, several dashing against my cheeks and cutting them.

I ignored the blood that splattered my collar and pushed to my feet once more.

One of the bots swung low, its legs extending towards my ankles, its intention clearly to chop them off.

I didn't allow it. I suddenly leapt into the air and landed with a foot right on the bot. I pushed off and used it to leap towards the higher bot. I wrapped two arms around it, clutching hold of its protruding legs. Then I pulled it right out of the sky. I threw it down at my feet and shot it with the blaster until it exploded in a cascade of metal and sparks.

And like that, I fought. I couldn't tell for how long. I couldn't tell how many bots I took down, though I knew it was far more than most of the other security guards.

I kept fighting until the bots stopped coming.

I paid no heed to the numerous injuries that littered my form. I just didn't care. My mind continued to ring, my heart continued to beat like a goddamn drum. As my thoughts – every goddamn thought – continued to center on the prince.

Finally the dust settled, literally. The red alert cut down to a yellow alert, the blaring pitch thankfully quieting to a steady whoop.

The security guards began to pick themselves up.

They inspected their injuries and clutched at their weapons.

Me, I stood there, head still tilted back, gaze locked on the hull above me.

I waited for more of the bots to appear.

Though it became increasingly clear that the fight was over, I just couldn’t tell my heart that.

In fact, it took a hand reaching out and locking on my shoulder until my thundering heart stopped, for just a second. I turned around, heart beat a blare in my mind.

… But it wasn’t the prince. It was the man in the white and silver armor. Without a word, he reached down and plucked the blaster from my grasp.

I locked my eyes on his helmet as I clutched onto the blaster with all my grip.

His head ticked back, but rather than go for the blade at his side, he took a step back, then another, and ticked his head to the side. “You fought well. But I can’t allow you to keep a Royal Arterian blaster.

There was something calm about his voice, reassuring. This time I allowed him to reach down and clutch the blaster in his white and silver metallic fingers. He pulled away, checked the butt, and then locked it onto a holster around his hip.

He took one more step back.

Then the man took his helmet off. It receded into his back plating.

He was handsome, even by most alien standards. He had the strong powerful features of an Arterian. He also had almost mesmerizing blue eyes. He locked those blue eyes on me.

Now I could see his face in full, I could see his surprise, too. “You know how to fight, human,” he hazarded.

I nodded. “I’m human, I confirmed. And yes, I can fight.” There was a slight shudder to my voice. It shouldn’t be there, but at the same time I couldn’t control it.

While yes, I could fight, no, I’d never fought like that. I’d never been filled with such desperation.

And even now the prince had retreated back inside his cruiser, my mind was still locked on him.

I kept telling myself that I had to be sick in some way, that I must have been struck on the head during my fight with the breakers this morning, and I just hadn’t realized it.

Yet no matter how hard I tried to reason with myself, I could not shift my attention from the prince. Even though the war cruiser was truly massive, I was somehow possessed of the irrational sense that I knew exactly where he was on it.

I watched the man’s direct gaze flick up to the sweat collecting over my brow. “You should check yourself in to whatever medical facilities this refinery has.”

I didn’t even bother to make eye contact. “I will,” I lied.

Assuming the conversation was over, I turned on my foot and headed back in the direction of the habitation compound, with no intention whatsoever of going to the medical bay. Though this facility had one, it was to deal with major trauma, not with… whatever the hell I was going through now.

I quickened my step as soon as I made it halfway towards the habitation complex, heart beating harder at the promise of throwing myself on my bed and closing my eyes, giving myself time to understand… this.

I didn’t get that opportunity. Halfway across the grounds, I stopped. My hackles rose. The skin along the back of my neck suddenly prickled, and my heart quickened to such a thunderous pace, I felt certain it would shake right through my rib cage. I clutched a suddenly sweaty hand to my messy tunic and drove my fingers so hard against the fabric I almost tore a hole through it.

Again I felt that ethereal hand reach through time and space and lock on my shoulder. Its fingers seemed to brush against my neck, then it jerked my head to the side. Just in time. There was a metal shack several meters to my side. Nothing more than a few broken walls barely holding up a slanting roof. Several of the walls were so bent and misshapen they left enormous holes near the roof that let in mounds of sand.

The shack was nothing more than an old shed that had once been used to house refinery equipment but had – like everything else on this planet – succumbed to the sand.

Now I swore I could hear a metallic grating sound issuing from inside it.

That ethereal hand remained locked on my shoulder as another one pushed into my back and thrust me forward.

Before I knew what I was doing, I ran into the shack.

I had no weapon, but that didn’t seem to matter – I simply couldn’t reason against the violent passions thrumming through my heart.

I rounded the side of the shack and pushed into a roll immediately, narrowly missing several laser blasts. It was another of those bots. My brain had half a second to appreciate that fact before the drone slammed towards me.

But something else slammed into me at the same time. Mark. His helmet was still off, so I could easily see the concentration pressing across his face as he pushed me to the side, brought his blaster around, and fired at the bot. Though his aim was true, it wasn’t quick enough, as at that exact second another drone sprang from the shack and slammed into his side, knocking the blaster from his hand.

I wasted no more time. I rolled to the side, thrust into the shack, and picked the blaster up, all in one neat move that couldn’t have taken more than a second.

I began firing at the bot, destroying one before I locked my attention on the other. It shifted towards me, metal arms outstretched, lethal laser beams slicing out towards me.

I managed to dodge them all by pushing into a roll and flipping to the side. With three bullets slamming into the bot’s body, it too exploded in a hail of sparks. I’d learnt my lesson from the prince, and destroyed each scrap of its body until nothing but blistered contorted metal remained.

By the time I’d pushed to my feet, Mark had already pushed to his. He walked into the shack, whistling in a long, impressed move.

“You can fight,” Mark said, cheeks pale with surprise.

I didn’t drop the blaster as I swiveled my gaze towards him.

Another one of those things blasted over the top of the metal wall, claws stretched towards Mark.

I shoved forward, slammed into Mark with my rounded shoulder, and doubled back.

The bot shot forward and crashed into me. Its metal body ramming into my shoulder and shunting me backwards.

I wrapped my arms around it, my blaster flying from my grip. It slammed against the floor and skidded far out of reach.

The bot rammed me across the room, my sweaty fingers sliding over its smooth metal frame as my feet skidded over the broken floor.

A roar ripped from my lips as the bot slammed me into the far wall with such a thunderous clang, I thought my teeth would be knocked from my mouth. Instead I bared them as I wrapped my arms all the way around the bot’s body, searching for its arm chute.

Just in time.

Two mechanical arms sprang out of it.

And I grabbed them.

Sure, the metal split the skin along my fingers, sending blood splattering over the bot’s body and sliding down my palms.

But I still managed to fasten my grip around the bot’s legs and stop them from protruding.

With another grating cry, I ripped the damn thing’s legs off.

Mark had pulled himself off the floor and now stood, blaster clutched in his hand as his wide eyes nervously searched for an opportunity to shoot the bot without killing me at the same time.

I didn’t need saving. Never had.

Sparks exploded from the bot’s body as I tore out its remaining leg and threw it against the floor.

It began to whirr, its internal propulsion mechanism spinning to maximum as it tried to blast from my grip.

I didn’t let it shoot from my hands. Instead I pivoted forward, pushed one dirty boot into the floor, and spun on it. Locking one arm around the bot’s spinning body, I threw it like a shotput.

The force of my throw was enough to knock it off course, and instead of barreling over the top of the wall, it shot right into it with so much force it dented the rusted metal sheeting.

The whole shack gave a violent shudder.

I didn’t stop. I bent down, scooped up one of the thing’s legs, and got ready to thrust towards it.

I didn’t need to.

Mark fired off several rounds with his blaster, the white-hot bullets slamming into the bot’s body and ripping it apart. Its mechanical innards erupted over the room, striking the floor and scattering into every corner.

Mark swiveled on his foot and stared at me, dropping the gun to his side. His eyebrows marched up his face until they disappeared into his hairline. His gaze jerked down to my blood-covered fingers and the mechanical leg clutched in them. It was still twitching.

His lips parted and he let out an impressed half-chuckle. “Wow. What the hell were you going to do? Beat it over its head with its own leg?”

I shifted past him, maintaining eye contact as I gave a short, sharp nod. I knelt down and inspected the largest chunk of the bot.

“… It’s dead.” Mark walked up beside me.

I caught sight of his expression as I shifted my head over my shoulder and stared at him impassively.

He was making no attempt to hide his complete surprise. It was like I’d sprouted wings and flown around the room.

I fixed my attention back on the bot until I was sure it was down and couldn’t fix itself. Throwing away a chunk of its body, I wiped my bloody hands on my pants and stood.

Mark followed my every move, brows still pressed high into his hairline. “I shot it three times with a level III blaster. It’s not coming back.”

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” I counselled as I walked past him and out into the primary yard.

“Where the hell did you come from?” Mark asked.

“You mean where did I learn to fight?”

He chuckled. “Yes, I mean where did you learn to fight?”

“Here. And in other refineries. You either fight, or you die,” I said simply.

He made eye contact as he nodded. “Yeah, I understand that.”

I doubted he did.

He was an Arterian. The only thing he would understand was privilege.

I kept that particular thought to myself.

He suddenly clicked his head to the side, and it was clear he was receiving a message through his implant. A second later he sliced his hand forward. “All crew are being called back to the primary grounds.” He shifted forward.

I didn’t move.

He flicked his gaze towards me. “That means refinery crew, too.”

Reluctantly I pushed off and followed him.

My boots scattered through the sand, now torn in places from my ongoing fights with the bots.

It didn’t take long to reach the primary grounds.

It seemed the Arterian ship had already been refueled, as the majority of the security forces were pulling back and walking up the ramp in single file.

Suddenly my gut clenched and I jerked my head to the side, gaze locking on a figure marching out of the massive refinery doors.

My gaze locked on him long before the doors opened and the prince strode out.

Again, I just knew where he was.

My stomach clenched as I became terrified at what that could mean.

Mark cleared his throat. “It was nice meeting you. Thank you for saving my life.” With that, he stepped back and tapped a hand on his neck.

His helmet shot up and covered his face.

Almost immediately his behavior changed. Though I could no longer see his expression, his countenance became just as hard as his armor.

It was easy to see why – he clearly held a position of authority amongst the Arterian guards. He would have only dropped it around me because I was a simple refinery worker he’d never see again.

Though I tried to distract myself with that thought, it wouldn’t work.

Every sense locked on the prince as he cut a straight path towards us. The wind kept billowing through his cape, blowing it over his shoulder dramatically.

I still hadn’t seen his face, but that didn’t matter. I felt as if I already knew exactly what he’d look like. A strong angular, jutting jaw framed by wavy ice white hair and offset by crystal purple eyes.

It was such an oddly specific image that I just couldn’t shake it from my mind.

A second later the prince reached us, brought a hand up, and tapped his helmet.

It receded.

… And I stared at the man I had imagined. Down to every detail.

I swore my heart chose that exact moment to stop in my chest.

Mark appeared surprised that the prince had taken off his helmet. He took a strong step forward. “Prince Xarin, we can’t be sure it’s safe yet.”

The prince ignored him. “We have recalibrated our scanners. We have scanned the hull. There are no more bots. It is safe,” he said simply.

His voice was strong, boomed out of his throat, seemed to reverberate in his large, barrel chest. It was more like concentrated claps of thunder and less like the tone of an ordinary mortal.

I knew I shouldn’t be staring at him so openly, but there wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do to close my eyes or turn away.

A second later, his gaze darted to the side and locked on mine.

… And it felt as if I stared through a door into a completely different realm.

It was such an indescribable sensation, so completely alien.

I had never led a free life. My choices had always largely been dictated by the need to survive. And yet as I stared into Xarin’s crystalline purple eyes it seemed as if the entire universe opened up before me. A multi-verse, in fact, a realm so large one would never be able to explore it completely.

Though Xarin had only looked at me for a fraction of a second, it felt like a year. And when he flicked his gaze away, I almost wanted to stagger over, clutch a hand to his chin, and wrench it back until I could stare into his eyes once more.

….

Instead I staggered back and swallowed as I realized how insane my thoughts had become.

Fortunately Xarin appeared to ignore me completely. “Our ship has been refueled. We are leaving.” With that, he turned and walked towards the ramp a few meters to his left.

“Already?” Mark asked with surprise. “Aren’t we going to pause for repairs?”

“We can do it in orbit,” Xarin remarked without turning around.

“.. Yes, your highness.”

Xarin paused a few meters up the ramp. The wind caught his cape and suddenly furled it over his shoulders.

He inclined his head slightly to the left, locked his gaze on me, and appeared to come to some decision.

Then I heard three words. Three words that felt as if they punched through my heart and shook my rib cage.

The prince nodded towards Mark. “Bring her aboard.” With that, he turned and marched back up the ramp.

Again I felt an ethereal hand lock on my shoulder. Just as I wanted to turn and run away before Mark could catch me, something stopped me in place.

Mark looked surprised for a few seconds, but shrugged his shoulders, and turned to me.

“The Arterian forces are always looking for good recruits. Strong recruits. Fast recruits. Soldiers who can fight no matter the odds. And today, you’ve proved you’re just what were after.”

My mouth was dry. It felt as if I’d fallen down to my knees, unhinged my jaw, and scooped a handful of sand down my throat. “What are you saying?” I managed.

“That you are being invited into the Arterian Security Forces,” he said directly. Though he dipped his head back and had a certain hard kind of look about him, his voice was still soft.

I looked at him steadily. “This isn’t an offer, is it?” Perhaps I should have been controlling my tone. I couldn’t.

Mark nodded. “You’re being drafted. The Arterian Security Forces have full powers from the senate to draft any citizen of the galaxy.”

“Drafted,” the word rolled off my tongue.

I knew I should have been incensed, fearful. Yet I couldn’t tug my eyes off the ship’s hull and the thought of Xarin within.

“Get your stuff. Our ship’s leaving in five.”

“I have no possessions worth keeping,” I muttered, still unable to tear my eyes off the titanic hull.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Mark tip his head back. “The Illuminate is one of the most sophisticated ships in the Arterian fleet.”

Fear pounded into my gut and my eyes opened so wide it felt like the skin split. “What?” I spat.

“Don’t be afraid. With what you’ve shown today, you’ll easily fit in amongst the security forces.”

That word. That goddamn word did something to me.

It rang in my mind as if a whole city of people screamed it into my ears.

Illuminate.

I couldn’t stop my lips from cracking open as my eyes somehow cracked even further open. “What… where does that name come from?”

“What? … The name of the ship?” Mark appeared to catch up. He looked thoughtful. “It’s traditional. A name from the Arterian’s past. Beyond that, I don’t know what it means.”

“Aren’t you Arterian?” I stuttered.

I had to know what that name meant. Though all reason told me to drop this, I couldn’t. It would have been easier to rip my own heart from my chest.

“Me? I’m only half Arterian. Half human, like you.” He nodded at me.

Before I could press him for more information, he ticked his head to the side. I watched him shift his jaw in a clear move as he obviously turned on his communicator. “I’m coming aboard now,” he said.

He briefly made eye contact before turning away.

I stood on the ramp and watched him. It didn’t take long for my gaze to be tugged back onto the ship. And it took less than half a second for my thoughts to center back on the prince.

… I had no idea what was wrong with me. I soon found myself walking up that ramp, my worn boots reverberating against the metal ramp with every step.

As I walked into a massive deployment bay, I couldn’t deny one thing – I felt as if I was walking into my future, and yet, at the same time, my past….

Chapter 4

Prince Xarin

I sat in my command seat, cape tossed over my shoulder, head pressed back against the head rest, eyes closed.

After a few quiet, restless minutes, I brought a hand up and pressed it close over my eyes. I ground my thumbs into the flesh around my temples as if I was trying to unscrew it.

I’d been seconds from losing my goddamn life. If that refinery worker hadn’t acted when she did, and torn the bot from the very sky, I would have.

My free hand twitched as I clutched it hard around my arm rest. I drove the fingers so hard into the yielding fabric that my short nails cut it.

A second later I drew my hand back, balled it into a fist, and slammed it on the arm rest as a roar split from my throat.

I was losing. On every battle front and in every encounter. So I balled my hand up, brought it back, and struck my arm rest with such force it broke free from the back of the seat and clattered onto the floor by my feet.

I kicked at it petulantly, sending it scattering over the floor until it struck the far wall.

I punched to my feet and began to pace the room, finally latching a hand on my cloak and wrenching it free from my armor with a hiss. I discarded it in disgust over the back of my chair.

Before I could continue to take my anger out on the furniture, a warning beeped through the air.

I jerked my head back and ticked it to the left, activating my ear implant. “What?” I snapped.

“More Zorv detected in the adjoining solar system,” a toneless electronic voice informed me.

I jerked my head back and drove my eyes fully closed, lips drawing back from my teeth. “I’m on my way.”

With that, I spun on my boot and headed towards the door.

Though the corridor directly outside of my private command room was completely empty, once I took a superfast lift and reached one of the decks above, I saw the crew. This ship had a compliment of over 500.

And as I passed a cluster of them, they all stopped what they were doing, eyes widening with surprise as they snapped salutes.

I ignored them, not even bothering to make eye contact.

There was too much happening in my mind. A storm of thoughts and hatred.

I curled a hand into a fist as I considered how many men I had already lost to the Zorv. They kept sweeping through the once peaceful systems of the Milky Way, destroying everything that stood in their path.

More than that, they were concentrating their attacks on Arterian strongholds. Going after resources and critical transport routes.

I had insurmountable pressure from my family to do something about it.

But that was nothing compared to the pressure to find my betrothed.

Even as that poisonous thought arose in my mind, I pushed it away as I angled my head forward and focused on the end of the long, straight corridor.

While it would end, my trials would not.

Not until I finally found my betrothed, and solidified my growing power. Without either, I would die. If the Zorv didn't kill me, the emptiness would. It was already pushing into my dreams on a daily basis, tearing through my mind, using all its force to find a weakness. And when it did – when it found a door into my consciousness, it would invade, possessing me in full.

Despite my tumultuous, spinning thoughts, my mind still drifted as I made my way towards the primary control center in the ship.

They drifted, because as I passed a female crewmember, my mind jerked back to the battle at the refinery. Specifically, the woman. The human, in her dirty scraps of clothing. The human who’d saved my life and fought like an Arterian star warrior in full armor.

The other members of my family drafted galactic citizens at will, I barely used the power. Despite my desperation, I couldn’t agree with snatching someone from their life, not unless they wanted to come.

Today… the words had sprung from my lips before I’d been able to stop them. It wasn’t just that I needed warriors like her, it was… something more.

What that something more was, I would have to wait to find out, for a second later I arrived at the primary operations center. The large doors swished open before me as I strode in.

Instantly every crewmember pushed to their feet and saluted in turn.

The captain pushed from his command seat in the center of the room, clasped his hands behind his back, and nodded low. “Prince Xarin, we respectfully acknowledge your presence.”

I strode in, bringing a hand up and waving at him dismissively. “We can cut the official introduction. Tell me where the Zorv have been detected.”

Every time I came into the operations room, the crew always pushed to their feet and saluted, and the captain always went through the official greeting.

It was tiring. A waste of time. But no matter how often I told him to ignore tradition, he wouldn’t.

For the Arterian Empire was built on tradition.

It had arisen from the ashes of a long-dead, great civilization that had spanned the universe. They had existed over 2000 years ago. What had destroyed that sophisticated civilization, we still did not know. Though there were reportedly some within the Arterian Royal Family who knew the full story, I was not one of them.

For the rest of us, it was enough to appreciate that we lived on the ashes of a civilization that had eclipsed us by centuries. According to what little records we had, they had not only possessed the technology to transport men and matter, but they had held ships with the capability to traverse whole galaxies within days.

Just that thought alone was enough to send a cold shiver pressing down my spine.

Though I knew much less about that once great civilization than other members of my family, I knew enough to appreciate that the name of my ship originated from that period of time.

The Illuminate.

According to what I’d heard, the Illuminates had once guarded the entire universe before the great fall.

Now all we were left with was their name and the occasional destroyed relic.

“Zorv forces are building along a level III transport route used for fuel shipments,” the captain said.

I ground my teeth together.

“Change course to intercept.”

Chapter 5

Shar

I was aboard an Arterian Royal war ship, I’d been drafted into the Army, and yet, all I could do as I sat there in the armory, waiting to be measured for my armor, was think about that goddamn prince.

The thought of him completely owned my mind.

I’d never experienced anything like this. Anything so impossibly, goddamn invasive.

Though I’d never had a self-destructive tendency in my life, my gaze flicked towards a blaster sitting on the abandoned crates to my side. I suddenly got the urge to clutch it up and take it to my head.

But the urge passed, quickly, as I clenched my teeth and told myself I’d figure out what the hell was going on. Maybe I had some kind of strange virus. Or I’d been hit on the head this morning when I’d fought with the breakers. There would be some way to explain what was happening to me. And goddammit, I would find out what that was. And then… then I’d find some way off this ship.

With that strong determination welling in my heart, I sat there, teeth clenched, gaze locked hard on the far side of the room as a few engineers worked on measuring my armor.

I’d never had armor in the past, not by choice, but out of a simple lack of funds. Armor wasn’t just expensive to purchase, it was extremely expensive to upkeep.

It was also meant to be hard to train yourself to use, but as one of the engineering techs came up to me and placed another gauntlet around my arm, and I managed to shift the thing without the least bit of trouble, he shot me an impressed look.

“Where exactly did they dig you up from?” he asked from under his breath.

Maybe it was a simple joke, but I didn’t like the look on the guy’s face. He, like most of the other Arterian soldiers I’d met, looked upon me like a bit of dirt the prince had dragged aboard.

I set my jaw into a strong line and didn’t bother to answer.

In fact, I didn’t bother to answer most questions, and pretty much ignored everyone until my armor was set.

Once it was complete and my helmet was locked in place over my head, I felt like tearing the whole thing off. I’d never been claustrophobic before, but then again, I’d never been encased in a metal tomb, either.

Before I could whip the gauntlets off my hands and chuck the helmet from my head, I heard footsteps, and turned over my shoulder to see Mark walk into the room.

Immediately the engineers in the room stood and saluted.

Most of them looked as though they were full Arterians, and now I was close enough to see the difference, I could tell that Mark was half human.

I’d always been taught that the Arterians were an insular race – they liked their own. So I was surprised to see a half human on the right-hand side of the prince.

My stomach coiled just thinking of him, and I had to clench my teeth even harder to push that thought away.

I took a rigid step towards Mark, one of my hands still pressed over my gauntlet threateningly.

I watched his bright eyes flash down to it as his eyebrows rose high into his hair line. “I wouldn’t recommend that.”

I managed to unclench my teeth for half a second. “What do you mean?”

“It takes a while to adjust. Trust me. But you get used to it. Rip it off a few minutes after it’s been soldered together, and it will only end up coming out of your paycheck.”

“Paycheck?” My brow crumpled, even though no one could see.

He chuckled. “Didn’t think you’d get paid?”

I didn’t respond. There was one good thing about this helmet – it hid my facial expressions. I could twist my lips and sneer as much as I wanted. And for a woman as expressive as me, that was a godsend.

Right now I narrowed my eyes at this Mark character, pared my lips back, and shot him the kind of look that told him I wanted to rip his kidneys out.

“You will get paid much more than you did at the refinery. The Arterians look after their royal guards.”

I made no effort to stop my back from straightening, my shoulders from locking down, and my hands from curling into fists. “I’m not Arterian.”

He looked at me seriously, and I saw his gaze slice towards the Arterian engineers in the room. He appeared to pause as if he were checking his words carefully. “No, you’re not, but that doesn’t matter. Now you are a draftee in the Arterian Army, you will have the full rights of an Arterian citizen.”

I still glared at him from under the confines of my armor. I didn’t want to have the full rights of an Arterian citizen. I wanted all of this to go away. Though I didn’t exactly love my life at the refinery, at least it was my life.

Now I would work for this Prince Xarin, following his beck and call….

I suddenly shivered violently, my shoulders jerking.

Mark narrowed his eyes and brought up a hand in a steadying motion. “I’m not lying. It will get easier. The mind just takes a while to adjust to the confines of armor.”

Maybe it was something to do with the kind edge to Mark’s voice, but I found myself opening my lips and replying honestly, “It feels like a coffin.”

He chuckled, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorway. “That it does,” he said. There was something strangely serious about his tone, something bitter, too. But whatever it was, he wiped it away with a smile.

Mark the Imperial Star Guard had a nice smile. It had been a while since I’d seen a smile.

I couldn’t exactly claim that my colleagues at the refinery had been particularly good at putting you at ease, but Mark appeared to have a skill for it, and I found myself relaxing, if only a little.

Maybe Mark could see it, because he pushed further into the room. “Would you like a tour of the ship?”

I blinked. I also took the opportunity to survey the expressions of the techs in the room. With just one look at their expressions I realized it wasn’t normal for the prince’s right-hand man to do something like this.

Mark flicked his gaze at the techs, too.

There was something there… something beyond his smooth calm.

Before I could figure out what it was, he pushed forward again, then nodded over his shoulder. “Come on. This ship is huge. You won’t have much time to familiarize yourself with it. Now your armor’s fitted, I imagine Xarin will want to take you on missions, considering your skills.”

I stiffened even more, all the muscles along my back becoming so hard a warning suddenly flashed over the insides of my armor.

Mark motioned me forward once more.

… And I followed.

I hadn’t intended to, but my feet chose to follow.

Prince Xarin

I stared at Arteria. Her hologram stood just before me.

She wore a beautiful flowing purple gown that touched along her bare feet. Her blood red hair was knotted loosely over her shoulder, and it tapered softly down her neck, drawing eyes to her neck.

She watched me, hands pressed together in a half praying motion. I walked nervously around the room, striding down one side of the room only to turn sharply on my foot and spring down the other.

“Xarin, it will all work out. Have faith. Have trust,” she said, her beautiful melodious voice tinkling like a bell on the wind.

I brought up a sweaty hand and locked it on my chin, finally stopping my pacing.

It felt like I was trapped. By the room, by my ship, by tradition.

Just when the swirling nerves and anger threatened to be too much, Arteria’s hologram took several steps forward and reached a hand out towards me.

A few motes of dust travelled through her fingers as they stretched towards my face. Her palm tried to lock against my jaw, but could not.

For she was nothing more than tamed light.

Though her move was clearly meant to comfort me, it did the exact opposite.

I had always loved Arteria. From her perfect visage to her truly kind nature, she was my oasis from my family.

If I were to marry her, all my troubles would be washed away. I would no longer have to roam the galaxy searching for the Zorv.

But there was one problem. A problem that never went away.

She wasn’t my betrothed.

While Arteria could satisfy my heart, she could never satisfy tradition.

I pushed away from her hand and began pacing again.

Arteria watched me with a worried gaze. “Xarin, everything will be alright. Trust me.”

My lips curled up into a defeated smile at that. Not at the offer to trust her – as I’d do that readily – but at the statement that everything was alright.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

“No matter what happens, I will wait for you on the home world.” She dropped her hands and clutched them reverently as she turned her gaze on me.

Her eyes were the deepest green color. They were lit up like a constellation, and drew you in with the ease of a hand around your wrist.

I found myself taking a hasty step forward. “… Arteria, I have no idea how long I’ll be out here. The Zorv—”

“Will be defeated soon,” she said without pause. She spoke with such conviction I almost believed her promise.

Then reality sank back in as an alarm blared through my room.

I shifted over my shoulder and stared at a screen that protruded from the nearest wall.

“… I have to go.” I took another forced step away from her.

“Xarin?” She reached out a hand to me, her hair shifting over her shoulder as her eyes drew wide.

I swiped a hand to my left and the communication ended, her hologram disappearing in a spark of light like a star dying.

I stared at the spot her bare feet had stood upon until another pitching alarm stole my attention away.

I closed my eyes for a brief second and activated my communication implant. “On my way.” I spun around and headed out the door.

I was on my own private deck.

No one should be here except for me, and yet as I exited, I felt something.

A sudden surge of emotion that charged up my back and sank through my gut with all the vicious speed of a brutal punch.

My eyes plastered wide open as I scanned both ends of the corridor. My hand even went for my blade.

… But there was nothing out there.

Except the sensation that kept climbing my back.

It felt as if there was some kind of… presence out there. A ghostly apparition.

Yet just as I sank my mind into that terrifying sensation, it passed.

The com panel to my side beeped once more, reminding me of the warning.

And I pressed on.

Shar

Mark was nice.

A part of me – the suspicious part that always strove to keep me alive – wondered why.

What could a man like Mark hope to achieve by being nice to a woman like me?

I was no fool. The years had not been kind to me. I had no access to advanced genetic technology, and I could not hold back the wrinkles or sun damage.

I’d cut most of my hair off years ago, and kept it trimmed save for two thick, beaded, threaded plaits that grew along my temples and hung down my back.

No one had ever described me as pretty, and never would. I was gritty, less of a woman and more of a survival machine.

It didn’t bother me, but again it made me question what Mark’s agenda could be….

He continued to lead me through the ship.

I had not been able to appreciate how big it truly was. I had never seen anything on this scale, nor of this sophistication.

The modern galaxy was a mix of technologies, old and new. It all came down to what you could afford, and as I strode through the clean, clinical corridors of the Illuminate, I realized there was nothing the Arterians could not afford.

“The primary operations room is this way,” Mark continued, never dropping his friendly tone or countenance. He was acting as if we’d been friends all our lives.

… And it was having an effect on me, however subtle.

I did not trust easily, and yet I felt myself warming to him.

I even smiled.

I’d taken my armor off, leaving it in the armory for a few final touch ups.

There was nothing to hide my expression.

Mark saw my smile, and his eyes lingered on it for a split second. Then he brought a hand up and patted it along his smooth skull.

I was momentarily taken in by the look in his eyes.

Then we reached a heavy set of red doors. Though the whole ship was impressive, there was something even more imposing about these.

Mark straightened his back and nodded towards them. “We’re about to enter the primary operations room. You will need to be on your best behavior. Stick with me, do what I say, and don’t touch anything.”

Though I wasn’t the dutiful type, for some reason I snapped a salute.

Mark grinned.

I found my eyes locking on that grin as he turned away and strode towards the doors.

They opened as he approached.

… And I stared in at an-awe-inspiring sight.

It was a sprawling room set on three different levels, packed with banks of consoles and view screens, and completely teeming with crew.

The crew were so busy none of them bothered to look up as Mark strode in.

He wasn’t wearing his armor. As I cast around, I realized that apart from a few security personnel, most people simply wore fatigues.

Obviously they thought this ship was safe.

I doubted that. I couldn’t shake the feeling this place was cursed.

I kept on my toes as I followed Mark. He said very little as he walked around and completed a few tasks.

I watched him, and though I had a hard time understanding most of the systems he interacted with, it was instructive.

It was when we were roughly on the far side of the operations room that an alarm suddenly blared through the room.

The scurrying crew stopped, backs snapping so straight they looked like daisies popping out of a field.

“Shit,” Mark spat, eyes bulging wide as he twisted and half-ran towards a man in the center of the room.

From his attire and the stripes down his shoulder, it was clear he was the captain.

With no idea what to do, I pressed as close as I could towards Mark without getting in anyone’s way.

“It’s a civilian transport, non Arterian,” the captain said.

Mark swore again. “Is Xarin on his way?”

The captain nodded.

Mark turned and swooped his attention across the room until he locked in on the lift doors on the far wall.

… Xarin.

Oh god, I was about to see Xarin again.

That realization flooded through my heart and bled through my chest as if someone had punctured my ventricles.

Without my helmet, it was hell to control my expression.

I kept telling myself there was no earthly reason to react like this around the prince – I despised royalty. The very idea of it was anathema to everything I believed in. The Arterians and their traditions were responsible for most of the inequity in the galaxy, inequity that had directly led to my brutal life.

So I tried to harden my expression as the doors finally opened and he swooped in.

He was not wearing his armor.

That point somehow stuck in my mind and washed away my anger.

He was completely exposed.

Fear settled in my gut so quickly, it was as if it appeared with the speed of a photon.

I even brought a twitching hand up and locked it on my middle.

I wanted to be angry at Xarin – he’d virtually kidnapped me and brought me aboard this ship. And yet all I could think about was how much of an idiot he was for taking his armor off….

He may think his ship was safe, but life had taught me over and over again that nothing in this universe came without danger.

Xarin swooped across the room.

He came to a stop before the captain and Mark.

Suddenly every crew member in the room straightened, tucked a hand against their chest, and bowed low.

Every crew member, except for me.

I looked around confused.

All eyes locked on me, and for the first time since entering the room, Xarin deigned to look at me.

“Bow,” the captain said through stiff lips.

Though I really didn’t want to, I could read the captain’s mood. If I chose not to bow, it would be the final move I’d ever make.

I flicked my gaze to the side and locked in on some crew members who were still bowed, and tried to copy their posture.

The prince extended a hand at me, the fingers wide. Without looking at me, he muttered, “Don’t bother,” through stiff white lips.

Then he turned his full attention on the captain, practically shunting his back in front of me until all I could see was his broad shoulders.

“When will we intercept,” Xarin demanded.

The captain straightened up from his bow. “We have not yet altered our course.”

“Alter it now,” Xarin’s voice became dark. “We have no time to waste.”

The captain briefly shared a look with Mark. Though I tried to stare around Xarin’s shoulder, I couldn’t see exactly what that look was.

“We do not technically need to intercept,” the captain said carefully, very carefully. “It is not an Arterian transport.”

Anger suddenly punched through my gut as I realized what the captain was getting at.

Sure, there were 2000 people on that transport, but they weren’t Arterian, so who cared.

I could no longer control my expression. If it weren’t for Xarin’s broad form blocking me off, I would have locked my mutinous glare on the captain.

Xarin brought up a hand. The move was even more swift and hard than the one he’d used to dismiss me minutes ago. “We will intercept. I don’t care who’s on that transport. All that matters is the Zorv are about to attack it.”

I wanted to keep hating the prince – but in that moment, for just a single second, my thoughts aligned with his.

Perhaps he was doing this for his own benefit, but he was still going to save those people.

As my chest swelled with an odd sense of pride, my gaze flicked to the side.

For some reason it locked on a crewmember pushing forward.

Slowly, with measured movements.

Their expression was….

I acted. No, my body did. It rounded my shoulder and shoved it hard into Xarin’s back, knocking him off balance just before a blaster bullet could slice him through the middle.

It sliced through the top of my shoulder, instead. It didn’t drive down to the bone, but it took off a chunk of my flesh, and blood splattered over the floor by my feet.

It should have been enough to send me into a deep sense of shock.

Instead I punched forward, thrust right past the captain, and locked my hands on the rail that separated his small circular raised platform from the rest of the operations room.

It had been barely a few seconds since that officer had tried to shoot Xarin – still, a few seconds was enough. Before the guards scattered around the room could get to the officer, he brought up his gun to fire again.

I had no intention of letting him pull the trigger.

I slammed my hands on the rail and vaulted right over the top of it, kicking out at the same time, pressing both feet together and snagging the guy on the back of his shoulder.

How I managed to reach him, I didn’t know, but we both went down.

The guy still had the blaster in his grip, and he tried to shunt it against my face as he fired again.

I jerked back just in time, the white-hot blast searing the skin along my cheek.

He managed to lock his hand on my damaged shoulder, and he dug his fingers in.

I screamed, but I also brought up my good elbow and plunged it into his gut. Just as it sank against his ribs with the force to crack bone, I extended my hand and slammed the back of it into his nose.

His nose broke with a satisfying crack, and blood splattered his cheeks.

I brought my foot around, kicked him in the gut once more, then punched him in the face.

This time he went down. For good.

Xarin’s guards flooded towards us, whipping their guns out and fixing them on the man.

I locked the back of my hand against my mouth, and stood. I smoothly stepped back as the guards threw themselves at the man.

Blood pooled down my shoulder and slicked over my leg, slicking the tread of my boot. I ignored it as I took one final step back.

All eyes were on the man. Every single person in the room stood in rigid surprise as the guards restrained him.

All eyes, except for Xarin’s.

He chose to watch me.

I flicked my hand to the side, dislodging the blood slicked over my fingers, and sending it splattering onto the floor.

All too quickly non-essential personnel were cleared from the bridge, which included me.

I was ushered back the armory, where they had rudimentary medical equipment, which was all I needed, thankfully.

My mind was spinning. I kept pulling my hands up to look at them.

How the hell had I known that guy was going to shoot Xarin? The second the prince had entered the room, was the second I’d known he was in trouble.

How?

As that painful thought spun in my mind, I was led into the armory. Though a tech offered to help, I didn’t need it. I grabbed a portable med kit off them and set to work repairing my shoulder.

I tore off the sleeve of my tunic and threw it at the floor by my feet as I rested back against a crate. With the open kit to my side, I searched for what I would need with half a mind.

The rest was locked on the armory.

I watched each tech and soldier in turn. They all reacted to the shocking incident on the bridge differently.

The first rule of survival was to attend to your environment.

Watch.

Never let a detail go.

So I watched silently as I applied wound mesh and skin glue to my arm. I didn’t bother to give myself pain killers – they dulled the mind.

Some of the techs – the full Arterians – looked horrified at what had happened. Sure, I wasn’t familiar with their race, but some facial expressions are universal.

Some of the other techs and soldiers – the ones who looked as if they were mixed race – barely registered it.

Others… looked pleased. Maybe I was making that up – an independent observer wouldn’t be able to pick up the same emotions I was – but I just knew they didn’t care that Xarin had almost been killed.

I found my eyes narrowing to a point.

So I wasn’t the only person who hated Xarin, then.

As soon as I thought that, pain stabbed through my head. I flicked my neck to the side, brought a hand up, and locked it on my brow.

Just as I did, the doors opened.

… I knew who it was, even before they strode into the room.

Xarin, finally in full armor. Though his helmet was off, a slim, almost translucent force field remained over his face.

Mark was by his side.

Xarin strode in with purpose.

Towards me.

Just before my heart could explode in my chest, he strode right past to the primary armory cupboard on the far wall.

… He didn’t even glance my way.

I’d just saved his life, and he didn’t even deign to register my presence.

He spoke to Mark in hushed tones.

As soon as he reached the back wall, a light appeared over the top of the cupboard.

The cupboard was made out of a specialized kind of metal mesh that crackled with a constant charge of electricity.

It was designed to keep people out. With the right code, a man in armor would be able to walk through. Without the right code, he’d be fried to a pile of ash.

I doubted there was anything on this ship the prince couldn’t access. And as he strode towards the metal cupboard, a door opened for him.

Instantly the array of weapons lined up on the wall changed. The wall disappeared into a recess in the floor, revealing another wall behind.

… And it was crammed full of weapons.

Weapons that had the strangest effect on me.

My body seized. It was as if that ghostly hand was back, this time clutching around my throat with all the force of a noose.

I even brought a suddenly sweaty hand up and clutched it against my neck.

I couldn’t see properly, and I pushed to my feet, slowly, body as rigid as rock.

The prince and Mark did not spend long in the weapons cupboard. The prince selected something off the wall, locked it against his back, and walked out.

Immediately the wall disappeared, revealing the ordinary array of weapons once more.

Once Mark and the prince were out of the cupboard, it locked again.

Sit back down, I begged myself. Sit back down, you idiot.

No matter how hard I berated myself, my body wouldn’t comply.

As Mark and the prince drew closer, I picked up their conversation.

“Quick. It has to be quick. No mistakes this time,” the prince growled, voice dropping several registers on the phrase this time.

I caught myself staring into his eyes once more.

Mesmerizing didn’t do them justice….

They reached me.

The prince stopped. For the first time he appeared to acknowledge my presence. His gaze flicked from my blood-covered boots, across to my arm, then finally to my face.

He didn’t say anything.

It took Mark clearing his throat to break the uncomfortable silence.

The prince straightened. There was something so penetrating about his gaze. It reminded me on every level that he wasn’t human. More than that, though, it reminded me that he thought he was a god.

I wanted my jaw to harden, but it resisted my move.

Mark cleared his throat once more. “Your highness, this is the woman from—”

“The worker from the refinery,” Xarin interrupted.

The worker from the refinery…? Really? That was how he referred to me?

Barely 10 minutes ago, I had saved his life.

Finally my jaw hardened. I made no attempt to control my expression.

The prince made no attempt to control his expression, either, as he appeared to survey me like you might a specimen in a lab.

Again Mark cleared his throat. “After training, she’ll be cleared for operational missions. She’s already been fitted for her armor.”

The prince didn’t appear to care. He kept looking at me, his gaze slicing over my form, as if he were taking a mental picture so perfect he’d be able to recreate me later.

My stomach curdled at that, though curdled wasn’t quite the right word.

“She will make a great asset to our fighting force,” Mark continued.

Xarin tipped his head back and surveyed me from head to foot with one quick, final, dismissive look. “Once she’s cleaned up,” he remarked as he turned from me, without ever making actual eye contact, and nodded at Mark, “She may suffice.”

She may suffice, might she?

This guy was a demeaning, arrogant, belittling asshole.

Maybe Mark caught sight of my expression, because he cleared his throat, nodded at Xarin, and quickly motioned me away.

I turned, a sneer on my lips as I strode towards the door.

Mark caught up to me outside, another clearly impressed breath pushing from his parted lips. But his expression had a hard edge, too. “Shar, you were incredible on the bridge. But you can’t….” He appeared to be uncomfortable. He sniffed and took a sharp step backwards. “Look,” he tipped his head down and looked up at me from under his brows, “You can’t look at Prince Xarin like that.”

I made no attempt to hide my disgust. “Really? I can’t look at him like that? Because he was looking at me like I’m nothing more than a goddamn scrap of meat.”

Mark paled, gaze flashing up and down the corridor as if he were checking for witnesses. He pressed forward again.

For some reason, my heart chose that exact moment to speed up.

I looked at him with wide eyes.

“Shar, I know you're unfamiliar with the Arterian Royal Family. I know you don’t know their traditions. People will cut you some slack. Some,” his voice reverberated on that word. “But you can’t act out of line. Especially around Xarin. You have to be careful.”

I opened my mouth to demand why, but Mark brought up a hand so quickly it was almost as if he intended to slice it through the wall.

“Be careful,” he said, the kindness dropping from his tone.

I surveyed him with a wary gaze. “Fine,” I said through clenched teeth. “How long until we reach the civilian transport?” I demanded, switching moods almost instantly.

My troubles with Xarin may be one thing – a terrible, frustrating thing – but I had morals. Hardened, gritty morals that had survived with me all these years.

You didn’t put innocents at risk.

Again Mark looked impressed. It was a deeper, more thoughtful look this time. He began to slowly chuckle as he tilted his head to the side and appeared to assess me from a different angle. “We don’t come across many like you in the Empire,” he said softly, distractedly.

My eyebrows descended low over my eyes. “What does that mean?”

There was an odd touch to his tone. For some reason it sent the smallest spark of nerves climbing my back.

“Never mind,” he said quickly. “And the transport, that doesn’t concern you. You’ve been injured.” His gaze flashed down to my shoulder.

Instinctively I brought a hand up and ran it over my glued-on wound-mesh. “I’m fine. It’ll heal. I’m ready for battle,” I added.

He chucked his head back and laughed. “I’m sure you are. That’s not the point. The prince wants this to be done quickly, smoothly. He’s only taking his Imperial guards. It should be enough. You, go to your quarters and rest.”

“Quarters?” I questioned.

He laughed again. And Mark appeared to enjoy laughing at me, because his eyes sparkled all the more every time he did it. “Where did you think you would sleep? At Xarin’s foot?” he commented.

Maybe the comment was intended to be innocent. It wasn’t. It was like a punch to the gut.

I felt my heart shudder, my breathing become so shallow my chest began to fill with a cold pressure.

If Mark saw my disproportionate reaction, he didn’t comment on it. “You get your own quarters, Shar. This ship is big enough that crew don’t have to share. If you ask one of the armory guards, they’ll let you know where it is. But I have to go now.” He turned to walk away, but couldn’t appear to do it. He flicked his gaze back to me. I couldn’t be sure, but I felt as if it lingered.

I didn’t blush. I never felt embarrassed. And yet I had the strangest desire to shrink away from him. “… Yes?”

“Never mind.” With that, he turned and walked away.

I watched him.

“Good luck,” I muttered.

He didn’t turn.

With nothing else to do, I found my quarters and settled in.

Before I knew what I was doing, I flopped on my bed, locked my hands over my eyes, and stared at the ceiling through my interlacing fingers.

Though I tried hard to fight it – though I used every mental technique I knew – I couldn’t stop myself. My every thought returned to the prince.

Chapter 6

Several weeks passed.

My reaction to the prince only became stronger, though I barely saw him.

I’d now learnt that he had an entire deck of the ship to himself, and it was practically a mortal crime to go there without being invited.

I wanted to say that I’d grown to hate him completely, but that wasn’t true. Sometimes on the edge of sleep, I would catch myself thinking about him, almost longing for him. The thought was such a sickening one, that it made me want to retch.

I went through my training quickly. Extremely quickly, according to Mark. Because the training was too easy. Too regimented. It prepared the Arterian soldiers for ordinary battle, but battle was never ordinary. Once you’re thrust into a real life-or-death situation, people do not react predictably. They do everything they can to survive.

I was not as restless aboard the ship as I thought I’d be. The other soldiers in my unit were coming to begrudgingly accept me.

And as I stood there in the deployment bay, waiting for my orders, I noted nobody glared at me as if I didn’t belong anymore. They barely noted my presence at all.

That I could deal with.

I brought my hand up and checked my helmet, sliding my fingers along the point at which it connected to my neck plating.

It was secure.

Though at first my armor had felt like a coffin, now I was accustomed to it. It was like a second skin.

Suddenly the massive doors into the deployment room opened, and in strode Mark. He was in his full Arterian armor. It caught the powerful lights in the room and glistened.

His helmet, however, wasn’t on.

I frowned.

That frown only became all the more powerful as a quick nervous feeling sunk through my gut.

I knew exactly what it meant. A second later, the massive deployment doors opened once more, and Prince Xarin walked in.

Mark straightened up, an odd look flashing in his eyes as he twisted his gaze and locked it on Xarin.

Xarin cleared his throat as he stared at each soldier in turn. His gaze never met mine, though, and he appeared to look right over the top of my head.

I hardened my jaw. I barely existed to this man. Though he’d had the hubris and arrogance to kidnap me from my life and draft me into his army, he’d already forgotten about me. I was simply another set of hands that could hold a blaster.

Xarin didn’t say anything, then he turned sharply to the side. He was wearing his armor, including his ceremonial cloak. It shifted over his shoulder, scattering down his back with a smooth slipping sound. He began to talk to Mark in a low tone.

Though I couldn’t pick up the exact words, there was something about Mark’s expression that told me he didn’t agree with whatever Xarin was telling him.

Finally Xarin took a step back. “You have all been selected for this critical mission. You will all comply with every order I give you, before we land on the planet, once we are on the planet, and when we depart. It is critical you follow everything I say.” For some reason, his gaze appeared to lock on me.

I clenched my teeth even harder, chasing away the flighty feeling that threatened to fly through my gut.

My gaze flicked towards Mark again, and I picked up his angry expression once more. He smoothed it off his face when Xarin glanced back at him, though.

“I will lead this mission,” Xarin stated flatly. “You will now board the transport. There will be no questions. All you are required to do is follow orders.” With that, he turned, the cloak swished around his shoulders.

I caught one last glance at Mark, noting how momentarily dark his expression became. He even appeared to curl a hand into a fist.

If the rest of the crew were to be believed, Xarin and Mark were friends. That was the only reason why a half-Arterian half-human could hold such an important position.

But friends did not look at friends with such a dark menace building in their gaze….

I was shocked into action as the soldiers beside me pushed off with grunts.

I was forced to follow the group as it churned around me like a frantic school of fish fleeing from a shark. Or, in this instance, fleeing towards one. For we all followed Xarin at a distance down the corridor until we reached the docking bay.

We filed into a short-range transport, designed to ferry soldiers from the Illuminate in orbit down to a planet.

Suffice to say, it was not built for comfort. Apart from the pilot’s seat, and navigational command, there were two long, uncomfortable benches that ran down the inside of the elongated ship.

I sat down, squeezed between two large Arterian soldiers.

I was surprised to see that there was not some throne for Xarin to sit upon. I was even more surprised to see that he sat down with his men, sitting at the end of the bench, just across from me.

His helmet was now on, and I couldn’t see where his eyes were directed.

And yet something told me he was staring at me.

He stared at me the entire trip down to the planet.

We had no idea why we were going down there. Xarin hadn’t whispered a word. As he had kept repeating, he simply expected us to follow.

We were like loyal pets. Too foolish to understand our master’s intentions.

I stared at him the entire trip, never blinking once.

There was… there was just something about him. Beyond the arrogance and privilege. My mind couldn’t comprehend it, but my heart could as it beat faster.

The trip down to the surface of the planet took a little under 15 minutes.

There were no windows in this section of the ship, and the only indication that we were sweeping in to land were proximity sensors blaring from the small cockpit.

Before our ship touched down, Xarin rose. He didn’t bother to lock a hand on the railing that ran above the bench – as a violent tremble shuddered through the ship, his boots locked onto the floor.

The pilot turned around in his seat. “We’ve landed. Deploying the ramp now.”

Suddenly a door opened up behind Xarin, and a metal ramp pushed out from a recess, cutting down to the ground beyond.

Instantly I was met with a dank, earthy smell. It was worlds apart from the dusty dry odour of the refinery.

I found myself standing and craning my neck through the door, eyes growing wide as I saw the lush jungle beyond.

We were not allowed to disembark until Xarin waved us forward with a swipe of two fingers.

Though the move was dismissive, and should have set my anger off anew, it didn’t. Instead, as I took a step forward and walked onto the top of the ramp, I gasped.

I’d never seen a planet more lush with vegetation. It was so dense, it pushed up against the side of the transport, several massive purple and green leaves pressing over the ramp.

We walked down the ramp in single file. I passed several clogged vines, and as the leaves brushed against my grey and black armor, they deposited condensation across the metal. It dribbled down my shins and splashed over my boots.

It was unusual for Prince Xarin to lead a mission, Mark usually took point.

Xarin only appeared for the truly important missions. The life-or-death operations involving the Zorv.

As I looked around the jungle, I couldn’t see a single enemy. I couldn’t even begin to tell what Xarin thought was down here amongst the dense leaves and entwined vines.

Xarin strode off a distance into the jungle, head tilted to the side. He leaned down to one knee and pressed his hand into the dirt, leaf matter and twigs pressing up between his rigid metal fingers.

After a long pause, he pushed to his feet, appeared to nod to himself, then strode back to us.

All the soldiers had now disembarked.

“You will fan out in groups of two and search the immediate vicinity using your scanners.” Xarin gestured to the closest soldier to him, waiting until the man plucked his scanner from his hip holster. “They have been preprogrammed to detect certain signals. Should your scanner beep to indicate such a signal has been detected, you will immediately contact me using your communication lines. Do you understand?”

Every soldier, including me, saluted and grunted out a yes.

“Very well. Move out.”

I turned, searching for a teammate.

That’s when I heard somebody walk up behind me.

Someone reached a hand out and locked it on my shoulder.

I shoved it off, reacting before my mind had a chance to catch up to my body.

I spun, a snarl on my lips, ready to tell the jerk behind me to keep his hands to himself.

… Which was when I realized it was Xarin.

His hand was still in mid-air, presumably from where I’d shoved it back.

I couldn’t see his expression – his helmet obscured it. His body language, however, said everything.

He tilted his head to the side, the powerful blue-white headlights from the transport behind lighting up the side of his shoulder and glimmering down the side of his helmet. “You’re with me,” he suddenly said.

I stiffened, back straightening so much it practically rammed through the top of my head. “What—”

“That’s an order,” he snapped, then turned, waving his hand forward with a dismissive move.

I sneered at him from under the confines of my helmet, so very glad that he couldn’t see my true expression.

I had no option but to follow.

We travelled down a rocky incline towards a dense area of jungle.

This planet was completely at odds with the desert world of the refinery. The thick jungle pushed at us from all sides, mist hanging through the roots and droplets of water pooling on every leaf and blade of grass.

Almost immediately the outside of my helmet visor began to condense up. The prince didn’t appear to have the same problem. Then again, he was wearing the most advanced armor in the whole goddamn galaxy, wasn’t he?

Another flare of jealousy pumped through my heart. It wasn’t enough to see me turn on my foot and ran off through the jungle in the hopes I could escape the Arterians and finally be free. No, at the very thought of doing that I almost fell to my knees.

I couldn’t leave him. No matter how much I hated him, I just couldn’t stomach turning away.

“Concentrate,” he suddenly snapped from my side.

“That’s easy for you, you don’t have a face full of condensation,” I snapped before I could remind myself who I was talking to.

There was a moment’s pause.

Then there was a hiss as the prince detached something from his armor. Before I knew what he was doing, he walked over to my side, and crossed in front of me. He reached an arm up and clutched the left side of my helmet. If my helmet hadn’t been in place, his hand would have rested against my jaw and neck.

I stiffened. Every single muscle seized in place as the blood beat a thunderous reprieve between my ears.

My mouth went dry, and nerves climbed my neck so quickly it was like lightning discharging up my back.

I tried to tell myself that the prince was just attaching something to the neck piece of my armor, but it didn’t matter. I could not quell my beating heart.

A second later he finished what he was doing.

I felt a click. Then I saw something flicker over my visor. Everything changed. I was no engineer, but it looked as if it upgraded – in a matter of seconds.

The condensation covering my helmet no longer mattered, because the external camera’s somehow adjusted for it.

I brought a hand up and waved it in front of my face, hardly believing what I saw.

The prince chuckled.

He chuckled. The man was actually capable of a moment of mirth.

I narrowed my eyes and stared at him in surprise.

I watched him tilt his head to the side. Before he could say anything, he straightened his back and gave a stiff nod. “You’re ready, now follow.”

The prince never said anything, nor did he ever suggest anything. Everything was a snapped command, an order from a member of royalty.

I tried to remind myself of that fact as I followed him, and it helped flush out the giddy surprise of having him clutch the side of my helmet.

You’re stronger than this. So much fucking stronger, so start acting like it, I berated myself.

We continued to press through the jungle. I was curious as to why the prince had asked me to come along with him, rather than one of his imperial guards, but I knew I couldn’t ask that question. Ask it, and I’d just get a snapped insult in reply, not an answer.

So I stowed my curiosity as I kept my gun clutched in my hand.

The prince hadn’t even bothered pulling his weapon from his side yet, and once or twice I saw his helmet incline towards me. Soon his curiosity obviously got the better of him. “Soldier, why do you have your gun drawn? There are no contacts around here. We have already completed a thorough sensor sweep from orbit. This is purely an exploratory mission.”

Perhaps the right thing to do would have been to holster my gun. I didn’t. I twisted my head around to stare at him. “If it’s so safe, why did you bring so many soldiers? And why have you got your Illuminate sword at your side?”

The prince appeared to react. Though I couldn’t see his body from under his armor, his shoulder pieces suddenly twitched forward. He even took an almost frantic step my way. “What?”

I was dumbfounded by the strength of his reaction. I took a step back to regain my personal space. My mouth was dry, and my heart beat a little harder, but it sure as hell wasn’t because the prince had told me off. It was because he took another step and another step until he stood too damn close to me once more.

“Why did you call it that?” he demanded, words splitting from his mouth.

“… I don’t know, it was just a comment. I mean, that’s what your ship is called. I guess I just…” I trailed off, because I’d lost the ability to form a coherent sentence.

My mind was starting to ring again, and that steady throbbing sensation was crossing through my jaw once more until it felt as if it would shake my teeth from my skull.

… Why had I called the sword at his side an Illuminate sword? I had no goddamn idea. My line of reasoning didn’t make sense. I didn’t honestly believe that just because his ship was called the Illuminate everything on board was called the Illuminate, too. That was idiotic.

Yet I couldn’t explain why the word had pushed from my lips.

The prince appeared to assess me carefully for several seconds before taking several steps back. He nodded. “We need to continue.”

I kept staring at him. From under my armor, I didn’t have to control my expression, and I let my eyes widen as much as they wanted to, let my lips part all the way open. I knew my cheeks were slack and pale, knew I looked like an emotional mess. Fortunately, no one could see.

I gestured towards my blaster. “Can I keep it out?”

He didn’t say anything. Eventually he nodded. Then he pointed forward.

We continued to push slowly through the jungle. The further we walked, the thicker it became. The thicker my thoughts became, too.

There was so much I wanted to ask him. Foremost was why the hell we were down on this goddamn planet. Sure, the ship had scanned it from space, and it had confirmed there were no enemies, barely any life more sophisticated than a tree, in fact. So why had the prince taken a full contingent of soldiers?

What was he looking for?

What did he really think was down on this planet?

I found myself striding forward, pushing out in front of the prince, even though he was meant to take point.

My body just did it on its own.

Though I knew from experience that the prince should pull me up on that, he didn’t.

We walked together in almost near silence, the only sound the soft crunch of our armored boots on the jungle floor, and the occasional chirp of an insect.

I still didn’t know what we were after, but as I flicked the prince an occasional look, and saw how stiff his body language was even under his armor, I could bet it was more than a simple research mission.

The further we travelled into the jungle, the tenser he became.

The jungle around us started to shift, too. Every now and then I watched him bend down as he appeared to assess a misplaced rock amongst the foliage.

It took a while for me to realize they were ruins.

As I pushed back a massive purple leaf, I frowned down at what looked like the remnants of a stone pillar.

As soon as the prince saw what I was looking at, he ducked forward, and practically muscled me out of the way in his haste to scoot down to his knees and assess it.

Unlike me, he didn’t need to pull a matter scanner from the holster at his belt – all he needed to do was wave his armored hand over the ruined pillar.

Well, I assumed the armor had sophisticated scanners, that, or he was waving at it.

Though that thought provided me with a single moment of mirth, it was fleeting.

The prince suddenly jerked up to his feet. He took a stiff step back, head lurching from side-to-side as he spun almost in a full circle.

“What is it?” I asked, undeniable fear curling in my gut.

He didn’t answer. Didn’t deign to as he pushed forward, swiped at the massive purple leaves that obscured the ruins, and pulled the plant out of the ground.

He thrust it aside and continued forward, more cautiously now. I watched his neck shift as he assessed the jungle floor carefully.

With every goddamn step my stomach curdled. I wanted to tell myself it was just anger. Justified frustration at the fact the prince had dragged me along on this mission without one word of explanation.

But the further we traversed into the jungle, the more that sensation returned.

That God awful sensation. A hand on my shoulder. That ghostly apparition that told me what to do and always forced me to protect the prince.

Now it was back, a trace of nerves slicing down my shoulder and into my spine.

Suddenly, without realizing what I was doing, I split away from the prince, and jumped down an incline, boots skidding down a rocky section until I had to push into a roll and jump to my feet to avoid a ditch at the bottom.

“What are you doing?” Xarin snapped from above.

I could barely hear him. It was as if some unseen force had stolen into my mind and thrust a blanket over every one of my senses. All my attention focused on a single point about 250 meters into the jungle.

Fortunately I had the presence of mind to tear my stiff white lips back from my teeth and utter, “There’s something out there.”

With that, I could no longer control my body, and I thrust forward with all the speed of a shot from an ion cannon. I powered through the jungle, tearing into any leaf or branch or twig that dared get in my way. It was a surprise flame didn’t spurt out from my boots.

Time seemed to slow down, even though I powered towards that point in the distance with all the combined speed of my desperation and my armor.

Every moment felt sluggishly slow, every movement a true trial.

Until finally I reached it.

Suddenly the path in front of me cut off. It happened so suddenly, I almost stumbled over the edge. Instinct alone saved me from falling down what looked like a 500 meter ravine. It was so completely obscured by jungle vines and creepers it was like a death trap.

Sure enough, as the prince came powering through the jungle towards me, he didn’t see it.

I had to thrust a hand out, collect his arm, and pull him to the side.

On paper, there was no way my armor was stronger than his. Yet, somehow, I managed to pull him to the side just in time.

He skidded and fell, dragging me on top of him.

I slammed into his chest plating, metal on metal.

Even though I couldn’t see his body beneath the plating, I could tell every single muscle stiffened.

That was nothing compared to my own reaction. I felt like my muscles seized so much they calcified.

Suddenly he thrust forward, shoved me off, and loomed above me. “What in Farick’s name—” he began.

He stopped.

His head jerked to the side with so much speed it looked as if someone had attached a rope to his helmet and yanked it.

As the words died in his throat, fear rose in mine.

I jolted to my feet, careful to take several steps back so I didn’t tumble over the precipice.

It took me a while to realize what the prince was looking at, but I ticked my head around and stared across a sizeable 20 meter gap.

There were ruins on the other side. Not the sparse, broken ruins we’d come across – just a handful of stones in the jungle.

Proper ruins. A building.

“My god,” the prince said. His armor could not electronically obscure the surprise filtering through his tone. It shook so badly, for a second he didn’t sound like the pompous, arrogant fool he was.

“… What are they?” I managed through a dry throat. The longer I stared at them, the more I was beset by that feeling.

It no longer simply felt as if a single hand rested on my shoulder – it felt like a body was pressed into mine, like someone had wrapped their arms around my neck, not in a move of violence, but guidance.

A second later, my head tugged to the side.

I saw something further down the precipice on our side.

I moved to follow.

I didn’t get the opportunity.

The prince jerked out a hand and grabbed my arm, the superior strength of his armor locking me in place. Hell, with the right codes, he could probably stop my armor from moving altogether, turning it into nothing more than a frozen puppet.

I twisted my helmet to stare at him. “There’s something further along the path,” I managed, disappointed that I couldn’t hide how breathy my voice had become.

He didn’t move, at least not for a few seconds. He just stood there, helmet angled my way, stiff armored fingers pressing into my wrist.

Finally he dropped it and nodded. “Show me,” he ordered.

I swallowed the bile that always rose whenever he ordered me about, and shifted my attention forward.

I pressed through the jungle, moving about 20 meters until I stopped. Dead. The ethereal hands around my neck suddenly locked onto the back of my head and thrust it forward. I practically fell onto my knees as my hands jerked forward and I began to dig through the dirt.

It didn’t take long – just a few mad pats of my hands – to uncover something.

It was a metal disk, about two inches thick, and half an inch wide. In the center it was hollowed out, several lines, almost like hairline fractures, travelling out to the edges of the circle.

I reached a hand towards it.

The prince threw himself at me, locked an arm around my middle, and pulled me back with all the force of an attack.

He thrust me to the side and let me go. I rolled and punched to my feet.

“You can’t touch that,” he snapped. “It shouldn’t even exist…” He trailed off. His voice got a distracted quality as he pushed down to his knees and hovered over the object. It was almost as if he blocked me out completely as he spread his hands wide over that metal disk and obviously scanned it with his armor.

I resisted the urge to leap forward, wrap an arm around his middle, and throw him to the side. Not because I wanted to protect him, but because I wanted to show he couldn’t control me, couldn’t push me around so easily.

But there was a force that could push me around, literally.

I brought a hand up and pressed my fingers into my shoulder, the exact point where that ghostly force always connected with me.

I shuddered and stepped back, never shifting my gaze off the prince.

After a few minutes of scanning whatever that strange object was, he pushed to his feet and jerked away from it. I’d never seen him move in a more uncoordinated, hasty way. For a man who seemed to embody the statuesque strength of a god, he now looked like nothing more than a boy in armor.

“What is it?” I found myself asking.

At first I didn’t think he’d answer. Then he turned his helmet towards me. “Something that shouldn’t be here. Something that should have been destroyed in the Great War.” He pushed past me and continued back up the precipice along the way we’d come.

For a second I didn’t follow. Because for a second I wanted to jerk down and pick that object up. For some strange reason I wanted to draw it in close to my face and stare at it, take it all in at once.

Before I could go through with that desire, the prince appeared at my side once more, and he grabbed my wrist.

He pulled me forward. Like I was nothing more than a doll or a dog on a leash.

Though I desperately wanted to pull my hand back, kick him on the back of the knees, then follow up with a vicious blow to his head, I didn’t.

I wasn’t that stupid. I was already skating on thin ice. Any more acts of insubordination, and the prince would get rid of me.

He drew to a stop along the precipice I’d found when I’d burst from the jungle. Though he could have let go of my wrist, he didn’t. He kept hold of it as he tipped his head back and stared at the ruins beyond. “We have to get over there.”

“I probably can’t make that jump,” I said honestly, double checking the specs of my armor on my internal visor.

“I can.” Without any warning, the prince looped behind me, and picked me up.

I spluttered, surprise tearing from my throat, about to be joined by some well-placed insults.

Before I had a chance to scream them, the prince walked back several steps, then leapt. I felt for certain we wouldn’t make it. But halfway through, just when I was sure we’d drop like a rock, the prince’s armor suddenly employed thrusters.

It could fly.

And fly it did. We travelled across the last 10 meters easily, and the prince dropped down gracefully on the other side.

He held onto me needlessly for several seconds as he tipped his head back and clearly assessed the ruins.

Then he dropped me.

Like a sack of rocks.

I thumped at the ground by his feet, my weight combined with my heavy armor cracking the ancient stones beneath me.

I glared at him, then briefly turned off the audio feed and swore at him with every goddamn colorful expression I could think of.

Then I pushed carefully to my feet.

I turned.

The prince frowned. “With me. One step behind. Don’t get ahead, and for God’s sake, never fall behind.”

Again I heard that odd desperate tone.

Before I had a chance to assess it and what it could mean, he motioned me forward, and I felt compelled to follow.

There was an opening to the ruins before us, and the prince took it cautiously, holding up a closed fist. He waited a full minute, perhaps using his tactical scanners to assess the area immediately in front of us, or relying on his intuition alone.

When he eventually waved me forward, I was so goddamn tense, if so much as a moat of dust landed on my shoulder, I would have cracked.

There was something about this place, something eerily familiar.

It spoke to some long lost memory buried deep in my heart. The sensation was so intense, it almost felt as if I’d have a heart attack.

All I could hear – all I was aware of other than the awful sensations pulsing through my body – was the prince’s slow, deliberate footfall.

We continued down what looked like a corridor.

I had no idea what the building had been before.

Now it was nothing more than an interconnected set of tunnels. All that remained was stone.

If I had to guess, the building had belonged to an unsophisticated race. As far as I could tell, the stone had simply been mined from the ground. There were no metal struts, no circuits poking out of the floor – nothing to suggest this building had ever been more than a roof over somebody’s head.

So why the hell was the prince being so cautious? Why was he so fascinated by this place? Because I could tell he was fascinated. Even though I couldn’t see his face, I could imagine it. Almost in perfect detail. Don’t ask me how, but his visage – those crystalline purple eyes offset by that ice-white hair – I could see it perfectly in my mind’s eye as if someone had burnt it onto my retinas.

I blinked several times, but I could not dislodge it.

We walked through several puddles, dank brown and green, filled with a mixture of dead leaves and a particularly virulent kind of moss.

Plants had reclaimed most of the building, large vines descending from gaps in the ceiling, twisting down the walls, and pushing through cracks in the floor.

The curiosity got the better of me, and I took a forced step forward, drawing alongside the prince. Before I could crack my lips open and ask him what the hell we were looking for, he thrust out an arm and I walked right into it.

“What the—” I began.

He slowly twisted his head and he stared at me. “I told you, you remain one step behind.”

There was something about his tone. Something so goddamn officious. It spoke of his royal heritage. Of a man who’d been brought up to believe he was better than absolutely everyone else around him.

I was goddamn sure he couldn’t see my expression under my helmet, but maybe he could read my mind, because he tilted his head to the side even further. “I've tolerated your insubordination thus far, soldier. I will not tolerate it further. You remain a step behind me at all times.”

I waited for him to add that that was where I belonged.

He didn’t. Instead he turned around with a stiff movement and motioned me forward with a dismissive flick of his hand.

Despite the fact his warning was still ringing in my ears, it took me a full 10 seconds before I could force my body to follow his.

We continued down the dirty plant-covered corridor until we found a set of stairs.

The prince cautiously walked down them, his fist raised the entire time.

We pressed forward for God knows how many minutes.

Eventually my anger at the way the prince was treating me abated, and in its place, fear churned in my gut.

Finally we reached what appeared to be a storage room of some description.

The prince told me to stay by the door. And there I waited as he methodically checked through the room, waving his armored hand over old, broken, contorted metal boxes.

Though I couldn’t see them in full, I could tell they were worn with more than age.

They looked like they’d been blown apart by explosives. Powerful explosives. The metal wasn’t just contorted, it had obviously melted and reformed.

The prince didn’t say a single frigging word as he worked methodically. Nor did he pay a scrap of attention to me. It wasn’t until he’d checked the room so thoroughly it was like he was looking for a needle in a haystack, that he finally approached me.

Again he dismissively waved me forward.

“You goddamn fucking asshole,” I screamed as I turned my audio link off.

He strode ahead, reaching the other side of the room before I’d gotten over my anger enough to follow.

For a man who’d insisted I stay a single step behind me, he appeared distracted as he continued to march forward, quickly disappearing through a door.

That’s when it happened.

When I was approximately halfway across the floor, directly over a strange circular lip of rock, there was a single click from somewhere above.

I didn’t even have a second to consider what it could be.

Before the floor disappeared.

It didn’t fall away. It goddamn disappeared as it were nothing more than an illusion.

I screamed as I fell, arms and legs beating wildly as my body dropped like a cruiser that had been shot from the sky.

It felt like I fell for a full minute until finally my body struck the floor with such a resounding impact, I cracked the stone beneath me.

My armor kept me alive. Barely.

It couldn’t completely protect me from the violent impact, and my lips cracked open in a violent cough, blood splattering my chin.

My eyes were riveted open in surprise, my breath coming in hard, ragged pants as my mind desperately tried to process the pain ripping through my body.

I couldn’t move.

My only hope was that the prince had heard me, and would jump down to rescue me.

While my armor had almost been completely obliterated by the fall, I was sure his would withstand the near fatal drop.

I waited five seconds, then ten, then a full minute.

Nothing.

That’s when I realized as I tipped my head back and force my blinking, broken visor to lock above, that the ceiling had reformed.

It was solid stone once more.

….

My mind could not catch up. Couldn’t comprehend what the hell had just happened.

While the new galactic empire possessed holographic technology, it wasn’t nearly sophisticated enough to produce a hologram that could truly fool someone.

The floor above – which couldn’t have been real – hadn’t just fooled me, it had been solid, and supported my weight, and the prince’s too.

I waited. And waited. The prince didn’t come.

I couldn’t tell how many minutes passed. Soon enough, however, I began to realize that if I wanted to live, I would have to save myself.

I began moving my fingers, then my toes. Carefully, one digit at a time. I had to push my mind into the action completely.

After my toes and fingers, came my hands and feet.

One after another, I managed to move my body.

Don’t ask me where I found the strength to push past the pain. I could be doing my already damaged body irreparable injury, worsening my internal bleeding – it didn’t matter.

I had no goddamn choice.

As I shifted up, finally pushing into a seated position, my chest plate fell from my body, clanging against my armored knees and practically disintegrating against the floor.

Using everything – every last goddamn scrap of determination and power – I pushed to my feet.

I swayed badly, feeling like a broken sail flapping in the wind.

But with a lurch that felt as if it would tear my jugular from my throat, I began to walk.

I clutched a hand on my chest, heaving through every movement.

I coughed, blood splattering over my chin and lips.

I reached up, took my helmet off, and thumbed it off with a shaking hand.

As soon as I touched my helmet, it fell to pieces.

I swore. Then I moved forward. One aching step at a time.

Mark

I pushed back from the communication device, ticking my head to the side in a violent move.

I brought a hand up and locked my sweaty palm over my face.

Soon the anger burning through my gut got the better of me, and I balled up a hand and struck it against the wall. Without armor to protect my knuckles, they began to bleed, red specs transferring over my swollen, pulped flesh.

I closed my eyes and bared my teeth.

“What more do they want from me?” I spat, shrieking at the room.

But the room couldn’t answer.

Neither could I.

When the resistance had approached me, I’d been too filled with hope to think things through. I needed them to be the force of hope that could finally free the galaxy.

They weren’t.

They were a bunch of amateurs. Mere civilians who’d been pulled into the cause by nothing more than passion and nothing less than complete idiocy.

I ground my bloodied hand into the wall beside me, not caring as my knuckles grated up against one another, my already torn flesh getting even more of a beating.

“You goddamn bastard,” I spat under my breath. “This isn’t over,” I said darkly as I reached a hand up and pressed a button on my arm.

It immediately activated my sophisticated Arterian armor, and it sprang into place over my body. As soon as the metal encased my hand, it began the quick and simple job of healing my flesh.

I smoothed my calm back into place and walked out into the corridor.

I swore at that goddamn asshole once more in my mind, then I continued my job.

Oil refinery facility, Argoza sector

The foreman strode across the main compound, kicking up great wads of dust with his large worn boots.

An unannounced cruiser was pulling into land. He hated interruptions, hated to pull people off the main pumps to get them to refuel vessels which had wandered off course and needed emergency refuelling.

There was a fuel station a sector away, and unless you were in a great deal of goddamn stress, most people could just refuel there.

Not this guy, he’d contacted from orbit, a real nice asshole who’d demanded immediate refueling.

The foreman brought a hand up and pressed it over his eyes as the cruiser swooped in low to land.

Its glowing neon blue directional thrusters lit up the dying sky like a fire from the gods.

As he squinted against the thinning light, his knowing gaze assessed the cruiser, and he quickly realized it had some significant modifications. It appeared to have some kind of retracting armored hull plating, and that wasn’t to mention the rotating ion blasters at the front and back.

He clenched his yellowed teeth and whistled through them, a few grits of obligatory sand getting sucked into his mouth.

You couldn’t do anything on this planet without getting a mouth full of dust.

The foreman waited there for several seconds, tracking the cruiser until it finally hovered in to land and disappeared behind the primary facility building.

He turned and began the slow march back to the facility.

He didn’t reach it before his com line crackled.

He cleared his throat and brought his wrist up, thumbing a button on a white metal band that had been grafted onto the bone.

“Foreman here,” he said with a guttural rumble.

“Sir—” one of his workers said.

“Yes?”

Nothing.

The audio feed ended with an ominous click.

His hackles rose as a sharp, bitter tasting fear rose through his mouth.

He brought a hand up and quickly swiped the sweat from the top of his brow.

He found himself hurrying, faster now, faster again, until his thick, heavy, dust-clogged boots reverberated over the ground with an ominous drumbeat.

By the time he reached the facility, he knew something was wrong.

It wasn’t just his thundering double-time heartbeat – it was the blood that covered the walls, the floor, too. He brought one hand up and pressed it over his mouth as he clutched at the blaster always holstered at his hip.

He yanked it out and approached cautiously, the tread of his boot transferring great clogs of dust and dirt onto the blood-splattered floor. He barely made it a few meters before he heard something clang on the floor behind him.

The foreman had been a hard man for years. He specialized in surviving on dirty, violent, nasty outposts just like this. So he knew what was coming long before he felt something slice into the soft flesh below his neck.

His gaze jerked to the side, and he saw a standard dirt pick sticking out of his neck.

He fell down to one knee, but wasn’t allowed to fall to the other.

A hand locked on the dirt pick and held it in place.

He screamed, the noise splitting from his lips with such ferocity, he could have ripped them off.

“What do you want?” he hollered.

The hand on the dirt pick said nothing. Instead it twisted and twisted until burning, hot, deadly pain snaked into his head.

He thought he’d lose consciousness. He wasn’t provided that opportunity.

Something was injected into his neck. It wasn’t hard to realize what it was. A fast acting stimulant, one designed to keep him alive and cognizant just long enough.

He pressed his blood covered lips together and cracked out an insult.

The hand twisted the dirt pick further. “You will answer,” it said in a strange tone.

It took his spinning mind a second to place it.

An Arterian assassin. Legendary, the kind of stuff nightmares were made from.

Sure enough as a figure walked in front of him and leant just before his kneeling, shaking form, he recognized the Arterian uniform. A purple and gold cloak hung so low over the face it obscured everything but a stiff set of lips. “You will answer,” the Arterian snapped once more.

“Ask your goddamn question,” the foreman managed, every word exacting a painful cost from his broken body.

The Arterian reached into their cloak and pulled something out.

It was a slim, silver oblong disk, looking like nothing more than a circle of metal.

They clutched it in their hand, swiped their free palm over it, then shifted back.

A hologram appeared over the disc.

A perfect hologram.

It didn’t flicker, didn’t shake as moats of dust fell through it.

It was indistinguishable from reality.

The foreman didn’t have the opportunity to revel in its perfection.

The Arterian assassin pushed further forward, head tilting to the side, their cloak always covering their identity. “Where?” the woman asked, speaking through pared back lips.

Though the foreman’s brain was rapidly running out of blood, he guessed it was a she.

From her rounded, shapely lips alone, not to mention her figure, only partially obscured by her cloak, he knew it was a woman.

“Focus.” The assassin clutched hold of his chin, yanking it to the side and jerking his head down until he faced the hologram.

Though his bleary eyes could barely see any more, as the woman tugged his face ever closer to the hologram, he focused long enough to realize he recognized the image.

One of his workers.

“Where is she?” the Arterian hissed, her plush lips drawing so thin they looked like nothing more than red lines slicing through her chin.

“.. Shar,” he managed.

“Where is she?” the woman snapped, enunciating every word with a deadly tone.

“Gone. Taken.”

“By whom?” The woman pressed forward until she and her spinning hologram were right by his face.

As he took his dying breath the woman clutched a hand to his chin, her fingers digging right down to the bone.

“Tell me,” she snapped.

He felt compelled. His dying brain could pick that up. His lips parted, the truth forming in his mind and readying on his lips. Despite the fact he fought to keep his goddamn lips closed, he couldn’t. “Space. Gone to space.”

“Where?” the assassin’s voice rattled with so much gravitas she sounded like a god who’d fallen to earth. “Where?” She shook his chin violently until it felt as if his head would be wrenched off.

That compelling force grew stronger until he could fight it no longer. “Arterian war cruiser.”

She dropped his chin, took a step back, and turned the hologram off with one hand.

With one final beat of his heart he watched her ball her fingers around that hard metal disc and strike it against the center of his head.

He died.

Instantly.

Splatters of his blood mixed with the rust-red sand and scattered over his well-worn boots.

The assassin walked away, wiping the foreman’s blood off her holo disc and returning it to her pocket.

Prince Xarin

She was nowhere to be seen. She’d simply disappeared.

When I realized she wasn’t following, I doubled back, but I couldn’t find her anywhere.

An odd sensation was pushing through my gut, alighting over my back like insects climbing down the skin.

Fear.

True fear. Not the hood of anxiety that covered me these days, but goading desperation that dug deeper into my stomach with every violent second.

I ran back into the storage room, but as I pushed my on-board scanners to full, they still couldn’t pick her up.

I ran into the center of the room, that desperation still goading at my heart. For some reason it was even getting hard to breathe.

… Call me mad, but it suddenly felt as if two hands clutched around my neck.

The hands came from nowhere, just ghostly apparitions with the force of a real man.

I staggered down to one knee, then the other, until I had to flatten a hand against the floor to stabilize myself.

That’s when my scanners picked something up. Through the stone.

A life sign. Waning. Getting weaker by the second.

I lurched down until my stomach was practically pressed against the floor, flattening both hands until I picked up the life sign in full.

Don’t ask how, but I knew it was her, just as I knew she was running out of time.

As a scream tore from my throat, I collapsed one hand into a fist and utilized the full force of my armor.

Then I thrust back on my knees, brought my arm back, and slammed it down into the floor.

One strike, then another. I used my full power.

It should have been enough to completely obliterate the floor. It should have been enough to break my way past a cruiser’s external hull.

And yet the floor did not shift. Did not splinter. Did not even shake.

I jerked up as I realized something was fundamentally wrong.

I shifted backwards, wary gaze locked on that section of floor until my back jammed against the far wall.

Without another moment’s hesitation, I activated my armor’s guns.

Both palms suddenly shifted, metal plating furling back to reveal two white-hot pulsing guns.

Pulling my stiff lips away from my teeth, I began to fire, not at the floor, but at the ceiling. At a single point on the ceiling far above. A small rotating metal disc.

How I hadn’t noticed it before, I didn’t know.

My gut lurched once more as desperation punched through it.

Finally my shots were enough to destroy the metal holo disc.

It ruptured, sending splatters of molten metal spitting out onto the floor.

Or at least it should have.

For at that exact moment, the floor disappeared.

It didn’t break apart. It simply stopped existing. It was nothing more than a hologram.

I wasted no time.

I thrust forward, pushing into a jump.

I tucked my legs up as I sailed right through the hole in the floor.

And I fell, and I fell, and I fell.

100 meters, 200 meters, 300 meters, then I lost count.

It took too long to hit the stone floor below, but finally I did. I landed on it with such impact my armored boots split the ground, breaking several meters of black stones and sending fine rock chip up around me in a halo.

I remained there with one hand pressed into the floor for a single second before jerking up.

I twisted my head to the side and saw the blood splattering the ground.

The chunks of armor, too.

A standard issue Arterian soldier's breastplate was lying by my feet.

A few meters from that was a helmet.

I dashed over and plucked it up, turning it up until I could see the insides.

That’s when I saw her blood.

It covered the inside of the visor, the electronic screen now completely cracked.

As I jerked my head up, I saw blood-splattered footprints pushing through the room.

I followed them.

Again my heart beat, pounded in my chest, reverberated like heavy footfall.

Don’t ask me how, but I knew she was on the edge of death, wherever she was.

As a full member of the Arterian Royal Family, I shouldn’t care.

What was one more soldier sacrificed to the cause?

I’d been taught not to be precious about people.

You had to sacrifice to win at war. And if you did not win, the effects would be ghastly. The modern Milky Way would fall.

So why did I care so much about this one soldier?

For that matter, why in God’s name had I brought her aboard?

Though her skills in combat were truly impressive….

I thrust away my warring thoughts.

They would do me no good.

The further I travelled, the more impressed I became. Though she was clearly on the edge of death, she knew how to push past pain.

I’d come to this planet on a slim hope. To find more Illuminate technology. It would give me the edge I needed against not just the Zorv, but the wolves howling at my door.

So why couldn’t I fix my mind on that as I pressed forward, throat dry, mouth feeling as though it were full of barbs.

The only feeling I felt was clawing desperation, and with every second, it got worse.

“I have to find her,” I found myself saying before I could press my lips closed.

I forced forward with all the speed I could muster.

Shar

I walked along with one bloodied hand pressed against the wall for support.

Long ago most of my armor had fallen off.

The only thing that was left was one arm piece and one boot.

It contributed to a strange clicking footfall. One step would be accompanied with a bloodied groan as my bare foot struck the cold stone while the other rang out with a resounding click of armor.

I had no idea where I was going.

Forward.

That was the only concept my broken mind could manage, anyway.

I came across strangely solid patches of the building.

I would walk from one ruined corridor into a room that looked as if it had been untouched.

I began to appreciate the architecture. What I had once thought were nothing but old ruins constructed by an uncivilized race were actually much more.

I continued to move through the corridors, bloodied hands locked on the wall.

It became harder and harder as more and more fatigue wrapped through my body. Something else did at the same time.

This burning white-hot determination. I had no idea where it came from.

It was like a hand that always guided me. It seemed as if it came from beyond. Not just my body… but somehow… the universe.

I gritted my teeth, my gums bloodied and sore.

A distant part of my mind realized it was unlikely I would get through this.

I would have terrible internal bleeding, and though I could move, I was likely only speeding up my inevitable death.

But could I stop? Could I reason with the compulsion pushing through me?

No chance.

I started to mutter to myself, speak in low, quick, desperate tones. I was barely aware of what I was saying, couldn’t even recognize the language spurting from my lips.

But whatever force was pulling me forward, did so with more and more force, until I finally pulled my hand from the wall and staggered forward with all the speed my broken form could muster.

The further I travelled into the building, the more sophisticated the architecture became. I was now certain that this building had belonged to a once-great civilization. Though my mind was addled from pain and the fear of dying, I could appreciate what that meant.

I, like most other citizens of the modern galaxy, knew of the empire that had come 2000 years before, I also knew that no technology remained from that time. Just sparse ruins. Destroyed buildings. Planets that had been scorched from space. No technology. Nothing useful. And yet… If I was right, and this building had belonged to the Great Empire, then….

A compulsion welled in my chest as if someone had tied a rope around my heart. It pulled me forward with such force I staggered. I reached a set of stairs, and somehow with jerking, broken steps, managed to push down it.

I saw a door at the end of the corridor. Ornate, made out of carved and gilded metal. It was at least 10 meters high and five meters wide.

And it had… gravitas, this feeling of import. I staggered towards it, one bloodied hand outstretched. It felt as if I was about to knock on the doors of heaven.

“What?” the word broke from my bleeding, white lips.

I reached it.

At first I hesitated, whatever sense was left in my mind telling me to stop. But I couldn't fight against the compulsion, and before I knew it, I threw myself at the door.

… And it opened. It slid open without a sound, the metal mechanisms moving so smoothly it was as if they'd been made that very day.

I entered the room. Or at least tried to. At that exact moment my broken body became too much for me.

And I fell.

Crumpled, my knees jerking out from underneath me as my head struck the floor.

For a few short seconds I remained conscious enough to lock my eyes on what was inside the darkened room.

Though I could barely see, my bleary gaze locked on something in the center of the room.

A white metal plinth. And on top of that, a small handheld device.

It was the strangest design I'd ever seen. It glowed, light blue and orange lines scattered across its surface. It pulsed, too, with a steady beat, like a heart.

I fought to keep my eyes open. I could not.

I slipped into the arms of unconsciousness.

Arterian assassin

She walk along the rugged, rocky peaks, head tilted to the side as the wind tried but failed to unfurl her cloak from her face.

There was very little technology in the entire modern galaxy that would be able to un-cloak her and reveal her true identity.

This fabric came from the Great Empire, from the Illuminates.

So she didn't bother to lock a hand on it as she strode forward, one hand pressed against the rocky outcrop beside her.

Far in the distance she saw what she was looking for. A simple, weather-beaten metal shack.

If her information was correct, then the evil one had been born there. The one who would threaten everything, who had the power to pull down the Arterian Empire.

The destroyer.

Just thinking about her set the assassin’s teeth on edge, brought the bile rising up her throat, and made her clench her free hand into such a tight fist it was as if she wanted to snap her fingers off.

It had taken a great deal of investigation to find out the destroyer’s birthplace. A lot of blood, too.

But the assassin had been born to spill blood.

The galaxy demanded it. You did not buy peace and prosperity with hope. You did so over the ashes of those who got in your way.

The assassin took a strong, ringing, resounding step over the stone.

Then she simply pushed off. She flattened her palm against the rocky outcrop beside her, and jerked backwards.

It wasn't a fatal move. As she plummeted down the sheer side of the rocky cliff, she tapped something on her arm and she began to float. An inertia field sprang up around her form, encasing her body in a light pleasant blue glow as if she'd jumped in a tropical ocean.

It guided her body right down the side of the sheer cliff. As she moved slowly past, she caught sight of the striations in the rock and could have almost counted the billions of years of history that had weathered this beaten planet.

She didn't care. The only thought that possessed her mind was the future.

Finally she reached the bottom of the canyon.

She pressed her feet out, and as soon as her black heels landed on the ground, the field cut out. She strode forward, several crackles of electricity darting over her cloak and discharging into the air.

She walked up the side of a hill, that persistent wind still trying to pull her cloak from her body. Finally she caught sight of that dilapidated metal shack.

She tilted her head fully to the side, brought a hand up, and tapped her plush bottom lip.

The destroyer had been born to a single mother, a survivor from a colony war. The mother had died a little under two months after giving birth to her. The destroyer had been thrust into the care of the community. And when she'd been old enough to look after herself, she'd left. To find work.

It was a far cry from the assassin’s own privileged upbringing.

As a full member of the Arterian Royal Family, she did as she pleased. She had not had to fight to live. And yet, now, she embraced fighting for all it was worth. Bloodlust had always been in her bones.

The assassin quickly covered the distance up to the shack, then she reached it, stretching out a hand and tapping her perfect nails against the broken metal door.

She smiled at it for a few short seconds, then leaned back, brought her leg forward, and kicked it in a powerful, resounding move.

Her heel sank so hard into the metal door that the thing cracked.

The assassin was full Arterian, but her heritage did not completely account for her unusual strength, speed, and efficiency.

From birth, she had been grafted with Illuminate technology.

It was in her very bones, and gave her the edge no one else had.

The metal door clanged onto the floor, skidding several meters into the broken metal shack.

She swung her head from side to side, clenching her teeth together twice to activate her internal scanners.

They swept over the 5 x 5 meter room.

It had been picked over for possessions long ago. The colonists on this world were poor, pathetic souls. They’d obviously stolen anything they’d thought was valuable.

But they were still fools. For they’d left the most important item. An item that could change the course of history.

As the assassin strode forward, she brought her hand up and waved it to the side.

She picked up a unique energy signature.

She thrust down to her knee, flattening her palm against a thick section of metal flooring.

….

The assassin didn't pause any longer.

She brought her hand back, rounded it into a fist, and struck it into the metal floor. Though it was thick, and she should have shattered her knuckles, she didn't.

Her fist sailed right through, at the last moment small inertia shields flickering over it and protecting it from the impact.

She punched right through the metal, pushed her fingers into the hole, then ripped a massive section of the plating clean off.

She ducked forward, scooped her hand into the hole, and plucked out a metal strong box.… a sophisticated one.

She held back a satisfied smile as she sat down and brought the box into her lap.

She tapped the case with one long fingernail, before bringing the same hand up and tapping her lips. “Interesting,” she commented to herself.

The technology of this box was far more sophisticated than anything you could imagine you would find in a dilapidated metal shack, let alone on this entire planet.

It possessed the kind of secure technology they used in the Arterian Royal Family.

In fact, as she brought her face closer and inspected it, she realized it did belong to the Arterian Royal Family.

“I've got you now,” she said, lips spreading with mirth.

She pushed to her feet, tucked the box under her arm, and walked outside, shields clicking over the metal.

She tipped her head back, and saw a storm brewing along the horizon.

It made her smile even further.

Because it wasn't just the horizon that would be cut down by that storm, it would be the galaxy.

A change was on the wind, one she would push through no matter the costs.

Prince Xarin

I thrust forward with so much speed, my armor cracked the floor beneath me.

I’d never felt such desperation. Such a drive to save someone.

It was foolish, impossible to understand. I kept begging myself to stop, but I just couldn't.

I couldn't describe it, but I knew that Shar needed me. That she had minutes. Damn minutes.

A scream cracked from my lips as I suddenly found a set of stairs.

I ducked down and pushed a finger through a drop of blood.

Then I pushed down the stairs, leaping off the last few, falling to my knees, rolling, and punching forward.

That’s when I saw a door.

It was no ordinary door.

It was Illuminate technology.

You didn't have to glance upon the sophisticated elegant design for long to realize that. Plus, the symbols carved into the surface was unmistakable.

I pushed towards it, but hesitated before I reached a hand out.

A sick feeling pushed through my gut, sinking hard into the center of my chest.

I'd come to this planet on the slim hope of finding Illuminate technology that had not been ravaged by the Great War.

If the perfect state of this door was anything to go by, then beyond that was just what I was looking for.

And yet… I hesitated.

Because this went against tradition. And not just tradition, my family.

It was forbidden for lower members of the Arterian Royal Family to go after Illuminate tech. There was a specific division of the family that did that.

For it was considered dangerous. The Illuminates and the Great Empire had been destroyed by an unknown force. Not enough archaeological information existed to understand who they were. But they had destroyed the Illuminates because of their sophisticated technology. That much the Arterian Royal Family knew. It was ingrained within their tradition and history. The first thing I'd ever learnt when I’d reached the age of understanding, was that I had to be careful with Illuminate technology. Use it out of hand, let the commoners possess it, and the great force may come back.

To many Arterians, they considered that force God. An angry, vengeful god who did not want man born in its exact image. Man belonged on Earth, on the dark, dirty, rocky planets of the Milky Way.

Not in heaven.

And when the Illuminates had invented their powerful technology, they had tried to ascend to that heaven.

So they’d been wiped away.

“You shouldn't be doing this,” I said out loud as if a verbal reminder would somehow pull me to my senses.

It did not.

I didn't care about possible repercussions from my family. Because I had taken every effort to keep this secret.

I hadn't told my men, and I would never dare breathe a word of this to anyone else.

This wasn't the first time I'd diverted my war cruiser on the hope of finding Illuminate artefacts.

And it wouldn't be the last.

Because I was determined to find out the truth, no matter the costs.

I did not subscribe to the belief that the Illuminates had been wiped out because of their superior technology. Though that thought alone could get me deposed, it simply didn't make sense. The victors always rewrote history to make the brutality of war sound justified.

So I took a deep breath, drove it into my gut, and pushed forward. As soon as my hand locked on that carved, incredible door, it opened. It hissed back into a recess with a silent, smooth move that proved it was technology light years beyond that which the modern galaxy possessed.

I took a step into the darkened room. My eyes should have locked on the white plinth in the middle, on the strange device sitting on top.

It didn't.

Shar was a crumpled, bloody mess by my feet.

Something in me snapped.

Whatever was left of my reason, my sense, was blown away.

I fell beside her, wrapped a hand on her broken shoulder, and gently placed my other along her cheek. I shifted her head, using my scanners to ensure her neck wasn’t broken, then I looked into her eyes.

They were half open….

A surge of fear churned through me. Crumpled me. Tore down every wall. It felt as if it scoured my heart and ripped every single centimeter of flesh away like a man paring back the skin on an onion.

I doubled forward, collapsing over her, until finally my senses registered she was alive.

Her half-open, bleary eyes suddenly blinked, and she looked at me.

There wasn't a great deal of consciousness there – she was clearly on the edge of death – but she was alive.

And that was all that mattered.

Though the Illuminate device was just a few meters away, I didn't jerk to my feet to check it. Instead I methodically took off pieces of my armor, wrapping them around Shar’s body.

My armor was so sophisticated that it would be able to heal her, despite the fact she was not Arterian.

It was dangerous – goddamn foolish to be taking off my armor. Half the galaxy wanted me dead. But half the galaxy weren’t in this room. And even if they had been, I would have done the same.

I couldn't see her die.

Those words kept reverberating in my mind as if somebody was singing them right into my ear.

Once I was done, and my armor had adjusted around her body until it encased her in full, I rested back.

I kept one hand on her shoulder. I was still connected to my armor, despite the fact it was no longer on me.

… And after a few seconds it confirmed it was healing her.

Slowly. She'd still need medical attention, but she was no longer critical. The armor could keep her in a safe stasis for days, if not years.

So finally I was free to push to my feet. Slowly, carefully, I walked towards the white plinth in the center of the room. As I approached, the dull lighting brightened. No, it wasn't the lighting – it was the device. It began to glow.

I reached a hand towards it, watching, completely mesmerized as the blue and orange lines of light doubled. It was as if I was watching veins grow over the metal.

I hesitated one final time, then pushed forward and plucked the device up.

A part of me that still vaguely believed the traditions of my people waited to be struck down by God.

I waited for the force to push down from the heavens and smite me.

When it didn't, I wrapped my hands around the device harder, bringing it close as I brushed a thumb delicately over the smooth surface.

It was warm. And powerful.

Strangely powerful.

Though I did not have my armor on, I didn't need to.

As I tenderly brushed my fingers over the surface of the device, I felt something.

Some strange connection that spoke of a long history.

A long forgotten legend….

I suddenly jolted as I received a communication to my internal implant.

I clicked my jaw to the side. “Yes?”

“We lost communication with you there for a while,” it was Mark. “Your highness, are you okay?” There was an undeniable quickness to Mark's words. Fear for my safety – it had to be.

I forced myself to nod. “I'm okay, but I have a casualty. Returning to the ship. Instruct my men to board the transport.”

“Casualty?” Mark questioned. “Who?”

“Irrelevant,” I said as I swiveled my gaze and locked it on Shar.

I wanted to believe she was irrelevant. I tried to harden my gaze, lock my teeth together, and pull my heart away from her.

… I couldn't.

So I pushed down and picked her up.

Despite the weight of my armor, I was still strong enough to pick her up. My muscles tensed, my back stiffened, but it didn't matter.

Her head lolled to the side at what looked like an uncomfortable angle.

I shifted my arms back and tilted until her head rolled to the other side and nestled against my chest.

… Something about this felt right.

So unbelievably, impossibly right.

And yet wrong at the same time.

With her still form crumpled against my own, my heart quickened with fear.

I ran all the way through the facility and back up to the transport. Before I reached it, I reluctantly took my armor back from her.

I wasn't so far gone to forget how strange it would look if I dressed a simple soldier in my own armor. So I chanced upon a quiet place, and took each piece of plating off her one by one.

Fortunately the armor had already stabilized her body, and by the time I took her back to the transport, I snapped at the field medic to attend to her injuries.

It was a short flight back to my ship. But in my mind it dragged. It felt like years were flying through my fingers.

I'd already locked my helmet in place, and wouldn't have removed it for the world. It hid my expression. It hid my panic as I watched in full, heart pounding terror. As I waited for the transport to finally arrive aboard my war cruiser and Shar to be taken to the medical bay.

Chapter 7

Prince Xarin

I stood close to the primary medical bay door. Hovering.

I was a prince of the Arterian Royal Family.

I did not hover. Never lingered. Always moved with singular purpose. And yet here I was, lacking the courage to move inside or walk away.

Not for the first time, I brought my hands up and stared at them.

And I didn’t know why.

There was no earthly reason to focus on them so clearly, and yet I could not push them down.

… Over the past several weeks, I’d felt a strange, ghostlike, niggling sensation in my palms and fingertips. It was almost as if they were moving without my permission. And yet every time I glanced down at them, they remained steady.

Leave, you’re making a fool of yourself, I tried to tell myself, but there was little point.

I could not be reasoned with.

A minute later, it didn’t matter.

I received a call, the implant lodged in my jaw clicking to the side with an unmistakable tingling feeling.

“Who is it?” I snapped, taking my anger out on them.

There was a moment’s pause. “It’s me,” came Arteria’s delicate tones.

I stiffened immediately, for more reasons than one.

“Arteria,” I said, my usually calm voice pitching with emotion. “I am sorry. These are trying times,” I added quickly.

“I understand that,” Arteria said, never raising her tone.

She paused.

Though her call and the mere sound of her voice should have cut through my tension, it did not; it made it worse.

I brought up a stiff-fingered, white-knuckled hand and rested it tensely on my chest. “Why have you called?” I asked directly. I winced as soon as I heard how harsh my voice was.

Before I could mollify my words, Arterian gave a light sigh.

“There’s something important I need to talk to you about,” she began.

The medical bay doors opened from behind me, and I suddenly lost all concept of what she was saying.

Shar walked out, a hand clutched at her stomach, but her footfall still steady.

I was not a man who was ever lost for words, and yet, as I stared at her, my mind drew a blank.

At first she frowned, expression dark, then she clearly became confused at my startled reaction. She watched me warily. “Prince Xarin, are you okay?”

I couldn’t say there was true compassion twisting in her tone, but there was something.

….

I suddenly realized that I was still on the line to Arteria.

I cleared my throat and straightened my back.

“Your highness?” Arteria asked carefully.

Shar continued to look at me warily. I could tell she was seconds from asking what the hell was wrong with me, when I turned sharply and directed my back at her.

I heard her let out a terse breath of air.

If she were any other soldier, I would pull her up on that.

Instead I continued to stride down the corridor.

I told my mind to settle. I’d seen her, and she was clearly okay, otherwise she wouldn’t have been released from the medical bay.

So I strode away. Arteria kept asking if I was okay, but I could not reply until I was well out of earshot of Shar. Even then, that unfamiliar trace of nerves kept crawling up my back.

“Your highness, it is critically important that I speak to you,” Arteria continued.

“What is it?”

“I need your help,” she said in a fluctuating tone.

There was something about that tone that made me stop on the spot. My mouth suddenly became dry.

“What is it?” I asked quickly, voice punching from my throat.

“I need your assistance to get off the home world.”

My brow crumpled. “What?” I hissed.

“I’m no longer safe here,” the longer Arteria spoke, the more strangled her words became.

I put a hand up to my suddenly beating chest.

“Certain factions are moving against my family,” her voice now shook so badly I had trouble discerning the words.

“What?” A metallic taste filled my mouth. It felt as if I’d been struck on the head.

“I don’t know which family it is, all I know is that I’m in mortal peril. I need your help. Please give it to me.”

There was the sound of rustling fabric.

The skin along the back of my neck prickled.

“My prince, I am down on my knees. Please, say you will help me. Please,” she pleaded one final time.

“I will send a ship for you,” I said, determination punching from my throat.

I heard her sigh with relief. “Oh God, I knew I could rely on you.”

“You must keep yourself safe until my guards arrive. I will transmit coordinates to you. They will lead to my family holdings. You will be safe there,” I said with a great deal of conviction and hope.

“Oh, Xarin, I will never be able to thank you enough.”

“You mustn’t mention it. Endeavour to remain safe. You will hear from me shortly.”

With that, I ended the call.

That’s when I discerned footsteps behind me.

Shar.

It took a while for her to come into view, but with my extended hearing, she sounded close enough to touch.

Several seconds later, she rounded a corner and came into full view.

She stopped, boots skidding to a halt.

At first I wanted to be angry at her interruption, furious at the prospect she may have overheard me, but the anger couldn’t last.

I felt my expression soften as my gaze darted over her form, locking on her stomach. My lips parted and I asked what I should have asked before: “Are you well?” For some reason I spoke with more conviction than I usually did. I couldn’t control my tone. I was like a child learning to speak.

Again she looked at me warily, but I fancied her expression softened until she nodded. “I’m fine. The medical technicians managed to repair most of the damage to my body.”

“Most?” I locked on that word, for some reason terrified by it.

Again she looked at me warily, there were flickers of… something beginning to burn in her gaze. “I’ll be fine. It’ll just take some time.”

My mouth was so dry, I couldn’t stop swallowing. “Good,” I forced myself to say. “Good,” I repeated awkwardly.

Then silence swept in around us. I should ask Shar – no, demand of her – whether she’d overheard my conversation with Arteria. Even though she could not have heard Arteria’s words, she could have learnt a lot simply from my responses.

Shar turned away, giving a brief nod. “I’m sorry for taking your time, your highness, I’m sure you’re busy.”

For some ungodly reason my hand jerked out and my fingers spread wide as if I wanted to lock her in place.

Thankfully she didn’t see. She simply turned and continued down the corridor.

I got the strangest compunction to follow her.

But as soon as she was out of sight, I realized with a violent shudder what I’d just learnt.

Arteria was in danger.

I turned and jolted forward, determined to bring her safely to this ship.

Shar

Who the hell was Arteria? And why was she in danger?

And more to the point, why did he keep reacting like that around me?

He was almost acting like he… cared.

Before I could foolishly convince myself of that fact, I reminded myself who he was. The most arrogant bastard I’d ever met.

As I continued down the corridors, heading towards my room, somebody intercepted me.

Mark.

His expression was at odds with his usual carefree smile. He was wearing that same hard edge I saw when he was giving the other soldiers orders.

At first I cringed, worrying that I was in trouble.

Then he reached me.

He clenched his teeth together and let out a heavy sigh.

I paused and looked at him. “Are you alright?”

He continued to bare his teeth for a few seconds before he locked his hand on his eyes. He stared at me from between his fingers. “Do you really want to know?”

I frowned.

He appeared to stare at me carefully. His lips partially parted, an odd, directed quality to his stare.

After a few seconds, I couldn’t take it anymore.

I ticked my head to the side and let my gaze slide up until it locked on his eyes. “What is it?”

He suddenly took a quick step next to me, the movement so fast it could have been an attack.

Just before alarm could plunge through my gut, he placed a hand carefully on my shoulder. “Can I trust you?” he said in the quietest voice.

“Trust? What’s this about?”

He locked that wary gaze on me once more. “Can I trust you?” He suddenly brought his face close to mine. Too close. So close his lips almost pressed up against the plaits beside one of my ears. “Come to my quarters tonight.” With that, he removed his hand, turned, and walked away without another word, and without a goddamn explanation.

I was left standing there, eyes wide with alarm and curiosity.

And yes, my stomach clenched with pleasant tingles as his offer rang in my ears and the memory of his breath against my cheek tingled over my skin.

It was not enough, however, to make me forget what I’d learnt from Xarin.

I walked back to my quarters, confusion fogging my mind.

Confusion, and a subtle, growing sense of dread.

Princess Arteria

She walked back and forth, pacing the room, stomach clenched in a knot.

A second later, the holographic emitters blinked into life.

Cortina appeared.

Arteria clutched a hand on her stomach and tried to ignore the pain and fear that flooded through her gut.

“Have you done it?” The assassin tipped her head to the side, her cloak partially obscuring her lips.

They couldn’t obscure the smile, though.

The cruel, exacting smile.

“I’ve done it,” Arteria managed, hand still locked on her stomach.

“Good girl,” the assassin said, lips snarling around each word. “But this is only the beginning, you understand that, don’t you?”

Princess Arteria paused.

The hologram of the assassin pressed forward. She inched her head down until she inclined her neck at such an angle it looked like she was trying to snap it clean off. “You understand that, don’t you, princess?”

Arteria removed her hand from her stomach and forced her stiff neck to nod.

“I understand,” she managed.

The assassin pressed forward one more time.

“Good,” she whispered coldly. “I don’t need to remind you what will happen if you disobey me, do I?” The assassin’s tone was languid and slow.

Arteria shook her head.

The assassin smiled, and in another second, the hologram flicked out.

Arteria turned away, dropped her hand from her stomach, and arranged her hair neatly over her shoulder.

“No,” she said to no one in particular, “No, you don’t have to remind me what will happen.”

She smiled.

Chapter 8

Shar

I never saw Mark that night. Though I gathered the courage to go to his room, he wasn’t there.

From that day onward, he stayed resolutely by the prince’s side.

It had to have something to do with what I’d overheard that day.

The prince was determined to save somebody, to bring them aboard.

My ordinary missions continued as usual, and reluctantly I began to bond with some of the other soldiers. We were all in this together, though it didn’t take me long to realize I was unique amongst the other crew.

I was the first and only soldier Prince Xarin had ever drafted.

If you believed the other men, he preferred not to Shanghai people.

So why had he gone after me?

Despite the fact I did not see the prince for several weeks, his effect on me didn’t change.

If anything, it grew more powerful.

I could no longer deny that what was happening to me wasn’t normal.

It wasn’t some virus, some blow to the head.

I’d discreetly asked the medical staff to check me after my run in on that jungle planet.

My physiology was normal.

Normal.

I couldn’t tell anyone about what was happening to me.

There was no one I could confide in.

Though, in a few of my giddier insane moments, I briefly thought about telling the prince himself.

It was a new day, and I woke to continue my training.

Though, in many ways, I was starting to train the other soldiers. They’d begun to value my unique experience. While I wasn’t Arterian, I knew how to survive, and that was far more important.

As I walked to the armory, I saw several guards rush past. I caught one. “What’s going on?” I snapped.

“Royalty is arriving,” the man said before he rushed away.

My mind spun.

I was ordered to take up a general guard position within the secondary docking bay.

I assumed said royalty would arrive in the primary docking bay.

I was wrong.

Soon a ship arrived.

Just as impressive as this massive war cruiser, though on a much smaller scale.

It pushed through the interlocking shields at the door of the docking bay, then swept in to land.

I was one of only three guards on patrol.

Just when I thought it would only be the three of us, the doors opened, and in he walked.

This time he didn’t ignore me.

Despite the fact I was in full armor and he shouldn’t really be able to discern me from any other soldier, he locked his gaze on me, even twisting his head around as he stared at me.

He didn’t even bother to switch his gaze towards the ship as a hatch appeared in the side and a ramp grew out of it.

Several seconds later, out walked a princess.

There was no other way to describe her.

She wore a full-length purple robe, adorned with so much gold jewelry she sparkled.

Her long vibrant red hair was encrusted with pearls, and tapered down her neck.

Finally the prince tore his gaze off me and locked it on the woman. He placed one arm on his stomach, pushed the other palm against his leg, and bowed regally. “Princess Arteria, you grace us with your presence.”

I was right. She was a princess.

But there was one thing I hadn’t accounted for.

The way Xarin looked at her.

You’d have to be a fool not to see the adoration playing in his gaze.

Fair enough, the princess was the picture of perfection. But seeing the way he looked at her….

I had to try extremely hard not to clutch a hand to my stomach and try to rip through my armor.

I settled for clenching my teeth so hard I felt as if I’d split my head in two.

Arteria returned the prince’s greeting, and his loving gaze.

Then she thrust forward, apparently done with tradition, and wrapped her arms around his middle.

Now I couldn’t control myself.

Now I twitched as if I’d been struck. And anger, hot white and bright like a pulse from a blaster, slammed through my gut.

I had never been a jealous person. For I’d never possessed anything worth being jealous over. But now as I watched her gaze linger on him as she finally pulled her arms away from his middle, I felt as though I wanted to ball my hand into a fist and thrust it into her face.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the opportunity, the prince led Arteria forward and out of the room.

Mark had entered the room with the prince, and now he turned sharply on his foot, the move distinct, almost ceremonial. His helmet was down, and before he could turn away completely, he locked his gaze on me.

….

I felt like he was trying to say something to me.

His gaze was so intense, so direct.

And yet it didn’t last as he followed the prince and princess out of the room.

Without Mark to distract me, my mind went back to the fact Xarin had another.

It was a ridiculously foolish way to think about it, and I clenched my teeth as soon as that stupid thought flooded into my mind, but I couldn’t push it away.

It felt like Xarin had betrayed me somehow. Had broken a sacred promise.

I couldn’t calm my churning gut, no matter what I told it.

So I followed as I was instructed, shifting from the docking bay and taking up guard somewhere else.

Once or twice I felt that ethereal hand, felt it push against my neck, tug at me.

It wanted me to follow Xarin.

This time I fought against it.

There was no goddamn way I would follow that man ever again.

Prince Xarin

My beloved was aboard. Not my betrothed, but the one I’d chosen.

I had always hated the betrothal tradition.

Not just for the stress it bought me, but for the fact it took choice out of love and companionship.

So shouldn’t I be thrilled? Thrilled that my beloved had come to me.

I wouldn’t have been able to see Arteria until the war was over. Now she was here with me, right by my side.

There was no longer anything stopping us….

And yet, it felt like there was something stopping my heart. It felt as if a rope had wound around it and had anchored to some other point.

I kept feeling as if my hands were trying to drag me in the opposite direction.

It was a maddening, truly confusing sensation.

I couldn’t push it away, no matter how hard I tried to wipe my hands on my armor.

I felt restless, for some reason, as if I were mere moments from losing something critically important.

To top it all off, Mark was acting strangely.

He’d been acting strangely for weeks.

Perhaps it was just the prospect of keeping Arteria safe.

Perhaps it was something more.

I didn’t have time to consider the myriad possibilities.

As soon as I made it back to my own quarters – for Arteria was staying on my deck – I heard a warning alarm blare from the computer.

I stiffened, knowing what the exact pitch meant.

A Zorv attack.

Shar

When I reached my quarters after my short shift, I hit the wall, literally. As soon as the door hissed closed behind me, I balled my hand into a fist and struck it into the metal. A scream split from my lips, reverberating around the room.

“You bastard,” I screamed, voice pitching so high it was like I was trying to shatter glass. “You bastard.”

This anger – it was like an explosion going off in the center of my heart. I'd never felt anything more violent. Something so destructive. It felt that if I didn't find some way to calm down, I would implode.

I kept curling my hand into a fist and striking it against the wall until my knuckles were nothing more than bloody pulp. Pain snaked down into my wrist, pushing higher into my arm and shoulder.

“Stop, stop, you idiot,” I begged myself through clenched teeth.

Finally I managed to stem the anger just long enough to turn, push my shoulders into the blood splattered wall, and walk myself down to a seated position. Instantly I collapsed my arms around my knees, tucking my head in low until my two beaded plaits trailed over my shoulders.

I began to cry.

I was a woman of few tears. But now they flowed. From some unknown place.

Though I wanted to stay there, pressed up against the wall in a pathetic ball until these feelings went away, I didn't get that opportunity.

For at that exact moment a yellow alert blared through the ship.

I was starting to get used to them. The exact pitch and tone. And somehow – though it sounded truly insane – I always felt them just a few seconds before they occurred.

I was connected to this ship somehow. Knew where to go even without being directed, and whenever anything went wrong, I was always the first there.

So I snapped to my feet quickly, bringing up two trembling hands and thumbing away the tears.

Realizing it wouldn’t be enough, I snatched my pillow off my bed and dried my face in one quick move.

Then I ran for the door.

I was still in my armor, or at least my chest plate and my leg pieces. As I exited my room, I grabbed my gauntlets and helmet from just outside the door were I'd dropped them in disgust. I crammed them on then thrust forward with all the speed I could manage.

It was just a yellow alert, and most of the other security personnel barracked in my corridor didn't move particularly fast.

The Illuminate went to yellow alert every other day. Even if Zorv were detected several sectors away, a klaxon would always blare through the ship.

To them, it wasn't a big deal.

To me… I couldn't push away the thought something terrible was about to occur.

I sped through the corridors, pounding along the floor so hard it was a surprise my armor didn't crack the metal plating.

Arterian Assassin

She was aboard his ship. Finally.

She’d come aboard with Princess Arteria as one of her personal assistants.

She could feel the destroyer – taste her presence like dried up blood along her tongue.

She licked at her lips as she pushed forward through the abandoned corridor.

Technically she shouldn’t be here. This was the prince’s private deck. No ordinary crew were permitted to enter it.

She was not ordinary. As a full Arterian Royal assassin, there was nothing in this galaxy that could stop her.

She walked forward, heels clicking along the floor, her long dark hair trailing over her shoulders.

She finally reached Arteria’s door.

She placed a hand on the security panel beside it and let her Illuminate implants hack right through the security codes.

The door opened, and in she walked.

The princess looked startled. The assassin pressed a smile over her lips as she walked forward and the doors closed behind her.

She strode right into the center of the room, the princess having to take several sharp steps back.

It was strange for the assassin to be without her cloak.

On all her operations to-date, it had always hidden her identity.

From this point on, it wouldn't matter.

The destroyer was on this ship, Xarin too.

Within a matter of mere minutes this would all be over.

Perhaps the fervor swelled in her eyes, because the princess let out a stuttering gasp. “Why… why do you look like that?”

“As I told you many times, if you follow my exact words, you and your family will not be harmed. It’s time to action the plan.”

Arteria brought a hand up and clutched it to her chest, transferring slicked lines of sweat along her previously perfect, unrumpled robe. “The plan?”

The assassin inclined her head. “Don't pretend to be innocent now. You knew exactly what would happen the second you came on board.” The assassin took several resounding steps forward, her heels clicking against the floor. “It's too late to back out now.” She pushed her face close up to Arteria’s, until she could see how startled those green shimmering eyes were.

“… You're going to kill him, aren't you?” the princess asked, voice teetering annoyingly high with such a pathetic innocent note.

The assassin tilted her head to the side, brought a hand out, and latched it on Arteria’s collar. She neatened it, thumbing away the lines of sweat Arteria had transferred from her shaking hands.

Once the assassin was done, she clutched both the princess’ shoulders, then nodded.

“Please, don't kill him. There must be some other way—”

“You know what he’s done. If we want to ensure peace and prosperity for the Empire, then he must be destroyed.”

The princess closed her eyes sharply, but first, she hesitated.

… The assassin was incredibly skilled in picking up people's true intentions. She had been trained since birth.

She could guess if somebody was lying with nothing more than a single glance.

But as the princess strangely hesitated once more, the assassin put that momentary pause down to nothing more than fear.

“I'll do what you need me to do,” the princess finally agreed, dropping her gaze, a few tears shimmering in her crystalline green eyes.

The assassin nodded low, smiling, curling her lips into her perfect hard white teeth. “Then follow me.”

Prince Xarin

There were no Zorv, or at least not that I could tell.

The war cruiser’s proximity alarms were blaring, and as I stood on the central platform in the operations room, I stared at the primary view screens with a narrowed, almost terrified gaze. “How long until you reset the sensors?” I said through clenched teeth.

“Our best technicians are working on it. This anomaly will be fixed within the hour,” the captain said in a strong, punching, confident tone.

I knew that confidence was misplaced.

I had no evidence to support that suspicion, no evidence other than the fear climbing my back.

The yellow alert had been blaring for almost 10 minutes now.

It wasn’t an unusual sound aboard this ship.

Whenever Zorv were detected, regardless of whether they were close at hand, the ship’s dedicated scanners would warn the crew. It was then up to me to decide whether we would alter course to intercept.

This ship did not possess ordinary scanners. They were some of the best Illuminate scanners the Royal Arterian family possessed.

And they had been primed to pick up the Zorv, no matter the distance.

Though ordinary scanning technology in the modern galaxy was severely limited, Illuminate scanners could detect Zorv activity with great accuracy light years away.

I didn't understand the technology itself, but I didn't need to. I was simply a puppet the Arterian Royal Family were using to win their war, and puppets don’t need knowledge.

“It would help if our technicians know more about this scanning technology—” the captain began.

I shook my head curtly.

My teeth clenched, and no matter how hard I tried to open my mouth, I couldn’t. So I spoke around a locked jaw, “You know I can't tell you, so don't ask me. Just find some way to reset them. And do it now. Without the scanners working properly, we won’t be able to detect a real Zorv attack until it’s too late.”

With that, I swept out of the operations room, cape billowing behind me as I strode towards the superfast lift.

Before I reached them, I made brief eye contact with Mark.

… It wasn't my imagination, there was something strange going on with my personal guard, with my best and only friend.

Perhaps it was personal. Perhaps I should offer my shoulder to Mark, just as he offered his own shoulder to me all the time.

I didn't have time.

When the doors to the lift sliced closed behind me, I pushed a hand out and locked it against the wall.

Arterians had some of the strongest physiologies in the Milky Way.

They had lifespans of over 1000 years, and their bodies could take a massive amount of stress without showing it, in fact 100 times the stress it would take to kill a human.

So why did I feel so undermined? Why did I feel as if I were about to fall to my knees?

Before I could return to my quarters, I punched out a hand and altered the coordinates.

The lifts beeped to register the new setting, and I felt a shudder as the lifts shifted forward on a new track.

It took me too long to look down and see what my fingers had typed in.

I was heading to one of the habitation decks.

Though I had ample minutes before the lift arrived, and could alter my heading, I didn't.

Instead I remained there, one sweaty hand locked beside the navigational panel, my desperate eyes staring at the coordinates.

Finally the lift arrived, and the doors opened with a hiss.

I didn't stride out, but bolted out.

Soldiers were shifting about, slowly, despite the blaring yellow alert.

By now news had spread that there was no threat at hand. That didn’t stop the anger from curdling in my stomach at their nonchalance.

I went to snap at the nearest soldier, but controlled myself just in time.

I hid behind my helmet, glad no one could see the sweat pouring down my brow.

Before I knew where my feet were carrying me, I ended up in front of a door.

It was a plain door, and it would lead into an equally plain room, without windows and without much in the way of decoration. This room belonged to a soldier, not an officer.

A mere grunt.

I had no idea who was stationed here. Or at least, I shouldn't.

But I pushed a slightly shaking hand out and entered my senior over-ride command codes into the panel. The door opened and realization sliced into my gut.

Shar.

It was her quarters.

I pushed in, glad that there were no soldiers behind to see what I was doing.

The doors sliced closed behind me.

There was nothing in the room that could confirm these quarters were hers.

Apart from the general, overwhelming sense that filled the place like blood flowing into a beating heart.

I could feel her. Smell her. Hear her echoing voice.

Every sensation vibrated with the knowledge that she’d been here recently.

Again I felt my hands shift as if they were being controlled by some external force.

Sparks of energy tingled through them, chasing up my wrists and plunging high into my elbows and shoulders.

“What the….”

I jerked my hands up, commanding my armor to recede to my wrists. The plating flicked back in a smooth move like petals unfurling from a flower head.

… I stared at my hands.

They were normal. There was no external sign of what I was going through.

Before I knew what I was doing, my hand shifted to the side, I dropped down to my knees, and I moved towards the wall.

… There were faint specks of blood on it as if someone had struck it repeatedly with their fist.

I began methodically tracing my fingers down those dried-up specks.

And as I did, I got the strangest sensation – the strangest image filled my mind.

It was so precise, so detailed, it seemed like a vision smeared over reality.

Her outline, the strange beaded plaits that ran above her ears folded over her shaking shoulders. Her head locked against her knees. Her bloodied hands pressed against her shins….

I jerked back until my legs banged into her metal bed.

I shifted over my shoulder and saw her pillow had been abandoned on the floor.

I crouched down and plucked it up.

… And swore I saw a vision of her drying her eyes on it.

I shivered. So fast. So violent. So all encompassing.

“What… what’s happening to me,” I managed.

Before I knew what I was doing, I jolted up, led by my tingling hands.

They guided me out of the door and into the corridor.

The pitch of the yellow alert hadn’t changed.

There was no reason to suspect anything was wrong, and yet right now, my heart virtually exploded in pure panic.

I jolted forward.

Just in time.

Just in time.

Shar

I could feel it all around me. That ghostly, ethereal presence. It felt like a man - a male presence, with an arm locked around my back and one hand gently resting on my shoulder.

If I let him, he would guide me forward.

But I wouldn't. Couldn't.

Anger at seeing Xarin with the princess still flooded through me. Anger the likes of which I'd never previously experienced.

Though I'd had to kill many times to survive, and had a brutal personality to match, I'd never felt an emotion this volatile, this violent.

No amount of reasoning pushed it away.

I felt betrayed.

Which was ridiculous. Who was Xarin to me that he would have betrayed me?

The arrogant prince had the right to do whatever he pleased.

Despite how angry I felt, I was still terrified at the yellow alert.

Though I'd met up with a duty officer who'd confirmed the yellow alert was nothing more than a mistake, I didn't believe him.

I simply couldn't be reasoned with.

So I fought against the ethereal arms that still guided me, until I reached one of the lower decks of the ship.

I had no goddamn idea what I was doing….

Princess Arteria

She returned to her light cruiser, looking for it.

The box.

The box she’d seen the assassin holding.

It was not hard for Arteria to walk freely around the ship. It was an Arterian war cruiser and she was an Arterian princess.

The crew were suitably subservient, bowing and generally getting out of her way.

Arteria tucked her long purple robes in her hands, pulled them from around her knees, and walked up the ramp into her cruiser.

“It has to be here somewhere. She wouldn’t have moved it onto the ship… not yet,” Arteria whispered to herself.

There was no need to modify her tone – she had already ordered every crewmember she’d come across to get out of her way. She’d emptied the secondary docking bay of every engineer, and every witness.

She knew the assassin would be busy putting into action her ridiculous plan.

Cortina was, by all reports, an extremely talented warrior.

She also worked for the enemy.

The Arterian Royal Family was more split apart and divided than a segmented orange.

The family was split asunder by intrigue and infighting. Everybody wanted to scrounge the power and technology of everyone else.

Some divisions of the family were more powerful than most – Xarin, for instance, held more importance than she ever would.

Or should.

Arteria suddenly pushed down to her knee, seeing something metal sparkling out from underneath a seat.

She clenched her teeth, expectant tingles rushing through her gut.

She spread her hands wide, locking her fingers on the seat.

She scanned it with her implants.

Implants she shouldn’t have, but implants she’d acquired specifically so she could discover Xarin’s true power and bend it to her will.

Cortina was wrong. Xarin was not better off dead. Yes, he had broken several sacred traditions by tracking down Illuminate technology. Though the fool thought no one knew what he was doing, rumors had spread.

But he did not deserve to die. Die, and all his power and influence would die with him.

There was another way.

And finally Arteria snatched hold of it.

She pushed her fingers into a barely visible gap underneath the seat.

The hull plating here was reinforced, strengthened by invisible shielding.

Her fingers pressed right through them, crackles discharging up her skin.

She yanked the metal clean off.

Then she pushed her hand in and snatched whatever was inside before she even had a chance to figure out what it was.

… A box.

A secure Arterian safety box.

Within would be what she needed.

She briefly closed her eyes and took a relieved breath that pushed her chest against her royal robe.

In order to access Xarin’s true power and bend him to her will, there was only one thing she could do.

Become his betrothed.

Arteria wrapped her arms securely around the box and left the cruiser.

Just as she did, the yellow alert blaring through the ship changed. Its pitch became more insistent, and as she strode towards the doors, red strips of lighting suddenly blinked into life all around her.

A red alert.

Cortina was about to implement her plan.

She would try to kill Xarin.

She would fail.

Cortina herself would die. And once she was out of the way, there would be nothing stopping Arteria.

She would clutch hold of greatness and lead the galaxy forward.

Cortina, the Arterian Assassin

Her heart pounded now. Drove through her chest with a pleasant beat. She loved it when adrenaline pounded through her veins, when anticipation rose in her throat.

Anticipation of the kill.

The Arterians were not naturally violent people, but they were not peaceful, either. With their superior strength and their ability to manipulate others, they often got what they wanted without resorting to violence.

As she strode forward, she curled both her hands into fists, and enjoyed the stiff sensation that locked hard into her shoulders.

She chose to resort to violence. It was quicker and more pleasurable.

The first thing she had to do was kill the destroyer.

Slowly, preferably, so she could appreciate every single moment of pain that would flow through that wretched monster’s body.

To do that, Cortina would have to lure the destroyer into a certain part of the ship.

It wouldn’t be enough to simply kill the woman – Cortina had to strip the woman of any evidence of her betrothal.

Then, oh God, then she could move on to Xarin.

Then Cortina would be able to wrap her hands around his neck, and watch the life drain from his gaze.

She kept patting her lips as she strode confidently through the corridors and entered the room she’d chosen for her final attack.

It was well-placed, and located in a blind spot the ship’s on-board scanners would not be able to penetrate properly.

In the unlikely event, that was, that the crew were able to reset them in time.

Cortina herself had placed phantoms in the system. Phantoms that would distract the crew, and hopefully Xarin, while she went about her sacred task.

With her heels clicking on the floor, Cortina finally reached the right room.

Though the room was some kind of secure Arterian weapons storage facility – and would be locked to all but Prince Xarin himself – Cortina walked in, with nothing more than a wave at the door.

Her implants sent out an invisible, coded signal that overrode the door’s sophisticated security.

She walked right into the center of the expansive room, then spun on the spot, pushing her arms out wide in a circle.

She chuckled, her light voice echoing around the walls.

Finally, however, she stopped.

She unclipped a device from her belt, and waved her thumb over it.

Instantly it activated the remote holographic transmitters she’d already placed throughout the corridors. Holographic emitters that would be able to produce holograms indistinguishable from reality.

This was true Illuminate technology that few outside of the central ring of the Arterian Royal Family possessed.

Cortina waited, dragging her tongue across her teeth.

Soon.

Soon.

Shar

It was when I was running through the corridors that I saw something.  Strangely enough, I didn’t feel it.

Though I felt connected to the ship, maybe that connection had broken, because as I rounded a corner, I almost ran smack into a Zorv bot.

Rather than fight me, it zipped around and zoomed off before I could even clutch my blaster from my holster.

I screamed at it, frustration and terror ripping from my throat. But I didn’t hesitate – I threw myself forward.

It flew quickly through the corridors, leading me on a circuitous path, taking me deeper and deeper into the ship until finally it zipped into a room.

“I’ve got you now, you bastard,” I screamed.

I rolled, and punched through the door… right into what looked like a secure Arterian weapon storage room.

A place I was categorically not meant to be in.

I swung my head from side to side, trying to detect where the bot had disappeared to.

There were neat stacks of crates in the center of the room, and around the sides were racks of Arterian weapons. Large, all adorned with purple, gold, or white symbols, and all categorically more powerful than the simple blaster I had clutched in my hands.

My armor was on, and theoretically it possessed proximity scanners, but as I switched them to full power and scanned the room, they came up with nothing.

No Zorv bots.

Something… kindled in my gut.

A kind of fear I’d never felt before.

Not for my life, but something beyond my life. Some kind of connection that spread through time and space.

I suddenly clutched a hand to my chest.

That’s when a light chuckle filtered through the air.

The hair along the back of my neck stood on end, and my body seized with fear.

Suddenly a figure appeared sitting atop the pile of crates in the center of the room.

She was wearing a purple and red cloak that cut across her mouth and furled down her shoulders. Her legs were crossed, her hands arranged neatly in her lap.

She tilted her head towards me, a few strands of hair peeking out from under the cloak.

… She just appeared. Right there. She couldn’t be a hologram – she was too perfect.

Though I was aware of cloaking technology, this—

I didn’t get the chance to finish my thought.

The woman leapt off the crates, even though she was a good 10 meters up.

She sailed down to the floor, and a light blue field flickered into place around her heels, absorbing the force of her fall.

I staggered back, blaster still clutched in my hands.

“Move, get out of here,” someone suddenly whispered in my ear.

The voice was familiar. The force of its words speaking right into my soul.

But there was no one there. Just me and this woman.

“Get out of here,” the voice insisted once more.

The woman in the purple cloak walked towards me, heavy on her hips, every move a sashay as she tucked her hair back behind her cloak.

“I have travelled many years to find you,” she said.

I jolted back again.

I could feel those arms around my back – stronger than ever. They were trying to pull me away, trying to push me through the door.

The woman continued to walk towards me, slowly, without a single care.

“… Who are you?” I managed.

She tipped her head to the side, then to the other. She brought up a hand and tapped it on her fat bottom lip. “It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you’re here. And this will be your final resting place.”

I didn’t need any more evidence this woman’s intentions were evil.

I jerked back and brought up my gun. I didn’t wait. Didn’t have to hear anything else.

I wasn’t one of those people who would stand there and let their enemy prattle on while they got the upper hand.

Not me.

I fired.

My aim was perfect, and my bullet should have slammed into her head, ripping off a chunk of her cheek and nose.

It didn’t.

It slammed right into another blue inertia field.

The woman tipped her head back and laughed. “Trust me, darling, you don’t have any weapons that could work against me. You have no recourse. No more options,” she said slowly as she continued to walk towards me, “All you have to do is die, and give up that sacred connection.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. That didn’t stop me from punching to the side and rolling, coming up behind her, and firing several more bullets her way. This time I didn’t waste ammo on trying to shoot her directly – I let the bullets sink into the floor below her feet, hoping they’d be strong enough to create some kind of hole big enough to drop her through it.

Without any apparent order from the woman, the flickering blue inertia fields spread over the floor and protected it, absorbing my blasts with ease.

I swore, spittle flying over my lips and chin.

The woman brought her hands forward and clapped.

Then she moved. Faster than anyone I’d ever seen.

With no warning, she was upon me, sinking a hand into my gut. Though I wore armor, it didn’t matter, as suddenly a charge of powerful blue energy shot from her fingertips and sank into me.

It blasted me back, sending me slamming against the far wall.

Arterian weapons fell off the rack around me as my body crumpled.

Every muscle locked with pain, and I had to battle to draw in a single breath.

A breath that would be my last.

For the woman reached me again, crossing the room in half a second. Then she loomed above me, one of her sparking, crackling hands drawing close to my helmet.

Prince Xarin

I couldn’t… fight this.

The compulsion in my mind, in my hands.

Guided me forward.

I knew I should be with my crew, I should be trying to find out what was wrong with the scanners.

I wasn’t.

Instead I was running through the corridors, headed to God knows where.

With every step more desperation powered through my gut.

My body shook underneath my armor, so much sweat clogging my brow my hair was stuck against my neck.

I began muttering, in a language I couldn’t even recognize. Low, quick, snapped, desperate words.

They – like the compulsion locked in my hands – came from somewhere beyond me.

A connection.

A connection that screamed at me to hurry.

Before I knew what I was doing, I reached one of my secure Arterian weapons lockers.

There was no reason to rush in here – no one could enter this room but me.

So why couldn’t I stop myself as I thrust out a hand and used my armor to override the security codes locking the door in place?

Why couldn’t I stop myself as I thrust forward through the doors before they barely had a chance to open?

Why?

Because she was in here.

Shar.

I ran in just as I saw a woman in a purple cloak leaning over Shar’s body.

The woman was an Arterian assassin. From the cloak, to the technology riddled through her body – there was no mistaking her.

She loomed over Shar, Shar’s helmet in her hand.

I caught sight of Shar’s face – caught sight of her fear, of her terror.

As I powered into the room, the assassin turned.

She arched her neck my way.

“What are you doing on my ship?” I boomed, voice punching through the room.

Without a moment’s hesitation, I went for my sword.

Which was a potentially treasonous move.

All Arterian assassins were members of the royal family. And it was forbidden to directly physically threaten royalty.

Oh no, my family chose to undermine each other through fear, intrigue, and machinations instead.

But I couldn’t stop myself as I sent a charge of energy powering through the blade until it glowed a blistering purple-white.

The assassin took several slow, almost languid steps towards me, Shar’s helmet still held thoughtfully in her hands.

The woman tipped her head to the side and appeared to consider me, her cloak never tugging up higher than her lips. “Sheath your sword, prince. You know I am a member of the royal family. You have no right to draw up a weapon in front of me.”

“Get away from her,” I said through clenched teeth.

Shar coughed, her body still slouched against the wall, several droplets of blood splashing out onto her chin and broken breastplate.

My stomach turned at that, felt as if it would tear from my body.

The assassin continued to walk towards me, though she briefly inclined her head towards Shar. “Prince, lower your sword. You have no right to lift your weapon against a member of your own family.”

“Put down her helmet and get on your knees,” I said, never dropping my sword.

Nothing mattered to me at that moment. Not reason, not tradition. Nor the fact that this could get me stripped of my title, my possessions and my privileges.

All I wanted to do was tear through the assassin and get to Shar, check that she was okay….

Before I knew what was happening, I thrust forward, and launched towards the assassin.

She was clearly surprised, but jumped back just in time, her lips jerking wide over her teeth.

I had not chosen to slash at her – my hands had.

“What are you doing?” she hissed. “Don’t you care for tradition?”

“Get away from her,” I screamed once more, voice so loud it could have taken the ceiling down.

The assassin darted back, quicker than any ordinary person could move. She flipped and sprinted until she stood atop the crates. She glared down at me, head tilted to the side. “How did you know we were in here?”

“I won’t let you hurt her,” I snapped back.

The assassin shifted her tongue over her teeth. “Perhaps I underestimated the connection. You should not be here, Xarin. You should have waited your turn. But no matter.”

Connection.

That word flooded my mind, sank into my consciousness like a knife trying to split it down the middle.

I almost fell to one knee.

But I didn’t get the opportunity.

For the assassin thrust towards me.

My armor could scan her body, and I’d already detected the numerous Illuminate implants grafted through her form.

She would be a formidable foe.

I didn’t shrink back.

I bellowed as I brought my shining blade around and sliced it towards her.

She was too quick, and dodged away, bringing a hand up and sending a charge of electricity punching from it. She had no gun, she simply used her furled-back fingers.

I wasn’t quick enough to dodge – as the blast sank into the shoulder plate of my armor.

Though my armor managed to disperse most of the energy, it couldn’t discharge it completely, and a few errant charges sank down to my body below.

The assassin was relentless. She attacked me with everything she had. Flipped and jumped, sprinted and with all the agility and speed of a superfast robot.

Though I tried to lock all my attention on her, my gaze kept shifting towards Shar.

It was clear she could barely move. But her eyes were still open, and that gave me enough hope to continue the fight.

For all it was worth.

The assassin was too well armed. She flung towards me with another deadly blow, sending a pulse of electricity sinking into my neck.

It jerked my head back and I fell harshly to the side.

Before I knew what she was doing, the assassin loomed above me and locked something onto the back of my head.

My armor started to convulse, my limbs shifting around as my head jolted back and forth, slamming into the floor like a hammer against an anvil. It sent out great shuddering booms that echoed through the room.

“No,” I heard somebody call. It was a strangled, meek voice. A voice on the edge of death.

Shar.

Somehow I fought against the crippling energy snaking through my armor, and I shifted my head until my visor locked on her.

Shar was trying to get to her feet.

And somehow she managed it.

Though she had to lock a hand on the wall for support, soon she pushed off, and she somehow found the strength to throw herself into a sprint.

Her lips pared back from her teeth, and she shot towards the assassin.

The assassin didn’t even bother to turn around. With her head still turned to me, she thrust out a hand and grabbed Sha by the throat.

Instantly I felt ghostly fingers lock around my own throat.

I began to splutter just as Shar did the same.

Eventually the assassin tipped her head to the side and locked her attention on Shar. “Your turn.”

“No,” I screamed. Somehow I fought past whatever the assassin had done to my armor, and I punched to my feet, throwing myself at the assassin, wrapping my arms around her middle, and wrenching her grip from Sha’s throat.

Shar crumpled, and I threw the assassin to the ground.

That’s when she punched up, an energy sword forming in her hand.

A sword with the power to slice through my armor.

A sword with the power to kill me instantly.

… I’d underestimated her.

Somehow time stretched just long enough for me to lock my gaze on Shar once more.

Somewhere in the back of my mind seven words echoed – in another lifetime, I will see you again.

The assassin thrust towards me.

But her sword barely dented my armor. For at that moment somebody thrust into the room. They activated some kind of grenade, and it pulsed through the air. It didn’t appear to affect me or Shar, and instead concentrated all its deadly force on the assassin.

The woman screamed.

A directed energy field suddenly appeared over her body, and it tugged her into the air, yanking her arms and legs out and dragging her head back.

Finally the cloak fell from her face, withering up and turning to ash as the assassin screamed and screamed.

The directed energy field appeared to be pulling her apart on the molecular level.

I staggered to my knees, then my feet. I saw who had thrown the grenade.

Arteria.

She was standing in the doorway, her chest pressing up and down as she panted, her hand still held out, her fingers spread in mid throw.

The assassin screamed one final time, and her head jerked to the side.

She was dead.

The inertia field cut out, and her bloodied form fell to the ground by my feet.

I barely noticed as Arteria threw herself forward and thrust towards me. She wrapped her arms around my middle. “Oh my God, Xarin, are you okay?”

“How… what… how?” I couldn’t control my voice, let alone my thoughts as they thundered through my mind.

“I knew you were in trouble. I can’t explain it, but I was drawn here—” Arteria began.

Before she could finish, the assassin moved.

She was still alive.

Somehow.

She brought a hand down, and activated something on her belt.

An explosive device.

This room abutted the outer hull. Though the exterior hull plating was so thick and reinforced it would be able to withstand most explosions, I instinctively knew this one would be too strong.

Shar was at my feet. Just in reach.

I didn’t have time, didn’t have time – the explosive device went off.

Rather than cascade out in a destructive ball of fire, it suddenly shot across the room and locked on the wall that led out to the outer hull.

And obliterated it.

Instantly, the atmosphere was sucked out of the room.

Arteria was ripped from my grip.

She was sucked towards the hole in the hull. Just as Shar was.

My armor was powerful enough to lock on the floor and hold me in place.

I pushed forward, thrusting towards them.

Both of them managed to clutch hold of a warped, torn section of the hull plating, their legs dangling behind them as the venting atmosphere tried to suck them into the void.

Both reached hands out towards me.

The compulsion tearing through my body, the tingling in my hands – every haunting sensation that had driven me insane over the past several weeks – they all told me to go for Sha. I didn’t.

I reached towards Arteria and managed to grab her just in time.

As Shar was sucked out into space.

Want to keep reading? This series is complete, and you can buy all six episodes today. You can buy Shattered Destiny Episode Two from the following retailers:

iTunes|Amazon|Smashwords|Barnes&Noble|Kobo



Contact Details

odette.c.bell@gmail.com

Sign up for updates
Latest Posts

Finder's Gate and Rising Princess

Oblivion Gate

Two new series!

Star Destiny - New Sci-Fi Out Now

Coming Soon

Finder's Gate Episode Three

0%

Princess Zero

45%