Cadet Nida Harper
The planet around her was dead. Not a single thing remained alive. There were no trees, no plants, no life. Just the cold colors of rock, stone, and metal.
Nida took a step forward, forcing a deep and reassuring breath as she did.
The rest of the team was behind her somewhere, and she indulged in a moment of solitude.
She stared up at the horizon. Dusk was settling in, and with it, a stunning array of colors lit up the sky. There were a few scant clouds scooting through the oncoming darkness, and their undersides lit up with vibrant oranges, purples, and golds.
Beyond the clouds, the first few stars were blinking on, like lights in a darkened city.
It was beautiful, especially when you considered how different it was to the stark, cold view of the planet around her.
This was one of her first missions away from the Academy, and she hadn’t expected it to be so… confronting.
She could see the outlines of buildings in the dusty valley below her, hints at what this planet had been long in the past.
Apparently, a great civilization had once inhabited this world, and now all that remained was the dust, rock, and rubble.
Sighing at how sad it was, Nida soon shook her head and realized she had to get back to work.
Pushing off, her regulation black boots kicked through the dust until she made it down the short incline in front of her.
“Hey, Nida,” someone called from behind.
It was J’Etem, her good friend. The young woman was not human and was rather from an alien race known as the Barkanas. She had lustrous golden hair flecked with flashes of orange and red, like flame licking through a field of summer hay.
“What are you doing so far from the group?” J’Etem asked with a semi-cross look crumpling her smooth brow. She had perfectly even and shiny skin. Not a mark, not a wrinkle, nothing but silky black flesh.
Nida made a face and quickly looked behind her, checking to see whether she was about to get in trouble again. “Is the commander around here? Did he tell you to come get me?”
J’Etem shook her head. “Nope, I just saw you wandering off and figured it was a good idea to come and get you before you get in even more trouble than usual.”
Nida gave a small laugh, then nodded at J’Etem before turning to follow her back to the rest of the group.
“Isn’t this planet fascinating?” J’Etem pointed out after she gulped in an excited breath. “I mean, how cool is it that we’re getting the chance to go on an actual mission? With Carson Blake, of all people,” she added in what could only be called a squeak.
Nida had to laugh at that. She already knew J’Etem was a major fan of Lieutenant Blake. Because, seriously, who wasn’t? He was a living legend at the Academy, and every cadet, man or woman or somewhere in between, loved the guy to bits.
“It’s cool,” Nida managed after a lengthy pause.
“Come on, I think you can muster a bit more excitement than that. The Academy is finally trusting us with a bit of responsibility. And considering your track record, that’s a really good sign,” J’Etem added subtly.
Nida had to laugh; J’Etem was totally right. Nida had one of the worst records of anyone in her class. She was barely scraping by. But she stuck with it. Though she could have quit the Galactic Coalition Academy many times, she found herself coming back every year.
Soon she would graduate, then a lifetime of missions in space would welcome her.
Which was what she wanted, right? It’s what everyone at the Academy wanted. They all worked toward the same goal: space exploration, and the honor of forming the group of men and women that kept this galaxy safe.
“You’re doing it again,” J’Etem announced as she offered Nida a pointed sigh.
“What?” Nida looked up sharply.
“Thinking. You always get that look of profound consternation on your face when you are deep in thought, and I have to say, it reminds me of a Nagar toad about to squirt poison on you.”
Nida laughed. It felt good, but even that couldn’t chase away the melancholy that had descended over her.
With a quick move, she looked over her shoulder again at the view. Specifically, the small ridges and bumps that hinted at the remains of some building destroyed long ago.
This planet had once been thriving with people – with real, live things – and now it was nothing more than a testament to destruction and death.
Okay, so it had sat desolate for over 2000 years according to archaeological reports, but that didn’t matter. It felt wrong to come here and dig up the place looking for its secrets without mustering just a little respect for its previous inhabitants, no matter how long ago they’d existed.
“What’s the matter?” J’Etem asked again, pressing her perfectly plush, purple lips together as she gave Nida a knowing look.
“Just… thinking about the people that once lived here,” Nida answered truthfully as she gestured to the planet with a sweep of her arm.
“What’s there to think about? Nothing but the occasional blob of bacteria has inhabited this world for the past 2000 years. All that remains now is dust and a couple of old buildings. I’ll grant you, some of the archaeology is interesting, and Blake clearly thinks this planet is important for some reason. But apart from that, this place is nothing more than dust and stone.”
Nida offered her friend a smile and remained silent.
Then they both made it back to the main group, and Nida carefully walked over to a deserted corner, trying to pretend she’d always been there when a few people glanced her way.
“Don’t make me go find you again,” J’Etem whispered under her breath as she strode past.
Nida nodded, then leaned down on her haunches.
She didn’t have much to do, to be honest. Both her and J’Etem were only here as observers. Neither of them were out of the Academy, and they certainly couldn’t be trusted with any real work. Okay, J’Etem could – she had fantastic scores when it came to xenobiology and the study of alien civilizations. Nida, on the other hand, didn’t. In fact, she was only here because J’Etem had somehow managed to convince the commander to bring her along.
Just sit tight and don’t get in trouble, Nida thought to herself as she brushed her fingers through the dust.
She wasn’t wearing armor or an environmental suit; she was merely dressed in the usual garb of a Galactic Coalition Academy recruit. A standard black and blue uniform with absolutely zero pips on her collar, because she had no rank, and considering her lackluster abilities, would likely never get one.
Dragging her fingers through the dust, Nida enjoyed the distinct feeling of it tracking over her skin. It scratched and played at the edges of her fingernails.
Looking up, she glanced at the rest of the team. Everyone seemed locked in some important task, their collective expression one of concentrated work. And yet here she was, actually playing in the dirt like a three-year-old.
Scrunching her lips together and feeling perfectly silly, she stood up, turned her head to the sky, and stared at the clouds pressing in from the horizon. Dusk was beautiful. The colors were so vibrant and exquisite. It was such a contrast to the dull gunmetal gray and black of the planet. It was almost as if all the life of this place had drifted up into the sky.
With that philosophical thought ringing in her mind, she turned to stare behind her.
There was a large broken-down building there, and it stretched for almost 200 meters on one side. It had a low, flat roof, and several large, sweeping sets of stairs leading up to it.
A small, flat path ran around the outside of the building, and even in the dwindling light of dusk, she could make out five people standing on it.
She recognized all of them. Every cadet at the Academy would. Hell, most citizens of the United Galactic Coalition would too.
Lieutenant Blake and his incredible team.
They were called the Force, and they were always sent on the most important and dangerous missions.
And, for some reason, they’d been sent down to this planet. Though Nida wasn’t ranked high enough to know the details, she could imagine it was fabulously important. Otherwise, it wouldn’t demand the attention of Blake and his Force.
She stared at them as they stood there, their bodies stiff with concentration as they listened to Blake.
He was resting with his back against a broken statue, his arms crossed in front of his chest. He was too far away for her to see his expression, but she could bet it was one of disciplined concentration.
The other four members of the group were Piya, Travis, Sa’oq, and Bor. All the best in their respective professions.
They were the top of the top. The absolute cream of the Academy. When they weren’t running off saving the galaxy, they occasionally popped in for guest lectures, or to assess the up and coming recruits to see if any were worthy enough for entry into the Force.
Nida, needless to say, would never get a tap on her shoulder and an invite into that selective group. She was way more likely to get a smack on the back and a swift kick in the butt instead.
Pursing her lips together and breathing through them, she turned on the spot again, surveying the whole scene before her.
The other ten or so members of the mission to this planet were all dotted around, doing their respective tasks, all against the backdrop of these incredible ruins.
With dusk coming down, the shadows that had built up along the building and under the stairs of this ruined compound deepened.
Though it wasn’t cold, Nida found herself shivering.
She wanted to be back on the ship. Though ostensibly it was exciting to be on a real mission, she felt a little like she was walking across someone’s grave. Who cared if no one had inhabited this planet for 2000 years? It still felt wrong to walk all over these ruins without a hint of compassion or respect.
Just as Nida looked around for a place to sit, a man cleared his throat gruffly behind her.
She turned to see none other than Commander Sharpe.
An enormous man of half human and half Yara build, he was like a brick wall on legs. He also had a particularly stony expression to match. “Cadet,” he said, the word sounding exactly like a shot from a gun, “what are you doing?”
“Ah,” she swallowed hard, “I haven’t been assigned a task yet,” she managed.
Sharpe’s eyes narrowed, and he regarded her with a look that could melt steel. “This is an important mission, and you need to treat it like one,” he began.
She nodded, for some reason bothering to throw in a salute, even though it was completely unnecessary.
Sharpe rolled his eyes. “Don’t just sit there,” he said, breathing through his teeth.
“Yes sir,” she snapped. Then she shuffled her feet slightly. “Um, should I go back to the shuttle?”
Sharpe grumbled under his breath.
This was not the first time Nida had come to the unwanted attention of Sharpe. In fact, he was the bane of her existence. He threatened her every other day with expulsion from the Academy for being the worst recruit in 1000 years. So he was fully aware that not only was this her first mission, she really didn’t have the skills to be here; hence, she was standing around and staring at the sky.
“Look, take this,” he handed her one of the spare scanners from his belt, “and do a mineralogical survey of the ground,” he suggested.
She took the scanner silently and didn’t point out that there was no point in doing a mineralogical survey, as it had already been done.
“Just stick to where I can see you,” he added harshly. “And even if you aren’t doing anything useful, for god’s sake, look busy. The Force is here, and you could at least try to pretend you’ve earned the honor of being here with them.”
She didn’t react to that cutting remark. Instead, she nodded, adding another needless salute.
Rolling his eyes, Sharpe walked away, muttering something under his breath that sounded exactly like “worst damn recruit in a thousand years.”
Nida desperately wanted to point out that the Galactic Coalition Academy had only been running for the past 450 years, but she didn’t. Instead, she bit her tongue, turned on her foot, and picked a random direction. Then she turned the scanner on and wandered off.
She had no idea how long this mission was meant to last. Presumably until the Force had done whatever they were meant to do. But Nida really didn’t like the idea of spending the next several hours walking over the same section of dust, scanning it for no other reason than to appear busy.
As dusk settled darker around her, she found herself walking further away from the compound.
She reasoned that if she’d been tasked with a mineralogical survey, she might as well do a thorough job, and the geology seemed to be different the further away she walked from that ring of ruined buildings.
Once she was safely out of earshot of everyone else, she began humming to herself.
She liked it when she was alone. There was no one to point out she was a failure. Plus, she could explore space the way she felt it ought to be explored. By taking the time to stare up at the stars above and to revel in their mystery and beauty. In fact, it was when she was doing just that, that she tripped over something.
Her head was turned up to the heavens as she walked along, the scanner held steadily in her hand, but when her boot snagged on some rough piece of stone, the scanner went flying and so did she.
Her body slammed against the uneven and dusty ground, her chest smacking into a rock that pushed the wind from her lungs.
“Ow,” she managed after a short pause.
Then she scrambled to her feet to seek out the scanner. Usually, they were hardy, but Nida was a particularly unlucky soul and seemed to have a talent for breaking everything.
And Sharpe would be seriously unhappy if she came back with a shattered scanner. As he kept on telling her, a good cadet looked after their equipment.
She pushed herself up, then she stopped.
She could see the scanner. It was several meters in front of her, down a set of dark stairs that led into a room sunk low underneath the earth.
“What the hell?” she breathed wildly. “Where did that come from?” she pushed back on her knees, getting to her feet.
Her heart pounded in her chest, the powerful thump of it reverberating through her clenched teeth.
She had already wandered around this compound, and she hadn’t come across this set of stairs before.
How had she missed it? Had she been so busy staring at the sky that an enormous, gaping hole in the ground had failed to grab her attention?
Scrunching her bottom lip in and biting it earnestly, she turned over her shoulder to see if anyone was in earshot.
They weren’t. In fact, she couldn’t even see the rest of the group.
They were hidden by a slight rise in the ground.
Damn, she thought bitterly. Sharpe had told her specifically not to walk out of sight, and here she was, completely hidden from the compound and the rest of her team.
“Right, just go get the scanner, then get back to the group,” she told herself firmly.
Then she could return triumphant to Sharpe, and let him know she’d found… a random set of stairs that hadn’t appeared on the scans the ship had done from space.
Her gut twisted with fear.
Before the team had come down to the planet, they’d all been forced to attend a briefing. In it, Lieutenant Blake and Commander Sharpe had explained what they were all to do. They’d also shown everyone an in-depth interactive hologram based on a blueprint of the ruins.
This set of stairs hadn’t appeared in that hologram, she was sure of it.
“Right,” she managed, taking a deep breath.
So this was good, yeah? She’d just found something no one else had. Something that had somehow failed to appear on the numerous scans that had been done of this planet.
Sharpe would be proud of her discovery. Perhaps it would even raise his estimation of her.
Yeah right. As if that would ever happen.
“Get the scanner, stop stalling,” she told herself firmly.
With a deep breath, she stepped forward, her black, standard-issue boots reaching the first step.
It was firm, like all steps, and felt like stone under her tread. And that was it. It didn’t turn into a monster and consume her whole, and neither did it disappear as it was replaced by a seething spatial anomaly.
Because it was just a normal frigging step, and there was nothing to be worried about.
“Come on, get over it,” she commanded herself.
Sighing, she walked down the stairs.
The scanner had fallen a fair way down, and she had to travel quite far into the shadow of the stairwell until she leaned down to pick it up.
Her breath was shallow, and she couldn’t seem to force enough air through her dry throat.
Her heart kept pounding dramatically too.
She held onto the scanner with a firm, almost terrified grip, then she turned sharply on her foot to race back up the stairs.
A part of her was objective enough to realize she was being seriously pathetic here. For Christ’s sake, she was on an alien planet, granted, but one that had no life, no secret weapons, and no malevolent mercenaries – in fact, it had nothing more dangerous than a few treacherous holes that could trip you up. And yet the prospect of descending a set of darkened stairs had her adrenaline pumping as if she were about to dive into the sun.
She tried to roll her eyes at her own pathetic lameness.
Suddenly, she stopped.
She felt something.
Slight, and coming from behind her.
Her scanner started to beep dramatically.
She frowned, glancing down at it.
It was registering some kind of energy source.
Which was impossible; there were no energy sources on this planet. It had already been scanned multiple times, and no one had ever come across anything more powerful than a particularly mighty piece of dust.
Yet as the scanner beeped, she couldn’t deny her eyes.
“Okay,” she said slowly. “Time to go tell Sharpe what you’ve found.”
She took another step up the stairs.
Hesitating, she stopped.
She turned over her shoulder to look back down the darkened stairwell and into the tunnel below.
She’d been instructed to do a mineralogical survey, but she knew Sharpe just wanted to keep her occupied, or at least the appearance of occupied, so the Force didn’t question why he’d brought along such a soppy and hopeless cadet.
Sharpe thought she was more than useless, and he expected her to come back with nothing worthwhile.
So what would he do if she returned with some incredibly valuable information?
What if she found something really important in this tunnel?
That would shut the belligerent Commander up.
So what was the harm in going and investigating this tunnel herself?
If she found anything, she could really use the brownie points.
As soon as that thought crossed her mind, she shook her head resolutely.
It wasn’t safe.
With that, she ascended the stairs.
Dusk had settled even darker around her by the time she emerged.
With a sigh and one final glance over her shoulder at the stairwell, she made her way quickly back to Sharpe.
When she reached him, he was locked in what looked like a seriously important conversation with none other than Blake.
“There’s something more on this planet, I’m sure of it. I don’t think we should leave yet,” Blake said quietly.
Sharpe was about to say something, then he looked up to see Nida loitering around behind them. “Yes, Cadet? Is there any reason you’re eavesdropping?”
Nida knew her face blushed bright red at the allegation, and she even sucked in a startled breath. “Um, what? No,” she answered ineloquently.
“Then what is it?” Sharpe snapped.
“Um, I found something,” she managed, wondering how to explain her story in a way that didn’t sound dumb.
Sharpe sighed heavily. “Leave it to the report.” He turned back to Blake, shooing her away with a sweep of his hand as he did.
She didn’t move off. Instead, she gritted her teeth. “Ah, sir, I found something you should probably see,” she managed again.
“I don’t care about the mineralogical survey; it can wait,” Sharpe snapped again. “Now go away, Cadet.”
She knew she should leave before he gave her a reprimand for ignoring an order, but she stood her ground nevertheless. “I found a set of stairs that lead to a kind of tunnel under the ground. They aren’t on the blueprint we got from the ship,” she forced her words out in a string of nervous mumbles.
Sharpe turned his attention back to her, and this time Blake glanced her way as well. He narrowed his startling violet eyes. “Sorry, what?” he questioned quickly, straightening up as he did.
“Ah, over there,” she pointed randomly over her shoulder. “Or was it over there?” she put more thought into it, turned around, and surveyed the rapidly darkening compound to figure out where the stairs lay.
“Where?” Sharpe asked angrily.
“Oh, ah,” Nida surveyed the compound, looking for a landmark or anything that could help her get her bearings.
“Just use your scanner, Cadet,” Sharpe hissed.
“Oh yes,” she mumbled quickly.
She was flustered.
And for some damn reason, she couldn’t use the scanner. After several mortified seconds of trying, she looked up at Sharpe and shrugged. “Um….”
“Give it here,” Sharpe snatched it off her. Then he poked at the thing. Slowly he turned it over and realized there was a long crack up one side. “What have you done to this?”
Oh damn, she really had broken it. God, she was the unluckiest girl in the universe.
“Oh, that, I fell over, and the scanner tumbled down the stairs. That’s how I found them – the stairs,” she added meekly.
“Sir,” Blake said, proffering a hand to Sharpe for the scanner.
Sharpe handed it to him while shooting Nida a withering look.
“Let’s have a look here,” Blake muttered as he typed something quickly. Then he pulled the operating chip out of the back, stared at it with a frown, and shot her a quick glance. “It just fell down the stairs? Are you sure? It looks like it’s been landed on by a cruiser.”
Nida pressed her lips together to stop herself from saying something stupid.
“I think I can still…” Blake trailed off, clear concentration crumpling his brow. Seconds later, he grinned. “Alright, got it. Thanks, Cadet,” he nodded her way affably, then headed off through the dark compound, Sharpe at his side.
Sharpe shot her another disdainful look but didn’t say anything as he marched off.
Which just left Nida alone. So much for the stairs winning her brownie points. Now she would have to explain broken equipment to Sharpe… again.
Damn, everything she touched turned to dust.
With a truly rattling sigh, Nida wandered back into the compound.
She intended to find a nice flat rock to sit on. Sharpe would no doubt shout at her for being lazy when he returned from the mystery stairwell, but she was already in trouble, so Nida didn’t really care if she added another nail to her coffin, as old humans would say.
Just as she sat down, she saw the unwelcome sight of Sharpe marching up to her.
She jumped to her feet, stumbling awkwardly as she did.
“Cadet,” he spat, “you really screwed up that scanner. It’s given us messed up coordinates.”
Damn it. “Sir,” she winced, “um, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, yet,” he added ominously, “just come and help us find those stairs.”
Nida scurried forward, Sharpe striding along at her side.
Soon they both reached Blake. He was standing there, frowning down at the scanner. “I thought these things were meant to be tougher than this,” he muttered as he hit the bottom of the scanner with the base of his palm.
“Alright, find the stairs, and you better not be mistaken about this,” Sharpe added under his breath.
Dread coiled up her spine, and Nida grimaced into the darkness. It would just be her luck if the stairwell had disappeared as quickly as it had formed. Sharpe would kill her for wasting his and precious Lieutenant Blake’s time.
She ran forward, twisting her head this way and that as she looked for any sign of a familiar landform.
Just as genuine worry sliced through her belly, she saw it.
A familiar lip of shadow.
“There it is,” she breathed through her monumental relief. “Just over here,” she added in a far stronger tone.
She led the two men forward to the dark opening of the stairwell.
“What the hell?” Blake peered down into it, checking his own scanner as he did. “This was most definitely not on the blueprints.”
“There’s an energy reading too,” Nida remembered, bringing a finger up as she pointed it out, almost as if she was an excited child reciting some recently learned fact.
“What?” Blake snapped his head around. “I’m not picking up an energy source.”
“Cadet Nida is likely mistaken,” Sharpe insisted at once.
She hadn’t been mistaken about the stairwell, though, had she? She wanted to point out. Instead, she bit her tongue and peered past Blake at the dark shadow in the ground.
Her stomach twisted as a kick of fear passed through her.
There was something… not right about that tunnel.
“Alright, let’s go,” Blake waved them forward.
“Shouldn’t we wait for the rest of your team?” Sharpe asked.
Sharpe was a commander, and Blake was a lieutenant, Sharpe very much outranked the guy. And yet, like almost everyone else at the Academy, Sharpe held this sense of awe for Blake that meant the lieutenant was treated like a freaking admiral.
“We’ll just do an initial check.” Blake shrugged his shoulders. “The scans suggest everything is fine.”
“Alright,” Sharpe agreed. “Cadet, go back to the compound,” he added as he turned from her and headed down the first few steps.
“Yes, sir,” she managed easily.
Though she’d found the stairs, she really didn’t mind being told to head back to the compound.
While she was technically meant to be an explorer, she didn’t want to explore that dark shadow in the ground.
“Hold on,” Blake put a hand out in a stopping motion.
A spike of fear rushed through her as she worried whether he was about to suggest she come along with the two of them anyway.
He didn’t. Instead, he handed her his scanner. “It’s getting pretty dark out there, and considering yours is broken, you’re going to need something to see by,” he held it there until she took it from him.
She offered a stuttered thank you, then he nodded, gestured toward the tunnel, and walked off with Sharpe at his side.
She stood there for several seconds, watching the both of them descend into the shadows. Though Sharpe turned on the light source in his scanner, and the little device threw out powerful illumination, it didn’t feel as if it could do much to the darkness. It was so damn cold and black down there.
Nida gave a sudden shudder as they both walked out of sight.
Then she realized how dark it was out here, and fumbled with Blake’s own scanner until she managed to get the light source working.
Turning your scanner’s light on was a basic lesson at the Academy, and happened somewhere around the first day, and yet she had to try hard to remember how to make the little device work properly.
She really was the worst cadet in 1000 years, she realized as she slowly turned and made her way back to the compound.
She didn’t make it.
As she walked along, once again she stared at the beautiful night sky above. There was absolutely no light pollution on this planet, so the starscape had nothing to compete with, and shone with astounding brilliance.
She could even pick up the colorful swathes of constellations and gas clouds. She took several steps as she stared above, and once again tripped over something.
This time she went flying, and she didn’t hit the ground.
She tumbled down an incline instead.
Her body beat against something that felt suspiciously like steps, and she rolled down and down until her back thumped hard against a cold and unyielding floor.
She lay there and gasped for several seconds, feeling pain ripping through her body.
Yet after she sucked in several calming breaths, she realized she was still alive. With an enormous groan, she tried to sit up, and she promptly checked herself for broken bones as she did.
Everything seemed to be okay. Yes, she was in a great deal of agony, but she couldn’t find any puncture wounds, and she seemed to be able to move all of her muscles satisfactorily.
She groaned again as she realized she’d let go of the scanner.
In fact, she couldn’t see it anymore.
Because she couldn’t see anything. Wherever she was, it was completely dark down here. There was barely enough light to make out the shape of the stairs directly to her left.
Hold on, seriously? Had she just found another set of random steps?
Before she could realize what a stupid coincidence that was, she began crawling around on the floor, searching for the scanner.
Clearly, it had tumbled from her grip as she’d fallen, and somehow it had turned off its light in the process.
That or it was broken.
Knowing her luck, it was most definitely broken.
Great. She had just stuffed up Carson Blake’s own personal scanner.
Crawling around, she searched and searched, but she couldn’t find it.
She sat back on her haunches, swearing as she did.
Then she turned her head, angling to what she thought were the stairs.
After her fall, she’d lost her sense of orientation, and she realized with a pang of fear, she didn’t know which direction up was.
So she crawled until her fingers finally brushed against the reassuring incline of a step.
She began to pull herself up. Though she could stumble to her feet to stand, knowing her luck, she would trip and fall back down on her ass again.
With every step she clambered up on her hands and knees, she realized just how much her side hurt. It was hard to breathe, and with a groan, she realized she’d probably bruised her ribs.
She was never going to be allowed to go on a mission ever again. She’d broken two scanners and herself.
Sharpe was going to go mental.
Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe she could pretend she accidentally lost Blake’s scanner, and she could lie about the fact she’d fallen down another set of stairs, pretending she’d bruised her ribs by just… breathing too hard.
At that completely stupid thought, she let out a little pitiful laugh.
Then she realized how damn dark it was down here, and a new flurry of fear escaped over her back, chilling the skin as it went.
Crawling faster, she finally reached the top of the stairs.
But she didn’t reach the world outside.
The beautiful starscape didn’t sparkle down to greet her.
Instead, the looming shape of a room did.
One that was lit softly by a faint, blue glow.
The fall had disoriented her, and somehow she’d climbed up the wrong set of stairs.
Clearly, the tunnel she’d tumbled into had more than one set of steps leading up.
Great. Now she had to climb down again and head up the other set of stairs, still in the dark, and still on her hands and knees.
Before she turned and headed back down, she slowly surveyed the room.
There weren’t meant to be any energy sources on this planet, she remembered, but whatever was making that blue glow clearly wasn’t natural.
She narrowed her eyes and tried to figure out what it was.
Some kind of statue.
She could make out the shape of a body, carved out of stone, on the far wall.
The room was completely empty apart from that statue and several dark, shadowy recesses that suggested other stairwells leading down into more dark and treacherous tunnels.
“Turn around, head down the stairs, and get back to the group,” she said aloud, flinching as the sound of her voice reverberated around the empty room.
The architecture down here was completely different to the compound above ground, quite possibly because this room was not ruined.
And now that she could see the smooth walls and the delicate lines of the statue, she appreciated what this planet must have once looked like.
It was a beautiful sight, mesmerizing even.
Yes, that’s the right word, mesmerizing.
Before she could stop herself, she took several steps forward, and then another, and then another. She ignored the pain stabbing through her ribcage, and strode confidently toward that statue.
It was as if the thing was reeling her in.
The closer she got, the more astounded she was by its beauty.
It was the shape of some alien woman, dressed in a flowing gown, with beautiful lines of hair tapering across her face and shoulders.
She had the kindest of smiles, and her hands were held out in front of her, clasped around some kind of blue orb.
The orb was glowing – the sole light source illuminating the room – and the nearer she got to it, the more the glow caught her attention.
Something appeared trapped in the orb, something that danced and writhed like bodies through smoke.
She reached the statue.
She stared up at it, her mouth agape.
In an instant, she forgot all of her pain and agony.
She stretched a hand toward the orb.
On the very first day at Galactic Coalition Academy, they told new recruits two things. Never leave your team behind, and never do anything stupid.
Space is, quite frankly, not a safe place.
Given a chance, it would throw everything from spatial anomalies, to menacing aliens, to booby-trapped planets your way. So if you wanted to survive, you had to live by the rules – stay with your team, and most of all, be smart.
Now, she knew it wasn’t smart to reach her hand out to touch the orb.
It was glowing with such a peculiar energy that even a newborn baby would realize it wasn’t something you should touch.
Yet she couldn’t stop herself.
Her fingers were drawn toward it.
Then, as she turned her face up to look at that beautiful smiling statue, she touched it.
She stood there for a second before anything happened.
Her fingers registered no heat. In fact, her fingers registered nothing at all. It was as if she wasn’t touching anything. As if the blue orb was nothing but a hologram.
Then something happened.
She heard a crack, almost like a rip in space.
Then something slammed into her chest and forced her backward.
It had more force than anything she’d ever felt.
As soon as her head struck the floor, she lost consciousness.
But just before she did, she thought she saw a blue light bursting out of that globe and rushing down toward her.
It sunk into her chest as her mind turned black.
The rest of Ouroboros Book One is currently available from most ebook retailers.