The Night of the Gods Book One

Max Farsight

He stared over at Alyssa Night as she sat on the transport opposite him. Nothing could break up his steely, determined stare. The ship didn’t kick or shudder, even as it shot toward its target with throat-punching speed. He’d flown on some pretty untrustworthy vessels over his time – the kind of bareknuckled, skeletal, barely spaceworthy carcasses that got you from a to b but no further. This prototype, top-of-the-range sub-cruiser was as far from such ships as you could get. For Max’s current mission was like no other.

He’d cut his teeth mopping up pirate scum on the Rim and running sorties into Kore space. Then Alyssa came along. Or should he say the Night?

She had no rank – didn’t need one. Though Admiral Lara Forest, his direct commander, was determined to train her in the ways of the Coalition, why pretend Alyssa Night would ever be anything more than… whatever she was? And what was she again? It was a question that kept dogging Max over the last six months of her training.

Alyssa was an energy being unlike anything the Coalition had ever seen. A sentient creature with a temporal gravity field within her very form, she had the singular capacity to destroy anything – anything at all – with nothing more than a touch.

She’d fallen into the Coalition’s hands six months ago, a literal gift from the gods. For it was the self-proclaimed gods of the far-off Scarax Galaxy that had once trapped Alyssa and would do anything to get her back.

The Coalition wouldn’t keep Alyssa trapped. Admiral Forest wanted to train her, to inculcate her in the ways of the Academy and its recruits so she could fight alongside the very people protecting her from the gods, no matter the costs.

This was Alyssa’s second operation in space. The first went according to plan. And by that he meant she hadn’t used her incredible temporal altering capacities to destroy anything.

This was a real, live mission. They were headed to an embattled Coalition cruiser. He didn’t understand the exact nature of the problem yet. But he did appreciate, statistically, whatever it was, Alyssa could deal with it. If you included in the equation dealing with it destroying it.

The Night, as the gods called her, possessed incredible powers – evidenced by her skin. He didn’t want to admit this, but he found himself staring at it whenever he could. Who wouldn’t? Channels of power crisscrossed deep down through her flesh. They radiated over her entire body. Whenever she concentrated – and whenever she destroyed anything – that bright force surged, light spilling off her like a newborn star. But that was the wrong simile, ha? Alyssa couldn’t be a newborn star. That suggested creation. She destroyed.

She tilted her head to the side. She sat there in a strong set of solid-state armor and a layer of ablative carapace he didn’t begin to understand the physical capacities of. It was a prototype scrounged together by Lara’s best scientists specifically for the Night. No, Alyssa, he corrected himself quickly. It wasn’t only because Lara kept demanding he call Alyssa by her name to humanize her – Alyssa responded better.

At the end of the day, this was all about her.

Max might’ve had a troubled past, especially over the last five years. For a man who’d sported a stellar early career with the Coalition, he’d hit the rocks after his destructive divorce. But this right here would be the most important mission he would ever go on. Hell, it would likely be the most critical operation in galactic history. The very future of not only the Milky Way, but of the Scarax Galaxy rested in Alyssa’s hands. And Max had one simple task. Or perhaps it wasn’t that simple. He must show Alyssa Night what and when to destroy and what to keep safe.


Alyssa Night

They’d given her a name. She didn’t understand the point. Why call something by a specific set of syllables? All things ended, as the nature of reality dictated. The more you named such things, the more you by definition grew close to them. A foolhardy thing. For when the object disappeared, you lost.

The name remained. As did Commander Max Farsight – a fixture of her life over the past six months. When the admiral wasn’t coming to see her, Max trained her.

For 2000 years, the Night – or Alyssa, as she must start calling herself – had sat in a temporal prison staring at a wall with nothing but her mind to entertain her. No one had expected anything of her. For the gods trapping her had only wished she would not break free to consume them.

Now? Now she could not stop her gaze from deviating across the small vessel and locking on the commander’s visor. Despite its opacity and bulk, she guessed his expression. His brow was likely pressed with consternation, his lips pulled thin with worry, and that suspicious glint no doubt glimmered in his eyes once more.

He didn’t think she could complete this mission.

Perhaps he was right. Ultimately, Alyssa didn’t understand why she was being put through this training. She’d already imparted her knowledge to the one they called Admiral Forest. They needed to destroy every single Hendari crystal, sooner rather than later. For they were the forbidden. They gave the gods their inherent power. And if they wanted to save the Coalition and the rest of the Milky Way from the oncoming war, they must act quickly.

But Admiral Forest wouldn’t let Alyssa anywhere near the Coalition’s Hendari crystals yet. She kept promising when they destroyed the crystals of the gods, the Coalition would surrender their bounty.

A mistake. A fool’s game.

It would likely cost them everything.

All civilizations, whether the Coalition wanted to accept this or not, ended in the blind pursuit of power. Alyssa held onto that fact as if she knew the history of all civilizations, though she did not. She didn’t even have discrete memories of her own people – the Hendari. The Coalition databases couldn’t help elucidate her. No one was sure what the Hendari called themselves, let alone who they’d been. The Observers was the closest anyone had come to their real name. Whenever Alyssa thought it or even heard it, her stomach clenched and cold fear swelled within her.

Though Alyssa possessed memories of her incarceration, any recollections of her people were conspicuously absent. She’d lived for over 2000 years. She knew that. She was also the reason the Hendari had ultimately destroyed themselves. They’d been scared of her power and had misused it. They’d run from the end. And it had ultimately cost them everything.

Yet Alyssa failed to remember anything specific. The Coalition had grilled her, attempting to force her to give up her secrets, but the recollections, if they were ever there, were buried somehow.

As far as Alyssa was concerned, she’d been born roughly 2000 years ago in that temporal prison, and for that entire time she’d done nothing but stare at the wall.

Right now, she did the same. Though it was tempting to keep her gaze locked on Max’s rigid visor, she settled it above his left shoulder on the glimmering metal bulkhead.

Just like him, she wore thick, prototype black and silver armor. To Coalition standards, it was sophisticated, though it lacked the true power of Scarax technology.

Regardless, it hid her skin, and that, apparently, was all Admiral Forest cared about.

To these Coalition people, appearances were critical. In the Scarax Galaxy, people embraced glowing skin. To the gods, the capacity to store up and reflect light in one’s body revealed their inherent power. Alyssa was yet to discover a single person in the Coalition who looked like her.

“We’re almost there.” The commander checked something on his wrist.

She couldn’t technically see what it was. That was until she concentrated. Her formidable senses pierced through his thick prototype armor, and she discerned the powerful personal computer clamped around his left wrist. It was called a wrist device. They’d attempted to fit her with her own, but it had been a thankless task. Every unit had crumbled into dust. Most things did around her.

Max crunched forward until he locked his broad arms on his knees. “Whatever happens, you—”

“I will follow your lead. I will do as you say. I will follow,” she paused as she tried to remember the exact vernacular, “your orders.”

He stopped then let out a gruff blast of air. “I’m not looking for a wrote-learned response here, Alyssa. This is a real mission. Unlike our first one, we’re dealing with a cruiser.” He stabbed his finger toward the left. There were no portholes in this tiny vessel. It was large enough for the two of them to sit down, but that was it. It lacked a cockpit, and there was no mess hall. There wasn’t even a bed. Though she didn’t require such things, she understood ordinary creatures needed comfort, as they put it.

This ship was built specifically to get assets from one end of a system to another. Deployed in secret off a Coalition vessel, equally in secret, it would traverse some long distance, utilizing its sophisticated anti-detection technology to ensure not even the most advanced races in the Milky Way would discover it. When it reached its target, it would connect to its underbelly unseen and allow the soldiers within to transport aboard.

In reality, she didn’t need this ship to help her transport. With a mere thought, she could push right through a wall. All she had to do was reach out a hand and let her fingers settle on some surface. The temporal particles within her body would remind it that, ultimately, it had never been truly solid in the first place.

Perhaps Max could guess whenever she was becoming distracted. He leaned even further forward, tilting his head to the side. He peaked his thick eyebrows up underneath the protection of his visor. “What I’m trying to say is there are real people on board, Alyssa. Actual lives.”

She opened her mouth to tell him all lives ended. That was the nature of life. You could not fight death forever. Doing so would only bring you heartache. But she’d said that so many times and been corrected repeatedly by the gruff commander, she knew there was no point in voicing it again.

He still paused as if allowing her to make that mistake once more.

He soon shrugged and jammed his thumb toward the back of the vessel again. “We go aboard, and you do exactly as I say. We have to discover what attacked the ship then deal with it. And all the while, we have to hold on to the sanctity of life.” His voice dipped down low.

The sanctity of life. That was a favorite saying of his, one he used to counter her assurance that everything ultimately ended. In his mind, regardless of whether people were destined to die, until they died, you looked after them. You gave them the space to live. You shepherded them back from the brink, as he always put it.

In her mind, there was ultimately no point. All civilizations died in the same way. They could not accept their inevitable demise, so they clutched at any power, no matter how dangerous, that would promise the certainty of continuation.

Though Max didn’t want to appreciate this, that was precisely what the Coalition did now. They could train her all they wished. They could take her on these missions and try to make her feel the importance of their ways. But unless they gave up their greed – and importantly, their Hendari crystals – it would end. Sooner rather than later.


Two days from now, Planet Commerce One

Max Farsight

He struggled against the restraints. Two fully-equipped security robots locked their long, impenetrable metal arms through his. Even in full armor, he wouldn’t have been able to pull free from their unwanted embrace. These were the best. Because his ex-wife had created them. That didn’t stop him from straining until sweat slid down his shoulder blades.

The level 20 security fields flickered in front of him, burning his cheeks. They were so thick, you would need a drill to penetrate them – or a cruiser with propulsion set to maximum.

But at least he could see her.

He watched as Alyssa fell to one knee. She stared emptily at her hands. Energy discharged over them. Then her fingers became limp and fell.

“Alyssa,” he screamed, true emotion punching through his tone. It arced up higher, threatening to bring the ceiling down. Even then it wouldn’t save her. Nothing could.

She shouldn’t be able to hear him. Those security fields didn’t just keep him out and Alyssa in. They blocked off all sound, all airflow, all temperature – everything. But she still darted her head up, her long neck muscles straining like taut ropes. As energy continued to crackle over her form in violent bright spurts, her every movement weakened.

For a creature meant to be the strongest in existence, it was heart-wrenching watching her succumbing to weakness.

He thought the word creature, but it was an old program. The new Max rose high and shoved that notion from his mind. She might not be human, but that didn’t matter. He’d once thought it had – he’d been wrong. She was alive. And she deserved to stay that way.

“Alyssa,” he screamed again, his throat bulging against the stiff collar of his armor.

She could no longer lift her hands. More energy discharged around her. It came from the ring beneath her feet. It continued to poison her through her holographic armor. The same damn armor Max had suggested she wear in the first place. He watched it interact with her skin, digging further into those channels covering her flesh. She was virtually naked now, not that you’d be able to tell. As light bled out of her, that was all he could see. He knew he shouldn’t keep staring at her. He could do himself permanent eye damage.

He couldn’t look away.

“Alyssa,” he screamed until his throat croaked.

She looked up one last time.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything,” he spluttered as the impending horror of the situation struck him.

Alyssa Night, apparently the greatest monster in existence if you believed his old self, smiled one last time.

She fell backward, silent and still.


Present day

Max Farsight

Fear raged in his gut. He hated feeling afraid. It was the one emotion he rejected with all his heart. Panic led nowhere. It locked you up when you needed to move. It gave your body permission to spiral out of control. If you wanted to make a change in this galaxy, let alone in your own life, you had to reject fear with all your heart. Whenever it rose, you pushed it back, and you did what you had to.

Their vessel reached the embattled cruiser. Though it still flew Coalition colors, and by that he meant he recognized the command protocols, they couldn’t transport aboard obviously, not in the current galactic climate. Seemingly random deadly attacks occurred in Coalition space every day. Hell, why stop there? The Coalition wasn’t the only Milky Way force unlucky enough to be receiving this attention. From reports of spies deep within Barbarian and Kore sectors, they endured the same thing. It was worse for the Kore. Ever since the Hand of the Gods incident, the Scarax gods had grown a liking for Kore soldiers. From the reports of the best Coalition assets in the Kore Empire, the Empress lost soldiers daily. Whole ships of troops disappeared as the Scarax Galaxy opened up light paths and stole them away across the galactic expanse in seconds.

Six months ago, you could have rightly accused Max of being over-cautious by using full stealth to undertake this mission. But in those short months, the entire Galactic landscape had irreparably changed. It hadn’t felt this way since the Force war, and that hadn’t been long ago at all.

Max could still remember a time when the Milky Way – or at least his small section – had enjoyed relative peace. With the Coalition powerful enough to protect the weak, people had possessed dreams. Now all anyone wanted to do was get through this.

He pressed forward. It was disarming not having bridge controls on this ship. Though it was rich to call it a ship. It traveled through space, but only to its intended target.

One of the reasons it didn’t have bridge and navigational controls was its stealth programming. Theoretically, if the whizbang Coalition scientists who created it could be trusted, nobody in the Milky Way possessed the technology to detect it. You would actually have to eyeball it in space. Even then, you’d need some seriously sophisticated eyeballs. It used a special type of cloak. The only person who could see through it stood right next to him. And yeah, he caught himself thinking of Alyssa as a person again. Though he didn’t know. He hadn’t been sure since the moment Lara had given him this cursed mission.

Alyssa… there was no time to answer that question.

“Contact,” he whispered over the wireless communication network connecting his sophisticated armor to hers.

“Very well,” she answered.

The transport beam snagged hold of them and transported them away. It glowed brightest around Alyssa by far. She had a massive energy yield. To cancel that out, the transporter used everything it had. Even then, according to their best Coalition scientists, she wasn’t truly broken down like an ordinary person. A normal soldier took their heart in their hands when they transported. Though rare these days, there could be issues. If you encountered sufficiently strong interference or your destination was destroyed, you were obliterated. Your body would never reappear. Your energy would cease to exist. As for your mind? God knows what happened to that.

With Alyssa, it was different. If you believed current theories, she allowed herself to be transported. If at any moment she didn’t wish to continue, she could pull herself out of the stream. Who knew what would happen to anyone being transported by the exact same stream? Presumably they would end.

End was a word you got pretty used to when you spent a lot of time with Alyssa. It was all she knew.

They arrived in a small corridor. It looked like a maintenance tunnel. Though usually they were cramped and wended through the back halls and underbellies of most vessels to allow engineering crews to get to far-off critical systems, this one was more than wide enough to stand in. It also had flickering lights that weren’t working. They came on only to jerk off as if the illumination was nothing more than a string somebody let a cat play with.

Though he wanted to take the opportunity to remind her again she wasn’t here to end anything, he took a reticent step back. “What the heck is that?” He stared up at the light, neck straining. It could be nothing more than an impression, but it looked wrong as it jerked and swayed.

Alyssa glanced up at it. He wanted to see her expression. Then again, what emotions could she show? No matter what happened, and no matter what she faced, regardless of how gut-wrenching, she kept the exact same look on her face. If he were kind, he’d say that if he’d stared at a wall for 2000 years, he’d have the same stoicism. Try as he might, he couldn’t get over his reticence about Alyssa and his gut instinct this was fundamentally a foolhardy mission. Admiral Forest was wrong. He couldn’t teach Alyssa how to be a Coalition soldier. To do that, she needed a heart. And while she had a lot of power and an unchecked ability to destroy, she’d never possess a heart, no matter how hard she tried.

That didn’t stop him from waving her forward. As he took a wary step to the side of that flickering light, she paused beside him.

Her hands rested slack by her sides. He’d already plucked up the gun from his holster, and he held it in a secure grip. He could admit his fingers locked too tightly around it. That flickering light unnerved him. The mission brief unnerved him, too. When they’d been deployed from Admiral Forest’s cruiser to this ship, the admiral said there was no indication of what was actually wrong with this vessel. The crew had just gone silent.

There might’ve been some kind of novel virus attack. It could’ve been a communications problem. Or maybe it was another attack from the Scarax Galaxy. A new breed of incursion. Something else that would get his heart pulsing and his brow sweating whenever he woke in the middle of the night thinking about the Milky Way’s future.

He paused under the light, utilizing his armor’s sophisticated scanners to detect if there was anything inherently wrong with it. When it didn’t come back with a satisfying answer, he waved her on.

She followed. Not once did she show fear. She wasn’t capable of it.

Maybe that was another reason Max had long ago concluded the so-called training of Alyssa was destined to fail. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t feel fear. She thought the end was logical. Necessary even. Fundamentally, didn’t she want the Coalition to fall?

This wasn’t a good time to think that dark thought.

They reached the end of the corridor.

He needed to have his wits about him. A thick hatch door separated this section of the maintenance tunnel from the main corridors of the ship beyond.

He leaned toward it without scanning it first.

“I would not recommend that,” Alyssa said noncommittally as his fingers almost brushed it.

“We need to get out there and find out what’s going on with this crew now.”

“There is an energetic field surging through the metal.”

As soon as the words slipped out of her lips, his armor detected it. It was subtle, almost not there, but his helmet zoomed in on it. He saw the faintest few crackles zipping along the metal’s gleaming surface. It almost looked like invigorated worms emerging out of wet soil only to plunge back in.

His gut kicked. He’d been about to touch that.

His armor quickly came back with the conclusion that whatever the energy was, it likely wouldn’t be able to penetrate his armor’s defenses.

Alyssa took a step forward.

It was clear what she thought she had to do.

She stretched out her hand.

He caught her wrist.

He slowly turned and looked at her, even though his visor hid his true expression. “The first thing you need to learn, Alyssa Night, is there are other ways to move forward without destroying everything in your path.”


 

Alyssa Night

The commander’s words echoed in her head. She made note of them. She made note of everything he said to her.

She tried to learn. She didn’t fundamentally understand why she needed to, but she tried to do so, nonetheless.

She felt a sense of… she didn’t know if it was loyalty. She hardly had the ability to distinguish such a strong emotion considering her millennia of solitary confinement. But she had to admit the Coalition had given her a semblance of freedom. They too feared her powers, but at least they didn’t lock her in a temporal prison and send so-called sacrifices to keep her trapped for longer.

The commander held her wrist for a little too long. She wasn’t sure why she understood that. It was another impression. She struggled to comprehend it.

She wondered what it was like for ordinary people. Not simply humans, but other races. Were they this confused about the origin of their senses? Presumably, it didn’t take them long to understand their bodies and the abilities of their minds. But while Alyssa was technically much older than the commander, he had more experience. All of this – from this ship, to his curt words, to this galaxy – was new to her. So she could not understand why she got the impression he held on for a little too long. But he did.

He soon let his hand drop. He turned, getting down on one knee in front of the hatch. His armor possessed keen sensors. According to Admiral Forest, it was some of the best technology the Coalition currently possessed.

She was also fully aware of his armor’s defensive systems. It could likely withstand the insidious effects of the strange energy haunting that hatch. But there was no point in potentially damaging the armor in the first place. This hatch was in their way. It was infected. Why not allow Alyssa to use her powers to get rid of it? It consisted of nothing more than metal. It wasn’t sentient life. Over the past six months when Alyssa hadn’t trained, she’d watched many videos of Coalition soldiers. They often destroyed things with their guns. In critical situations, they thought nothing of blasting through walls. Ultimately walls could be rebuilt. But perhaps the commander wanted to hammer home his point to her. Creation, to him at least, was always preferable to destruction.

He knelt and placed his hand on the hatch. She could tell his computer connected to it and tried to access whatever remained of its internal processors.

He reached up with his other hand, found a hatch panel, and tore it off in a neat move. It was easy for his armored fingers. They locked around it despite its shielding and pulled it right out of the wall with an echoing snap. With one hand still placed on the smooth metal of the hatch as his internal sensors continued to scan it, he sorted through the wires with his other hand. He soon found an unshielded green one and ripped it right out.

An act of destruction, she wanted to point out. But a very effective one, nonetheless. With a beep, the hatch opened.

He turned and looked at her.

There was a triumphant glint in his eyes.

Wait, that was just a guess, wasn’t it? As she technically still could not see his face.

Once upon a time, Alyssa had never guessed.

Once upon a time, she had just existed. Now… she followed.

The commander nudged his way out of the hatch, taking seconds to lock one boot on the dark floor beyond. There was a barely perceptible ring of metal on metal.

The gun stayed in his grip. He held it so tightly that, with a fraction more effort, his armor would break right through the shielded base and splinter it like ice under a hammer.

She went to push past him.

He paused, opened a hand wide, then, a few seconds later, allowed her to follow.

She stared at the corridor.

There was only one working light all the way down the middle of the corridor, approximately 20.4 meters away. The light had an odd quality. It didn’t function as an ordinary electrical source of illumination should. It dimmed in and out almost as if it was alive.

There was only one light Alyssa knew was truly alive, and that was the forbidden. Those in the Scarax Galaxy called it the Light of the Gods. It was a parasite. It gave its host power, but in turn, it took power from its host, demanding ever more sacrifices, for that was the nature of power. There was no power in all of existence that came for free. You had to sacrifice. The stupid sacrificed themselves. But the smart found a way to sacrifice others. And that was the only reason the gods were as powerful as they were now. They’d found a way to offer up every other being in the Scarax Galaxy for their assured and continued dominance.

Having recognized the light, there was only one thing Alyssa could do. She opened her hand. She dug deep into the channels of power permanently glowing across her skin. Allowing a pulse of force to develop in her palm, she reached toward that light. Before she could let loose with a barrage of force, the commander jerked in close, grabbed her hand, and held it in place.

“What are you doing?” he hissed, his words sharp and hard. “I told you to only act when you’re ordered to.”

“That is the Light of the Gods,” she hissed back. For the first time in a while, emotion hardened her words. She was fully aware that the commander often questioned her sentience. Or whether at least she had the kind of sentience he did – one that ultimately mattered and deserved his respect.

Though the usually cold commander didn’t seem to be the kind to take much stock by emotions, he did. And her lack of obvious feelings unnerved him. Now it did the opposite. He opened his mouth quickly, an angry frown parting his lips like hands viciously pulling at wire. “I told you, you only act when I tell you too.”

“That is the forbidden.”

“We desperately need to find out what’s on this ship. We have to find the crew first,” he said, slurring, his words muddling together with fear and haste.

He yanked her hand down hard.

Again, he held on to it for too long. And once more she pondered the question of why she knew that. For him to hold her wrist for slightly too long meant there was a designated time she should have been held for. One he exceeded for some reason. The question was what reason? Was he even aware of it himself?

Five seconds later, he let go of her wrist.

They reached the end of the corridor.

There was a malfunctioning door. It hissed open only to close quickly. It did so blisteringly fast. Or at least it would’ve been so for a human.

She could tell Max had to use his onboard scanners to try to penetrate it. She didn’t have the same issue. She discerned what was within. The crumpled corpse of a crewman. What had killed the man was also apparent. An energy source currently feasted on his body like a wild animal to a kill.

The commander grew tired of attempting to scan through the door, shot forward, grabbed it in his powerful gauntlets, and wrenched it open. He took a single step into what appeared to be the mess hall, then froze.

He came face-to-face with the corpse. He also detected the energy. It ravaged the poor dead man’s body. It looked… she stopped herself. It was a trait of humans to divide experiences into similar things. They often searched for examples in their pasts they erroneously thought would provide insights into novel experiences in the present.

There was nothing this looked like. For there was only one thing it was.

“That is the Light of the Gods. Allow me to destroy it,” Alyssa said quickly, every word stringing together as she forced them out of her stiff lips.

Alyssa might have no direct memories other than that of staring at a wall for 2000 years, but from within her whenever she faced the Light of the Gods or spoke of the Handari crystals, something rose – a powerful, unsettling force. She wondered if this was what it felt like to be a human and to ultimately be under the control of one’s emotions.

Though control was always a hallmark of her mind, it ended whenever she encountered the Light of the Gods or the Hendari crystals. All she had now was instinct.

She felt the parasitic light snacking on the human’s corpse. It pushed into the dead man’s heart, crushing every cell and extinguishing what was within. As it writhed, her power rose to meet it before it could wreak more havoc.

Far from allowing her to surge forward and destroy the infection – and the corpse still holding it – the commander threw out a hand. He got down on a knee.

The crewman’s eyes sightlessly stared at the ceiling. His white pupils reflected the commander’s gleaming helmet as he leaned in. But every now and then, a flicker of light chased through them. To a human, perhaps it looked as if the man still lived. He was dead, a fact the commander well knew. It didn’t stop him from muttering something under his breath and reaching forward. With a stiff hand, he closed the crewman’s eyes, pressed his palm over the man’s head, muttered something again, and lifted to his feet. The whole while, the commander kept his arm outstretched wide to stop Alyssa from moving in.

“Commander,” she said in a trying voice.

“We have to find out what’s going on. We need to concentrate on getting to the crew.”

“If you leave the Light of the Gods, it will simply move on to consume other things.”

“If you start destroying it, Alyssa, it’s gonna know you’re on board. And if the Light is still connected to a god that has somehow made it into this galaxy, they will hunt you. You will not fall into their hands.”

Everything he said was a certain statement. There was no question in his mind, no uncertainty in his heart.

The commander’s mission was twofold. He wasn’t only here to teach Alyssa the ways of the Coalition. Primarily he ensured she didn’t fall back into the hands of the gods.

Alyssa appreciated while it was important she didn’t return to the Scarax Galaxy, it wasn’t only for her own safety. The Coalition didn’t want to let go of her. For she was powerful. And as she’d said so many times, civilizations, especially when they start to end, clutch hold of all power, regardless of whether they can control it.

So she didn’t shrink back at his words.

She was happy he couldn’t see her expression. Though she rarely did so, now she narrowed her eyes at him. Her lips parted over her teeth. Her eyebrows clunked together. And the energy that always charged over her form became ever more powerful.

But she said nothing.

When it became apparent to the commander Alyssa wasn’t going to ignore his command, he shrugged her forward. They reached the end of the mess hall. There were two doors. One led out into a corridor beyond, and the other appeared to lead to some kind of kitchen unit.

The commander paused, ready to head out into the corridor, but he changed his mind.

He opened the door leading to the kitchen.

In one swift move, it revealed destroyed equipment strewn over the floor. Cooking units, refrigerated compartments, and matter calibration devices lay crumpled and mangled. They sat in clumps as if someone had gathered them together to start a fire.

On top of one pile was a crewmember.

And that crewmember was snacking on an arm.

A human arm.

Alyssa didn’t react to the gruesome sight. The commander did. He barreled forward. Grunting, he reached the infected crewmember and pushed him off the pile of destroyed equipment. The man shrieked. Though Alyssa had precious little experience with the emotions of soft-fleshed races, she could tell this was the scream of a body driven to the edge.

Fresh blood splattered up out of the human’s mouth. It scattered over the commander’s helmet, concentrating across his visor and slipping down the sides of his angled jaw units.

The commander wrenched the arm off the man, but the man tried to scrabble toward it.

Alyssa stood there.

She didn’t scream. She didn’t shake. She simply stared at the man and watched as the subtle infection of the Light of the Gods took further hold.

The infected crewman tried to wrap his teeth around the commander’s throat, but there was the clang and snap of enamel as the man’s incisors shattered against Max’s near impenetrable shield.

The guy jerked back, more blood splattering from his mouth. This time it was his own.

The commander finally wrestled the man onto a clean section of the floor and pinned his arms.

Though Alyssa should have attended to the fact the infected crewmember started screaming as if his life was about to be ripped from his body, cell by cell, all her attention focused on the commander. For whatever reason, she swore she suddenly heard his heart. It pounded in his chest, adrenaline and fear shaking through his body in a toxic mix of fright and despair.

“What’s wrong with you?” the commander snapped in the man’s face.

The man had no capacity to answer. Instead, after breaking his teeth unsuccessfully on the commander’s armor, he scrabbled desperately toward that arm.

It was beyond his reach.

The whole while, Alyssa just stood there.

She could see the tendrils of the Light of the Gods energy within him. It was twisted somehow. And by that she meant more twisted than it usually was. The Light of the Gods, fundamentally, was parasitic. And yet she’d never seen it like this. It was clear the commander hadn’t seen this, either.

He possessed Coalition intelligence data Alyssa did not. Admiral Forest appeared to trust him. She didn’t trust Alyssa. She simply planned to use her.

“Alyssa, what the heck am I looking at?” he spat.

“An infection of the Light of the Gods,” she answered. “I have never seen it act specifically like this.”

“I’m not gonna let you kill him,” he suddenly spat, even though Alyssa hadn’t suggested it.

Though she liked to believe she only became emotional in the presence of the Light of the Gods, and that emotion was only directed at destroying it, something rose in her heart now. Not that she had a heart. It was a turn of phrase she’d learned from the humans. The point was, a new, distinct sensation spread through Alyssa. She knew enough about the humans she observed to recognize it was anger.

How little did the commander trust her? He was currently grappling with an infected crewmember. He could right now see what occurred when the Light of the Gods was allowed to run its course. Yet she was the monster?

She found her hands stiffening by her sides.

“What do I do? How do I get it out of him?” the commander spat.

He didn’t give her time to answer.

She could feel his stress becoming greater by the second.

She somehow connected to his heart. As it pounded and shook through his chest wall, with every beat, he became more afraid of the situation. And as that happened, somehow he chose to transfer that fear onto her.

“Never mind,” he spat at her. “Just don’t you dare do anything to him.” He reached around and scrounged several scraps of metal. He used his armor to bend them. He dug one end into the floor beneath the thrashing infected crew member’s wrist. He bent it around and cuffed the man to the floor in one simple move.

He went to rise, but immediately the man started to turn on himself.

The Light of the Gods would be fed. And if the infected man could not feed off that arm, the Light would be content to feed off the man instead. He immediately snapped his own wrist into his mouth, and there was a crunch as his teeth impacted his bones.

“No,” the commander screamed. Jerking forward, he found another section of metal, and he cuffed the man’s other hand.

That didn’t stop the man’s feet from thrashing.

It wasn’t until the commander restrained those too that the man could no longer hurt himself. Or at least not visibly.

As Alyssa stood there, she watched as within the man, the Light of the Gods gathered speed.

Did the commander really think he could save this man by simply restraining him? There was no saving him. The Light of the Gods would always do as it pleased.

That was evidenced as the commander pushed to his feet. It was only in time to see the Light surge up and into the man’s eyes. They flickered, opening so wide it seemed the eyelids would be torn right off the man’s face.

His mouth gaped open wide. His back arched.

The commander jolted forward, his boots squeaking on the floor, but it was far too late.

Alyssa felt the moment the man died. His body still thrashed, but that didn’t matter. Within, the sentience that had held on this long crumpled.

His eyes didn’t stop glowing. His head turned and jerked until it faced her. “Night. We are coming. We are coming for you, Night. You must return to your prison so all can live.”

There was a crack like lightning, and the man fell back. His body became limp. All the semblance of life disappeared as the Light of the Gods crackled up, arced in a wave, then shot into the floor.

The commander danced back, but the light wasn’t that stupid. It obviously knew there were far easier, softer targets still left on this ship. It pushed into the floor and presumably disappeared through the many conduits of the vessel, hunting out its next prey.

The commander stood there. His heart continued to shudder until it skipped a beat. He turned and looked at her.

She stared impassively at the corpse then swiveled her gaze over to Max.

Though her intuition had told her exactly how he looked and what he’d thought previously, now, for whatever reason, it failed.

She had no clue what he thought, but presumably, he would have heeded the Light’s words.

The commander had been under the impression no one knew she was aboard. He was wrong.

“Dammit. We have to get you out of here,” he said, disappointment dripping from his tone.

He wanted to rush through this ship and save whoever he could. He was burdened by her presence.

She stared at him impassively, even though he couldn’t see her expression. “We are already aboard. We must contain the spread of the infection.”

She didn’t need to spell out what that meant.

He turned around.

For the first time, despite how dangerous it was, considering what was aboard, he took his helmet off. Not all the way. He pressed a button on the side of his neck only accessible by him, and his visor retracted, showing his gaze. Or should she say his glare? It was direct and sharp. Though this wasn’t something she’d ever felt, she wondered if it was akin to a knife pressed up against her throat.

“I told you,” he growled. “We came aboard to save people. Not condemn them all.”

“I’ve never seen the Light do that. But that does not mean much. As I have been in a prison for 2000 years. But I can confirm that was the Light of the Gods. And you presumably have not forgotten what just occurred,” she said coldly as she gestured at the now-still corpse. There was even less emotion in her words than there usually was. They were nothing more than empty, soulless syllables.

Within her, she had to control the constant urge to turn and fight.

All the temporal particles in her body wanted to do was to be let out. She had to face the infection that was the Light of the Gods. And she had to pull it from this galaxy before it ran out of time.

Yet right now she had to play by the commander’s rules.

“No, Alyssa. We will give this poor crew another chance. You may not be able to see this, and you may not be able to understand it. But in the Coalition, we watch each other’s backs. We recognize the sanctity of life. Whenever possible, we give people a chance to survive.”

Usually she simply allowed the commander to say as he wished whenever he started speaking like this. Not this time. She took a challenging step up to him – the first time she’d ever done so.

It was her turn to remove her helmet.

Theoretically, she wasn’t meant to be able to do it. It was practically soldered onto her body. She’d been fitted out for it back at the Academy on Earth by the best scientists the Coalition had. But now she interacted with it deliberately, her temporal particles leaching out into the armor’s computer until she grabbed hold of the visor and removed it with a single thought. Then she settled her gaze – her endless gaze on commander Max Farsight. “You can only truly save somebody when in saving them you do not condemn another.”


Commander Max Farsight

The situation had gone to hell. It had deteriorated quicker than a cruiser losing both engines and crashing down to earth.

The Light of the Gods infecting the crew was one thing. A horrible, terrifying, gut-wrenching thing. But the moment Alyssa proved this armor couldn’t contain her was something else. She took a challenging step forward. She got even closer, her words still ringing in his head. If anyone else had said them, maybe he would’ve heeded them. He would’ve seen the sheer stupidity of his own actions. He’d been briefed on the Light of the Gods. He understood fully what it was, so he knew it wasn’t the exact fearsome substance Alyssa thought it was. As Isabel Carter, the Hand of the Gods, had proven, the Light of the Gods was only as rapacious and unstoppable as its host. If you gave it a new purpose, and you gave it the correct mind to inhabit, it would lose its parasitic ways. But that wasn’t the point.

Whatever had happened to the Light of the Gods on this ship, it was somehow consuming the crew, and in turn, turning the very crew against one another.

But he couldn’t see that right now.

The one thing he could not allow was for Alyssa to get out of control.

She had an unchecked ability to destroy anything. Given a few seconds or minutes, she could take down every single wall on this cruiser. Every body would crumble under the temporal gravity field in her form. All would crumble to dust.

His mission was clear. While Forest had the ridiculously wishful dream that Alyssa could be trained, at heart, Forest was a smart woman. She’d been through enough galactic-wide trouble to recognize while you could dream, you had to plan for the opposite eventualities, too. If Alyssa became uncontrollable, he had the permission to activate a hidden program within her armor.

Though she was meant to be an asset of the Coalition, all powerful assets had to have an off button. You needed a kill switch in case they went off the reservation.

Based on the technology of the prison Alyssa had been kept in for the past 2000 years, engineers had created a mini temporal field that could interact with and temporarily block her force. It hadn’t been tried out, and she had no clue it existed. If everything went according to the scientists’ plans, she would be knocked out. It would be the equivalent of reaching up and carelessly turning off a robot.

The kill switch was programmed into his current armor. He needed nothing more than a single thought, and it’d initiate.

She didn’t step back from him. She continued to stare on with her steely gaze. It was one thing being stared at by a bolshie recruit. It was another being gazed at by a Barbarian mercenary. And it was one final thing for someone like Alyssa to do it.

Sometimes he forgot her power. It was easy enough when her body was blocked off from him by armor.

He would forget exactly what she could do, exactly what she was.

Now as her gaze blazed even more, the reality of the Night came back to him.

“Every time you run around this ship, trying but failing to save the crew, is time given to the Light of the Gods to do as it pleases. Every time you try to save one person,” she said, her voice getting stuck on the word one, “you condemn the rest of the ship and quite likely the rest of this sector. What will you do when the Light spreads? Who will you blame then?”

Alyssa had never been this bolshie before. Even when she’d failed in training scenarios, she’d simply shrugged it off.

Blame it on the fact she’d done nothing but stare at a wall, but she could face superiors with an empty energy in her eyes that would put even the most obedient cadet to shame.

All of that was gone now.

He saw the viciousness in her heart.

And no, he didn’t temper that thought. Lara mightn’t think Alyssa was violent fundamentally, but in moments like this, he could see the truth.

“You are not in control of the situation, Night,” he spat. “But I am. You will not be destroying the ship under my watch.”

Her gaze flickered. “I thought you agreed to call me Alyssa? I thought the Coalition had given me a name because, in your own words, I deserved one?”

“They did. You’re Alyssa Night. And you will do as I say. Put your visor back on. This is your last warning.” His voice hardened.

She stared at him. And the look in her eyes… God, he shouldn’t have to tell you it was endless.

It felt like being stared at, appropriately, by time itself.

“I don’t know why the Light is shielded from me, and I cannot detect it throughout the ship, but I understand what it will be doing. While we are uselessly arguing, it will be attempting to control more of the crew. You’re wasting time. And in doing so, you are wasting lives.”

Admiral Forest had given him this mission because, to her at least, there was no one like Max. Whenever someone pushed him down, he bounced back. Or at least that’s the impression he gave everybody.

There was another side to his personality he kept under wraps.

There were some things he could never bounce back from.

There were some injuries that were carved into his very heart. And her statement rekindled one such injury.

Five years ago when he’d had to struggle to pull himself together, it had been after the sudden divorce of his wife, Suzanne Winters, the light of his damn life.

Long before he’d joined the Academy and gotten his life back on track, she’d been the sole unifying force in his otherwise broken existence.

Then she’d gone and broken up with him.

Now she was married to one of the wealthiest men in the galaxy. She’d left Max far behind. But before she’d gone, they’d had an argument. And she’d used that exact statement on him. Looking him right in the eye, she’d spat at him that he was wasting lives.

Suzanne was a scientist. A truly brilliant engineer. She had dreams, dreams bigger than he would ever be able to imagine. She was cutting edge, and she often pushed the boundaries of acceptable practices.

She’d researched some kind of transport technology. Technology capable of completely altering the face of the Coalition. There were natural restrictions on the range one could transport. It was a fundamentally energetic process. The further you went and the denser the objects you transported, the more energy the process consumed.

Suzanne was working on a way to make everything far more efficient. But one of the trade-offs was increasing the risk of critical failures.

Max had given evidence to one of the Coalition committees that had told her to halt her research.

To him, the trade-off wasn’t worth it. Sure, you might save energy, but you didn’t do it at the cost of lives. That wasn’t how the Coalition worked.

To Suzanne, the capacity to transport more over a greater distance saved more lives in the end because it gave the Coalition more power.

Max and Alyssa were still in a critical situation here. This ship was still falling to the Light, but for several seconds, his mind became empty, vacant even. He could hear the winds of his thoughts rushing through his psyche.

But then the ship shook, a violent shudder that ran up his feet and pounded into his jaw, despite the shielding properties of his armor.

It broke him out of his reverie and reminded him he was currently in a critical situation.

Alyssa, however, needed no reminding.

She moved around quickly.

The floor continued to shake, but it meant nothing to her. Her balance remained perfect.

She jolted toward the door.

He still had a mental hold of his kill switch. As his stomach erupted in nerves, he almost flicked it, but he stopped in time. “Night,” he roared, sick of playing the game that she needed a name in the first place, “what are you doing?”

“Something is surging in the corridor.”

He snapped at her to put her visor back on, lest they miraculously ran into a cognizant member of crew, but she didn’t. She plowed into the corridor.

It was just as more shakes embattled the cruiser. It felt as if it’d been swallowed by earthquakes. He cast his gaze to the side quickly in time to see a wall buckle. It exposed wiring within, and it crackled like lightning held inside pipes.

Warning alarms split the air. He knew every single one of them. This cruiser was on the edge.

Alyssa darted her head up and down. As soon as she reached the corridor, she skidded to a stop, and he knew full well it wasn’t because the floor suddenly cracked beneath her. It exposed neural wiring, and hyper-lethal neural gel spilled out everywhere. Sorry, it would be lethal to anyone but her. She could stride right through it, and her body would simply obliterate it. Which is exactly what she did.

Max hesitated. His current armor was more than strong enough to deal with that neural gel without any deleterious effects, but that wasn’t why he stopped.

A part of his mind couldn’t get over the fact Alyssa was trying to take control here, and he kept grappling with turning her off.

The admiral had been clear. If Alyssa were to get out of control, he would switch her off and Alyssa’s future would be dealt with later.

But something held him back.

Perhaps that thing was his intuition because there was a rumble in the wall beside him.

Alyssa turned quickly. She darted to the side. When he was done judging her, he had to admit when she moved naturally, there was a grace to her he’d never seen in anything else. Be it cybernetic, mechanical, or organic in nature, Alyssa moved… perhaps she moved like time itself.

And right now she moved her body in front of his just in time. An arc of power threw itself out of the wall. It had been headed right for Max.

It struck Alyssa’s chest.

Though he knew what she was and knew what she could withstand, his body took over. Actual fear – heart-pounding and skin-chilling – raced through him. It sank into his gut then erupted up into his jaw. It shook through his mouth and forced his lips open as far as they could go. Just in time, he stopped himself from screaming her name.

The energy struck her chest straight on. It rippled across her armor. She might be wearing something more sophisticated than anything else the Coalition could engineer, but it had nothing on the Light of the Gods. And make no mistake, the energetic wave attacking her was that substance.

Max had spent the last six months studying every single scrap of information the Coalition had on it. Most of it had been drawn from the Eye and Hand of the Gods incidents.

It was a substance with absolutely no parallel in the Milky Way.

An energetic force capable of breaking up any other force, it somehow possessed a semblance of a mind.

Alyssa called it a parasite. The best information the Coalition had put it as a semi-sentient power.

A power that, if the Coalition could possess and wield, would change everything.

The galaxy had never really been a peaceful place. There were too many enemy factions and empires out there. From the Kore to the Barbarians, there were always those who wished to destroy rather than create. But the Coalition was founded on peace. The drive to protect all others and to ensure a galaxy that allowed people to dream and thrive was its reason to be. Yet it had never had the capacity to go up against its true enemies. It’d never truly been able to ensure the equality all deserved. They needed a game-changer – a force nobody else could match. And the Light of the Gods, and critically the Handari crystals, were such a force.

It might’ve been Alyssa’s sworn goal to destroy them all, but… if they could just be controlled, the future could be assured. A future for everyone.

Max hadn’t always lived the life he did now. Way before he met Suzanne, he’d been an orphan. He’d been found in a broken cruiser on the Barbarian and Coalition border. According to the reports of the Coalition cruiser that had found him, they’d taken a chance. He’d drifted across the border to the Barbarians. If the Barbarians had discovered him… Max would’ve lived a different life. He mightn’t have even lived. They might’ve thrown his mewling form to one of their dogs.

But the Coalition had taken a chance on him. They’d risked, and in doing so, they’d saved his life.

So he owed his life to them and everyone else. And more importantly, he owed his very existence to the same hope that had saved him in the first place. He needed to spread that hope out to other people. He had to ensure others had the same chances he did. Otherwise he would have to accept that this galaxy was a cruel, capricious place, and if he did that, it would destroy everything he’d ever worked for.

Alyssa’s name might’ve been on his lips moments before, but it died. As the Light of the Gods arced into her body, she simply closed her arms forward, locking that energetic blast against her chest.

It was now almost irrelevant that she was wearing armor. It cracked up. Perhaps it was because she’d taken her visor off. Or, more likely, she was now using her energy how her energy wished to be used in the first place. It was pretty rich for her to be so fearful of the Light of the Gods. When the Light of the Gods wasn’t controlled by a violent mind, it was fundamentally creative. She was not. A fact she now showed in full.

She clasped her arms tighter in front of her chest, and he watched that energetic wave try to push into her body, yet she simply closed her eyes peacefully, and a temporal field began to pick up over her skin. Technically, there was always one in her body, but she could control it to some extent. Now she let it loose.

Energy unlike anything else he’d ever seen and one that spoke of the basic destructive capacities of time blasted out of her body. Her arms thankfully contained it.

He said thankfully, but he could bet the Light of the Gods wasn’t thankful for that fact. It screamed.

It didn’t have a throat, but that didn’t matter. Perhaps it was a psychic projection. Or maybe Max only imputed it. Yet he swore he heard it. It shook right through his psyche. It almost made him jolt forward and stop Alyssa. But it was too late.

Her temporal field crushed it.

It wasn’t matter in the first place, so it couldn’t be turned into dust. Instead… it was extinguished as if it was a candle that would never be lit again.

Alyssa soon let her arms fall, and she turned to face him, but Max couldn’t wipe the look off his face. It was one of disgust and fear.

He watched her eyebrows crumple ever so slightly.

She was back to controlling her expression – though not completely.

She switched her gaze off him. “The Light of the Gods is surging through the ship. I still cannot detect it fully, but for it to attack me, even though it knows what I am, it believes it is gathering power. We should head—”

“I’m the one who’s in charge, Alyssa. And we’re getting off this ship.”

She’d already taken a step forward. She stopped and turned her head to him. “Then we have to destroy the ship on the way out.”

“No. I’m calling in the mission. We failed, but others can succeed. Admiral Forest—”

Alyssa turned.

He thought he felt the moment she stopped trusting him. She reached a single hand out. And that’s all it took. She locked it on the wall. She spread her energy.

He felt… it was hard to describe what he felt. This endlessness. But it wasn’t endless in the sense of a life that would never stop. It was in the exact opposite sense. It was like the void of death opened up all around him. Silent, cold, exposed. And endless. So very damn endless.

Temporal particles shot out of her hand and into the wall. Instantly the wall began to crumble.

“Alyssa,” he screamed, but it was too late.

She sent a full surge of temporal particles down into the floor.

There’d already been countless warning alarms blaring over the ship’s intercom. Now 10 more joined them. There was only one that mattered most. The vessel started to lose integrity.

“Warning,” a compassionless electronic voice said. “Integrity is failing ship-wide. Integrity is failing ship-wide. This vessel will collapse in 30 seconds.”

She’d gone against him. She’d destroyed rather than created.

She turned around. She stared at him. “Do it, Commander. Use that device you think I don’t know about. The device which will rob me of my consciousness. I went against your order, but ultimately you hold all the power, don’t you? So turn me off.”

Her words had a chance to strike him like a cold slap, then he damn well did it. He clutched hold of that mental kill switch, and he turned the Night off.

But the Night can never be held back forever. For where there is day, darkness will soon flood in.


Commander Max Farsight

He couldn’t sit in front of the admiral. She gestured to the seat behind her desk, but he wouldn’t take it. He stood there. He knew how badly he’d failed. And he knew how much she’d needed him to succeed.

That said, the admiral’s expression wasn’t one of a commander who’d lost hope in their best soldier. She simply sat there, a neutral expression on her face.

She wasn’t pressed too far forward in her seat, and nor was she locked all the way back.

Her body language, just like her expression, remained entirely neutral, and subsequently, entirely unreadable. “Please, Max, just take a seat.”

“I need to stand,” he conceded, telling her the truth and putting a lot of emphasis on the word need. “Sitting down feels like doing nothing, sir. And right now I know I need to make up for my mistake.”

The admiral got an odd look on her face when he said the word mistake.

He’d been expecting she’d give him a serve. He’d imagined it over and over in his head ever since he’d transported off that broken ship and made it back to the admiral’s supermassive heavy cruiser, the Mercury. Now he waited. But Forest didn’t give him a serve. She rested her hands forward. She rapped her fingers on the desk once, then flattened them out. “We know from long-range scans that there was no one left… alive,” she paused, “before Alyssa destroyed the vessel.”

Max had already heard that. It didn’t change anything. He’d lost control of the Night. He’d failed his mission.

The admiral stared over his shoulder then sharply ticked her gaze up to him. “You’re not in trouble, Max.”

He stiffened. She hadn’t given him a verbal serving, so he just gave himself one instead. “I should be, though. The only reason I’m not in trouble is that you need me, correct?”

She stared at him, her expression unreadable. She was likely used to commanders in his position not offering explanations for her motivations. And he knew she didn’t need them. He couldn’t stop himself. Though he usually bounced back from hard missions, this one wheedled into his skull. It wasn’t even the horror of those crewmembers attacking each other. It was the moment he’d switched the Night off, and she’d just… fallen.

“It is regrettable you had to use the capacity to control Alyssa this early on in the piece. As you have already reported, she is apparently well aware that we had programmed her armor with such a faculty. I do have to catch myself when I underestimate her abilities.” Her voice remained completely neutral. There was no accusation. There wasn’t even any fear. There was also no… he couldn’t put his finger on it. There was no recognition Alyssa didn’t deserve that name in the first place. Because Alyssa was….

He’d been trying to answer that ever since he’d met her, but once again, he came up with a blank.

His body naturally stiffened, and this time, though he wasn’t aware of it, it was solely to do with thinking about Alyssa.

The fact of her was like a shadow looming ever closer in his mind. One he knew that, when it reached him completely, he would never be able to get away from.

“Admiral, I deserve to be punished for what I did. I lacked the capacity to control her.”

The admiral suddenly laughed. It wasn’t what he expected. To be fair, it wasn’t an actual chuckle, just little more than a curt expulsion of air. It had the same effect. She drummed her fingers on the table in front of her for a few more seconds, and she appeared to stare vacantly into space. Admiral Forest, however, was never vacant. There was no other mind like her in all of the Coalition. There was no soldier like her, either. If the reports were correct – the secret reports – then she’d virtually single-handedly taken on the Force. Once upon a time, the Force had been the greatest enemy the entire Milky Way had ever seen. Until the gods came along.

Perhaps it was Admiral Forest’s ability to always look forward toward the next threat, lift her chin, and ready her forces to face it that was the real reason no one could match her in the Coalition.

If he had a little of that ability right now, he wouldn’t be crumpling so much.

“This incident was expected. In many ways, it is good it has occurred.” The admiral shrugged.

“Good?” he said, a pulse of disgust blasting through him. It was good? It was good Alyssa had destroyed the entire ship and condemned the crew? It was good that over 2000 souls had been lost, just like that, in the virtual click of Alyssa’s temporal fingers?

Blood pounded up his throat and into his neck. It felt like his circulatory system was trying to shake him out of his skin.

The admiral was clearly willing to give him some quarter. If he were anyone else, she would’ve likely made him sit, regardless that he wanted to stand. But there were limits to her patience. He’d just reached one of those limits. It was her turn to stand. It wasn’t a jerky affair. She stayed in full control of her body as she rose to her feet slowly. She nodded once at the seat behind her desk, and this time Max realized he had to take it. He folded his stiff body into it, but he never dropped his challenging stare.

“As I already told you, long-range scans confirmed every single member of crew had already been infected by the Light of the Gods before Alyssa destroyed the ship. If she hadn’t done it, we would have.”

That was like a slap to the face. For more reasons than one. It wasn’t the admiral’s sudden ire. It was that Alyssa was right.

His ex-wife had often told him he couldn’t admit to others when he was wrong. Maybe it was because he’d never had a family. Maybe it was that he’d had to prove himself since the day he was brought to the Coalition. He’d had to stand on his own two feet. He’d had to think faster, move better, and achieve more than others. And most importantly, he’d had to never be wrong.

But this was Admiral Forest.

And there was no arguing with her.

“As I said before, it is regrettable you revealed to Alyssa we can turn her off. But she has already woken. And she has not… done anything. She is right now sitting in her quarters, staring at the wall.” Forest had a deserved reputation for condensing wisdom down into a few mere words. She could give someone orders so direct, there’d be no question what they had to do. She could also summarize complicated situations in less than a few sentences. For her to be lost for words wasn’t good.

She sat. “Alyssa appears to still trust us. And as you said in your report, she knew about the kill switch. So this changes nothing.”

“Sorry, Admiral?” he spluttered. “It changes nothing?”

She locked her gaze on him. It could cut through anything – steel, diamond, or a rowdy commander just like him.

“You will continue to go on missions with her. You will continue to train her in the ways of the Coalition.”

He opened his mouth. He’d been ready to be punished. And maybe he’d wanted to be. If he’d screwed up enough and the punishment had been big enough, then he would’ve been relieved of Alyssa. Which is what he needed. This might’ve been the greatest mission of his life, but he wasn’t up to it.

Max had just reached a crossroads. He could plow ahead, insisting he had to be reprimanded for what he’d done, but then he’d risk the admiral figuring out what he was really playing at right now.

Admiral Forest had the greatest respect for him, for some reason. It was the last thing he wanted to break. In her eyes, he could do this. No, in her eyes, he was the only one who could complete this mission.

Even if he didn’t want to.

He rested his hands on his knees and shifted back until his shoulders pushed into the unyielding surface of the seat behind him.

He might not be about to strike it lucky and get removed from this mission, but there was one problem that had to be solved before he ever set foot outside of the Academy with Alyssa again. “She chose to allow me to use that kill switch. If at any time she had chosen otherwise…” he trailed off. There was no point in finishing that sentence. Both he and the admiral had active imaginations that could fill in what would’ve happened the second the Night had decided not to play along with their games.

The admiral’s jaw twitched ever so slightly – the first and only sign this overall situation was getting to her. If you’d taken her at face value, from her easy demeanor and the rested expression on her face, you would have assumed Alyssa failing to comply with orders was hardly a problem at all. The most powerful creature in the known universe going way off the reservation was something to shrug one’s shoulders at.

But Admiral Lara Forest leaned forward, and there was a curious glint in her eyes. “We have been working on something. I’m unsure about whether to install it on Alyssa, though. That’s in part why you’re here.”

He’d been dead certain he was here to be fired. But now that possibility was gone, a niggling fear punched through his gut. Sorry. What was he saying? Fear? This wasn’t terror twitching up his spine – just anticipation. If there was some possibility they could control Alyssa, he’d grab it gladly with both hands. “What are you talking about?” he said through a strangely dry mouth.

“We’ve been working on a new form of holographic armor,” the admiral said as she pushed to her feet. There was no anger or fear in the move. She was back to looking in complete control. She shifted around the desk toward the opposite wall. There was a bank of holo emitters. With a simple swipe of her hand, she turned them on, and an electronic buzz filled the air.

Though Max hadn’t been told to stand, he pushed to his feet. His shoes thumped on the polished smart concrete floor as he walked up to the admiral. His eyes widened as holograms set about dancing across the far wall. They soon formed a perfect copy of Alyssa, right down to those channels in her skin.

When she was right in front of him, Max never stared – not too obviously. Now she wasn’t here, his eyes did what they wanted to. They settled on that light, almost drinking it up. For there was nothing – nothing at all like it in the known galaxy. And if the myths around Alyssa were correct, then there was nothing like it in the known universe.

Purportedly the greatest civilization ever to have walked the stars had failed to control her, and it had ultimately destroyed them.

Now she was here in the Coalition’s hands. Even as he thought that, one of his hands involuntarily twitched. The fingers convulsed up like springs, and his short nails indented his palms.

No, she wasn’t in anyone’s hands. Alyssa was fundamentally too powerful to control. Though that should have been a worrying thought, for a flickering moment, it almost brought a smile to his lips. Then the image of Alyssa’s glowing body disappeared. The admiral walked to the side, swiped a hand to the left, and replaced the image with a set of glowing armor. It was made of nothing more than light. If you erroneously thought that meant it was brighter than Alyssa’s form, then you were wrong. Max found his eyes darting from left to right as if they were desperately searching for the sight of Alyssa once more.

Finally, his analytical brain kicked into gear. A frown marched across his lips. “What is that?”

“A set of holographic armor. Though the Coalition has utilized holographic armor for some years, this,” she dramatically sliced her hand to the side, her fingers opening wide as she gestured to the glowing hologram, “is a cut above the rest. It has also specifically been designed for energetic beings.”

“It has? That was quick,” he muttered, his eyes still wide as he stared at the hologram. He wasn’t much of a scientist, but he always prided himself on his intuition. As he assessed it, it was like he was figuring out the armor’s abilities, simply by sight alone.

Though that was of course impossible, he could use simple induction. For the admiral to be showing him this, it had to be a game-changer.

“This armor has been in development for some time,” she confessed.

Max frowned. “We’ve only had Alyssa for six months.”

“It has been the culmination of years of research between the Coalition and Ares Tech.”

Those two words could set him off. Permanently. The admiral knew that. She didn’t deliver them softly, though. He was a commander of the Coalition Army. He had to put his past behind him.

It was hard.

Ares Tech – or rather, the head of it, Andrew White – was the very man his ex-wife had married.

The admiral’s gaze hardly drilled into the side of his face, but she watched him, keen to pick up any reaction.

He sliced his jaw to the side, tried desperately to loosen his shoulders, then faced her. “I see.”

He didn’t.

Unlike everybody else in the Coalition, he pathologically hated Ares Tech, despite their reputation as the best company in the Milky Way. Their R and D team performed the best cutting-edge research. And their devices out-powered anything even the Coalition could produce – astounding when you considered all of the secrets they’d gathered from the Scarax Galaxy over the last several years.

Ares Tech and their leader, Andrew, appeared heaven sent. Whenever the Coalition found a gap in their technological advantage over their enemies, Ares filled it.

It also helped they now had the full assistance of Max’s ex-wife. Suzanne might’ve been many things, but she was one of the top scientists in all the galaxy.

He reached a hand up, intending to grab his tight trapezius, but he let his fingers fall. He shifted his weight, stood as tall as he could, and slid his gaze over to the armor once more. “Who exactly was this in development for?”

The admiral snorted. It was a small move. “You may not be privy to every single secret in the Coalition, but trust me, while Alyssa has… exceptional qualities, she is not the only energetic being we have ever discovered.”

“Which is presumably a secret if I don’t know about it,” he said. It was a pretty plain, obvious statement. It was one that still had to be said.

The admiral didn’t know how to answer.

He continued to stare at the armor until he swiveled his gaze over to her. “So if I don’t know about these secrets, why does Ares Tech know?” He shouldn’t be challenging her. He’d already started this conversation on the wrong foot, and this was the equivalent of taking that foot in shoving it right down his mouth.

Lara narrowed her gaze at him. “You’re absolutely correct.”

He hadn’t said anything that could be answered that way.

“There are secrets of the Coalition you are not privy to,” she repeated her previous line. Then she turned and faced the armor. She had no intention of answering why Ares Tech knew something he didn’t. “Over the past six months, my scientists have been perfecting this armor for Alyssa.”

Now they got to the point of this conversation, Max’s mind snapped off his ex-wife and Ares Tech. He didn’t know why, but a cold wave sliced down his skin. Could it be anticipation? Hope likely, right? Because if this armor could control Alyssa, then all of his nightmares would go away at once.

Or was it… dread? It couldn’t be. That had no place in his mind right now.

“Not only will this armor be able to cover Alyssa’s skin and visually eliminate any sign of her light channels, but it will also be able to mediate her force, shall we say?”

That frown that’d never been too far from his lips sank so deep into his skin, he thought it would be a permanent fixture now. “What exactly does that mean?”

“The armor will be accessible by a master set.” The admiral swiped a hand to the side, and another set of armor appeared. This wasn’t holographic, though – just the standard stuff. He could instantly tell it was built for him. It had the same rough physique.

That flicker of dread he’d felt before… he didn’t know why, but it became far worse. It ignited in his gut and went to charge toward his neck before he grabbed hold of it desperately with both hands.

No. There was no place for fear in his life. None. He’d been controlling it ever since he’d been discovered as an orphan. Though he’d been a baby when he’d been plucked off that cruiser floating near the Rim, he actually remembered the sheer terror he’d endured back then.

He’d always promised himself he would never feel fear like that again. His life going forward from that point had been one of attempting to triumph over every horror this twisted universe could throw at him. Other people were afraid. But not him.

“This master set will have complete control of Alyssa’s armor. You’ll be able to modulate the force of her attacks. And you will also be able to… turn her off if you need to.”

He looked at her slowly. “You think Alyssa is going to voluntarily wear this?”

The admiral’s gaze unfocused. She chose to stare past the holograms and lock her attention on the wall. “That’s hard to say. But if you recommend it, I believe she will comply.”

Max knew he shouldn’t laugh in the face of his commanding officer, but he couldn’t stop himself. The chuckle ruptured out of his lips before he could secure them shut. It was less of a chuckle though – more of a single moment of mirth. “I’m not entirely sure why you think Alyssa would follow me like that, but Admiral, I’m sorry to say we don’t have that type of relationship.” All he could do was think of when she’d removed her visor and challenged him. Her cold words still echoed through his mind.

Even now as he repeated them, they sank further into his stomach, pushing down his intestines and feeling as if he’d opened his mouth to the icy tail of a comet.

“You can try. If you think it’s a good idea,” the admiral added.

That shocked him. This was Admiral Forest. Behind her, presumably supporting this decision, was the rest of the admiralty. They’d clearly been working on this armor with one specific purpose in mind – to control Alyssa. But actually deploying it was down to him?

An uncomfortable expression slid across his face. Though he tried to stand taller, his hands naturally clenched behind him and his back bowed. “Admiral?”

“We’re on a precipice, Max,” she said, her entire demeanor changing out of nowhere as if someone had flicked a switch that gained access to her emotions. She no longer stared at the armor. Her unfocused gaze locked on the floor. “If Alyssa hadn’t destroyed that ship, who knows what the Light would’ve done? The gods of the Scarax Galaxy are determined to get her back. But that’s only the beginning. They are already waging war on the Milky Way,” she admitted.

Max had never heard anybody describe it like that. And it wasn’t right, was it? War? What was happening right now were skirmishes. The Scarax gods would use light paths and open them up at random points in the Milky Way. They’d attack cruisers and transports. But this wasn’t a war. This wasn’t the Scarax Galaxy pitting its greatest forces against the Milky Way. This was….

He looked at Lara, saw her gaze, saw the tension wrapping around her body and realized he didn’t have any right to correct her. As she’d already pointed out previously, she had information he wasn’t privy to.

The frozen comet he swore he’d swallowed earlier lodged in his stomach. He found himself taking a step forward.

The admiral obviously thought that meant he was ready to answer. He felt put on the spot. He turned his attention back to the armor.

There was only one thing for him to say, wasn’t there? It didn’t matter that this armor had been made by Ares Tech. It didn’t even matter that it would be up to him and his less than stellar relationship with Alyssa to actually get her to wear this stuff. All that counted was this was a chance.

And they desperately needed one of those now.

Hope – even if it was false – was all they had left.


Alyssa Night

She stood in the middle of a massive room. Or at least, to a human perhaps it would be massive. It didn’t have anything on the palace of the gods. That city spanned an entire planet. The room she’d been kept in was 10 times larger than this one.

Even then, the definition of a room was always a curious one to Alyssa. It depended on the walls. But all walls fail. And when they fail, does the room disappear? Or are they only ever a construct of the mind? It seemed to be a uniquely soft-race feature to think that when you were inside something the outside was somehow kept at bay.

There were several glowing rings sunk into the floor beneath her feet. She glanced at them curiously. Then she looked up. Her vision didn’t work the same way as others’ did. She never lost acuity. Somebody could be right in front of her, or they could be a kilometer away, but she could still see them as if they were up close. She wondered if it was a feature of her intuition. Sometimes it was hard to divide a line through her actual senses and her imagined ones.

The point was, she could see Max and Admiral Forest. There were scientists around them, all busy at work. They were at the far end of the room, separated from her by thick shields.

“The armor will be manufactured onto your form shortly,” the admiral said in her signature strict tone.

If an ordinary person had heard it, perhaps they would conclude the admiral was devoid of emotion. She wasn’t. Alyssa could feel it, even hear it. It pounded through Lara’s heart and wended its way through her tense muscles. The admiral, it seemed, was on edge.

Everybody in this civilization, in one way or another, was on edge.

Though Alyssa had no idea how she understood this, whenever a civilization as great as the Coalition fell, the citizens within all collectively felt the fear of impending death.

It was what they did to desperately clutch hold of their lives that would matter most though. If they accepted their demise, then they would die peacefully. But if they clutched hold of power and scrounged toward it, ignoring their morals, no matter what, then the end that finally met them would be far, far worse.

Even as she thought this, she darted her gaze back to Max several times. She knew full well he wasn’t psychic. She would’ve felt if he had the skills to push into her mind. That said, no psychic would be stupid enough to ever try. Alyssa’s mind was unlike that of a soft biological race. It was endless, and cold, she’d been told. As cold as the depths of space.

She still locked her eyes on Max. Did he know what she thought now? He appeared to hate it whenever she thought of the end. He certainly hated it whenever she spoke of it.

He was—

She didn’t have time to finish that thought.

“The process will begin now,” the admiral instructed her.

Alyssa tilted her head down. The rings beneath her feet started to glow. There was an unusual illumination. It reminded her in part of her own light, but only for a flickering moment. She’d never seen anything like it in all of the Coalition.

Perhaps she should have felt fear, but she found her gaze darting over to Max again. This had been his idea.

He simply stood there. He watched her. So she watched him.

An ordinary person would have watched the process instead. As light began to spread up out of the rings, it adhered to her form. She could feel it pressing into her skin, created right over her flesh like a living carapace of illumination.

While Admiral Forest’s eyes were filled with a touch of awe but primarily the professional attention of somebody who needed their experiment to work, Max looked….

Alyssa knew sometimes he stared at her. Perhaps his mind would momentarily become vacant. Or perhaps his eyes would momentarily take over his body. But in those moments, when he released his attention, Alyssa felt….

Curious.

Suffice to say, over the 2000 years of her internment, she’d never been able to imagine thoughts nor sensations like this. She’d certainly never been tasked with the almost impossible job of figuring out exactly what they meant.

A second later, Alyssa was lifted off her feet. At any moment, she could’ve ended the process.

This light could not be produced without the help of the device beneath her. With nothing more than a single thought and a pulse of her temporal particles, she could destroy the machine. It would likely cost the Coalition greatly, and it would reduce the admiral’s trust for her again. But it would stop this.

For the first time, she finally yanked her attention off Max. Strange sensations pulsed deep inside her skin. She jolted. She fancied it was involuntary, not that she’d ever felt such a thing.

She lifted her hands. She watched as that light marched up her palms. She no longer saw the channels within her. They were obscured by the hologram. She couldn’t even pierce through them to see the channels using her extended senses. It was almost… as if they ceased to be.

She locked her eyes on Admiral Forest. It was in time to see her lips moving. “It’s working,” she hissed.

There was no reason for Alyssa to be able to hear that. Especially not behind all of these thick shields. An ordinary person—

Alyssa soon stopped. She had to.

The process finished. A deep, deep muscular twitch ran through her chest, jolted into her spine, and twisted her head back.

“What just happened to her?” Max snapped.

His voice became distant, so far away, it was like he was being pulled toward the other end of the galaxy.

In a moment, she heard nothing. No more chatter from the scientists. She couldn’t even pick up the words of Admiral Forest. It was as if a blanket had descended between them and her.

Without warning, Alyssa fell to her feet. Her balance returned, and she didn’t tumble to her knees, but she no longer felt like her old self.

You would’ve thought that right now alarm would’ve spread through her chest as if she’d swallowed a bomb. There was a flicker of it, but she soon dropped her hands and stared at Max. He stood a little taller, and Admiral Forest placated him. He seemed fine with the process… so that meant Alyssa should be fine, too, correct?

She dropped her hands.

The rings in the floor stopped glowing.

An intercom buzzed on. “Alyssa, what do you feel like?” the chief scientist asked.

“Unusual.”

“Describe the sensations.”

“There are few sensations,” Alyssa answered honestly. Those muscular twitches were gone. Now Alyssa felt… a little vacant. But that was it. In many ways, this reminded her of what she’d endured for the past 2000 years. During her internment, she’d barely paid attention to her body. Because what had her body been but a vessel for her mind and eyes? She’d stared across her room, focusing her full attention on the wall, and everything else in reality, save for her thoughts, had just dimmed into the background.

“Is there any pain? Any evidence that the armor is doing any damage?” the scientist asked, though the question seemed to be automatic as if he already knew the answer.

Pain? Alyssa would be lying if she’d said she’d never felt pain before. She had. But it was almost hard to draw up the memory of it now. This armor… she had to return to the point that it felt like a blanket had descended between her and everything else. And that included her body. She soon shrugged. She shook her head. “There is no pain.”

“It’s worked.” There was a truly excited note to the scientist’s voice. The man was clearly thrilled. And why wouldn’t he be? They had found a way to control Alyssa. And yes, she knew fundamentally this armor was about controlling her. Though it had been presented to her as a way to allow her to walk freely amongst the Coalition and other citizens of this galaxy without them recognizing what she was, Alyssa understood their true desires.

This armor would’ve been fitted with another kill switch, as they called it.

Just another attempt to control Alyssa before the end.

She dropped her hand. The admiral made a motion to one of the scientists, and the massive shields protecting them turned off.

Alyssa’s attention locked on Max.

He had an odd expression contorting his face. Was it disgust? It usually was. Though he often did a good job of hiding it.

Alyssa was no fool. She understood exactly what Max thought of her. And yet, for reasons unknown to her, she still followed his words. Was it loyalty? Was it recognition that the Coalition had been better to her than the gods of the Scarax Galaxy? It had to be.

Though Admiral Forest started to stride out toward Alyssa, Max soon pushed beyond her.

He walked straight up to her.

Alyssa took a step. She intended to meet him halfway across this cavernous expanse, but her legs suddenly gave out. In the oddest thing that had ever happened to her, Alyssa Night fell. She managed to push down to one knee to stop herself from tumbling onto her face, but that was it. For a moment, she’d been unable to control the effects of gravity on her body.

The admiral blinked in surprise, but Max threw a hand out. There was nothing he could hope to do with that hand. He was still a good 20 meters away. He had no spatial defying properties. His fingers couldn’t suddenly shoot out of his palms and reach her. He still did it, nonetheless. His lips twitched too, as if he wanted to say her name, but he stopped himself.

Alyssa pushed to her feet.

The admiral jerked her head back to one of the scientists. “What was that?”

“Likely a fluctuation in the holographic armor. It may be restricting her movements,” the man guessed without bothering to ask Alyssa what had happened at all.

That hadn’t been a restriction of movement. Her body… had forgotten how to work momentarily. She didn’t bother to try to walk again. The admiral and Max finally reached her.

Now Max was closer, he didn’t allow himself to stare at her freely anymore. Or maybe the reason his eyes were no longer alive with attention was that there was nothing to stare at now. Alyssa was no longer Alyssa. Without the light of her power, what exactly was she?

Once more she pulled her hands up and stared at them.

The admiral cleared her throat. “The process is complete.”

An odd thing to point out. Alyssa could tell what the tension echoing through Lara’s words meant, though.

The process was complete, so now the admiral could use Alyssa more freely.

Though Alyssa had only been deployed on two missions thus far, she could tell that would now change.

The admiral turned to Max. “Take her for a stroll through the Academy. We’ll be prepping one of our vessels for immediate takeoff.” She nodded at Alyssa, turned, and walked out.

That just left Alyssa with Max. No. They were not alone. Many scientists currently scanned Alyssa. In fact, this was almost the opposite of being alone. At least he finally stared at her once more.

Not for long. His gaze darted toward her and immediately darted away. He turned.

He didn’t ask her how the process had felt. He simply grunted and shrugged forward.

She followed him across the large expanse. It was a strange experience indeed to learn how to walk.

Alyssa had never had to pay much attention to the process of placing one foot in front of another, even though she’d sat down for 2000 years. There was no movement her body was restricted from making. Unlike a true physical form, her actions didn’t come from the pumping of muscles. They came from the controlled distribution of her light. Now… she could feel her legs like she’d never felt them before. They threatened to wobble several times, but she forced herself to concentrate to stay standing.

She didn’t want to fall in front of Max.

They didn’t stride past the scientists. There was another way out of the room. They took it. The whole while, she waited for Max to say something. Wouldn’t he enquire as to what this felt like? Even if he ultimately didn’t trust her and was disgusted by her form, would he not be curious? She soon got her answer. He didn’t say a word to her. He also never looked her way.

Alyssa was confused by that for several seconds, but finally they reached the corridors beyond. Some of the corridors she’d already walked. She understood from the blueprint she’d seen of the Academy that they were deep underground, far away from the rest of the students and staff. Alyssa, owing to her security risk, had never been above ground.

Max still didn’t say a word to her. The silence was empty. She’d once been very good at filling empty silences. She’d allowed her mind to wander, doing as it saw fit. Now… the silence clung around her shoulders, wrapping over her body and making her skin chill.

She kept looking up at the side of Max’s face, but he never looked at her once.

They finally reached a set of doors. They led to an elevator. She tilted her head to the side. If Max would not break the silence, she would. “These will take us up to the top of the Academy?”

“The ground level,” he corrected.

“And then we will walk through the students, but they will not know who I am and they will not fear me?”

Max stopped ignoring her. She watched his cheek muscles twitch. In a by-now familiar move, she could see the anger clenching his muscles. “They have no reason to fear you,” he said, his voice hard.

She was no fool. He hadn’t defended her. Max wasn’t about to tell her she wasn’t a fearsome creature, just the opposite.

“The students up there have inherited a violent galaxy. One that has taken every single one of their dreams. You may think it is logical that they simply accept the demise of the Coalition, but they don’t. They will try everything within their powers to save the galaxy, and I’ll be right by their sides.”

He walked into the elevator as the doors opened.

Alyssa paused.

Something inside her questioned whether she should follow.

It was the same thing that had wondered whether she should allow herself to be fitted with this armor in the first place.

But she’d overridden her confusion by pointing out the Coalition were not the gods from the Scarax Galaxy. They wouldn’t put her in a prison and close the door, sending naught but sacrifices her way.

And they were likely the only force in this galaxy that could keep her safe from the gods.

But did she really deserve the look in the commander’s eyes? The bottled-up hatred? The disgust?

Alyssa didn’t have a sophisticated concept of self. She lacked a recognizable history the commander could sympathize with. But she wasn’t a monster.

She was simply inevitable.

When the commander finally realized she’d stopped, he arched an eyebrow. “This is your last chance to see the Academy. For a while, anyway. This won’t be a hologram. It’ll be the real thing. After this, we’ll be sent on missions. Come see the people you’re meant to be saving.”

At least he softened his voice. It was that which finally saw Alyssa push forward. The doors closed behind her.

She focused on the hum of the elevator as it powered up to its destination. In a few mere seconds, it arrived. They traveled through 30 floors, but that didn’t matter. The sophisticated technology of the lift system made the distance seem as surmountable as a centimeter.

With a ping, the doors opened.

The commander stiffened. Perhaps it was an unconscious move. He did many things unconsciously, though she knew he prided himself on being an in-control personality.

She responded to those uncontrolled actions more than the controlled ones. It sometimes seemed as if there were two men residing within the commander’s skull. The one he forced himself to be, and the one his body chose for him.

He sliced his gaze over to her, nodded once, and walked out.

She followed him.

The area was a sea of activity. Officers and a few young cadets walked past. They all scurried around, clearly involved in whatever they were doing.

Alyssa had seen her fair share of scientists and officers down in the basement levels. She’d been on the Mercury, too. This was different.

The energy and focus of everyone striding through the halls filled the air. They carried out their respective tasks, seemingly forgetting the state of the civilization they stood upon. They chatted and laughed, their voices excited with barely an undercurrent of stress.

The stress was there, however, with the older officers. She could see it etched around their eyes, embedded in their frowns, and inherent in every single step.

She stood there, still for a few seconds, lost in thought.

This was almost too much for her.

In an unusual move for him, Max gently touched her shoulder and gestured her on.

She followed him. They started to walk the halls.

He gazed at her once or twice, but automatically, he would snap his eyes away. It was as if he was scared to stare at her. She quickly overruled that thought. No. There was simply nothing to see anymore.

She went to pluck up her hands and gaze at them, but she overrode that desire.

They stopped in front of a massive set of windows that stared out across the Academy grounds. They were sprawling. Green and touched here and there with beautiful oak trees interspersed with massive silver buildings that reached for the sky – the sight was unlike anything she’d imagined back in the Scarax Galaxy.

It almost took her breath away. Or at least, it would have if she breathed.

She might not have employed ordinary respiratory processes, but one of the features of this armor was that it pushed her chest up and down steadily to replicate the move so any curious soft-fleshed race wouldn’t think she wasn’t one of them.

It was an odd sensation to get used to.

They stood there in relative silence, staring out at the grounds together.

She knew full well why the commander was allowing her to indulge in this experience. He wanted her to see the dreams and hopes of the students around her. He wanted her to realize they were worth saving. But there was something he’d never understood about her. Everything was worth saving. But not at the cost of condemning others. One of the reasons civilizations had to end was they became poisoned. Their desire for power restructured them, making them cancerous growths on reality. They absorbed more resources in their desperation to continue. And in that race, they crushed others.

Death exists so new forms can arise from the ashes of what once was.

Though the students wouldn’t be aware of it as they walked to and fro, their dreams necessitated the end of somebody else’s.

Alyssa didn’t breathe a word of this. She simply closed her eyes.

She felt the armor around her form.

She felt the way it pushed curiously into her skin. Once more she brought up a hand and tried to see beyond it, but she couldn’t. It seemed to be a part of her now, and there would be no escape.

For even the end can end.


Commander Max Farsight

Max stood there, stiff as a plank, trying desperately to soften his body. His muscles wouldn’t work. Ever since he’d seen that armor knitted onto Alyssa’s form, his tension had sunk deep into his bones.

It was a tension that had been replicated with every sweaty nightmare he’d had over the past several weeks. Though it was a privilege to be privy to the information he was, it also haunted him. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d woken up screaming as his deeper psyche realized how precarious the Milky Way was. At any moment, the Scarax Galaxy could push in. The gods were well aware of where the Coalition was. And they knew precisely where the Academy was, considering they’d already attacked it.

Their next volley could happen at any time. Usually he was good enough at controlling his fear throughout the day. Ever since that armor had been soldered onto Alyssa’s form, his fear had been morphing, growing, changing, looming, and getting stronger. It was there in his mind like a gathering storm.

And then there was the fact of Alyssa herself.

He’d had to control his expression ever since the holographic armor had been fitted to her.

Despite having traveled with her for the past six months, he’d never truly seen her. It was pretty hard to, considering she was covered in light. The light always obscured her actual features. Now the holographic armor had revealed her.

She was… he couldn’t fill that sentence in. Every time he tried to, his mind just went blank.

The holographic armor had given her an approximate human form. That was to say it smoothed out some of her features and ensured they weren’t noticeably alien.

But….

Once more he found himself trailing off, and he had no clue why. He couldn’t look at her, even as she turned to stare at him again. “I believe I have seen enough,” she said.

“I brought you here—”

“You brought me here to see the hopes and dreams of the students. I have seen them,” she said in that same automatic, officious tone that told him she hadn’t seen anything at all.

Every time he told himself Alyssa could grow, she proved she couldn’t.

Deep inside, she really was just a cold machine with no heart.

He finally looked at her.

His gaze got trapped staring into her eyes. Once upon a time, they had been the brightest thing he’d ever seen. Now… they were just eyes. But that made them even more disarming.

Maybe Alyssa’s light had been a shield previously. A shield between him and her true self. Now it was gone, she was laid bare….

He shoved that thought away. He straightened and cleared his throat. “If you’d truly seen their dreams, you would realize they are worth fighting for,” he growled darkly.

“They’re worth fighting for. But so are other people.”

“What?”

“They are no more worthy than anyone else in this galaxy.”

If there was one thing that could ensure he didn’t get trapped staring at her skin, it was a callous statement like that. It made his back arch. It sent nerves – and justified anger – shooting through him like cannonballs.

He went to reprimand her, but he couldn’t, because at that exact moment, his wrist device beeped. He knew from the pitch this was no ordinary call.

He answered it, but not on open comms. He immediately redirected it to his neuro implant, ensuring the communication would come through his thoughts alone.

“Commander Farsight here,” he snapped in his mind.

“Change of plans.” It was Admiral Forest, and her voice echoed out with fear.

Immediately, his gut clenched.

Usually when he communicated neurologically, Alyssa turned to him. She didn’t have psychic powers – technically – but with her extended skills, it was almost impossible to fully hide the truth from her.

Now she didn’t turn to him as if she had no clue what was happening.

… The armor actually worked. He had a chance to think that, then the admiral took a pressured breath. “Your next mission will begin sooner rather than later,” she snapped.

“What is it?” he snapped back.

“We just received reports of a mining vessel two sectors away. There appears to be some kind of infection of the Light of the Gods. Initial reports are suggesting it is similar to what you faced on that Coalition cruiser.”

Her words were enough to chill his bones. He stood straighter. He was sure somebody had reached in, grabbed hold of his spine, and tried to yank it out of the back of his head.

Alyssa was at least aware of his mounting stress.

She tilted her head toward him, a frown marching over her lips.

“What do you need us to do?” he thought.

“We will transport you now,” the admiral said, her words quick, underlining just how serious this threat was.

“Is that such a good idea?” he had to remind the admiral. “We’re standing in the corridor on the third floor. Surrounded by cadets. The transport—”

“Now Alyssa is in that armor, the transportation process will be no different from anyone else.”

The admiral dropped that bombshell without any explanation whatsoever.

To be fair, that was likely because she was aware of features of this armor that he wasn’t. He had to return to the point that he wasn’t privy to all the information she was. “But—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish that thought. He sliced his gaze over to Alyssa.

Her stare was empty, as always. Then a transport beam snagged hold of her.

Every time he transported with Alyssa, he braced himself. He wondered what would happen if she decided to just cut the transport beam and remove herself from its field. He would be obliterated – plain and simple.

But nothing happened. The transport beam didn’t concentrate around her like a hive of angry bees. It just picked both of them up, and he was broken down.

A second later, he arrived in the hangar bay.

Alyssa was right by his side. Whenever she transported, the process, apparently, didn’t affect her consciousness. She would arrive at her destination as if she’d always been there. Now her eyes blasted open wide in confusion, and she staggered.

Automatically, without having to think about a thing, his hand punched out, and he grabbed her arm.

She looked up into his eyes. He looked down into hers.

Then the admiral dashed toward them from the other end of the hangar bay.

Something critical had to be going on because all of the usual traffic in the hangar bay had been cleared out. There were only Lara’s top scientists. There was also a ship. Right behind them. One seriously sophisticated vessel the likes of which Max had only ever seen as theoretical plans.

He tilted his head over his shoulder and stared at it.

He kept his hand on Alyssa’s arm.

The admiral reached them. She arched an eyebrow at him.

He dropped his fingers reluctantly. “Perhaps her armor needs to be checked again—” he began.

“Initial instability was to be expected,” Lara said, her words snapping right over his, her fear and haste clear. “It’s critical that you get to this mining vessel and you eliminate the infection. It’s carrying boxizian ore,” she hissed.

That didn’t mean anything to Alyssa, clearly, as she didn’t react. She was distracted by having staggered, and she frowned down at her hands.

But the fact the mining vessel was carrying boxizian ore meant a heck of a lot to Max.

It was a metal found only relatively recently, one used in the most important prototype technology the Coalition currently employed. It was rare and extremely powerful. If this mining vessel crashed, then the loss of it would be a massive hit to the Coalition, just when it couldn’t be afforded.

He straightened. “How long until we get there? If it’s two sectors away—”

“This ship is capable of using advanced propulsion technology.”

“I see, but how long—”

“It will be relatively instantaneous,” the admiral conceded.

It took him a moment. He wanted to laugh. Instead, he opened his lips again and automatically asked, “How long until we get there?”

“This ship will be assisted by Vivian Bond,” Forest revealed.

Max didn’t need to ask his question again. He knew exactly who that was. Vivian Bond was the Eye of the Gods. At least one of them. One of them who now worked for the Coalition. Eyes of the Gods could open up light paths. He’d had no clue the Coalition had found a way to utilize her abilities in the Milky Way. A light path split space. It allowed for the near instantaneous travel of ships from the Scarax Galaxy to virtually anywhere in the universe.

Clearly the admiral intended to use a path to allow them to instantly transport to the embattled mining cruiser.

This was a lot to take in. But he didn’t have the time.

He expected Alyssa to protest.

An Eye of the Gods used the Light of the Gods to carve out light paths. Whenever the Light was mentioned, Alyssa’s personality always changed. Right now… she was clearly too consumed by what the holographic armor had done to her.

Throughout the entire time as he’d watched it being cast onto her body, dread had swamped him.

He’d repeated to himself over and over again that this wasn’t a good idea. He didn’t know why. On paper, it seemed like the best idea possible.

Controlling Alyssa would be the key to winning this war. But….

The admiral shrugged at the ship behind them. “Go. There’s no more time to waste. And, Commander, do what you have to to save that ore,” she said specifically. The admiral didn’t turn her gaze toward Alyssa. But that’s what she meant, ha? If Max had to control Alyssa to save that ore, then he had permission to.

… Control Alyssa.

He wanted to shake his head. He didn’t even want to imagine it.

Back during the last mission, he would’ve given anything to control Alyssa, but now….

He turned hard on his foot, not before snapping a strong salute.

Alyssa paused, turned a lot more slowly, then walked away. She didn’t snap a salute at the admiral, even though Max had been trying to teach her how to.

He didn’t pull her up on it. They didn’t have the time.

As they finally reached the prototype vessel and its back hatch opened with an impossible-to-detect pneumatic hiss, he strode in, his thoughts locking on what would happen if they lost all that ore.

Then his thoughts sliced further back to what the admiral had said. They were already in a war for the Milky Way. It made sense. When you were at war, you went after your enemy’s supply lines.

Alyssa took her time getting in the ship. Max would’ve snapped at her, but clearly she had to relearn how to use her body. No. It was coming from the armor, wasn’t it? It restricted her. In time, she’d learn how to move beyond it. There was no issue, he told himself, but his thoughts had a hollow ring.

The admiral snapped one last salute then turned away as the hatch began to close.

The ship looked small. He instantly recognized its variable design. The rooms weren’t set in stone. They were programmable. If you needed a mess hall, you created one. If you needed an armory, you made an armory. You could literally do it with the flick of a switch. The entire thing was modular. The technology had been around for several years – though only on the most sophisticated and secretive vessels. But now the admiral needed to deploy it further afield.

It didn’t take long to reach the bridge. The computer on this vessel employed sophisticated AI. It would know exactly where he was headed, so when he reached the door, he heard the grating and groaning that suggested the ship was redesigning itself to bring the bridge to him as opposed to him walking through to the bridge.

His breath got stuck in his chest like a stone he couldn’t swallow.

As for Alyssa, she remained by his side, quiet.

The bridge door opened. He strode through to the sight of the viewscreen. The ship was already taking off. He didn’t know where the light bridge would grab them, but he doubted it would occur in the hangar bay.

Presumably, they had to get into the atmosphere. But he was wrong.

The ship rose up several meters. It offered a panoramic view of the hangar bay. There were no other ships around, and now there were no other people, too.

Out of a sense of routine, Max took the command seat. There was a navigations seat, but Alyssa didn’t sit. She stood there in the middle of the bridge. She stared at the viewscreen. A moment later, a sight he would never forget occurred.

Light… light opened up around them. Light that seemed to come from the very heart of creation.

He’d been wrong. A light bridge was opening up right here. The situation was so critical, they didn’t even have time to properly take off.

He clutched the armrests of his seat, his fingers sinking in so hard, they could’ve melded with the metal.

The ship started to shake. Warning alarms blared, but he knew to ignore them.

With one final shudder that ripped right through the base of the vessel and up into his feet, the ship was ripped right out of the hangar bay.

He was seated, so there was nowhere for him to fall. It was different for Alyssa. Her knees cut out right from underneath her, and she thumped down hard.

Her face crumpled in confusion.

To an energy being like her with the kind of power she wielded, tumbling over would be a new experience.

He would’ve thought there’d be a snide quality to his thoughts. And maybe once upon a time there would’ve been, but it didn’t have time to settle in.

Because nothing had time to settle in. In the blink of an eye, they were out in space, far, far away from the Academy and Earth.

An embattled mining cruiser floated on the screen. Mining transports were massive. They had to be. They transported resources across the galaxy. They had to be efficient. So they needed room to carry massive amounts of cargo. The currently adrift ship was of an even larger class. It put supermassive heavy cruisers to shame.

But right now its huge glistening silver underbelly wasn’t what took his attention. The fact there was a shimmer dancing over it did. This was no shield. It was the Light of the Gods.

He found himself gripping the armrests harder. Then he shoved to his feet.

It had only been about three minutes since he’d received the call from Admiral Forest about this mission. Now he was actually here, expected to undertake it.

He turned, intending to head to the hangar bay, but quickly remembered he didn’t have to.

He could transport right from here.

Alyssa pushed to her feet.

She stared at her hands warily before tipping her head up to face the viewscreen. He watched her cheeks pale as she saw the Light of the Gods. It ravaged the vessel.

Every other time he’d witnessed her facing that light, it had been to the side of her own light growing in power. Which had meant he’d never truly seen her expression. Now he did. He expected vicious anger. For didn’t he know at heart she was a vicious creature? Regardless of what the admiral thought about her?

It’s not what he saw. … There was almost a haunted quality to her gaze. A defeated one, too. It seemed as if she’d been fighting the Light of the Gods her entire existence, but no matter what she did, it always returned.

It stilled him, but only for a second. He knew the stakes of this mission. He pulled up his wrist device. He’d already connected to the bridge controls. He went to transport, but he suddenly realized he was missing something.

The cryptic statement the admiral had given him before he’d gone repeated in his mind. He had to save this ore. Which meant he had to utilize every single tool under his belt.

And there was specifically one tool under his belt he needed more than anything.

There was a small implant just above his left hip. He’d been fitted out for it before Alyssa was fitted for her armor.

It was his master set, as the admiral called it. The very same armor that, theoretically, would be able to control and modulate Alyssa’s power.

His fingers fumbled over it. He paused for a single second, then jammed his short thumbnail into it.

He closed his eyes.

He expected the process to be grating – unnerving, jolting, and painful. It was the sweetest thing he’d ever experienced. He wasn’t lifted off his feet. He didn’t have to be. The armor simply blasted out of that node in his hip, marched its way across his skin, and finished in a second, hermetically sealing him off with nothing more than a slight hiss.

He blinked back in surprise.

It was his turn to stare at his hands. His armor was thick. Yet it had grown out of a single implant in his hip? Incredible.

He didn’t have the time to appreciate it for long.

A warning alarm pitched over the ship’s intercom. “Our scanners have detected the mining vessel is close to losing integrity. Its gravity drives have been undermined.”

On a mining transport, gravity was everything. It was almost more important than life-support. If that failed, you could just outfit the crew in space suits. If the gravity drives failed, and if you were stupid enough to go to a fast enough speed, all the dense ore you were carrying could rip your ship to shreds. Especially boxizian ore. It had its own gravimetric field.

“Transport,” he snapped. He didn’t even ask Alyssa if she was ready.

In his head, he was already undertaking the mission. It was pretty easy to do. With this armor on, it felt like he could take on the world.

The next thing he knew, they both arrived in a broken corridor. It was twisted, great chunks of metal hanging off the walls. A single light fitting rocked above him. It swayed free from its recess, crackling around him on live wires, darting this way and that several times before suddenly and abruptly extinguishing.

The same thing had freaked him out when he boarded that Coalition vessel only to fight the zombielike crewmembers. Now he strode forward like he was untouchable.

Alyssa paused and continued by his side. If he’d paid attention to it, he would have taken more stock of the fact she was following him. Regardless of what he thought of her, she was loyal to him, not that he’d ever recognize it.

They strode down the warped, contorted corridor. Finally he heard something – this soft scampering sound. It was immediately interrupted by a blaring alarm. A malfunctioning one. It arced up high only to stop abruptly.

He knew the exact pitch of it, even though it wasn’t the same as a Coalition ship.

It was the integrity alert.

“Computer, where are the gravity generators on this ship?”

“You’re close to them,” the dispassionate voice of his armor informed him. “They are to your left through the wall. It is one meter thick,” it callously added.

He opened his mouth to say the computer should’ve just transported him right in, but then he realized one meter – even if it was through metal – was nothing to this armor.

He rounded a fist and pounded it into the wall. Force rippled out from the move. It shoved into the metal and blasted it apart.

He’d been in some seriously sophisticated armor in his time, but nothing, nothing compared to this. It was as if he now held the power of the gods in his hands. And no, he didn’t have the time to think of the irony of such a statement, considering the Milky Way’s current enemy. He just pounded his fist into the wall again, and once more force rippled out.

With a few more punches, he broke through that meter-thick section, and right in front of him were the gravity drives.

But he wasn’t alone.

There was a man down on his back. His face was twisted to the side, his eyes wide open, his mouth clicking from left to right. It looked like his jaw had been attached to a string – one being played with by a child.

It was a fearsome sight. It should’ve made Max stop. He didn’t. As he’d already said, this armor made him feel impenetrable.

He jerked forward to check the crewmen, but a scan quickly told him the man was dead. Whatever was happening to his body – that was just the leftover effect of what had killed him.

Max twisted as fast as he could, throwing himself at the gravity controls. All the while, Alyssa stood there. She turned, and she faced the dead man.

“You will not touch him,” Max said.

Alyssa ignored him. She got down to her knees.

She reached out a hand.

“I told you,” Max snapped. He reached into the controls of his armor, and he easily, seamlessly took control of Alyssa.

Her hand froze, her fingers twitching violently.

An expression of true alarm crossed her face.

“I told you not to touch him,” Max said, his voice harder.

It belied just a touch of fear. It began in his heart and spread, spread up his chest, spread into his face, spread down his back, and sank into his gut. Just like that, with this armor, he’d been able to control the most powerful creature in all existence.

He couldn’t pay attention to that right now. His fingers flew across the controls, assisted by his gauntlets. He’d never been able to think as fast, never been able to act as quickly.

Even though this ship was on the edge, in a few mere seconds, he brought it back from the brink.

Meanwhile, Alyssa stayed exactly where she was, her hand still frozen in mid-air as if someone had spray-painted it there.

Only when there was a satisfying beep that suggested gravity was back to normal across the entire ship did Max jerk backward from the controls.

He had a chance to stare at his fingers, to appreciate what he’d done, then he turned on her. “You need to get it into your head, Alyssa. You follow my orders. Or—”

He didn’t have control of her whole body – just of her hand. Nothing stopped her turning her face up to him. And nothing stopped him seeing her full expression. “You control me,” she said in an empty voice. Or at least she said it in a voice that should have been devoid of all emotion. There was something there – a kernel of fear.

Fear. That’s right – actual fear. Here she was, a woman with the power to literally end anything, and she was afraid of him?

Ridiculous.

He clutched hold of that, using it to shove away her fear.

He turned on his foot. He threw himself toward the door. It was only then he realized he still had control of her hand, and if he wanted her to follow, he’d have to relinquish his hold.

Though all he required was a thought, he still gestured to the side.

Her hand dropped. She stared at it. It was impossible to tell the quality of her gaze. She pulled herself up like a marionette on strings. She turned, her expression completely empty.

Another alarm suddenly split the air. It wasn’t as if the Light of the Gods was done trying to destroy the ship. It was no doubt still rampaging through everything in its attempts to stop the Coalition from getting the bounty of this boxizian ore. Momentarily none of that mattered. The way she looked at him… the way she looked at him was like he was her new master and there was no point in showing any fear, any hope, any emotion at all. That dread he’d been trying to bury ever since the armor had been outfitted on Alyssa rose, and it rose sharply. He opened his mouth, but that alarm split the air louder. It was life-support. While life-support wasn’t an immediate problem to him, it would be to the rest of the crew – if any of them were alive. He would not condemn them if they were.

He threw himself out of the doors.

It was to the sight of a security bot.

Mining vessels like this – especially ones with such critical bounty – didn’t float around the galaxy without sufficient protections. Even if they were prime targets for the Scarax Galaxy – they were also at the whims of the rest of the reprobates in the Milky Way. The Barbarians would do anything to get their hands on such treasure. As would the Kore.

So important mining vessels like this were armed to the teeth.

The security bot that suddenly flew at Max’s head was nothing to sniff at. It was one of a new breed. It was massive, purportedly impenetrable, and could survive in space for years on its own. It could track down a target, and short of throwing it into a star, you would not get rid of the bot on your tail.

But as it shot towards Max’s head, all he had to do was ram a hand into a fist and smash his knuckles down onto the security bot’s side. It went spinning sideways. It splintered into the wall. It was buried halfway down and started to spark. With a single movement, he’d cracked right through its outer shields and ablative plating. One single damn movement.

He stood there, suddenly out of breath, despite having used no energy whatsoever.

The alarm only pitched louder.

He ran forward.

Alyssa hesitated, then followed.

… He didn’t make her follow; she chose to.

He’d controlled her previously. He hadn’t had time to think about the action back then, but now as he ran through the corridors, it consumed him.

With nothing more than a thought, he’d grasped hold of Alyssa’s power as if it had been his own.

And yet now, she followed. Why? Was she scared he would do it again?

That right there was a very undermining thought. Because that right there would have to assume one thing. That somebody like Alyssa would ever be afraid.

She likely hadn’t been in the whole of her existence, he thought cruelly. Someone with her power had nothing to fear. … But was that actually true? She’d never once been free. By the sounds of it, she had no memories before her internment with the gods. Now… now she was with the Coalition. But was this free?

He clenched his own hand into a fist – the same hand he’d controlled on her form.

It didn’t feel right. He felt sick.

They reached life-support.

They passed crewmembers. They were all dead. His armor told him as much. They had a little residual Light of the Gods in them, but it just feasted on their bodies.

When Max had seen a similar sight back on that Coalition cruiser, it’d thrown him. He hadn’t wanted to accept what his eyes had shown him.

Now… he didn’t question his armor. Not once.

There was nothing he could do for these people. They were gone. But he wouldn’t condemn the rest of the galaxy.

If he’d been paying attention, he would’ve realized his morals had changed rapidly. Too rapidly to make sense of.

There was nothing to pay attention to other than the alarm still ripping through the air. They finally reached life-support.

The door leading to it – the super reinforced one that could only be opened with the captain and engineer’s permission – lay on its side, completely warped. It looked as if a giant had grabbed hold of it and torn it in half.

On a ship like this, such a door was top of the range.

Even a giant wouldn’t actually be able to destroy it. But the Light of the Gods had made swift and easy work of it. He could see the illumination infecting every single centimeter of metal, bursting up off the surface only to wriggle back down with pernicious speed and force.

Life-support wasn’t massive. It never housed many people. It was also designed to be virtually impossible to break. It remained hermetically sealed unless it sustained damage from the outside.

Now he saw the gravity, temperature, and atmosphere controls in front of him. And critically, he could see the energy wrapping their way around them. The console practically burnt with it. It hadn’t actually erupted into flames yet, but that didn’t matter. It was so alive with the Light of the Gods, it looked ready to melt.

He went to settle his fingers on the controls, but Alyssa snapped in close and grabbed his arm.

His first impression was to control her. He almost did. It took a lot of effort to override that command. No. It took precisely no effort. If he stepped away from his mind and allowed his body to do what it wanted to, then it begged him not to control her again.

He sliced his gaze over to her. “I have to reinitiate maintenance protocols, or this ship will lose life-support. If you think I’m gonna let the crew—”

“The Light of the Gods is waiting for you,” she said simply, her voice dead.

Nerves erupted over his skin, racing down his back. “What do you mean?”

She jerked her thumb away from the console and backward toward a gravity drive beyond it. “It is in there, paused. This is a trap, Commander. I do not know what your armor is capable of, but if you attempt to interact with the panel, the Light will attack you.”

Time seemed to slow down. Perhaps it did so to give him the chance to actually heed her words.

Though sometimes he thought her every statement was malicious, regardless of the actual emotional energy behind it, there didn’t seem to be any evil intent. Her expression was still dead, her words empty. It certainly looked like she was simply reciting the truth.

The alarms blaring through the room pitched louder. He pulled away from her.

She tried to grip his arm again, so he did it – just like that, with just a thought. He froze her hand in place. It was easy as if she was nothing more than a marionette. He could pull her string one way, and her arm would move wherever he pleased.

He didn’t have a chance to note her expression. Didn’t want to. Didn’t care anymore. He was focused. He would save the crew on this vessel. Maybe she thought it was impossible, but he knew it wasn’t. Now he had the power of this armor, he’d be able to do the impossible easily. She’d had power greater than this armor once upon a time, and she still did, but she clearly didn’t know how to use it. Maybe she’d never intended to truly save the people here. Maybe, when it really came down to it and Alyssa faced people dying, all she wanted to do was watch them.

Those were truly vicious, cold thoughts. They welled inside him, allowing his fingers to move faster. They charged across the console. Then he felt it. She was right, after all. The Light of the Gods was surging into the life-support system. It took that moment to attack. It blasted up around him through the console. It tried to sink into his armor. And in a moment of fear, he thought it would actually breach his helmet. It didn’t. He could almost feel his armor rebuffing it like a hand simply pushing away a feather.

There was meant to be nothing that could prevent the Light of the Gods from doing as it pleased – nothing but Alyssa. But his armor won.

He actually gave out a powerful hoot.

He finished reinitiating the life-support program.

There was a buzz. Even though he was in armor, he swore he could feel the temperature returning to normal. It would save whoever was left alive on the ship.

If he’d paused, he would’ve realized there was nobody left alive here. That wasn’t the point, was it? Max was right now trapped in his head, trapped in an illusion where, with just this armor alone, he could save the galaxy, regardless of what the gods threw its way.

He had a chance to take a step back.

Alyssa was still there beside him, hand frozen.

It was in time to see her expression. Unlike him, she wasn’t wearing a visor. So there was nothing – nothing to prevent him from seeing how cold her cheeks were, how empty her gaze had become.

He kept saying it was empty, didn’t he? It wasn’t, was it? If he’d seen that gaze on anyone else, he would’ve recognized her deep sorrow. He just chose to impute it as emptiness, because at heart, she was pretty much nothing more than a machine, right? She was programmed by her power to seek out the end. And those who could only do and think one thing were glorified automatons, right?

Now wasn’t the time to be thinking these thoughts. Now wasn’t the time to turn his back on the Light of the Gods.

He opened his mouth. He didn’t know what he was going to say. Was he going to point out again that she could not go against his orders? Or was he going to keep her hand frozen there, just paused? Just so she could recognize that, her power aside, the end could be prevented, after all?

He would never get the chance to find out.

He opened his mouth, but the Light rushed up, not from behind him, but from under his feet.

Alyssa screamed, but there was nothing she could do.

The Light smashed through the floor beneath him.

He’d had a quick look at the blueprint of this ship before he’d come aboard. Life-support was right over the main drive shaft.

When he said right over it, there were 20 meters of thick shielding of flooring between him and it. But to the Light of the Gods, that was nothing at all.

In a moment he wouldn’t forget, the Light grabbed him and pulled him right down through the floor. He watched the metal splintering all around him in a great halo of destruction. Then he smashed into the driveshaft. This vessel was dead in space, so it wasn’t currently in operation, but it was still a critically dangerous place for a soft-fleshed individual to be. Without his armor, he would’ve been popped by the gravity forces in a second. It would’ve been like taking an overripe grape and dropping a car on it.

He was no longer aware of Alyssa, no longer aware of whether he still controlled her. The Light hadn’t let him go. It surged around him, powering across his form and trying desperately to get into his armor. It blasted over his helmet, thinking that was the way in. It was pure agony watching it cloud his visor, like staring at death itself.

He screamed, but as he plunged down the almost endless length of the driveshaft, his scream cut out as the Light of the Gods grabbed hold of him and smashed him against the driveshaft wall.

It didn’t crack his armor, didn’t finally allow access through his helmet, so it picked him up, and as he continued to drop, it smashed him against the other side of the shaft wall. It treated him like a ping-pong ball. As it smashed him into the metal, he gouged massive chunks through it. Gases erupted out everywhere, sparks too.

Even as he fell, and even in the horror of watching the Light attempting to access him, he heard a new alarm.

He didn’t need to discern what it was. He saw it. The driveshaft started to turn on. He really doubted any of the crew did it. Right now, when he wasn’t fighting Alyssa in his mind, he realized none of the crew were alive.

It was the single most terrifying experience of his entire life to be in a driveshaft as it started to turn on.

The hum was… impossible to describe. It seemed essential to creation somehow, as if he was listening in to the very sound of existence.

He finally reached the base of the driveshaft. He smashed into it. It wasn’t solid, though. It was a liquid-like substance. It heated up beneath him.

His armor would be able to withstand it. Not forever.

Max was about to die.

He wouldn’t be able to save the galaxy after all.

Not without help.


 

Commander Max Farsight

He had a chance to stare up at the illuminating driveshaft and the Light of the Gods as it surged over his visor, then something sliced out of the wall to his side.

He had no clue what it was – his brain simply couldn’t function. A soft arm wrapped around his middle and pulled him to the side. It yanked him back through the hole it had created.

More warning alarms blared through the ship.

He couldn’t see anymore, couldn’t hear. His visor was too covered by the Light. As for his ears, he could hear these psychic screams, over and over again. They were like a pack of wolves – like every wolf in existence. They bayed for his blood, and every time they shrieked, they ripped through more of his sanity.

It was his turn to scream, right down from the depths of his soul.

He opened his eyes one last time. The Light finally found a crack in his armor. It got ready to push through, got ready to claim him in one single feast. It never got the chance.

It was swept right off him in a moment he would never forget. As his fear reached a crescendo, it crashed back like a tidal wave that had met another stronger force and was swept back to sea.

That force was Alyssa Night.

As his eyesight resolved, he saw her above him. She closed her arms in front of herself. The Light fought and fought and fought, and held on much longer than any attack from it he’d ever seen, but with gritted teeth, and as she stumbled down to her knees, she finally destroyed it.

It’s only then he noted one of her hands was still frozen as if she couldn’t control it.

He stared up at her in surprise, awe, and thankfulness. He would never forget the moment. And the reason he would never forget was that Alyssa was….

She swept forward, gathered the last of the Light of the Gods, crushed it against her chest, and extinguished it.

For the first time, he could actually see her while she was doing this. No light erupted off her form. There was nothing to distract from the peaceful look on her face. If he’d been in a different frame of mind, he would’ve said it was brutal to look so empty while doing something so destructive. Here she was, extinguishing her sworn enemy, even though the Light wasn’t that bad fundamentally – but she couldn’t even manage a sneer? Couldn’t even look concerned for the life she was eliminating?

But he got drawn in by the peaceful expression anyway, got drawn in by the quiet hope.

It took him so long to realize he could move. His body was locked in the moment of fear when he’d been yanked through the floor. Warning alarms still blared through his armor, though they were quickly subsiding. Before he left the Academy, the admiral had mentioned this armor was capable of extremely fast self-healing. It could sustain a near-fatal blow one second, but a few minutes later, it could be back at almost 100 percent operational efficiency.

The armor wasn’t the issue. His muscles were. Finally, he felt them, realized he could move, and slowly locked a hand on the floor. It was pain incarnate to unstick his frozen limbs. But he did it nonetheless. He pushed slowly to his feet.

Alyssa followed him. That’s when he noticed her hand was still outstretched. He’d already forgotten. It looked as if it was at a painful angle.

It took too damn long to realize he was the one who was keeping it there.

“Sorry,” he spluttered, the breathy word punching out of his lips quickly.

He slashed his hand to the side. But of course, it did nothing. For him to unstick Alyssa, he had to connect directly with his armor and force it to control her.

He did so, and finally her arm fell slack.

She immediately reached in and locked that hand on his shoulder.

He’d been so thankful to her a second before, but now a pang of fear raced through him as his usual suspicion for Alyssa caught up to the situation. Was she about to attack him? On one level, that was fair, considering he’d frozen her hand for so long, but—

“The Light of the Gods appears to be in control of this ship’s propulsion. We need to get out of this corridor. The driveshaft’s energy will filter out into it. I will be able to survive, but—”

He didn’t need any more encouragement. He turned around and started running down the corridor.

Alyssa followed. She had to. He had a hold of her hand.

This – holding her hand – was infinitely better than controlling her body to force her to follow.

He wanted to blame it on the terrified fear he’d felt earlier, but this sick feeling was welling in his gut at what he’d done. It was one that was completely anathema to the way he’d acted only moments before when he’d controlled her twice.

They shot down the corridor, and it was just in time. A set of structural shields appeared over the end of the corridor, protecting it from the leaking engine particles.

It wasn’t your ordinary set of shields. This was a very sophisticated mining transport. Considering its bounty, it required every protection under the proverbial sun. The force fields resembled the containment shields used by a dedicated Academy lab dealing with the most dangerous substances in the galaxy.

As soon as they flickered on, he skidded around and stared at them. It was quite a sight to watch the excess energy from the driveshaft spill into the corridor. It didn’t destroy it. The shields had covered every single centimeter of it, protecting the fragile metal beneath. If unshielded engine energy was allowed to take its course throughout the center of the ship, it would eat the said center of the ship. It would blast it apart like the equivalent of a human swallowing a bomb.

The shields held.

And the ship? It shuddered as presumably it shot into beyond-light speed.

That fact finally caught up with him.

“Where the hell are we going? What is happening?” He darted his head up, not that the ceiling would have a handy summary of current events.

Alyssa stood there passively, allowing him to continue to hold her wrist. At any moment, he knew full well she could have yanked back with the force of her temporal particles, broken his grip, and also broken his grip on life. She didn’t.

She didn’t, and he had no idea why.

She half closed her eyes. “It is the Light of the Gods. It has full control of this vessel. I believe—”

He never got a chance to find out what she believed because her eyes snapped open. He could feel her fear. He didn’t need to see it rushing over her expression. It somehow punched into his heart, took control of the throbbing muscle, and made it shake to Alyssa’s tune.

“What is it?” he spluttered quicker than he ever had before.

“I believe a light path is about to open up and take this ship,” she said. Her voice was impassive.

If he were in a cruel mood, he could even conclude she didn’t care about what was happening. Max really doubted Vivian Bond was in control of this light path. If Admiral Forest’s plan had been to take this ship back to Earth, she would’ve done that to begin with. Which left only one other possibility. The Scarax gods had found this ship, and they were planning to take it back to their galaxy. No. They were planning to take Alyssa back. The ore, the crew, and Max would soon be discarded.

He turned to Alyssa quickly. “We have to get out of here.” He connected to his armor. “Transport—”

He couldn’t. The ship started to shudder. It was this deep quaking affair. It didn’t come from one location, but instead it seemed every single particle that made up every single centimeter of the ship’s flooring, hull, and bulkheads all trembled at once like leaves trapped in a hurricane.

Max had only traveled via light path once, and that’d only been about five minutes ago, but he didn’t need Alyssa to tell him it was happening again.

His pounding heart and shaking mind caught up to the situation. While it was important to ensure this ore didn’t fall into the wrong hands and it wasn’t destroyed, it was far, far more important to ensure Alyssa never fell back into the hands of the Scarax gods. He’d talked about it with Admiral Forest many times. He was permitted to do anything – absolutely anything – to keep her in the Milky Way.

But what could he do, one single man against a light path? His body knew what it wanted him to do. He tightened his grip around Alyssa’s hand. What? Did he think he was just gonna hold her here? Did he think when the gods came to snatch her back from him, he would just fasten his grip tighter, and they would somehow back off? Did Max actually think he could hold on to something that tightly? He’d never been able to before. His ex-wife was a case in point.

Max’s head pounded.

He’d read reports about the Scarax Galaxy. He’d seen footage, too. He knew exactly what kind of monsters the gods were.

His heart pounded for another reason. It wasn’t just for him. It was for Alyssa.

Isabel Carter, the Hand of the Gods, had given a description of Alyssa’s prison. Though Max never usually liked to turn his mind toward it, because most of the time he spent hating Alyssa instead, it sounded impossible to endure. 2000 years staring at a wall? With nothing and no one for company but sacrifices that would soon turn to dust at your feet? He—

“We need to fight this,” Alyssa stammered. “We can’t allow—”

Something surged out of the wall behind them.

Max didn’t need to turn too quickly to realize it was a blast of the Light. It looked… it looked like death. Regardless of everything he’d read, and regardless of all of the stories that had told him the Light wasn’t fundamentally an evil thing, right then and there his heart told him something different. That pernicious power shot toward him once more.

Alyssa pushed him back with her shoulder. She opened her arms wide again. He’d seen her decimate the Light of the Gods in seconds, but maybe she was having trouble doing so with her armor. There would likely be a period of adjustment – the admiral had already told him that. But it was a pretty bad thing to be adjusting right now, when they were literally on the edge of death.

Alyssa didn’t give out a scream. If she were an ordinary soldier or an Academy recruit, she’d let out a bellow that would break the walls. Instead, she took the attack stoically, right on her chest.

As the light blasted into her, it tried to lift her off her feet. It couldn’t. Her armor crackled.

A slight pain shot through Max’s head, and he had no idea why. It was likely an aftereffect of almost dying.

His armor started to blare alarms at him. It knew full well the ship was losing the fight of holding itself in the Milky Way.

Horrifying images of the Scarax Galaxy lined up behind Max’s eyes and started blasting away as if they were trying to tear off chunks of his brain.

He knew full well what would happen to him when they arrived. He’d be killed on the spot, or maybe he’d be sent to a prison world. But Alyssa—

It was clear Alyssa had absolutely no intention of going back to prison. Sometimes he questioned that. Sometimes he thought that deep down, she had nothing in her chest but a cold, vast expanse of time. But finally Alyssa let out the slightest scream. She fought against whatever held her back. As the Light surged around her, she surged back.

This time, the ship shook even worse. It was like a trembling hand – one desperately trying to hold itself up.

Warning alarms reverberated through the air. Though he was discombobulated, his mind and armor were still up to the task of identifying what they were.

The ship was losing adhesion. And yeah, that wasn’t an alarm you usually heard on a standard Coalition cruiser as it wended its way through the galaxy.

To lose adhesion meant every single particle in the ship was starting to break its bonds.

“Alyssa,” he screamed. He couldn’t keep the accusation out of his voice. He’d gone from thinking she was about to save them, to realizing she simply could not control her power nor her vicious tendencies around the Light.

He reached a hand out to her, ready to turn her off, even though he knew deep down there was no point. If he stopped her, they would simply be taken to the Scarax Galaxy, and—

It didn’t matter. His body wouldn’t let him turn her off. Which was a very good thing. With one last scream, something happened to the Light. It cracked. He’d never heard it make a sound like that before. When she extinguished it, it was usually a soundless affair. It was simply as if the Light had never existed to begin with and Alyssa’s powerful body had reminded it of that fact with a cold embrace.

This time, it was like broken glass.

He pushed to his feet, but even though the ship didn’t shudder again, he fell down to his knees once more. He looked up at Alyssa just as he watched the crack in his visor fix itself. In any other circumstance, it would’ve been remarkable to watch how quickly it occurred. He’d received that crack when he’d fallen down the driveshaft and the Light had found a way through his armor’s defenses. Now it looked as if it had never been there to begin with. And with it came that surge of adrenaline he was getting used to in this armor. The surge that told him within it, he was unstoppable. He could do anything, and importantly, he could control any force.

But he didn’t have to control a thing.

Alyssa actually staggered down to her knees. The cruel part of his mind wanted to say she was just faking it, but would Alyssa even know how to fake such a movement? It would’ve been absolutely alien to her previous existence.

Again, he had to follow through with what his body wanted and not what his mind did. He shoved down to one knee and placed a hand on her back. “What—”

“I have managed to fight off the light path. But… I have no idea what is happening to this ship, nor where it is.”

He yanked his head up. He closed his eyes. He concentrated on his armor. Previously, it had been impossible to connect properly to this ship. The infection of the Light of the Gods had been holding him back. But now it had been uprooted, there was nothing to stop him. His mind seamlessly connected to the bridge. And his eyes shot wide open. “Dear God,” he stammered.

“What is it?”

“We’ve traveled halfway across Coalition space. We’re about to crash land.”

“Where?”

“Commerce One,” he spat.

Commerce One was, as the name suggested, a planet dedicated to business. It was one of the most important business planets in the Coalition’s crown. Every major tech firm had its headquarters there. If Earth was the home of the Academy, then Commerce One was the home of research and development. The smartest minds congregated there. And now Max was about to crash an invaluable transport full of equally invaluable ore right into the surface of the planet.

Or, more likely, considering the ship was starting to lose its shields, the vessel would explode in the atmosphere and cause one hell of a light show with him still on it.

He had a chance to think that, then his body kicked into gear. He instinctively knew this section wasn’t far from the lift that would take them to an escape pod.

He pulled Alyssa up. She was shaky. Maybe in the past, he would’ve snapped at her to stop faking it. Now he understood the movement was genuine.

She was struggling to maintain control over her armor.

He would’ve tried to momentarily control her feet – to enforce stability – but that was a bridge he couldn’t cross. So he simply locked an arm around hers and pulled her forward.

The ship continued to shake. The trembling was almost too much to take. With every shudder, it felt as if he was going to lose cohesion himself, but he finally made it to the elevator. It opened for him, in a stroke of true luck, and he threw them both in.

He moved too quickly, and Alyssa lost her balance. She fell harshly onto her side. Every time she fell, she got the same expression. It was the look of somebody who was going through a fundamentally new experience. For someone who’d spent most of their life sitting down, the treacherous effects of gravity on a standing body were far away from her expertise.

“Come on, come on,” Max said as he snapped to his feet, slammed his thumb into the button that would take them to the outer section of the ship, and held on, both physically and mentally.

Now he was connected to the ship, he knew just how critical this situation was. This ship would explode. That was a fact. But they’d better not be on it. His armor was amazing, but it wouldn’t be able to survive an explosion like the one coming. As for Alyssa… who knew? He sliced his gaze down to her. She was strangely weak. Had it been the effect of fighting off a light path?

“Come on,” he screamed again when he realized the lifts were taking too long. The last thing he wanted was to be stuck in the middle of the ship – that would bring him closer to the ensuing explosion. An explosion… that was only a minute away.

His armor started to give him a live countdown. With its powerful processors, it could predict exactly how much time he had left until the ship crumbled under its own destructive forces.

“Come on,” he screamed one last time. It felt as if he was going to rip the lining from his throat. As he rasped through a shuddering wheeze, he collapsed forward, locked a hand on the door controls, and waited, waited, and waited.

His whole body shook with fear and anticipation until finally, finally the lift arrived. He didn’t even wait for the doors to open properly. He smashed right through them, his armor easily managing the task.

The escape pods were just to the left. He put on a burst of speed, reached them, and connected to them with his armor. He opened the door of the closest one and threw himself inside.

Alyssa hesitated. She turned her head over her shoulder. She had an odd expression. He leaned through, grabbed her hand, and screamed, “Come on.” He pulled her in. It was just in time. The door closed as the countdown on his helmet reached 10.

He couldn’t let it get any lower. Though escape pods ejected from the side of an embattled cruiser so blindingly quick, they could be a kilometer away in a second, this explosion would be insane.

He didn’t have to do anything else once the doors closed behind them. The escape protocols were programmed into the pod. All he had to do was sit. He couldn’t even do that, to be fair. He collapsed, his knees simply falling out from underneath him as if they were saplings someone had taken an ax to.

Alyssa was now solid on her feet once more. She was the immovable mountain he was so used to. As she stood, she turned her head and tilted it toward the portal. It was nothing more than a simple round section of viewscreen. It certainly wasn’t a window. Considering the forces an escape pod might have to endure, you couldn’t have any weak point in their hulls. The viewscreen functioned, and it showed them the mining transport just as it exploded.

Max shuddered back. Alyssa simply stood there. Though he wanted to collapse further down, lock his head against his knees, and ride out the wave, he couldn’t. Even as the ship started to shake as if someone had shoved a rock into a rotating bucket, he couldn’t help but stare at Alyssa’s expression. It was completely impassive. That transport could’ve saved the Coalition in the oncoming war. All of that ore would’ve been invaluable. Yet Alyssa simply looked on as if the end was inevitable.

It might be to her, but it never would be to him. He’d spent his whole life fighting it. And he continued to fight it one last time. As he thought that, his jaw hardened at her attitude, and once more, the ire he’d been nursing for the Night flooded back in. She might’ve saved his life, but right now Max couldn’t see that. While he might promise himself that his whole life he’d been fighting the end, he’d also been fighting the inevitable. He’d never been able to see what was right in front of him. Not until it was too late.


Alyssa Night

The Light had been rapacious. It had resembled what she’d fought on that Coalition cruiser, but different somehow. Or perhaps she’d been different. As she stared at the sight of that mining transport exploding, its shear forces ripping it apart with all of the ease of a cruiser blasting through a sheet of paper, she remembered what it felt like to fight off the light path. Theoretically, it was something she should’ve been able to do easily. But… something had prevented her. This armor… it was doing more than impeding her movements. And she couldn’t understand why. It didn’t feel as if it had temporal blocking tech. But—

“Don’t look like that,” Max suddenly snarled.

That disgust was back in his eyes.

For a few moments back on the ship, he’d stared at her differently. With thankfulness in his eyes, with awe, with respect. But now the original commander returned. Or maybe that wasn’t the original. It seemed as if there were two men inside his skull.

He didn’t push to his feet. He couldn’t. The pod still shuddered badly. Alyssa was certain it would survive its ordeal, but it wasn’t sparing the comfort of its passengers as it redirected all energy to ensuring structural integrity.

The commander was down on his side now. He had to lock a hand on the smooth silver floor. That didn’t stop him from staring up at her. She had no idea what the quality of his gaze was, but it was easy to impute from the growl splitting the air. “Don’t look at it like it was inevitable.”

“Inevitable?”

“Don’t play with me, Alyssa. I know what you were thinking.”

“I was thinking about the Light of the Gods,” she stated flatly.

“You were thinking that was inevitable – that we never had a chance,” he snapped.

“Incorrect.”

“I know you were.”

“Commander, we have traveled together for six months. In that time, have I lied? Have I ever given you the impression I am capable of such a thing?” She delivered that line easily. Her body, after all, didn’t shake. She doubted she was starting to become used to this holographic armor, but at least the stability had returned. After fighting the Light of the Gods, it had sapped her energy in a way she hadn’t felt since her time in her prison. But now her power returned – not completely, but enough to ensure she didn’t fall once more.

Max no doubt went to open his mouth to snap at her again, but something stopped him. Maybe he appreciated that, indeed, in the time he’d known her, she’d never lied once. Lying wasn’t something she needed to rely on. Lying was what embattled races did to themselves. Civilizations on the brink of collapse reveled in their untruths. For their fictions were another means to hold on to power. Lies stopped the populace from rising up and taking back what was being stolen from them, second by second, day by day, century by century.

“Just—” he began. The escape pod beeped.

They were out of the worst of it. Structural stability shields had returned, and Max quickly punched to his feet. He pushed past her. He locked his gaze on the viewscreen. He didn’t continue to berate her. It seemed the view captured his full attention instead.

She was well aware they’d managed to escape the mining transport close to a planet and right now they plunged through its atmosphere.

An alarm wailed. “The escape pod has been detected by Commerce One’s astral scanner field. A Coalition ship is being sent to intercept.”

Max palmed his face. “Thank God.”

“Why do you not simply thank yourself? You got us to the escape pod in time.”

“You—” he began, his tone harsh. But he couldn’t finish. The commander, it seemed, was conflicted.

He turned to face her. But that would be when an odd beep filtered through the air.

He snapped toward the viewscreen. “Is that a Coalition—”

“Prepare for transportation,” a voice said, but it didn’t come from the escape pod. Most Coalition computers employed the exact same toneless artificial voice. This was different.

“Transport? But we’re in a speeding shielded pod—” Scarcely were the words out of his lips when transport beams lanced into the vessel.

It was a strange experience to transport now. Ever since this armor had been knitted onto Alyssa, transportation felt a little bit like being torn apart. The times she’d done it previously, it had simply been like changing location. Now… now she had to feel the process of her body being broken down. The temporal particles at the heart of her existence momentarily screamed. It was a disarming experience. It wasn’t over quickly. Perhaps it was for the commander, but for her, it seemed to drag on. And as it did, she swore she caught glimpses. Glimpses of something far away, something long ago, something that was still trapped within her body, but something she could not and would not access freely ever again.

Finally, they arrived somewhere.

She expected it to be a Coalition vessel. She’d now seen enough that they were sufficiently familiar to her. The Coalition didn’t subscribe to the same grand architecture of the gods. They didn’t build cities that spanned entire planets. And nor did they walk around with armor that glinted like trapped stars. Instead, everything was clean, clinical, and appeared to have a purpose. But they didn’t arrive on a Coalition vessel. Instead they appeared to be in what looked like a transporter bay. It was attached to some kind of laboratory. She received all of this information quickly – quicker than an ordinary person could process.

Or at least she assumed so. Max reacted first. He jolted forward and spluttered, then immediately shoved toward her. Alyssa told herself it was likely a precaution to ensure she didn’t attack.

What exactly did he assume she was going to attack? Alyssa knew full well what the commander thought about her, and over the past six months, she’d simply remained by his side, dutifully following out his orders without being too emotionally affected by his thoughts. Now, a pang of something stabbed down her middle.

She’d saved his life. She’d prevented them from being taken back to the Scarax Galaxy – a place that would presumably have killed him on the spot. And still he didn’t trust her?

But perhaps she was misreading his movement. He didn’t suddenly use his armor to attack her. On the contrary. He squared off in front of her, his broad shoulders attempting to block her from sight.

There was a beep. A door appeared out of the wall to their side. It hadn’t previously been there. It had to manufacture itself, slicing up through the metal and glowing until it opened and in walked a woman.

Alyssa didn’t recognize her. That was hardly an interesting fact considering there were many trillions of beings in the Coalition alone, and she only recognized a handful of them. But what was important was Max clearly did recognize whoever this woman was. Though he wore armor, Alyssa watched as his shoulders tightened, pushing high toward his ears. His back arched, and one hand curled into an involuntary fist.

The woman was attractive by Earth standards. She was tall with auburn hair that lay in straight lines down to her collar. She wore a simple white tunic and had a datapad in her hand. Two rings glinted on one of her fingers.

As for her gaze, there was nothing to block it, and it locked on Max. Her expression was… hard to read. It wasn’t simply because Alyssa didn’t have that much experience with humans. It seemed this woman was very good at controlling what others saw.

“Suzanne?” Max asked. His voice was breathy. Alyssa knew full well his armor had the capacity to modulate his tone. It was a necessary requirement. Emotion was important information a soldier usually could not give away freely.

Now Max did nothing to hide what was going on with him. It was yet more information that whoever this woman was, Max knew her – and he knew her well.

“Max,” Suzanne said. While her expression was perfectly controlled, her arm twitched slightly. It didn’t appear necessary to hold the datapad so tightly, but she clutched it even harder against her chest.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Max snapped. “Is this Ares Tech?” Accusation and actual fear filtered through his tone.

“What are you doing here?” Suzanne arched an eyebrow. “You arrived here on an embattled mining cruiser that just exploded above Commerce One. You clearly managed to get to an escape pod, and we transported you here. We saved you,” Suzanne said, emphasizing that word, her voice dropping down low. There was fragility and yet a note of accusation there.

From the emotions they were both showing each other, they clearly knew each other well.

How well? Alyssa had a chance to think that, then she realized something. It was irrelevant to her. The relationships and lives of singular citizens of the Coalition were not more important than the Coalition as a whole and its inevitable path toward destruction.

Suzanne stepped forward. She appeared to stare at Max the whole time, but Alyssa could tell her full attention was on her instead.

“We received a communication from a Coalition cruiser that they were coming in to help us,” Max said strictly. “So what the hell are we doing here?”

“We transported you. We decided it was a better option than trying to scoop up your escape pod. It was quicker, too. And ultimately,” Suzanne ticked her gaze to Alyssa, “safer for everybody involved.”

Max continued to stand in front of Alyssa. There was really no point. Alyssa’s tall, commanding form could easily be seen over Max’s shoulder. And Suzanne no longer pretended she was staring somewhere else.

The way her gaze locked on Alyssa suggested a sense of familiarity. Alyssa wanted to say that was impossible, considering she’d never seen this woman before. But she had to admit she didn’t know how far information of her had spread. Most of the important forces of the Coalition knew full well who Alyssa was and what she was capable of. So though this Suzanne appeared to be a private citizen, clearly that didn’t matter.

“Max,” Suzanne said, clutching her datapad ever slightly tighter as she sighed, sounding more embattled than the cruiser they’d just left, “please. This isn’t an attack. We saved you. You can stop trying to protect her.”

Protect her? Alyssa thought those two words. They had an empty quality to them.

Yes, Max did often try to protect her from the Scarax Galaxy, but that was out of self-interest.

Not—

Max didn’t back down, so Suzanne started to walk around him. She soon stopped in front of Alyssa. She looked her up and down. “Remarkable.”

“I need to communicate with the Coalition forces on Commerce One right now,” Max snapped.

“You don’t. Admiral Nivas is coming here as we speak. He will arrive shortly.”

Alyssa couldn’t see Max’s face, but she didn’t need to. Clearly the words Admiral Nivas were important to him.

Suzanne continued to stare at Alyssa, but she slowly slid her gaze over to Max. “You don’t actually believe me, do you? Right now you are attempting to communicate with Nivas yourself. Well, do as you wish. But he will be here shortly. And we both know he doesn’t like to be needlessly questioned.”

“And I know my job,” Max said flatly.

Suzanne rolled her eyes again. Then she went right back to staring at Alyssa.

Alyssa didn’t honestly think there was much to stare at now her light didn’t show, but apparently Suzanne saw something Alyssa didn’t think was there. “It truly is remarkable. Seamless. I can’t even begin to see where it ends and she begins.”

“She has a name,” Max suddenly snapped. He’d become quiet, and Alyssa had assumed he indeed was contacting this Nivas. Max was usually focused. When he began a task, he locked his full attention on it until he finished.

Right now, apparently, he’d dropped what he was doing – contacting an important and officious admiral – to come to Alyssa’s defense. Again.

Max wasn’t the one who’d insisted Alyssa have a name. That had been Admiral Forest’s initiative. Max had been reticent at first. But now—

“Yes, she does have a name, doesn’t she? Alyssa Night,” Suzanne said. There was a specific quality to her tone. It was clear she enunciated every syllable because she wanted Max to know she was in on this secret.

Max reacted predictably. His shoulders pushed higher toward his ears. If his armor hadn’t been obscuring his form, Alyssa would’ve been able to see the tension marching up his cheeks and stiffening his brow.

Alyssa had simply been standing there. She hadn’t come to her own defense because Max hadn’t told her to. Now she tilted her head back slightly. There was something about the look in this woman’s eyes. “Who are you?” Alyssa asked.

Max stiffened again. He clearly didn’t want her speaking.

A slight smile crumpled Suzanne’s lips. She shoved a hand out. She didn’t hesitate. It was by now clear that she understood fully what Alyssa was. And yet Suzanne offered her hand as if Alyssa was nothing more than an ordinary biped.

Alyssa looked at the hand questioningly and automatically slid her gaze over to Max.

Suzanne erupted with a snort. “Don’t look at him. He might be your handler, but he doesn’t get to decide whose hands you shake. I’m Suzanne. I helped create your armor.”

Everything slipped into place. That would be the energy behind Suzanne’s specific stare.

At the mention of her armor, Alyssa’s body reacted. Her reaction was dulled, however. It had nothing to do with the fact Suzanne still stared at her, intent to pick up on Alyssa’s every reaction. It was more to do with the armor’s pernicious force interacting with her once more.

This was the first time Alyssa had properly thought of its effects as pernicious. What else could they be? They had restricted her movements up on the mining transport. And they’d made it much harder for her to save herself from the Light of the Gods.

Alyssa didn’t take Suzanne’s hand. “I have tried your armor. However, I no longer wish to wear it. Please remove it from me.” She pushed both of her arms out.

“That cannot and will not happen,” a deep male voice reverberated as somebody walked in through the open door.

Alyssa had been so intent on having the armor removed, she hadn’t noticed the man approaching.

He wore a white and blue ceremonial uniform with many pips on his collar.

Max snapped a salute. “Admiral Ninev.”

“Indeed. Nice to see you. Though perhaps it would’ve been better under other circumstances.”

“The mining transport—”

“Fortunately the damage was contained, and this planet is fine. However, every single scrap of ore was destroyed.”

Max’s shoulders crumpled. He already knew that. Which meant Max should be paying attention to something far more important.

Alyssa was still holding her arms up. She’d just asked for the armor to be removed. She knew that under any other circumstance, Max would be the one turning around and snapping at her that there’d be no way.

Instead, the one who hammered that message home was Admiral Ninev.

He was a tall man with broad shoulders. He would’ve been strapping, as the humans said, in his younger years. Now he looked as if he was 85. Perhaps other people wouldn’t be able to make such an approximation, but when it came to the passage of time, Alyssa’s assumptions were less assumptions, and more facts.

Time hung around the admiral’s body. It lived in the creases around his eyes. It was no more prominent than in his stare and in his crumpled fingers.

“We realize this armor must be new to you, Night, but it is a necessary protection. It will enable us to keep you out of the Scarax Galaxy’s clutches.”

It would enable them to keep her out of the gods’ clutches? It had almost done the exact opposite.

She still kept her arms held out.

She’d changed her mind. She’d only agreed to have the armor placed on her because… she could not exactly understand why she’d agreed. She’d been suspicious from the beginning. She’d known this armor was all about controlling her, but—

She angled her gaze over to Max again.

“Is there any reason you still have your helmet on in front of a superior, Commander?” the admiral asked.

Max stood straighter. Then, presumably with a single whispered command, he removed his helmet. It seamlessly locked back into the collar unit of his armor. For the first time in a long time, Alyssa could finally see his expression.

It was crumpled, confused, but still in control.

What it lacked was the disgust and hatred that should be directed Alyssa’s way.

He didn’t even look at her raised arms once.

“I apologize, Admiral,” Max said quickly. “Force of habit.”

“No need to apologize.”

“The ship—”

“While it is regrettable you didn’t manage to save the mining transport, we now recognize that it was a trap. Your efforts to ensure the ship wasn’t taken to the Scarax Galaxy are commendable, and that commendation will be noted in your file.”

She expected Max not to say a thing. Regardless that she alone had prevented the ship from being taken, she imagined Max would simply push on with the conversation, but he didn’t. He shook his head. “It wasn’t me. Alyssa—”

“Her armor will need to be checked. It may have sustained damage. Come.” With that, the admiral turned swiftly on his polished boot and started to walk away.

Suzanne stood there for a few seconds, and she spent every single one staring at Alyssa as if she didn’t want to miss a thing. Then she slipped in behind the admiral.

That just left Max and Alyssa.

He turned. He looked at Alyssa once. “We have to follow.”

Alyssa just stood there. She kept her arms held out wide. The admiral had ignored her. So had Suzanne. And until now, it was as if Max hadn’t even seen that Alyssa’s arms were up. He stared at them.

She waited for him to get angry. He didn’t.

He cast Suzanne a glance over his shoulder, then reached in. He placed one hand on Alyssa’s and pushed it down gently. “We can’t remove the armor, Alyssa. It has to stay.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re right. It’s the only thing that can keep you safe.”


Commander Max Farsight

This was all too much.

Less than 10 minutes ago, he’d been on Earth. Now he was on Commerce One. Worse. He was in the headquarters of Ares Tech. And Suzanne….

His brain couldn’t even keep up with this fast-changing situation. It was like somebody had shoved his psyche onto a roller coaster. As for his heart? He couldn’t go there. This was the first time he’d glimpsed Suzanne in the flesh since their divorce.

The last thing he needed was for Alyssa to act up.

Throughout the entire conversation with the admiral, she’d just stood there, her arms held out wide.

Now she let him push them down.

There was no reason for her to.

Come on. If she didn’t want this armor, she could just rip it off. She certainly didn’t have to follow his words. But she still let him push her arms down.

“It’s for your own good,” he said again. His words were automatic. They slipped out of his lips as if someone had programmed them. But at the back of his mind, all he could do was think about the moment she’d saved him, and the moment he’d noticed her hand had been frozen as if somebody had fastened it against her chest like a shackle.

He’d done that.

He—

“We don’t have all day,” Admiral Ninev snapped from outside.

Ninev had a deserved reputation. The man was as hard as ice-covered diamond.

Max had no idea he’d been deployed to Commerce One. Ninev was more likely to be out on the Rim, surveying Barbarian space. He was the kind of admiral you had between your most important forces and your worst enemy. He would never back down. There wasn’t a damn thing that scared him, either.

And though perhaps once upon a time Max had believed there wasn’t a thing that scared him, the last 10 minutes had gouged permanent marks in his soul.

“Come on,” he muttered at Alyssa.

He took a step forward, not bothering to take another until it was clear she followed.

It was obvious she now wanted the armor off. She’d clearly never imagined what it would actually feel like. Or perhaps she didn’t like the idea of Max being able to turn her off. But that was part and parcel of her freedom. If she wanted to be out here in the real world, then they had to have some way to control her. Or at least that’s what Max told himself as he hurried out into the corridor.

He had to remind himself as soon as he did this was Ares Tech. This wasn’t a Coalition ship. That was evidenced by the Ares Tech emblems emblazoned over every wall.

The feel of this place was different, too. Most Coalition buildings and vessels were sleek and efficient, but the architecture around here was a little grander.

The ceiling was too high, maybe to let people’s voices echo, or maybe to draw their eyes up toward the top of the building and the sky beyond.

It was hard to say what the architects had envisioned exactly, but it was easy to say what the effect was on Max. It hammered home he was here, right in the belly of the beast.

He had to catch himself as he thought that. No. This wasn’t the belly of the beast. The Scarax Galaxy was. He might’ve indulged in hating Ares Tech over the past five years, but the facts were clear. Without them, the Coalition would not be in the position they were now. A place that gave them a chance – a small one, but a real one – of fighting the Scarax Galaxy and winning.

Hell, Max wouldn’t be right here if it weren’t for them, and neither would Alyssa.

As they strode down the corridor quickly, the admiral cutting an efficient path toward their destination, Max indulged in bringing his hands up.

This armor… it was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. Heck, it was unlike anything he’d ever imagined. He’d been in a lot of different armor units over the years. They were all strong in their own way. But none of them made you feel this powerful. None of them pushed back all of the uncertainty and fear of life. Wearing this armor was less like getting covered in a security blanket, and more like wearing the skin of a god.

And yeah, that was the second time Max had made the connection between this armor and a god. But he didn’t mean the monsters of the Scarax Galaxy.

Alyssa strode beside him, not saying a thing.

If he were cruel, maybe he would assume she was thinking of some way to pull her armor off her body. But she wouldn’t have to think, right? If she truly wanted to get rid of it, she wouldn’t have to request. All she’d have to do was turn her considerable skills against it.

But she wasn’t doing that.

She simply followed.

If Max had been particularly self observant, he would’ve realized every single time Alyssa did as she was told and followed his orders, no matter how inherently bad they may be, it got to him, got to him in ways he still couldn’t begin to imagine the importance of.

They reached their destination. They walked right through a wall – though thankfully a door managed to carve itself out of it quickly enough that they didn’t smash into the metal.

Living walls and doors weren’t new to Max. They were all the way throughout the basement levels of the Academy. They were yet another security precaution. If you didn’t have doors or windows that stayed in the same place, it would be hard for an incursion team to find your most important goods.

He’d never seen technology quite as seamless as this, though. Did that really surprise him? Ares Tech had the best scientists. Not just Suzanne – but the best Coalition scientists, too. When they were done serving, they often came to Ares. It was cutting edge, and no one paid quite as well.

Though he didn’t want to suggest that loyal Coalition scientists were only after cash, it would sweeten an otherwise already sweet deal.

Every single science recruit from the Academy would sell their organs to get a job at Ares. While the Coalition was the prime exploratory force in the Milky Way, and they explored the untamed wilds of space, Ares Tech explored the untamed wilds at the edge of physics, right at the edge of the current understanding of reality. It was yet another exciting realm to turn one’s mind to after the vast wilds of space had been conquered.

They strode into a massive room. It was a laboratory. He could tell that because it had banks of humming consoles. They weren’t fixed and rather floated around, following the many scientists who walked to and fro, working frantically. That was until Alyssa strode into the room. As one, most of them turned and stared at her.

Max got the urge to bodily block her off again. It wasn’t so much an urge as more of an almost uncontrollable desire. It twitched into his limbs, and he had to use every single trick in the book to control himself so he didn’t square off in front of her. Do that, and Admiral Ninev would only have more of a reason to reprimand him.

Still, the desire remained. It got hotter and brighter as one of the closest scientists walked right up to Alyssa and stared at her as if she was nothing more than a specimen.

If Max had taken a step back, he would’ve realized he didn’t have any right to think that way. The scientist might be looking at Alyssa as if she was a universal curiosity, but at least he wasn’t berating her like Max always did. At least he wasn’t staring at her with disgust in his eyes.

The scientists soon remembered Alyssa was sentient and shoved a hand out. He hesitated ever so slightly.

Unlike Suzanne, apparently, perhaps this guy thought Alyssa’s armor would fail and she would consume him in one temporal snap.

Alyssa paused, looked at Max, then reached a hand out.

… Why did she keep doing that? Suzanne was right. Max was here to ensure Alyssa didn’t use her incredible energy on the wrong enemy. He wasn’t here to decide whose hands she could shake.

That little niggling question wheedling its way around Max’s heart only grew larger and louder. He couldn’t hear it, or at least wasn’t completely conscious of it yet, but it was just another question to add to the growing mix weighing down his shoulders.

He turned to see the admiral stride close. He gestured at the nearest scientist almost dismissively, and the man understood and scurried back. Then Ninev flicked his finger forward. He was motioning Alyssa to walk up to him. Motioning at her like she was just a dog.

Max’s back stiffened as his hackles rose.

Admiral Forest never treated Alyssa like that. She was curt sometimes, and she was always efficient, but dammit, she’d been the one to give Alyssa her name. Ninev, on the other hand—

Alyssa didn’t move a centimeter. Either she didn’t understand what the admiral wanted, or she would not accept an order from him.

The admiral cleared his throat. “Come here,” he said.

Alyssa turned and looked at Max.

Great, she was doing it again. She didn’t need to—

“I am your direct superior now,” the admiral said as if he was correcting a wayward recruit. “Come here, Night.”

There the admiral went, doing it again. She had a name, dammit. Before Max could throw his career away and point that out, he had to remember something else. It was very common, especially amongst the higher-ups, to refer to somebody by their last name. Out of deference to her actual title, Admiral Forest had retained Night as Alyssa’s last name. That was likely what the admiral was referring to now, right?

Alyssa hesitated for another second, looked at Max one last time, then walked over.

Her stance was proud once more, every movement graceful. All of the instability she’d shown back on that mining transport was gone.

She had such a commanding presence when she walked. It seemed as if nothing would be able to challenge her, nothing would ever be able to down her. Or maybe the real word he was looking for here was end. Nothing would be able to end her power; nothing would end her elegance.

He couldn’t know then how wrong he was.

Alyssa stopped in front of the admiral. He looked up and down her unashamedly. Then he nodded toward the door.

And Max turned to see Andrew White.

He’d been leaning against it. He was a strapping man. An ex-Coalition soldier, he’d lasted a year outside the Academy before turning his mind to starting up his own business. And that business had been one of the most successful in all of the Coalition’s history. He’d seemingly come out of nowhere. His research teams had quickly produced tech nobody else could.

He had short-cropped sandy hair, a ray of stubble on his sharp, jutting chin, and equally sharp eyes.

He wasn’t alone, though. There was a man behind him.

A man who suddenly caught Max’s attention and held it. You would think it would be the other way around. This was Andrew – the man who’d seemingly stolen Max’s wife away.

Max had spent a long time despising Andrew. But… the man behind him… he… he was something else.

He was apparently ordinary. He looked human, though he had relatively nondescript features that suggested he might have genetic material from another race. He wore ordinary clothes. Matched with his nondescript features, it meant he shouldn’t stick out. He could’ve been nothing more than a random scientist walking past. He wasn’t. Max knew that. He was important somehow – infinitely, infinitely important.

Though Max had a strong sense of intuition, he’d never felt it like this as it rose through his chest like a swallowed flare. It virtually exploded up into his mouth. It shook the rest of his body. Its grip was like that of death.

He wanted his helmet back on – desperately needed to hide his expression, though thankfully nobody looked at him. Everybody’s eyes – including Andrew and his guest’s – locked on Alyssa.

Max couldn’t move. He couldn’t shake whatever was happening to him. His body was locked with this tension that came from somewhere. Did it come from his gut? No. Did it come from his jaw? No. His heart? No. It almost seemed to come from outside of him as if something beyond Max recognized this man and what he meant.

But it wasn’t anything beyond Max. His psyche, his intuition, his heart – all were within.

But—

“Andrew,” the admiral said in a strict but still friendly tone. “Have you come to check on your creation?”

If there was one thing that could break Max out of the fugue that had descended on him, it was that. Sorry, creation? Were they referring to Alyssa? Firstly, she wasn’t a creation. She was a sentient being. And secondly? All they had done was craft a set of armor. They—

Andrew walked right past Max. He didn’t acknowledge him – didn’t even look at him. As Max had already said, every single gram of attention in the room was locked on Alyssa. And fair enough. She was the Night – a force like no other. And Max was just… just her handler.

Andrew stopped in front of Alyssa.

Alyssa looked at him as he looked at her. Then he smiled. He didn’t shove his hand out, though. He kept it locked behind his back. “So you’re what the gods of the Scarax Galaxy are after, ha?”

“I do not know how to reply to that. Is it a question?”

“It’s a rhetorical one,” Andrew laughed through his words. “You have remarkably good conversational abilities. You’re tracking what I’m saying, right?”

Max didn’t like what Andrew was suggesting. Did he think Alyssa was some kind of AI? Yes, she could hold a conversation – because she was sentient. Max had already pointed that out. Or at least he’d pointed it out in his mind. To make any difference to this conversation, he had to gather the gall to say it in the real world, but he couldn’t. The admiral stood right there, in control of the situation. Max had just melted into the background. Or so he thought.

Someone came to a stop beside him. Max didn’t need to look to know it was that man.

Max… he’d always prided himself on his solid sense of self. His experience in the mining transport aside, he usually knew exactly what was going on in his mind. But—

The man didn’t look at him once. He’d simply come to a stop close to Max because it was a polite distance away from Alyssa, but—

“How’s it holding up?” Andrew stared objectively at Alyssa’s body.

“I assume you’re referring to your holographic armor?” Alyssa questioned.

“Yes.” Andrew continued to look at her.

Max’s hackles rose and rose until he couldn’t take it anymore. He cleared his throat. He walked over to Alyssa. He got between her and Andrew. Which was pretty hard because there wasn’t much room.

Andrew finally snapped his gaze onto Max.

And yes, there was recognition there. How could there not be?

“Can I help you?” Andrew held his tone, only just.

“What are you doing, Commander?” the admiral snapped.

“My job, Admiral.”

“You—”

“I’ve been tasked by the admiralty of the Coalition to ensure my charge’s protection. It does not stop when I sleep. It does not stop when I leave Earth. It does not stop when a mission is over. It will not stop until the admiralty,” he emphasized the word admiralty with as much bolshiness as he could get away with, “removes the task from me.”

He expected the admiral to snap, and by the look on his face, he really wanted to, but something held him back. Max, after all, was right. The admiral could snarl at Max to get out of the way all he wanted, but at the end of the day, regardless of the chain of command, Max was still directly responsible for Alyssa. She wasn’t technically a part of the Coalition. She wasn’t a cadet or some soldier. She wasn’t a pawn to be ordered around.

Andrew stood there, staring right at Max, and anyone would be able to see the enmity in his gaze, though he quickly controlled it. He took a step back. “Perhaps I was being rude,” he said with a chuckle nobody would’ve assumed was a real laugh. Then he walked right over to Suzanne. He slipped a hand behind her back and kissed her on the head. All for show.

Max looked away quickly. He forced a breath through his teeth. Then he focused on the admiral. “I take it that Admiral Forest has been informed of what is going on here. I need to contact her directly to give my report.”

“Are you questioning something, Commander?” Admiral Ninev asked, his voice deceptively light.

“No. It’s an observation. I know how Admiral Forest works. She will want my report. I will contact her,” Max stated flatly. He walked to the door.

For the first time, he was actually glad that Alyssa followed him without question.

“She can stay here,” Andrew pointed out. “We need to check the integrity of her armor. There’s a possibility it was damaged during that altercation.”

Max stopped. He could insist she come with him, but he was playing a dangerous game. There was only so much he could push. Admiral Ninev was a strong man. Not just physically and mentally – but his power in the Coalition was second only to Admiral Forest. If he claimed Max wasn’t fit for his duties, then there was a possibility Max would be removed from this mission. And the more Max butted heads with the man, the more likely it would be that would occur. Max had to fight only the battles that were worth it.

He turned and looked at Alyssa. “Just stay here for a little.”

Her eyes said it all. They opened wider and flickered with emotion – the same emotion he’d once claimed she didn’t have. It was obvious she didn’t want to stay here. And fair enough. Everyone in this room was treating her like she was some kind of glorified, walking-talking specimen.

“I’ll only be a second,” Max promised.

It was hard as hell to extricate himself from her. He wanted to reach out and pull her with him. It was clear she wanted to follow.

It took until he made it out of the room until he managed to push past the frozen pressure in his chest and breathe.

Even then as the doors sliced closed behind him, he fought the urge to go back to her.

And all the while, he couldn’t see the irony of what he was doing, saying, and thinking.

Up on that ship, he’d controlled her twice. He’d berated her for trying to end everything. He’d stared at her with unshielded disgust. Now—

Now he had to figure out what was going on here, his brain said as it kicked into gear.

He ensured he was relatively alone in the corridor, then put his helmet back on to make certain that no one would be able to hear his communication.

He promptly called the admiral.

It was almost as if she was waiting for his communication.

“Commander, it is regrettable you lost that vessel. But under the circumstances, understandable.”

It was such a relief to hear Forest’s voice, Max felt like sinking to his knees. “We did everything we could, but it—”

“Was clearly a trap. I shouldn’t have sent you there. It was my fault,” she admitted.

Tension tightened her tone, making it clear she’d already accepted her part in this blunder. Perhaps the rest of the admiralty was angered at her for making it in the first place.

Max sighed. “Ares—”

“I’m aware of where you are. Admiral Ninev has contacted.”

Great. If Ninev had contacted, then Max didn’t have a leg to stand on. Hell, he likely didn’t have a reason to be making this call in the first place. But—

“Why are you hesitating, Max?”

There was no one like Admiral Forest. She’d dealt with so many important soldiers over the years that she knew every significant psychological cue, and she would pick up on them faster than a computer.

“I know your history with that business. I know this must be hard,” the admiral guessed. “But they did manufacture Alyssa’s armor.”

“I understand that. I’m simply… uncomfortable with the way she’s being treated,” Max blurted.

Really? Admiral Forest was always the one pulling him up on the way he treated Alyssa. It was pretty rich for him to be doing it to somebody else. Plus, was it really that bad? Yes, they were all fascinated by her, but anyone would be. You know what they weren’t doing? Staring at her with disgust.

Max went to thumb the sweat off his top lip but couldn’t as his helmet was in place. His fingers glanced off his black visor instead and slipped down its smooth side. They slowly slid down his neck. He soon curled his hand into a fist, swung it behind him, and tapped it lightly on the wall. “When will we get back to Earth?” He forced the words out as quickly as he could. There was one way to stop all of this. Return home. And when they were home, he would vow never to come back to Ares Tech again.

“You have to stay on Commerce One for a while,” the admiral informed him.

That sucked the air right out of his sails. “What?” he actually spluttered. If he was attempting to hold his emotions in check, he failed badly.

The admiral paused. Perhaps she was questioning whether to pull him up on his rudeness. She chose not to. “Alyssa’s armor has to be checked.”

“It wasn’t damaged—”

“Though your mission was a failure, it did provide important information.”

His nose scrunched. “Important information?”

“Ares Tech has already downloaded it from her armor and uploaded it to the Coalition databases. It proves we are on the right path.”

His lips twitched. He wasn’t innocent. He knew full well that Ares Tech would have maintained some kind of connection to Alyssa’s armor. And that was fair enough. It was a very important and critical piece of engineering. You required continuous data to ensure it was working correctly. But to do it without his or her permission… it didn’t feel right. It felt like Ares Tech was spying on them.

He went to pinch his nose, but he couldn’t. He never usually forgot when he was wearing a helmet. Now he simply couldn’t remember.

“You’ve gone all silent, Commander. Is there some issue? You were the one who recommended this armor in the first place.”

That statement goaded him like the admiral had shoved a raging bull right into his intestines.

Yes… Max had recommended this armor. Because at the time, it had seemed right. At the time, he’d recognized Alyssa needed to be controlled. But….

“Over the past four hours, there have been 80 attacks across Coalition space,” the admiral suddenly informed him.

He’d closed his eyes, but they blinked wide open. “Admiral?”

He heard the stress in her voice – the kind she’d only feel comfortable revealing to diehard loyal soldiers like him. “80 attacks. Nobody escaped,” she whispered. “Some crews were lucky enough to be stolen and taken to the Scarax Galaxy – if you call that luck. The rest were simply killed. Light paths are opening up with greater frequency. We need to have a way to fight them,” the admiral said flatly. Then she became silent. She didn’t need to spell out what that way was. It was obvious. The way was right through the door in front of Max. It was Alyssa. She was all they had.

His hand was still balled up into a fist, and he went to strike it against the wall behind him once more, but he froze.

“Our best intelligence suggests the war will begin soon. The real war,” she added.

She’d already claimed the war had begun, but he knew exactly what she meant. The all-out war. The one where the Scarax Galaxy would bring their forces to the Milky Way, and there would be nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.

Max placed his hand on top of his helmet. He let it fall down his visor. It slipped over the metal. Then his arm fell limply by his side. There was no muscular tension left in his body anywhere, just an aching emptiness. One that was about to get a lot bigger. It would swallow him whole, and when it was done with him, it would continue on to the rest of the galaxy. Nowhere to hide. Nowhere to run. As those words repeated in his mind, he finally stood straight and put everything into perspective.

“You’re instructed to stay by Alyssa’s side as her armor is put through its paces. When Ares Tech is happy with it, you will return to Earth. Hopefully in the nick of time,” she added. Once more her voice trembled.

It must be hard to be in her position – to have to carry the burdens of the Coalition without being able to show most people her fear.

Max, on the other hand, could do whatever he wanted behind his armor. And he did. He closed his eyes, scrunched his face up, and let the fear rush through him. It felt like it would transform every single one of his muscles, changing everything into itself, until Max was nothing more than a being encapsulated in horror.

“I’ll need you to ensure Alyssa remains onboard with this process,” the admiral said. “Only you can do it.”

There was real insistence in her voice as if she actually thought that.

Max pushed away the memory of every time Alyssa had followed him without a word. He stood straighter. “Why do you think that? Alyssa—”

“Alyssa trusts you, Commander, whether you can see that or not. And you… you have to use that trust. This is our last chance. The Scarax Galaxy will use every weapon they have to get Alyssa back. We must keep her by our side. If we have any hope of defeating the gods, we will have to use her to destroy their Hendari crystals.”

Max paused.

There was only one thing he could think of, because there was only one thing Alyssa ever reminded him of. When she wasn’t wordlessly following in his wake, she was asking him when she would be able to destroy the Coalition’s Hendari crystals. That was her entire reason to be.

She existed to end the Observer technology in the Scarax Galaxy’s clutches. She had to destroy the Coalition’s crystals, too – even though they were the most sophisticated technology in existence. Regardless of the fact they gave the Coalition – or anyone who possessed them – an incalculable edge.

Max was pretty used to telling Alyssa he didn’t know when she would get access to the Hendari crystals, that it all ultimately depended on the impending war.

But now he heard what was in the admiral’s tone.

The destruction of the Hendari crystals once this war was over would not be automatic.

The cynical part of his mind told him that of course that was the case. Alyssa’s fear aside, the crystals gave an incalculable advantage, he had to repeat to himself. And strong civilizations didn’t give up such power. The second they did was the second they crumbled to their enemies.

“Just keep her onside. Ensure she goes through the process with Ares Tech,” the admiral said, more stress echoing through her tone. “There’s no one else who can do it,” she repeated.

Max decided not to challenge her on that. He sighed, though he didn’t let it echo over his communication. “I will do what I can, Admiral.” He snapped a salute, even though she couldn’t see him.

It sounded as if she snapped one back. “Very well, Commander. Good luck.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” he muttered, even though what he really wanted to say was he would need all the luck he could get.

Everyone might think he was the only one who could control Alyssa, and maybe he was coming around to that fact, but he could appreciate his heart was coming around to another. Maybe he didn’t want to control her. Maybe… maybe she didn’t deserve this.

Max looked up. It was just as the doors opened.

His mission here wasn’t over.

It was only beginning.


Alyssa Night

She was being stared at. Studied. Used.

It was that last word that pushed into her, that spread through her psyche. And that, if her body had still fully been under her control, would have initiated her light.

She’d been made to stand in the center of the room. A set of concentric rings glowed beneath her feet. They were embedded in the floor. The technology driving them was unseen. She doubted it was even coming from this room. Though her senses were no longer what they’d once been, she was certain the actual force behind what was occurring to her was being transported here from somewhere else.

The scientists and the one called Andrew claimed her armor was malfunctioning. Its integrity was holding. But she could tell this was simply an excuse to gather data from it.

Alyssa could tell all of these things, and yet she did nothing. Why bother? She had to go back to the point the Coalition was better than the gods. Max had told her to accept this armor, anyway.

… She paused, closing her eyes as she accepted the process, no matter how invasive, and she questioned that thought.

Why would it matter if Max had been the one to recommend this armor?

Why did she follow him? She’d questioned that many times, but when it came to actually following through with her query, she did not. When it came to following him or doing as she pleased, she always chose the former.

She could not tell why.

Alyssa had spent 2000 years fully knowing the contents of her mind. She’d traveled through every thought and feeling, yet she’d never felt anything like this.

This confusion swamped her, and it distracted her completely as she was lifted slightly off her feet. Nobody warned her it would occur. These scientists treated her as if she was an after-thought. The armor and its capacity to control her body and her temporal particles were all that mattered. Her consciousness… it was a curiosity at best.

If Max were here and he was privy to the contents of her thoughts, he’d likely snap at her. He didn’t like it when she questioned the motivations of others. To him, all beings required assistance to survive. She didn’t necessarily discount that thought, but she always tempered it with another. The motivations of the scientists around her were not pure. And they were not necessarily doing this to save the galaxy. They were doing this for the blind pursuit of power.

She found herself squeezing her eyes even further closed as if she wanted to close her mind off from that fact. It had been one thing sitting in silence for millennia and contemplating the natural demise of civilizations. It was quite another to be swept up in one.

The scientists chatted amongst themselves. Usually nothing affected the acuity of her hearing. Back at the Academy, though she was often kept behind similar structural shields whenever she was tested, Forest hadn’t hidden the conversations occurring around her. Now Alyssa knew she was deliberately being blocked off from the scientists’ chatter to isolate her.

They wanted to separate her. Perhaps they thought that would make her less likely to understand what this armor was. The more she felt into it, the more her body rejected it at its very core. It was… she went to answer that again, but she couldn’t. It was almost as if the knowledge of what it actually was was within her, but it was held off by an impenetrable wall.

Alyssa didn’t understand why she didn’t have memories of the Observers – or the Hendari, if that was indeed what they’d called themselves. She came from that civilization. She assumed she hadn’t been reborn or reset or in some other way changed since that time. So where were her memories? And importantly, what had she done for millions of years? Where had she been? What had she thought? And why did she not know?

It would’ve been easy enough to assume the gods of the Scarax Galaxy had claimed her and done something to her mind, but it was also easy to assume they had not. They had recognized her power and trapped her, but that was it. They had never had the capacity to truly control her. And she imagined that burying her memories deep within her psyche would have been a feat indeed. So who had done this and why?

These were not thoughts she’d only encountered recently. They’d accompanied her for many years of her internment. But they’d always been curiosities. Now they burnt brightly with growing insistence.

As Alyssa was lifted higher off her feet, and whatever process gathered speed, she closed her eyes tighter.

Not once did anyone speak to her. No one acknowledged there was a mind behind her abilities. Perhaps that was appropriate. The gods had never acknowledged her mind, either. She wondered if the Observers had, too.

It was just as she threw her thoughts into them that she felt Max returning to the room. She opened her eyes, and sure enough, he stood toward the back, his helmet on once more. Ninev was a few meters away, so he didn’t turn immediately and tell Max to retract his helmet. No. Admiral Ninev only had eyes for Alyssa.

And they were strange eyes.

Had she seen a similar stare as his in the gazes of the gods that had watched her over her 2000 years internment? The same piercing, sharp attention? The same greed, flickering deep within, even if the admiral himself was likely not aware of it?

Yes.

But suddenly Ninev’s emotions became irrelevant.

She might’ve been blocked off from hearing the conversations in the room, and the effect of this holographic armor might have been otherwise stilting her powers, but she was well aware that Max was tense under his thick armor. Perhaps it was just a guess. But it seemed correct. A second later he strode a step forward and retracted his helmet. She could see his brow, compressed and hard over his eyes, his mouth twisted down, the lips pale and drawn. Out of everybody in the room, he was the only one who made eye contact with her.

“How much longer will it take?” Max demanded. And she heard him. Perfectly clearly.

But she didn’t hear anyone else’s response.

“Curious,” she muttered to herself.

Finally people paid attention to her. She heard a click from somewhere above her, though she could not discern exactly where it was. “What was that?” It was Andrew. He had a strange tone and attitude. Stranger indeed than the admiral. She could easily guess what the admiral’s motivations were. He wanted power and power alone. Andrew, on the other hand, appeared to have a complicated set of motivations.

Alyssa had been watching when he’d embraced Suzanne. The two appeared to be close, married even if Alyssa’s limited understanding of these things was correct.

And that, for whatever reason, grated on Max’s nerves. Andrew’s tone grated on those same nerves once more.

Max stiffened slightly. “You can go ahead and answer if you want, Alyssa.” He emphasized the words if you want.

“Nothing of any significance,” Alyssa said.

She’d previously told the commander she was incapable of lying. In a way, perhaps this was a lie, but only of omission. These people would not care that her hearing had selectively picked up Max’s words. All that mattered to them was securing her further in her holographic prison.

There was no point in calling it armor anymore, was there? Armor, after all, benefited and protected the wearer. This only benefited everybody else.

“The process is almost complete. You might feel a slight tingling,” Andrew said.

Slight tingling? A second later, pain shot up Alyssa’s arms. It smashed into her chest. It felt as if she’d been attempting to embrace a supernova.

“What’s going on?” Max growled.

Andrew had clearly switched off the intercom, so she didn’t hear anybody’s reply, though she did see Ninev turn to Max and no doubt offer some curt remark that reminded the commander of his place.

Alyssa was far too consumed by the pain eating into her.

As she’d already pointed out, she’d experienced pain over the years. None greater than solitude, but this… was a different type of agony. It didn’t feel like damage, but like something much, much more insidious.

Fortunately it didn’t last, but the effect it had on her psyche did.

Finally she floated back down to her feet. She didn’t stumble, even though her knees were weak.

She waited for them to turn the intercom back on and for the shielding protecting everyone else from her to flicker off, but nothing happened. They continued to converse without her being able to hear, as if that was perfectly natural.

… Perhaps Alyssa had grown accustomed to Admiral Forest’s way of doing things. Even if it had likely been pretense, at least the admiral had tried to make Alyssa feel as if she was involved.

There was no pretense here.

Alyssa’s gaze darted back and forth, first locking on Max’s tense brow then over to Suzanne, then over to Andrew. There was certainly something going on between the three of them.

What a strange coincidence, Alyssa muttered to herself in her mind. If their mission had gone according to plan, they would have returned straight to Earth. But circumstances seemingly beyond their control had brought them here.

Here to where they apparently needed to be.

Finally the shields flickered off.

Alyssa went to take a step forward, but Ninev growled. “You will wait until you are told to move.”

It appeared to be the last straw the commander could take. “Don’t speak to her like that,” he snapped. Anyone would be able to hear the tension in his voice. It wrapped up around his throat, making it sound as if he was constricting his voice box with an iron grip.

The admiral snapped back. Alyssa simply watched on.

This – the tension, the constant fights, and the confusion – was a hallmark of the demise of the Coalition.

She’d wandered right into the heart of a society about to collapse.

That had been an impassive fact to her for so long. But for whatever reason as she stared at Max, she tried to clench a hand into a fist. She could not.

She’d walked in here with some control of her body, but it seemed as if that was now lost.

The Coalition, it appeared, had her exactly where it wanted her.


Commander Max Farsight

You know that imaginary line he’d spoken of before? The one he had to keep stepping back from in front of Ninev in case the admiral snapped? Yeah, Max had already crossed it, and it had barely been five minutes.

It was all in the admiral’s tone. He wasn’t even pretending Alyssa was sentient – that she deserved to be treated like anything other than an obedient robot. He saw it in the admiral’s eyes, too. Alyssa was nothing more than a weapon to him.

Now it had kicked off.

Max was about to get drawn and quartered.

Before the admiral could open his mouth, the last person Max thought would intervene did. Suzanne walked right up to his side and cleared her throat. “Max, it’s okay.”

Sorry, what? Okay? Several hours ago, he’d been safe on Earth, far away from this drama. Now he’d been thrown into the deep end with no backup. Oh yeah, and with the impossible task of keeping Alyssa safe from people who clearly wanted to use her. And yeah, Max was done comparing his old self with his current one. He’d been rude. He’d been dismissive. He’d been disgusted. But that didn’t change that this was his job. He was here to protect Alyssa from these people, and as every second wound on, it was clear she needed more and more protection.

He imagined Suzanne would break away. Maybe she was only trying to pacify Max for old times’ sake. But she shot Ninev a look. And weirdly, Ninev, one of the most rambunctious admirals in the fleet, actually responded to it. “Get him out of here. He’s interfering with the process.”

Max’s blood almost hit boiling point. Interfering with the process? What exactly was that? Treating Alyssa like a lab rat? Pulling her off her feet and dangling her there in the air as if she was nothing more than a glorified puppet?

A rush of indignation slammed into his gut. It pounded up his skull. It shook high into his jaw. It felt like it was going to pull him apart as if it was gonna make him 10 times taller just so he could reach down and squash the admiral flat.

None of that occurred. Something a lot stranger did. He suddenly felt a soft hand on his shoulder. His brain told him it couldn’t be Suzanne, even though it had to be, as she was the only one standing by his side.

“Just come talk to me for a little,” Suzanne said.

Max looked at her. What exactly was there to talk about? She’d made that pretty clear five years ago.

Still, she didn’t release her grip on his arm, regardless of how much he wanted her to.

Alyssa was finally out of her prison. After the admiral had snapped at her, she’d come to a halt. She was a good 20 meters away, but that meant nothing to Alyssa. She would be able to see exactly what was going on here.

And what exactly was going on here? Because Suzanne’s expression softened even more as if she cared about what was occurring to Max. Yeah, he might be one well-placed insult away from being fired, but that was very much none of her business anymore.

Andrew was still in the room. Far from looking jealous, it was as if he agreed with the idea. “We’ve got this. Your charge will be safe in our hands,” he promised.

That was the trigger the growing bomb of anger in Max’s sternum required. It was all in the smooth way Andrew said it. “Need I remind—” he began, about to remind everyone about his position yet again.

“There’s a lot going on here, Max. Let me just take some time to explain it.” Suzanne latched her fingers harder around his arm, and she pulled him toward the door.

He could have at any moment stopped her. He was in armor – she wasn’t. But did he lock his feet against the floor? Did he ask her to stop? Did he act in any way whatsoever that suggested he was okay with this? No. He just let her pull him out of the door, and all the while he couldn’t control his confusion.

She didn’t say a word to him until they were out in the corridor.

They were alone. His suddenly suspicious mind wondered if that was on purpose.

Suzanne glanced down at her feet once, then up to his face. She rolled her eyes. “There’s nothing to be paranoid about, Max.”

“Excuse me? I need to go back in and do my duty as a Coalition officer—”

She shoved her hands into the pockets of her tunic and took a step in front of him, bodily blocking him from the door.

He wasn’t wearing his helmet anymore, so there was nothing to hide his expression. He arched an eyebrow stiffly. “Suzanne—”

“Admiral Ninev is in there. He’s a higher rank than you. Don’t worry. The Coalition’s got this.”

Really? Did the Coalition actually have this? Alyssa was a sensitive project. Sorry – project was the wrong word. Alyssa was… sensitive. No, not like that. She just needed to be treated how she deserved to be treated, okay? He didn’t have the brainpower to make that into an elegant statement, but he felt it as it pounded in his heart and reverberated up his throat.

Suzanne knew him too well. She snorted. “There’s no need to get angry at me.”

“I’m angry at this entire situation. What exactly—”

“It is critically important we perfect this armor. Otherwise she’s a walking target.”

That last bit made his gut clench.

“How do you think the Scarax Galaxy found her so easily aboard that mining transport?”

“We encountered the Light of the Gods,” he said automatically. The Light couldn’t operate on its own. When it was alone, it simply sought out a new host, somebody else to take and give power to.

All examples of the Light of the Gods they had encountered in the Milky Way had been either controlled by a nearby god, or had been remotely controlled by the Scarax Galaxy. The second the Light aboard the transport had seen Alyssa, whichever god had been controlling it would have alerted the rest. Case closed, end of the story.

It was hard to say exactly how much Suzanne knew about this. She had to understand a little about the Scarax Galaxy to have developed this armor and to know so much about Alyssa, but she didn’t seem moved by Max’s statement.

“That’s one explanation. How about I give you another?” she offered.

“Sorry?”

“She has a unique signature that can be tracked wherever she is in the Milky Way.”

“I’ve never—”

“Heard about this? Well, I’m taking the time to tell you now.” She spoke as if he was her underling and it was finally time to pull the wool from his eyes.

This was the first time she’d ever met Alyssa. Max had been traveling with Alyssa for six months. Nobody else had had as much to do with Alyssa as he had. But—

Suzanne continued to stare at him, that knowing look only gathering in her gaze. “We were tasked to make the armor, Max. Did you think we wouldn’t know everything about her?”

“I don’t think anyone knows everything about her,” he said, his voice dropping with a note of fragility he really shouldn’t have been using around his ex-wife. “She doesn’t even know everything about herself.”

“Fine. We don’t have her biographical data – but we sure do understand everything about her processes,” Suzanne whispered, her voice dropping in awe.

Processes was something you usually associated with a mechanical object. Alyssa wasn’t a robot.

But he didn’t have to point that out.

“She’s a truly unique creature with a temporal gravity field inside her body.” Suzanne plucked her hand out of her pocket and tapped her stiff knuckles on her chest. “Don’t you think that temporal field could be tracked if you knew enough about it?”

He’d never been the greatest physicist. Science had been for other people who hadn’t been on the frontline of action. But he got Suzanne’s point.

“The gods had her for 2000 years. And you don’t think in all that time they didn’t figure out how to track her? That’s how they keep finding her now.”

“So what, you developed this armor to keep her safe?” He already knew full well what the armor did. To demonstrate that point, he twiddled his fingers. “You developed the armor so we could control her.”

“That’s only while she’s being trained. It’s to help her understand the ways of the Coalition. The armor is ultimately to stop her from being discovered by the Scarax Galaxy. When it’s in full operation, she won’t be able to be swept away by a light path, either.”

“Need I remind you she was wearing the armor when we were attacked by a light path only,” he ticked his gaze to the side and tried to calculate, “less than half an hour ago?” True exasperation shook through his tone.

“Because it wasn’t in full operation yet. Now you’re here and now we’ve got as much data as we can, we’ll continue to perfect the process. She should be safe soon.”

Suzanne… she almost sounded as if she cared about Alyssa. But then the look in her eyes got to Max. This wasn’t for Alyssa. It was for what Alyssa could do.

Max crossed his arms.

Suzanne sighed. She locked a hand against her face and pushed down into it like she was going to collapse into her fingers. “Look, this is important. It’s also above you,” she emphasized. “This is what the admiralty wants. And it’s what every single citizen of the Coalition wants. Need I remind you the war is almost at our door? If we don’t do everything we can—”

“Then the Coalition ends,” he said. Unconsciously, he used the same emotionless tone Alyssa always did.

Suzanne’s brow twitched. “You’re okay with that, are you? You’re okay with the Coalition just crumpling, are you? You’re okay with the Milky Way falling to the gods? Need I remind you what will happen? You would have been privy to all of the information we have on the Scarax Galaxy. You would understand how screwed that place is,” with every second, her voice got quicker. She barely paused for breath. Every syllable rocketed out of her lips like shots from a gun.

It was almost enough to startle him. His jaw still hardened. “Why am I only finding all of this out now? Why did Admiral Forest not tell me when I communicated with her earlier?”

“Because this is now in Ninev’s hands.”

“And I’m being relieved of my position, am I?”

“No, Max, you’re not being relieved of your position. Why do you always have to escalate things?”

“I wasn’t the one who started escalating this. And if this really is now in the admiral’s hands, why keep me around?”

He expected Suzanne to say something along the lines of if he continued to act like this, he certainly wouldn’t be kept around, but she didn’t. She became strangely quiet. She also darted her gaze to the side. He knew her well enough to know she only ever did that when she was hiding things.

His brow crumpled. “Suzanne?”

She looked up at him sharply. “She has a rapport with you. She trusts you.”

His cheeks became cold. “And you want to use that trust?”

She sighed. “Have you listened to a thing I’ve said? Our entire civilization is hanging on a thread. And the Scarax Galaxy is coming to cut that thread. She is all we’ve got.” She took a breath, appeared to gather her nerve, then looked up at him again. “All we ask is you help us—”

He turned on his foot. “I’m not going to help you pacify her. If that’s my job, I quit.” The words came out of nowhere. Or maybe they didn’t. The situation was rapidly spiraling out of control. He didn’t have the authority nor the ability to pluck Alyssa out of here. But you know what he could do? Not lead her around like a lamb to the slaughter. He’d been the one who recommended she wear that armor. At the time, he’d actually thought Admiral Forest had cared about his assessment.

They’d been using him to get to her.

Max didn’t stride back into the room with Alyssa. There was nothing he would be able to do.

“Max,” Suzanne spluttered. “What are you doing?”

“Calling Admiral Forest.” He wasn’t lying. He started to begin a communication. Yes, he understood the importance of this mission. Yes, he understood what was on the line. But no, he didn’t need to be a part of this. He wasn’t going to be the filling stuck between a sandwich of Ares Tech and Admiral Ninev. They would do what they wanted regardless of what Max felt was right. And ultimately, even if he kept whingeing to Admiral Forest, she’d side with Ninev anyway.

“Don’t call Forest. Don’t quit, for god’s sake.” Suzanne spun around and grabbed his arm.

She held him in place.

He looked down at her hand, pausing his communication request. “Why the hell would you care if I was here or not? It would be better for both of us if I just quit.”

“You have to stay.”

“If Alyssa wants to stay, she’ll stay. Plus,” he growled, “by the looks of that armor, you’ll be able to force her to stay, anyway.”

“Only you can control her,” Suzanne spat. Then she paled. It was so quick, it looked as if her own words had slapped her.

Max wouldn’t have paid attention had it not been for her reaction. His brow compressed even harder. “What do you mean I can control her? If you want this armor back, take it. All you have to do is think, then you can make her do whatever you want to.” He tapped the side of his brow angrily.

Suzanne was desperately trying to retake control of the situation, but she still shook slightly at her verbal mishap. “Please. Just be reasonable.”

“What, for once in my life? We both know I’m not a reasonable person. I told you, I’m not going to stand around and lead her like a lamb to the slaughter.”

“Just—” she still held onto his arm, but she abruptly dropped it and took a step back. She stared over his shoulder.

He turned. Nobody had come in from the room, so it couldn’t have been the admiral or Andrew.

There was nobody there.

What? Was Suzanne seeing things? No. She obviously just had a really good set of ears because somebody took that exact moment to walk around the corner.

Somebody….

It was that man. The same man whose mere presence had reached into Max’s gut and shaken it like a damn earthquake. The man with the nondescript features and nondescript clothes. The man who looked as if he shouldn’t be anything and certainly shouldn’t mean anything to Max, but—

Suzanne paused. Maybe it was more accurate to say she froze.

The man paused, too. His body seemed to do something strange. Maybe the scene around him did something strange. It dimmed until everything focused on his lips. “The only way to get rid of her is to make her destroy herself,” he said, his cold words echoing out even though his lips didn’t move in time with them.

“What the hell did you just say?” Max spluttered, his hackles rising as fast as an eruption.

Whatever happened to the scene changed. It flickered once more. The lighting returned to normal, and Suzanne blinked. “Max?”

Max continued to stare at the man. “I asked you what you just said?” Fear and confusion welled in his gut, pounding down into his legs, almost making him want to run.

Susan blinked. “He didn’t say anything.”

“I—” Max went to insist, but he couldn’t. The man stopped in front of Max, and it happened again. Max’s body just felt… his mind… there was no point in trying to describe anything. Everything was just….

The man nodded his head deeply. “You must be Max Farsight. I am John Smith.” He pushed a hand out.

Max knew full well he needed to take it. It was only polite. But screw polite. That man had just said the only way to get rid of Alyssa was to make her destroy herself. And yeah, Max had been able to figure out who he was talking about. If… if in fact he’d been talking about anything. Why had the scene frozen like that? Why had everything become dim? And why was Suzanne reacting as if she hadn’t heard a thing?

Suzanne soon picked up on Max’s near-total confusion. But if John Smith noticed, he didn’t seem to care. He nodded once, dropped his hand, turned, and walked toward the door. He paused. He angled his head over his shoulder. “I must admit I overheard a little of your conversation. It is important for you to see this mission out, Commander Farsight. The Coalition has given you much over the years. It is time you give back.”

Max couldn’t answer. He couldn’t even think of a reply. All he could do was stand there, as cold as the depths of space, feeling like a scuttled ship with no chance he’d move again.

Suzanne had stopped holding his arm at some point. He had no idea when her fingers had slipped off. She’d even taken a step back. Again, he had no clue when she’d moved.

His mind….

John Smith walked through the doors, and they closed behind him. It was only then Max’s body seemed to snap back to normal.

He secured his fingers against his head. A pounding pain pulsed through his temples.

Suzanne blinked at him. “You okay? God, we’ve been so focused on the Night that we’ve forgotten about you. Your body might be overtaxed from wearing that armor. I’ll take you to the sickbay for a few scans.”

She came in close, but he took a step back and dropped his hand. “I told you I…” he went to say the words quit, but he simply couldn’t do it. John’s words echoed through his skull. The Coalition had given Max a lot, and now it was time for Max to give back. All Max could think of was the risks those Coalition soldiers had taken when they’d crossed the Barbarian border to bring Max back. If they hadn’t done that… Max wouldn’t be here. He’d either be a Barbarian slave, or he’d be dead, a thousand times over. The Coalition… the Coalition had given him a lot, so it was time to give back.

He was suddenly weak, so there was nothing to stop Suzanne from grabbing his arm and pulling him down the corridor. “It’s just this way. Once we fix that headache of yours, you will be fine. And don’t worry about Ninev. He’s brusque, but he respects your position. He knows you are necessary.”

As she strode with him down the corridor, all Max could focus on was one word. Necessary.

He didn’t understand what it meant, and he wouldn’t until it was far, far too late.


Alyssa Night

She’d been taken from the room. She’d assumed she’d encounter Max out in the corridor, but she hadn’t. He’d seemingly disappeared.

He’d appeared impassioned enough to at least attempt to fight for Alyssa’s rights previously, but now he was gone.

Should she be worried about him? That said, the commander seemed uniquely capable of looking after himself. Could there be another reason he’d abandoned his position?

She’d been taken to a prison. They hadn’t called it that. They had called it a room – one for her protection.

She was no fool. The walls were thick, there were no windows and doors, and there was no distraction. There wasn’t even a seat. She was expected to stand.

If it had been for her protection, wouldn’t they have offered her… what was the word again? A couch? Admiral Forest had at least offered her one of those.

She stood there. The cell was large. She didn’t know if she was thankful for that or suspicious. The only reason it would be big was that it had to fit a lot of equipment in it.

Once upon a time Alyssa would’ve been able to detect any devices affecting this room. Now she could not. She drew up her hands for what felt like the thousandth time. There were no marks on them. There was no light. Her original self was buried far, far down under this armor.

She wanted to rip it off, but every time she went to, she paused.

She thought of Max.

Why?

He was gone. He hadn’t come to see her. Maybe he’d relieved himself of his position, for he’d never wanted it in the first place.

So why couldn’t Alyssa rip this armor off and reveal her true abilities once more?

She deeply wished she had the emotional experience to understand what was going on with her. All she recognized was that she was conflicted, and the conflict had wended its way deep inside her chest. She had no heart, for she had no circulatory system. Her power was immediately accessible across her entire form. It wasn’t piped there through blood vessels. Yet she wondered if right now she was feeling something akin to what a human might as their emotions pounded in their chest. It felt like something was opening up inside her.

And yet, it did nothing. It didn’t change the existence of the four walls around her. It didn’t break her out. It didn’t solve her confusion. It simply added to it.

There was a slight rumble from the floor. Alyssa ticked her gaze to the side and watched as a door manufactured itself. In walked somebody. She wanted it to be the commander. It was not.

It was the man called Andrew. And beside him strode a scientist. She’d seen him before. He was nondescript. The only interesting thing about him was that the commander had had an intense reaction to him. They must’ve known each other.

Andrew cleared his throat and shoved his hands into his pockets. He appeared to do that a lot around her. Perhaps it was so she didn’t accidentally grab his hand to shake it when he didn’t want her to. Or, more likely, he was attempting to hide his tension. “You won’t have to stay here very long. Just a little longer,” he promised.

Alyssa tried to peer through the door beyond, but it simply led to an empty corridor.

“What are you looking for?” Andrew asked.

“Where is the commander?”

“In the med bay. He’s got a headache,” Andrew said dismissively.

“He has sustained damage?” Alyssa blinked quickly, actual worry marching through her.

Andrew chuckled. “He’s just stressed. That’s all.”

“Is he still… responsible for me?” It was hard to choose her words correctly. It was harder to ultimately define the relationship they had together.

Max appeared to be responsible for Alyssa, but only on missions. And it was impossible to decide exactly what this was. It didn’t feel like a mission, yet Max had become more protective over her than he ever had before.

Andrew laughed again. It was dark and deep. “He can’t quit. Don’t worry.”

There was something about the way he said that.

All the while, the man with Andrew paid the greatest possible attention to Alyssa. His eyes were wide. There almost appeared to be recognition there.

Alyssa turned her attention to him.

She didn’t recognize him. He looked like nothing more than a blank slate. But the commander had reacted to him, she told herself, so she focused on the strange man, nonetheless.

It was when she was narrowing her eyes and attempting to pare back her senses that it happened. Energy suddenly crackled over her face. It brought with it pain that stabbed down into her cheeks.

She didn’t gasp, but she did clutch her face.

Andrew barely reacted. He clucked his tongue. “Random discharge. It’s to be expected. It might tingle a little.” He used the exact same tone he had back in the laboratory when he’d warned her of slight discomfort and she’d felt as if a supernova had exploded in her chest.

It took her a few seconds to drop her hand. “The slight discomfort,” she controlled her tone, “has passed.”

“You might find it easier just to stare ahead for a little,” Andrew said. “There’s probably a little stiffness in the neck joints of the armor.”

“I see. And how long will I have to stand here staring ahead for?”

“A little longer,” he said.

“And who is this man you have brought with you?”

“Just one of my scientists.”

“He appears to be staring at me steadily.”

“Anyone would. You’re the Night. You’re a creature like no other. You,” Andrew’s voice became slightly distant, “can theoretically destroy anything.”

She shouldn’t have to say she didn’t like his tone. She didn’t like this entire interaction. And the more it continued, the more her hackles rose. She didn’t know if she had hackles, but she’d often heard the commander use the term, so she appropriated it now.

Andrew descended into silence. Then he turned and nodded at his scientist. “What do you think? Should we put her through her paces?”

Alyssa’s back extended. “What do you mean?”

“This armor will help you modulate your force.”

“I’m already well aware of how to modulate my force.”

“This will be different. So we’re just going to put you through your paces.” He stood to the side. He pulled some kind of remote out of his pocket.

“I wish to see the commander,” she said quickly, her words coming out in a clump.

“I told you. He’s got a headache. He’s getting it fixed. This will be important information. It will help us perfect your armor, and that will help us to keep you safe.”

“Safe?” she said. She tried to turn her attention toward the so-called ordinary scientist, but she couldn’t. Her neck felt frozen in place.

She watched Andrew gesture the man out of the room, and they stood in the doorway. A force field flickered over it.

A holographic module appeared in the ceiling above her.

She suddenly understood what they meant by putting her through her paces.

There was a flicker, and something appeared beside Alyssa.

It was a perfect holographic representation of a god, right down to their glowing skin.

Alyssa didn’t have a reaction to the god’s appearance. She did, however, have a reaction when she felt her power surge within her. She didn’t choose to call on it. It called on itself.

The next thing she knew, her hand twisted to the side, and she forced a blast of temporal particles out. They smashed into the hologram of the god just as the thing screamed in righteous anger. Her temporal particles blasted the apparition apart. It might’ve only been a hologram, but a quick assessment of how it exploded told her it had been a solid-state one. With sophisticated enough technology, you could make holograms solid like matter, but unlike matter, they were infinitely reprogrammable.

Her arm shook as it remained in a steady position, pushed out to its full length, her hand open wide.

Andrew grunted in satisfaction. “I told you it would work.”

“Who are you speaking to?” Alyssa stuttered.

“Just my friend here. He had his doubts. Now he doesn’t. How about we continue to put you through your paces?”

“I don’t wish to be put through my paces,” Alyssa said, her voice getting louder. “I wish to see the commander.”

“He’s got a headache, and he doesn’t want to see you. So let’s see what this armor can do, ha?”


Commander Max Farsight

The medical bay of Ares Tech was something else. It was massive, for one, as if they thought they would be caring for the victims of an entire cruiser crash. It was also fitted out with gear he’d never seen. This was where they built most prototype medical tech.

He was done looking in astonishment at the devices he saw. He was done because his head was pounding. It had become far, far worse about a minute ago. It felt like somebody was trying to rattle his brains. There was pressure in his hand, too, almost as if someone had reached in and was actively flattening his fingers.

Suzanne had stuck by his side, and strangely, he was actually thankful for that. It was the company, he told himself.

She remained close to him as a sophisticated medical bot continued to scan him.

“I want to get out of this armor,” he said for about the third time.

“It’s not the armor. You just over-taxed yourself.”

“I still want to get out of the armor.” He latched a hand on the arm piece, but he quickly lacked the energy to pull it off. He felt woozy again.

Just before he could collapse forward, Suzanne dashed in and locked a hand on his bicep. She eased him backward until he was lying on the bed. “It’s okay. It will pass really soon. I promise. Maybe in a minute or two,” she said distractedly.

“How do you know that? Are you a doctor now?”

She laughed. “Sure, when it comes to you, I’m a doctor.”

He didn’t have the brainpower to follow, but that statement was particularly strange. What exactly did it mean? “What—” he began, but his headache became 10 times as bad. It pounded. It felt like something was trying to control his body. But his body remained exactly where it was. He clutched his skull. He actually screamed.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Suzanne said. She grabbed his hands and pulled them down. “It will pass really soon. Just 30 more seconds. You’ll be fine.”

Fine? This wasn’t fine. This was pain incarnate. “Get—” he couldn’t say get this armor off me. He couldn’t speak and doubted he ever would be able to speak again. This agony rushed through him. It reached a peak. He thought he’d black out. His eyes certainly closed.

But his consciousness didn’t dim. Instead, in a perfect recreation of what he’d seen earlier in the corridor, he watched John virtually walk out of the darkness of his mind. He saw that man’s cold lips move equally coldly around his cold words. The only way to get rid of her is to make her destroy herself.

Those words had a chance to echo in Max’s mind, then his eyes finally snapped open. He screamed. It was a throaty, desperate affair. Except there was no longer any pain. It was as if someone had clicked their fingers and it had just disappeared.

Suzanne dropped his shoulders immediately as if she knew the agony was gone. She took a step back. She shoved a finger into her ear and waggled it about. “No need to make me deaf,” she commented lightly.

It was such a discombobulating experience. The pain… it had been the worst he’d ever felt, right? Except now it was gone, and it had left no indication it had ever been.

Completely confused, he slowly pushed up to the edge of the bed. A part of him wanted to lurch up and pull his armor off, but the rest of him didn’t want to move so quickly lest that attack come back.

He stared at his hands then across at Suzanne. “What the hell was that? And how did you know it would end?”

She sighed and gestured at the medical bot. “I’m not a doctor, but this bot is. I was just accessing its analysis.”

“Right, and what’s its analysis? That pain…” he couldn’t finish his sentence. What was the point? His gut-shaking, throat-punching, soul-destroying scream would summarize exactly what that pain had been. He didn’t need to paint a more detailed picture.

Suzanne shrugged. “It was to be expected.”

“That’s great. But if it was to be expected, why didn’t anyone warn me of it? And what exactly was it? It’s to do with this armor, isn’t it?” he barked. Once more he tried to take it off. He latched a hand on his arm unit, but he felt a little momentary weakness again. He paled as he wondered if another attack was occurring.

“You’re fine,” Suzanne said, predicting what he was thinking. “It’s passed now.”

“I really need to determine what the hell is going on right now,” he snapped.

“When you were fitted for this armor, you would’ve been told that you would have transient neural effects that would pass in time, right?”

He snapped his mouth open to say that no one had told him that, but he stopped. Because Admiral Forest herself had told him that twice. He locked his lips together in a severe frown.

“I’m assuming your silence is a yes. These are the transient neurological effects. They’re probably a little worse considering what you endured up on that mining transport. You do remember what happened, right? Not only were you attacked by the Light of the Gods, but you fell through a frigging driveshaft. Did you really think you would be a hundred percent afterward? Without that armor, you’d be dead, Max. Very, very dead.”

“Granted,” he conceded her point, “but that pain—”

“Is transient. There will be no damage,” the medical bot finally spoke up. It had a reassuring electronic voice. It didn’t sound like it was lying. But that was a pretty naïve statement, considering you could program such a robot to say whatever you wanted.

Still… Admiral Forest had said there would be transient neurological effects, right? He stared at his hands as if they would betray him.

He couldn’t chase away the weird sensation that someone had been trying to control them. But they hadn’t moved. So… what exactly had they been trying to control?

“Oh no, I know that look,” Suzanne said through a forced breath. “You’re getting paranoid again, aren’t you? Nothing’s happening here. You’re just experiencing a few kinks in the armor’s design. And no,” she added before he could point it out, “it’s not going to be dangerous to you. You’re going to be fine. The armor is necessary, Max. It’s necessary because in the time you were being treated for your headache, we’ve had 90 more attacks.” She said that out of nowhere.

He wasn’t prepared.

He paled even further. “Sorry, what? 90 more attacks?” He knew exactly what she was talking about.

She turned away from him as if her emotions were too much. “Some of them were pretty close to Earth, too. I imagine the gods are pretty angry because they didn’t manage to get Alyssa.” She pressed a hand against her brow. She became quiet for several seconds. Then she dropped her fingers. “Which makes the work we’re doing here even more important.” She whirled on him.

He could see the vulnerability in her eyes. Though Suzanne usually tried to hide it, he knew her well enough to spot it easily.

His own gaze darted back and forth as he scanned it, as he took it all in and realized what it meant.

He was under pressure, but what about her? Running around shooting things was easy. Trying to make your mind come up with brilliant ideas, even when all it wanted to do was run, was hard.

He took a breath and dropped his gaze to his hands.

She sighed, too. “You should stick around here for a while.”

He slid off the bed. It was automatic. He was relatively certain he could stand now, and when he didn’t topple sideways, he realized his assessment was thankfully correct.

“What are you doing?” she spluttered.

“I have to go check on Alyssa. She’s going to be worried.”

“She’s fine,” Suzanne said automatically.

“Where is she? Still having her armor checked on?”

“Likely.”

“Likely isn’t a good enough answer for me,” he said as he strode for the door. “Do you even know where she is?”

Suzanne grabbed his arm again. “She’s fine. But you might not be. The more you move around after an incident like that, the more you’re going to invite pain in again.”

Max wasn’t really paying attention, but Suzanne’s other hand was behind her back.

“I told you—” Max began, but that would be when pain sliced through his temples. It was only really a pale example of what it had been previously – a looming shadow, if you will – but it was enough to stop him dead. He clutched the side of his face, his breathing becoming labored.

“Max,” Suzanne said in a long-suffering tone. She helped him back to the medical bed.

His whole body became stiff as he waited for a second wave.

It didn’t come immediately, but that didn’t mean anything.

When he was seated on the bed, she placed her hands on her hips and took a step back. “Alyssa is fine. I know that Ninev might be a bit brief with her, but that’s just his stress talking. Everybody here respects her,” Suzanne promised.

Was it just him, or was there a strange quality to the way Suzanne said the word respect?

“Right.” It was all the response he could manage. “But I’m gonna be useless to you here in the med bay. I should—”

“Stay exactly where you are. Just relax and get some rest.”

“I don’t really want rest. I want this headache to go away. How about I take this armor off for—”

“The armor must stay on.”

“Why? Ares Tech is safe, right?” There was a slight challenging note to his tone. Call it leftover paranoia. He’d spent a long time hating this company.

Even though Suzanne would’ve picked up on it, she didn’t react with anger. “Ares Tech is not safe,” she said flatly.

He hadn’t been expecting that, and he dropped his hand and stared at her. “Sorry?”

“Come on, Max. You can’t forget the greater galactic context. Nothing in the Milky Way is safe. At any moment the gods could push through.”

“You told me Alyssa’s armor prevented them from finding her.”

“It sure does. But what exactly does that mean? We don’t know when the gods are going to start their full-frontal assault. When they do, not a single planet in the Milky Way is gonna be safe, is it?” Her voice became more and more fragile as it arced up. This was real fear. Real fear that was pushing into the creases around her eyes, real fear that was locked in her shoulder muscles, and real fear that was shadowing her every word.

Max had clutched his brow, but now he let his hand drop deliberately.

“You need to be in that armor in case Ares Tech is attacked. Don’t worry, though – it’s very comfortable. Even to sleep in.”

“Why, have you tried?”

“Yes,” she said. “I don’t deploy any armor I haven’t tried before.”

“Does that include the stuff on Alyssa?”

There was a long silence.

“Just rest,” she emphasized. “Think of the past,” she added.

That comment floored him. His lips became stiffer.

“Not like that – not about us. I mean further back. Your childhood.”

“… Why?”

“It will give your brain something to do. As the armor continues to learn to integrate with your neurological system, you should try to distract yourself. It will help stave off those waves of pain.”

“How?”

“You’ll be activating different areas of your brain. So think about your childhood.”

“I don’t want to—”

“You want to stave off another one of those attacks, right?” she asked bluntly.

“Fine. But you know my childhood was—”

“Think of the earliest memories you’ve ever had,” she tried. There was an odd look in her eyes.

Suzanne knew full well where Max came from. She understood his traumatic past. Right now that didn’t appear to matter to her. That look in her eyes only deepened.

“Suzanne, I don’t want to think about that—”

“I have already told you, you have to keep the armor on because we don’t know when we’re going to be attacked. And if you want to stave off that pain, then you need to engage different parts of your brain. Just think about your past, Max – about the earliest memories you have.”

He didn’t want to – with every fiber of his being. He’d run away from that past for a long time. Then finally he’d found a way to integrate the pain by throwing his heart and soul into the Coalition. That didn’t mean he wanted to freely think about that trauma right now. Especially not in front of his ex-wife.

But she was right, wasn’t she? At any time the frontal assault on the Milky Way could begin. And if he needed to wear this armor….

He actually closed his eyes. There were a thousand reasons not to, but there was one really good one to get the task done. It wasn’t saving the Milky Way, surprisingly. It was that if he did this and managed to control his symptoms, he’d be able to get back to Alyssa.

People had always thought Max was lying when he’d said he had memories from his time as a baby when he’d been plucked out of Barbarian space.

It was impossible, right?

But he did. He had a definite memory of being on that ship. A distinct memory of being a baby. A definite memory of….

As he pushed himself into the recollection now, it became sharper automatically.

Ordinary memories didn’t do that, did they? They became weaker over time. They dimmed, and they changed every single time you remembered them. This one never altered. It was like an edifice in his mind. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say it was like a house. And whenever he opened the door and walked in, it was untouched.

Perhaps Suzanne was still speaking to him. Perhaps he was still seated. He didn’t really have any way of knowing. The recollection swamped him like a broken dam.

He remembered the cruiser in perfect detail. It had been simple – just a three-person ship designed to move people from a to b.

He had no idea why his parents had been flying in Barbarian space. Likely they hadn’t been. Something critical had occurred with the ship, and it had moved them there.

But while the context was lacking from the memory, everything else was there. He could see a light flickering above him. It pulsed in and out, in and out. It almost… almost looked alive.

Then he could see a limp hand resting on his chest. One that was covered in blood. A wedding ring glinted on it. From the small shape of the fingers, they belonged to a woman. It had to be his mother. As for his father, though Max was only a baby in this memory, he still had the vantage to see his father slumped over the main controls. There was a hole gouged right through his back. His sightless face was pressed to the side.

On the screen… there was a light. Light that was narrowed into a path. Light—

Something suddenly jolted him awake. It was a phrase repeating in his head. It invaded his consciousness like a swarm of locusts.

The only way to get rid of her is to make her destroy herself.

He snapped his eyes open. His lips darted open a second later. “No,” he stammered.

Suzanne hadn’t moved from his side. In fact, she held his hand. Her other hand was in her pocket, almost as if she clutched hold of some device.

She opened her eyes wide. “Did you remember something? Something new?” she stammered.

Max opened his mouth to tell her about the strange incident that happened with John, but he quickly closed his lips as he realized it was mad.

He pressed his hand against his head. Then he looked at Suzanne.

She soon took a step back. She seemed disappointed. “Did you remember anything?”

“I… the memory hasn’t changed,” he muttered, even though it had. That light path on the screen, it… he’d never seen that before. Because he’d never gone into the memory like that. That light wasn’t what he was thinking, right? It wasn’t a light path from the Scarax Galaxy. That would be insane and impossible. He—

Suzanne suddenly ticked her head to the side. It was clear she was getting some kind of communication. It was also clear she was pissed off at being interrupted. Her lips spread into a terse snarl.

She didn’t say anything aloud. She communicated to whoever was speaking to her with her thoughts alone.

She sighed. “I just have to go and check on something. You should stay here. Your pain might come back,” as she said that, she walked backward from him. She didn’t turn until she reached the door.

He nodded once.

As soon as she left, he pushed to his feet.

He wobbled slightly. There was pain, but only when he took a step toward the door.

He held the side of his neck. “What the hell is this? I just have to take the armor off, right?” He clutched his arm piece. Again, his fingers just stopped. It was as if they didn’t have it in them to take the armor off. To be fair, he didn’t even know how to take it off. It was embedded in him, after all. It grew out of that node in his hip. If he truly wanted to remove it, then he would have to take an electro saw to it.

He didn’t shy away from that chilling thought. He actually saw an electro saw on the opposite side of the room. He didn’t automatically reach for it.

Instead he took another wary step forward then one more. The pain returned, but not as sharply. If he’d been paying attention, he would’ve realized it returned the closer he got to leaving the med bay. And that made no sense at all.

He closed his eyes.

He didn’t retreat back to the bed, even though the pain started to sink into his temples. He fixed his attention on the memory of that light path. He tried to reject what he thought it was with all his soul. Because it could not be a light path from the Scarax Galaxy.

Max had never had anything to do with that galaxy. He’d been chosen for the mission with Alyssa based on his skills and nothing else.

He took another step.

More pain sank into his temples. He had to ignore it; he had to go see Alyssa.

Something told him she needed him. Okay. That was a lie. He just wanted to ensure she was fine to soothe his conscience.

The old Max assumed nothing could rattle Alyssa. But Max couldn’t deny this urge.

So he took another step. The pain got worse. It worsened the more he threw himself into that memory for whatever reason. It ran its course until, just as had occurred back when he’d recalled it the first time, John Smith’s words suddenly blasted through his mind.

It was like a short, sharp jolt. Almost as if he was jumpstarting a car – not that he’d ever driven one, of course, considering they had been superseded centuries ago. He recognized the technology. And the analogy was correct.

He took another step. The pain ebbed but then came back. So he repeated that phrase in his head.

He kept hold of it like a mantra. It got him to the door.

Nobody stopped him. Why would they? He was free to walk around this building, right?

Maybe the real reason nobody stopped him was that Suzanne hadn’t thought he’d be able to leave.

He finally struck the corridor outside.

As soon as he took several steps, the pain started to ebb. It disappeared as if it had never been. He didn’t have to repeat John’s words in his head, over and over again, but they stayed there, nonetheless.

He tightened his hands into fists. He had to find out where Alyssa was.

He didn’t have access to Ares Tech databases. And for whatever reason he didn’t want to call Admiral Ninev. Sorry, for whatever reason? For very obvious reasons, he didn’t want to bother the admiral. The admiral was clearly only a few pokes away from turning into a bear and ripping Max’s head off.

So Max just moved forward.

He had great intuition, right? Maybe it would take him to Alyssa. Or something else would. That mantra, as he repeated it, every cold word sinking further into his skull, seemed to program his feet somehow.

It was almost as if it knew where to take him.

He came to a thick door. It was closed. He had no way of opening it, right?

Wrong, because at that exact moment, somebody unlocked it for him.

It swished open, and a distracted scientist suddenly looked up. “What are you doing here—”

“She’s in here, right?” Max strode past him. “I’m just checking on my charge’s welfare.”

The guy paled even more and turned over his shoulder.

Max ignored him.

There was nothing much in this corridor save for one massive door.

Alyssa had to be behind it.

Max turned his head. The scientist was still there. He was clearly involved in some kind of neurological communication – likely informing his superiors of Max’s sudden appearance.

Max pointed at the door. “Can you open it for me?”

The guy swallowed. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Why not? She’s my charge, and I’m here to check on her.”

“You—”

“I will make it real easy for you – open this door, and do it right now.” Max didn’t give the guy a threat. He didn’t need to. Alyssa was his charge, and dammit, he would do what it took to protect her.

Chapter 17

 

Alyssa Night

Andrew had made his point.

Alyssa could now be controlled.

She no longer stood. She leaned with her back against the wall.

Her body shook.

It was fear.

A fear she’d never experienced before. Even when she’d been trapped by the gods, she hadn’t had a reason to be terrified like this. The gods hadn’t tried to control her.

The Coalition had. And they had succeeded.

She stared at her hands, desperately trying to coax her light back into her. But she couldn’t. It would not come. Had it abandoned her forever?

For the first time in her entire existence, Alyssa felt something slightly wet around her eyes. She understood humans cried, but she’d concluded she did not. An inaccurate assumption. She’d never had anything to cry about before. Now she did.

For all of those centuries, she’d pondered the demise of civilizations. Now she would be involved in one. Worse. If her growing suspicions were anything to go by, her very hands would be the means by which that demise would occur.

She didn’t understand exactly the motivations of Andrew and the rest of his team. Though the pursuit of power was all that mattered in the end.

Andrew now had the power of Alyssa’s own hands, and those very same hands would be used to perform untold atrocities.

She—

She closed her eyes.

She was suddenly aware of something behind her. The wall was solid. Her armor would not allow her natural senses to pierce through it. But for a single second that didn’t count. She heard a voice.

“I will make it real easy for you,” Commander Max Farsight said in this clear ringing tone as if he was right by her ear, “open this door, and do it right now.” That same tone dropped like a boulder thrown off a mountain.

Alyssa gasped. She turned. She started pounding on the wall. Her natural strength was so far away, she felt like nothing more than a child. “Max?” she demanded. “Max?”

Perhaps somebody spoke to Max, because he paused. “Not good enough. She’s my charge. I have every right to check on her. I know you just made some kind of communication. I’m assuming you called your boss, right? Great. Get him over here. While you’re doing that, I’m gonna call Admiral Forest, and she can once more explain to everybody my position. I—”

“Max. Max? Please, you can hear me, can’t you? I can hear you,” Alyssa demanded.

What was she doing? Why was her voice shaking? Why was fear catapulting through her chest? Why was she saying this out loud? Why was she giving in to her desperation and turning it toward Max of all people? Why? Because she couldn’t stop herself. And in the grand scheme of things, such an explanation was perhaps the most logical and most natural.

Some things occurred even if you didn’t want them to.

“Max, please—”

There was a substantial pause. “Alyssa?”

He had to have heard her. “Max. I’m in here. Please get me out of here. They are using me. Max—”

“Alyssa? What… why can I hear your voice?”

He could hear her. This wasn’t in her head. “Max—”

“What’s going on here?” Someone suddenly transported into the room behind her. It was Andrew.

“Open the door. Bring Max to me now.”

Andrew simply looked at her. “You shouldn’t tax yourself. Your armor will make you tired, Night.”

As soon as he said that, she started to feel tired. It was a new sensation. It gripped her stomach, climbed her back, and sank into her limbs. She sank down to her knees a second later. She still passionately shook her head. “Admiral Forest told me I have rights. She told me I have a voice and it will be heard. So listen to it. Bring Max here.”

Andrew just stared at her impassively. “You shouldn’t tax your armor,” he repeated.

Perhaps he thought she was a robot and she simply needed clear instructions. She was not. He was the one who sounded like a robot.

She tried to stand. She couldn’t. “Max has come to check on my welfare. And I will describe to him exactly what has occurred. Admiral Forest—”

“Admiral Forest’s desperate like the rest of them. She understands fully well what’s about to occur. And she understands the only possibility the Coalition has of getting out of this is if we use every single tool in front of us to its utmost capacity.” His eyes locked on her when he said the word tool. And it drilled into her, pounding into her head then down into her chest.

She was becoming more and more tired. Her eyes closed. Her head tilted to the side.

“Don’t fight it. There’s no point.”

Those words drilled into her head.

To Andrew, what was occurring to her was inevitable.

No matter what Alyssa decided and no matter what she called on, she would not break free.

Once upon a time, Alyssa had understood what it was to be inevitable. She’d accepted that fact into her soul, but now a countering force rose up within her, a force that was destined to fight.

Perhaps she would never have understood nor have been capable of generating this if she hadn’t met Max Farsight. He was a man who would never accept the inevitable. He was a man who had taught her that, no matter how likely something seemed, you fought against it no matter what.

And maybe that was what gave her the ability right now to fight against the fatigue swamping her body. The ability to tilt her head up, to refocus her gaze. Then the ability to lean forward and lock a hand on the floor.

The Night started to rise. For there were few things ultimately that could keep the Night down.

Andrew had been staring on at her impassively before. His gaze had been one of somebody who was staring at a machine. A tool – nothing more than a means to an end.

But as soon as she moved, all of that changed. Fear crossed through his eyes. It shook into his cheeks, gripped his throat, and pumped down into his chest.

He took a staggering step back. “She’s fighting it—”

“I’m fighting you,” Alyssa snapped.

She rose to her feet now.

She was done with this situation. She would not stand here and be controlled. She would rise.

For 2000 years, she’d sat still and done nothing. It had taken an emissary from the Coalition to teach her to rise.

Now she would never be pushed down again.

Andrew jolted backward. He tried to transport away, but she wouldn’t let him. She shoved forward and grabbed his wrist.

He attempted to push back, but how exactly could he break her grip?

“Let me go. Control her,” he screamed.

“You will remove this armor. You will let me go. But I will not forget what you have done here today. I know your mind, Andrew White. I know what you wish to achieve. You want power for power’s sake. You will never get it.”

Chapter 18

 

Commander Max Farsight

It didn’t take long for Suzanne to transport into the corridor.

The surprised scientist he’d encountered had contacted her. She wasn’t alone. In came John Smith. His presence was almost enough to unsettle Max. But he wouldn’t let himself stop. He jammed his thumb toward the door. “Open it right now. Need I remind you of my position here? Need I remind you the admiralty,” he spat that word, “tasked me with protecting Alyssa?”

“Max, you shouldn’t be doing this,” Suzanne said, her voice shaking violently. “Your headache—”

“Is fine. It stopped the second I got out of the med bay. Weird that, isn’t it? Plus, it doesn’t matter, as I’ve got something to do now. So open this door,” he growled as darkly as he could as he jammed his thumb toward it.

Suzanne didn’t open the door. By the looks of it, she was gonna get security in to drag him away.

Max had been an idiot. He should’ve seen this from the beginning. Something was going on here. And regardless of whether Admiral Ninev was in charge, Max was going to go through with his original mission. He would protect Alyssa, no matter what.

All the while, John Smith’s words echoed in his mind. The only way to kill Alyssa was to get her to kill herself.

Now John stood there, several meters away, his eyes open wide. There wasn’t pressure there at this tense situation, just amusement. It was as if he was witnessing a good show.

“Max, I’m going to transport you out of here,” Suzanne began, but then her eyes blasted wide open. She jerked toward the door. “Andrew?” she screamed, true fear shaking through her voice.

Was Andrew in there with Alyssa? He must’ve just called Suzanne, or perhaps Suzanne was connected to some computer watching this corridor and Alyssa’s cell, because it was clear she knew exactly what was going on through that door, even though it wasn’t open.

Suzanne beat a hand on the door. “Open up now.”

The door opened.

And there was Alyssa.

She had a hand on Andrew White’s wrist. He was down on his knees, his eyes opening wide with pain as he spluttered.

“Andrew. Stop her, stop her,” Suzanne said. She didn’t rush in. She backed away.

There were several other scientists behind Max who’d rushed into the corridor after Suzanne had transported here. As for John, he simply stood there and stared.

Alyssa was apparently attacking his boss, but he just looked on as if this was nothing more than a holo movie.

Alyssa didn’t attack – Andrew, at least. But as she stood there, holding his hand literally in the grip of time, her holographic armor started to spark around her fingers. Little by little, it revealed the real light beneath.

“Stop her,” Suzanne shrieked. “Max, you have to stop her. She’s going to kill him. Stop her. Stop her before it's too late.”

Max could read the situation. He saw Alyssa’s expression. It was broken with anger – the exact same anger he’d always told himself was there but he’d never seen. Not like this.

“Stop her. Save me,” Andrew spluttered.

Everything came down to a point.

Max could see Alyssa fighting against her armor. Sparks now flew up her arms. More of her channels were being revealed.

“Stop her,” Suzanne shrieked one last time.

Max jolted. “Alyssa, drop him—”

“He’s attempting to take over this galaxy.” She delivered her words with firm resolve.

They were paranoid, grandiose. But—

“Stop her, Max.”

“Alyssa, don’t you dare kill him.”

She slowly arched her head over her shoulder. She stared at him. There was pain there. “I have no intention of killing him. But I will not be his toy.” She took a step back from Andrew. Then she used her sparking fingers to grab hold of her other arm. It was as if she was about to wrench it free from its joint.

John Smith had simply been watching this impassively. Now he finally reacted. The man showed emotion – deeper than any Max had ever seen. It practically ripped its way across his face. “No. Stop her, now,” he bellowed.

Alyssa grabbed hold of her holographic armor harder. Don’t ask Max how she did it, but she managed to secure her fingers into it. Then she began to rip it right off her form. He saw glimpses of her true power within.

“The whole galaxy is on the line. Stop her,” John bellowed as if it was his head on the chopping block.

“She tried to kill Andrew – Max, snap out of it and stop her.” Suzanne shook.

Max extended a hand.

He watched Alyssa fight against her armor.

Everything came down to a point.

Her expression was still one of cold hatred. Of destruction. Of ending things. Regardless of what had happened here, could Max really forget everything he’d concluded over the last six months? Alyssa didn’t have a heart. All she was was a fixation on ending things.

She was—

“I will never make the mistake of letting someone control me again,” she spat. And she ripped her arm unit right off. Sparks erupted everywhere. They charged over her body as she finally revealed her channels in full. They glowed brighter than anything Max had ever seen. Even when she’d fought the Light of the Gods, she hadn’t revealed power like this. Unchecked, it could probably destroy all of Commerce One.

Warning alarms split the air, and finally they jolted Max into action.

He couldn’t let her do this.

So he spread his hand. And Max turned Alyssa off.

It was a moment he would never be able to get back – one he would never be able to run from, no matter how hard he tried.

Chapter 19

 

Commander Max Farsight

Alyssa couldn’t fight it.

She might’ve ripped the holographic armor off, but for whatever reason, Max still had the capacity to interact with her mind. And with nothing more than a thought, she was turned off like a glorified robot. She struck the floor beneath her with a thump.

The powerful glow that had been emanating from her revealed arm started to ebb, but only slightly.

Andrew spluttered and kicked to his feet. He thrust several meters back, staring on at Alyssa with true terror in his eyes.

Suzanne didn’t throw herself at him. She’d reached the wall, and she trembled against it, her shoulders locked there in fright.

As for John, he stopped screaming. The fear that had completely controlled him seconds before was now gone as if someone had just washed it away like a mark on a window.

Andrew clutched his throat and stared down at his wrist. He looked on at Alyssa with cold hatred in his eyes. Then he walked around her.

He made solid eye contact with Max. “Why did you hesitate?”

The door into the corridor opened, and Admiral Ninev came racing in. “What happened?”

“She almost killed Andrew. She almost killed him,” Suzanne spluttered.

The situation was still confusing. It was swamping Max. There was a little pain in his head, too. It was growing, but it wasn’t so much that he couldn’t follow.

Alyssa had attacked Andrew, although maybe it was more accurate to say she’d grabbed him. But she hadn’t attempted to kill him. She’d simply tried to take her armor off.

“She’s unstable. She’s everything we feared she was,” Suzanne spluttered as she finally thrust properly onto her feet. “She has to be controlled. She almost killed him.”

Andrew was simply staring daggers into Max’s eyes. Max ignored him. He looked down at Alyssa. She wasn’t moving. Because Max had to turn her back on, right? Because her consciousness was literally in his hands.

… And in his hands alone.

Why?

Yes, this armor was the master switch for Alyssa, but he was standing in the very building that had created this armor in the first place. Wouldn’t they have another set?

Admiral Ninev strode right up to Max. Then he sliced his gaze down to Alyssa. There was real anger there. Especially when he saw that one of her arms was revealed. “How did this happen?” he spat.

“The commander here hesitated,” Andrew said, baring his teeth the entire time. “He could have cost us everything.”

Max just stood there. He stood there, and he finally watched and finally listened. He let his gaze slide over to Suzanne. She was still spluttering that Alyssa had tried to kill Andrew. As for Andrew? He looked like he wanted to rip Max’s throat out. And John? He’d gone back to looking as impassive as a bystander.

The admiral, however, wasn’t impassive. He turned hard on his boot and stared at Max. “Is it true? Did you hesitate? Did you—”

Max took a step back. He opened his hands. “What’s going on here?”

“What’s going on here is you almost allowed her to kill me,” Andrew spat.

“She wasn’t going to kill you.” Max delivered that line with flat confidence. It wasn’t something he had to think about. For now he actually had time to think, he wasn’t second-guessing his memory.

Alyssa had been mad. She’d been livid, even. But that anger hadn’t been directed at Andrew’s life. Max had to go back to what she’d spat. She would not be someone’s toy.

A sick sensation started swelling in Max’s gut. What exactly had they been doing to Alyssa? And why hadn’t Max taken the time to question Alyssa the second he’d seen her?

Max’s hands were still up.

“There’s nothing to surrender to, Commander. If—” Ninev began.

“You’re gonna take this armor off me right now,” Max said flatly. “And we’re going to call Admiral Forest.”

“I am in control of the situation,” the admiral barked. “The armor—”

“Stays on me, ha? Regardless of what I want?”

Suzanne was a blubbering mess. Or at least she was until the second he said that. She suddenly straightened. She snagged hold of her hair and pulled it over her shoulder in stable fingers that knew exactly what they were doing.

Ninev went to snap something, but she took a step up. She carefully placed a hand on Max’s shoulder. “We talked about this. We don’t know when the gods are going to attack. You need to—”

Max slowly pulled his arm out of hers. “What’s going on here?”

“You failed to do your job,” the admiral spat.

Suzanne reached a hand out again. It shook to begin with but became steady as she pulled herself together. “He hesitated,” she muttered, her voice now careful. “But it might’ve been because of his headache, right?” she said as if giving him a convenient way out of this rapidly escalating situation.

It hadn’t been because of his headache. It had been because he hadn’t understood a thing.

“You saw it, didn’t you? You saw that she tried to kill Andrew,” Suzanne spluttered. She’d been calm and levelheaded a second before, but now it was as if she’d pressed a button and she’d allowed all of her emotions back in. As they flooded into her words, they became jammed in her throat as if she no longer had enough space to get them out as quickly as she wanted to.

Andrew still continued to stare at Max as if he was the lowest thing in existence.

Ninev was stewing.

“You saw—” Suzanne tried once more.

“I don’t know what I saw. She didn’t try to kill anyone—”

“She tried to kill him,” Ninev spat.

Max knew that tone. It was a warning – the last one he would ever get. If he went against Ninev’s words right now, Max really would be out on his ear.

Max swiveled his gaze back to Alyssa’s still form. The admiral snapped something, but Max didn’t hear it.

“I know what I saw,” Max said finally. “And I know what you didn’t see, Admiral. You weren’t in the room. Alyssa—”

Suzanne hissed. And that was all Max remembered. Pain started to stab through his head. It was worse than anything he’d ever experienced. It jolted into his jaw, slammed up into his cerebellum, then sliced around the back of his spine. It hammered into his hips. It was agony incarnate. It felt as if he’d swallowed every bomb that had ever been made. There was no time to scream. He couldn’t make a single sound. That included simply breathing. His entire body started to shut down. Suzanne stuck close by his side. As for the rest of them? They just looked on impassively. It was almost as if they were doing to him what he’d done to Alyssa.

Chapter 20

 

Commander Max Farsight

It took a long time for him to rouse. And it was a hard slog. Every time he tried to push his body up through the layers of unconsciousness, something felt like it rammed him right back down.

In the end, only a phrase did it – one repeating, haunting mantra.

He shouldn’t have to remind you of what it was.

As he thought of the fact that only Alyssa could be used to kill herself, finally Max got the strength to pull himself awake. And trust him – he had to tug.

He suddenly shot forward, and that’s when he realized there were restraints placed across his chest. They weren’t straps. These were fancy holographic solid-state devices. As his body impacted them, it sent a muscular jolt through his torso. That was what restrained him. He flopped right back down without any strength to continue to fight. At least he forced his lips open. “What?”

He heard somebody shift on their shoe and shoot toward him. He saw Suzanne’s worried, crumpled face come into view. “You’re awake, thank God.”

“But restrained,” he whispered weakly. “What—”

“That’s for your own good. And for the armor,” she said, her voice light.

Max felt like he’d dragged himself out of Hell. He fixed his gaze on Suzanne’s face, and the memories marched back in. As soon as he got to the one of him turning off Alyssa, despite everything she’d said – and critically, despite everything she hadn’t done – he felt sick. Powerfully so. This wasn’t the kind of nausea that would make him throw up. Just the kind that would make him recheck every single thing he’d ever thought about himself.

Max knew full well his life was built on assumptions. For the past five years, they’d been all he’d had. He’d clutched onto the fact he was a good man. He’d grasped at the fact he was a loyal soldier, too. If it hadn’t been for his role with the Coalition and the trust Forest had placed in him, he would’ve likely spiraled into a dark melancholy quickly. But maybe there was another assumption that was much more important. That he had the right to do what he’d done to Alyssa. She’d deserved it, yeah?

Fundamentally, she was a dark force that needed to be controlled, right?

He closed his eyes.

“The pain can’t be back,” Suzanne stated as if she knew that for a fact.

“I guess not,” he said, his voice almost disappointed as if he would prefer to put up with the pain of actual physical damage more than the anguish of what he was putting Alyssa through.

Then he reminded himself of one very serious fact. She was still his charge. He pushed up and once more rammed against the holographic restraints uselessly. It was quite something to be rammed back down. They were like God’s hand parting the clouds, grabbing his chest, and shoving him over. No matter what he did, he would not be able to fight. Which was curious considering he was still in his armor.

… He was still in his armor.

What? Why restrain him in his armor? And why wouldn’t they let him out of this stuff even when he was unconscious?

“I know you have a thousand questions, so I’m just going to take the time to remind you what happened,” Suzanne said patiently. There was a kick to her words, though, suggesting she had to do this quickly.

“I want to see Alyssa. I remember full well—” he began.

“Alyssa snapped. She attacked Andrew. If it hadn’t been for you, she would’ve killed him.”

He opened his mouth to tell her he remembered, dammit. And that hadn’t occurred. Alyssa had attacked. But her target had been her armor.

Did they honestly think Max was stupid? That if they just kept repeating their version of events, he would forget his own?

“You saw it in her eyes, didn’t you?” Suzanne said as she shoved close.

Her expressive face came in line with his limited field of view. He could see her pretty eyes narrowing.

“You saw it in her eyes. Hatred. All she wants to do is end things. I can’t believe you trusted her. She’s a monster at heart.”

“A monster,” he said. It was impassive. There was no energy there. There never could be. Max was questioning everything.

Suzanne knew him too well, and she appreciated his tone was empty.

She took a breath, pushed back, did something, and came back into his field of view.

Before she could continue this interrogation, or manipulation, or whatever the hell she thought it was, he cleared his throat. He tried to incline his head down to indicate the holographic restraints. “I’m okay. Whatever these things are doing to my armor,” he said that specifically, really emphasizing that word, “it’s fine now. The pain is gone. Right?” He didn’t know why he added that last bit.

No, he did. She stiffened as if on cue.

“You can’t possibly believe we’re doing this,” Suzanne said. Her tone and demeanor changed completely. It was as if he’d slapped her.

He just stared on at her confusedly.

When he didn’t arc up, she realized she’d read things wrong. So she dropped the act.

The act….

When they’d been together, Suzanne had been as direct as you could imagine. She wasn’t one to manipulate others. But….

“Max,” she took a long-suffering sigh, “I know this all must be very confusing for you. So you’ve just got to trust us. You can do that, for old time’s sake, can’t you?”

He said nothing.

He wanted to call Admiral Forest. Desperately. Something gave him the impression that even if he tried, he wouldn’t be able to. This armor – the so-called impenetrable, powerful, amazing game-changer – likely wouldn’t let him, would it? Yeah, that was paranoia flooding in. But for the first time, he let it do what it needed to. Perhaps he should have done that the second they arrived at Ares Tech.

Admiral Forest told him to follow Ninev. Maybe Admiral Forest had no clue what was going on here. Over the past six months, she’d carefully cultivated Alyssa’s trust. And that had been understandably hard. Because dammit, Alyssa had been trapped in a prison for 2000 years by creatures who were too scared of her to let her free. They hadn’t understood her, so they’d simply given her a damn wall to stare at. And what was the Coalition doing now? Oh, they were doing something worse. They were learning to control her, and in the process, they were labeling her a monster.

They were building her up, in other words, just to push her back down.

The gods might be the monsters on paper, but perhaps the Coalition was much worse.

Suzanne began to speak about how Andrew was. If Max were to believe a word of it, then he’d been taken to death’s door.

All Alyssa had done was grab his hand. That was it. And she hadn’t turned her temporal particles on him. Otherwise he would not be injured. He would very much be dead.

Max didn’t breathe a word of this. Hell, he could barely breathe. The more he tuned in to this, the more he realized the restraints controlled his armor. Every process occurred only with their permission. Which by extension meant it only occurred with Suzanne’s permission.

There was a panel to her side, and occasionally she darted over to check on it. “Did you have any… weird dreams?” She changed the topic quickly. Her tone altered almost 150 percent. There was no pressure there. It was just light and with barely any curiosity. That wasn’t to say she wasn’t interested. It was to say she was much, much more interested than she was letting on.

“Dreams?” He didn’t hide his confusion.

“After pain like that, sometimes the mind can do funny things. I noted you went into a significant period of REM,” she said, her voice falsely light once more. “What did you dream of?”

He just stared at her. “I have no idea. Why would it matter anyway?”

“It’s just that…. Sorry, of course it doesn’t matter. There are hundreds of other things we need to discuss. Max,” she said, her voice becoming serious, “if that ever happens again with Alyssa, you have to control her immediately. You understand what she is, don’t you? When you hesitated back there, it was just misplaced loyalty, wasn’t it? You didn’t actually want Andrew to die, did you?”

Max just lay there. He stared at his ex-wife. He wanted to cast his gaze up to the ceiling, but if he did that, she would know she’d lost control of the conversation.

“Max, please—”

“I hesitated – I shouldn’t have,” he said, using the exact kind of empty tone he always did when a superior he didn’t agree with gave him a problematic order.

Maybe he was good at faking his tone this time, because she didn’t know he was lying. She smiled. “Good. I told them you’re onboard.”

“Yeah, onboard. How’s….” He desperately wanted to ask how Alyssa was, but he knew they were never going to tell him. He couldn’t afford to make Suzanne suspicious again anyway. “The armor?” he defaulted to saying. That, after all, was all anyone cared about.

“Your armor is fine. It hasn’t sustained any damage. I mean, you must know how incredible it is. It’s the culmination of many, many long years of work.”

He attached to the word long for some reason. Was it the emphasis she put on it? Or was this just his mind playing tricks on him?

“I wasn’t inquiring about my armor. What about Alyssa’s… armor?”

“It has been fixed. This time with the information we received when she attacked it. Hopefully it won’t happen again.”

You know how Max had felt sick before? It came back. Boy, did it return. It sank into his stomach then ricocheted up to his throat. It didn’t just feel like he was about to lose his guts. It felt like he was about to lose his mind, too.

He was trapped here on this medical bed in Ares Tech with no way to get out, and critically no way to see her. For all he knew, Alyssa could be down and out. She could be a crumpled mess. Though he wanted to hope that was unlikely, he knew something else for a fact. Alyssa would never trust again. Not him, not the Coalition, not anyone. Ares Tech had ruined everything he’d been working for for so long.

No, he had to correct himself quickly. They hadn’t been able to force him to turn her off. He’d done that. Max was the reason for his own downfall. With that thought pulsing in his mind, he closed his eyes.

Chapter 21

 

Alyssa Night

She was back in a cell, but this time it was different. She couldn’t stand. She couldn’t sit. She was being forced to lie down. Face down. Her arms were spread. Her body was uncomfortable. Perhaps she only noticed that because of the effects of the holographic armor. If she were able to call on her light, the agony eating into her neck and face and chest and arms would not be there. Nothing would. She would’ve escaped. Alone.

She’d given Max a chance. And for a time, she’d assumed he would believe her. He had not.

He’d chosen to side with the very people who were now using her.

Alyssa didn’t have the capacity to cry. She’d only recently discovered she could do it. And for whatever reason, she wanted to revel in the experience once more, though revel was the wrong word. She couldn’t think of a better one. Crying, if however briefly, allowed one to express their inner demons. Hers couldn’t be expressed, so they simply grew.

All she could do was think of those lonely years she’d spent contemplating the destruction of civilizations from afar. While she’d known academically that the gods had been keeping her, they had never used her. They had used her prison to kill their sacrifices, but Alyssa hadn’t been involved. Now… now Ares Tech would use her own hands. They were going to reach into her body, control her power, and use her to divide and conquer.

She would be the very thing she was meant to destroy.

She couldn’t squeeze her eyes closed. She had to stare at the holographic emitter bed beneath her.

It was likely giving power to her armor. It had similar properties to her temporal prison back in the Scarax Galaxy. She hadn’t noticed that before.

She’d walked right into a new prison. She’d allowed Max to tell her it was a good idea, and she’d believed him.

Alyssa tried to cry once more but failed. So she thought… thought of the end that would come to all, not impassively by the simple logical destruction of a civilization – but actively by her own hands.

There was no running away, and critically, there would be no help.

Chapter 22

 

Commander Max Farsight

He’d been allowed to sit. The restraints were also gone. Technically.

He was still in his armor.

And who knew what was inside it?

Suzanne had left for a short period, but this time, she’d kept him trapped. They wouldn’t make the same mistake they’d made last time, ha? They clearly planned to keep Max in the med bay until they needed him.

Andrew and the Observer were back. The admiral was gone somewhere. Who knew what he was up to?

Max wasn’t brave enough to try to call Forest. He had to assume that every single process of his armor was now open to Ares Tech.

If he wanted to call the admiral, he’d have to be a lot cleverer about it.

He stared impassively over at Andrew. Maybe Suzanne had taken him aside and told him to drop the death glare. Max could still see it, though. Andrew might be trying to attempt charm, but it was like a bull attempting to be careful in a china shop.

As for John? Max couldn’t go there. The man… it was almost impossible to quantify the effect the man had on him. But the feeling clung around Max’s shoulders and descended into his gut, wrapping around him like a cloak he would never shrug off. It was… it almost felt like the past reaching up to strangle him. And if not the past, then something he couldn’t even begin to comprehend. As he tried now, a slight pain shot through his brow. This was different from the pain that had been assailing him from the so-called neurological effects of the armor. This was lighter, quicker, and seemed to come from somewhere else.

He made the mistake of clutching his brow.

Suzanne looked confused. “What is it?”

“Just a little of the headache coming back, I think,” Max muttered quickly.

Suzanne continued to look confused as if she thought he was making it up. What? She was the one who kept telling him he had a headache.

He dropped his hand. John continued to stare at him.

Max opened his mouth. Then he stopped himself from saying anything. Because what was he going to say? That John had told him the only way to destroy Alyssa was to get her to destroy herself? That he had definitely heard those words? That he’d frigging felt them, and ever since, they’d been able to distract his mind in a way nothing else could?

He thought that, but he quickly corrected himself as his cheeks paled. No. They hadn’t been a distraction. They’d been something that had focused him.

He went back to how he’d managed to push through the pain and leave the sickbay. It had been by repeating that mantra over and over again. It had been like a rope pulling him out of the situation.

He suddenly felt cold. It clearly registered on his bio readings because Suzanne blinked in confusion and walked over. “What is it? Shake it off, Max,” she stated quickly.

“We need you at top operating efficiency,” Andrew said coldly. He was trying to smile, but he clearly couldn’t put up with actually being kind.

“Why is that?” Max asked quietly.

“You need to make up for the mistake you made earlier. Next time, You can’t hesitate.”

“Next time?” Max asked impassively, forcing himself not to react to Andrew’s biting tone.

“You know full well what I’m talking about—”

“Andrew,” Suzanne interrupted. “He’s just woken up from a debilitating headache, remember?”

Andrew looked completely unmoved. “You know full well the importance of this project. Ares Tech is attempting to help the Coalition save the galaxy,” Andrew said. There was spite there. Hatred. Something else, too. Something that had likely been there from the beginning but Max had just been trying to ignore.

Greed. Maybe it was because of six months of hanging out with Alyssa, but… Max swore he could almost see Andrew’s growing need to acquire power. It was pulsing there in his irises as if they were trying to develop hands.

As for John? Should Max really have to tell you the guy was just watching? His stare was almost soulless. Almost except for right in the center of his eyes. There was something there that wasn’t in Andrew’s gaze, not even Suzanne’s. It was… this sense of knowing.

John wasn’t rash. He wasn’t passionate. He clearly didn’t need to be. He knew all he had to do was stand back and watch the show.

Max looked down at his knees. Then he twisted off the bed.

“You can’t leave the medical bay yet,” Andrew said harshly.

“I understand that,” Max said, using that same impassive tone. He didn’t want to accuse them of keeping him in a glorified prison. “I need to stretch my legs.” He stretched his shoulders out. He wasn’t wearing his helmet. He hadn’t been wearing it when he woke. Maybe, possibly, theoretically, he would be able to put it back on with a simple command. Or maybe he wouldn’t, and in trying, he would lose Andrew’s veneer of trust. Who knew what they would do when that happened?

He didn’t bother walking to one end of the medical bay and back. It was too big. He didn’t want to fray Andrew’s already completely frayed patience, either. His death glare became only more intense.

“Stop distracting yourself. Stop running from what you did. You should have controlled her the moment she attacked me.” Andrew’s lips parted in a dark snarl.

“What were you doing in there, anyway?” Max asked, trying to control his tone so it didn’t seem as if he was interested.

“Irrelevant.”

“Why not answer the question?” Again, Max just spoke as if he was curious.

“Because I don’t answer to—”

Suzanne moved in quickly and clutched Andrew’s shoulder.

Max turned around slowly. “You don’t answer to me, ha?” There was no accusation, no emotion – nothing in his tone but emptiness.

They were right. No one answered to him. Hell, he kind of hoped Alyssa no longer answered to him, either. He wanted this to be the last straw for her. She would never follow him again. She would never look up at him and seek his permission before she shook someone else’s frigging hand.

Those thoughts galvanized him. He wanted to drop everything, wanted to just pretend he was on their side, but he turned, walked a few paces, then turned again. He stared at Andrew, and there it was – the greed flickering in his gaze. He wasn’t even trying to hide it. It was like an advertisement blaring out his intentions, crystal clear and impossible to ignore.

“You’re on board with this,” Suzanne said automatically. “You’re just tired and stressed. So don’t push yourself. Come back and sit on the medical bed.”

Max wouldn’t move. If he could trust his armor, he would use it to scan the bed. Considering how Suzanne kept looking at it, it was almost as if it employed some kind of technology designed to keep him restrained. While the actual restraints had been turned off, maybe there was something else. Some mood blocker, something that had an effect on his mind.

And yeah, they were all paranoid thoughts. But no, he wasn’t going to push them away anymore.

Because this was a damn paranoid situation.

He stretched his shoulders out. He settled for coming to a stop several meters away from them. It was what he hoped was a safe distance. Though, come on, there was no safe distance as long as he was inside Ares Tech.

“You cannot hesitate next time,” Andrew spat.

“Why are you so confident there will be a next time?” Max asked. His impassivity was starting to fray. It was all at the look in Andrew’s eyes. Did he honestly think he controlled everything? Was everything within Ares Tech his domain? Alyssa, Max, their armor – they were just toys, ultimately, weren’t they? And that only reminded Max of what Alyssa had said before he’d turned her off. She would not be Andrew’s toy.

As her impassioned statement came slamming back into Max’s head, his plant to keep level-headed broke. His jaw started to twitch, and by God Andrew noticed. He stiffened up.

Suzanne grabbed his arm harder. “Andrew—”

“Whatever you think about me,” Andrew spat, “you are doing this for the galaxy.”

Max nodded stiffly. “The Milky Way, ha? The Coalition. Yeah, I actually work for them,” Max spat. “And I know exactly what’s on the line.”

“Your share of the relevant information is almost nonexistent,” Andrew spat. “You have no real idea what we’re up against.”

Max just nodded. The move was entirely stiff. If someone had come along and so much as blown on his neck, it would’ve shattered. “So you have access to every single secret in the Coalition arsenal, do you?”

“Boys, please,” Suzanne began.

Andrew took a step up to Max and squared off in front of him. There wasn’t any fear there. Why would there be? Max might’ve been in armor, but it was the equivalent of a butcher’s hook. Andrew had Max exactly where he wanted him.

“You think you’re just, don’t you? You actually think you’re a hero. Evidence suggests otherwise. If you had let her,” Andrew’s lips suddenly froze around his words, his jaw and cheeks twitching as if someone had just punched him repeatedly, “rip off her armor, do you have any idea what it would’ve done?”

“It would have frustrated your plans, sure. You wouldn’t have been able to get her to kill herself, ha?” Max spat, incapable of holding onto that any longer. It kept repeating in his head. As his anger got to him, it lowered his inhibitions. “The only way to destroy Alyssa is to get her to destroy herself,” he repeated, almost using John’s exact words.

He expected people to ask what the heck he was talking about. That wasn’t the reaction he got.

John stood straighter, his eyes opening wider. For the first time since Alyssa almost escaped, he showed legitimate emotions. As for Andrew, he looked surprised. Suzanne was the most shocked. She appeared excited. She took a slight step up to Max. All of the aggressiveness of the previous interaction had seemingly been forgotten. “What did you say, Max?”

“I said the only way to…” he couldn’t repeat it. He got stuck staring at everybody.

“When did you… remember that, Max?” Suzanne asked. He doubted he’d ever seen her more excited in all of the years he’d known her.

Max took a step back, then another. “What the hell is going on here?”

“Did you remember that? Max? Did you remember that when you started to think about your earliest memories? Max, you did, didn’t you?”

Horror started to peal through Max like thunder.

Owing to circumstances and how crazy they’d become, he hadn’t thrown himself into that memory again – and as for that light path, he’d tried to bury it. Now he couldn’t. He shook, and there was nothing he could do to stop himself.

Suzanne continued to look completely excited. As for Andrew, he was almost victorious. John….

Max made the mistake of looking over at John.

His eyes had widened even further. Max got the impression that if he continued to stare at them, he’d be sucked inside.

He took a solid breath. He shook his head. “What’s going on here?”

“Just take a seat, Max. Sit down. Close your eyes. You wouldn’t want to have another attack, would you? And I told you, the more you throw yourself into your earlier memories, the more you’ll—”

“Activate different parts of my brain to stave off the pain, ha?” he asked kind of emptily.

“Yes. You need to do that. You absolutely need to do that. So take a seat.”

Max didn’t want to take a seat. But he couldn’t just stand here. Because if he did, they would simply intervene, ha?

He wasn’t in control. He hadn’t been in control since the second they had crash-landed on this planet.

Perhaps he hadn’t been in control since the second he’d been given Alyssa as a charge.

He sat weakly on the edge of the medical bed.

Without a word, Andrew and John turned and walked out. John however shot Max one last lingering look. Max had no clue what it meant.

The door closed behind them.

The door was thick. Max was still in his armor, too, and though his helmet wasn’t on, he knew full well this armor would likely be programmed not to allow him to eavesdrop. And yet, regardless of all those facts, Max heard John speak.

“He’s starting to remember. Do whatever it takes to drag the truth out of him.”

Max’s eyes opened wide.

He darted his gaze over to Suzanne. She didn’t react. She hadn’t paused either, and the scene certainly hadn’t dimmed, so this wasn’t like the information he’d received previously. It was almost… it was almost as if Max had had a momentary psychic connection to John.

Suzanne turned around to grab something, but now she stopped and stared at Max’s expression. “What is it? You’ve gone all pale.”

“I feel ill.”

“Sure, you do. Just lie down. Lie down and relax.”

“I want to see Alyssa,” he said. Dammit. He should’ve kept that to himself. He was freaking out. He might’ve known Alyssa for a relatively short time, and yet… out of everyone – including Admiral Forest – she was the only one he wanted to reach out to now. Alyssa wasn’t exactly what you would call a rock. She wasn’t a shoulder you could lean on. And nor was she an agony aunt. Especially not now, considering everything he’d done to her. That didn’t change Max’s desires one little bit.

Suzanne was still holding something, and he watched as her hand stiffened.

“We told you. Alyssa is contained. You need to trust us, Max,” her voice became harder. “What is it going to take you to trust us?”

He looked up at her. He didn’t answer. Because there was nothing that would make him trust Ares Tech ever again.

Or so he thought.

Chapter 23

 

Alyssa Night

Over and over again, her mind tumbled as if it was a leaf falling down through the many layers of a planet’s atmosphere. She had no ability to stop herself. She had no force. She was naught but an object to be acted on by her environment.

She could not even cry.

It was when she was down in the doldrums of her horror that she saw the holographic emitter bed beneath her activate. It sent light playing all the way up around her face. It virtually tumbled against her cheeks.

If she could open her eyes wider, she would have. And critically, if she could have scanned the bed to see what it was doing, she would’ve done that, too.

She was aware, however, when something appeared to reach in and snag hold of her body. Her holographic armor reacted to it, more light spilling across it.

This was pain incarnate. This wasn’t the light tingle Andrew had spoken to her of. This was this deep throbbing pain that arced from one end of her body to another. Alyssa had never swallowed lightning, but she quickly wondered if that was what this felt like. It stabbed from one side of her chest over to another then ricocheted up to her skull. It pounded and pounded and shook and shook.

She could not scream. She could not even twitch.

They were using her body again. She waited for her arm to extend and temporal particles to shoot out of her palm. That’s not what happened.

They were using her in a way she could not comprehend.

Alyssa couldn’t open her mouth to scream. But if she could have, she would’ve screamed one name, regardless of the fact she’d concluded she would never trust him again.

Max.

She had no clue where he was and what he was doing. She had no clue if he ultimately trusted these people and was trusted by them in turn. She didn’t know what his true part in this mess was. But she did remember precisely what he’d done to her. And yet in those moments of pure agony, it didn’t matter. She tried to scream out to him. Without a controllable mouth, there could be no vocalizations. Without eyes that could cry, there was no way to release. So Alyssa remained, cold, alone, used, and broken.

But if she thought she was fully broken yet, she was mistaken. The true storm was about to begin.

Chapter 24

 

Commander Max Farsight

Suzanne stayed with him this time. She didn’t leave. She spent a lot of time faffing about. She would walk over to one end of the medical bay as if she had some all-important task to do, then she would walk back. Max knew the entire time she kept her gaze – and scanners – on him. What exactly was she going to do if he tried to react? Control his armor, he concluded without pause.

Because it all came down to this damn armor.

No. This damn armor and something else.

Suzanne kept quizzing him about his memories. It was now clear she wanted him to recall something about his earliest moments.

He didn’t breathe a word of the light path. Every time she tried to push him, he muttered he was getting a headache.

“Please, Max,” she tried for about the thousandth time now. “You have to remember.”

“Why, Suzanne?” he asked in a long-suffering tone.

“Because it will help you with your armor.”

“Why does it have to be my first memory?”

“Because there is a certain primacy and importance about one’s first memories, isn’t there?”

“And you’re actually trying to tell me it has to be my first memory? That, if it’s my second memory or my third memory, it isn’t going to work?”

“I know full well that your earliest memory is traumatic to you,” she whispered.

Did she? When he’d admitted to her once that he actually thought he remembered something from that ill-fated cruiser, she’d reacted the way everyone else ever had. She’d flatly told him it was impossible because you could not recall things from your time as an infant.

But everything had changed now.

Suzanne suddenly paused. She ticked her gaze to the side. She was getting a message.

She controlled her expression. But she did arch her neck to the left, almost as if she was agreeing with something.

Max watched her intently. When she was done, he nodded at her. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

Nothing. No one. There was nothing going on. He couldn’t see Alyssa. She was contained, and that was all that mattered, wasn’t it?

Max had decided not to push things, but another wave of anger and frustration met him. “I need to speak to Admiral Forest,” he blurted. He tried but failed to communicate with her as soon as the words were out. It confirmed what he’d already suspected – his armor would no longer allow him to send messages.

“Forest’s already spoken to Ninev. She’s well aware of what’s going on here.”

“But I’d like to speak to her—”

“Forest is busy, Max,” Suzanne breathed through a sigh of frustration. “I already told you. There have been hundreds of new attacks.”

“You told me there were 90 new attacks.”

“And time has moved on. Now there have been hundreds,” she almost snarled. Then she clearly heard her own tone. “Sorry. These are stressful times. It would help—”

Yeah, it would help if he told her about that light path. If he admitted to where he’d heard that phrase about Alyssa. Maybe it would help if Max told them all he thought he was becoming mildly psychic.

He wasn’t going to do that.

Suzanne narrowed her gaze. He’d seen that specific look in her eyes before. It was that all-knowing look. It was the one she would get when she realized Max wasn’t going to do something, no matter how hard he was pushed. She shoved a hand into her pocket. She appeared to type on something.

“What are you doing?” Max asked.

“Nothing.”

“I want to speak to Admiral Forest—”

A warning alarm suddenly blared through the med bay. It was loud. Make no mistake, it could wake the dead, and then it could go on to wake the Devil.

Though his armor should’ve filtered it out, it seemed especially piercing. He had to hold his hands over his ears. “What the hell is that?”

Suzanne gasped. “God. It’s the prisoner alarm. She’s out. Alyssa must be out.” She yanked a hand out of her pocket. She had a wrist device. She typed on it. On cue, her eyes widened. It looked as if they were going to fall from her skull. “My God,” she stammered. “She’s attacked a technician. The guy’s dead. She’s… oh my God.”

Alarm actually blasted through Max for a single second. As, for that single second, he believed Alyssa could do that. Wasn’t that what the past six months had taught him? That at heart, Alyssa could do anything because she didn’t have a damn heart to begin with.

He jumped off the bed. This time Suzanne didn’t stop him. She encouraged it. She waved him over. She sliced her hand back and forth across her wrist device, and a hologram shimmered above its surface. It showed Alyssa still attacking a technician. She plucked the guy up by his throat then sent a blast of temporal particles into him. He crumbled into dust. His life wasn’t sucked out of him. His time was simply accelerated.

It was a truly sickening sight. But it wasn’t the act of the man turning into ashes that got Max’s stomach. It was the look in Alyssa’s eyes. Cold. Detached. The only thing she wanted to see was the end. For that was what truly justified her.

A part of Max fought that conclusion. A part of him didn’t. And those two parts started to go to war.

There… there was a possibility Alyssa had actually snapped, right? She was fundamentally uncontrollable. He’d seen in her eyes when she’d attacked her armor that she would do it again given a chance. And….

Suzanne grabbed his arm. She pulled him around. They headed for the door. She raced through it. “You have to control her. I can’t believe this is happening. I knew that poor technician. He had three kids. He was a good man. She just… she ended him like that. What a beast.”

Beast. Monster. Something that had to be controlled. Something that could not be trusted to use its own power. That was Alyssa.

She had to be contained, kept in prison, pushed away. She had to be feared, never understood, never treated like an equal.

Suzanne kept running with him. More alarms shook through the corridor.

Maybe this was Max’s imagination, but they were louder in his skull, almost as if his helmet was specifically amplifying them.

They encountered a security team running in the opposite direction.

One guy skidded to a stop. “You can’t go back there. She’s running amok. Get out while you still can.” With those fearful words, the guy ran off.

So much for being a security team.

If Max took a step back, he could see how convenient this was. He could remember everything that had happened. But—

“Oh my God,” Suzanne stammered. She came to a stop. Her wrist device was still playing footage.

It showed Alyssa coming across a security team.

She didn’t hesitate. She reached out a hand.

And there in her eyes, Max saw it again. He’d seen it every single time she’d leaned down to somebody who’d been infected with the Light of the Gods.

It was the desire to destroy what was in her path.

For that was her purpose.

Max was conflicted. The emotion ate at his gut. It pounded into his heart.

Left alone, uncontrolled, Alyssa could do untold damage.

That’s why the gods trapped her.

She—

All she wanted was to not be Andrew’s toy. Those words slammed into Max, shaking into his skull. They were like a slap reminding him of what really mattered here.

Suzanne began to pull him, but he slowed down.

“You have to come. You have to stop her. Before it’s too late. We need to control her. Otherwise, she’ll just keep killing. That’s all she’s built for. She ends things.”

Alyssa was built to kill. Alyssa… was built to kill.

So why had she never killed?

In the first days when she’d come to the Academy, she’d been confused. That had been obvious. She’d had to learn new rules rapidly. It had been like someone who’d been paralyzed their entire life learning how to walk.

But in that time, she’d never shown aggression or anger – unless it had been around the Light of the Gods or the Hendari crystals.

Her need to destroy those and bring balance back to the universe, as she always put it, had always been there.

But her aggression toward ordinary life forms? Nonexistent.

If Max had ever paused to notice that before, it would have undermined most of the anger he’d had for her. But he hadn’t paused, had he? Because it had been convenient to lay all of his troubles at Alyssa’s feet. It had been convenient, dangerous, and juvenile.

Suzanne wouldn’t let him stop anymore. She grabbed hold of his hand and yanked him forward.

He staggered.

They came around a corner. The alarms were even louder.

“You have to stop her, stop her before she does anything worse. Stop her before she hurts anyone else. Stop her before she kills us all. She will kill us all. All she does is end. All she does—”

All she’d ever done around Max was question and learn. And follow.

Max came to a stop.

Alyssa followed him to Ares Tech. She’d followed his order to wear that armor. She’d followed everything he’d said.

In his heart, he’d told himself she could never be loyal. But his heart simply hadn’t known what loyalty was.

He sliced his stare over to Suzanne.

“Come on,” she said desperately. “Can’t you hear the alarms? Can’t you see what she’s doing?” She looked desperately at her wrist device.

Yeah, he could see what she was doing. Alyssa had turned her attention onto another security team, apparently, and she blasted through them as if they meant nothing. All the while, she had the same expression. Ironically, it was exactly the same expression she’d used on Andrew.

And now Max actually looked at it. Was it hatred? No. It was determination.

It was all in the way her brow compressed, her eyes focused, and her mouth parted.

He’d imputed violence there. But he hadn’t been able to see correctly.

All there was was a need to stop something before it was too late.

As that knowledge sank into Max, and as the last of his anger for Alyssa drifted away, he heard something. It didn’t come from the left or the right. It wasn’t above him or below him. It wasn’t located anywhere he could point to. But it was there in his head.

“Max,” Alyssa screamed. He’d never heard her use a voice like it. It was as if she was on the edge of death.

He suddenly clutched his ear. He went to scream her name back, but he stopped himself.

“Max?” Suzanne stammered. A little of the immediacy of the situation was gone as if she’d hit pause on this violent attack for a few seconds. “What is it?” Curiosity flared in her gaze. “You’re remembering something, aren’t you?”

He heard a scream again. It was bloodcurdling. It sounded like Alyssa’s head was being removed.

His heart started to pound so hard, he was certain it was gonna pulverize itself.

“Max,” Suzanne insisted. “You’re not—”

Max pushed himself forward.

Suzanne soon shoved into a run too. “What is it?”

“Transient… a bit of transient pain,” he stammered. He kept clutching his ear.

Alyssa’s scream wouldn’t go away. It was almost as if now he’d accepted who she was and had decided to no longer despise her, his mind had opened up to her, regardless of the distance that actually separated them.

She screamed his name again.

It was horror incarnate. His cheeks paled, his whole body shaking. He felt broken, like every single time Alyssa shrieked his name, he broke further.

“She’s just around here. You have to control her, Max.”

“Turn her off—”

“No, control her,” Suzanne corrected. “You can modulate her force. You can turn it on and off. You can control her with that armor. She will respond to every single movement. You just have to concentrate.”

It was all in the way Suzanne said it. There was fear – but it was manufactured. There was pressure, but that was manufactured as well. But there was need – and that was genuine. It shook through her words. It focused her gaze. It encompassed this entire situation.

Finally they ran around a corner.

The corridor had been blasted apart. There were gouge marks in the once clean walls. Somehow, however, they’d missed all of the Ares Tech insignia. They were between them. There was nothing to mask where he was.

Suzanne came to a stop. She shrieked, collapsing her hands over her mouth.

There were bodies strewn everywhere. Max had no idea if they were real. Because that footage of Alyssa, it was a hologram, wasn’t it? He could tell that because he watched Alyssa apparently attack another technician, ripping the man in half with her temporal particles. But her lips didn’t move. Yet in Max’s mind, he heard her scream. It went on and on. She must be in true agony.

But the Alyssa he saw was automatic, controlled, and vicious. She was more like a painting of a sneer than an actual violent individual.

“Oh, my God. They’re all dead. So many people… all dead. Max, you have to control her. I think she’s around there.” Suzanne pointed.

There was a broken door about 20 meters away. It led to a lab. He could tell that because presumably every single door in Ares Tech led into labs. He could see a little of it now. His armor had started working on its own. It was giving him detailed information on what was going on. The lab was massive. Maybe it was used to create prototypes for small vessels. It was easily as large as a decent-sized hangar bay. It was also pulsing with temporal particles. They filled the place as if someone had poured them into it to create a swimming pool.

The temporal particles were one thing. The screams were another. They vibrated through the air, and he certainly didn’t need his helmet to relay them. Speaking of his helmet. Of its own accord, it sliced over his face. He didn’t ask it to. He could be generous and say the helmet had registered a potential threat and had kicked into gear. Or he could say it was just another choreographed move in this orchestrated game.

“Control her,” Suzanne said one last time. Tears ran down her cheeks, and her body shook. There was every single indication that she was truly afraid. Except for the look in her eyes. That hadn’t changed. And the greed? It was still there.

Max took one step forward, then ran. He pushed himself into the lab. There he saw Alyssa.

She had her back to him. One arm was held out. He could see her light.

It didn’t look right.

Even if he’d run in here still hating Alyssa, he would’ve stopped at that, right? Because Max recognized Alyssa’s light. Even though he hated to admit this to himself, over the past six months, he’d paid so much attention to it, he could re-create it in his sleep. It had a specific quality to it that didn’t seem as if it would ever be able to be re-created. It was truly unique. It was… like time itself.

What he saw right now was nothing more than a glorified hologram. It was illumination, and while it was bright, that was it.

It was about as similar to Alyssa’s illumination as the sun was to the moon.

This time Max didn’t hesitate. He brought his hand up. “Alyssa, I’ll give you one chance to stop. Then I’m gonna turn you off,” he said, doing a good job of acting, forcing every impassioned word to shake through his chest and blast out of his mouth.

“You have to control her,” a voice cut over an intercom. It was Andrew. “Take full control of her body. Now.”

Full control of her body, ha? How exactly was this going to work? If this wasn’t the real Alyssa, then where was she? And why did they need him to take full control?

That little fact suddenly slipped into place. While Max was here interacting with this hologram, if he tried to control Alyssa, wherever she really was, he would control her there instead. What were they doing?

Did they have her in some lab? Were they testing her? Or worse, were they going to use her on a real target?

The anger that should’ve been there from the moment Max realized what was going on now rose. It was worse than a flare, worse than a volcano. It was worse than destruction embodied.

He’d walked into this trap. He’d played their game.

But he would not play it any longer.

“Alyssa,” he said. He didn’t use his lips. He tried to communicate with her psychically with every ounce of his being. He wasn’t a psychic. He’d failed basic psychic defense class at the Academy. He couldn’t use his mind like that. At least he hadn’t been able to in the past. Now everything was riding on this, he had to throw himself into that singular possibility with everything he had. “Alyssa,” he thought again. “Please, wherever you are, just hold on. I will get you out of here, once and for all.”

Chapter 25

 

Alyssa Night

There was no hope now. There had never been any hope. She’d been a fool for placing her trust in the Academy. She should have appreciated that anyone who had offered her seeming freedom had only ever been after her power.

She’d learned nothing in her 2000 years of internment. She’d been naïve.

And it would cost everyone everything.

Alyssa no longer wanted to cry. She no longer desired to move, either. She longed for everything to end. As the true horrors of what she would do to the people of the Milky Way pulsed through her imagination, she desperately wanted to turn her powers on herself. For that would be the only way to save people and end this, wouldn’t it? If Alyssa somehow unleashed her temporal particles on her own body, then she would end herself, and her powers would never be used against the innocent.

It wasn’t a desire Alyssa had ever had. Even in her darkest moments in prison, she’d never contemplated turning her power against her body. She’d always understood that she was necessary. The Observers had attempted to destroy her in every way they could. And though she hadn’t possessed memories of them, she’d always understood that she could never end herself. For that would only play into their hands. Plus, she would fail the mission she had to eliminate the Light of the Gods and the Hendari crystals to bring balance to the universe. But it was different now. So different. As the pressure and pain built within her, so too did the imagined visions of destruction. Ares Tech would turn her against their enemies. It would not matter if they were Coalition, Barbarian, or Kore. Alyssa would be used to destroy all. She would show no sympathy, no matter how hard she tried. She would be used, right down to her last emotions. She would be emptied out of all her temporal particles and every gram of hope.

Alyssa had to… she had to find a way to turn her power against—

Just as that thought settled, she heard something. It didn’t come from a single location. It certainly didn’t echo out around her. It came from within somewhere.

She would’ve ignored it had it not had a certain voice – a memorable tone she would never forget.

Though she shouldn’t be able to control herself, her eyes suddenly opened. Max.

She could hear him in her head.

“Alyssa, hold on. Dammit, hold on. I’m here. I’m coming.”

Those two words – I’m coming – held her to the spot. All thoughts of ending herself froze and crumpled.

“Max,” she screamed back in her mind, thrusting all her force into it.

There was a pause. “I can hear you. I can actually hear you,” he thought back excitedly. “They’re trying to use me to control you.”

“I am in prison. They are using my powers. Max—”

“I’m going to release you, Alyssa. So get out of there.”

“How? How will you release me? Do you have the codes to my armor?”

There was a pause. “Dammit. I don’t. But—”

“I am lying face down on a holographic emitter. It appears to be doing something.”

“Face down? Those monsters.”

“Max—”

“I’ll get you to destroy the emitter. Alyssa. I… I will control you. I… I’m sorry.”

“I understand. Act quickly.”

So Max acted quickly.

Alyssa felt herself move.

It was a strange sensation indeed. Energy built within her. But it was no longer pain incarnate. She didn’t know why it changed. Perhaps it did so because she finally had hope. Or maybe as Max reached into her holographic armor and started to alter it, he brought with it his calming force.

Alyssa rose.

Her hands stretched out beneath her. Her fingers opened wide. She felt a pulse of temporal particles developing in her palms. Then they shot out. They slammed into the holographic emitter bed. It stood no chance. It crumbled with her on it.

She fell to her knees in a pile of its ash.

Real alarms split the air this time. They shook through the cell.

“Alyssa, I don’t know how long it’s gonna take them to realize what I’m doing. Just get out of there. Rip the holographic armor off you and get out of this building. Try to contact Admiral Forest. I have no idea what’s going on here, but I’m choosing to believe she’s not in on this.”

“You cannot stay here.”

“I’m surrounded by them. There’s no way for me to get out of here. Just go.”

With that, she felt her hand reach up. More temporal particles developed in it. Then they shot out. They slammed into the wall in front of her. It crumbled. It turned into ash that fell around her as she ran through.

She didn’t know how Max was controlling her. Could he see her? Could he tune in to the view from her eyes? He didn’t inadvertently make her stumble. She didn’t run into walls.

She did, however, run into security bots. As soon as she made it into the corridor beyond, they swarmed toward her. “Max, they have sent bots.”

“Attack them. Dammit, come on.”

Her arm fell limply to her side. Then it twitched. It lifted up, half of its own accord, and half out of her own desire.

Somehow Max was giving her back control of her body. The mere possibility sent true hope tumbling through her. It was an emotion purer than any she’d felt in most of her existence. It was even stronger than most of the emotions that welled within her whenever she thought of the Hendari crystals and her own people.

The security bots shot toward her. They had holographic emitters. Who knew what they were capable of doing to her armor? They never got the chance to find out. Particles blasted out of her fists. They slammed into the security bots. They appeared to have some kind of minimal temporal shielding, but it was insufficient to save them. They shuddered then shattered. Dust flew around her.

She shot forward. “Max, where are you?”

“I think I’m deeper in the building. You have to get out of here.”

“I’m not leaving without you. Plus, how are you doing this? Are you using your armor to speak to me?”

There was a significant pause. “I’ve got no idea, Alyssa. I just… something’s happened to me, that’s all. But you’ve got to get out of here. You have to run.”

So she ran. Again, half of it came from Max, and half of it came from her. As time went on, she could feel more control returning to her. It was one of the most blessed sensations in all of existence. She would never take her body for granted again.

She turned around another corner.

There were more security bots. This time, they had much thicker temporal shielding. She could see it as it crackled over their sleek silver metal surfaces.

While Ares Tech had employed temporal shielding in her prison to keep her contained, this was different. She’d never seen portable versions of it.

She could almost fully control her body now, though the holographic armor still constrained her power. She yanked a hand up. She spread her fingers wide, and with a concentrated blast, tried to take down the closest security bots. It should work, but it didn’t. Somehow the security bots strengthened their temporal shields. They flickered, crackled, and changed color. She could feel the temporal particles gathering within them. Her holographic armor could block her off from the whole world. It could keep her locked down with her eyes closed and the rest of her senses shut off, but it would never be able to remove her capacity to locate and quantify temporal energy. For that was what she was at heart.

The primary security bot shot toward her. It started to project a shield. It was no ordinary force field. It was embedded with temporal particles. It would be enough to slow her down. And the 80 other security bots that suddenly streamed close would be enough to keep her contained.

She jolted backward. She rolled. She saw a wall beside her.

Though Alyssa had never backed down before in her life, she couldn’t help it now.

“You’ve gotta get out of there. You’re no match for them in your current state,” Max spat.

“How do you know what’s going on? Can you see through my eyes?”

“I don’t know. This is one heady experience. I….”

“Max?”

“They’re starting to question me. I think Andrew’s suspicious that something is going on. Alyssa, I’ve done what I can for you. Just get out of there. That’s an order. Don’t come back. Don’t let anyone control you ever again.”

His voice suddenly cut out.

She found herself clutching the side of her face as if her fingers would somehow bring his voice back out of her mind. It didn’t work.

“Max?” she shrieked aloud.

Perhaps that was a mistake.

They could keep their psychic communications hidden, but she knew she was being monitored.

She made it through the wall to her side. Then the security bots bolted in after her. They didn’t go in in single file. They smashed through the remnants of the wall, coming upon her like a growing storm.

She was in some kind of storage room. She knew the walls were super reinforced.

She didn’t know what was happening, but her power was starting to ebb. Perhaps it was her proximity to those temporal force fields. Or maybe it was because Max was no longer in her mind and the emotional drain of trying to find him and bring him back was sucking her resolve.

“Max?” she shrieked aloud again.

Nothing.

She tried to communicate with him, screaming in her mind just as she had before. It wouldn’t work. No reply.

The security bots powered toward her. The one at the front now had a massive pulsing shield. It would fly above her and lock her in it, wouldn’t it? And this time, there would be no escape. Ares Tech would not trust Max, and they would certainly not trust her. They would likely lock her down in a full temporal prison worse than the gods had used on her.

Alyssa once upon a time had known nothing but sitting and staring at a wall. She couldn’t go back to that. She just couldn’t go back to that, and she couldn’t let Max fall.

She screamed.

Alyssa didn’t make many sounds during battle. She didn’t see the point of it. She didn’t feel the same anger and desperation other people did. Because ultimately she wasn’t connected to the Coalition and its downfall. Or at least that’s what she’d once thought. None of those impressions counted anymore. They had been assumptions and nothing more. They’d been the thoughts of a mind that had been dangerously innocent.

Alyssa had been naïve back then – even if it had only been several hours ago. Now she’d grown. She would not forget the man who had helped her do that.

“Max,” she screamed again, letting the word truly thrust up out of her shaking throat.

That security bot reached her. She could feel the flickering temporal shield approaching. It was like a hand reaching out to clutch around her throat. It pushed toward one of her arms. Immediately she lost use of it. She couldn’t lift it – regardless of how hard she tried.

She backed off. She pushed into a roll. But the super reinforced main wall was behind her. It would take her time to blast through it. There were now 100 security drones in the room. She would have no chance.

Or at least she shouldn’t have a chance.

She’d listened to every single word Max ever told her. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of that, but she had honestly tried to learn. Every lesson he’d given, she’d taken on board. And there was one that counted now.

When you lacked raw power, you relied on desperation. When he’d given her that lesson, he’d done so with disgust in his eyes because he’d assumed Alyssa would never understand what desperation was. She was a monster who could not truly feel, correct? Incorrect. She proved that right now. For pulsing desperation blazed through her heart. She didn’t have one, but that didn’t matter. The equivalent of the location of her emotions surged with that powerful feeling. It shook up through the rest of her body, and it blasted into her fingers as she opened them wide.

She let temporal particles thrust out of them. While they didn’t have the exact same force Alyssa was capable of when she was out of this wretched armor, they were close. And that’s all she needed. For as that security bot flew overhead, her attack blasted into it. It ripped right through the temporal shield and reached the bot. It was dust in seconds. The kind of fine dust that would never be able to be collected together. It had been a form once but would never be one again.

The other security bots hung back for a second, likely reassessing their possibilities. She didn’t give them a chance to come up with another plan. She screamed once more, and this time it was even throatier. It was filled with the kind of desperation that could never be broken.

She pulsed forward, rolled, and came up toward the closest security bot. With her hand fully open, she took it down. Temporal particles swelled within her. All the while, her holographic armor desperately tried to control her. It sent these throbbing slices of pain into her body. They crackled across her back, down into her pelvis, and over her chest. They sank into her jaw, twisted around it, and shot up the back of her head. It felt like thousands of hands, groping her all at once, trying to control her and drag her back down to Hell.

Once upon a time, Alyssa had possessed no concept of Hell. She’d been introduced to it by the gods then again by Max. Now she understood. It wasn’t an end, but a beginning that would never end. One filled with pain and desperation. One where, no matter how hard someone tried, their actions would never count.

Alyssa held that horror in her heart, and it only fed her desperation more. As security bots shot toward her, their temporal fields combining to create walls of force fields that shot toward her through the room, she darted between them, destroying them all.

Her arms shook. She felt fatigue throbbing down into her arm and across her shoulders, but she never backed down. She continued to try to scream to Max, but whatever was happening to him, he could not reply.

They wouldn’t hurt him, she told herself. They wouldn’t dare.

Alyssa might have spent a long time impassively contemplating the end of civilizations, but she’d never had a personal connection like this to someone who would be swept up by one such end.

“Just hold on, Max,” she begged. She spoke aloud as she forced the words through her psychic connection with him.

And she fought.

Finally the last security drone fell. As it shattered into dust at her feet, she thrust through it.

Max had told her to run. She would not without him.

Chapter 26

 

Commander Max Farsight

He’d finally done it. He’d made a decision. One that would likely alter the course of the rest of his life. One that would take his career and crush it at his feet. One he would never be able to back down from again.

And one that mattered more than anything else.

It hadn’t taken Andrew long to realize what Max was doing. When the warning alarms blaring through this laboratory had changed – and turned into insistent pitches indicating Alyssa was actually escaping – the intercom had crackled off one last time.

The hologram of Alyssa no longer thrashed around in the center of the lab. She was completely still. She looked like nothing more than a coat someone could shrug on – one that had been put back on its hanger.

As for Andrew? He was in the room.

“What the hell are you doing, soldier?” he spat.

Max was down on his knees. He hadn’t pushed himself there. His armor had.

The academic fact that his armor could be used to control him had turned into an actual one.

Believe it or not, Coalition recruits were taught what to do when armor malfunctioned. It wasn’t meant to happen, or at least, it hadn’t occurred in a long time, but then the galaxy had gone and become an untrustworthy, complicated place. With gods out there who wielded a light capable of controlling anything, the peaceful assumptions the Milky Way had once been built on had crumbled.

But the course he’d done at the Academy had been nothing like this. When your armor was controlled, at least according to the experts, you had to keep calm. You had to find some way to utilize the inbuilt emergency protocols that allowed the wearer to turn the armor off, no matter what. Problem was, this one didn’t have any of those protocols.

So keeping calm was beyond him.

Almost beyond him, at least.

He’d finally done the right thing. He’d let Alyssa out. He’d followed the truth of his heart and not the suspicions of his mind. That at least put his conscience at ease now.

Max could do nothing. He couldn’t even lift his head. His helmet was on, though his visor had become clear. All he could do was flick his gaze up and lock it on Andrew. His face twitched with gripping anger. “You have proven yourself unworthy. I knew this would happen. Those idiots tried to trust you, but there was never going to be any trusting you, was there, Max Farsight?”

Max couldn’t reply. Even if he wanted to, his helmet would not relay his words unless Andrew requested it to. Andrew was on a roll here. All he wanted to do was listen to his own voice. Max was a side note.

Suzanne wasn’t in the room. Her part in this was obviously over. She’d been there to be a modulating force. She’d been there to try to get Max to remember. Because all of this came down to his past, didn’t it?

“I would’ve gotten rid of you the second you got here if I’d been allowed to. But now,” Andrew locked his hands on his knees and leaned down, “now I’m just going to keep you inside that lovely little carapace of yours. You might not want to control her, but if you can’t control yourself, what then?”

Max heard the threat, all right, and knew exactly what it meant.

His chest stiffened.

Andrew shrugged, loosened his shoulders, then reached into his pocket. He pulled out some kind of device. It was a control module. With a tap, it connected to his body. Max could see a pulse of electricity disappear up Andrew’s arm and deep into his skin. Andrew shook his shoulders again, let his eyes roll into the back of his head, and allowed his lips to part open with a hiss. “Here we go,” he muttered. He swiped his hand to the side.

And so did Max. There was nothing he could do because Andrew was controlling his armor, and ultimately, he was inside it.

“Bastard,” Max spat.

Andrew chuckled. “I heard that. As I’m aware of everything that goes on inside your armor. Every single damn process. And yes, I know you’ve been trying to contact Admiral Forest. She doesn’t want to talk to you. She knows this is the only way to save the Milky Way.”

“Like hell she does,” Max screamed. “You’ve gone completely off the reservation.”

Andrew chuckled. “I was never on the reservation. I lasted a year in the Coalition. I don’t much like being given orders. But more than that,” he snarled, “I don’t like inefficiency. One year in the Coalition Army taught me you fools can’t stop a thing.”

“You’re disloyal. You don’t know how to give back. You only know how to give to yourself.”

Andrew snarled with laughter. “Everything I’ve done at Ares Tech is to save the Milky Way. You may not be able to see that because you’re blinded.”

“This is for your personal power,” Max snapped back.

“This is because I have known for 10 years what’s coming.”

Max’s brow twitched. “You’re just lying—”

“10 years ago,” Andrew shoved a thumb stiffly behind his back, and Max ended up doing the same, “I learned about the Scarax Galaxy, long before you Coalition fools knew its name. I knew this was going to happen. I knew the day the gods would come here. I understood,” his voice rattled, “the war was on its way. And I knew the only way the Coalition would get through it was if people like me were brave enough to develop the weapons we would so desperately need.”

“How the hell did you learn about the Scarax Galaxy?”

“Because I was worthy enough to learn the truth,” he spat.

There was a look in his eyes as he said the word worthy. This was no carefree comment. This was something he believed.

Max could see the fervor gripping him. “What are you talking about?”

“I was chosen to guide the Milky Way out of this mess. I,” Andrew rammed a hand onto his chest, “was chosen because I am strong enough, dedicated enough, and smart enough to do what’s necessary. You,” he didn’t even finish. He just stared at Max with total disgust in his eyes. “You wasted your only chance to step up and do what was necessary to save us all.”

“Don’t bullshit me. You’ve been using me since the day I got here. What exactly is this armor? And why do you need me to control her?” Max shouldn’t have revealed his fears, but he couldn’t keep them at bay.

Andrew just laughed. “You’re a necessary tool – that’s it.”

“What the hell am I?” Max screamed.

“A damn necessary tool,” he spat back. “Now, on your feet, tool.” He sliced his head to the side.

Max shot to his feet.

He couldn’t stop the movement. And it was a truly odd experience.

Being psychically controlled would likely be easier. Inside the armor, Max found out what it was doing to him a split second after it started doing it. It was like being led around by the nose.

Andrew laughed. “I can see your expression, you know. It’s justified. You deserve it. You almost let that little monster kill me.”

Max stopped himself from saying Andrew would’ve deserved that.

“She hasn’t ripped her armor off yet. Likely can’t. Hopefully it’s still poisoning her. Doesn’t matter. Now we’ve got your armor working the way we need it, the ball will fit nicely into the glove.”

“What does that mean?” Max spat.

“You will be used to move her. The master armor will be used to control the subordinate.”

“What do you mean her armor’s poisoning her?” Max commanded, his voice shaking with true fear.

Andrew just looked on at him impassively then snorted with laughter. “How else did you think we’d control her? We learned to modulate her power, sure, but to do that, we had to reduce it in the first place. Thank you, by the way.”

“Thank you for what?” Max spat.

“Making her wear it. She wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t asked.”

Max wanted to shake his head. He didn’t want to believe that. Yes, she’d followed him, but—

“You can’t even begin to imagine what’s going on here,” Andrew said with real satisfaction as if Max’s naivety was the tastiest morsel in existence.

“Let her go. You have no right to control—”

“I was chosen,” Andrew said, his voice booming, becoming grand as if he was speaking from a pulpit, “to save the Milky Way. Unlike you, I will do absolutely everything necessary to do so. I’m no coward,” he spat.

Max could’ve screamed at Andrew he was mad instead – that he was a megalomaniac bent on controlling everything in his path – but there was no point. There was also no time.

Max felt his arms spread out wide. His hands collected into fists.

“This shouldn’t be so hard,” Andrew said as he closed his eyes.

Max was aware as Andrew gained full control of his armor. It began to push into his mind. After all, the armor wasn’t just a carapace – it had a neurological connection with Max. Andrew now utilized that.

Max couldn’t scream, no matter how much he wanted to. His emotions were suddenly trapped within his body, feeling like hands desperately trying to punch their way out of plastic wrap.

He heard Andrew give a low, satisfied chuckle, the kind of move that made Max want to rip his throat out. Good luck with that. As a surge of power shot through Max’s body, he doubted he’d ever seize hold of his form again.

“You should have chosen the easy path,” Andrew said sanctimoniously.

Max went to snap his lips open, to snarl right in Andrew’s face, but his helmet sliced over his head, locking him in.

Panic. Max might’ve rejected it for most of his life, but reality rose and kicked him in the guts. He was trapped, with no chance of escape, and as his helmet sealed into place, Max was thrown into a living coffin. No matter how hard his heart beat and no matter how wildly he breathed, it didn’t change anything.

The armor sliced his hand to the side. It opened his fingers wide. And it connected… God, it connected to Alyssa. He might’ve only done that a few times, but it was such a unique experience, he knew how it felt – how his mind focused, how his thoughts aligned, how his feelings deepened….

He hadn’t tuned in to his psychic connection with Alyssa for a while – several minutes by standard mortal time, though it felt like years. She still screamed his name. Dammit, why hadn’t she taken his advice and fled?

“That’s it. It’s easier than I thought it would be,” Andrew chuckled, the move dark. Could he hear himself? Was he aware of the twisted glee rising through his throat? Didn’t he turn around and recognize that such an emotion couldn’t be a good sign? It didn’t come hand-in-hand with stability, trust, or decency – just their polar opposites.

“Here we go.” Andrew’s tone made it sound like he was about to turn a new cruiser on for the first time.

The pain terrified Max. It marched into his head like soldiers waging war on his cerebellum. It pulsed down into his neck, across his chest, and into the rest of his body. It felt exactly like the so-called headache Suzanne kept warning him of. Except it was 10 times worse.

This wasn’t the time to think, wasn’t the time to do anything, let alone maintain his consciousness, but somehow Max connected the dots.

Every time they’d dragged him back to the med bay for his ‘headaches,’ they’d been attempting to use him to control Alyssa. All without Max having any clue.

That was cruel, somehow worse than what was happening now. If Max had known back then… what? He would’ve gotten her out of here? He would’ve done the impossible, fought off everybody in his path, and saved the day? Unlikely. In the end, Max couldn’t do anything. No matter how much he fought, no matter how much he achieved, he’d always been destined to fail just like this.

But he hadn’t failed yet, and that was the point.

Chapter 27

 

Alyssa Night

It was when she ran down the corridor, more security bots slashing in to vie with her, that she experienced it. An insidious spark erupted right at the edge of her consciousness. She’d felt it before, but not like this – not as edgy, as uneasy, as flighty. It gave the impression of a bird chaotically flying on broken wings. Sometimes it would careen toward her only to twist back.

“Max?” she screamed in her mind as her fingers snagged her chest and held on.

Nothing.

No matter how much she screamed his name, he didn’t return.

But he had to be back because wasn’t he trying to control her?

No. This wasn’t smooth. This felt like every time Andrew had reached in to grab her. But there was an edge.

That edge was somehow Max.

Were they using him to get to her?

That thought struck her, as did something else. Pain erupted through her temples, cutting into her yielding flesh as the holographic armor gripped her harder. It flickered around her, pushing something into her body. This force, this unknowable, unfightable power that blasted down into her chest then shot out in every direction. She would explode. She was going to….

She fell to her knees just at the worst possible moment. One of the bots bolted close. It was nonstandard, and the temporal particle shield it produced was equally nonstandard. It glowed so brightly, it could’ve lit up the city beyond.

She tilted her head back, her neck muscles straining until they could’ve ripped from her throat. She had to fight, not just against her fatigue, but against the growing control of the holographic armor. It threw everything it had at her. Sparks erupted over her entire form. It would’ve looked like she was being devoured by a meteor shower.

She couldn’t move. She shouldn’t move. But just as she’d scrounged the strength to call on Max, she found the power to fight past the odds and shove her hand flat down on the floor in a resounding move. The floor stood no chance. A blast of temporal particles sliced out of her shaking fingers. They sank easily into the metal, buckling it, turning it to dust, and giving her hope with every crackle. She shoved up. Her knees shook. The holographic armor tried harder. She thought she heard Max screaming, but it was distant, blocked by some wall.

“Max,” she screamed. Make no mistake, the words thundered from her throat. Gone was the Alyssa who simply sat on the sidelines watching. Gone was the Alyssa content to passively witness the destruction of this civilization. She was gone, and she wasn’t coming back.

More bots gushed toward her. Perhaps they mistook her sudden shriek for weakness. Big mistake. As one shot in close, its thrusters glowing so brightly, they sent lights and shadows erupting over the wall beside her, slicing right through the proud Ares Tech emblem, she darted to the side. She pushed her body into a neat roll, shoved her foot against the wall, and kicked. Simultaneously, she let temporal particles spill out into the metal. They sank into it eagerly, like wolves to a kill. They arced up its surface, gathering just above the security bots. With the ease of a hand tearing down paper, they tore off a chunk of the wall and sent it raining down onto the bots. While they were designed to survive so much more, nothing could withstand this. Temporal particles tumbled out of every crumbling chunk. They struck the security bots, interfered with their force fields, and gave Alyssa the distraction she required.

She punched to her feet, sliced around, and forced her hand up against the closest security bot’s underbelly. She grabbed it and yanked it down. She pulled out its base unit. It hailed into dust long before it struck the ground. The rest of it crumbled around her, a sea of sparks to light up her every move as she turned and stalked away.

She knew Ares Tech monitored her every move. Not just from within her armor, but from the cameras dotted everywhere. Powerful sensors locked on this area. They would pick up everything, from the way she moved to every single thing she said. So it was time to take advantage of that fact. Yanking her head back hard and doing the same with her lips until they drew as thin as pins, she snarled up at them. “I will have no part in your war for dominance. You are the very things you should fear.” With those snapped statements, she ran. There was one problem. Where should she go? The commander had been clear. He wanted her to run and to never stop running.

Alyssa didn’t know who to trust. Admiral Ninev was complicit in this. Did that mean the rest of the Coalition was, too? Alyssa wanted to believe Forest was different. She appeared to have unshakable morals. But Alyssa didn’t know. And she couldn’t run the risk of falling into the Coalition’s hands again. She had to get out of here and keep going, just as the commander wanted. She couldn’t do it without him, though. This wasn’t simply a decision of her brain; it came from her entire body. Every pulsing temporal particle comprising Alyssa knew she couldn’t leave him behind. She’d never experienced anything like this. The only thing she was more certain of was her drive to destroy the Light of the Gods and to eliminate every last Hendari crystal in existence. But Max….

She suddenly heard him shrieking in her head. She fell to the side, clutched her face, and shuddered. “Max?”

“Get… get out of here, Alyssa. They’re controlling me. There’s nothing—”

She felt another surge of power. This time it careened through the central unit of her holographic armor. Though most of the time it sat there, unseen, now it made itself known. It changed color. It crackled this dark, violent crimson red as if Max had suddenly spilled his chest all over her.

She shrieked, not at the color of it, but at the promise of what it meant. A sudden wave of control struck her like an avalanche.

She tried to ignore it, thrust up, and continue running, but her body stopped working. Her mind started to shut down. She fell sideways, her face smashing into the broken wall and sliding down, chunks of paint tearing off it as the holographic armor’s energy grew brighter and more violent.

She struck the floor. She heard Max scream again. Perhaps he called out her name desperately. Maybe he screamed out his own name. She couldn’t tell. She struggled to keep anything straight anymore. Anything that mattered started to….

She gave in to her pain. It almost swallowed her up. But then she… she felt something. Or maybe she heard it. It was distant – far distant from this place, perhaps even far distant from this time. She’d never once encountered an experience anything like it. But she heard. And she understood.

“The future depends on now. If you don’t break him free and run with him, all will fall. The universe hangs in the balance. So run. So fight.”

The words… they were injections of pure power. They also came from her own throat without her saying them. She recognized her voice. She knew her own intent. But she’d never said this. Not yet….

She ran, ran until her arms threatened to tear out of her shoulder sockets, until her pounding feet could’ve melted the floor.

She made her way through Ares Tech on the assumption that eventually she’d reach Max if she canvassed every single room. As she went, she destroyed everything in her path, wreaking as much havoc as she could. But now she had to focus. It was more accurate to say that something focused from within her. The source of those strange words cast a spell on her mind. They dragged her psyche and imagination forward to a point.

Alyssa wasn’t somebody who imagined the future. Unless she pondered the future collapse of civilizations, that was. Otherwise, she kept her mind in the present, contemplating the existence of those around her.

This focused her. Those words, they took her to a place far beyond this moment, far beyond the security bots, far beyond this treacherous armor. A place that called to her.

And as it called to her, she ran faster.

She reached another corridor. She went to take a door on her right, but something told her not to. The sensation welled within her stomach. It pushed up into her chest. It shook like a hand, one attempting to push out of her and direct her.

Alyssa might have little experience with gut instincts, as Max called them, but now she knew this could be the difference between her finding him and failing. She ground to a halt, balled her hands up, hardened her jaw, and waited for the sensation to rise further. It wanted her to go to the left. So she did.

She encountered a structural shield. It came out of nowhere, blinking on right in front of her face. If she’d been from a soft-fleshed race, its proximity would’ve killed her, ripped the flesh right off her body, and atomized her bones into colorless gasses.

It interacted with her holographic armor, trying to slow her down. She would not be slowed. She didn’t take on the shield directly and instead turned, dropped to one knee, and punched a hand down into the floor. The plating buckled, spewing up around her like her fist was a massive stone thrown into a pond.

The shields flickered. She weakened them sufficiently to thrust right through. As the energy discharged around her, she knew she would be a terrifying sight. Perhaps now she legitimately was a creature to be feared. But only by her enemies.

More shields flickered on before her. She took them down. One by one. She saw different types of security bots – amalgamations of drones with land fighters. As soon as they struck the walls or floor, they grew legs in a pulsing second. They sprouted right out of the drones’ underbellies like madly growing seeds. The sound grated like metal trees blasting out of the ground to instantly create a forest.

These robots were stronger. They didn’t just carry temporal shielding, but special types of guns. Once fired, they created inertial fields in the air. They hung suspended around Alyssa, slowing her down. But they didn’t stop her.

Pushing to the side, she targeted the wall to her left. She didn’t turn it to dust. Not completely. She modulated her force. Ironically, Max had been trying to teach her that for some time. To him, she was either all on or all off. He called her a pulse cannon when he wanted her to be a scalpel.

Now she learned. She sent the slightest pulse of particles up into the wall. It wasn’t enough to see the thing crumble to dust. Only chunks of it came down. They struck the robots, slowing them. They also disrupted one as it fired an inertial shield right at her chest. She ducked out of the way. It struck a robot behind her.

She rolled to the side. She would not be slowed. She heard Max. His screaming got louder.

Alyssa rarely felt hatred. Confusion and anger, yes. And ever since meeting Max, she’d encountered frustration for the first time. This was different. How could Ares Tech do this to him? How dare they use him to get to her. Why? So they could live a little longer? No. Alyssa realized it went deeper than that. All those years she’d spent contemplating worlds ending hadn’t helped her understand the exact process. The fear, the willingness to do anything, anything at all to stop their demise.

She’d been like a fool reading a book on something she would never experience, something she could never comprehend, and something so alien to her, it was like the sun to the moon.

“Max,” she roared as a bot rocketed in from the side. She yanked her arm up. She smashed it into the robot’s outer casing. It cracked all the way through. With another scream, she punched it harder. This time it shattered. As chunks ricocheted off it, they smashed into the careening robots beside it, sending them crashing into the floor and gouging through the walls.

She needed more power. She knew only one way to get it.

She’d tried to take her armor off before. Now she fixed her fingers into her arm unit and pulled.

She fought against it, against everything. She screamed. Power erupted everywhere. It sank into her fingers. It felt like she grabbed the very heart of creation’s fire.

So she simply held on harder.

Max’s screaming suddenly cut out.

A different alarm blared through the corridor.

Alyssa knew Ares Tech would do anything and everything to stop her from taking off her holographic armor. The second it failed would be the second there’d be nothing they’d be able to do to stop her.

But the more she fought, the harder it became. The desperation could only get her so far. Something descended through her body – a weakness that sapped her resolve and strength.

“Dammit,” she spat, her voice blasting off the four walls just as more modified bots snaked around the corner to catch her. One of them went on a death spiral right toward her head. It exploded. It couldn’t kill Alyssa – little could. But it threw her into the wall. It also disrupted her grip on her arm, which was the entire point. She tumbled down to her knees and rolled, another security bot pinning her chest. It did the same thing, exploding in a white-hot pulse of blistering sparks.

She felt the force. Her armor didn’t protect her. Maybe it even magnified it, making it hard enough to slam her skull into the floor, sending fissure lines dancing deep within.

Alyssa screamed.

She screamed Max’s name, screamed for help, screamed until her throat went raw.

The rest of the security bots did the same. They attacked her, pinned her, and exploded right in her face. As every single one shook through her defenses, she became weaker and weaker. She felt like a child – like an adult growing in reverse.

Every lesson Max had taught her, no matter how carefully she’d paid attention to them, started to crumble. Nothing, it seemed, ultimately mattered. She’d been vindicated, but in the cruelest way possible. Death was inevitable, after all.

But just at the edge of consciousness when she thought she’d break, she heard it once more. Her own voice telling her to save Max, lest the rest of the entire universe crumble.

That was it – the last spark she needed. Alyssa Night rose.

Security bots and drones continued to explode around her. She ignored every last one. Her pain became a backdrop, something easily ignored, a fact swept away for later.

As force erupted off her, every robot stupid enough to get close disintegrated. All in a single moment. For a second, her old power returned.

The second wouldn’t last. It didn’t need to. There was just one thing Alyssa had to do now.

Chapter 28

 

Commander Max Farsight

So this was it, ha? This was how he’d end.

He couldn’t fight, couldn’t rise above the pain swallowing him. He was done trying to explain it. He simply didn’t have the mental bandwidth. Plus, no words, no matter how precise, could possibly define this agony. It wasn’t mere pain. This… it was like he was experiencing pain across his entire life combined. Somehow Max’s history, present, and future condensed down. And every single moment of anguish came together, funneling into him, creating this pall, this pit of total despair.

He couldn’t breathe. He was certain his heart no longer beat. This must be the edge of death because he couldn’t possibly live through it.

But there’s certainty, then there’s reality. Just when Max thought it was over, and his mind would literally crumble around him, he heard something. It would be more accurate to say he felt it first. This wave came crashing toward him out of nowhere. It wasn’t a literal one. It sure as heck wasn’t made out of water. It… he felt a presence. One that suddenly penetrated the darkness smothering his soul. He opened his eyes. At least he thought he did. Maybe his helmet had been programmed to black out the rest of reality, keeping him further locked down in its prison, or perhaps he simply couldn’t see anymore. There was nothing but a deep, impenetrable pitch black surrounding him. Until there wasn’t. Until there was a single spark of light, right there, just in front of him, close enough to touch if only he could reach out to it.

Everything became eerily silent. The pain remained, but it was a side note. Andrew likely still stood there, still controlling Max, still orchestrating this horror show. That too didn’t matter. The only thing that counted was that spark of light. It got closer – so near, it was just there, just in front of his face.

The silence swept closer around him. It brought with it energy – a hope.

Literally in his darkest moment, it sparked like a candle.

It finally got close enough to grab. It was a hand. He felt the fingers, reveled in the strong palm. He held it as if it was right there, like he’d somehow transported to another place and another time, all because of those fingers’ firm grip.

The hand glowed. Channels of light spread across the skin, pushing upward, revealing an arm, a shoulder, then a chest, then finally a face.

One face belonging to one woman, one light with only one purpose.

“Alyssa,” he screamed, feeling his chest and the rest of his body for the first time in what felt like years – every nerve ending, every nook and cranny. He was like an old house that had just thrust its doors open.

Whatever the armor was doing to him, the process started to reverse.

But Alyssa wasn’t truly here with him. She hadn’t suddenly reached into his mind only to transport through it as if his psyche was no different from ordinary space.

The effect was somehow still the same.

Max’s eyes twitched wide open. The next thing he knew, he rocked forward on his knees. This wasn’t the armor controlling him. He fidgeted his fingers, even took his own shaking breath.

As his visor resolved, the darkness disappearing, he saw Andrew.

A sneer of complete victory creased his lips and chin, but as soon as Max moved on his own, Andrew bolted back. “What the hell is happening? How?”

Max stared at his hands. He closed his eyes. He tried to reach out to Alyssa again, but it didn’t matter. The hand from his vision had been replaced by knowledge. She was coming. Here. Now.

He darted his head up. He flattened a hand on the floor below him, and he rose to his feet. He shook, every muscle contracting as it relearned to only heed his commands. Max couldn’t hope to stand properly. His body rightly felt as if it had endured a torture machine.

But the act of standing counted. Andrew’s face paled three shades. His eyes marched relentlessly open. Jolting back, he shook his head. He still held that remote control in stiff, trembling fingers. The sound of his sweaty skin sliding over it filled the suddenly silent room. “How the hell are you moving? What—”

An alarm shrieked behind Max out in the corridor. It heralded one thing.

He used his energy to turn and stare at the wall just as it crumbled into dust.

There was a door, but Alyssa wasn’t the kind to take one of those, was she?

That fact might’ve gotten to Max in the past. That was the past, and this was now. A wide, natural smile spread his lips. It was one he should’ve given so long ago.

Alyssa strode in.

She didn’t glow – not like she used to. She fought her holographic armor, her own energy momentarily surfacing in a blast like a flare only to ebb below the crackling surface of its prison. As he glimpsed her true form beneath, it burnt more brilliantly than he recalled.

It was like a single ray of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day. It reminded you the sun remained, regardless of what obscured its ever-present glow.

Andrew fell to his knees, shaking. Max didn’t think he’d ever seen someone trembling so badly. It looked as if he’d pull himself out of his skin, like it was nothing more than a suit he could shrug off. “No way. How are you—”

Alyssa stopped. She stared down at Andrew with hatred in her eyes.

Hatred, but not the desire to kill. Max had been around this galaxy. He’d met true murderers. He’d handed out death, too. Only to those who’d been killers themselves, and only when it had protected others. His point was, he knew what to look for. He understood the specific glint in a psychopath’s eyes. Alyssa didn’t have it – she never had. He’d been fooling himself since the day he met her.

He staggered over to her, reaching out. This right here somehow felt like the most important moment of his life. To be fair, it was. If they couldn’t get out of here, Max wasn’t going to live much longer, was he? But that fact couldn’t explain why this felt so significant, why it seemed like this was always destined to occur.

Max was suddenly glad that Alyssa wore holographic armor – not because it constrained or poisoned her – but because he could see her face. She couldn’t hide her expression. Tenderness – actual honest to God tenderness – softened her features. Her eyes lit up, her cheeks widening. And critically? Her hand reached out to his.

Andrew punched to his feet. “You can’t get out of here. You have no idea what’s at stake.”

His protestations fell into the background. The alarms did, too. Even Max’s weakness took a backseat. The vision from earlier became half transposed over the scene. In his darkest moment, she’d reached out to him, and now his hand automatically thrust over to her.

As soon as it locked around her fingers, Max… he heard and felt things, was aware of sensations, possibly even memories blocked from his ordinary waking mind. They blasted through his consciousness in flashes. They lacked cohesiveness – he had no idea how to put them together into a linear narrative. But they remained, like fireflies lighting up a path into a deep, long-lost cave.

They shook him, and he stumbled, but Alyssa shoved close. Grabbing his arm in secure fingers, she held him steady then pulled him back. The whole while, she stared at Andrew, never blinking, never backing down. “You will not control this galaxy, and you will not use my power to kill.”

Andrew still shook. It was one thing to be brave when he could hide behind his master controls and they functioned, but now his toys had failed him, he crumpled.

Yet Alyssa’s biting words and the fact she was in control couldn’t completely douse his fervor. It flickered deep in Andrew’s gaze, growing brighter as it only became more entrenched. “You can’t fight this. It’s inevitable,” he spat.

Alyssa reacted to that word. Her eyes narrowed. “Few things are truly inevitable.”

Max sliced his head toward her. He’d said that – countless damn times. He’d never thought he’d hear it coming from Alyssa’s own lips.

Alyssa took a powerful step toward Andrew. Max’s old program warned she was about to do something violent – to kill Andrew, to turn him to dust, to seek her revenge.

He ignored that and gave her the trust she deserved – the trust she’d earned. She didn’t wrap her hands around Andrew’s throat, pluck him off the floor, and watch as his face aged on fast forward. She simply stared down at him one last time. “The future you seek will not occur. And the power you want will only kill you first.” She turned.

She grabbed Max’s arm, and he let her pull him through the hole in the wall.

The corridor beyond was trashed. Deep holes and burns littered everything, a few remaining lights sending blasts of chaotic illumination out like madly blinking eyes. The sparking remains of torn-apart robots lay strewn amongst the damage. They sat slumped against the walls, parts of them embedded in the floor and ceiling.

New alarms pitched through the air, reaching an ear-shaking tone that tore through his courage and reminded him they weren’t out of the woods yet.

Alyssa and Max might now be together – that didn’t mean this would be easy.

Max still wore his armor – or at least it still trapped him. He didn’t know what had happened – how he’d fought off Andrew’s control – but his armor was a ticking time bomb. He latched a hand on his shoulder and tried fruitlessly to pull a piece off. It was as effective as trying to push a mountain out of the way with his pinky finger.

Alyssa still held his hand. Thank god she was here to direct him.

“I don’t believe you will be able to take your armor off like that. I could try to remove it for you?”

Max opened his mouth to agree, but something held him back. What kind of connection did this armor have to her holographic armor? What if there was some kind of failsafe? Max had to accept that from the beginning, both he and Alyssa had been used. So it made sense to assume there was programming to stop Alyssa from removing Max’s armor. For all he knew, he could set off a cascade failure that would shut Alyssa down. “Not now. We have to get somewhere safe first. We have to assess the problem.”

Alyssa didn’t fight him. Securing her hand harder around his, she pulled him to the left just as a security bot sliced down the corridor toward them. The thing glowed as if someone had extracted it from the heart of a volcano.

Max had never seen its like. That didn’t mean much considering this was Ares Tech.

Wait, it did mean something.

It meant Max had been lied to yet again. Ares Tech knew everything about Alyssa’s armor because they created it. They clearly knew everything about the Scarax Galaxy because they had access to more Coalition secrets than Max did. From the beginning, he’d been played.

“I can sense that you’re hardening. Your emotions have become less fluid,” Alyssa noted. She stopped, inclined her head to the side, paused, then spread her fingers. A security bot charged toward them. It was much bigger than the rest. It glowed brightly enough that without the armor, Max would’ve lost his eyeballs. They would have burnt out of his skull and taken his cheeks with them.

Slicing around, Alyssa didn’t attack the bot directly, just produced a temporal field right in front of Max and her. He’d never seen her use power exactly like this. Wait. He had. Because her power wasn’t complete. He’d watched her down the Light of the Gods in seconds. But now, her illumination spluttered like a partially dead engine. That’s when one little word snaked into his skull. Poison. Alyssa’s holographic armor was poisoning her. And Max had been the one to tell her to wear it in the first place, dammit.

She’d been holding onto him until now. He tightened his grip around her fingers, securing his gauntlet as hard as he possibly could until his hand started to shake. “You have to get out of that armor as soon as you can. Pull it off. Just leave me here.”

“I came for you. I will not let you fall. Not when the entire universe is on the line.”

He wanted to dismiss what she’d just said as overly emotional language stemming from stress. He couldn’t. Her voice… it did this thing.

“Alyssa?”

“I will tell you later. But I will not leave you behind,” she stammered.

Alyssa never stammered. Then again, she never screamed, either, but she did now, this throat-punching cry blasting out just as more bots shot around the corner to attack them. These were even larger. Every one looked as if it could put an entire Coalition cruiser arsenal to shame. Just what had Ares Tech been doing? And more to the point, why had the Coalition allowed them to gather so much power like this? Yeah, when you had a strong company with great scientists who produced exactly the kind of tech you needed, you helped them out. It was mutually beneficial. But if the Coalition had known what Ares Tech was doing, someone would’ve stopped them. Someone would’ve appreciated it was an insane idea to allow one company to amass so much firepower. The whole point of the Coalition was that the true power was concentrated in the hands of those who were correctly trained, monitored, and controlled.

Ares Tech was a force unto itself.

A force with a madman at the lead.

Alyssa fought off the modified security bots, but she stumbled once, then she stumbled twice.

In horror, Max stared at her holographic armor.

It pulsed this dangerous blood red.

He had no clue what it meant, but his instincts welled in his chest, shaking up into his jaw, promising him it couldn’t be good.

This was the poison.

He tightened his grip around hers, trying to tell her once more to just run, to find somewhere safe to rip the armor off, but she somehow knew what he wanted to say. She turned her morose but determined stare on him. “The universe now rests on your shoulders, Commander, and I will not let it fall.”

“Alyssa?”

They had simply been running through sections of corridor until now. They reached a set of stairs. It was almost too good to be true.

They needed to get out of Ares Tech. That was the first challenge, but it was the most important. Ares Tech’s best gear would be in here. If they hit the streets, it would be easier. That was, of course, assuming that Ares Tech wouldn’t deploy their gear on the streets of one of the most important Coalition planets. A dangerous assumption to make. But getting out of here required finding some way off this accursed floor anyway. That set of stairs was it.

Pulsing shielding protected it. That was irrelevant to Alyssa. Shooting forward, she opened her hands wide. That meant pulling her hand off Max’s arm. Though he knew she was still right there, he almost snapped her fingers up again, like he was a child who couldn’t be left alone for more than a few seconds.

Alyssa blasted through the shield. The alarms blaring through the air started to disappear into the background. Maybe they themselves knew no one was paying attention to them anymore. It was abundantly clear to every single person in Ares Tech that this building was now in a fight for its life.

As Max ignored the alarms, his pounding heart took their place. “Alyssa, you have to get that armor off as soon as possible. They’re using it to poison your power. I—”

“We need to get to the roof. From there, do you think you’ll be able to locate a ship for us to hack into and steal?”

“I… I have no clue. This armor will turn on me again at some point.”

“You appear to be controlling it for now. I suggest whatever you’re doing, you continue doing it.”

Great recommendation.

She pulled him up the stairs. They didn’t play nice. They were clearly modular, and they attempted to retract. Alyssa simply punched a hand down into them. He wasn’t certain what she did, but she held them together, either frying the processes that moved the stairs, or simply trapping them in some temporal state.

They held on long enough for Max and Alyssa to rush up.

There were several flights of stairs. When they encountered a door above, Max got the distinct feeling that they’d finally reached the roof.

God, they were actually gonna get out of here, weren’t they? He just had to hold on a little longer.

Max thought he heard a scream from deep within Ares Tech. It didn’t sound human. Didn’t sound alien, either. It sounded….

Alyssa didn’t react, despite the shrieking pitch and blaring volume. He, however, reacted with his entire heart and soul. He suddenly clutched his chest. He barreled over to the side, almost falling back down the stairs, but Alyssa grabbed his shoulder and yanked him toward her. He fell against her chest.

He couldn’t breathe. The scream—

“What is it? I… this might be in my head, but I sense something is happening with your psyche. What—”

“Get me out of here,” he said, stammering. “That’s… it’s John, isn’t it?”

“John?”

“Never mind. Just get… get me out of here, Alyssa. Now.”

Max had no clue what was happening to him. There was no time to figure it out; he had to get out of here.

Alyssa secured a hand hard around Max’s side and pulled him through the door just as she punched her way through it. As dust crumbled around them, they reached the roof. It was quite a sight. Commerce One was a beautiful planet. There hadn’t been time to see that when they’d been crash landing on it. Now he did. Spires filled the city like trees in a tall forest. Though some modern planets could be chaotic, with buildings built on top of each other only to be interspersed here and there with long lines of sprawling hover traffic, this was different.

Each spire was like a hand of potential reaching toward the sky. As for the hover traffic cutting permanent glowing lines between them, they looked like orderly ants going about their business. Commerce One felt like a good allegory for the entire Coalition. Unlike every other force in the galaxy, it kept its mind locked on the future. No matter what happened in the present, no matter what people had to fight and what they had to do to secure peace, at heart, this place always looked forward to a time when it would count. When every sacrifice would buy someone another second, another day, another year. When the cumulative efforts of every single person in this great civilization finally counted for something.

The Ares Tech roof was large. The building itself was equally as massive as some of the huge central spires that rose out of the Commerce One horizon line like strong, glistening arms.

Alyssa darted her head up. She stared at the hover traffic. But it wasn’t close to Ares Tech for whatever reason. It sliced in and out around most of the buildings, but not one ship came too near.

She swore – the very first time he’d ever heard her do that. There was hardly time to celebrate. He could still hear John’s endless scream. It wasn’t human, wasn’t natural. It wasn’t….

Max made the mistake of closing his eyes. His balance fell out from underneath him as if he’d been standing on a rug as someone had burnt it.

He staggered into Alyssa again, and she looped a strong arm around his back.

Max’s mind tumbled back, back into that darkness – the same darkness he’d been in before he’d heard Alyssa’s voice and seen her hand.

But he couldn’t sink into it for long.

Alyssa pulled him on. “We will have to jump off the side of the building. I will survive. I will ensure you survive, too.”

“Do it,” Max managed. He had to clench his teeth. He could still hear the Observer’s scream. Echoing, getting louder, blasting up through his temples. He….

Despite the pain, Max stopped. One word had appeared in his mind. One he could not reject. Observer.

Max knew full well who the Observers were. They were the very race Alyssa had ultimately come from. Whether they called themselves Observers or Hendari was still open for question. One thing that wasn’t open, however, was that Alyssa was the last living member of their race, if indeed she was. She’d either been manufactured or found. What Max attempted to get at was that the Observers were dead. Memory echoes of them existed. That was it. But John… John was an Observer. All Max had to do was think that, then his body answered. It was like every single cell had been programmed for this exact moment, for this revelation. Adrenaline rushed through him. His heart rose through his chest. Every bodily process that could confirm this confirmed it. All in a shaking wave of true horror.

“Max,” Alyssa spluttered. She secured a hand harder on his shoulder as he was driven down to his knees.

He clutched the side of his face. Blackness started to swamp him once more. This had an edge. Max was dragged back then, back there to his earliest memory. He lay immobilized on the cruiser once more. He no longer paid attention to his dead mother’s hand. He couldn’t see his father slumped over the controls with a hole in his back. There was simply the light path, there on the viewscreen, opening up, getting wider, swallowing them whole.

The same light path that had taken them from the Scarax Galaxy to the Milky Way then back again. The light path that had started all of this and that had put Max on a path of destiny like no other.

Max couldn’t take it anymore. He screamed. He tumbled forward. It felt like darkness opened up underneath him.

“Max, what’s happening to you? I sense something is tearing through your mind. You’re—”

Max felt the roof beneath him shaking. Rumbles arced up into his feet. The roof was getting ready to retract.

“I believe Ares Tech is utilizing some new technology. We have to get off this roof—”

Alyssa tried to pull him to his feet, but he would not be pulled. Max lost momentary control of his armor. He heard it lock against the roof.

Alyssa pulled on his arm harder.

Fear pulsed through Max. He knew full well what would happen next. “Get out of here,” he stammered, using his last strength to force those words out. “Get out of here. The Observer… he’s stopping me.”

Alyssa froze. The roof kept rumbling beneath her, but she looked like a statue. Her lips tried to move around that word, but they couldn’t. If he thought the word Observer had undermined him badly, he was forgetting who Alyssa was.

She possessed no memories of her people. All she had was a purpose and several millennia of staring at a wall.

He could see it in her eyes, even though his own eyes were starting to shut down. The need, the questions, the confusion, and the loneliness. It was the latter that really got to him. He’d been callous. Ever since he’d met her, he’d never truly taken to heart how lonely she must’ve been. After the last five years of melancholy, Max had erroneously thought he’d felt what it was to truly be alone. He’d been a fool.

“Get… get out of here. Something is opening up underneath me.” Sure enough, a hole appeared. The roof suddenly parted seamlessly as if someone had grabbed hold of chiffon curtains and yanked them right off a wall.

He saw a dark pit that led straight back into Ares Tech. The only reason they weren’t falling into it was that a small shield shimmered over the surface of the roof. For now. A shield that would soon shut off.

Max used the last of his strength to wrench Alyssa’s hand from his. He shoved her back. “Get out of here, Alyssa. Get out of here now.”

She staggered back.

He managed to tilt his head up. “This is my last order to you. You have to follow it. Get out of here. Don’t let them come for you. And don’t come back for me.”

She staggered back one last time, and it took her away from that hole in the floor. The shield flickered off. There was one second – one second to stare at Alyssa, to acknowledge the fear and emotion, the need and guilt. Then Max fell.

Chapter 29

 

Commander Max Farsight

It was just like what had happened in his vision. As he fell, he didn’t just tumble through physical space – he nosedived into his past. A cold, dead, terrifying past like a black hole hidden in his chest all these years, one that had lain dormant, one that was now rising.

Max couldn’t scream. He knew deep in his heart there was no point. Screaming released pressure; it gave the body an outlet. It even gave you hope that if you screamed loud enough, help would come. Your pain would end. But nothing would stop this.

He tumbled through the blackness. He didn’t know what kind of transportation mechanism this was, but he really doubted that Ares Tech carved a massive hole through the center of their operations just to get to him. This was some form of path. Perhaps it was the very opposite of a light path because no illumination served to highlight his fall. He tumbled further into the darkness until it felt as if he was headed straight down to Hell.

He closed his eyes. The wretchedness of the situation flowed in, unstoppable and with all the force of a star going nova.

More memories blasted through Max. They came from nowhere. They couldn’t be his past – he didn’t recall them. They seemed alien somehow. Alien as if he hadn’t always been this way, as if he’d once been something else entirely.

They goaded him. They ripped at him. They tore right through the rest of his psyche, seeking something within as if Max had a soft heart ripe for the taking.

He screamed once more, the desperation punching higher. This was the last sound he’d make. Something wrapped around his throat.

John the Observer no longer screamed. Wherever he was, Max somehow connected to the man’s emotions. He felt greed and satisfaction as Max fell right back into his clutches.

It was over.

But just as Max tumbled into the depths of his despair, he saw it again. A light in his mind, right at the edge of the darkness, flickering strongly enough for him to see, strong enough for him to reach toward.

But this wasn’t in his mind.

As he tumbled down that shaft, his eyes opened. He saw her. Alyssa threw herself off the roof, out of safety, and back into this hell.

“Alyssa,” he screamed.

Somehow she fell faster than him. Her hand reached out to his.

Maybe it was the act of spreading her fingers or reaching out with all her might, but suddenly Alyssa’s holographic armor broke up her arm and into her shoulder. It shattered, blasting up into a thousand sparks that punctuated the darkness only to disappear and to be replaced by her far keener illumination.

Max’s heart reached out to her, and it spread his fingers wider, pushed his arm up higher until finally she reached him.

Their hands connected.

Max saw it again. Memories that weren’t his, memories that belonged to someone else, someplace else, someone and something far, far away.

He heard John’s words again. The only way to destroy Alyssa was to force her to destroy herself. But this time they changed. John’s voice disappeared, replaced by another, deeper, older, more certain tone – the voice of somebody who knew what to do, who possessed a wisdom few races could ever achieve. The knowledge of someone who’d seen and done everything and ultimately knew what counted.

That voice said one thing, “Don’t let her fall.”

Easier said than done.

Max and Alyssa reached the base of the shaft. They smashed into something. It wasn’t the floor, but… some substance. It would not yield. It smashed into them as they smashed into it, and it did so over and over again as if their fall was re-created infinitely.

Alyssa wrapped her arms around Max’s back. Max couldn’t even move.

He squeezed his eyes closed.

The floor continued to pound into them. It connected to his armor. It translated every vibration up into his skull. He started to… slip… slip….

He saw light spilling up over Alyssa. That’s when he remembered she finally fought past her holographic armor.

She rose to her knees.

In front of him, she reached over to her other arm, and she wrenched off the armor piece.

Her illumination came back, brighter than ever, like the brightest star in the sky. One you could always navigate by, one that would always light your way, no matter how old you became or tired your feet were.

It was a fixture. Something permanent. In other words, something inevitable.

It stilled him, stopped his scream halfway up his throat, and coaxed his heart back into a normal rhythm. It gave him hope.

But hope can’t last, can it? Not when you’re up against the same hell they were now fighting.

Alyssa turned.

That’s when light started to pulse up through the shaft around them. “What is this place?”

Max thought he heard John. This muttering came from somewhere, came from everywhere. It pulsed out of something deep inside Max’s damn skull. He yanked his head to the side. More agony shot through him. “Alyssa,” his lips barely parted. “Get… get… out.”

“Not without you.”

She reached toward him, but he would never be able to accept her hand.

Something pushed into his armor.

Control the likes of which he’d never felt overtook him. This wasn’t Andrew. It was John. And unlike his twisted understudy, John knew exactly what to do.

Max screamed. “Alyssa, I can’t—”

He couldn’t warn her. He couldn’t do anything.

He suddenly barreled into her side, knocking her backward until she fell against the strange floor with a thump. It continued to echo, and he watched as force pounded into her side. He could actually see it rippling over what remained of her holographic armor. Her eyes opened wide in confusion. “Max—”

He fought against John’s control. He sank his fingers into his helmet. He tried to rip it off. He screamed with all his worth, but nothing counted. “I can’t—”

That was it. The last straw. He felt something snapping in his head.

His arms fell slack. For one second.

He opened his hand with a flourish. It was the movement of someone in complete control.

Alyssa’s eyes opened wide with confusion. Then she screamed. Her arms jerked painfully out to the side like a doll on display.

“Alyssa,” he screamed in his mind. “God, Alyssa. No. You should’ve gotten out of here when you had the chance.”

She shrieked again until suddenly she couldn’t. Her lips snapped closed of their own accord.

Her eyes closed, too. It looked as if she was trying to fall asleep. But he knew the truth. He knew the agony rising through her mind – the very same agony she no longer had the ability to express.

He kept screaming in his psyche, over and over again, but the words could not penetrate his closed lips.

John was in complete control.

The light picking up through the shaft reached some kind of peak. Then they were transported. Just like that. They’d tasted freedom, but it had been taken away from them.

It was over. That refrain repeated in his head, marching down into his body, writing itself over every limb, sinking into his blood, and burning brightly in his chest until every other truth fell into ash.

They arrived in a lab. He didn’t recognize it. He didn’t need to to know what would happen next.

They were separated. Alyssa was transported down on her knees behind thick shields.

God. This was it.

Her arms were still glowing brightly. But even that started to ebb.

John was now in complete control of her.

“The armor will be broken down and re-knitted this time. And this time, it will be perfect. You have given us all the data we need, Night. You will be trapped this time. Trapped for good. Trapped so you can never get out, so you can never destroy another civilization in your endless quest for dominance.”

Alyssa might not be able to open her eyes, but he watched as an actual tear sliced down them.

Alyssa… she could cry?

Several hours ago, Max would’ve laughed at the mere possibility. He would’ve promised it was impossible.

Monsters couldn’t cry. You needed a heart to be able to feel the kind of wretched emotion that necessitated tears.

But Alyssa cried, all right, and as he watched that single tear slice all the way down her cheek and across her chin, it carved a hole in his heart.

Max expected Andrew and Suzanne to appear. Maybe their part in this was done, though. They’d never been in control, ha? They’d been puppets for the Observer.

Max had no clue what was really happening here. From what he’d heard, Observers were meant to be good. They had taken living memories of themselves – echoes of who they’d once been. And they had spread throughout the universe to watch how their technology would be used.

They were there to watch, to shepherd. Or at least, that’s what the Hand of the Gods had learned. Wasn’t John making an assumption here? Why would every Observer be good? If their civilization had ended, regardless of everything they’d tried, why would they all be content to just watch? Wouldn’t they rather seek revenge? And who better to seek revenge on than Alyssa herself? The being who had purportedly ended everything?

“Just let her go, let her go,” Max found himself repeatedly begging in his head. He didn’t know if John maintained a psychic connection with him, but if he did, John ignored every word. He focused on controlling Alyssa once and for all.

But that control came at a cost.

Fluctuations tore over Max’s armor. They sent light dancing over the floor and up the surface of his gauntlets and chest piece.

Max tried to take advantage, desperate to do whatever it took to get to Alyssa. Then he found his armor suddenly retracting. For the first time since he’d put it on, it involuntarily tore itself off his body then compacted down until it inserted back into the node in his hip. It happened so quickly, it felt like someone deboning him.

He screamed and fell to his knees.

He stared on in horror at Alyssa, but hope penetrated the fugue filling his heart.

Without the armor, they couldn’t control her, right? Wrong. He wasn’t wearing it, but it was within him

Alyssa’s armor began to glow. Then it dimmed. It almost… was it finally disappearing? God, was it finally going?

No.

It retracted, burning up and taking her clothes with it. She was almost naked, but that didn’t damn well matter. She—

She looked up at Max, and he saw the resignation in her eyes – the same emotion he’d fought since the moment they’d met.

The inevitability of destruction.

“Alyssa,” he bellowed. Using what little strength he had, he tried to thrust toward the shields. He didn’t care if they killed him. He’d gladly singe to a crisp if only he could reach her.

That opportunity disappeared. A door sliced open behind him, and security robots swooped in. They wrapped their arms through his. They pulled him backward, restraining him easily.

So he just watched. Watched as Alyssa fell.

Max had failed. His mission was over. The galaxy would follow.

Chapter 30

 

Alyssa Night

The end always came. She knew that. She’d once told herself she would be prepared for it. But this… was cruel. She’d never been ready for these emotions. For the injustice of the situation. This wasn’t fair. Ares Tech had no right to win. They were morally corrupt people only after power. And when they got her power, who knew what they would do? Who knew what atrocities waited in front of her fingers?

She wanted to scream. She also knew there was no point. A sense of inevitability welled within her.

The end was here, she kept repeating to herself. The end….

Thick, thick shields separated her from Max. There’d be no penetrating them, not in her current state. The power Alyssa had regained was gone. In its place, weakness gathered. It felt like someone had dug through her chest, right through the center of her power. Where it had been, a black hole grew. It sucked up her resolve, sucked up her temporal particles, and made her colder, second by second.

She was pulled up off her feet.

Her power returned – or at least her light did. It wasn’t within her control.

She… she was going to be destroyed. Once and for all.

Should she not feel release? She’d told herself erroneously as she’d sat in her prison cell that the end, if accepted nobly, wouldn’t be so bad.

This was worse than anything she’d imagined.

This….

She made the mistake of opening her eyes again. She stared over at Max. Strong robots restrained his thrashing body.

He kept fighting against the robots, regardless of how futile it was. The look in his eyes….

She closed her own eyes.

She released to the process. Why fight it?

“Alyssa, please.”

She started to tune his words out.

At one point, he apologized.

Was this for every time he’d looked at her in disgust? Was this for the past six months of hatred?

He’d already apologized with his actions. Max had grown, and by growing, he’d shown her she could grow, too. But she’d been right. The end always comes.

And when it comes, you must face it nobly. Do not run. Accept it with open arms.

That was ironic because Alyssa could not close her arms. They felt riveted open.

Something occurred to her holographic armor. It re-knitted itself over her shuddering form. It sank deeper and deeper into her muscles. It connected to her power in a way she’d never thought possible.

It had her, and it would never let her go.

And it reeked, reeked of the Observers.

Alyssa had never met one. She’d only ever heard that word. But….

Once more they had found her, and this time they would not let go.

She….

“Sorry, Alyssa,” Max repeated one last time. She could hear something shutting down in him as he spoke. Max was meant to be irrepressible – a force that could not stop, a boulder that kept barreling down whatever hill it faced.

Now he stopped.

He didn’t speak again.

She struggled to open her eyes, but the armor kept them closed.

She screamed at him in her psyche, but he wouldn’t reply.

She had to see him one last time, she told herself. Just one last time. She had to know he was okay.

No. She had to know more. That voice rose through her. If Max fell, then the universe would fall.

Alyssa had been born or created for one purpose. She must fulfill that purpose no matter what.

She fought. It didn’t matter.

She tried to open her eyes. It wouldn’t count.

She thought she heard Max being dragged away. She thought she heard footsteps.

Then she felt it. That insidious presence.

The Observer.

She still could not open her eyes. She had no clue where he was. Perhaps he was in the room. Maybe he wasn’t. He was close by. And for the first time, he faced her directly.

“This was inevitable, Night. All forces can be controlled, no matter how destructive.”

Her chest constricted. Fear raced through her. But nothing moved.

Nothing could. Alyssa was nothing more than a statue, a doll strung up, waiting for its master’s touch.

“We failed to control you back then. We were too weak, too undecided. We understand now.”

She wanted to scream at the Observer that he didn’t understand. The Hendari had fallen because they’d fought something they shouldn’t have. They’d searched for a power greater than them. They had discovered her….

This wasn’t a memory. Yet it was. Indistinct impressions broke around her like chunks of cracked desert giving way to driving rain. This felt more like a fact that had somehow been stored in her consciousness, written there from somewhere, waiting to be found one day in her greatest moment of desperation.

But it was still just a fact. It wasn’t a weapon; it couldn’t break her free.

“Release to the process, Alyssa. Allow your power to be controlled. You believe that the end of civilizations is inevitable. You misunderstand the point of civilization. It adapts. It changes. One civilization morphs into another. The pursuit of power continues. And it is precisely the pursuit of power that matters most. It is not moral poison. It is moral righteousness. For it is when you control every force in this universe that you finally ascend.”

Ascend? She wanted to scream at him. He sounded like he wanted to become a god. The Hendari were responsible for creating the poisoned Scarax gods in the first place. Now the Observer wanted to become one too?

“Release into the process, Alyssa. There’s nothing you can do to fight it, anyway. It is over. The end of your mind is here. Your power will live on. Understand this is what is inevitable. When you encounter resistance, you overcome it. All civilizations do this. Whether it be the resistance of their own people or the enemies they encounter. You drive through it, you grow, you move on, and you become greater. Those things that do not grow with you are broken down to become part of you. Release into this power, Alyssa. Release and accept your end.”

Release? Release into what? His inevitability? This was only his point of view.

Alyssa had never thought this way before. To her, the end had been inevitable, and it had been omnipresent. It had been the same end for everybody. There had been no perspective. There’d only been cold hard facts.

But her past assumptions started breaking like fog driven away by a storm.

The pernicious hold of the Observer grew greater. The holographic armor no longer rested on top of her skin. It became a part of her. It was somehow soldered right into her very temporal particles. They became inseparable.

She would’ve screamed if she could. Instead she was still strung up, incapable of turning away.

“Give in, Alyssa. There’s no more fighting. Accept your demise.”

For a single second, she heard his words, and she almost followed them.

She’d been following them in some way for the past 2000 years. One step after another, one thought after another, her actions had followed the same path – dedicated to the same topic.

Alyssa had never found freedom, but then she’d met Max.

Things had changed; her mind had opened. Her possibilities had expanded like a hand spreading through the darkness. It was when that image snagged hold of her mind that she saw something. A moment suspended in time – a memory buried deep within her psyche.

She saw herself reaching out to Max in some impenetrable darkness, saw him reaching back.

It wasn’t a replay of what’d happened when they’d fallen from the roof. This wasn’t that memory. It was deeper, wider, somehow ever-present as if it kept appearing, over and over again, in every second, in every location across the universe.

“Give in,” the Observer hissed, more insistence crumpling his tone, his control finally slipping. “Give in, accept your inevitability, and finally embrace the end you have promised all.”

Why… why did he need her to give in? Why not control her completely? The armor already did so.

But… but…

According to Commander Max Farsight, you never stopped fighting, no matter how inevitable something seemed. Until the very end, you sacrificed to buy others another chance. It might fly in the face of probability. That didn’t matter. Because it was more than bravado. It was a way to live, a way to view this galaxy without being swamped by the promise of destruction.

“It’s all over, Alyssa. It was over when you left your prison in the Scarax Galaxy. It was over when you destroyed our people,” the Observer spat. “It was over the second we made you.”

“Made me,” Alyssa stammered, the words gently pushing from her lips. “You didn’t… make me,” she hissed, the memory rising from somewhere. “You… found me.”

Sharp silence met her words.

“Give in,” John hissed, his insistence growing with every snapped syllable.

No.

“It’s inevitable.”

No. It wasn’t. Nothing was inevitable. Not truly.

Not if you didn’t stop fighting.

Because every chance bought you another.

In a rush, she finally understood what Max had attempted to teach her. Maybe she only understood it because she’d been trying to teach herself that same fact.

The only reason someone pondered the same topic for 2000 years was if they’d been searching for some grain of truth within it they couldn’t find.

The things we truly understand and take for granted do not need to be repeated and ruminated over.

But Alyssa had sat there, contemplating the end, because she’d never truly understood it, regardless of the fact that was what she embodied.

Now a ray of sunshine, a moment of clarity struck her.

This wasn’t the end. It wasn’t the beginning. It was a chance. For chances, ultimately, are all that count.

Alyssa fought back. One last time, she pushed against her armor. And one last time, she stretched her hand out to the heart of possibility.

Chapter 31

 

Commander Max Farsight

He was in the room – John, the Observer.

Max couldn’t move. His armor hadn’t regrown – it didn’t need to. He felt like an embattled ship with nowhere to go as a storm consumed him from every angle.

But he still watched.

John was in the room, but he wasn’t in the room. Did he really have a physical presence? Did the body John used mean anything? Or was it just a husk John conveniently controlled to interact with soft-fleshed races?

The question could wait. Alyssa couldn’t.

Max couldn’t let this happen.

He knew John was doing something to Alyssa. As Alyssa lay there suspended in the air, he watched armor melting into her body. Chills devoured him at the eye-splitting sight. Even through the shields, he somehow smelt it like thousands of bodies burning.

He thought he could hear Alyssa’s cells screaming. As for her mind, it became blank. Empty. Gone.

She….

No, you damn well don’t, he spat at himself. You don’t give up. Not now. You try one last time. You try one last damn time to save her. Because she’s worth it.

Alyssa had always been worth it.

His fear had kept him back. His confusion and damn stupid biases had stopped him from connecting to her properly before. It was over now.

No. There had to be one last chance.

Max didn’t know what he was. He didn’t know why he could communicate mentally with Alyssa. He had no damn clue what was really happening to him or why Ares Tech needed him. But he knew all of those facts summed to create one thing. One last hope.

He wanted to push to his feet. He couldn’t. But he did push within.

And he held onto the one thing he’d been running from all day.

The light path in his memory.

Max didn’t come from the Milky Way. He came from beyond, from that place – from the cursed Scarax Galaxy. He didn’t know how, and he had no clue why, but he’d come here to the Milky Way for some reason.

Those memories grew. But so did something else. Something inside him. This… power.

He’d already concluded that the only reason he was here and the only reason he’d been picked for this mission was he alone in the entire Coalition could control Alyssa. There was something inside him, something in his blood, something in his heart, something….

A source of power like no other. A force all were after. One that was ultimately only in Max’s hands.

The security robots had left him alone. They probably assumed he’d be no trouble anymore. They were wrong.

Commander Max Farsight pulled up one hand, and he stared at it.

He watched Alyssa, watched her as she fell.

The process ended. Whatever John was doing to her armor was over.

She would now be a toy – the same toy she’d struggled so hard not to be.

Like hell.

Max pressed his hand into a fist. He gathered the power within.

No running. No explaining it away. No fear. Just a chance he would no longer turn from.

Max threw himself into that power, and something happened. A force blazed up over his body. It didn’t begin in his chest, or his head, or his gut. It almost… it began in a moment of time. One he reached into, grabbed, and forced out.

Max lifted off his feet.

Power blasted out.

Power the likes of which he’d never seen.

John suddenly screamed. “The Hendari crystal. You’ve finally found it in your temporal field,” he snapped.

Those words washed over Max.

Only one thing mattered. He was moving. He’d found the one possibility that could get him out of here.

As he lifted higher up, he stared at his hands once, then punched them forward.

That level XX force field in front of him crumpled as easily as somebody kicking through a pile of autumn leaves.

Alyssa was right there, her eyes closed, her body—

Somehow she fought. Somehow she opened her eyes. Recognition blazed within. “A Hendari crystal. You have a Hendari crystal inside you,” she stammered.

A… Hendari crystal?

It wasn’t impossible to have one inside your body. Admiral Forest’s own nephew had possessed a Hendari crystal synthesized in his blood. But whatever was happening to Max, this was different.

“The crystal’s finally here. Finally,” John said. “The end comes.”

The end for who?

Suddenly, Max’s armor started to grow up over his body. He knew what would happen. As soon as it closed over his form, John would control him – and the crystal within.

But Max had no intention of letting him do that.

He threw himself forward, just as the armor continued to grow.

He didn’t know what to do. He just had to reach Alyssa, reach her and grab her one last time.

Her eyes widened more, the fear dancing back, the hope surging forward.

In a moment he would never forget, because it was a moment that had been buried deep into the annals of time and written across the universe’s eternity, he reached her. Their hands met.

Power exploded within.

“Max, hold on. We can use the power of your Hendari crystal to transport. Just hold on.”

This wasn’t the first time Alyssa had used a crystal to transport across untold distances. That’s how she’d arrived in the Milky Way in the first place. She’d used the synthesized crystal in Lara’s nephew’s body. She was about to do it again.

Max held on, all right. He held on harder than he ever had before. With his heart, with his mind, with his damn eternity. He was right there by her side like he’d always been.

He caught a glimpse… of something far off, and he heard a voice, that strong voice who’d spoken to him with total certainty that he could not let Alyssa fall.

And as it reverberated through his skull, he held onto her as tightly as he ever would.

Her power surged as she momentarily pushed past the control of her holographic armor.

John screamed – this endless cry that could be heard through the eons.

He reached out to them, his power blasting both through Max’s armor and Alyssa’s. It was too late.

They transported.

Max was broken down, but not completely. His mind continued, aware of every second, locked in their embrace.

Then they arrived. Down on their knees, down on some planet.

Above them glowed three stars. Below them, a rock path led over a rise, down to something beyond.

They’d done it. They’d escaped the Observer. For now.

And they were together. For now.

Max tightened his grip around Alyssa’s hand. She fell to her knees.

Her eyes closed then opened one by one. Together, they stared up at a new dawn.

The end of The Night of the Gods Book One. This series is complete and there are four books in total. You can continue the story today in the Night of the Gods Book Two.