“We’re getting closer every day,” Professor William Ray said as he leaned in and clapped a warm hand on Bethany’s shoulder.
His wife smiled up at him. There were many things Bethany was good at, but smiling came naturally to her. As her lips curled and pushed toward her eyes, she seemed to bring light into the world. And considering the massive hovering dig lights that illuminated this site had malfunctioned yet again, William could use all the light he could get.
“Where’s Diana?” He turned his attention over his shoulder as he set his speckled amber eyes sweeping over the dig site. It was massive. A vast underground operation, it had easily absorbed the past five years of his life. This chamber alone, even considering current technology, had taken two years to dig out.
And there was more to come. Briefly pausing his search for his daughter, he cast his gaze to the left and up. It rested on the primary wall and the motif carved across the thick, granular gray stone. As one of the few fully functional remaining dig lights hovered into view and cast its illumination over the wall, he caught sight of those symbols. As shadows danced along their long, intricately carved surfaces, a shiver raced up his back and snatched hold of his heart.
Though it could’ve been easy to tell himself it was just expectation and pure exhilaration at the fact his life’s work was finally coming to fruition, buried deep in his gut was a grain of doubt. It had been with him since he’d set foot on this outpost five years ago, and though he kept a handle on it most days, occasionally it would flare.
He tugged his attention firmly off the wall, setting aside his academic curiosity for his paternal instincts. Using a sharp gaze, he finally spied his daughter on the far side of the cavern. She sat ensconced behind two stacked crates displaying the Coalition Army insignia. Though the Army weren’t funding this dig, he’d managed to procure old equipment. It was a heck of a lot more reliable than the reused, practically stitched together gear you got on these colony outposts.
He kept a hand over his mouth, ensuring his voice would carry, knowing that despite this cavernous room, it could muffle sound somehow. “Diana, what are you doing?”
It took a few seconds for his daughter to respond. She had a dented datapad in her hand, and she was playing with something in the dust. She pushed up, tilted her head toward him, and managed a wave.
He copied the wave, turned his hand around, and pointed at the ground.
Diana turned back, and though she was far away, he could see the side of her face clearly with his ocular implant. He’d lost one of his eyes during an explosion years ago on a colony outpost even more remote than this one. Without the capacity to regrow one, he’d self-made an implant, and though he could ditch it for the real thing now, he’d always opted to keep it.
His mantra – which happened to be his mother’s mantra, and her father’s mantra, and the mantra of the Ray family going back centuries – was that you grew with your faults. You did not remove them. You could never tell what was a blessing in disguise – only time could.
As William focused his ocular implant on his daughter, he saw the side of her lips moving as if she was talking to someone.
Bethany might not have implants, but she had great instincts, and she took a worried step up to his side. “What?”
“It seems our daughter still has her imaginary friends,” he said with a disappointed sigh.
“It’s okay. It’s just a stage.” Bethany reached a hand up and patted it tenderly on his shoulder.
He looked down, but he couldn’t hide the glum frown stretching his lips thin. “She’s not a toddler anymore. She’s eight years old. It’s too old for imaginary friends.”
She chuckled. “I thought your mantra was that you grow with your faults?”
“Imaginary friends aren’t like fake eyes.” He brought up a hand and tapped the side of his face, indicating his implant. “I’m just worried about her, that’s all.”
Bethany shrugged. As she turned her attention over to Diana, and they both watched their child extricate herself from behind those crates, he saw the subdued worry paling Bethany’s cheeks. She might put on a brave face, but she was anxious too.
Diana, for all her childlike brilliance, tended to believe in things that weren’t there….
Diana raced up and reached them, opening her arms as a broad smile spread her cupid-bow lips.
William leaned onto his knee, opened his large hands wide, and scooped her up.
Diana laughed, her jet-black hair with a hint of indigo tumbling around her face like a sheet of water. “I was just playing.”
“I saw.” He paused, wondering if he should mention that he’d seen her talking to someone.
Bethany cleared her throat. “It’s time for dinner,” she said definitively. “A cargo ship is about to port. I’m sure they’re going to have the rations we asked for. Which means I can finally make your favorite…. Diana?”
Diana, seemingly ignoring her mother, locked her attention on the back wall of the dig site. It wasn’t the first time she’d done that, and it wouldn’t be the last. Several times a day at least, she’d get trapped by that wall as if something had reached from it, grabbed her chin, and held her eyes in place.
That grain of worry William was so used to burying rose, climbing up his belly, marching up his back, and sinking into his hindbrain until a shiver raced through his limbs. He arched his shoulder around until he blocked the wall from view.
Diana just clamped one of her small hands on his arm and twisted to move past him.
He got in the way again. He also made eye contact with Bethany. She made no attempt to hide her worry anymore.
Despite the fact William had devoted his whole life to this dig, he’d started to have conversations with Bethany. Conversations about giving it a break. Or at least sending Diana back to live with his parents for a few months. Maybe if she had a chance to interact with more kids of her own age, she wouldn’t be so….
“You can put me down,” Diana said as she tried to wriggle free.
“Oh, I can, can I?” he said playfully.
“I am eight years old. I’ve heard you two talking. Eight years old is too old for you to continually scoop me up in your arms.”
Confronted, he tried to control his expression as he put her down. “Diana—”
Before he could start a serious conversation, she tilted around him and stared with fixed attention at the wall. Her gaze moved as if she was looking at something that was moving too. Which was impossible. The hover lights had shifted, and there was no direct illumination falling on the mural anymore. It was as still as a mountain. And yet his dear child’s eyes jerked from left to right as if she was somehow tracking an army through it.
A shiver raced up his back, and this time, he made no attempt to hide it. He took a step in front of her, completely blocking her view as he settled a hand on her shoulder. “Diana, your mother and I have been talking.”
She didn’t look up at him. “You want to send me away. You don’t like the fact that I talk to people you can’t see. You don’t like the fact that I still have stuffed toys and I treat them like they’re alive. You don’t like the fact I still play in the dirt. And you don’t want to have to scoop me off my feet anymore.”
Every revelation was like a blow, and he swallowed hard. “We don’t want to have to send you away. But—”
“Your father and I are a little worried that you’re not interacting with kids your own age.” Bethany leaned down, her hands on her knees as she too blocked their daughter’s view of the wall.
“Why would I want to do that?” Diana asked.
“Because there’s so much you can learn,” he tried with a smile.
Diana took a quick step to his side, looped a hand through his, and turned him around until the next thing he knew, they were both staring at the wall again. “People don’t have that much to teach me. That does.” She pointed at the wall, her finger straight and proud. “You always said the most important knowledge is from the past. And you’re right.”
Bethany took a deep sigh.
William half closed his eyes. “I did say that, didn’t I? But I’m wrong. The knowledge you can gain from the past is only one half of the equation. You must use your knowledge to benefit others. But you can only benefit others if you know who they are.”
She finally tore her gaze off the wall and locked it on him. “Why do you need to know who they are? To benefit them, all you have to do is keep them safe.”
“You can’t save people you don’t know. Now come on. Dinner is waiting.” Though he could have pushed, and though maybe this was the best time to force this conversation, he wanted to get Diana away from the wall.
Bethany was right. It was time for her to leave this outpost and discover just how large the world was beyond these four walls.
It was just when Bethany took a step to Diana’s side and rested a hand affectionately on her daughter’s head that an alarm cut through the dig site. Sharp and loud, it shook up from the ground and blared with the force of a thousand bells.
Bethany protectively shrugged toward her daughter, clamping an arm all the way around Diana’s shoulders. “What the hell is that? The red alert?”
Yes. But there was a second alarm blaring between it. William’s cheeks paled, all the blood pumping out of his face until it felt like someone had garroted him. “Invader alarm. Get Diana out of here!”
“What?” Bethany skidded down, using her large, athletic form to grab Diana up. Diana might’ve been eight, but she’d always been a preciously small girl.
As blood pounded through William’s head, thrumming in his ears until it felt as if he’d swallowed an exploding generator, he yanked up his hand and accessed his wristwatch. It was also Coalition issue. He hadn’t had to haggle for this one, though. It had been a gift from his long-term friend, Captain Fenton.
William’s fingers, slicked with sweat, dashed across the interactive device as he accessed the communication unit housed in the primary accommodation block above ground.
At least he tried to. He could get a signal out, but nothing replied.
Bethany, carrying Diana close, sprinted toward the set of stairs that would lead up to the airlock and the elevators.
“No,” William roared, his voice so strong, it croaked and rattled. “Not that way. Above ground has been overrun – comms is down. Take her back through the tunnels. Now, now—”
Bethany had a chance to turn to him. He watched as her eyes pulsed wide, as primal, maternal fear spun through her. Then something else spun into her, cutting his wife down right before his eyes.
A blast shot through the dig site primary door, collecting a chunk of it and sending it hurtling down toward his wife. William didn’t have the chance to say anything more to her. It sliced across her back, an arc of blood splashing over the floor and Diana’s face.
“Bethany!” The shout was torn from his throat as his heart was ripped from his chest. He staggered forward as his wife fell on top of Diana.
Diana’s shrieks echoed through the room, loud enough to compete with the blaring alarm.
He reached Bethany. He shunted down to his knees, not caring that they grated over a still smoldering chunk of metal. It ripped his sturdy pants and burnt his flesh, but nothing could stop him from tenderly pulling his wife’s dead body off his daughter and cradling her in his arms.
Diana shrieked in his ear, tears melting over her face as if they were acid that had eaten away her cheeks. She shoved a hand toward her mother, grabbing a handful of Bethany’s glorious, sleek jet-black locks.
William couldn’t linger. Not even for one last goodbye. He rocketed to his feet, his eyes pulsing wide as he locked them on the mangled dig site door.
This dig wasn’t dangerous, but William had always been a cautious man. Especially on outposts like this. Though this particular colony had been nothing but safe ever since he’d arrived here five years ago, a man like William Ray would never be able to shirk off his past. Being an archaeologist who specialized in managing digs in the furthest reaches of space, a healthy dose of fear was baked into his personality. One of the reasons this operation had taken so long was that William had been meticulous in building the shafts down to this site, lining the primary corridors, shipping in airlock doors that were heavy-cruiser grade, and basically ensuring that short of a Barbarian raiding party, no one would be able to blast their way down here.
But someone had. Because it was a Barbarian raiding party. William confirmed that as he stared over his shoulder at the primary door. One enormous Mascar warrior ducked his head through the mangled remains of the still burning-hot metal. As soon as the massive alien came into view, realization struck William like a blow through his heart.
He was going to die. Everyone on this goddamn outpost was going to die, even if anyone was still alive above ground.
But he would not let his daughter be one of those casualties, no matter what it cost.
Using speed he hadn’t used for years, William flung himself forward and pushed into a roll. He somehow managed to cradle his daughter’s head, protecting her fragile skull from the unyielding stone as their bodies tumbled over it. A hot, spinning blast of red pulsating energy slammed into the patch of ground where he’d been standing. It was so powerful, it didn’t just eat into the stone – it obliterated it, dust, gas, and goddamn burning chunks of rock scattering up in a devastating halo. Pieces of them landed on his back, shoulders, and the side of his face. They were like kisses from Hell itself. They didn’t just cauterize his skin – one chunk that scattered over his earlobe burnt right through it.
William couldn’t feel the pain, though. He couldn’t afford to. He pulsed to his feet and shot forward.
Out in the corridors beyond the primary site, he heard screams. All of them he recognized because all of them came from his team. The Barbarian warriors leading the raiding party didn’t make a sound apart from the occasional harsh, brutal chuckle as they mowed down another innocent.
Diana wouldn’t stop crying or screaming. She kept trying to wriggle free from his grasp to get back to Bethany. He didn’t have the time to lock a hand on the back of his daughter’s head and coo in her ear. He couldn’t afford to waste a single breath as he concentrated on navigating through the room. Barbarian blasts shot through it, lighting up his equipment and sending writhing shadows dancing over the mural as if the stone had come to life.
With a grunt from behind him, William heard that Mascar warrior bypass the stairs as he jumped 50 meters down to the base of the site. The brute landed with such a heavy thump, William could feel the shake as if a mini earthquake had gone off behind him.
Out in the rest of the dig, William heard more screams. They became higher pitched, and for the first time, he swore he heard the heavy, grating calls of the Barbarians.
A wave of intuition washed over his back, and William tried to dodge to the left, but just at the last moment, one of his heavy boots snagged against a chunk of stone, and he found his body deviating to the right.
Before total fear could pulse through him, warning him that this was the end, his own daughter latched her hands on his collar and yanked him to the side. It was just in time, and a pulsating red shot sliced past his face, close enough to sear and bubble the flesh but not rip it from his bone.
William heard more screams, and they were even more desperate now. They arced high into a chaotic cacophony like an orchestra that had just been set upon by lions. If fear hadn’t already been shuddering through his body with all the power of one of those spinning blasts that kept shooting around him, it would’ve snagged hold of his heart and obliterated it with a single squeeze. Because there was something primal about them – something bone-numbingly terrifying about those screams. It wasn’t just his team being killed by the Barbarians. It was—
The Mascar warrior reached him. William had a chance to open his arms, to throw his daughter forward, but that was it. The next thing he knew, a massive, armor-clad arm sliced down against his throat with all the power of a sword. He was wrenched back, and the breath was pushed from his lungs with all the effectiveness of somebody slamming a bat into his stomach.
He was just aware enough of his daughter to watch her fall onto the floor by his feet, to watch her eyes widen until they could drop out of her head as she screamed his name desperately.
Somehow, some precious how, William managed to force enough air into his lungs to whisper, “Run. Now. Diana, run.”
As the tears ate away at her face, she stayed by his feet and stretched a hand toward his. Fighting the Barbarian all the way as the bastard tried to choke him in front of his child, William brought up his foot and tried to kick Diana away, tried to do anything to force her to run while she still had the chance.
He wasn’t given that opportunity. The Mascar wrenched him off his feet until William dangled there like a carcass about to be strung up by a butcher.
Diana screamed. And she screamed. And she screamed.
Just as blackness swamped in from all sides, invading William’s vision like a virus decimating some poor soul, he heard scattering footfall behind him. Something struck the Mascar. The alien warrior’s fatal grip of William’s throat slackened, but the damage was done. Stars swarmed over William’s eyes as if every constellation had been crammed into his skull. He fell to his knees, the Mascar dropping him with a grunt.
William couldn’t turn around. He was only just holding onto his consciousness and his life. The only way he could see what was behind him was through his daughter’s reflective eyes. His implant was still functioning, and it narrowed in on the reflection in her large violet irises.
There was something behind the Mascar, something that had grabbed the alien by the holster on the back of his armor.
William tried to reach a hand toward his daughter, tried to whisper for her to run once more, but he couldn’t move his lips. All he could do was fall down onto his face and struggle to keep one eye open as it locked on the reflections in her deep eyes.
There was the sound of something being choked to death behind him. Terrifying guttural splutters echoed through the room, cutting through the sound of the continually blaring alarm.
“Run… Diana…” he tried, an entirely new level of fear slamming into him as he felt his life trickling through his fingers.
There was a thump as the Mascar warrior dropped to his side, dead. Then footfall. Edgy, rattling, unsteady – it sounded like the scuffling of a spider not the footsteps of a man.
As William’s body shut down, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. He expected it to be another Barbarian warrior. Though whatever it was had just killed the Mascar, that didn’t mean anything. To the Barbarians, loyalty could and would be superseded. Aggression and the rule of the strong over the weak were the only things that really counted.
Yet as something staggered into view, the last of William’s struggling senses confirmed it was no Barbarian warrior. It was one of the young undergrads the Archaeology Institute had sent for work experience – James Ventura.
William didn’t have the opportunity to process his hope. He wasn’t even given a single second to believe that James had somehow overpowered the Barbarians. Diana started screaming, and she wouldn’t stop.
James took a struggling, shuffling step forward, and William looked up to see that the man had a blast hole in his middle that stretched from his sternum right down to his hips. His torso barely connected to his legs anymore, and blood covered his body like dribbling tattoos. There was no way the man should be moving, yet he took another shuffling step. He reached a hand toward Diana.
As that hand came into view, cutting across William’s vision, he caught sight of James’ wrist. It was black. But the skin wasn’t charred. It was encased in some strange, incomprehensible writhing mass of black energy. As William’s mind struggled to understand what he was seeing and struggled to push back the waiting arms of death, he saw a stone bracelet clamped around James’ wrist and instantly recognized it was something they’d uncovered in the secondary dig site this morning.
William couldn’t ask what was happening. All he could do was watch as James pushed that infected hand toward his trembling daughter.
William tried – tried with all his goddamn might – to find the strength in his body to push up and push his daughter away, but he couldn’t move. His body shut down from underneath him like a machine slowly ripping out its own memory banks.
His impending death did nothing for his fear and only ignited it further. Though William had no idea what was happening and how James could be moving despite his injuries, William instinctively knew with knowledge from beyond himself that if James touched Diana with that hand, she’d die.
James opened his mouth wide, the move disjointed, saliva and slicks of blood covering his teeth and dripping down his lips as a hollow scream echoed from his gravelly throat. His fingers widened, snapping apart so far, they could have dislocated, and they shot toward Diana’s throat.
There was nothing Diana could do as James’ blood-covered, seething black hand clutched the bare flesh of Diana’s neck.
William roared. Just as James wrenched his daughter into the air and Diana’s legs dangled like cut strings, William tore every last scrap of energy from every last muscle. He shot to his feet, locked an arm around James’ throat, and pulled the bastard back.
The second William’s bare flesh touched James, something shot from James’ cold, stiff body into William.
Desperation. Anger. Fear. Violent, uncontrolled, purely destructive emotion. There was no other way to describe it, especially for William’s rapidly dimming mind.
He was only vaguely aware of the fact that his daughter had fallen beside him. He was only barely aware of the fact he was standing despite feeling as though he was already dead on the inside.
More screams echoed out from the rest of the dig site, primal, violent, pulsing with pure, undiluted violent fear and rage. Before William could stop himself, his head pitched back, and he let out the same bloodcurdling cry. A part of William’s body – the part that felt dead and black like the furthest reaches of space – suddenly wanted to drop James and reach toward his daughter. There was something about her unique light and warmth that attracted him like a moth to a flame.
William fought the urge. He fought it with his heart, mind, and goddamn soul. He fought it with memories of Bethany and every happy recollection of his once peaceful family.
He fought it until he clamped his teeth together and ground them so hard, blood seeped between his gums. He fought it until finally he managed to open his mouth. He fought it until he locked his gaze on Diana. “Run,” he croaked. “Run and don’t look back.”
Diana pushed to her feet. She reached a hand out to him.
“No,” he roared. “Run.”
William fought that insidious black infection as it claimed his body, but he couldn’t fight James at the same time. He wrenched himself free from William’s grip.
Diana shrieked, but she wouldn’t leave.
James once again grabbed her, this time by her wrist. James’ bare, blood-splattered, infection-covered skin closed around hers.
… But that writhing infection did not spread to William’s daughter.
Instead, Diana shrieked, clutched a stone by her side, and slammed it against James’ wrist.
There was a crack of bone. James was forced to drop her wrist, and before he could try to grab Diana up by the throat again, William pulsed forward one last time. He wrapped his arm around James’ throat and hauled him back.
“Daddy,” Diana shrieked.
“Run. Sweetie, run. Never look back. Run.” That infection continued to claim his body. He could see it out of the corner of his eye as it wrapped around his wrist, climbed his arm, and circled his chest like the waiting grip of death.
“No. No. Someone help, someone help!” Diana shrieked.
“Run,” William begged as he forced his body to hold James in place.
James’ body was cold and stiff. It felt as if his muscles had gone into rigor mortis, and yet, he kept moving with an unquenchable thirst. It was as if his limbs had turned into robots that could continue to move despite death.
As cold realization flashed through William once more, almost robbing him of the last of his mental control, he appreciated that would happen to his body soon. William wouldn’t be able to hold back the infection forever, and when it claimed his every cell in full, it would use his own damn hands to grab his daughter’s throat.
But Diana wouldn’t run. She turned from him, and she rushed a step forward toward the back wall. Her eyes grew wide as she stared at it. “Please. Please help him. Save him. Please,” she pleaded with no one at all.
James continued to struggle, and he brought his hands up, turning the nails in as he dragged them over William’s cheeks and throat. He left long gouge marks dripping with blood, and William watched as more of the infection plunged into them. He felt cold wave after cold wave of total dread spread through his body, robbing him of his continued control until William knew without a doubt that he only had seconds left. “Please, Diana, just leave.”
She got down on her knees, tears soaking her cheeks as her lips trembled open. She brought her hands up as if in supplication. She closed her eyes. “Please help me. Please. You promised you’d always be there for me.”
He had no idea who she was talking to. He didn’t care. He just had to get his daughter out of here before it was too late. Before he lost his grip—
James put on a surge of power, grabbed William’s hand, and twisted it to the side. The snap of bone crunched and reverberated through William’s arm.
James pulsed toward Diana. Diana turned her head up, her tear-streaked face framed by her hair and fear as William’s sweet child waited for death.
But that death did not come. Just before James reached Diana, something cracked from the wall. Right from the center, from the most intricate of the carvings, something moved. A blast of brilliant white-hot light shot toward Diana as William fell to his knees, his body finally giving up, the infection reaching his throat and practically strangling it like a chain around his neck.
He could do nothing for his daughter as that blast of light slammed into her. But it did not knock her from her feet. It encased her, slicing around her middle, encircling her like one of the rings of Saturn. James reached her. But just before he could lock a hand on Diana’s throat and lift her from her feet, Diana was pulled from her own feet. That strike of light circled around her faster and faster until somehow she was lifted up as if on the wings of an angel.
William could barely comprehend, barely comprehend as his body shut down and that virus eked every last scrap of control from his mind and body. But he watched, and he would continue to watch until his eyes lost all muscular control and they closed for good.
James screamed. He was thrust back as the light encasing Diana blasted out.
Something rushed through her body, from the tips of her toes to the top of her head as she suddenly landed on her feet. An exhilarating rush of energy, William swore he could feel it from here as if his nervous system suddenly connected to his daughter’s. It felt like power, like light, like the force of creation itself. And it ate into every single cell of Diana’s form until she briefly glowed like a star giving birth to another.
Though James had been blasted back, he didn’t stay down. The effects of that virus doubled, more black energy swarming over him as if it were a hive of bees claiming an attacker. There was the crunch of bone as James flung himself forward so violently, he broke his shin.
Just as he reached Diana, something formed around her. Or in her. Or over her. William could make no sense of the vision as he watched a taller woman somehow suddenly inhabit the same space as his daughter.
That vision of a woman – whoever she was – held a sword. And while William could doubt everything that was happening before his eyes, he couldn’t doubt that. For as the sword formed, it seemed to carve itself a place out of reality itself. There was no other way to comprehend the sheer importance it came with. It was like every constellation had been condensed down to create the hilt, and the vast tracts of empty space that knitted together the galaxies of the universe had been crushed into one to build the blade.
That blade could cut down anything, from men to ships to boundaries unseen.
As William stared in soul-crushing shock at what was happening to his daughter, visions spiraled through his mind. As his gaze locked on the brilliance of that blade, recollections blasted through his psyche, each more violent than the next. Yet they were not his memories – they came from races long passed, from men and women long dead.
He saw a war stretching out into the past. A war between all life in the Milky Way and a single force.
A force that called itself nothing more and nothing less than Force itself.
He saw civilizations crumble at the hands of that insatiable enemy. He saw worlds riven in two like a knife through eggs.
But he saw those who would not die rise up to fight. Soldiers, guards, heroes of races long dead – he saw as the galaxy united to thrust the Force back.
His visions wouldn’t last. Just as they threatened to blaze so brightly through William’s mind that they would burn his personality like a photo cast into a raging fire, he heard James tip his head back and let out another blood-curdling, rattling scream.
James lurched. He snapped his hand up, and the infection surged, powering over it until it pulsed like a black hole.
The woman standing not beside but within Diana brought her long, glowing blade up.
William didn’t have a chance to scream as the infection leaped from James’ outstretched fingers and shot toward Diana’s throat.
The woman moved, and Diana moved with her. As if it were her little hands holding that impossible sword, Diana sliced the blade around, right through James’ chest.
Though the blade plunged through James’ broken body, it somehow missed it. It did not miss the black virus inhabiting him. It sliced through it, unstoppable and pure like lightning on the darkest night. The black virus had no chance. It burnt up. The blade dragged every last wisp of it from James’ body and extinguished it like a flame thrown into an unquenchable ocean.
James didn’t scream. Not a single word escaped his lips as he fell face-forward. He was dead before he struck the ground. Because he’d been dead all along.
And William? William was dead too.
That realization struck him as he forced his knees to fall out from underneath him.
He watched his daughter as she brought up her hands, stared at them, then walked over to him. She took a step, and that thing – that woman made of light who was inhabiting the exact same point in space as her – took a step forward too.
Diana raced up to him. He tried to scream at her to stop; she didn’t.
If she touched him, she’d die just like he had.
But as Diana locked her hands on his shoulders, the infection didn’t spread. It couldn’t. As it lapped up against her hands, it was rebuffed.
“Daddy, Daddy,” she sobbed.
He stared at her, his eyes glassy.
He couldn’t speak.
All he could do was watch as his daughter collapsed her arms around his back and pulled him close.
Briefly, for one blissful moment, it felt as if her light could chase away the infection claiming him, but all too soon he realized that wouldn’t matter.
Nothing could save a dead man. For he’d died in the Barbarian’s arms when the warrior had crushed his throat. This – these last few seconds with his precious daughter – were nothing more than borrowed time.
She rocked back and forth, pulling him with her as she kept her arms locked around him. He could feel her tears trickling down his neck and face. They might have been wet, yet however briefly, they had a heat that thawed the frozen death overcoming him.
William managed to open one eye, and he locked it on her. That woman was still standing there, somehow imprinted over the top of his daughter as if she was an echo from the future – an echo of what his daughter would one day grow into….
As his mind shut down, more visions assailed him. They swamped him with greater weight and force like an army pinning him to the spot.
He saw world after world crumbling at the feet of the Force as they swept through the Milky Way. Clusters fell, sectors were wiped out, and the Force moved forever forward. For they existed for one purpose and one purpose alone – the total and complete annihilation of every living creature in existence. Their energy was fundamentally incompatible with life and always would be.
William lost awareness of his daughter’s never-failing grip, of her tears, of her shaking sobs. He watched a replay of the Force assailing the Milky Way all those millennia ago. He watched until something rose up to stop them.
“Daddy, don’t die. I can help you. I can eliminate the infection. Just hold on. Hold on,” Diana begged.
William barely heard her. He could no longer see past his visions. They played across his blackened vision like footage across a view screen.
Even if he could have looked away, he wouldn’t have. For as he saw something rise up to fight the force, it pushed away the last of the fear that had infected his mind along with that black energy.
“There’s hope,” he found himself saying. The words tore themselves from his throat and trembled through his parted lips.
“I can save you—” his daughter began.
“I’m dead, Diana. But there’s hope for you – hope for everyone else.”
“No. I won’t let you die.” She rocked back and forth into him. Her tears washed down her face until they slicked one side of his cheek.
He couldn’t reach a hand up and lock it on her shoulder, so he put the last of his energy into a smile. “There’s hope,” he said one last time, his voice now nothing more than a throaty, far-off whisper.
As he said that, he stared past his daughter at the woman who appeared to be possessing her. She’d been gazing at him ever since she’d appeared, and she did not drop her attention now.
Realization after realization slammed into his mind as vision after vision flew through his dying consciousness.
“You’re an angel,” he croaked. “One of the ultimate soldiers developed to fight the Force and lock them out of this realm.”
As his daughter continued to sob, the woman nodded once.
“You’re here to help us again, aren’t you? Because they’re coming again?” As he managed that, he somehow twisted his head to the side and stared at James’ dead form.
William understood. He understood exactly what happened to James, what that stone bracelet was, and what waited behind the mural to his left.
He knew what would come, not just for his daughter, but for the rest of the Milky Way.
He didn’t have the breath or time to explain everything to his sobbing daughter. She would forget this all anyway until the day she was needed. He merely focused his attention on the angel. “Look after her.”
The angel nodded.
William died, crumpling in his daughter’s arms as his mind faded away but hope remained.
Sampson had skipped Academy training. He’d gone straight into the psy corps. After his father had attacked him, Sampson – and his skills – had been discovered by a team of Coalition doctors. From that day forward, he’d been taken into a facility and trained.
That didn’t mean he was out of his depth as he strode down the wide, light bathed corridors of the main Academy building. A side effect of having undetectable, powerful psychic skills was that he was never out of his depth. All he had to do to learn how to fit in was tune in to the sea of cadets excitedly hurrying past him. As his gaze darted toward two large, older cadets who looked as if they were in their last year, he unconsciously copied their body language – their stiff shoulders, drawn but determined gazes, and resounding steps.
As Sampson opened his awareness and strode along, he felt two nervous cadets a step behind him. Their anxiousness lapped off them in waves. They were first years, and they were two parts excited to four parts overcome.
He could see why. As everyone began to assemble in the grand atrium for the first day of classes, everything was minutely designed to inculcate admiration and a grand sense of purpose. From the sweeping architecture, to the light bleeding in from the massive windows, to the sea of cadets all anxiously waiting as one. Sampson didn’t need his psychic skills to know that – a simple understanding of psychology and the forces used to manipulate others was more than sufficient.
He’d been given strict orders by Admiral Forest to fit in. If he didn’t fit in, he’d have no chance of fulfilling his mission.
The mere thought of it sent a wave of nerves racing over his broad shoulders and down his back until it felt like he’d tipped ants down the stiff collar of his uniform.
Forest suspected a covert ring of enemy agents had infiltrated the Academy. Though extensive measures had been taken to prevent such a thing from occurring since the Axira incident, times were changing. Even without his top security clearance as a psy soldier, a basic grunt would know that the last 10 years had seen a rapid deterioration in peace throughout the Coalition. From bombastic battles to old enemies raising their heads, something felt as if it was slipping out from under everyone’s feet.
In times of war – or in the deceptive bubbles of quiet you get before one breaks out – your enemies will always take the opportunity to spy on you.
If that were it, Sampson would chase away the nerves darting over his back like hot coals scattered through water. Spies he could understand. But that’s not all Forest had revealed to him. She suspected that the covert enemy operation that had infiltrated the Academy had one plot and one purpose in mind: to bring Infection Zero to Earth to let it out here, amongst the sweeping, grand, history-filled halls of the Academy.
It would be chaos. Death incarnate. If Infection Zero spread through the Academy, it would take down every single person in its path. It would blister through the halls like hellfire, reach the grounds outside, take down the sweeping old oaks that lined the paths, and move swiftly on to the city beyond like a cloud of death.
It would not stop. It would mow down everything in its path, as indiscriminate as a tsunami and just as lethal.
The virus wasn’t here yet. Sampson reminded himself of that fact as he doubled his efforts to spy on the students around him. If Forest’s intelligence was correct, a group had infiltrated the students, and that group intended to lay the groundwork for smuggling Infection Zero to Earth. It would be a complicated, almost impossible operation. You would need help along every single stage of the supply chain, from the transport routes that led to Earth, to the security stations that scanned oncoming vessels, to the Academy grounds themselves.
According to Forest’s intelligence, the plan was in the early stages of its development. If Forest were genuinely concerned that Infection Zero was imminent, she wouldn’t just shut down the Academy – she’d shut down Earth.
It was up to Sampson to find the terrorist ring, blast them apart, and stop this before it started.
He strode forward, quickly tilting his tall but lithe body to the side as he maneuvered around a group of excitedly chatting cadets. He noted that, despite the fact this hall was packed, the other cadets gave them a wide berth.
To a T, they were all attractive, powerful examples of budding Academy soldiers. They also knew that. He could practically feel their need for exclusivity as if they had the phrase better than everyone else stamped on their heads.
Moving past, he subtly scanned their minds, not prying into their thoughts but skimming their emotions like a cook dragging a spoon across the boiling surface of some broth.
He sensed pride, righteousness, strength, determination, excitement – all of it. But no anger. No vicious hatred – which is precisely what you would require if you wanted to infect every single person around you and destroy the planet you stood on.
Intending to ignore the group, he shifted to the side, but he felt as a woman turned her attention on him. Tall and attractive, she had an Amazonian quality about her, and as her sharp gaze settled on the back of his neck, she locked onto him with interest.
Sampson was hardly the biggest guy out there – but his musculature and the way he held himself would be different to every other recruit. These cadets might be training for combat, but he’d been living it most of his life.
Maybe this woman could see that Sampson was a cut above the rest because she broke away from her group. “Excuse me,” he heard her light voice pick up over the rumble of the crowd.
He knew full well she was talking to him, but that didn’t stop him from ignoring her and marching competently through the crowd until he was sure he’d left her behind.
Judging by the woman’s emotions, she’d just been about to invite him into that exclusive group of hers. Though Sampson had never been to the Academy, he could tell she and her friends had something to do with the E Club – a group that billed itself as the best of the best.
Sampson held no truck with exclusivity. Unlike most, he could feel the emotions that made exclusive groups up. And if you intended to bathe yourself in fervor, jealousy, and competitiveness, go ahead. He didn’t have the time.
He continued with his task, scanning every cadet he passed. For any other psy soldier, this would’ve been like searching for a needle in a haystack. Heck, for some, it would be worse. For the psychic races that primarily scanned emotion, a seething mass of anxious, excited students like this would be like dumping your brain in boiling water.
For Sampson, it was all part of the job.
He found himself negotiating through the crowd until he made it up to a massive set of windows that stared down onto the primary central ring of the Academy grounds. A beautiful, manicured green lawn stretched out to paths that hugged the sides of the five Academy main towers. From the sky, they looked like fingers reaching up to invite you down, and that sprawling grass lawn was like an open soft palm that could cradle you.
Long before he joined the psy corps, and long before his father cracked, Sampson had adored nature. Trawling quiet gardens, getting lost under the verdant, leafy trees, and trailing his feet through cool, babbling brooks had always given him a sense of perspective. So it wasn’t a surprise that, just for a few sweet moments, he let his gaze sweep over the view as a sense of calm washed through his tensed chest.
The moment didn’t last. He was drawn out of it as a woman to his side softly pressed her stiff fingers onto the glass. She’d been there when he’d walked up. As he cast his mind back, he appreciated she’d been standing there even as he’d made his way through the seething crowd to the windows.
And now she stood there, hardly moving as she kept her hand pressed against the glass.
… While every other cadet in this hall was overcome with excitement and nerves, this woman was in a world of her own. She wasn’t an ocean of calm, though – she was like an island separated from a continent. Her back was to the crowd, her body language was stiff, and her gaze was unblinking as she locked it, not on the grounds, but seemingly through them to something only she could see.
They shared a moment. Or at least, he shared one with her. Out of this whole crowd, she had the most interesting emotions. For hers were the most subdued. It felt like a purpose-built wall separated her from the students behind.
He instantly found himself prying her mind. Though he didn’t sense any anger, she was the most interesting cadet he’d come across yet.
As soon as his psychic skills spread out like invisible hands, she snapped her gaze over to him.
She’d been staring so vacantly, he’d been sure that she hadn’t even known he was there. Now, in a moment he would never forget, she locked two large, deep violet eyes on him. They had a slightly watery, mirrorlike quality to them, giving you the impression that if you stood close enough, all you’d see was your own reflection staring back.
He opened his mouth, not sure of what he was about to say. He didn’t get the opportunity, anyway.
The woman from earlier caught up to him. “Excuse me. What’s your name? I’m Susan – Cadet Susan Sinclair. I head up the E Club. I haven’t seen you around, yet you look as if you’re in your last year.”
Sampson didn’t blink at her barrage of questions. “I am in my final year. I transferred.” He didn’t say where he transferred from. No need. If she chose to pry, he had a ready-made, foolproof story provided to him by Admiral Forest. The kind of story that even if someone tried to dig deep into it, they’d never figure out it was a fabrication. “As for my name, it’s Mark Ray.”
The quiet woman beside him reacted. Not visibly, but the wall separating the world from her emotions cracked a little, and he stared at her out of his peripheral vision as her chest tensed.
It was his name that had done it. Did it mean something to her?
“It’s nice to meet you, Mark,” Susan said as she shoved a hand forward.
He didn’t hesitate as he grabbed it and let her do all the shaking. You could tell a lot about how a person intended to treat you by the way they shook your hand. Susan’s grip was firm and leading. A warm, attractive smile spread her equally warm and attractive lips. “You look like you’re great at combat – if you don’t mind me saying,” she said as her gaze slipped over his large shoulders before she shifted it away politely. “I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the E Club, but we are currently recruiting for the new year. After classes today, we’ve got an introduction and a training session out on the tracks. You should come join.”
“I’ll see,” he said noncommittally.
Susan slipped her gaze over to the quiet cadet he’d interrupted as if seeing her for the first time. “Can I help you, Diana?” Her voice was pointed and sharp like a sword. You didn’t need to be blessed with psychic skills to be able to detect disdain rippling through her tone.
Diana blinked, turned, and walked away without a word.
He didn’t know Diana or Susan, but Sampson was well-versed in emotional confrontation. And as Diana was practically beaten back like a town pariah, she didn’t react in the way she should. Sampson detected no embarrassment and no frustration, not even any self-pity. Diana simply turned on her foot and walked away. She hardly had a smile on her face, and she still had a detached, almost deadened gaze – but that was it.
You only got detachment that deep if someone was highly skilled at hiding their true feelings, or if they’d been beaten down so many times, they knew there was no longer any point in reacting.
Sampson had a real problem with bullies. Others might see their actions – he felt their feelings. And the powerful, cruel, greedy need to control the weakest in the group was one of the ugliest feelings you could get.
He only just held back his disdain as he looked at Susan. “She was standing here first,” he made a point of saying.
“Well, now she can walk away. Sorry,” Susan shook her head, “that probably sounds rude.”
Not probably. It was rude. As a psy soldier, he didn’t technically have a commission like an ordinary officer in the Coalition Army. He was in a different command stream. He operated under dictates of admirals, and that was it. Despite not being a standard lieutenant or commander, he still outranked this cadet by a factor of 10 to 1. If he hadn’t been knee-deep in a mission, he would’ve sent her straight for reprimand. As it was, he struggled not to cross his arms.
“I wouldn’t have anything to do with Diana if I were you. Let me be the first to warn you – steer clear of the Angel of Death.”
His cheek twitched. It was a quick move, and he hid it as he tried to press a curious smile over his face.
The Angel of Death meant something different to Sampson. It was a nickname amongst the psy corps for Infection Zero. Before he could get too ahead of himself and take that as evidence that the quiet Diana was the terrorist he was after, he reminded himself that phrase had a different meaning to cadets.
“An Angel of Death is someone who just drags you down,” Susan explained needlessly. “No friends, no hope, no help. And if you’re ever stuck with only her watching your back, you know she’ll get you killed. If it weren’t for her daddy, she would’ve been kicked out first year, first day.”
Susan jammed a thumb in the direction of where Diana had wandered off. “That’s Luther Fenton’s kid. Sorry, adopted kid.”
Luther Fenton arguably had one of the most important posts of any of the admirals, especially in these dark times. As the man in control of every outer force that protected the borders of the Coalition, as peace degraded, he was the guy everyone looked to to buy the rest of the Milky Way time.
Sampson hadn’t even known Luther had adopted.
“If it weren’t for daddy,” Susan continued, “Diana would be out on her ass. She has more complaints against her than any other cadet ever. But her dad is too soft to do anything about it, I guess.”
Yeah. Sure. Luther Fenton was soft. A man who could, and had, single-handedly taken on whole Barbarian raiding parties. A man who had a deserved reputation for keeping soldiers at the height of their performance, day in, year out. And a man who had been single-handedly picked for his position because of those skills.
If Luther Fenton was soft, then so was a meter-thick wall of lead.
Perhaps Susan read something in Sampson’s expression because her cheeks paled slightly. “This isn’t me dissing an admiral. I’m just stating what every other cadet here knows – Diana Fenton shouldn’t be here. So if I were you, I’d steer clear.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
“So will I see you this afternoon?”
Though his first inclination was to tell her to go to hell and that she could shove her exclusive group up her ass, he managed a smile. He had a job to do, and he couldn’t start burning bridges, especially with groups like the E Club. Exclusivity tended to be a hotbed for radical views. If he could infiltrate them, he could see if Susan’s derision for heroes like Fenton extended to hating the Academy as a whole.
“Yeah, I’ll see if I can make time.”
Susan smiled, flashing him a look over her shoulder as she walked away. “I’ll see you around, Mark. I’m final year, too, so we’ll have combat together in an hour.”
He locked his gaze on her and didn’t blink once. “See you in combat.”
Sampson didn’t unlock his senses from Susan until she was well out of sight in the thick crowd. She had an interesting, complex emotional profile that was well worth looking into. And that wasn’t just at the fact she’d displayed open derision of an admiral. She’d taken real pleasure in chasing Diana away.
Speaking of Diana, as he cast his gaze down the corridor, he could see that she’d continued on 50 meters or so, only to find another patch of a window for herself. In a replay of what she’d been doing beside him, she stared out of the glass morosely with a hand softly clamped on it.
There might’ve been 50 meters between them, and cadets and officers might’ve been walking in between, but that didn’t stop Diana from turning and staring at him suddenly. Even from here he swore he could see her reflective violet irises as if they were right up close.
She pushed away from the glass, and he quickly lost her in the crowd.
He made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t be losing her forever, though. There was something unusual about Diana Fenton, and he would find out exactly what that was.