The battle had only heated up. She could now see continuous flashes blasting over the horizon line as if a thousand meteor showers were all converging at once. The Coalition at least still had the crystals. For now. That refrain kept playing in her head. For now. The Scarax Galaxy was determined to get inside the cavern. When they did, the Coalition’s fate would be sealed. The battle was already taking its toll. Though the galaxy was holding up, significant Coalition resources had already been destroyed. Two supermassive heavy cruisers – including one whose captain she’d worked with for years – had been destroyed in the battle for Earth. But now was no time for regrets. That was something she had to remind herself of continuously.
Perhaps it had been a stroke of genius or sheer stupidity to keep the regret sprites around. Then again, even if she had dedicated resources to try to get rid of them, she knew it was impossible. She had no clue where they came from, but they were a force unto themselves. Now her team knew what to do to defend themselves, the sprites primarily attacked the Scarax assets. The same happened right now as a glowing male god appeared right beside Lara, transporting in from the growing crack in the Hendari shield above. The guy had a chance to reach one of his light-covered hands toward Lara, then a sprite rose up between them. It looked like another goddess. The god flinched and jerked back, the light surrounding his form – that which had been so strong seconds before – dimmed like a candle thrown in a glass.
“Impossible,” he stammered, and despite the fact it was in another language, Lara’s wrist device translated easily. “I killed you years ago, wife.”
“You always killed anyone who got in your way, didn’t you? But you don’t ultimately have a heart for killing. Every act twisted you further, twisted you away from who you wanted to be, twisted you, twisted you,” the regret sprite hissed as she got closer and closer.
The god jerked back. He attempted to attack now, but it was too late. The regret sprite grabbed hold of his arms and shoved in close. He screamed, and though his voice could arc up with crippling fear, that was it. He couldn’t face his ultimate regrets – and the sprite pulled him down.
Forest jerked around, knowing she had to keep her wits about her as more assets kept transporting in. Sure enough, as she jerked her head up, it was to the sight of one of those Scarax vessels slicing over the top of the shield like an eagle tracking prey. The largest of the Scarax ships was pushing down far nearer to the planet than Coalition heavy cruisers would ever dare to. It took a lot of effort to land something so big on a planet with gravity. It also took a lot of energy to take off again. It could be disruptive to the natural environment as well. You try turning your thrusters on to full when you have a settlement right behind you. Massive powerful engines were meant for space where your exhaust wouldn’t burn entire cities if you got too close to them.
But clearly the gods didn’t have those kinds of compunctions. As Lara lifted her head up now, she saw the greatest of their ships starting to sweep in close – its massive lit underbelly blocking out the sun until the settlement was cast into an eerie, flickering shadow. She didn’t need her wrist device to crackle to know what it was and what it meant. She was still connected to the Mercury, and she got a sudden message from F’stal. “That’s the empress’s vessel. We’ve done everything we can, but we can’t stop her. My guess is she’s coming after the crystals personally. She will have Hands of the Gods, Forest. Just—” The message cut out. Lara didn’t desperately try to get it back. She could tell the empress’s vessel had created a communication jamming field. In time, her people would probably be able to break through it. But the most important aspect of that equation was time.
She had one single second, one cold, silent moment to stare up, then the empress’s ship attacked the Hendari shield directly. It sent rocketing flashes of this powerful yellow-blue light blasting into it. By now, Lara had connected her best scanners to it to monitor its integrity. They all suddenly blared that it was losing strength fast.
“We can’t take too many more hits,” Mohammed roared from her side as he took on a glowing goddess who looked as if she had a form that’d been carved right out of the heart of a star.
No. They couldn’t take much more than this. Neither could Lara, it seemed. Because a blast of light suddenly shot down right beside her. The Hendari shield might not have broken yet, but it was fluctuating. As it did, Scarax forces ported in. She was ready for a Hand. She didn’t get one. She got someone much, much more important.
Lara’s intelligence assets in the Scarax Galaxy always kept an eye on who was the current ruler. It was necessary, because they changed frequently. There was no such thing as loyalty in the Scarax Galaxy. What there was was the mightiest ruling the weak – as long as they remained strong. What was that old adage? If you live by the sword, you die by it? It was the most fitting statement to summarize the Scarax Galaxy’s system of control.
That blast of light appeared right next to Lara. She had to jerk back and bring up her gun. As the image revealed itself, she saw none other than the empress. It was easy to pick the current ruler of the Scarax Galaxy, because the symbols carved into their body were different. The way the Light of the Gods inhabited them was far more complete. It feasted on their forms permanently, a parasite that would never be removed. But one, while it fed on them, that would give them every single power they ever dreamed of.
The empress narrowed her glittering, illuminated eyes at Lara. It was only a momentary thing. It wasn’t as if she waved a hand and suddenly paused the entire battle to glower at her completely. It was just a flash of anger. Just a second of a look that could carve right through bone and rip out someone’s heart. Then the empress threw herself forward. “In the Scarax Galaxy,” she hissed, “it is the right of one ruler to take down another.”
Lara jerked back. She leveled her gun but rather than fire right at the empress, gouged a hole out of the dirt beneath her. She staggered to the side, and it slowed her down, but it didn’t stop her. All she had to do was open her arms wide and call on her Light of the Gods. As it surrounded her and her long hair cascaded around her in a wave of power, she lifted up. It looked as if she’d been gobbled up by a storm cloud – as if she was a permanent stuck strike of lightning. It simply hadn’t decided what it would hit yet.
She lifted higher and higher, her deadly gaze never deviating off Lara. “I will destroy you, and when your head rolls, the Coalition will be mine. You are the weakest leader I have ever come across.”
“I don’t own the Coalition. I’m nothing more than an admiral.”
“On that we can agree,” the empress snarled. She finally snapped her hands up. The sound was disconcerting. It didn’t sound like much, see. But it was accompanied by an unholy blast of light.
The empress’s vessel had paused its attack on the Hendari shield. Clearly it didn’t want the entire thing fracturing and taking the empress down with it.
That didn’t mean Lara and her forces were safe. More of the empress’s assets ported in all around Lara. She couldn’t pay too much attention to them. Take her eyes off the empress even for a second, and it would be Lara’s last.
“Your galaxy should never have discovered ours. If you had only kept quiet, you might still be allowed to live.”
“You don’t get to decide who lives,” Lara snarled back. She still clutched her gun, holding it hard against her chest, her eyes wide, every dart of them calculating as she searched for another target. She could try to amuse herself with shooting the empress directly, but that would be just as effective as firing bullets into the ocean to try to kill it.
The empress and her light could take any attack Lara could throw at them. If she wanted to defeat the empress, she’d have to be a hell of a lot more calculating.
The empress had clearly had enough of taunting Lara, and she opened her hands wide. A plume of the Light of the Gods shot forward.
Lara hadn’t been idle for the past hour of bloody fighting.
She’d set up remote transporters everywhere. She connected to one now and ported right out of the way just in time. The empress’s attack smashed into a demountable behind where Lara had been standing. There was no fire. There wasn’t even the sound of something crumpling as it was struck by a far greater physical force. There was just the bubbling of burning metal. Then nothing.
If Lara thought that one of those regret sprites would rise and take on the empress, she was fresh out of luck. A few piles shivered close to her, but perhaps they didn’t dare rise up, not when the empress had so much force.
Lara staggered back again, twisted, and ran. The only thing she could hope to do was get this battle away from her people. It was clear the empress was here for her. Sure enough as Lara charged around the side of an already smoldering tree, the empress followed. She never put her feet back down on the ground. Lara imagined to someone like the empress, the ground simply wasn’t good enough to carry her.
The Light of the Gods continued to surround the empress’s already glowing body. Lara understood the Light of the Gods was a rapacious parasite. To be fair, it wasn’t a parasite at heart. It was something that’d been taken over by the Hendari and given to the Scarax gods. It was something that essentially did as it was told. If you gave it another path, a stronger, more righteous way, it would abandon its host. But that would take time, and Lara certainly didn’t have a second to reach in to attempt to connect to the empress’s light and try to convince it there was another way forward.
Lara had to concentrate on finding her own way forward. The path away from the settlement was now treacherous. Whole sections of it had been completely blasted away. This area was naturally mountainous, the rocks treacherous and porous. If you amused yourself with smashing the ground up, you simply created cliffs everywhere to the numerous caves below. As she tried to throw herself along the path, she reached a section with a meter-wide hole. It led right down the side of a precipitous cliff. But Lara didn’t have time to pause. She threw herself forward and just made the leap.
But nothing slowed the empress down.
“The Milky Way will become nothing more than a feeder galaxy for my people. You will be our new slaves. You personally, if I choose to allow you to live, will serve me for the rest of your life. You will never have a chance to fight again. Your heart will be crushed, both physically and metaphorically. I have lived my entire life ruling over others. You may have thought that you were a leader, Admiral Forest, but you know nothing of how the real world works.”
“I know you’re not in control. Regardless of how much you would like to think you are, you are nothing more than a puppet for the Hendari. You do not even understand the technology you wield. You simply play with it like a child who’s stumbled across someone else’s toy.”
“No one dares challenge the Scarax gods.”
“You are not gods. You are creatures made into the image of the Hendari. And make no mistake, they were not gods, either. They were fools. But if you think you will ultimately rule when you win here, think again. Work with the Observers, and all you will do is condemn the universe.”
“You don’t understand power,” the empress roared as she shot up into the air then appeared just before Lara. “All you understand is weakness. Now let me rip it right out of your heart and throw it at your feet. Your soldiers will follow.”
She reached toward Lara. And there was nowhere to go.