The war raged.
Wars, after all, rarely took time to pause. Especially when the stakes were this large.
Lara wasn’t still in the cavern, though she spent her time traveling between it and the primary outpost at the foot of the mountain continually like a shepherd checking on her flocks.
The 200,000 inhabitants of this world hadn’t been discovered yet. The prevailing theory was they had something to do with those piles of dust – but it wasn’t one Lara agreed with. As for the piles, they remained. And occasionally sprites rose to haunt her soldiers. She’d told them all that the secret to fighting them was to wear their regrets on their sleeves. To be open with the mistakes of their pasts. It was imprecise advice, however. It wasn’t like giving them targets to shoot at with their guns or a concrete destination to travel to.
But it made the difference. The psychic sprites, by and large, attacked the Scarax gods and forces more than they did Lara’s people.
It meant the settlement was relatively protected. For now. Lara didn’t even need to inch her head up and stare through the Hendari shield she’d created to realize the battle in space wasn’t going well.
The entire imperial fleet was here, but only half the Coalition fleet had arrived. Only a few more contingents of ships would come, anyway. While this planet was undoubtedly the most important place in Coalition space right now, she understood exactly how the Scarax fought. After all, this wasn’t the first battle she’d waged with them. They would go after every single important planet in the Milky Way, just not with the majority of their fleet. They’d use small ships designed to blast through defenses quickly and do targeted damage before they were destroyed.
So the Coalition fleet had to be spread thin.
Which meant what Lara had here now around Faxon A would have to do.
There was suddenly an almighty crackle from above her. She instinctively dropped to her knees and yanked her head up. It was in time to see the Hendari shield buckle. Slightly. It didn’t crack, didn’t break apart like a rainbow that had somehow been shattered by a torpedo. But it did show a moment of weakness.
“What the hell was that?” she snapped, jamming a hand on her wrist device as she did.
She was in constant contact with the Mercury. They were leading the attack on the imperial fleet. Shields were down to 70 percent, but every single one of Lara’s forces on her ship knew what to do, understood how to give their all when it mattered most.
“A massive imperial cruiser has just appeared,” Chief F’stal said, her voice this crackling static-filled hiss. Either it was something affecting the communication field, or the chief was knee-deep in some conduit pit, desperately attempting to work while communicating with Lara at the same time, regardless of the resultant interference.
“Does the ship belong to the empress?” Lara barked.
“Yeah, that’s my guess. I reckon she is on it, too. I reckon she thinks she can smell the blood in the water. She is wrong though, right, Admiral? We still have time. Still have a chance.” There was a deep question in the chief’s voice. A leading one. She wanted Lara to say they had this in the bag, that with just a little more effort, they’d sweep through the imperial fleet with ease.
But this was no longer in Lara’s hands.
As she let the silence drift on, the emptiness filled in her answer, and the chief let out a sigh. “Great. I guess that means I will have to stay down this pit, busting a gut to keep this ship running.”
“I would ask nothing less of you.”
“If that really is the empress’s ship, I guarantee you she’s got Eyes of the Gods and Hands of the Gods. She will use them to get to our crystals. Hold on tight, Admiral.”
“She is not the only one who possesses such things.”
“Are you talking about Vivian Bond and Isabel Carter? I thought they were already out on missions?”
“They have been recalled. Every asset we have that can fight the Scarax Galaxy is on its way, Chief. So I just ask you this—”
“Hold on,” the chief cut right to the most important part. Then she let out a throaty rumble. It crackled over the line, making the disturbance even louder. “Yeah. I’ll hold on. You better ensure it counts though, Admiral Forest.”
With that, the communication ended.
Lara got back to her feet. She stared warily up at the crackling force field. Light blasted across it. It wasn’t just when it was withstanding attacks from the Scarax fleet above. It was the very nature of the shield. The light was seemingly random, just these bursts almost like stars appearing in the night sky. Or perhaps the far more accurate thing to say was they were like random thoughts flitting through someone’s mind.
Lara still didn’t understand why the Hendari crystals were choosing to help her now. The last conversation she’d had with Alice, she’d promised it wasn’t going to be that easy.
This wasn’t easy. Lara had found a miracle to develop a quick and effective exploit to create that shield. But now as she yanked her head above her once more, she saw another bright fluctuation as a pulse of blistering light smashed into it. She didn’t need her wrist device to beep with an insistent message to know it was another attack from the empress’s vessel.
Lara Forest tilted her head down. She ground a hand into a fist. Then she turned.
She almost came face-to-face with one of those regret sprites.
She stared it down, using nothing more than her own undiluted will. It didn’t reach toward her. It shifted away, breaking in front of her like a wave that realized there was no point in getting in the way of a speeding ship.
Lara could stare her regrets down. For now. But as the casualties mounted and the war raged, they would fill her up once more.
She could do all she could to hold Faxon A, but the future of everything was now in Joseph’s and Sally’s hands. Wherever they were and whatever terrors they would face would dictate everything.