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    Stellar
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Hidden Sunlight - 19. Sunlight Unbound

I could hear the combat behind me as I ran, Mira beginning his defence of our underground passage. Though the urge to look behind was strong, to make sure he was okay, I knew it would be a big mistake to stay close enough for the sharpelings to detect me, and that he would best them as he had everything else so far. Instead, my vision was filled with the grey-black of the undercity, a moving collage of gloom and straight lines. Aspira's base level, in the CBD at least, rested on a network of connected tunnels that seemed to roughly imitate the streets above.

The sounds faded from earshot until they were gone but I did not stop. It was as much because I did not know what else lurked in the dark, than to meet anything that might have given pursuit; I was not eager to find out, either way. A sallow glare came down a shaft from the surface, the tunnels seeming to be at an end. I had judged the distance to the square as equating to six blocks or close to that, and I reached the final block in an uneventful run. There was no way onwards; nothing ahead but a wall, a horizontal barrier that prevented any forward movement, restricting the directions to left, right and retreat.

Whatever lay beneath the square was not directly connected to the rest of Aspira's underside.

Taking a deep breath, I made my way up the ladder to the surface. The metal cover went up with some effort, the hinges protesting after so long unused. I pulled myself back into the open once more, eyes adjusting to the daytime. My greeting was the full view of Accession Memorial Plaza, the olden centre of Aurum's rule.

Whoa.

My point of emergence was on the western boundary road of the square, just north of where Lancaster Avenue joined. To the south just three or four blocks distant was the tallest building in the city, the Gould-Johnson corporate headquarters; a monumental glass and metal tower, narrowing in graduations as it ascended ever higher. Many of the panels on the lower floors were smashed, but up higher, the reflective layers were nearly untouched, remaining pristine in spite of the centuries of disrepair. It was surrounded by a posse of almost-as-tall buildings, a scattering of hulks, none of which I recognised.

On the eastern ocean-facing side and behind me, westward, were more modest constructs, an example of Aspira's proudest and busiest commerce. Department stores, eateries, luxury goods; this was prime real estate, for whomever had been able to afford the market rates and upkeep. The north side of the square was a single building; massive in ground area in the same way the Gould-Johnson tower was tall. It was no skyscraper, though it did still rise a number of stories above most of the surrounding buildings, like a cruise ship at dock, an elongated bulky oversized extension of architecture. I had not known that this particular building was located directly here, but I knew instantly what it was when I laid eyes on it: the centre of government.

Aspira's seat of power.

The square itself was huge. Each corner had a statue of a winged angel, facing outward on the diagonal, blindfolded and carrying a scales in one hand, a sword in the other. In the centre was a statue of a man, most likely Giovanni, Lucere's principal founding father and the one who spoke the quote that had led us here. The figure was grasping a book to his chest, and on the other side, he was holding a little girl's hand, who was close by him. The pedestal alone was taller than me, the whole statue being maybe a dozen metres high. It all sat on a raised dais, also square, and two metres at most above the rest of the plaza. Wide flat steps transitioned from the raised centre and statue down, in each of the four cardinal directions. At the four corners where the steps finished, the dais was edged by a small ornately decorated balustrade.

It's ... bigger than I thought. While the plaza's surface, beginning just across from the road's verge, was composed of a mosaic of rocky marble tones, the patterning an organic mess of shape and style, it was also damaged and littered with military barricades. Scoring and blast marks had obliterated or obscured sections of the plaza's artistry; prefabricated barriers and fixed gun points sat long motionless, a hint to the last days of Aspira's stewardship.

Wow. I could be the first person to set foot here in a very long time. Maybe since the city fell. I walked slowly across the road, eyes still fixed on the statue of Giovanni Trovatelli in wonder. Here and there too, were human remains, but no more than partial skeletons. Time and the weather had turned them into remnants only; cracked dirty bones to remind anyone that people had ever been here at all.

Then, another thought came to me.

Where are the sharpelings? Why aren't any here? The sound of gunfire was audible from the west, where I had come, but here? It was eerily silent, the square more like the centre of a wild-west ghost town, missing only the tumbleweed. Why is this place so empty? It must just be the control node, right? After all, sharpelings aren't going to want to be near it for long. Stands to reason the plaza would be deserted.

Whatever the cause was, it didn't much matter. I was within spitting distance of the control node. There would be an access hatch in the middle of the plaza, not far from the statue. All I had to do was find it and then- ... then it was time to get to the bottom of this.

I had gone no more than two steps when there was a sharp pain in my torso, momentary, then gone. I hunched forward slightly in discomfort, clutching my stomach.

AH! What the hell?!

It had been a quick jabbing sensation, almost like I'd been nicked by something sharp. There was a wetness on my fingers and the material's rough edge confirmed it, as my hand came away from my shirt.

Blood?

Something had gone through my shirt and cut me, a small tear already stained wine-dark. Exactly like a knife, or, say, a sharpeling claw.

But ... I'm alone. No people, no sharpelings. No anyone.

My eyes shot over the barricades, the shapes of the buildings, the inanimate memorabilia from Lucere's struggle. There was nothing here. Nothing that could threaten me. So, what gives?

The next jab was a couple moments later, just as swift as the first and appearing alongside it in a rapid bloom of pain. I looked down at myself, red dripping from the cuts, dotting my palm as I stared in both confusion and horror.

What's doing this? My hand shook and I bit my lip, repressing the fear as I stared at the wound. It's a cut just like a sharpeling claw, but there's ... no-one, nothing else here. I stared about myself wildly, beginning to feel that same tinge of latent insanity attempting to creep into my perspective. What the fuck is happening?! It- ... it can't be anything else. I'm on my own. I can't see anything and-

Oh.

I couldn't see anything.

There came a very unpleasant consideration; a moment of rather terrifying possibility.

What if this is something I can't see?

In perfect tempo with my thoughts and physical reactions in such an unnerved state, there was a sound. From just a metre away off to the right, out of the air itself, came a menacing rattled hiss. It was a hunter's mark, gentle and subtle, the voiced warning lingering for just long enough to give notice, to embed itself into the consciousness of the prey.

Oh ... fuck.

I most definitely wasn't alone.

In an instant, my heart was pumping madly and my senses were on full alert. Wheeling, my hands in front of me, I tried to keep my breathing under control, to catch any sound at all, to know where this foe was ... but nothing.

FUCK. Oh god ...

Alone, in the open, at the mercy of an opponent programmed to kill me. Fighting blind.

Only, I wasn't really fighting at all.

The next hit was a double, a claw gouging my forearm, another puncturing near my neck. I could not stop myself from crying out, my fingers clutching at the neck-wound. Ignoring the pain, the shaking and the fear, the sudden uncertainty I faced, the situation was increasingly obvious. Unless I figure something fast, I'm going to die.

"Whatever you are," my voice sounded raspy and so weak, so insubstantial in the plaza's expansiveness, "keep pushing me, I'll push back. You hear me?"

Trembling, still clutching my neck, my eyes roamed fruitlessly over the background, my rhetoric as apparently empty as the air around me. Then I felt it, teeth slicing into the tendons near my free wrist. In that moment, as if in some hideous partnership with the physical hurt, grouped with the pitiful cry that came from me as the creature bit into my arm, I could hear it.

Into my mind came a deluge of thoughts, emotions, feelings.

Like a radio, tuning through screeds of static and suddenly: sound! An incomprehensible garble of electronica contorted in my head, a chorus and a solo act in one. There was a strange echoing harmony to it, but it was a mixture of mental noise; a deep rumbling bass, an oscillating snarling pitch, the unearthly burr of throaty breathing. Sharp, hard and so cold, it was a language as strong and brutal, as cut-throat and foreign as the sharpelings themselves.

It was the true communication of our enemy ... and I could understand it.

Impossible.

Even as the teeth withdrew from the fresh wound at my wrist, the noise continued and what's more, I could detect flashes of ... comprehension, of ... language. Direct meaning, explicit intent, and just as unasked for, I felt the noise from the creature stop in immediate amazement and indignation. It recognised me in turn, the simple act of receiving the signal being enough to place me on that radar; it knew I could hear it and the one-way train of thought became shared.

Your voice fouls the Song! Defiler!

I have only defended myself! I threw my internal speech at the faceless force that buzzed and roared in my mental eardrums. I have done nothing to you!

The hate, the fury, was so easy to feel and it seemed to crystallise in my mind as if it were a solid thing, real enough to materialise. Every tone was etched with it.

In your heart is a terrible corruption. You blunder carelessly and with each step, the Hallowed Dawn suffers!

You are the corruptor! You cause suffering!

The anger in the creature seemed to magnify and the response was an imperious ultimatum, a ringing rebuttal, that was absolute and terrifying. I didn't know whether it fully understood me and what I had 'said' or whether the language, syntax and structure, was just an approximation, a loose interpretation of what was truly intended.

Soon, your strands will be cut. The Melody will swell across the paths, the Dawn will flood it. The poison you wield, the destruction that follows you, a blind child treading the footsteps of titanic demons; this will end. From nowhere, a mental fog seemed to beat upon me, a reproachful loathing that encompassed everything I was told, and then some. It was a spiteful constancy that could not stand me, that felt I was far below any kind of pity, so far gone that there was only a searing hatred remaining.

Your disharmony will sleep beneath our eternal vigilance. Glory is yours, saved from imperfection of essence. Here, on this blighted world as on all the realms of your kin so purified, you will be free at last.

An invisible foe, a voice in my head and now- ... now the words, the truth, a totally surreal thing. It made me pause, beyond the wounds I had been given, reeling at what I had just learned. The meaning was clear and I could only paraphrase it as I went over the information: 'on this blighted world' -- Lucere -- it would become the same 'as on all the realms of your kin so purified', which meant ... the 'purification' -- none other than the Sharpe virus itself -- had already appeared on and 'purified' other human-colonised planets.

This wasn't just Lucere. It never had been.

It- ... it can't be true ...

The Sharpe virus had reached other human worlds.

I felt dizzier, sicker than I should. I didn't know how many of our colonies it had invaded, but the apprehension over Earth's fate remained. If the home planet had been breached ...

No. No, I told it, you will not do this. Not while I can stop you. Not now, not ever!

My only reply was a soft hiss, the mental sound cut off, the communication done. There followed a deadly silence; that smallest window of grace, the glimpse into the sharpeling world now gone.

I turned, shoes scuffing on the stone as I tried to anticipate where the next strike would come from. The pistol I had was useless, no good against an enemy that was unseen. I had no melee weapons, nothing for close combat. Only my hands, my mind, and the dormant power locked inside me, refusing to awaken even at this stage.

I was truly alone.

Konstantin, Carlos -- where are you?! I need you guys. A wisp of air brushed by my face and I shivered. My emotions surged and the despondence gave way to the desire, the heat that sustained me, that I craved and needed to feel whole. I was lost without him and I needed him now more than ever.

Mira! Mira ... I want you to come ... you have to come ... my miracle ...

Then, as I closed my eyes for just a second to calm the spiraling blast of intense feeling, when I opened them again, there it was.

Just like at Volkov.

Yet, this time there was no warning, no fanfare. It simply happened. The world was outlined with gold, the vision of aqumi igniting. It coated everything in the plaza and further out, both a wireframe and a skin, and also a filling through and through. It moved in the air like sunlight hidden from the normal eye. The glow from beneath the plaza's surface was particularly noticeable, indicating more exactly the location of the node. Not only that, but just a couple of metres in front of me, to my left ... my invisible tormentor. The sharpelings at Volkov had simply not mingled with the aqumi field, the virus and aqumi's radiance unable to coexist at all, but here?

Here, it was worse.

The arbiter was a black hole. It was not merely the absence of light, but a shadow through which I swore I could see into some other reality, an opening to a void of space and darkness. The ambient aqumi could do no more than skim the surface. It was a silhouette of movement, and it was circling me slowly as it prepared for the next blow.

My fists clenched and I tried not to look directly at where it was, to give away that I knew any different. This motherfucker is playing with me, cat-and-mouse, for its own amusement. It's testing me, observing me, like any intelligent predator does with prey. The same haze of the fire Carlos had described on the creature's skin was not possible to tell with it cloaked from sight. I could make out, barely, the head and the shape of the limbs. The description he had given of 'a statue made of bones and claws' seemed right. It was taller and thinner than the average sharpeling, but everything about it was alien and ... sharp. If the idea of a killing weapon, an assassin's blade, was given the form of a living creature, turned into an actual being, it would look exactly like this.

Shay, you can do this.

Closer, the arbiter came as it continued in a stilted orbit of me. It was so near now and I had to force myself not to react, not to make any sign to let it know I could perceive it. The presence of this ghastly creature scarcely past the distance I could reach was petrifying. So too was the unsettling silence and disarming graceful movement as it stalked me, but I quashed that.

I was not going to give up so easily.

Not to anything.

No fear.

A darting movement and the claw sliced into my stomach, a new ripping pain just on my ribs. My gasp of hurt was not faked at all, and the arbiter was back out, again circling patiently, slowly, to my front, the head shifting as it studied me, preparing for a soon impending final blow. It edged forward, finally entering my proximity, the jaws opening in a soundless deadly yawn for the imminent attack. The head was angled forward and down, ready for a quick decisive bite that would close over my head and neck, breaking me, killing the unsuspecting human in one single move. Right when it was at that perfect distance, just within an arm's reach, I acted.

My hands shot out, clamping onto the creature's skull, one on either side. For a second, it did not move, unable to comprehend how this was happening and what I was doing, then I felt it thrash. Talons stabbed into my torso in a line, a row of white-hot blades, this time plunging in more than just surface deep; the other clawed hand ripped into my shoulder muscles. It was unimaginably painful and I yelled out, a wavering cry of pure agony. Still clinging to the arbiter, the fire of it burned like an acidic splash on my skin, but I would not relinquish my grip on the bony ridges of its face.

The floodgates were opened.

A stream of aqumi poured through my hands into the arbiter, a deluge that I pushed as hard as I could, wanting to drown this thing to death and more. The fire was doused and I ripped open the mental door it had closed upon me, baring the perceptions it possessed to my will. Forcing it to hear me, denying it choice and response in the matter.

I can see you.

It shrieked, fighting in my grip, berserk, but held in place by what I was doing to it. It tried to formulate some kind of response, the claws digging further into my flesh and I grimaced, gasping as the pain intensified, but I squeezed it tighter and told it, commanded it, to stop. My voice boomed through it, the aqumi turning the words into a shout.

Silence!

The physical reaction halted, running into the brick wall of my order. Internally, however, there was no such peace. Reaching further, the light within me cut through the alien membranes of the arbiter's mind and I was seeking, deeper and deeper within. This thing was composed of sickening darkness and slippery shadow until ... until I found the heart of it. The glowing blade, the scalpel of aqumi, drew a line around it and then squeezed, crushing that squirming pulsing abomination. It fought to escape the noose, but the shrinking prison I placed it in gave no quarter, tightening to nothing until it was smaller than small, then ... gone.

Air shimmered and the arbiter flashed into visibility. The flames were extinguished and the glossy black armour was dulling into a pallid ash grey and just like that, the limbs retreated, the knives retracting from me. For five seconds it stood there, trembling, then it simply collapsed, crumbling into dust. The disintegration was so rapid and final that my hands remained in the air, still grasping for the creature that was no longer there.

Unmade.

I staggered, unable to keep standing and fell to the ground. I could barely move my right shoulder, my left wrist was mangled and a half dozen wounds were soaking my shirt with blood. I took my backpack off, shaking so hard I could barely hold anything.

Need to slow the bleeding. Pulling out a spare shirt, I ripped off a strip. I had no clue how to make a tourniquet, but I had to try. Wrapping a piece around my wrist and tying it as tightly as I could stand, I sat back, already out of energy. Need to do it again, for my shoulder, but so tired.

So very tired ...

-o-0-O-0-o-

I awakened to a prickling stinging sensation tapping on my cheek. Moaning, I opened my eyes, feeling so drained and wanting only to sleep again. Batting my face with a pawful of claws, the kitten was standing on my chest and once it realised I was conscious it mewed for my attention, but did not stop, the little pin-pricks continuing with typical persistence.

"Hey," I croaked, weakly, and it mewed again as I sat up, moving the tiny creature into my lap, "you're a stubborn little guy, aren't you?"

It mewed again, seeming to confirm my evaluation.

"How long was I out, I wonder?" I muttered it to myself under my breath. The sun didn't look as though it had shifted in the sky at all from what I last remembered, so probably only a couple of minutes. A strip of material lay next to me and I remembered that I had not finished wrapping and staunching the wound on my shoulder. There was also the fact that if I had not been woken up by the kitten, I would have continued to lose blood until even aqumi could not save me and I was too weak to wake up at all.

Shit.

As I was winding the bandage around, I felt the kitten curl up comfortably in my lap. While the wrist and shoulder wounds seemed to be shallower, they had bled a lot more than the goring in my ribs and torso. I wasn't sure if that was due to the sort of tissue on my mid-section the arbiter's claws had pierced or perhaps it was just luck that it hadn't gone all the way into a major artery or vital organ.

Have to wonder if he somehow knew I would need help. Wincing as I tightened it, managing to pull the bandage into a clumsy knot, I turned my attention to my unexpected helper. It protested as I lifted it up and placed it back into the backpack. He couldn't be here right now, so he gave me you as a guardian instead.

Never going to look at cats the same way again.

Shouldering the pack, I began to navigate the plaza. I picked my way through the various obstacles, cutting across the northern steps onto the statue's dais and then down again the eastern side. Though I was lucky to be alive, my body felt incredibly battered from the arbiter's harassment. Finding the access hatch into the plaza's maintenance utility level, my strength rose, buoyed either by the increase in aqumi's intensity or my own refusal to let any of this crap beat me down.

So close now.

The hatch cover swung open easily, the hinges moving noiselessly despite years of neglectful disuse. Beneath was a shaft descending a half dozen or more metres down, the access ladder and shaft bottom illuminated by emergency wall-mounted studs that had activated after the hatch opened, giving off a soft dimmed glow.

Okay, kitty. It's up to you and me now. Let's take this thing on, and win.

Just like Mira told me I would.

The underside was an enclosed square, mirroring the dais that sat above it, but not even close to the size of the entire plaza. The space was filled with pipes and cabling going in all directions, rising, falling and twisting around the ceiling supports. Steel catwalks followed the area's outline; hemmed by railing on both sides, the supporting struts disappearing into the murk beneath, the actual bedrock too far down to be seen. It was wide enough for two people to walk abreast with some room to spare.

Okay, so ... it was south of here and maybe a bit further east. I followed the catwalk on the border of the 'room' to the southeast corner, walking gingerly, still a bit light-headed from my wounds. The corner was an intersection, the catwalk descending a dozen steps off the southern side and into an auxiliary branch. It continued on, a faint musty smell mixing with the scent of corrosion and mechanical disrepair.

A few dozen metres along, there was a side door, an exit into some maintenance storage locker and after, the catwalk turned east. I followed the corner, turning it to find that it went another dozen metres and then ... it simply ended.

Huh? Did I come to the right place?

The tunnel finished, the catwalk itself widening into a small circular platform about five metres wide. The platform was empty, the middle of it blank, just a round flat metallic surface. It looked like a cul-de-sac, a dead-end street with nothing to show but I knew otherwise. Of course, I'm not going to see anything.

Not with normal sight.

Moving right to the front of the empty space, I took a breath and concentrated, invoking the same sense, that connection I had felt when I was facing the arbiter. With such ease, like it was a skill I had practiced for years, the aqumi vision switched itself on.

Oh ... woooow.

The control node was right there, suspended in the air directly above the centre of the circle. It was bright, ridiculously so, and if it had been actual light, the stuff made of photons, it would have nearly blinded me so close by. It seemed like a miniature star, the aqumi radiating from it in undulating waves, a thing of brilliance in this dark place.

So, what's next? Do I wave my hands and say 'abracadabra'?

No theatrics were necessary as the next second, there was a weird mental click of recognition, like a cog shifting in some great piece of quantum machinery, and then the node responded to me.

Lines of real light formed in the air, defining themselves into a visible display, like a holographic screen but without any of the glazing or too-smooth gradient flaws that human holography normally produced. Alien text entered the display, a glowing line of symbols that meant nothing to me and for several seconds they stayed there. I could feel some kind of pattern in the aqumi change, and in a test-phase flash of transmitted meaning, there was a mental signal. It produced nonsensical noise for the briefest moment as it cycled through various possible linguistic connections, before reaching one that functioned. The symbols in front of me were still unfamiliar, but meaning was now attached to it, delivered directly to my brain. The signal strengthened, refining itself until it was crystal clear; astute and punctual as normal English, though the letters of whatever alphabet it was written in looked nothing like any human script I had seen.

Whoa. Clever!

Calibration affected.

The symbols vanished and a new lot appeared, several lines.

----- User Definition -----
Sequence Type: Virtuous-Strength Strain-4
Sequence Grade: Master
Identification: unrecognised entity

User? Is it referring to me? Master?!

Then again, it cleared and new information sprang onto the display.

----- Planetary Conservation Matrix -----
----- Welcome: Master -----

Current Productive Integrity: Maximum (100%)
Network Meta-structure: Uncompromised (100%)

Uh, alright. So the aqumi network seems to be functioning just fine. The screen cleaned itself automatically, and began inserting a bunch of new info. What's next?

----- WARNING: Contagion Progressing -----

Scalar Representation: Global / Continental
Class Designate: Viral Mutagen Extreme-Militance-412
Verified Duration: 161-55498 to current

Analysis:
- Quantum restructuring insufficient to resolve contagion
- Field density delays viral propagation only
- Solution: increase field density until propagation failure
- CAUTION: primary field characteristics not recommended for magnitude increase. Maintaining quantum conservation at excessive levels will degrade planetary viability
- Precedent: 99.896% match to Extreme-Militance-411; verified duration from 217-26743 to 155-27191
- Summary: no quantum protocols allow efficient containment and elimination. Stellar meta-spatial connection inactive. Extra-solar resources inaccessible. Appropriate resolution unknown. Seek local Guardian support.

The glut of symbols had arrived like a red-flagged system warning, ironically reminding me of the virus-checker software that was used in many VR simulations from 22nd century Earth. It took a minute to go over and decode in my head, as the English mental equivalents to what I was reading were quite complex pseudo-scientific jargon.

Okay, so it's telling me several things. That whomever made the aqumi grid seems to have used base ten for maths, just like we do. It also tells me that whatever 'programmed intelligence' is guiding this thing recognised the Sharpe virus when it broke out and was actively trying to stop it.

It couldn't do that, not by itself. It's been trying for 214 years to fix this and all that's happened is it's slowly losing out, as the remaining humans die or are converted.

I stared at the text. Yet, it does make a suggestion. It says the solution is to 'increase field density' until the virus can't propagate, can't reproduce itself. Then in the next breath, it tells me that this solution is not recommended because doing so will 'degrade planetary viability' whatever that means.

In a response that was perfectly aligned to my pondering, the screen cleared itself off and fresh symbols appeared.

Quantum Field Density (Magnitude)

Analysis:
- Field density can be decreased safely to any level, including disablement (0%)
- Field density can be increased safely to any level above 100%, up to maximum saturation of mass-allocation frequencies
- Normal conservative function will not require magnitude increases above 105% for total successful resolution
- CAUTION: at 109.3% and higher, component fluctuation is produced that damages biosystems. At 114.6%, atomic arterial-fracture and exotic collision-emissions are fatal to primary sentient organisms. At 120.1%, viability fails; planet is uninhabitable

Oh.

So, if I turned up aqumi high enough to cook all the sharpelings, it'd also have the side effect of making Lucere into an empty piece of rock unable to support life. Everything else would be dead too, not just sharpelings. That particular cure is worse than the disease.

Fuck.

It was too much to expect the Sharpe virus would be easy enough to just burn off the face of the planet with aqumi like some kind of cosmic flamethrower. Though as I thought, there was something I had skipped over in the previous information that insisted on popping into my head. The line mentioning a 'precedent'; it had looked suspiciously like it was describing another disease that was nearly a 100% match to the Sharpe virus, and bore the same class designate of 'Extreme-Militance.' If the 'verified duration' listed was any sort of numerical time reference to a calendar number for days and years, then the 'precedent' virus had started and finished a long time back, well before humans had arrived here.

Shit.

So ... a virus nearly identical to the current one cropped up centuries, or more probably thousands of years ago, on Lucere. The original builders of the aqumi network aren't here, but their creation has continued on. What sort of society produces technology advanced enough to pull reality apart at the seams, but vanishes without leaving anything else behind?

The answer could have been many things, but from where I stood, it was extraordinarily simple. So black-and-white.

Whatever alien society had come before ours was destroyed in the same way the human civilisation on this planet had been, by a virus very close to the present one.

History is repeating.

Only, I knew now that the Sharpe virus itself was more than just a very powerful, very aggressive, viral mutation. It was a force, guided by a self-aware intelligent caste of creatures, that were capable of communication and abstract thought. Whatever the arbiters truly were, they were an integral part, perhaps even the backbone, of a different alien race.

One that did not tolerate any rivals.

How did humanity end up in the middle of ... this?

The display wiped, reverting back to the initial greeting and nothing else. A casual message hovered on the screen's centre, asking to provide a system command or query. Okay, so where to begin? I should probably try to-

"Clever boy."

FUCK.

At the sound of his voice I was turning, hand reaching for my hip, where the pistol was secured. My arm was rising with it in hand, but I was caught unawares, and Hartley already had me lined up. His pistol blasted twice, the shots slamming into my left shoulder. Instantly, I was on the ground on my back, an incredible biting pain pulsing through my upper body. Hartley's footsteps were on the metal, along with another person, and next thing he was standing over me, La Tigresse appearing in my vision beside him.

"Then again, to come so far, only to witness your own defeat." He glanced sidelong to her, giving a wry smile as they stood over me. "Perhaps not quite so clever, after all?"

"Oh come now, Miles," La Tigresse hummed softly, folding her arms across her chest. "He played his part admirably, de bonne foi. Be nice." She licked her lips, giving me the once over. "He's a pretty little prize. Won't you let me have some ... fun?"

Hartley shook his head, still with the same amused half-smile on his face. "No. This one may not look it, but he is a bit dangerous to leave loose. If you want a plaything, you can have the Russian or the Hispanic youth." He holstered the sidearm. "In the meanwhile, make sure he's secured. You'd think a gunshot would be enough, but there have been too many unlikely acts of heroism recently. No dramatics. Nail him down if you have to."

She pouted as he turned away, moving to where the control node's display was still indifferently sitting in the air. "That's a shame." La Tigresse was pulling me into a sitting position and began to drag me across to the railing around the exterior. "There are many things I want to do to him." Her fingertips stroked my cheeks as I lay against the railing where she propped me. "Pale and beautiful, like porcelain. Why am I forbidden the most breakable?" A pause, her voice dropping to be husky, almost deep. "So much I could teach him, so very much ... "

"Your fantasies are bizarre. Be a good girl and get on with it."

"Yes sir," she purred, deftly removing an object from one of the pouches on her suit. In my pain-induced stupor, the conversation had barely registered up until now. I felt the end of the object as she held it by my right shoulder. Shifting slightly to find an area that was just flesh, no bone, then a moment or two later and ...

"Aaaaaaaaah!"

Worse than being cut by sharpeling claws, worse than being shot; having a metal spike driven through my flesh, inch by inch, was beyond pain. The smallest movement sent huge cascades of intense rippling agony across my chest and neck. There was a final jolt as she anchored the ending of the spike into the railing, literally pinning me in place. She sat back, studying my face for response, and though there were ten thousand obscenities I wanted to shout at her, I ignored that heinous bitch and her goading nonchalance. It would have been easier to just black out, overwhelmed by the all-consuming sensation of the stake impaling my body, but I refused, holding onto consciousness, keeping that pain close so I did not lose awareness.

Fucking ... whore. When ... I'm ... free ...

"He does not look happy."

Hartley snorted from next to the display, which was already producing new symbols as he took over control from me. "Would you be?"

She stood, looking me over once again before strolling to his side. "Maybe," she murmured coyly, a hand sliding up his arm. "Pain and pleasure all in one can be ... liberating."

Though it was difficult to keep my head upright and to focus on either of them, I could see Hartley and the woman share a look that was laden with suggestion, with sexual tension. Right then, I wasn't sure which one disgusted me more; the amoral manipulator or the twisted sadist in his service. Then there was a sound, faint but heavy, like something big striking the ground some distance away. The two looked at one another, and Hartley issued an order.

"Secure the approach. These conditions, I don't expect Tau squad will be good for more than a basic defence. See that nothing disturbs me."

La Tigresse nodded and without replying, stepped swiftly and silently away, returning back down the catwalk. Hartley glanced to me, then leaving the control node's display, he came across, crouching down right beside my head.

"You're probably wondering why I left you alive," his fingers grasped my chin, pulling my face up so he could make proper eye contact. A fresh burst of hurt exploded in my shoulder and my voice was nearly a scream as I shuddered, the muscles on my face twitching. "I'll let you in on a little secret. Since I took command from my father, you are the most obstinate and resourceful opponent I have faced, and you are just a boy. Displaced in time, a unique artifact of events, yet still ... merely a slip of a thing."

His other hand tapped at the end of the spike and I cried out in suffering, a wail of sound. Gasping, once more fighting not to black out from the stabbing torture that the smallest touch produced, I glared balefully at him. Hartley smiled languidly at my reaction. "After that first encounter, I did go back and forth in my mind whether I wanted you dead or to use and discard you as a means to an end, because, well, you see, it's been decades in the making. A family project, of sorts. Just the last pieces left: find the node, create a key and thereafter history would happen."

A pause. "But you kept showing up, and I decided I no longer needed to make that key. If you would elude capture and death, then it was only a matter of steering you towards Aspira. A hint here, a threat there, a nugget of knowledge placed just so ... and voila. The key finds the lock all by himself, the door opens ... and here we are."

"Get ... to ... the fucking ... point," my teeth clenched as I spoke my first words since his appearance, sound coming out in a low growl. Hartley chuckled lightheartedly, as if I had made a polite jest at the dinner table.

"Droll." He sniffed, pursing his lips. "The point is this: I am moments away from purging the Sharpe virus forever; moments from beginning a new order, an era of authority and stability. In fact, it's already in motion. This world will truly be mine and history will celebrate this day, when Lucere was liberated by the Hartleys, survivors and conquerors of the apocalypse. My name shall go on, but you? For the trouble you've given me, I want you to live to see it, just like the death of your lover ... but only for that long. Then, I will gut you," his voice dropping to a whisper, "and you will die right here on this floor, helpless and alone in the dark. No friends, nowhere to run, no more miracles of fate. So, that- ... that ... is why you are still alive, Shay Andersen."

"You fool ... you're g-going t-to ... kill us all," I spat.

"Save your words. Nothing can help you now."

There was the sound of footsteps on metal, and Hartley was standing, speaking as he turned to address La Tigresse, annoyance in his voice. "What did I tell y-"

Only, it wasn't her.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The streets beneath Aspira were not difficult for Mira to navigate. The design layout consisted of straight lines, right angles, repetitive distances and shapes. Geometry took no effort to decipher, nor did the lack of light trouble him. He simply adjusted to the contrast, his senses switching to a higher degree of photo-sensitivity. The insistent influx of sharpelings, following their brethren down in ones and twos from above, were the main concern. However they were just another problem to overcome in the cycle of combat, a thing to be beaten and finished with, as he surely would.

Mira moved in a choreograph of his warfare instincts. Whirling as he did his work, the snapping hunger of the virus teemed; the spearhead of sharpelings was coming for him, swerving and diving, always pressing on. Their predatory drive was the same and he flowed like water before it; evading, striking, blocking, countering. The assassin's compulsion had merged with the warrior core of his perception. Aspira had provided chaotic trouble aplenty; multiple incoming threats were identified in a stream of battlefield labels, then rebuffed in order, corralled into stances and motions so he could eliminate them.

The dance continued.

He fought, flicking aside the claws of the closest creature, the bladed right hand slicing open the throat in an unpredicted horizontal chop. The blunt end of the strike knocked the next sharpeling back, a steel trap biting at the air where Mira's hand was. More of them crowded the underground passage, though the train from above seemed to have stopped, their numbers finally beginning to dwindle as he dispatched them.

Yet, in this ceaseless conflict, he felt it. Just as in the forest of Palatus and the Vendhall grasslands of Mersenne, the arbiter's scent reached him. It generated a subtle shifting ill; a distant malice concealed by aeons of adaptation, both forced and natural. Theirs was an anonymous way, for they served a superior foresight that dwarfed human artifice, a patient ancient will moving the viral loci along their evolutionary paths. Always onwards, always following a temporal cadence composed of vast ever-changing circles and lines. That pattern was the outline of a plan so great, so immense, that the belligerents of this broken world could not see it nor even understand it existed.

His knowledge did not translate into human concepts and words. The infinite complexity residing in the arbiters' nature was touched on only by instinct, an arcane resonance. It was ineffable and wound deeply into the shreds of Mira's most reviled genetic memories; buried within the unutterably hateful milieu of that brooding darkness.

Beyond description and redemption.

The antithesis of The Other, his angelic creature of light.

Shay was about to discover it first hand.

He could feel it beginning, that clashing of polar opposites, just as he could feel the presence of the arbiter at the plaza. All his senses wished to abandon the fight where he was and make haste directly to Shay's side, but he could not. It kept him in the tunnels beneath Lancaster, the need to repel this sharpeling onslaught being the overriding objective. Even as he stayed, his faith in Shay's resilience unbent, there had come unexpected vindication. Unexpected to the point where he was nearly caught off guard by the change, though he did not allow his physical synergy to be disturbed.

Like a puff of smoke, the signature of the arbiter dissolved, reduced to no more than ephemera.

Despite the combat he was engaged in, his mind was filled with wonder, awe, and pride, even from afar. Shay, his perfect beautiful Shay, had bested that malign emissary. He had crushed the darkness in it without guidance nor aid. It was another step on the very long road they walked, but it was an important one and brought nothing but hope with it.

The excitement and eagerness to depart was building, and though it took many minutes more to finish the sharpelings down to the last, as soon as he had, he took off, leaving no space to catch breath.

He flew, skipping along the underground passages, fleet of foot and tireless, swift and fey, the abatement of many dozens of his foes barely draining his otherworldly spirit. There was nothing to slow him here, no weakening betrayal that had dogged him in Palatus. A time of reckoning was nearly upon them, and it would not wait for any. Mira raced up the ladder and was onto the square in moments.

Yet, the Liberators were here.

By a statue in the plaza's centre, a warband, six men. Not the full force, for the sounds of the larger conflict were west still, grinding a slow path through the sharpelings to the square. This? This was an advance party, a vanguard of sorts. His appraisal told him they were relatively lightly geared, armed for mobility and quick defence more than a siege. No, the battle was a diversion for these soldiers, the escort for their arrogant lord. Clear-eyed and alert, they kept a watchful eye on the surrounds, waiting; stationary until told otherwise.

Protecting the access to the heart, the cosmic torch.

Shay was in there.

The presence of these men meant he could not be alone.

Then, two gunshots from inside.

Mira was moving again, instantly. The eagerness turned to urgent focus; he had to finish this fast, to get to Shay. He could not delay. The first of the six made a simple target, the soldier resting against the railing, alone for seconds to visually scan the southern side. In the lee of the statue's shadow, he crept up and struck, finishing the man silently and then leaping, scaling half up the statue to watch as the man's officer called his name.

"Brenner!" Then again, a moment later: "Tau Five, respond!"

They came to their downed comrade, moving in a loose cluster around his body, senses turned outward to find the source of this mystery death. None looked above, and he gave it seconds only till they were all present. Releasing his handhold he dropped to the ground, landing behind the backmost enemy. The weight of the fall drove his blade, plunging it deep into that first man's neck. Ripping it free, the second and third were close and in a rapid double kick he sent them flying over the balustrade, sprawling headlong while he turned. Finessed, he ducked the fourth's swinging rifle butt, the only possible reaction this close and slashed, blade tearing into sinew and flesh. The fifth was turning too, to train his gun barrel, but Mira was forward in a deft roll, the aim fixating on air.

As he passed by the fifth's legs, he sliced at the flank, severing muscle and tendons. Crippled, the man stumbled to the side and Mira stabbed him in the ribs as he tottered, pushing him over. The second and third soldiers were coming to stand and Mira ran the couple of steps to the edge, springing over the balustrade. The blade was raised in a deadly backhand grip overhead as he flew in a graceful leap towards the man. It sank right to the hilt in the second's back, sending him completely prone once more. As the third came properly to his feet, Mira tackled him, crashing them both into the hard rock of the balustrade's base. The man was trying to push at him, to orient the struggle so he could control it but Mira's fingers had his head gripped, then smashed it against the marble plinth until he stopped moving.

Their elimination took seconds, but that was still too long by the boy's estimation, and he was retrieving the blade from the second's back. Wiping it as he jumped back up, Mira climbed over the balustrade, concealing the weapon on the run. The plaza was cleared of enemies and was now meaningless.

All of importance lay below.

Grasping the hatch, he paused momentarily. The heavy thud of a structure collapsing came in the background, maybe a few blocks down Lancaster Avenue. Mira gave a second or two of careful listening to judge if this was noteworthy, and on his decision that it wasn't, he dropped down the shaft, the ladder entirely too slow for his liking.

His perception was working to the utmost; he would not allow any mistakes to risk Shay. Stepping out from the base of the shaft's exit onto the metal path, he was greeted by a face and a voice he had seen and heard before.

"I was hoping I would meet you again." She walked forward as she spoke, unrushed, the heels of her shoes clicking on the metal. Mira moved too, but he only advanced two bodylengths before he held where he was. The self-proclaimed huntress before him bore a cruel streak behind her sensuous depravity, but he ignored her temperament. Instead, his mind spun all the physical waypoints of her body into a profile, measuring the extent of her capacity. Weighing it, he related it back to what he had seen on the rooftop outside Aspira when she killed Morgan. It was done before she could speak again, and he was prepared for this siren.

Yet, he waited for her to act, to show her quality.

"Your friend is ... indisposed. He's not taking visitors. I'm afraid I can't allow you go any further." She left a gap after the words, allowing Mira to speak. When he did not, she went on. "Whatever trick you pulled to sneak down here, my delectable little toy, will not work on me."

Mira kept his silence, waiting.

Her head cocked slightly and her eyes narrowed. "The silent type, mm? Well, I will give you a chance, because it would be tragic to deny such to an enchanting young man like you. So, turn around," her fingers drew a little circle in the air, then pointing to the ladder, "and you can have a ten second headstart before the games begin."

He did not move.

Scarcely five seconds later, her face suddenly split into a wide manic wolfish grin.

"Time's up."

La Tigresse closed the gap between them nearly instantly. Her fists and feet flew in a combo of strikes, chained together one after the other and he was stepping back on the defensive; dodging once, twice, three times then again and again. Aggressive and impressively fast, the woman's attacks were the most difficult to track that he had known thus far. She kept coming and there was no immediate weakness, nothing to gain an obvious advantage. Any move he made she could counter, for her offence was tied to a defensive posture; the two moving in synchronisation that made for a seamless attack.

Yet, it was that rhythm, that balance that governed her and it was linked to the flow of her movement. She let out a grunt of effort and confusion when he dodged her seventh attack, not understanding why nothing could connect. He feinted to the left for his evasion of her eighth and she was striking in expectation of a hit when he switched, leaping to the right, a springboard boost on the catwalk railing to flip over her, behind. The follow-through kick to her back was a natural extension of changing movement and it sent her bouncing off the opposite railing. Her recovery was so quick Mira could take no advantage but it was decided though, how he would finish this.

Break the rhythm.

The fend-off for Mira's exploitation of her fall was a high-kick, but he anticipated well, angling to the side as her foot shot past his face by an inch. Ready for the throw, his hands were on her leg and next thing, he was swinging her by it in the sharp arc of a hammerslam, thumping her body onto the metal floor. Too tricky to stay caught, her limb had wriggled from his grasp and she was rolling, finding purchase to get up, but Mira was on her. One arm came down, forcing her legs back flat and he was sliding to his knees by her neck, intent to force a choke-hold, when she drew the dagger.

It was jabbing towards his hip with perilous speed, but his hand was down, intercepting the strike. Twisting around and pulling away as her grip struggled against his, the hold was broken and the weapon clattered against metal. Her face was dissolving from supreme confidence into burgeoning uncertainty, the precursor to fear. Realisation encroached that her own talents were not what she thought; not on the same scale as this boy. At the same time, from the direction of the node, Shay's voice rose in an excruciating cry, and behind it an unintended calling, an empathic need for him. That unbearable sound disarmed Mira for just a moment and La Tigresse was free of his hold in that smallest piece of leeway.

With desperate lightning quick panic, she gained the space to draw her pistol, but no different than the knifing attempt, the boy slapped it smartly aside, a precise chop at the wielding wrist. The weapon popped free, bumped airborne for a second and he snatched it, curtailing her. Rapidly as she had drawn it, he ejected the magazine, tossing it together with the gun over the railing. No shots could be permitted.

Hartley could not be given an early warning.

The call of Mira's beloved came again, a despairing woebegone thing; the need of it, the imperative necessity pressed to the core of his world. Interrupted, the woman was scrambling away as quickly as she could, transfixed by the uncomprehending dread at her own inferiority.

Mira was torn, but it took little to know that the choice between pursuit of this woman and finding Shay was no choice at all. The moment of indecision was finished when he looked at her and her eyes met his, knowing then how outmatched she was and her state, her profuse condescension, collapsed at last fully into fear.

La Tigresse turned and ran for the ladder, fleeing for her safety.

The remaining distance to the control node was trod at inhuman speed but quietly, the footsteps nonexistent. Cautious, he rounded the final corner, ready to face whatever was to come. Yet, perhaps he had not steeled himself well enough, for what he saw caused him to stop cold, to abandon stealth and to walk unguarded closer to the platform.

Shay was slumped against the railing. A metal spike was thrust through his shoulder, a ruinous tether holding him there, while that man, the seditious murderer crouched beside him. This sight alone was a sealing of fate; in Mira's eyes the enemy was locked into the ultimate folly, the apex of his imperium. His sins had reached past unforgivable now, onto the karmic road that was oblivion. Nevermore; this was ending and it was ending now.

No force in all existence could keep Mira from his destiny: he was going to kill Miles Hartley.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Hope.

He was the image of hope; an amazing powerful hope that was the direct counterpoint to the fearful disbelief I heard in Hartley's voice.

"Impossible!"

They were both moving at the same instant. Mira seemed to cross the distance between them as if it were nothing, but Hartley's hand was rising in the same moment and before Mira could reach him, there was a crackling burst of light and electricity.

What?! NO!

From a device on Hartley's right hand, a slew of lightning stabbed and he kept his arm extended, the discharge forking and arcing as it earthed into Mira's body. Tossed onto the floor from the opening blast, Mira convulsed as the torture continued on, relenting only when Hartley stopped, mastering the figurative shock of his reaction at last.

"Impossible!" He repeated, his eyes leaping furiously to me then back to Mira again in a shaken confused agitation. Another brief jet of lightning emitted, Hartley's face twisting into a rabid outburst as he directed it to the boy on the ground. "You were DEAD! I saw it! It was done!"

"Y-your p-past is ... f-finally catching up ... t-to y-you," The pain of saying it was more than made-up for by the expression on Miles' face."S- ... s-sucks, huh?"

His arm trembled and his commanding presence quavered, failing. Hartley's eyes were huge, wide open, and the uncertainty was through him, all about him. His arm stretched out taut and the lines on his face grew more pronounced as the words were spat back at me. "No! He can die now! He must die now! The Tesla Claw will do it! No MORE!"

Then, Hartley began to electrocute Mira.

No! Oh god, no ...

There was a defence to a loaded gun or a knife, but against this, there was nothing. In the space past the emotion and physical sensation of my mind and body as I sat impaled by metal, watching this human monster kill the best thing in my life, I sought a truth that could save us from this.

That could save him from this.

There was the looming patriarchal authority, an elemental power streaming from his fingers as if he were Aesir, come to Midgard to punish wicked impropriety. Beneath him, the body of a boy; not just a boy but 'the boy' through which all possibility, all things, were given chance.

It was an entrenched crushing command above the colourful vibrant honesty of our connection.

What could I do to stop this?

What must I do for him? Something- ... anything!

There had to be some way through this; some way where nothing could separate us, and the threat to our inexplicable connection was g-

Wait-

Our connection.

Stripping away everything in that chamber; the ugly intensity of human conflict, the sounds and smells and wracking hurt in spirit and flesh, I focused. All else was cut out, peeled away, and I drew every piece of my concentration onto that connection, that sense of being unified, lifted up; made whole.

The same connection I felt the first day I met you.

The same connection I felt the day I believed you died.

The same connection I felt as I consciously chose, at the plaza, to see aqumi.

The same connection that I feel whenever I am near you, whenever I touch you, whenever I think of you, whenever I look at you ...

Underlying everything, there it was.

The connection between freeing aqumi's power and me is ... you.

Mira.

Every time, it was him enabling me to do it. It is him. The trigger was hidden in plain sight, right until I figured out how to use it.

My mind reached out, and for the first time, I felt the strangeness of the quantum field as I tied that connection into my consciousness, and it shifted with my attention as it was directed through the air. Tentatively, it wrapped gently around the Tesla Claw on Hartley's hand as he plied it across Mira's form. Minutely, for just a moment, the device shifted against his palm in the smallest nudge, a bump to see if it could be done at all.

My power is unbound.

"Hey Hartley," I croaked.

He stopped to look at me, not saying anything.

"It's Judgement Day."

The light of aqumi fastened around the Tesla Claw, snatching it away from his hand. With telekinetic force it flew through the air until Mira reached out. Shrugging off the electro-shock muscle spasms, he plucked the weapon from its trajectory as it soared past. His fist closed around it, tightening until it gave a solid crunch as the Claw was dispatched, now no more a weapon than junk parts.

"No!" Hartley was drawing his pistol, even as Mira flipped back onto his feet. "DIE!"

Our connection widened, and then we were in the midst of a river, a delta of a hundred streams. The blazing light of the control node fed my power and on, a flowing current that was a conduit of aqumi from it to me and him. The first shot hit Mira in the chest, but the entire rest of the magazine that Hartley fired bounced harmlessly away. The invisible shield that I placed on Mira's skin coated it harder than diamond, the shots stopping dead as if he had fired at a wall. At the entry wound on his chest, the bullet squeezed out by itself, tumbling down and through the metal catwalk as the flesh closed around where the wound had been.

Healed in seconds.

Mira launched forward, the two a blur as he collected Hartley mid-leap and they crashed together into the far railing. The man was desperately blocking and fending off the blows that came but he was not even close. Neither fast nor strong enough, Hartley stood his ground against the railing as Mira smashed him repeatedly in a flurry of blows. It ended in a single concussive punch that catapulted Hartley back across the platform, collapsing as he impacted the railing by where I was, bruised and bloodied.

In a flash Mira had jumped the distance, faster than should have been possible. Hartley was frozen in an expression of denial, as the reality he knew was imploding, coming crashing down on his head. The boy's fingers closed around Hartley's throat and the lieutenant-colonel looked at me once more, whether in some fantasy that I should see his way and call for a time-out or that I might be yielding and virtuous, to prey on my sense of fairness and my better nature.

What a fool you think me. How small you are.

"Miles, you don't understand," I whispered, my voice coming out with an unaccustomed lucidity that was not blemished by pain and stress. "Even if I wanted to give you the smallest bit of mercy, to forgive any of the things you have done? It doesn't matter, because ... he never will."

Mira's face was a dispassionate mask, a holy veil of divine retribution. No excuse, apology, nor plea would move him. Right then, he was a spirit of wrathful vengeance; more than that, he was my spirit, my angel-warrior of justice. "So, save your words. Nothing can help you now."

Mira pulled the man upright and in a last-ditch effort, Hartley's hand was at his thigh, reaching for a hidden stiletto blade. The boy emotionlessly disarmed the hand, the thin blade clattering on the floor and the wrist breaking as Mira performed the action. Reflecting Hartley's movement, Mira pulled his own blade as the man's unvoiced agony from the snapped wrist blistered through him. The grip on Hartley's neck loosened and Mira held the blade out so the man could see it.

In my vision layered with aqumi, Le Renard's dagger was flooding full of it, the weapon filling as it was charged, becoming denser, solid with intangible light. Mira was causing it, and along the surface, there was a flicker of real heat and then the blade ignited, a soft whoomp as flame caught on.

Wow.

He was fixated even as Mira raised it until the point was at chest height. With a gentle push, the tip sank in a couple inches. Hartley's breath caught, his eyes and mouth still in uncomprehending shock, head down as he stared at the blade. Mira's free hand came up, pulling Hartley's face so they were eye to eye. Then Mira sank the blade in a little further, until it was about halfway in. The man's face had gone white-grey, sunken, and there was only despair as he was forced to maintain eye contact with the boy, to look death in the face. Written there was a final message for Hartley and Mira would let him see nothing else, to know nothing else, as the ending became real; never again will you hurt him.

With a third and last push, the dagger thrust all the way up to the hilt.

Mira held it there, not breaking his gaze with Hartley either and for a few long intense seconds stayed that way, balanced on the point of the needle. Then the blade withdrew, releasing the prisoner and it was done. To the floor fell the body of Miles Hartley, lieutenant-colonel and commanding officer of the 3rd Aurum Tactical Assault Regiment, last of Lucere's military corps.

Dead.

-o-0-O-0-o-

I could scarcely believe it.

Hartley is dead.

There was no time to consider it further, for he was in front of me, his eyes a mixture of horror and anger at the spike through my shoulder. I had almost forgotten the pain that was generated every time I shifted the smallest amount and I wanted to cry out, but his look held me in place. Mira's hands slid under my arms and his voice carried through me, insisting and consoling; 'this will hurt but it's going to be okay. Look into my eyes and do not forget that I love you.'

I love you too.

I kept my eyes on his, and he smiled at me. It was that same smile, the one that was mine and mine alone; like the sun coming out, he was fantastically, amazingly, uniquely beautiful. I could not help my response, like a flower turning to the solar heat, and I was smiling back so broadly. His hands grasped me lightly and then suddenly in a swift clean move, I was lifted off the spike and free.

The skewering effect of my torment was gone, the exit of the oversized nail being little less pleasant than the entry. Yet, none of that mattered as I hugged him, as tightly as I was able, and he me. While Mira helped me to stand, I noticed that everything the arbiter had done to me had healed already. The mangling teethmarks on my wrist, the punctures in my abdomen and ribs, the gashes on one shoulder and the bullet wound on the other; not only that, but the impaling injury Mira had just released me from: it was already closing up.

Of course it's accelerated healing, I saw when Hartley shot him. We're right next to the node, everything is going to be-

The node.

Hartley's plan was to wipe the world clean of the Sharpe virus and to create his own legacy using the node as a weapon. Only, he had planned to use aqumi either uncaring or unknowing that the end result of doing so would mean the sterilisation of the planet.

Shit.

The visual display had vanished and the mental connection I felt when I arrived had retreated, safe within the hidden reaches of the node's quantum machinery. Hartley had 'turned it off' somehow after he was done setting his plan moving. I could feel the ebb and flow of the aqumi tide from the node continue, and I could also tell, somehow, that the overall output of the node was increasing. Increasing, point by point, until the 'field density' was too much for humans, or anything, to take.

Fuck!

"Dammit!" I growled. "This fucking thing was responding when I got here. What did he do to it?!"

Mira and I shared a look and he eyed the node's location with respectful sobriety. He could see it but he certainly couldn't interact with it. It was up to me and me alone to fix this, but just like everything else, there wasn't a clear way to do it. Is this one big fat joke? Now I can't do anything to stop the same alien computer system that was going to save us, but from destroying everything instead, and it's all because ... I'm fucking locked out of user control.

Then again, he gave another look, this one with so much meaning tied to it; 'you are the master of the sun. All light obeys your command.'

What does that mean? Master of the sun? All light obeys?

The control node was certainly not obeying me and there was a nearly imperceptible fuzz of aqumi now constantly changing. I felt the field around me expand ever so minutely as the heat increased, pulsing as it dispersed and grew globally.

To hell with this. I'm tired of trying to follow the rules. I glared at the node. I'm always trying to conform or do it someone else's way or ... whatever. Well, what if I don't want to do that any more?

My perceptions curled around the glowing mote in the air, that ethereal piece of technological magic.

What if I do as I please and ... take ... what I need?

A gauntlet of determination closed on it, but the node was immovable, chained to an absolute point above Lucere's surface. Yet, my conviction was irresistible. The point began to deviate in the air, and beyond amazing and outlandish, the node was moving. Heavier than continents, denser than the centremost of Lucere's molten core, but still massless and insubstantial, it was moving. Inching slowly, the aqumi splashed in strange luminous waves as I tore the node from the berth it had.

You ... are ... mine.

It crawled towards me, gripped by the inescapable vast force exerted on it. Closer and closer until the aqumi sun was entering my chest. There was a moment of elastic suspension as the node's resistance ceased then a strange jarring rawness, the aqumi of my body and the node engaging, negotiating in some kind of interface, and then- ...

Then came power.

This has taken roughly two weeks longer to finish beta than I intended, so I do apologise for that. Still, you're getting it all in one go! I'll leave the comments for the end of the epilogue. Onwards, faithful readers!

Copyright © 2013 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Amazing chapter. I loved his answer to Hartley's plea. But they still have enough to finish this and deal with Tigresse because her ego won't allow her to flee for long I don't imagine.

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On 07/18/2013 06:10 AM, Daithi said:
Amazing chapter. I loved his answer to Hartley's plea. But they still have enough to finish this and deal with Tigresse because her ego won't allow her to flee for long I don't imagine.
yes, Shay certainly gave Hartley back the words he spoke earlier. Poetic justice. La Tigresse however isn't as devoted to Hartley as Mira is to Shay, so her reaction and subsequent movements are somewhat different.
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On 07/19/2013 04:03 AM, Stephen said:
I want to pass Shay a big, sharp axe.
You do? Good heavens, whatever for? I rather think you don't mean to make him a lumberjack in such an urban place? ;) Seriously though, though there are plenty of targets assaulting him to swing a big heavy axe into, I don't think that is his style. Still, I appreciate the sentiment. He has not had it easy in Aspira - none of them have.
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Two down, one not of this universe, the other bred, born and died here. What are our two becoming? I refuse to look ahead ( 20 & 21) until this is sent. Great chapter, thank you.

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On 07/21/2013 11:59 AM, sandrewn said:
Two down, one not of this universe, the other bred, born and died here. What are our two becoming? I refuse to look ahead ( 20 & 21) until this is sent. Great chapter, thank you.
Though you have since finished it, it is still worth commenting that one does not mess with quantum physics and expect to come out unscathed. ;)
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Oh I was disappointed that Tigresse didn't get her cummupence. Still, I guess that arrogance has been cut down a peg or two now.

And Hartley finally dispatched and in such a fitting way to meet his end. I was going to say despatched to meet his maker, but there is only one place for such a loathsome and despicable life from to be despatched, and it is not a place where he'd be met by any welcoming committee.

 

So Shay has absorbed the node? I'm not sure I got that bit completely. I guess he is the master of the system so if he chooses to take bodily control, he can. I wonder what that does to him in terms of his power though?

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On 04/15/2015 02:23 AM, Celethiel said:
and behold there came god and he was cloaked in the rays of the sun... lol
The power of divinity or the power of science; you choose the imagery :)
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On 11/28/2015 05:35 PM, Ashdaw said:

You be setting us up for a fitting end? :)

Ashley D

Well, it's all a matter of opinion how fitting the ending of the book is. All I can promise is that it probably won't be quite what you expect.

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Amazing chapter. I loved his answer to Hartley's plea. But they still have enough to finish this and deal with Tigresse because her ego won't allow her to flee for long I don't imagine. You write such powerful fight scenes that are just perfect and wonderful! What a hell of a chapter!

Thanks so much:hug::worship::worship::worship::thankyou: 

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