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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 - 20. Leagues Of Night

There are some experiences that go beyond adequate description. It may be the sum of the experience is complex in a way that can't be grasped, or that the language we possess is too crude to describe it. Looking back, I was never sure which was the case at Aspira's heart, though I did bring away from the plaza one concrete lesson.

Power -- real power -- shows a person's true nature.

I did not well remember the walk from the control node's chamber to the plaza's surface. It was not because of any emotional distraction or weakness or shock, but rather because there was so much information coming to me. So much to feel and know, that paying attention to where I physically was and remembering it, recording it, wasn't important anymore.

My voice sounded odd when I spoke to Mira, with a weird echoing harmonic tone to it, and in the air around me, following my skin, were a thousand points of visible light, darting and shifting like a nebula or a crowd of fireflies. My body felt like it was full, but not with anything that weighed me down; it was more like an excited animated energy wanting to burst forth and invest itself in all it could. My mind was the strangest thing however, because while the body had a limit to what it could reasonably feel, the mind was a gigantic sponge in a quantum sea, and it was drawing in everything to what I could perceive.

From the square, I could sense every living creature in Aspira down to the size of a rat.

Every single living thing.

There were very few animals larger than feral cats alive here. People, the Liberators, in a smattering of colour as they did the last orders of their slain commander. For the most part it was sharpelings, and they were spread everywhere. Throughout the city and suburbs, in hives and dens and clusters, they had occupied Aspira well and truly. There were many thousands, beneath ground and above it; asleep, hunting, playing and killing. A plague, like their namesake, which had claimed humanity's empire for itself.

Beyond that, like a dark cloud on the horizon, the arbiters.

From everywhere, it was a never-ending bombardment of quantum knowledge. I walked up the steps next to the statue, stopping to withstand the overwhelming pull of it. It made me feel so detached and aloof, as if the city were an anthill, but at the same time so involved, right down to the forces playing with the molecular bonds in the ground and air. Blushes of aqumi's light swelled around my footsteps, waves of it swirled in the air outward from me as I moved, visible to no-one but Mira and I.

If I had been a beacon before, now I was the heart of a star, and Mira?

Mira was the embodiment, the executor, of our law.

A sculpture of gold, flesh and muscle, the furnace within siphoned only a fraction of my energy to him, but that piffling small amount from my standpoint had made him into a seemingly indestructible force. His reflexes, speed and strength, were amplified beyond their already formidable boundaries, and his movements were closer to supernatural than just superhuman. A halo of visible light encased him whenever his body moved, the copious wealth of aqumi rolling through him. Mira gloried in every moment of it, delighting as if it were a role he was born for; I felt his emotions, a breathless laughing adrenalised sort of joyfulness, a thrill.

Like the son of a Norse legend; brave, pure, passionate and fearless. An immortal child, a warrior godling.

Mira.

My thoughts were so loud, even at the softest whisper, and he could hear me perfectly without real speech. The empathy that had allowed me to read him and let him learn spoken language had evolved and it was now direct telepathy.

His response was punctual and clear, affirming.

Go to Carlos and Konstantin. Anything that threatens their safety, kill it. Guide them here.

Another reply, acknowledging. Across the plaza, a comet of energy, and he was gone, away along Lancaster.

He would not take long.

There were patterns emerging though, as I felt Mira zoom away along the avenue. Sharpelings were moving in more than just groups alerted by nearby fighting. Those further away in the CBD were coming too, from all sides. The worst was to the south, where down the main arterial roadway, there was a massive swarm approaching. From all around us, they were drawing in.

It was not hard to see this was coordinated and planned. The arbiters could feel me from this far, just as I knew they were there. I would be a torch on a dark night to them, screaming out my presence even from a great distance because there was no way to hide who I was. Nevertheless, the lieutenants of the Sharpe virus were coming for us, for me, because I had made them take notice in a way no human had achieved, ever.

Let them come.

It was not long before Mira was re-entering the square behind the other two, ensuring their defence as they made for the statue, where I was. My attention was on the south, on the as-yet-unseen incoming rush of enemies. Something more needed to be done to stop them or at least thin their numbers, and my gaze rose to the imposing skyline, to the giant Gould-Johnson tower. Right then, I decided to test my strength.

Raising my left hand, I replicated it in the air with aqumi, creating a massive double. Shifting so my palm was vertical, I slid my hand across, my fingers closing in a loose grip, the same as picking up a drinking mug. Twisting, I tipped my hand away from me, forward and to the right, tipping the contents of that imaginary mug onto the ground.

To any other spectator except for Mira, the view would have been inexplicable, but to me, it was a weirdly apathetic experience. The kinetic energy I had fashioned in the air gripped the Gould-Johnson tower then pushed, tearing the majority of the building's mass away from the lowest floors and foundation. Tilting in my chosen direction, it toppled diagonally, gouging down the side of another giant opposite it on the way, before smashing along the street at an angle. The collapse crushed dozens of smaller buildings and killed hundreds of sharpelings in a momentous collision between millions of tonnes of skyscraper and Aspira's streets.

The cascade of things breaking and falling continued on as the other two reached us. Carlos and Konstantin were both hypnotised by the sight, slowing as they ran but still staring. First at where the tower was, then at the aftermath, then at me. I did not know how I appeared to them now, but I knew with a firm certainty that I didn't look like the 'normal' teenager Shay Andersen any more.

Normal 14 year old boys weren't surrounded by orbiting wisps of light.

Normal 14 year old boys didn't speak like their voices had been digitally harmonised.

Normal 14 year old boys most definitely could not knock over a skyscraper using quantum-powered telekinesis.

"Shay," the big Russian panted, trying to catch his breath, to think and speak at the same time. He shook his head, still holding the rifle, then glancing once more to the clouds of dust rising from the Gould-Johnson wreckage. "Did you- ... is this-" He stopped, cutting himself off as he tried to understand what he had seen. "What happened? Your eyes, your face! The light, it's- ... you look, well, different. You're okay?"

"Different? Guess I am a little different from the last time you saw me, huh?" My own voice was alien, but I could not deny that power was dripping off every word as the multiple pitches and tones thrummed, the aqumi trying to escape me even through speech.

"That building?" Carlos kept scanning me from head to foot, disbelieving, like I was a piece of supercharged human dynamite about to explode in a shower of giblets. "You did ... that?!"

"It was easy. Wait 'til you see what else I can do."

Mira had not stopped moving after his delivery of Konstantin and Carlos to the plaza. He was on the eastern boundary of the square, always vigilant and still in action as the first waves of sharpelings began to emerge from the seaward side of the ruins. He was a speeding streak of light bursting between the creatures, elegant and stupendously quick. No longer needing to dodge, Mira had dispensed with evasion, being entirely too fast to target, and was simply cleaving through them. Fists and feet were titanium-clad and every kick or punch sent a sharpeling flying dozens of metres to crash into the surroundings.

Seeing him kill those things so easily brought a hot boastful pride with it, a determination to punish and wreak havoc on everyone and everything that had brought so much evil down on Lucere. Yet, the collapsed Gould-Johnson leviathan had only slowed the throng that had been moving from the south, thinning the numbers somewhat, but now they too were arriving. I could feel, nearly taste, the vile scent of the things through my amplified vision and senses. Each sharpeling was a ravening blip in my knowledge, and the first of that mass of hundreds of blips was entering sight, the background malevolence of the arbiters pushing them on.

"Watch this."

I waited a moment till twenty or thirty were crossing the southern boundary, sprinting aggressively toward our position. Scooping them up, I flung them out over the sea, a handful of pebbles onto a lake. More were pouring in to replace those lost and I grabbed another giant handful, hurling them in a shotgun blast at the nearest skyscraper, insignificant dots that bounced off it and plummeted to their shrieking ends. The assault continued, and I was uprooting an apartment block, hefting it effortlessly and throwing it headlong through the thickest concentration of attackers.

The other two just watched, not interrupting any of the destruction we were causing, not needing to do anything. Neither probably knew what to say. At the same time, the Liberators had reached the end of Lancaster Avenue and were finally breaching the square. With the awareness I had, predicting the timing of the gunfire was pathetically easy. The shield went up around the statue with seconds to spare and they opened fire, hoping to free their deceased leader from however I had mysteriously imprisoned him beneath the plaza. The small-arms shots were barely noticeable, but even the APCs' larger calibre mounts were no more damaging in how much impact they had.

Mira's voice cut across the chaos, calm as always, telling me he would kill whatever got too close, if anything did. I went to reply to him but was stopped before I could express myself. The filling sensation of the restless energy inside had reached some kind of breaking point and suddenly I could think of nothing other than the pressure as it wanted escape, wanted out.

"Too much!" I gasped.

I heard Konstantin call my name but the aqumi generation in me was building to a crescendo, and if I knew if I did not let it go, it would force a way free. The light clinging to my skin had intensified, pulsing and dancing, a stream of shadows playing across the dais. Konstantin and Carlos had stepped back from me and then I was struggling to contain it, the burden snowballing, gathering speed exponentially.

Must get this out!

My perception skipped to the horizon, then to the sky. Concentrating on a focal point well above Aspira, I felt the aqumi output continue to grow, so I aimed higher, pushing it up to several thousand metres, but the light within kept pace, filling every pore, every grain.

Further! This is not enough!

Ten kilometres up.

Twenty.

Thirty.

The coastline of Aurum was stretching in an undetectable blur but the need drove me ever higher, the aqumi threatening to break through my skin.

Higher! Need more space! Not enough!

Fifty.

Eighty.

One hundred.

One hundred fifty.

MORE!

The light burned and I was flushed full of it, as much as I could take, and I screamed, my voice no longer a human sound. There was no more time, and this was far as I could take it. At that spot, untold kilometres above Aspira in the top atmospheric layer where Lucere's sky became space, a little ball of refined matter and energy gathered, forming into a perfect sphere. The aqumi I bore followed my concentration and found the earthing point so far above. At once the light in me released, given direction and channeled straight into that sphere.

It exploded.

A gigantic atomic fireball kilometres wide bloomed. Larger than anything produced in mankind's entire history, it was a temporary second sun.

Hope that was far enough.

Three seconds later, I blacked out.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"Welcome back to the world of the living."

The rich sound of Konstantin's voice was familiar and good to hear. There were much worse things to wake up to, and as he eased me into a sitting position, kneeling on the carpeted floor, I wondered aloud where we were.

Overcast afternoon sunlight was hitting a wide windowed wall close by, but back in the recessive side of the room where we sat, the Russian's eyes twinkled, dimmed to a burnt cocoa, nearly black. "It is an executive's office in the government building, just north of the square," he told me, "and we are safe here, for the moment, but we will get to that soon enough."

For the moment?

"Shay," he began, continuing again before I could say anything, but then he paused and his expression, or what I could make out in the partial light, seemed to be unsure. He doesn't know what to make of me. Understandable, I'm not sure I know what to make of me either. "If you had lived many hundreds of years ago, the men of those simpler times would have thought you one of two things. You would have been a pagan warlock or a demon, some eldritch thing beholden to Satan, a tool of the deceiver; or ... nothing less than the Christ reborn, son of God."

I swallowed, feeling nervous all of a sudden, although I didn't know why. "What do you think I am?"

"That sort of judgement is not mine to make, although ... I think you are what Jesus was, if he truly existed. Beyond scripture, that is. A man, or a boy, but not more than this. An ordinary person who became- ... becomes an iconic thing, in extraordinary times. The sort of person over which wars could be fought, legends written, religions built."

"I don't think the bible mentioned Jesus dropping buildings on anyone with his mind."

Konstantin's face cracked into an amused smile. "Nor does it say anything about spontaneous nuclear explosions in the heavens."

"Should I have said 'let there be light' as way of a warning?" I had no idea where the comedic streak had come from, but I sure felt like I needed it. His smile widened some and he chuckled gently.

"It is good to see you have not lost your sense of humour, my young friend." His hand rested on my shoulder a moment and then he settled more comfortably next to me. "Better to laugh with the absurdity that put us here than to succumb and be twisted by the strange things of our struggle."

I nodded, not needing to add anything more.

"I think," he continued, "that we need to trade stories. First ours and then you can share yours, yes?"

"Okay."

So we did. Konstantin told me of their initial retreat after our split, then his fight with Klaus, followed by their movement along Lancaster a block or two before they were brought to a standstill and forced to go to ground in the crossfire of human soldiers and sharpelings. It had only been broken when Mira had arrived, with the Russian describing him as creating a path to the square by ripping through the closest enemies like a 'tactical whirlwind of death', a description that made me giggle. Then, I told him mine, from our underground advance to the square, my confrontation with the arbiter, the events at the node itself and Hartley's death. After I was finished, he was silent for nearly 20 seconds before he spoke.

"These 'arbiters' are capable of invisibility and are the agents that control the virus?!"

"I don't know if they control it or if they're just some kind of puppet for whatever does, but they are intelligent and cunning."

"Chyort," Konstantin whispered in astonishment. "An alien foe. Maybe they existed when humans arrived on Lucere and we simply did not know? Though, if they have destroyed other human colonies as it told you, how did they manage that? To find our worlds, to travel between them?"

"Don't know that either," I shrugged. "One thing is clear though: it was never just a disease. It was an attack against our species, and if this was anywhere else, there would be no carriers, no latent virus, no 214-year fight. Lucere would be a long dead world, populated by sharpelings and littered with human relics without aqumi."

He squinted at me in the half-light and slowly shook his head. "Aqumi indeed, and you? You were not content to merely stop Hartley from destroying everything, you had to go and become a superhero for the cause. Shay, you absorbed a quantum computer into your body! I would think it an extravagant lie if I had not seen the results myself, and on top of everything else, enhanced perceptions and telekinesis!"

"You know, back in Palatus, when we were beginning to figure this out, uh," I paused, my memory causing a sting of sadness as I recalled her. "Lily, she, uh ... she joked about me developing telekinesis or invisibility as a superpower. Do you think she knew something we didn't?"

Silent and still for a moment, he smiled in remembrance, though I caught a glimpse of misting and his own sadness, in the edges of his eyes. "She always knew something we didn't. My brother was smart and persistent, but Lily? She had a truly brilliant mind and could run rings around him if it came down to a competition. Vasili once challenged her at chess when they were children, and she beat him nine times in a row before he gave up. Didn't let him forget about it for months afterward."

I was about to reply when I glanced up and caught sight of Mira. Carlos was conspicuously visible, sitting against the adjacent wall of the office suite we were in, eyes closed as he rested for a few minutes, but Mira? He was across the room looking outside, close to the glass of the window-wall. Low-profile, he stood with his back to us and I knew when I saw him that he was upset about something. From the air of solitary contemplation about him, but more because he had stayed where he was when I regained consciousness, doubtless knowing that I was awake.

"Konstantin, I, um ... would you excuse me, please?"

He followed my gaze, then dipping his head in understanding. "He has been staring out that window for a while now. Go to him."

I went. Crossing the room, I lightly touched his arm to get his attention. He glanced at me but did not turn to look directly, nor meet my eyes, and I was struck with a strong feeling of déjà vu from when he had returned from presumed death. He's ashamed? Why? I stepped in front, blocking the window and exterior, my hand rising to his shoulder.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

Our direct telepathy and the other aspects of being aqumi-supercharged seemed to have lapsed with my 'explosive' outburst, though I had no idea whether the power was permanently expelled from me or if it had just eased off for a bit. Regardless, his emotional language was still there and he engaged me with it, a guilty whisper; 'I was not fast enough, the huntress escaped.'

The huntress -- La Tigresse? I had given no thought to her, but with Klaus and Hartley dead, she was the one remaining human threat. Of course, she was in the way when he came to help me, but she must have got away from him unhurt? It was dumbfounding to me that Mira was beating himself up over this 'failure' when he was the biggest single reason that all four of us were still alive.

"Forget her. Mira, you stopped Hartley."

"Because of you," whispering his reply, the speech arrived with no fanfare. A subtle jolt, my heart quickened, my spirit fluttering, and I gripped his shoulder tighter.

"We did it together," I told him, "it was both of us. Me and you." A lump formed in my throat and my emotions were suddenly that marvelous peculiar breed of haywire-crazy that only Mira could cause. "It's always going to be me and you. Always."

It was all I needed to say. That little touch of despondence and guilt was banished and there was nothing stopping the full strength of his concentrated worshipful gaze. Then the emotion grew but also inverted; in a microsecond, the feelings transitioned from latency to full-blown desire. There was a mutual wanting that expanded like a feedback loop between us; his fuelled mine and mine his. Without thinking, my other hand came up, my arms sliding around Mira's neck. My heartbeat was thunderous as we shifted closer and I stared at the red of his lips, reveled in the soft spine-tingling yield of his shoulder muscles. My eyes flicked up, my lips trembling inches from his, but I knew that if we started we would not stop.

"Mira, we can't, we s-shouldn't," I stammered. Not with others around. Mira's hands touched lightly on my hips, very gently resting there, and then he shuddered in restraint. Instead, he pulled me closer, mashing our hips together. The movement drew our faces closer, our mouths brushing, breath juddering hotly, but with titanic strength of will, we somehow didn't go further. Instead, wanting an outlet, his hands slid sneakily around further and then under my waistband and down.

Bare skin.

My voice jumped at least an octave, though more like two. "R-really b-bad idea. S-should s-stop." Don't stop. Best idea ever. "There are p-people with us." Don't care if there's a stadium full. "Need t-to cool it." Touch me anywhere you want.

Please?

Pulling me even tighter, as if he wanted to crush my body into his so we were one, Mira's waist and mine were pressing together. The friction sent waves of pleasurable warmth through me as my rampant lust ground slowly against the swelling heaviness of his own. I wanted to jump on him, wrap myself around him, fingertips digging into his shoulders. His lips caressed mine, but pulled back before we could join together into a full kiss, just touching but not more than that.

Want. So. Much.

Again and again we repeated it, kissing but not kissing, practically breathing into each other's mouths. Then we were retreating an inch or more and rubbing noses to distract from the sheer frustration. His eyes locked with mine and then he was talking to me as he had twice before with his own personal brand of soulful telepathy; the internal speech. Yet, the energy that powered this communication was not the usual deep emotion, but raw and passionate, and the words brief, a dialogue not a monologue.

If they were not here, I would be keeping my daily promise.

Oh boy. "Want you so m-much it hurts, but we- ... we can't. N-not here."

When we are free, I will give you that and more.

"Promise?"

I promise. I want to share everything with you.

"I do too. When we're f-free?"

When we're free.

"Okay."

He kissed me, quick but hard, then forcing himself away before it could go further, his hands slipping stealthily out of my pants as he let go. Mira turned abruptly and padded away to where my backpack was. His pants were tented out in an obscene bulge that he wore shamelessly, even proudly, as he walked. My head was still swimming as I watched, craving sex, craving him like a druggie after a chemical fix.

Whoa. That was ... really intense.

"Hey, this still works!" Carlos' voice came from the large stately office desk which occupied the centre of the room. He had finished his nap and was poking around, having pushed the tattered highback chair away from the desk and was standing in the space. "Shay, Konstantin, come look!"

The holographic projector in the desk's surface came to life. Government offices back in 2104 tended to use the most modern computing hardware available, differing from the commercial and residential markets which were still dominated by older-style desktop technology even decades after it had become obsolete. What was surprising was that it was powered, as modern systems had higher requirements that the newest ODEI had difficulty keeping up with.

"Terminal initialised." A disembodied automated voice spoke as we joined Carlos at the desk, gathering around. "Detecting user." Strobing light flickered as the software told the sensor to attempt recognition. So much for that. It's not going to know who we are-

"Completed, user found. Greetings, Shay Andersen."

"What?!" I spluttered.

"Surprised?" Carlos muttered, smirking sidelong at me. "Of course they know you, even before you went around blowing everything up. Everyone knows you, Mr Superhero."

I smacked him on the arm and he laughed harder. The terminal's voice spoke again, the holographic display showing the government's logo and 'Lucere Global Democratic Union' title across it. "As a first time user, you are informed your account has access to one feature: electronic messaging. Redirect to mailbox?"

"Yes."

"Accessing. There is: one available message, video format. Begin playback?"

A video? "Yes."

The screen formed into a rectangular outline, a person appearing as the record began. He had a familiar face, mousey brown hair and a fit build, though as he sat in an office chair in front of the camera, he looked exhausted, dark rings under his eyes. It was the same man I had seen in the picture from Bainbridge's house in Mersenne, though now seeming to have aged years through how stressed and worn he was.

"Hello, Shay. My name is Christopher Albans. You met my brother John not long ago. If you are seeing this message, you have made it to a government EDT. I am praying you are safe. The world has become a nightmare and I cannot think how crazy it must appear compared to when you arrived weeks ago.

"What I'm about to tell you is one of the best protected state secrets of Lucere. I could be imprisoned for a very long time for informing you, but if there is a government surviving at the end of all this to try me, well ... I will gladly take that punishment. You see, the medical trial you were taking part in is based on many years of private research, but there is more to it than that. A lot more. John told me you are bright and your GIM score very high for your age, so I hope you are prepared to take in this information, because it is very important, very serious stuff ... and you -- specifically and especially you -- need to hear it.

"When Lucere was colonised four decades ago, everyone thought the sky's lighting was a natural atmospheric occurrence, like sprites or St Elmo's fire on Earth, but it isn't. An artificial 'energy' field was discovered by an early astrophysics study, covering the planet's surface. Yeah, artificial, as in: it isn't naturally occurring and it isn't something that was made by us. It took two years of classified research by top government scientists to confirm that what they found was real.

"Our premier at the time, Jan Dekraker, wanted it to be made public but certain elements of Earth's political elite put enormous pressure on him not to. Lu Xiang was picking up speed with Zhengui Taohua cultural reform, dragging plenty of Asian retro-nationalists with him and the FAU front was beginning a fresh round of high-level assassinations in South America. The home world was more politically unstable than it had been in thirty years. Even when that settled down a decade later, the attitude was the same and it was sealed. 'Keep it secret' became official policy and that was that.

"So, what is special about this 'energy' field and what does it do? The truth is even today, we still don't know that much about it. What we do know is that it is artificially produced and is generated from fixed locations across the planet's surface, but it has no physical device controlling it. As for what this 'energy' actually is? What we can tell is that it is a massless virtual particle capable of changing the properties of some very basic ties between and within atoms. What that means is it can bend and sometimes break the laws that glue everything together at the smallest level. It works like some kind of computer software too, obeying its own rules to accomplish whatever goals it is programmed to do.

"There are two significant things our scientists discovered about this field and whomever made it. First, that it seems to actually help the planet's ecology, including people, by acting like a sort of planet-wide healing and immune system. It does this by selectively targeting and destroying harmful factors, and by boosting helpful ones. The second is that the species that developed it was not unlike us, using similar 'building blocks' for their genetic code. The only concrete information physicists could extract from their experiments with what they called 'quantum patterning' as they tried to replicate this energy field, was snatches of an underlying code that turned out to be DNA.

"This DNA is always in segments of a fixed length and seems to indicate a relationship between the energy field and whatever individual organism in which the code would have been originally found. The theory is that these code segments are the physical key we couldn't find. They are thought to be an activator, and their purpose to link this energy field directly into an individual's body, maybe to allow that individual to adapt themselves to a particular environmental demand or for some other unknown use.

"These recovered DNA segments also came with some sort of category identifier attached to them, like they were subdivided into ... what would you call them? Roles, I suppose. It's hard to tell what these roles are, but some very ambiguous clues have let us make sketchy guesses that indicate function. Three groupings have been discovered so far; the smallest is called 'administrative', the next largest is named 'protective' and the last is 'reactive' or 'adaptive.'

"The main problem is that there were unexpected corruptions in the extraction of many code sequences, meaning we cannot know which ones work and which ones don't. Not until we complete them and then implant the code into a human subject to see what it does.

"You probably know where this is going. The Volkov Research Foundation was developing genetic treatment in conjunction with this alien technology, hoping that the code would successfully activate and increase the chance of your cure succeeding. You were first of three trial subjects, each of you having a code segment from one of the groupings embedded into your DNA. Yours was the 'administrative' code. These are the two other test subjects."

Dual portraits appeared on the screen, obscuring Albans' face. The right-side portrait was a middle-aged man with thinning black hair and a long pale sickly face. Underneath were lines of text saying 'Subject Three: Kajetán Dvoracek', 'Age: 46', 'Residence: Ostrava, Czech A.R., Earth', 'Group: Reactive.' The portrait on the left, however ...

......

Is ... this for real?

"Pause!" I commanded hurriedly, and the playback obliged, freezing where it was on screen.

"Mierda," whispered Carlos, and Konstantin drew back in similar surprise. I could not speak nor take my eyes off the face of the woman in front of us. She was young and very beautiful, almost like a professional model, a cascade of dark blonde hair and pale blue eyes regarding the camera. What really captured my imagination though was the way she was smiling. It was so open and so kindhearted, a fantastic tenderness and warmth that I knew so well. Every little thing about her face, the set of it, shape and the way she held herself; it absolutely and unquestionably made me think of him.

Mira.

Stranger than this, though: I had seen her in person.

The day we went in to the Volkov Medical Centre, February 12. I was sitting in the lobby waiting with my parents since we were a few minutes early for my appointment. Mostly staring at my hands or the floor, not able to think about much except for the crap I was going through. I had looked up as she finished talking to one of the receptionists. She happened to glance my way and our eyes met for a few seconds. She smiled at me, a complete stranger, exactly like the smile in the picture, before she turned and walked out of the building's entrance.

The odds must be a billion to one.

"I wonder what you believe now. Is this coincidence, or ... ?" Konstantin's voice was very quiet next to me. I looked to him, feeling blown away, and he nodded sagely. Calling the boy's name, Mira looked up and then stood, coming to us. Reaching the desk, he got a proper look at the screen's image and as he saw it, he stopped and became completely still.

Just staring.

Subject Two: Synnøve Ellefsen. Age: 24. Residence: Drammen, Norway, Earth. Group: Protective.

He reached up slowly as if to caress her face, but of course his fingers passed right through the light in the air. His hand withdrew equally slowly and I touched his arm. What I saw behind his mask was a combination of confusion and emotional vulnerability. All of us had lost family members, but Mira never had a family and now ... now this? It didn't seem fair to have so much dumped on him, atop of all else he had to bear.

"Well, I think here is an answer," spoke the Russian. "Your DNA and his both contain activator sequences that merged aqumi with your bodies. Except his was hidden for many generations in dormant human genes behind the Sharpe virus, until you 'jump-started' it when you met him, and set him free."

The control node's title of 'master' and even Mira's own description of me as 'master of the sun' now fell neatly into place. Mine is the administrative sequence, the master of aqumi, and his is the protective sequence, the light's guardian. My guardian. We weren't just bound together by a mystical connection, it was written into the very substance of our bodies. If I wanted any sign that we were 'meant to be together' this was a bigger one than I could have asked for.

"So you two were like ... destined to meet even 200 years ago?" Carlos gestured to Synnøve's picture. "Shay, that's freaky shit. Up there with you trying to set the sky on fire." He took a big breath. "I need to stop being shocked by this stuff and remind myself I'm living one of Juan's fairy tales."

No kidding it's freaky shit. I wanted to know what else Chris had to say, though. "Let's hear him out." To the terminal again: "Play."

It resumed. The portraits vanished and Albans was speaking. "Then we come to the world as it is today. The reason I am recording this message to you. Lucere as you see it is falling apart because of this viral pandemic. Daniel Sharpe discovered it in Palatus before the city was wiped out, though our scientific understanding of the virus is pitiful and study is incredibly dangerous. It jumps cordons, escapes quarantines, finds a way to spread no matter what, and it is very transmissible. Easily contagious. Various anti-integrase and replicant blocker drugs were tried to stop it multiplying, as well as others for disrupting the viral attachment and penetration phases, but it didn't make a difference. It just ignores them, spreading anyhow; our most powerful medical tools have not slowed it. Truthfully, nothing stops it.

"Early on during this, the media was muzzled so news of how serious this was would not escape off-planet, and then our connections to the colonial network were cut by Earth. Yet, just hours before that happened, the premier received encrypted diplomatic communiqués through the military backup relay. They were from Obsidia and Silenus II, warnings from their governments that this disease had appeared on their worlds. We don't even know how that is possible, as a travel ban was in place some time ago. Ultimately, that doesn't matter. We are in serious trouble. If we don't figure this out, if this spreads to every colonial world including Earth, then the human race will become extinct, and it will be over.

"None of this makes sense. Reality has been turned upside down." Albans slowed in his speech for the first time and his eyes were red-rimmed with the emotional toll of what he had known. "I saw civilians being shot to death by our own soldiers in Helmholtz, the airforce doing bombing runs over St. Ambrose. Those ... creatures, eating people in the streets. Hospitals, overflowing with sick and wounded. It feels like this is hell and we are finally meeting our demons after so long on the run ... but there is still hope.

"Shay, that hope is YOU." The emphasis he put on the word was frightening. All of his focus and determination gripped the syllable, imbuing it with a vibrating desperate strength. "John saw your cure working. It succeeded far beyond his expectations. He knew what you represent. The power that was tied into your body may be the best chance anyone has of saving our species, and that ... is why you must escape. You must leave Lucere and go to another world, anywhere, that still has civilisation.

"If you are in the Capital Arm, I have shuttles on hold at Aspira and Galbraith both. If you have fled to the Aurora Coast, there is one waiting at Temperance. All are Department of Defence owned and will not leave without you on board. They are installed with semi-automated AI courtesy of my contacts in ParaTech, so if there are no pilots available, you will be able to make it to orbit at least. The military always maintained a covert auxiliary gate-link to the research station orbiting Librae Arctis IV and it will let you through. From there, you should hop back into the network to any colonial world that is safe.

"You are SO important. John knew it, but our government, our army ... our society ... is deaf to reason and has become interested only in self-preservation. It is every man looking out for his own. You need to get off Lucere. You must leave the planet. I fear for us all if you do not.

"Godspeed and good luck."

He smiled tiredly at the camera and then, the video stopped.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"So, it's possible to leave Lucere?!"

Konstantin shrugged at Carlos. "If the shuttle he mentioned is still at the spaceport, yes, maybe. Just think before we decide anything though." He addressed me. "You and Mira are immune to the virus because aqumi is wired into your DNA. Can you transfer that immunity to anyone else now that you have learned some control over your aqumi ability?"

I thought hard. "I don't know. I think maybe I could burn it out of the body like I did with Mira in the first place, but without the activator sequence, it sounds like it wouldn't stick. Probably would just be a temporary cure, not immunisation."

"Like, they'd just walk out the door and get infected again straight away?" Carlos queried.

"You told me that the control node warned against concentrated levels of aqumi. It's equally possible that trying to cure someone that way might kill them too." Konstantin frowned, his neck and face very tense. "I think Mr Albans is right. I never wanted to be saying this, but I don't think we can save Lucere. Leaving the planet may be the only option."

"Alright, so we do it." Carlos folded his arms. "There's just the small problem of getting out of this room first, not to mention crossing the city to the spaceport."

"What?"

He gestured to the window. "After you knocked yourself out trying to nuke some clouds, we had to run to the government buildings north of the square with about a million sharpelings chasing us. They're still out there, just kinda hanging around. They've lost us, but they know we're still here somewhere, so we can't leave."

Of course, one moment I'm waving a big neon sign at the arbiters to advertise where I am and the next I've vanished. All of those sharpelings are here to kill me, waiting for the arbiters to give them a location. That ruled out me trying anything clever with aqumi until we had a bit more space to do so. I don't want to bring all of that down on our heads. Wait, though -- this room. I feel like I've seen it before, somewhere.

"Where are we?" I asked the question again. "I mean, exactly."

"The executive-branch offices," Konstantin rumbled. "Fourth floor. I saw a sign that said 'Room Twelve' on it."

"Seriously?" I gaped. Running across to the double door entrance to the office suite, I scanned the surface. The plaque on it was caked with dust, but as I blew it out, puffs flying everywhere, the words became legible: Room Twelve, Office of the Premier, Executive of the Lucere Global Democratic Union.

Holy shit.

This room was famous in the same way that the Oval Office and 10 Downing Street were. We were standing in the place that the planet was once governed from. Which means that there is a way.

The others looked at me oddly as I began to laugh. Once more, Lucere had thrown a curveball.

Luck, providence, destiny, fate. Whatever you want to call it. I don't care.

We are getting out of this place.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The documentary I watched at school when I was thirteen had been quite informative about the differences between the various colonial governments. Lucere was given lots of attention, due to the status as the biggest 'favourite.' Much ado was made over the premier's position and trappings of power, being the most influential political office possible outside of Earth itself. The video tour had included Room Twelve and the premier's 'crisis tunnel' for times of emergency, although it had not shown how far that tunnel went and where it emerged.

It turned out it was quite some distance, as we came back into the daylight on the western bank of the Verdigris. The path had taken us right under the CBD and the river, and we were close to the sea and the river's mouth, not far to the north. Not only that, but we had travelled three quarters of the distance to the spaceport at the same time. Carlos had not been very happy about entering the dark cramped passageway, but when he saw how close we were to our goal, that was forgiven.

"It's right there!" He was dashing forward along the shore, heading towards the road that led up to the carpark and terminal buildings. It was relatively open and empty here, being just an intermediate sharpeling-free area of grass and weeds. The nearest buildings were a short distance off from the spaceport, the complex surrounded by a no-man's land. Lucere's law required that houses and shops not be built within a certain distance of space launches, so we were basically given a free run to get where we wanted to go without interference.

Almost too easy.

Carlos stayed a bit ahead of us, his eagerness being infectious, keeping us all moving. There were a number of signs along the roadside approach, and as we ran past I glanced at some. Most weren't readable, those that were just containing directions into the city. Ahead, Carlos paused beneath one to catch his breath. He looked up at the air for a moment, brow crinkling and then called out to us. "Did you hear something?"

Hear something? I didn't notice anything. I looked around, to the spaceport and the more distant houses. What is-

Then I saw the sign he was standing under. Specifically, the text upon it. Those same faded letters from my dreams. Welcome to Aspira City, Jewel of Lucere. In that very moment, the arbiters' scent exploded in my perception, a hateful dread; only here it was overwhelming, thick, hopelessly aggressive, an engulfing cloud of noxious smoke that lacked any of the subtle malice it had before.

Oh god.

From out of the sky it dropped, the final arc of a huge leap. My instincts reached out, some of my power still remaining after the colossal outburst at the square, a tiny shield springing up in a bubble around Carlos in the nick of time. The monster bounced off the side, the asphalt cracking from the force it imparted as it landed. Talons punched into the surface as it gripped and unfurled to the full extent, five metres high.

It's fucking REAL!

It was an arbiter on steroids, massive and rippling with shadows and charcoal mist. Not cautious and hidden like they were, their hulking champion was flagrant and hugely built. The head snapped around to appraise us, and ignoring Carlos, it instantly homed on me, clouds of unearthly smoke billowing and fogging about it. The head went back and in a rendition of my dreams, it roared an ear-splitting challenge and then charged.

So fast and so big, the footfalls left craters in the road as it ran straight at me. Mira's voice came in an answering yell and he was speeding past, flying at an angle as he leaped, colliding with the giant creature and derailing it before it could reach me.

They crashed to the ground next to us, Konstantin and I diving out of the way. He and Carlos were mastering their surprise and fear, and as the giant threw Mira off it, they opened up. Gunfire ripped through the air, the assault rifles unleashing on it, and it shuddered from the pelting, recoiling somewhat. Even after the magazines were done, it was still standing, the damage not nearly enough to cause real hurt, and then it was moving again. I backed up, frantically slapping it away with aqumi and Mira was repeating his intercept, springing onto its side in an agile bound, denying it any chance to reach me.

"The head!" Konstantin shouted. "Like a sharpeling, take off the HEAD!"

Somehow he was able to compete with it, wrestling with this thing that had foreclaws nearly half the length of my arm. Constantly obstructing its field of view, Mira hung onto its front, his fists glowing with aqumi as he struck it across the face repeatedly, keeping it on the defensive for as long as possible. His grapple won out and they tumbled, the struggle reorienting on the ground; the monstrous claws sliced while he swung it onto its back. It made to rise and toss him off a second time, but I slammed down hard on top of it with as much kinetic force as I could muster. Konstantin dashed close, assault rifle discarded, feverishly loading the sniper. Mira hadn't stopped his rain of blows, a continuous litany of hits on the impenetrable rock of the creature's face, and it took all my concentration to restrain it, pressing it flat. The Russian's boot stomped down hard on the upper jaw, our combined weight enough to force it still for just long enough. He shoved the gun's barrel right into the eye and began to fire.

He did not stop until the chamber was empty.

The scream the monster let off as it died was as piercing and far-reaching as the arbiters' call to arms. It was a demanding unrepentant yowl that fell away to a hissing impotence in the finish. The body crumbled to nothing much like the arbiter's had when I destroyed it at the plaza, the life force seeming to depart with the sound.

We were climbing to our feet, removing our hands from our ears. Looking to one another, no one said a word. We simply grabbed anything we had dropped for the fight and took off running for the spaceport.

There was no doubt in anyone's mind: every sharpeling in the city now knew where we were.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The spaceport itself did not have much in the way of sharpeling inhabitants, the few we ran into at the carpark being quickly dispatched. Inside the terminal was little different from my arrival in 2104, though all the bright polished storefronts and gift shops were closed up or trashed, the colourful commercial antics of long ago now only a memory. Miscellaneous military junk and bones were scattered throughout, including up on the mezzanine and in many small nooks, indicating this was probably somewhere that had become a final refuge for more than a few survivors. Info terminals sat forlorn and useless as we ran on, bypassing the baggage carousels, check-in counters, customs and security desks, until we reached the departure lounges and observation deck.

Although Aspira was the planetary capital, it wasn't the major hub for air flights. Galbraith was the go-to city for Aurum's air travel, with Aspira only serving shorter distance to continental locations nearer in the Capital Arm and up in the northern provinces. Space travel was the main demand, industrial materials shipping taking up the majority of transport. However, the final days of access to Earth meant there weren't any bulk carriers landed, nor any commercial airliners.

From the centre of the deck where we stood, all of the docking bays and the whole tarmac was visible. The deck stretched in a wide open curve in both directions, the traffic control building adjoining it at the far left end. The wreckage of several shuttles and one spaceliner were present on the tarmac, with just four parked and connected to the passenger loading shunts.

Please please please let Albans' shuttle be there. Please!

It was. Sitting inconspicuously in the very right end bay was a squat beige Northrop-Boeing military shuttle, the defence department's insignia stamped all over the side.

"There it is!"

"Not so fast." Konstantin pointed. "Look at the wheels."

Fastened around the shuttle's landing gear were thick locking clamps, connecting it to the loading bay. It was handcuffed, unable to go anywhere until permission was given.

"Shit," I swore, "how do we undo those?"

"Must be in the control tower, they would have to give the okay before a spacecraft leaves."

"Oh, fuuuck," Carlos grunted. He was pointing too, and out past the carpark, the no-man's land we had crossed was littered with dozens of little dots, moving in towards the spaceport at high speed.

"Let's go. Come on, move!" Konstantin led the way, the rest of us trailing as we headed to traffic control. It was late afternoon now, the sky patching between overcast and sunshine, and the window dividers made the light flicker as we ran onwards, a zebra pattern of stripes. The concourse was extensive, my lungs starting to burn by the time we reached the 'Authorised Personnel' staff door. Konstantin didn't care, he booted it clear open and charged up the stairs.

The stairwell led down to the ground floor and maintenance, and up a couple of flights to traffic control. The control room itself was square, less than ten metres a side, windows showing the view in all directions. Banks of buttons and screens covered the consoles along the walls; Carlos, Konstantin and I spread out searching.

"What will it look like?" I called, breathless. "What if it needs power to work?!"

"A switch or a lever, maybe," the Russian bellowed back. "Pray it is manual, we are dead otherwise!"

"Here!" Carlos was poring over a panel full of a several dozen capped binary red-green buttons. All of them were in the 'off' state, the red halves indented. "Which bay is the shuttle in?"

I stared out the window, looking along the side of the building. The bay numbers were stamped above each docking bay and I slid my gaze along to where our shuttle was parked.

"B14!"

"Got it."

He flipped the cap off the button and pressed the green half down, the red side popping up as they switched states. Emitting a loud click, it immediately reversed back. Carlos pressed it again and it did the same thing. Then a third time, banging the console with his fist as he did so, and it buzzed a warning tone. The primitive info display above it switched on and a text-line blinked onto it. It read: 'N-ACK: B14 DECLAMP N-REQ - RESEND.'

"Oh, what now!?" growled Konstantin. "What does this mean? Shay?"

"Hold on!" I stared. My mind raced, trawling through memories from school. Specifically memories from when we started learning the history of computing when I was ten. "Uh, I think ... 'ack' means 'acknowledged' so 'n-ack' is 'not acknowledged'? That's it! It's saying: 'Not acknowledged. B14 declamp not requested. Resend.'"

"Not requested? You aren't serious." A look of horror was spreading on Konstantin's face. "It has to be requested first? You mean the pilot has to ask for it ... and then the control tower has to approve?"

I nodded helplessly, the anger welling up inside. "Fuck! Those things will be all over the place in a couple of minutes. Pretty soon we won't be able to get between here and that shuttle. How are we meant to be in two places at once?!"

"You won't have to."

"What?" Both of us turned to look at Carlos

"I said: you won't have to." He was standing unusually tall, shoulders thrown back and there was a strange look to him, an odd sort of stiffness. He spoke again and there was an emotional undertone to it, a powerful resolve hiding behind what he said. "Someone needs to stay here so the rest can make it. That someone is me."

The breath left my lungs.

"Carlos ... "

"No, Shay." His jaw clenched tighter and he glared at me. "You heard Albans. Your life is more precious than anything. You need Mira's protection and Konstantin's guidance."

"NO! You can't-"

"I CAN! Listen! If I don't, we're ALL dead!" He looked out the window, his face taut and hard, not wanting to face me. "I told you about Este. He died in more pain than you can imagine because I was a coward. I didn't wait for him. You two are always looking for reasons, destiny, in everything. Well, here's mine: I can't change the past, but I can change the present." He looked back at me, rigid and not budging. "Don't make this any worse. You need to go now."

"Noooo!" I howled, my voice breaking. Konstantin's arm was around me and my mind was a mess of exploding fury and anguish as he dragged me struggling out of the control room, Mira leading the way. The last thing I saw when the door closed was his silhouette against the sky out the window, proud and steadfast as he stood his ground. Then the sight was gone and we were down the steps and there was no time to argue or curse or scream my hatred at the world for how fucking wrong it was.

Entering the concourse as we were exiting the steps, the first sharpelings had reached our level. Moving like a coordinated force instead of a random mob, they were fanning out across the width of the concourse as they arrived, and began to run along it at speed. Mira accelerated, breaking away from us with the knife drawn and he boosted himself further, drawing what aqumi he could through me, to do his duty.

We were out of time.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Carlos did not move from where he stood. The line of sight to the concourse below was not perfect, but he could still see the three shapes running along it. Mira was streaking ahead to meet the sharpelings, Shay and Konstantin a little behind, but still running at full speed. It would take them a minute or five to reach the shuttle. By then, there would be hundreds of them inside the terminal. Outside, more were streaming across the grass. Probably thousands coming right here, to this point.

The arbiters were sending everything they had.

The memories of that horrible sickening day had stayed with him for three years. Carlos had not looked away at the time it occurred. He made himself watch. He did this so he could not forget it. He did this so it would brand itself into his heart, forever. He did this so the constant nightmares would remind him how these disgusting creatures had destroyed the most beautiful, happy, innocent little boy, ending his life in seconds.

He had failed Este and there was no way he could ever pay for it enough.

Then Shay came along.

For once, he felt quite calm, peaceful. Leaning against the console behind as he kept an eye on what was going on below, Carlos checked the assault rifle's magazine and, satisfied it was loaded, propped it next to him on the floor. Scooping up the backpack, he rummaged through 'til he found the prize he'd looted from a dead Liberator soldier on Lancaster. Slipping one into his pocket, he didn't know yet what he'd use it for. Something would certainly present itself.

There would soon be no shortage of opportunities.

He looked down to their progress. They had made it some way along the concourse, but there was still a fair distance left. Mira was a dynamo however, and after what he had seen the boy do, he was not concerned for Shay's safety.

His thoughts were interrupted as the door to traffic control flew open, so fast that it bounced off the wall. La Tigresse was in the opening, framed against the metal of the stairwell and then in the blink of an eye, she was rushing. Grabbing the rifle in a hurried response, he tried to bring it to bear but she was just close enough for her foot to come round in an expert kick, smacking it out of his grip and to the floor.

All evasive speed and smug leverage, she struck him across the face and then grabbed his hair, slamming him down against the console. "Playing hero, huh?" She was snarling as she bashed his face on the console again. "When they die, that'll be my flight."

His reply was to play dirty. An elbow jammed upwards at an unprotected angle, striking very hard right where he aimed it: her left breast. Tigresse gasped out an odd sound, a sort of 'uunf' of pain, and he bucked, knocking her to the floor. Carlos was no master of martial acrobatics, but he knew what was effective and turned, kicking her solidly in the stomach while she was grounded. Once, twice he laid the boot in, and the third time she grabbed his foot and twisted and then he was down.

Tigresse was slippery and savage and she tried to get him into an armlock, as she had with Morgan, but Carlos rolled onto her, using his weight. Kneeing her again in the stomach as they struggled, he shoved her away and dived towards the rifle. His fingers were scrabbling on the stock where it had slid under the consoles across the other side of traffic control when she reached him again, knocking his head against the workstation's edge as he groped for the weapon. Blinking and dizzy as she repeated the action, his eyes fell for just a moment across the docking clamp panel back where he had been standing. There was a light flashing on it, asking for attention.

A green light above B14.

They needed him now.

He would not fail again.

Tigresse lifted his head back, intent to brain him to death against the hard edge, but he swung wildly with his free arm, the fist bashing against the inside of her knee. The woman let out a yelp of hurt, his fist managing to connect with previously bruised tissue from when Mira had beaten the tar out of her. Mustering all his strength, he threw her off. Half stumbling, half running, not caring how vulnerable he was, he threw himself across the room to the panel. The cap was still open on B14 from earlier and all he had to do was jab a finger down, the green button indented.

It clicked in place, staying down.

"Silly boy."

The military tactical knife stabbing into his back was like a lance made of fire. La Tigresse and her brother were backstabbers, literally and metaphorically. His hands fell to his sides and he didn't struggle. He didn't even feel bad about it.

Not any more.

"Any last words?"

"Yeah," he mumbled thickly. "This is for Morgan ... bitch."

I'm sorry Este. I'm so sorry. I love you.

His fingers slackened and the metal object he was holding dropped to the floor. It rolled a couple inches, settling right next to the woman's foot.

A second later, the grenade detonated.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Mira was the last to make it inside the shuttle. He had performed his magic to the highest standard as we had blitzed along the concourse. The sharpelings were acting more cohesively and with more cunning than I had ever seen, but Mira still countered it. I fed him all I could from the furnace of aqumi and wishing all the while the godlike strength I had at the plaza would return. It did not, but we still made it anyway. He had to double back, drawing the creatures away to allow us to reach the shuttle first and get inside, but as soon as he was through, Konstantin was slamming the door shut.

Racing along past the passenger seats to the cockpit, I slapped the power button and the automation awoke straight away. The sterile electronic voice rapidly verified my identity from a pop-up retinal scan and immediately set about prepping for departure. It seemed time had not caused Lucere's military shuttles to lose any of their functionality, or perhaps this one had simply sat undisturbed this long. Whatever the case, it was prompt and effective, then asking me to manually request departure rights. Tapping the indicated button, I waited.

The AI spoke again. "Waiting for manual gear release."

Ten seconds passed and nothing happened.

Twenty seconds.

Carlos? Grief shot through me as I thought his name and my eyes prickled. Dammit, Carlos. I know you're gonna come through for us. For me.

"Gear release confirmed."

Thank you.

A soft rumble began as the manoeuvring thrusters powered up, and there was the faint popping sound of the exterior umbilicals being released. The shuttle began to move, the nose turning away from the terminal's concourse. As we came around, the view hove by the front of it and I was treated to an extraordinary sight. It was packed full of sharpelings, easily several hundred in the space we had run through not seconds ago. Backing away from this unpleasant image, I moved through into the passenger compartment.

Mira's eyes were on me, but it wasn't about me right then, for once. He was sitting in one of the seats next to Konstantin, but his eyes were full of concern and heightened worry. He looked pointedly at the man next to him. The Russian's head was down, and he was placidly looking at his arm, with an accepting kind of serenity. As I got closer, I saw that along the top of his wrist was a cut, a couple of inches long.

A cut from a sharpeling claw.

No. No way.

"I'm sorry, Shay," he spoke softly, without looking up at me. His voice choked on his next words. "I am sorry. Forgive me."

"No," I breathed. The tears came, unwanted but inevitable. "No! Not you too."

He shook his head, still not looking up. "I did not want this to be my end, but God has other plans."

It can't be. It won't be. I'm not going to let it.

"Fuck this!" My voice rose to a yell against the sound of the shuttle moving on the tarmac. "If that's who your 'God' is, then he isn't divine AT ALL! He doesn't deserve the name 'God'! He's a murderer who is killing everyone I care about!" I reached out, grabbing Konstantin's wrist.

"Shay!" He gasped.

"I'm not going to take it!" The golden purity of aqumi exploded through my hands into Konstantin's body. "We're leaving Lucere, and I'm going to burn this fucking virus out of you ... and you're going to live and be free from it." I clenched my teeth. "You're going to LIVE!"

The big man's breath lengthened at the foreign sensation, prolonging into a gasp of hurt. He stiffened against the seat, the light blazing through me and into him.

He's going to live!

My concentration grew, the heat of the virtual magic pushing through him as I urged it to, directing the flood to wash away that nasty burrowing darkness that had clamped onto his genes. I could tell it was hurting him but I did not stop, even as his voice rose in pain. There was no way I could stop, because I was not going to let this evil take the man who had become like a father to me when my own father was gone forever. He was a tower of strength when I needed him. He had looked out for me and just like all the others on my journey, without him I would never have made it. I was not going to lose him to the virus too.

You're going to make it. Blinking away the tears, I prayed, hoped, that he would. You will make it, Konstantin. Don't quit on me now, dammit. Yet, it was hard on him; the physical rearrangement of matter itself, but also the side-effect of intense aqumi bombardment. The quantum brilliance was nothing to me or Mira, but for him? It was like exposure to a high dose of actual radiation, the movement and dislocation of the fundamental forces doing strange and unpleasant things to his biology.

Come on, get OUT of him! At last, I felt the final smidgen of the virus dissipate and it was done. The Russian had slumped against the seat and I pulled the aqumi back out of him straight away, but he lay still, pale and motionless. For a chilling moment, I thought it was too much, his heart and brain and internal organs damaged beyond repair, that he had died from the terrible power I had subjected him to ... and then, an extraordinary sign.

He let out the faintest exhale.

Konstantin is going to live.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The takeoff itself was uneventful. Mira and I sat in the cockpit seats, while Konstantin had been strapped where he was, unconscious, in the passenger compartment. His pulse had been extremely weak, and I had tried to use the power I possessed to very gently heal the worst of what his body had suffered during the cleansing process, but I still wasn't sure how much I had done or how long he would make it.

At that point, nothing was clear. I just had to hope that I had done enough.

The artificial gravity generators kicked in when we cleared Lucere's atmosphere, soaring at last into orbit around the planet. The AI offered me a choice: head for the military gate-link that Christopher Albans had decided or dock at the transit lounge. I chose to dock there, electing to let Konstantin stabilise before attempting the more physically stressful jump from Lucere to another point in the galaxy.

Transit lounges served as temporary stop-overs for guests to a planet who weren't planning on immediately landing or departing. They usually consisted of bedrooms, the actual lounge area itself which usually had a few basic entertainment facilities, and simple amenities, like a bathroom, shower and a robotic vendor that served ready-to-eat meals. The one we were connecting to was small, and probably capable of supporting only a few dozen people at any given time. As the shuttle attached itself, the station's computer let us know the environmental systems and artificial gravity had been properly powered up and it was ready to receive us.

We carried Konstantin on board and laid him down to sleep in one of the bedrooms, while Mira and I chose another. The first thing I did in our room was to test if the showers were really acting as the station's computer had claimed. They were and stepping under a spray of hot water felt amazing. It also triggered something in me, because from nowhere, it all hit me and I began to bawl, to release the pent up emotion that had been trapped inside for so long.

Everything I knew from when I was a child had been turned on its head or utterly destroyed. People I loved and cared deeply for had died. Millions of others I had never met had suffered too, in too many ways to think about or describe.

Morgan.

Lily.

Carlos.

My parents.

When I left the shower, Mira was waiting for me. He always knew the right thing to do, and as he wrapped me in the bath towel, I was filled with a feeling of immense gratitude that he was in my life at all. The lust and love we had experienced in Room Twelve at Aspira returned, only this time neither of us could resist it. We were free now to do as we pleased, and I wanted him, needed to know the physical connection of our bond. Pulling me onto the bed, we began to kiss and he to undress, needing no communication. Everything was told through touch and with a slow deliberate gentle melding, we joined together.

Mira and I made love.

Hours later, I wandered out to the common room, completely naked, and watched the sun rising over Aurum. Mira's arms slid around my waist as he hugged me from behind, naked too, and his chin rested on my shoulder. I sighed, relaxing into his embrace. The feel of him brushing against me rekindled the imagery of our lovemaking. Yet, it wasn't the sexual part of it that it evoked. It was that same feeling of connection, his body moving against mine, of sharing that beautiful spiritual experience with another human being.

With my boy.

Beneath us, a curtain of light was sweeping across Lucere as the new day dawned.

-o-0-O-0-o-

After dressing and transferring our remaining supplies back onto the shuttle, we attempted to wake Konstantin. Though it had been touch-and-go for a while, he came to, and although he was still tired, he had survived the cure. Barely survived it, as I was not sure anyone else without Konstantin's powerful constitution would have lived through it. Nonetheless we helped him back onto the shuttle, though it was amusing to me that he could not stop looking at his palms.

The skin was clear.

The AI talked me through releasing us from the transit lounge, but as soon as we were free, it informed me it could not set a navigation waypoint for the military gate-link that Christoper Albans had told me to use.

"What?" I asked it. "Why not?"

"No gate with the specified identity exists at that location, nor within scan range."

"Where did it go?" I demanded.

"Unknown." It considered this for a second. "Set new destination?"

Then where are we meant to go?

"There has to be somewhere. We can't go back to Lucere."

"One gate-link detected, inactive. Add waypoint to NavCom?" The AI suggested pleasantly.

"Add waypoint," I confirmed. It beeped an affirmation and then became silent.

Konstantin spoke weakly as he sat in the co-pilot's chair. "The gate to Earth doesn't work, Shay. We can't go through it."

The shuttle gave a slight jolt, the engines flaring as we accelerated away from the transit lounge. "It doesn't work because it's unpowered, right?"

The Russian nodded slowly. "I believe when a link is cut, the singularity fails at the secondary end, which is here, Lucere. It is powered from the other side, so Earth is where the control rests."

"Then it's not broken or anything, it's just ... turned off, right?"

"Yes."

"We'll see about that."

I think people are forgetting that I once had so much energy inside I almost nuked Aspira by accident.

Several minutes later, we were in visual range of the gate itself. As the shuttle approached, the shape got a lot larger and I remembered that it had been built to take spaceships quite a bit bigger than a military shuttle. Massive power relays and the gate-link's control cluster formed a barrier of metal along one side of the construct. The 'gate' part of it consisted of broad curving arms that criss-crossed, forming the outer shell of a spherical lattice of metal. If an imaginary horizontal axis was drawn through the lattice, the polar areas were clear, allowing a spaceship to exit or enter. The centre of the sphere was where the singularity would open.

It was the most advanced technology that humanity had pioneered and I had no clue how it worked, along with most other people I had met. What I did know is that the technology had come about as a result of our experimentation with artificial gravity, and had involved decades of research in the 21st century.

Staring at the power relays, I reached out with aqumi. The structure was really big, but my strength felt like it was building again. Still, tweaking atoms to spark the electrical reaction seemed to be far more tricky than normal telekinesis, especially at this scale. I felt Mira's hand on my shoulder, then I redoubled my efforts, boosting my concentration.

Come on!

With a soundless crackling zap, the electron exchange and manipulation provoked the relays to life. The self-sustaining chain reaction took over, the lights all over the superstructure coming on. This dead piece of inanimation was alive again and Konstantin's jaw dropped next to me, as he had no clue what I was up to.

"The gate-link has become active." The AI let me know very matter-of-fact, not having the capacity for amazement. "Negotiate with ignition protocols?"

"Uh, yeah," I told it, my mouth dry and a big grin on my face, "you do that."

We began to move forward once more, gliding in through the aperture until the gate's navigation took over. It guided us to the exact centre of the sphere and the buffers locked around us, holding the shuttle in place. All along, Konstantin had been watching all of it with a childlike sense of disbelief. Finally he turned to me, his eyes glazed.

"We're ... going to Earth? Truly?"

"Yeah," I told him, "we're going to Earth."

"Shay," he said, "what if it is dead? What if- ... the virus is there too?"

"Singularity will commence in ten seconds," intoned the AI, channeling the audio from the gate's timer.

I didn't reply and he didn't say anything else.

"Five."

"Four."

"Three."

"Two."

"One."

The lattice around us flashed with intense pulses of multi-coloured light. My vision vibrated and there was that weird feeling of inversion, of everything being inside-out or backwards just for a nanosecond. It wasn't unpleasant so much as unsettling, like something cosmic had slipped out of place for the smallest time. Then the light was fading and the lattice was coming back into view.

"Singularity successful."

The ship began to glide forward once more, thrusters kicking in as the buffer was dropped. It didn't feel like we had gone anywhere at all, but that was dispelled as soon as we emerged out of the embrace of the gate-link's arms.

Below us lay a magnificent tapestry of terrestrial beauty. Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the vast stretch of Siberia dominated the view as we arrived in orbit over Earth.

I looked to Konstantin as the planet came into sight. Tears were trickling down his face as he set eyes on his homeland at long last. "I did not think I would live to see it. I have dreamed of this moment since I was a boy."

"Incoming audio transmission," stated the AI. "Opening channel."

A man's voice spoke, full of authority and command. "Unidentified vessel, this is Commander Michael Tanaka. You are violating federal law by proximity to a restricted gate. Stand down and prepare to receive further instruction."

There was a momentary gap, before I could reply and the voice spoke again, sounding a lot more uncertain. "Unidentified vessel, we are receiving activation-level energy signatures from the Lucere gate. Uh, did you ... come through it? Please respond immediately."

I cleared my throat. "Yeah, we did."

The comm. system was silent for several seconds, the commander most probably trying not to flip out on the other end. When he spoke again, he sounded less formal, and almost kind.

"Son, we're reading three life signs on your vessel. Can you give us your names?"

"I'm Shay Andersen."

The Russian spoke next. "I am Konstantin Dimitri Andropov."

Next to me, I heard Mira take a deep breath.

Then he spoke.

"My name is Mira," he told the commander. His hand slipped into mine, the fingers tightening as they meshed together. "Mira Andersen."

Could I have made this any more dramatic? Possibly, but I think it worked out just fine as it is. It's strange, I really don't have a lot to say in the end notes after all of this effort. So, I will simply send you onwards to the next part. The epilogue awaits!
Copyright © 2013 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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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. 

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I understand Shay's outburst he has lost everybody he has cared about but Mira. He may be a superhero in some ways but he is still a teenager at heart. I'm not surprised atbthen going to earth, that's where the story started that's where it should finish.

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On 07/18/2013 07:18 AM, Daithi said:
I understand Shay's outburst he has lost everybody he has cared about but Mira. He may be a superhero in some ways but he is still a teenager at heart. I'm not surprised atbthen going to earth, that's where the story started that's where it should finish.
Well to be more precise, the story began in orbit around Lucere after arriving from Earth and it finished in the reverse - in orbit around Earth after arriving from Lucere; but yes, I thought it fitting.

 

The only people remaining that Shay cares about are those with him - Mira and Konstantin. Everyone else is left behind or dead. It's a lot for anyone to take, especially a teenaged boy. Yet Shay isn't just any boy, and he is to my mind more hardy than many.

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Planet Obsidian, ...could that be the Arbiter's home? It would be appropriate.

Evil, intolerant things, aren't they?

 

 

This has been an effort well spent, I'd say!

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On 07/19/2013 08:39 AM, Stephen said:
Planet Obsidian, ...could that be the Arbiter's home? It would be appropriate.

Evil, intolerant things, aren't they?

 

 

This has been an effort well spent, I'd say!

'Obsidia' is a human-named world, any belief that the black colour of obsidian has anything to do with the arbiters is sheer coincidence and hearsay. The name exists because of the volcanic density of metamorphic rock on that particular world, which is renowned in Hidden Sunlight's universe for industrial mining.

 

Thank you, I'd certainly like to believe so.

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And then there were three. One door closes, another opens. Most important, humans are still there and in control? Why does this story have to end? Thank you ever so much.

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On 07/21/2013 02:43 PM, sandrewn said:
And then there were three. One door closes, another opens. Most important, humans are still there and in control? Why does this story have to end? Thank you ever so much.
Ah, all things have their time and the trial of surviving Lucere is no exception to that. Yes, perhaps the most important thing is true: humanity still wields control - but at what cost and how? Questions for the future.
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Finally the circle is almost closed. With blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of anguish and aqumi, three have survived this incredible journey. My own adrenaline-fueled tension and tear-drenched shirt are testament to the power and the poetry of this story. Thanks, Stellar, for an abso-f'in-lutely amazing view of their journey and for making me feel like I was part of it!

 

The final fight between Carlos and La Tigresse had such a poignancy to it. The fact that Carlos was able to do what he did when even Mira could not fully defeat her was, to me, very much an absolution for what happened with Este. I hope, no, I need to believe that in those final moments he felt the power of that absolution. I was disappointed that Shay and the others did not seem to witness the explosion even if they would not have fully understood its importance. I also hope it took out a bunch of the sharpelings...

 

So, now on to the Epilogue. I do hope it includes mention or at least hints of a sequel -- or the start of a new, fabulous story! :worship:

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On 09/07/2013 11:21 PM, hillj69 said:
Finally the circle is almost closed. With blood, sweat, tears, and a lot of anguish and aqumi, three have survived this incredible journey. My own adrenaline-fueled tension and tear-drenched shirt are testament to the power and the poetry of this story. Thanks, Stellar, for an abso-f'in-lutely amazing view of their journey and for making me feel like I was part of it!

 

The final fight between Carlos and La Tigresse had such a poignancy to it. The fact that Carlos was able to do what he did when even Mira could not fully defeat her was, to me, very much an absolution for what happened with Este. I hope, no, I need to believe that in those final moments he felt the power of that absolution. I was disappointed that Shay and the others did not seem to witness the explosion even if they would not have fully understood its importance. I also hope it took out a bunch of the sharpelings...

 

So, now on to the Epilogue. I do hope it includes mention or at least hints of a sequel -- or the start of a new, fabulous story! :worship:

Thank you! Apologies to my own time taken responding, but here we are.

 

Carlos' motivation was possibly the lightest character exploration anyone got on the protagonist side of things, excepting Morgan who was deliberately a smaller part. He had though, a rather problematic childhood even by Lucere's pretty terrible standards. Shay was his own personal sign from above, his own chance at self-redemption. He wanted to change himself for the better and help those around him in the process, and he is perhaps the most heroic person in the story because of his sacrifice; Mira's devotion notwithstanding - or debatable!

 

I love that you found this part of the story so strong! Any character demise always makes me feel guilty, to varying degrees, but meeting understanding as it comes the other way is a good thing!

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WOW! What a story. You kept the excitement up through the last words...though I'm excited there is an epilogue.

The death of Carlos was so damn tragic and I am still working on forgiving you :) but it was pretty poetic that he took Reanard's sister with him. I loved his last words too-they were perfect b/c I liked Morgan and it was a bit tragic when he died too, if not as surprising. I so hoped that Carlos would make it, esp when he was saved by the bubble from the mega arbiter. But, if a bright spot could be found, that bitch, The Tigresse, had to die!

There has been this great sweep of action from beginning to end. I was surprised with two things...one was why he didn't try to use the node underground to attempt to cure Lucere's beings? Weren't readings given to him for what would be okay as a strength and what would be deadly to all? could he have tried what Hartley had in mind but at the right strength? It kinda felt so anti-climactic for them to go through all they did to merely save the three of them. I also am wondering why they haven't thought that Earth could be one of those world's that these arbiter's had purged of his kin? I was glad you were able to have him cure Konstantine. My thought right prior to that was why Konstantine wouldn't have stayed behind knowing that him having the virus would be enough to stop any world from accepting them. This disease is too great to risk a carrier being allowed to land. I would have loved to see Carlos make it too (the only thing I gave a :thumbdown: in the series! :) But I can accept the role you decided to have him play, if not like it. Was the story with his brother a more last minute decision to add so he could play that role or at least support his decision to play that role in the end?

I'm still a bit unsure why Earth would allow anyone from Lucere to come back when they probably know the severity of this disease by now, it's seemingly invincibility and such. I will be interested to see where they land and if they can do any other good for other worlds? Again, I guess I kinda hoped he'd use the node to not turn the sharplings back to people, but maybe kill them and let the humans be cured. I guess I am still wondering why he'd have this amazing story and this journey with such providence (as K would point out) only to save himself, Mira and Konstantine? I guess i'll only find out by reading on!

I hope you try to get this published. It was an amazing story and I thank you for letting us read it here. It was brilliant!! :worship:

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The worst part of that was killing off Carlos. I had grown to love him as a character, had wanted so much for him, a chance to be happy and loved.

I kinda thought he deserved it.

So seeing him die was not easy to say the least.

So they arrive home at earth. I must admit I never expected that. I'm not even sure I ever expected that they'd survive leaving the planet. I do kind of wonder what happens to aqumi now that they are not near any nodes. I suppose with Shay having one within him, he carries this energy source inside him.

I also kind of worry that the link to earth has been opened, does that mean the arbiters can pursue him? Has Shay brought Sharpes Virus back to earth inadvertently?

It has been one hell of a roller coaster ride I have to say. Such amazing characters and so much emotion and tension throughout the story. Superb is a true reflection of your ability to entertain. So much fascination and enjoyment was tied up with this story, I'm grateful that I had chance to read it, and you chose to share.

Good job. :)

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Carlos fulfilled his want to atone for his brother, he loved Mira and Shay and Konstantin and he did what he had to.
I so love this chapter and I truly have found your attention to detail refreshing. The last part, "Mira Andersen" :)
Ashley D

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On 11/28/2015 11:45 PM, Ashdaw said:

Carlos fulfilled his want to atone for his brother, he loved Mira and Shay and Konstantin and he did what he had to.

I so love this chapter and I truly have found your attention to detail refreshing. The last part, "Mira Andersen" :)

Ashley D

While he had never intended to die, he chose to do what was necessary in a desperate situation. Heroism can sometimes come from the most unexpected places.

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Is their link so complete now that through Shay Mira learned how to fully function as a human? Cool

So Earth still exists after all.

Congratulations, great story, now on my way to book 2

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On 03/12/2017 at 2:17 PM, Sweetlion said:

Is their link so complete now that through Shay Mira learned how to fully function as a human? Cool

So Earth still exists after all.

Congratulations, great story, now on my way to book 2

 

Mira has absorbed a lot through his connection to Shay, though he is still rather oblivious about the more social aspects of humanity. He's still reconciling his place in the cosmos and his ability with what it means to be a human, and that will take some time.

 

Earth does exist! You'll see a lot more of it in the sequel, Veil of Shadow.

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So I get to go from reading the epilogue to the sequel? Dang it! It might be a couple of days. Got a couple of jobs to get done for the website I run.

sigh

Carl epitomizes what it means to be a hero. While I hate that you have killed off almost everyone we got to like and feel for, I understand the reasons. Carl, at last, redeemed himself.

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10 minutes ago, Al Norris said:

So I get to go from reading the epilogue to the sequel? Dang it! It might be a couple of days. Got a couple of jobs to get done for the website I run.

sigh

Carl epitomizes what it means to be a hero. While I hate that you have killed off almost everyone we got to like and feel for, I understand the reasons. Carl, at last, redeemed himself.

Well, you could have discovered this in 2017 or earlier and had to suffer through a non-existent or incomplete second book, so at least you can enjoy Veil of Shadow as a discrete finished part.

Carlos found absolution in death for the sins he partook in and suffered through during life. Making such a choice is very admirable and perhaps under appreciated by some readers, given that he was just a teenager, with unfulfilled dreams and future potential.

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