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    Stellar
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Lucid Truth - 2. Siblings

What appeared above Dagen's Grace was not something I had personally witnessed before, but the moment I laid eyes on it, I knew exactly what it was.

The Herald of Truth.

Though the Apostles with it were too small to directly see, the size of the escorted monster was large enough that in orbit it would barely fit behind the palm of my outstretched hand.

It's ... enormous.

"What in the fuck is that?" Ayize's exclamation came from behind me, muted through a rebreather, a precautionary measure on the mountaintop of a new world. He was climbing out through the hatch, Rashid with him, and Mira ahead on the edge of Liberty's hull, the katana in his grip. "That's what came after us? That thing?"

"It is our common foe." Hearing the alien speak English was shocking, and the two adults both reacted with the same incredulous surprise, though that did not stop the speaker. His voice was deep and resonant, in a way no human could manage. "Your language is familiar to me, as the struggle of your journey is. I am Yugan, descendent of Dagen, and I carry him within me -- just as you hold Sulin, Shay Andersen."

He gestured to the two others with him with his upper right arm, one of them appearing his age and the other older, battle-scarred. "My companions Ralot and Mikom travel with me. We are the Mishith, and in Dagen's name I offer you the alliance of our kin, and our eternal friendship." The arm rose to point at the Herald's enormous looming silhouette. "The Enemy has come for us all, and we must stop it together."

"I'm going to go ahead and speak for our terminally-ept government and every human in existence when I say: offer accepted a thousand times over." Ayize jumped down onto the snow, his attention caught between a first encounter with real-life friendly aliens and the danger above. "Opening the order of business, can we do something about that before it starts trying to kill us? Why is it here anyhow, and not busy ruining our defences at Earth? Shay?"

Why, indeed?

The answer was absolutely clear to me.

This vessel, this entity, whatever it was -- it was their trump card, their strongest play.

The intelligence behind all this -- it sees me and those with me as more important than anything. Destroying or enslaving Earth might matter, but we represent something much more threatening.

The risk of failure.

We were the potential of defeat.

"Because ... our enemy knows the consequences of letting us go, and- ... and it's afraid. More afraid of what could happen here." My eyes went from Ayize, to the leviathan above, then rapidly to the summit. The node! "Let's start there. Yugan!"

Understanding without further elaboration, he grabbed me with his two left arms, like lifting an infant, and with a series of bounding strides, we covered the gap, and were up, onto that little flat of rock. The biting cold was forgotten, and what mattered was the beacon of invisible light that had summoned me, blazing bright, an arms length away.

Aqumi.

The identity inside surfaced again, and in perfect tune with its intentions, my left hand lifted, reaching closer.

There was a flicker of recognition, the node accepting my alternate persona, and from my fingers streamed a flow of information, strands of aqumi containing a series of commands that emanated from the hidden consciousness within.

There was a soundless click of activation, and like a string of Christmas lights turning on, I could feel dozens of aqumi points reawaken from being dormant, across Dagen's Grace. Some were on mountains also, some on hills or high points, a few on less elevated terrain; all were connecting, a remotely reinforcing network that swelled into a web covering the entire planetary surface.

Not a perfect grid like Lucere, but close enough.

Below, I heard the younger Mishith, Ralot, call out something in their language, the words too quick for me to catch, but the tone was very alarmed. Rashid echoed it, his own voice rising too. "Shay! We got some incoming!"

I glanced up to see the Herald's shape, unchanged in orbit, but closer? The Apostle battleships were now visible, swelling dots as they descended through the atmosphere in a spreading cluster that was homing in on us. Not more than a second after I looked, there was a flaring vibration from the closest, still kilometres away, and then with a heavy whirring whoosh, the volley struck thirty metres down the mountain. The rock shook, the projectile's impact erupting in a crackling explosion of ice and stone, the loosened snow beneath it rumbling away in an avalanche.

A moment later, a second shot went just over our heads, about five metres past, vanishing into the backdrop of the jungle below.

In reaction, I spoke the ancient Mishith language; a verbal indication to the node.

[ Let all defences become active. Sulin wills it. ]

Immediately, there was a strange pulling sensation, and in the air above the summit, a structure was forming. Even as it seemed to emerge from nothing, my refined senses, now more used to witnessing insanely advanced technology at work, knew that it wasn't being created, it was merely being revealed. The closest thing that sprang to mind was that it had always existed where it was, and was just being made concrete.

The atoms and molecules, the physical matter, wasn't new.

It had been 'stored' somehow, kept in a separate mode of existence.

Now ... it was phasing back into reality.

The object levitated in place, and the shape of it solidified into a circular concave disc of synthetic luminous pale-blue metal roughly six metres in diameter. Above, pointing skyward in a symmetrical cluster around the disc's centre, were four perpendicular white-gold vanes, seemingly made of some kind of crystal, at least a quarter taller than the base was wide. Semi-transparent, near the bottom of each vane was a layer of small intricate attached plates that intertwined and fed into one another like some kind of capacitor subsystem. None of the components -- base, vanes, plating -- were physically touching one another, and there were gaps between each section of the structure, but they were all bound together as a whole by a projected field of cohesive anti-gravity.

It's a weapon!

Fully phased in, the structure angled smoothly so the vanes were pointing at the incoming ships. They began to move, spinning in a circle together, irising outward, and like they were made of liquid, they morphed. Shrinking shorter at the same time, in the function of a barrel-cover retracting, the vanes stopped when they were almost level with the capacitors. From the tips of all four leapt a spark of yellow energy, to the centre just above the disc's surface. For less than half a second, a blinding ball of that energy coalesced, before there was a punch of force from behind it, and it was launched with incredible speed.

The accuracy was excellent, the energy burst striking the closest Apostle on the left side, though before I could squint to make out what sort of damage it had done, there were two more shots arcing in from other nodes on the planet's surface, distant from us, as their own defences activated too.

The second punched right through the lead Apostle's bow frame, and the third caused the vessel to simply explode in mid-air.

Three hits. Destroyed in three hits.

I could only stare.

This is ... a fucking CANNON.

The trailing battleships were turning, distant blobs of hurriedly swerving black-blue, attempting to respond to the unexpected counterattack, but then the turret above was firing again. So too were the others, pulses of yellow leaping up from multiple angles to the invaders, and in the space of a breath, the second and third Apostles were the same as the first. Expanding clouds of energised parts, lit with sizzling electrical discharge, only the fourth survived longer. Bisected by a dead centre hit, a couple of final pulses speared through the separated halves, further fragmenting them. The autonomous targeting was thorough, making sure nothing more than splintered debris remained.

"Hell yes!" Ayize punched the air. "Eat some hot lightning, you fuckers!"

Next to me, I heard Yugan speak, but like Sulin's choice of interjection, his voice carried an aged depth to it that was notably older, archaic. Instantly, I knew the sound was Dagen's, and it was not directed at the combat, but as a message to his descendent.

[ My intervention must be sparing, but here, necessary. It is time our people were healed from the Sundering, the painful grace I gave them as the Dagenith. I return to them their minds, but Yugan, you must join their blood with the foundation of stone. ]

The lower right arm extended, opposite where mine had been, and in a similar fashion, I could see aqumi emitting from all six of the clawed digits on the comparatively massive Mishith hand. It streamed into the node, as Dagen exerted his own series of commands to the quantum singularity.

[ Now witness the unchaining, and speak to them freed! ]

There was a flutter of something in the node, an alteration, both of us feeling it, and then it bounced out through the connected network, in milliseconds having crossed the entire planet. From each affected point came a ripple that burst, blanketing the surface in some kind of invisible quantum directive, a biological alteration, and Yugan froze. At the same time, the other two Mishith also halted, similarly locked in place.

What's happening to them?

In the background, the turrets had turned their attention to space, and although I wasn't watching them intently, Ayize and Rashid's attention had fixated on the sky. They had begun to fire at the Herald, the brilliant yellow blasts streaking through the vibrant green of the planetary atmosphere, and on toward the enemy in orbit.

For roughly five seconds, the three Mishith with us stood motionless, and then together, they stirred.

I think ... whatever that was, it just happened to everyone on this world. To all of their race?

"Matriarch." Ralot addressed the elder, the modern Mishith dialect easy for me to understand. "I feel ... a new desire. A yearning, an understanding. It is there, it is ready!"

"Yes." She responded in kind, hands tightening on the staff she carried, and she looked to Yugan directly, her remaining eyes scanning over me and him both, and she called up to us. I had no way of knowing, but it seemed like she was somehow reinvigorated, the attitude about her having changed. "I am the same. We are the same! All the Dagenith, everywhere! I recall a history unwritten. I perceive a knowledge, of what we were, how we must live. Yugan!"

"Yes." He echoed her. "The barrier within us, the broken mind, is gone. I know what I must do."

His fingers moved deliberately, this time of his own volition, and with a new inspired manipulation of the quantum force within the node, I felt him accessing it, deft and fast, as natural as anything. It was like witnessing a master painter pick up a brush again after half a lifetime of denial. Their ancestors had invented the technology we were using, at some past point, and now they were being reconnected to that past. There was no doubt in my mind that Dagen's 'unchaining' of his race was an incredibly important thing, one whose significance was entirely lost on the oblivious humans with me.

I was seeing the Mishith awaken, in a sense, to what they used to be.

With a final twist, and a secondary quiver that bounced away through the aqumi network, Yugan began to speak again.

This time, amplified.

The words boomed out, clear, loud, but personal, as if delivered directly to the ear, the brain.

To every single individual on the entire planet, at once.

"Brothers, sisters, Unchosen. I am Yugan, the heir of Dagen. The Sundering is ended, and we hide no more, but it is NOT done! The Enemy has come to stop us seeking the stone of our stone. Your instincts and these revelations know that we MUST unite with our other half! I will choose the bravest of you as the first companions -- some thousands, summoned to a transport -- and we will make for the stars!"

At the finish of his monologue, he released the broadcast, and turned to me, switching smoothly to English.

"You understood that, as I understand your language." He was bulky next to me, just his size alone acting as a windbreak from the coldness of the mountain's gusting air. More than two feet taller, the alien shape of his facial features and body, his thick powerful musculature, were not intimidating, and I felt as if I were simply talking to a brother. Whether it was the Sulin-Dagen connection or through the shared experience of the journey so far, I wasn't sure. "On this world's moon are two ships. Dagen left his own personal craft in waiting, and a passenger transport to carry many dagenith also. They are being called to us."

"Ships?"

The prospect of seeing more advanced Mishith technology was alluring, especially how amazing their ships would have to be given the other things we had witnessed so far, but that idea was quickly dampened.

"Yes, though they will not be able to fight. I do not yet understand all of the genetic knowledge Dagen returned to us, but there is enough to know they were built for other reasons, not for battle. Their defences can survive for a time, but they cannot fight a foe as giant as this one."

"Uh, are you guys seeing this? Something's happening!"

Rashid's declaration turned us back to the situation above. From all over, the energy projectiles from the surface defences were hurtling to the Herald, a concentrated bombardment. Whether the impacts were hurting it was impossible to tell, because it was simply too far away, but I could see around it a wavy haze of ... something.

Some kind of reaction.

Then, abruptly, the orbiting shape of it morphed, the outline shifting as enormous limbs twisted and extended, like some arachnid creature emerging from a cocoon.

What is it-

From within the Herald, a pulse of energy burst, expanding outward in a spherical explosion. When it hit the planetary atmosphere's friction, the green sky flushed temporarily violet in its wake and it translated into sound, a deep grating boom like a colossal maritime horn blast. Human and Mishith alike were clapping their hands over ears and recoiling from the auditory intensity, and it felt like the planet itself was shaking from the pressure, but the collision of the shockwave itself seemed to be no more than a slap of air.

Except, above us, the turret shattered.

Whatever it was made of was pulverised, and the metal and crystal it was crafted from collapsed, the technology holding it together undone.

In one swift move, the defending fortifications were silenced.

"Fuck!" I swore. "How are we-"

I didn't get a chance to finish, because the node's aqumi had its own counter-measure. With another flurry of automated commands, the node in front of me began to 'overheat', an upwelling of virtual particles, and so too was the rest of the network, yet again. All over Dagen's Grace, aqumi began to flare bright, and then, projection.

Upward.

There was a flicker across the sky -- the entire sky -- in a brief flash of gold.

Then, nothing.

Nothing visible.

I could see it, though.

Like the same shield I had produced in the past against the blade-hounds and arbiters, now the whole planet was wreathed in it.

A golden bubble of protection.

"We are shielded." Yugan spoke, and he picked me up with his left arms again, and jumped down the short distance from the summit, nearer to the others. The two human adults were looking at one another in confusion, the chain of events difficult for them to directly follow.

"Yugan called two Mishith ships. I think they've been sitting idle on this planet's moon for ... thousands of years, probably. We might just have to run from the Herald. I- ... I don't know how we're meant to destroy it."

"Ships?" Ayize nodded, his now well-practiced adaptability lending itself. "If their spaceships have even a hundredth of this kind of tech, then I'll ride them anywhere you please. When's the ETA, and how are we gonna board if we're being shadowed by that?"

"In moments it will arrive, companion of Shay Andersen." Yugan addressed Ayize directly, and then looked to the sky. "All you need do is wait."

"Wait?" He asked. "What am I waiting f-"

A split second before his sentence was interrupted, Ayize's bodily form was saturated in a glimmer of visible 'white noise', like static from an ancient television. Streaks of it were angled up, a momentary trailing vector roughly a foot long, that indicated the impending destination far above.

Then he was gone, his outline a camera-flash of fading light and a soft punctuated thup of inrushing air.

Teleportation!?

Another technology that humans had tried, and failed, to invent.

"That," Yugan affirmed.

I guess it's time to go.

Shivering, the cold beginning to actually affect me, I glanced over to Mira, only to see him staring. I'd barely paid attention to him since we'd arrived on Dagen's Grace, with everything else getting priority.

But, even after the action above had settled down, he was still focused on the sky, but not just the sky.

On the Herald.

I knew that look.

I had seen it before, more than once.

Pure undiluted determination, that same sense of sheer stubborn tenacity that was drawn to hunt whatever was hunting me.

Oh ... no. NO! He's going to try something!

"Mira!" I called to him, and he turned, catching my eye. There was a soft look, a promise that he would return, and then he was moving, back inside Liberty.

Liberty?

"No!" I tried to follow him, but Rashid's hand was on my arm. "NO! What are y- ... don't go-"

"Shay!" He was restraining me, even I tried to pull away to follow Mira, who vanished inside our crashed Disciple. "Trust him! He knows what he's doing!" The soldier's grip was tight, and his voice quiet but urgent next to my ear. "He's made for this. We gotta go!"

Somehow, I knew Rashid was right, even though every other part of me was screaming at him not to try, not to put his own life at risk again.

Why does he keep doing this, scaring me?

Around us, unheeded by me, three more flashes and the barely audible pops of the Mishith vanishing. Then Rashid too, his hand suddenly gone from my arm, but all I could focus on were my anguished emotions, my clinging fear, as Liberty, alive and unhurt enough to fly, lifted out of the snow and began to turn heavenward.

My final image before I was snatched up in the glow of teleportation too, was the ascending shape of the Disciple as it climbed back toward space and the distant menace of the Herald.

-o-0-O-0-o-

He sat directly next to Liberty's heart, his hand resting on the outer part of the Disciple's nervous system, the exterior surface over the physical location of its mind. The connection he kept was constant, and the ship had agreed to his directive without further explanation. It seemed to know where to head on the Herald's hull instinctively, though whether the knowledge was innate or just an easy assumption based on the Disciple's general familiarity with xenomorph design wasn't clear.

What was clear, was that Liberty was unafraid of approaching the behemoth.

Mira's attention stayed fixed on it, ignoring the momentary blink of dislocation as the kitten was teleported away to join the others. One of the humans had definitely made sure it wasn't being sent into a dangerous situation. The applications of such transportation technology seemed immense, though he understood with an inbuilt certainty, that the use of instant site-to-site movement was limited by their enemy's own facility.

The Herald, the arbiters, and possibly some other of the servants, were able to completely negate or strongly resist many of the advanced pre-Sundering technologies, either directly or by aura.

Mira knew that where he was going, extraction by that means might not be so easy. If anything was to go wrong, there would be little help at hand.

All that meant was he would not fail.

They slipped through the planetary shield as if it were not present, the barrier admitting them, the aqumi intelligence recognising his presence on the Disciple. Mira watched as the holo-display focused and expanded the schematic of the Herald. It was incomplete, but he studied it, getting a good look at the shape of the superstructure.

The central inner mass of the gigantic vessel was almost spherical, but very slightly stretched along the vertical axis into an ovoid. On what appeared to be the 'stern', there was a spinal seam, also vertical, that sprouted into a series of lateral curving ribs. Higher and lower, the ribs were angled in either direction to protect the ventral and dorsal areas also. It was a thick exoskeletal outer shell, approximately a fifth as wide as the inner portion, though it didn't entirely encircle. Opposite the spine, the 'bow' was directly open to space, the thoracic caging arms narrowing and separating into a more sparse configuration that didn't provide forward cover. They seemed capable of limited movement but were somewhat inflexible, so generally the front sixth was left clear, allowing an ingress-egress route for subordinate vessels.

On top of that, there was an additional tertiary exoskeletal growth extending from just a single point at the exact centre-rear of the spine. It stretched into eight branches that were more like limbs than ribs; less massive, but thinner, longer, and seemingly very flexible. In a normal state they were kept close to the rest of the exoskeleton and nearly indistinguishable from it. Otherwise they could be extended directly outward -- as they currently were -- like massive wings, or pincered forward offensively. The analysis was inconclusive, but Liberty's human computer suite indicated these extendables could undergo some kind of state change, and become extremely malleable and whiplike, able to be moved about like tentacles.

Along the stern of the exoskeleton, there were more than three dozen growths, their texture different from the rest of the hull, surrounded by circlets of rearward spines, each roughly twenty metres long. Randomly, the spines would transition into flagella, waving back and forth to some rhythm of the interstellar medium, before hardening into solidity again. Though it wasn't at all apparent how, there was a subtle emission of energy, and these were collectively providing the Herald's propulsion.

All in all, it gave the appearance of a vast starfaring crustacean or insectoid, with an alien intellect hidden within that was fearsome, keen, and utterly hostile.

The inner mass was not so well defined. The lowest part of the ovoid was the equivalent of a series of hangars, the openings obviously designed to carry lesser ships, but everything above that? It was all contributing to the function of the entity as a whole, but the interior was largely impenetrable, and it was enormous.

From tip to tip, the Herald was 107 kilometres wide.

Somewhere inside was Mira's goal.

He did not flinch as they approached, gliding through the gateway of gigantic twisting adamantine spires. Apart from the reflected light of Dagen's star, there was little illumination, but his eyes adjusted handily, his senses prepared as the looming wall of the Herald's inner hull grew and grew. With a final change in angle to meet it, Liberty pierced through the membranous grey surface of one of the many airlocks, and then they were inside the hangar.

Cavernous, it was a long spacious flat area, big enough to fit many Disciples, and even multiples of the larger breeds of ship without problem. Liberty flew in, landing closer to the rear wall, coming to rest on its uprights.

Curiously, the space was devoid of anything else.

It was capable of acting as a carrier, but currently ... empty.

The Herald wasn't holding anything.

The rest were being used against Earth.

Lord, we have landed.

I know, he told it, and you must wait. If you are threatened here, flee to freedom. You have earned it.

The ship considered this for a moment, perhaps not understanding how else he could leave without its assistance, but instead it offered something else.

The shadow knows you are here. Some are coming now. More will follow.

So, they were aware.

Not that it made much difference.

Thank you, he said, and farewell.

Mira stood, his mind refocusing on what was about to occur, senses tightly coiled. He walked to the ramp as it lowered, open to the hangar's interior, and began to descend.

Now, it was time to begin.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Deposited directly to Dagen's vessel, the sensation of teleportation was seamless and instant. No different than blinking and discovering myself in a completely new location; one second I was on the freezing summit of a mountain, the next I was inside the comfortable room-temperature of an alien ship. In contrast to any human vessels I'd seen, which normally had a plethora of visual interruptions due to utility -- wiring, plating, gadgetry and modules that connected systems -- this interior was nearly featureless.

Much of the wall and floor surfacing was a smooth metallic substance, warm to the touch and with a dim glittering sheen to it. A transitioning mosaic mixture of pale colours tinged it, from sea green, to sky blue, warm yellow, lilac. A large central window took up the central third of the canopy, like a forward facing skylight, with the ceiling sloping down and forward. The rest of the central bridge floor was a nearly white opalescent colour, including a series of four command podia that sat in a concave semi-circle facing out the bridge window, acting as whatever passed for physical control mechanisms for the ship. The atmosphere was bright, welcoming, and clean nearly to the point of sterile.

"Neural linguistic configuration complete." A neutral, genderless AI voice spoke out of the air, addressing me the second I appeared. "Confirmation: is this dialect acceptable?"

"Yes." Walking briskly over to where Yugan was standing in front of one of the control podiums, the only other one of the group to have been sent directly to the bridge, I came close, wanting to know the situation. He was flipping through images and Mishith symbols, projected above the podium in an approximation of human holography. It was similar to that used by the nodes at Samed, Elkos, and Yahet; the ancient Mishith preference for virtual displays seemed close to ours.

"The transport vessel is with us," he intoned, "and I have instructed the AI to begin translocation of the most suitable, willing dagenith individuals from the surface."

"And the Herald?" I asked, anxious. "What is it doing? What's going on?"

With a claw twist, the imagery shifted, resolving to a map, showing the relative positions of everything. The leviathan was facing at an angle away from us and holding in low orbit of Dagen's Grace, the world girded in its protective bubble, while we were some distance still. Our ship was a perfectly symmetrical geometric pendant of lines and planes, with little pyramidal wing extensions out the sides, back, nose; like a connected series of faceted gemstones in a setting. Next to ours was a much larger vessel, with a wider and deeper draft; a container ship beside a yacht.

Lastly, the comparatively miniscule dot of the Disciple, gliding in between the motionless grasping arms of the enemy; an ant walking into the spider's nest.

"It is not pursuing us, yet," he observed, "but it must."

"It will. It has to." I stared, Liberty fading from the map, vanishing as it docked inside the Herald. "Why is it waiting? All we can do is run, and they can keep following us wherever we go. We can't easily get away from it. I don't know how we're meant to destroy something that big, so the only other option would be to ... cripple it."

I stopped, realising what I was saying.

That's what Mira is doing.

He was going to prevent it from chasing us.

"Yugan, I-"

With a burst of speed that was sudden and terrifying, the Herald turned and surged forward, the considerable space between us reduced near instantly. The hairs on the back of my neck rose at the sight of something so large moving so fast. It closed the gap quicker than should have been possible, the bridge window filled with nothing but a vast stretch of biosteel hull for kilometres. To the side were distant glimpses of the immense curving teeth of the Herald's maw, the bulk so close I wanted to recoil.

Fuck!

All at once there was the thrumming flicker of weaponry fire from hundreds of projectile mounts, the monster possessing the same basic offence tools as its servants, but in far greater number. In response, answering beams of yellow energy danced out, momentary like lightning, a sparkling series of precision zaps from the ship's point defence that each picked off one of the flurries of darts. Not every shot was caught, and a fraction made it through, but I didn't feel more than the faintest tremble from their impacts.

"Analysis: damage minimal," the AI informed us. "Hull regeneration sufficient."

Immediately following that, from the Herald's heart directly ahead, was launched a new attack.

The space between our ship and it seemed to ripple and warp, like a stream of turbulent bubbling water but invisible, and it shot out in a jet, engulfing us head first. There was a jolt, but nothing seemed to change, apart from the forward view visually distorting as if we were submerged.

"Analysis: spatial boundary-disruption field. Variability exceeds operational limitations. Generation of stable transitional medium impossible. All propulsion disabled."

As the AI spoke, the Herald's superstructure was moving. My senses had expanded out of surprise and concern, a natural aqumi response, and the eight enormous wing-like limbs flexed and began to bend. With another burst of horrific speed, the scything spikes folded, leagues of deadly metal curling around to stab in. Four of them drove toward us, and four toward the transport vessel that was filling with Mishith volunteers.

No!

Clamping my hand onto Yugan's arm, I drew a river of aqumi through him into me and with all my strength pushed outward, against the crushing grip.

Billions of tonnes of mass, squashing inward.

Less than a hundred metres from us, I ground them to a halt.

My back was rigid, my calves and biceps clenched, my nails digging into Yugan's thickened skin, and the pressure -- it was insane.

Like trying to keep an entire building from collapsing on top of us using only my own body, my muscles, and nothing else.

From within the dense core, the shrouded presence of its mind spoke, a thunderclap of violent bass that entered my thoughts in a hurricane of demand.

Defiler. The Herald addressed me, the voice of the gargantuan thing seeming to dissolve away everything between us, as if I were completely isolated before a malevolent living planetoid in the open vacuum of space. This was foreseen. You flee with half-children, but they die broken. Here, your corruption fails. Here, the Light shines.

You know NOTHING! I shouted back.

In answer, the squeezing limbs ground closer, the gap closing by another thirty metres before I stopped it, gasping aloud.

"Ngggghh!"

"Shay," Yugan rumbled, and his lower left hand grasped me in support, the leathery warmth of his grip fully enclosing my forearm as I strained to hold the outside force back.

The Music is clarity and I sing it. The tone of it was so oppressive, so heavy and fatal, and the shadow of its mental signature dwarfed even its imposing physical size. All paths lead to the Master's truth. A blighted half-child seer guides you to a false delusion. The betrayer seeking my heart will pay with its own.

Then, it struck me.

The Herald really had foreseen everything we were doing.

The moment was mortifying in a way I had not believed possible, and in an instant so many previous things were thrown into a dreadful new light. All their plans, strategies, tactical decisions in the drawn-out timeline that had led to where we were -- it was the Herald's puppetry as much as anything Dagen had done.

It knows Mira's there.

It knows what we're doing.

It's ten moves ahead of us.

"Shay." He spoke again, this time softer, an instinctive counter to what was just revealed. "This creature IS immensely powerful, and its farsight is perhaps greater than mine, but at the edge of things? It sees almost all, but it cannot see past what it does not understand, and the essence of our light is the greatest mystery."

"Then-"

"Yes." Yugan interrupted. "Let him continue. I have witnessed a coming moment where you can reach out -- and you must tell him to simply be."

It was up to him.

Mira.

-o-0-O-0-o-

No fewer than seven arbiters approached the Disciple in the otherwise empty hangar. Beneath was emerging a lone figure, blade in hand. They converged in a loose group, at a steady walk.

There was no hurry, for this corrupt imposter had come to their home territory.

You will die here, betrayer. The leader spoke, its talons scraping on the biosteel floor as it closed the last dozen metres. The Herald sees ev-

In a blur that swept past it, the boy leapt to the secondary arbiter, behind the leader, the kinetic shock of his arrival released in an explosive collision. The creature's torso shattered, skeletal limbs dropping away, and Mira was pivoting, without a millisecond's loss of momentum. The next three nearest were launched airborne from the concussive shock, and in a one-two skipping bound of inhuman celerity, he zig-zagged past. The blade cleft the third from hip to shoulder, and the fourth and fifth in half before they began the downward arc of the fall.

Mind aflame with his augmented concentration, he was whirling, and then flipping between the sixth and seventh, the keen alien reflexes still unable to perceive what was occurring. It was on a level beyond what they were accustomed, and the sixth was clueless as it was grabbed by an arm from the side, drawn in a surprise bodily pull to face him. The glowing blade impaled through the chest, demolishing the spinal column in a lightning thrust.

Then the sword was out, raising high in a blinding half-turn to the seventh, its sudden lagging awareness of the human's closeness not enough to save it. The desperate slashing claw was too late, whirring fruitlessly by his arm, and Mira's central downward slice tore it open. From collar to groin, a mess of shards and ebony bone sprayed, the physical form separating into pieces as it tumbled backward.

The lead arbiter came about, baffled, to reacquire the enemy that had vanished in a blink, only to have a momentary bewildered glimpse at the floor littered with freshly disintegrating corpses.

Then, a blear of Japanese steel flashed by.

Rolling once, the decapitated head was stopped by Mira's foot, and he stomped on it, the flame snuffing out as the skull crunched, caving under his heel.

He had no interest in their arrogant posturing.

They could continue to believe he had not evolved, trained, grown, bettered and refined his mastery of aqumi and his role as guardian.

It was simple: he had to hurt this thing, and they were in the way.

For Shay.

Taking off at a run, the hangar's primary exits already sighted, he chose a path and followed it. It led into a twisting warren of passages, and his unfurled senses felt junctions that periodically widened into rooms. Cold, clammy, the gaseous interior was weakly oxygenated but enough for him to breathe. His enhanced metabolism ignored the respiratory problems, compensating for it, the discomfort minimised. Even the overall lack of light didn't bother him, with the only thing seeming to produce it being the occasional fixture. There were veins of glowing blue-purple, that ran haphazardly along the typically mottled blue-grey walls and ceilings, and protruding nodal growths, pulsing light and dark like bizarre alien tumours. All were part of the overall operation of the place, and were in no way cosmetic.

The junctions were branches to subsystem connections of one kind or another, and although the Herald's background consciousness was omnipresent, an inescapable overseer, Mira had not forgotten that it was also a physical construction. Being the sum of its parts, there was a necessary reliance on internal workings to maintain the integrity of its purpose.

A living ship, even a very large one, was still a ship.

Yet, it was titanic in scope, and the centre of the interior mass was perhaps twenty-five kilometres above. He had to traverse what was in practice a moonlet, and somewhere in between was his target, but he needed a better understanding of how to manage his progression through the labyrinthine innards.

So ... a map for layout.

Reaching a room after the first junction, his stealth intact, Mira surprised a latent arbiter. The creature was not alerted, either late to receive the summons or not called to it, and darting from the shadowed entrance, he caught it unawares. The right arm and leg below the knee were removed with a surgical slice, and he dropped the sword. Grabbing the arbiter by its blackened vertebral scruff, with his free right hand, hardened by a golden sheen of aqumi, he punched full force into the side of its head.

The right half of its skull collapsed; cranial protection, eye socket, jaw, crumbling away. Fingers clamping onto the jagged edges of the exposed obsidian, Mira contained the squirming void of its intellect with his right hand, not allowing release. He dragged it down one-handed, and letting go with his left, he snatched the katana back up, simultaneously placing a knee on its back in restraint.

With a light jab, Mira poked the arterial lamina -- one of several veins that ran through the junction -- with the sword's tip; a finger prick to draw blood. A small fountain of indigo fluidic-energy sprayed from it, drifting lazily in the thin air, and he pushed the stricken catatonic arbiter closer, as if to baptise it. In a proximal reaction, the stream bent around, curving between Mira's finger's into the exposed mental locus, a neural magnetism seeking a natural reconnection.

The arbiter's interfacing and data collation was automatic, as much a part of the Herald's computational hierarchy as it was an individual being, and Mira leeched the information as it was parsed and translated from raw data.

His own mind filled with aqumi­­-stolen knowledge about the inner workings of the Herald's stretched-spherical central mass, and he filed it, moved it into place, arranged it and labelled it as was needed. His acuity of intent was important, and he spun the identified sections into a clear list of waypoints and objective fact.

Most importantly, there was no unified internal security. The denizens could communicate with one another and with the controlling intelligence of the Herald itself, but the idea of breach and infiltration was absurd, because they could not countenance anything capable enough to attempt it, nor willing to try. So many foes were dangerous, certainly, but their organisation? Definitely not insurmountable.

The lowest sixth -- his current location -- was exclusively dedicated to the carrier role -- launching and holding ships. Many arbiters in his zone were alerted, the failure of the initial seven having already been recognised as their voices were silenced. The surrounding area would be rife with them shortly.

The upper sixth, the opposite end, was layers of autonomous armor regrowth, a farm tended by a multitude of servants. It could redistribute mass intravenously, a salve as needed for damage mitigation. Nothing there concerned his purpose, so it was ignored.

The middle two thirds were split into three concentric layers, each focused on maintaining material and power distribution to specific abilities. The outmost was the thinnest, and devoted to environment, the base weaponry, and hull fluidity. The middle layer was dedicated to propulsion, energy projection, external sensory detection. The inner layer was smallest, but dense and thick, with a high amount of processing strength. It governed many high-level functions that were inexplicable even to the arbiter's knowledge, most to do with the Herald's connection to the Veil, its predictive augury, and exotic particle manipulation. At the core's centre was a chamber, a huge open area at least two kilometres wide that contained a vast nexus of energy.

Only one thing could be there.

The Herald's essence.

His goal was the middle layer, and with a quick inspection, he identified one of five large regulatory valves, his choice being the nearest one. With enough damage, it would rupture, overloading the 'engines' and rendering the vessel immobile. The particular valve also doubled as a throughput for the disruption generator, a forward-mounted field projector that had a heavy stretching effect on one of space-time's foundational constants. It was active, the field enveloping what appeared to be two Mishith ships.

With some effort, he could take care of both problems together.

Lastly, interior movement.

The arbiters surely didn't walk everywhere through a vessel that went for miles on every axis, and he had a way to go yet. There had to be a quicker means than by foot, and in a moment he spotted what he was looking for.

Perfect.

Tugging the maimed arbiter away from the artery, he let it die, the void dissipating from its opened skull, body following into dust. Mira stood and jogged off, already aware of the scores of approaching patrols sent to locate the invading human. Skirting away from them, he navigated to the edge of the current subsection, searching for the transit rail, the map memorised. It was close by, and in seconds he had it.

It was not the intended means of transportation, but Mira preferred the anonymous, and the unconventional.

Waiting just a few seconds opposite the access vent in a small dim side room, he watched as amorphous blobs of multi-purpose matériel shot by like bullets, streaking in suspension through the tubular cargo veins, alien platelets propelled by a mammoth beating heart. Then with pinpoint timing, he dropped in, the katana stabbing down simultaneously.

The blade buried in to nearly the hilt through a speeding pellet, and with a jerk, Mira was flying, dragged with it. Securely gripping the sword's handle, he was pulled forward and away.

-o-0-O-0-o-

They had no idea he was so close until he arrived. The web of internal communications was buzzing with confusion as the lower hangar decks and ports were searched, combed over repeatedly. The arbiter verbalising back-and-forth had helped little. So far, the demon-betrayer had eluded detection, and short of the Herald's direct intervention, tracking the slippery subversive trail was very problematic.

Certainly, they did not expect the overhead cargo lane to split open in a shriek of steel-flesh.

The executor started at the sound, seeking the source of commotion. The habitat was a dodecahedron, fifteen metres high, the valvular atrium suspended in the centre. Four thick piping energy relays branched from it, leading out in the directions of the other regulators far off through the Herald. Beneath the relays, four blade-hounds rested, bathing in the ambient emanations, their lazily slumbering shapes lit by dark blue stripes that pulsed along the duct undersides.

They, too, awoke at the clamour.

The hounds were looking up in curious pique, when the demon launched from the rent tube near the ceiling, its nimble form rappelling off the chamber wall, dancing three steps along the highest relay. Then it was leaping forward again, flipping in a graceful whirl as it dropped to the floor, arm outstretched for balance as it landed.

Black fire bloomed on the roused executor, and it roared in fury, the pets startled into full vigilance and aggression. The nearest hound was first up, and with a single pivoting crouch, it leapt in a powerful lunge directly to the demon, but ...

... the prey was simply gone.

Mira's mini-dash halted beneath the airborne hound, the sword stabbing up into the belly, and with a twist sideways, he whipped the beast off-course and into a tight arc. With added momentum, it was robbed of agility and slammed down onto its side, the ribcage breaking from the blunt trauma. The sword was out and up, the stop-start staccato of his calculated direction changes and freshly chosen motion shifting from slow to ultra-fast as his perceptions required it, and then the next hound was incoming.

The rear legs compressed as the second entered into a similar imitation jump, the more distant third and fourth hounds rising together also, grouped in a tight pairing across the chamber. They were beginning long loping strides in his direction, while the executor's arms were wide, poised, giving the dogs the initial attacks. In the slow motion of his next moves, Mira dodged to his left and forward, the second's pounce passing him to land near his right flank.

Slipping his left hand back, he snatched a hind leg in its passing leap, counterbalancing low and right. Grip firm, his arm swung around, the hound sprawling, yanked entirely off its feet, and with amplified centrifugal force, Mira spun in a quick clockwise 180, tossing it bodily across the chamber.

The moment his back was turned, the executor began its charge, but he ran forward and straight up the wall, springing off it in an enhanced vault over the rushing mass of enraged sinew and wrath. He landed right in the middle of the room, next to the bulbous curve of the valve's housing.

The second hound helplessly struck the bottom of a lower relay in flight, contorting as it bounced straight back down to smack into the third, which was caught in mid gallop. Forced to skitter in hasty avoidance of the crash, the fourth tripped as it scrambled not to join the tangled second-third pileup. Mira chained on his next attack of opportunity, and he zoomed forward, standing still for less than a second before he was into an aqumi boost so quick that he was barely visible. His shoulder barge collected the imbalanced fourth hound and together they shot all the way to the chamber's far side. Like hammer against anvil, the creature stopped dead at the wall, while Mira's shoulder continued, plunging through the hound's torso in a heavy pulverising crunch.

Pulling free of the fourth's brutalised remnants, he did not allow time for even the smallest chance at regrouping, and in a flash Mira was leaping back to where the second and third were struggling to come apart. He grabbed the supine third from behind by the frilling spines on its neckband, and jerked its head, angling so the blade slid precisely through the right eye then pulled it up, steel erupting out the skull's dome. Gurgling, it collapsed, and the second was pulling away from the lax body, jaws snapping at him as it tried to both rise and attack.

The hound thrashed upright but Mira dodged around it, close to the bulk of its chest. Simply too slow, the katana was again doing the work, and Mira stabbed at a weak point, the lung equivalent, then slid along in a horizontal gash from rib to flank, mulching through carapace and fibrous tendon like paper.

The thundering footsteps of the executor were on him, and even with his executions taking precious seconds to perform, he evaded with room to spare. Whirling, the monster followed him, and he sidestepped again, and again, and again. It was persistent, and large, not an intellect like the arbiters, nor an animal instinct like the hounds, but a thing of pure alien combat and brawn. He rolled, darting left and right, the executor's swipes hefty, its missed blows causing impact tremours. He caught the legs, the crenellations of shoulder and arm more than once, but he could not dismember it, nor physically wound it enough to break its battle prowess.

It would not die easily, and it would not give up.

Yet, as he strove to maintain the status quo, a tactical choice came to him, a tangential consideration.

Waiting for a moment when he had just enough time to enact it as they pirouetted together beneath the valve's atrium, Mira sprang directly up above the executor. A furious clawed limb rose, grasping for him, but he hung off the underside by fingers and toes, clinging, and punched his free left fist in and through the biosteel surface. It was very dense, and he only just managed to pierce all the way, but immediately, like scalding steam, energy burst out and downward.

His hand jerked free, soaked in a terrible burning pain from the exposure, but the jet showered the executor beneath, splashing liberally over its head and shoulders. Bellowing, it shook about, and Mira dropped, then turned and jumped to the chamber's side, next to where a regulating node was attached to one of the relays.

With a single powerful slash, he cut diagonally across it, and the node burst like an overripe tomato.

In a breath, he upended the blade and dropped to a knee, stabbing it into the floor and freezing in place, a diamond-hard layer of aqumi coating his skin as he enacted the ultimate defence.

Behind, less than two seconds later, the bubbling nether energy ruptured the atrium, and it blew, the chamber flooding with it, awash right to every corner. For two more seconds after, the chamber remained swamped, then in a counter-reaction the tide reversed, and all the unprotected warped melted physical-form mess was sucked inward in an implosion. The vortex collapsed as quickly as it had formed, the strange immaterium not surviving for long outside of the capillaries, and the darkened blue-black translucence was dissipating into a vapor that faded to nothing; an evaporating winter's mist.

-o-0-O-0-o-

I felt the change, a fluctuation of something from deep inside the Herald's belly, and I knew that he had done it, whatever had caused that blip of disruption.

Yet, the field about us was still in place.

Weakened somewhat, but there.

"He has disabled it. Enemy movement is impossible, but we are still kept. We cannot yet leave." Yugan's grip moved, his hand enveloping mine like a bear's paw. The fingers closed over my palm, his thumb-equivalent grasping my wrist. Another Mishith hand was on my shoulder. "You can hold it back. You are pure will."

In a reaction that seemed like a taunt, I felt the pressure tighten, dormant for the last couple of minutes, and the crushing arms pushed in another two score metres. It was very close, seeming to almost touch the ship's hull. Towering, inevitable, it hurt to repel it, and I let out an involuntary gasp.

"GnnhH!"

Your pain grows and I am imperishable. The Herald's voice boomed, knowing my suffering, the tone ultimate and absolute. Nothing can conquer me. The betrayer fights and falls. Death comes through kin redeemed. An alliance ends. Worlds are purified. The wall shatters, and at last, the Song grants salvation to all that you behold.

It paused, the gap in narration filling me with an incredible terror that it really was right, a nightmare that was so close to actually existing that I felt like I had already lost.

There is no other future.

"Do not listen, brother." Yugan's hug, his arm touching me was more meaningful than anything, his aqumi a comfort greater than the threat around us. "Do not believe anything is done. None of that has come to pass! Not now, not ever. What happens is ours to create. This is the moment. He can hear you. Speak to him."

Yugan was right.

Through the monstrous presence, he was visible, accessible, even amid miles of vacuum and buried adamant.

A pocket carved in space-time, for me.

I pulled his connection closer, a lifeline, drawing in that fantastic sense of zest and fearlessness that defined him, and it was as if we were suddenly face to face. The background was a blur, but I could see him rising, katana in the right hand, his left burned but healing, his dark-blond hair in a brilliant burnished halo about him. I could smell the horrible burnt metallic scent, taste the buzz of strange energies, feel the beautiful yield of his shoulders and waist under my fingers.

Mira.

His face lit in complete joy, his eyes shining.

Shay!

I wanted to touch him, take him out of there, wrap my arms around him.

But ... I remembered what Yugan told me, and the implication now made sense in a way that was crystal clear.

Words came back to me, from beneath a setting bright blue sun upon Samed's dusty plateau.

Mira. Listen to me.

His focus was total, his attention unbreakable.

Become her. Become the blade. Be unified.

He said nothing in response, the gorgeous soft steel grey of his eyes unchanging, his lips parting slightly, his brow raised in question.

We are still trapped. The field was weakened, not broken.

Free us.

Return to me.

You can do it.

You can do anything.

Then with all my willpower, I cut the connection and let him go.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The moment was as real as everything about him, the message as pointed and distinct.

Yet, the question remained.

Why?

Mira closed his eyes.

His heart, his soul, his every breath belong to Shay, but the debt he owed to her was almost as great.

Then, from beyond, somewhere in the distance, he heard a sound.

Nothing before it had registered on the ethereal surrounds, but this was a note upon the spring breeze, a soft harmonious promise of the coming of summer.

He had to listen.

Distant, faint.

Impossible.

A merest whisper of a hint, a pleading non-existent cry, from a thousand leagues away.

Momentary and gone, but deliberate, purposeful.

Calling to him, from the Herald's core.

The heart.

It was ... familiar.

He knew that voice.

It was buried, crushed beneath an avalanche, stifled, but real.

Still alive.

Dagen believed he would fight.

The Herald knew he would die.

What was real?

Mira stood at a temporal junction, the river of time before him.

Two branches, but he did not understand which was truth.

Come to me. The Herald spoke inwardly, the interjection that of a god beckoning a mortal to the cusp of Olympus. Fight to the end, and fall. Come to me.

Was there anything else?

His eyes opened.

With a leap, Mira was up to the highest relay, the feat nothing to his enhanced physiology, and then he was through an egress point and onto the adjoining walkway. The oncoming threats were already identified, insignificant to his notice. He was prepared, his mind realigning to bring him to where he needed to be.

He would not be led to anything false.

Beyond all, he trusted and loved Shay.

-o-0-O-0-o-

They knew what he was.

They knew the cost.

Through hosts, he had reaved and riven.

Through the inner guard, he had cleft and hewen.

Every length of hull, every body in his way, the demon had striven for it. On the sequence of the vessel's mass transit, through node and connector, past girdle and limitation, between one section and the next; it was done, again and again.

Scratched and spattered with the essence of a dozen dozen servants of the Master's leviathan, he had danced and whirled, leapt and flew, ducked and swung, until there he was. At the boundary of the core, he forced the last ingress in a groan of yielding metal. The Herald's voice was inviting him in, and absent any resistance, the door gave way and opened wider meekly, then shut behind just as subservient.

The space before Mira was everything he expected.

Two kilometres in diameter, it was an enormous hollow sphere, hemmed by many extruding strata, jagged causeways of solid matter that were conductors for the energetic kinesis that arced and shifted from one point to another.

In the centre was a glimmering, sparking glow of impossibly beautiful sentience.

The conscious singularity was a roiling cerebrum of unreality; a contained storm of liquid and lightning and black fire, all encased in an aura of something utterly foreign to the physical universe.

Beneath it, on the ground, hundreds of metres below, a shadow.

A human shadow.

Mira walked down the slope, toward it.

Every happenstance was known, considered.

Each move possible was computed and accounted for, foreseen and forewarned.

This was all intended.

She was barely verifiable as a human, maintaining the shape but not the colouration of one. Every micron of skin and hair was ebon dark, with wisps of black flame flaring in random spots. Nothing but a statue, she was a new puppet of the Herald's creation, one that went beyond the paltry mutagen of the sharpeling.

But, Mira knew her.

Even behind what had been done to her, he could see it.

The direct resemblance to Synnøve Ellefsen, and ... himself.

All at once, the necessity of Shay's message was understood, in its entirety.

No fear.

He relaxed, and dropped the sword to the floor.

Not going to need it.

The shadow moved, the flickering light from above lensing around it in a strange way. For a few moments she stood, regarding him fifty paces distant, and then- ...

... a frenzied haze of darkness.

And so it began.

The first blow hit mid-chest and he was flying backward twice as far, but already righting himself in the air. His landing was a recoil that sent him leaping off at a new tangent, the shadow in hot pursuit. Then again, and again, and they criss-crossed the shallows beneath the Herald's malicious ethereal gaze, in a series of dual trails that lit the surrounds with invisible streams of gold and abyssal indigo.

Each hit Mira landed was absorbed or countered, and each return strike was harder and quicker. A throw became a pivot, a twist into a kick, a trip an opportunity, a fend to a stun; everything that he did was innate to her too, but brought forward, raised. Tougher or more merciless, more insidious, less compromising.

She was his mirror, another weapon just like him.

Stronger, but empty; a corrupt empowered shell.

He drew her closer, corralling their melee into a shortened range, the dashing and fast movement of momentum reducing to contained combination strikes. The endless chaining of fists and feet and bodies brought them into a more extended adjacency, and at last Mira did what he feared, for so long.

Become the blade.

Her latest punch became a grapple, and then he was thrown, and she was pulled with him. Rolling, they both were back to their feet, locked together still, gripping one another as they wrestled.

[ Kelor! ] The Mishith words were soft, the first he had ever spoken. [ I heard your voice! ]

Mightier than him, given infinite reserves of vital stamina, the shadow didn't seem to listen. With a rapid sideways twist, she broke their mutual grapple, and tripped him, slamming him onto the floor, on his back. She was above him, her left arm pinning his right, while a sharpening fury seemed to grow around her other hand, the fingers becoming like steel.

[ You LIVE. ] His left grabbed her wrist to hold it back, but the hand forced its way closer, edging near to his abdomen. [ The spirit is immortal. It cannot be enslaved! ]

The future awaits. The missive from on high was deafeningly loud, the source so near as it delivered the final command of an inevitable ending. Finish the betrayer and commit the augury to its completion.

For a moment -- just one single second -- the shadow paused, but then the hand pushed closer ... and into Mira's side.

A living blade of negative-aqumi.

The fingers reached inches in, his blood pouring out over the puncture and the ebony of her skin. His fingers were still digging into her forearm, clutching her with all his ability, keeping from further movement.

[ You are his sister. You are mine, ] his voice rasped. [ No darkness knows us. ]

There was a beat of energy from the master above, a pull on the marionette's strings. A buffer of physical power surged into the piercing arm, and the muscles tensed to carry out the command, and then ... stopped.

The shadow looked down.

Around where the hand protruded, slick with red, the skin was lightening, clearing.

[ Be free. ]

Golden light poured into the impaling arm and up it. The overriding conscious direction was split between driving the wedge further in to realise the fatality, or pulling away from the rapid conversion. Yet, Mira held her where she was. Every ounce of his resolve was bound to keeping that hand still.

The force within the shadow's body was fighting back, but with the occupying conqueror facing an unparalleled liberation effort, a partisan insurrection began. Mira looked up, his attention and voice magnifying, spreading into a voluminous cry that swelled to the vast interior.

[ You dare to set my kin against me? ]

A spark in the shadow was ignited, and the furnace bloomed in rebellion. Everywhere, the quantum heat returned, and the embedded snaking poison was killed. In each pore and cell, throughout the body, from head to toe, teeth to nail; full pigment and hue broke through, the suffocating veneer vanishing.

Human.

He released his grip and she withdrew the perforating fingers, then clapped them over the wound. An outpouring of aqumi streamed into it, the severity of the tissue and organ damage mitigating as she healed him. The other pinning hand became a supporting grip, and she pulled him to his feet.

[ You play with us like pawns. ] Her hand left his side, the flesh perfectly fixed in seconds, and Mira took it, ignoring the bloodied surface as he clasped it tightly. [ But now the game has changed, and she is still joined to you. ]

Above, the vision of augury had narrowed to a strangely thin line, with but the smallest variations extending from it. The singularity's choices had shrunk, and with a furor of activity, hundreds of branches of energy spiked out, to the edges of the core's chamber.

In the same moment, Elia, with the reinforcement of her brother, stopped it.

The same tentacles of void that had drowned her in a sea of untenable horror -- they were still connected, bound to her as artifacts of the Herald's control.

An ocean of aqumi poured outward. In a thousandth of a second, it was dispersing to every single contact point. Each vein, neuron, flow of energy, transfer of data, breath of life; it cut them all. Every node and receptor and point of transfer was shut off, disconnected, amputated, cauterised. The walls were chemically neutralised, ionised, rendered sterile and inert.

The storm of the heart began to flicker rapidly, the bubbling fire within it whipping into a maelstrom. Jabbing spikes of dark shot repeatedly, dancing over the walls in any attempt to establish a fresh restorative line.

Uncaring about what it was doing, Elia pulled Mira to her, hugging him.

[ Kirak. ] She whispered it, [ I am glad you heard me. ]

-o-0-O-0-o-

The change was sudden.

The field holding us in place was gone, and nearly in the same moment I felt the presence of the Herald waver.

Weakened?

I tried to actually push outward instead of holding my ground, and the arms actually moved. Summoning more telekinetic force I hit the entire mass of the Herald's body.

It began to slide in reverse, away from us, the arms bending outward.

It's ... powerless?!

My breath picking up, I shoved it away, and pulled as hard as I could on the loosened limbs. At the same time, I gripped more and more of the exoskeleton, the ribs, and any individual sections of the inner mass, and ... pulled.

Harder, and harder, as it drifted away.

The outer limbs ripped off first, like snapping cartilage, and then the starboard ribcage was tearing free.

Simultaneously, the central mass began to fracture, but before anything else could happen, it exploded.

It shattered, the strange energy of its interior bursting outward in a rush that fragmented it into trillions of pieces, leaving nothing but an expanding cloud of dust and biosteel chunks in the middle of a collapsing field of darkened exotic energy.

It's ... dead?!

The joy was fleeting, because I could only think of one thing.

But- ... he- ... he was still there- ... I-

Yugan's attention was back on the controls in front of us, his fingers flicking across them.

"Searching," he uttered, his eyes shifting rapidly, before he nodded. "Found. I have them."

There was a blink of light, a gentle puuf of sound, and Mira appeared on the bridge.

But not just him.

The glow of an aqumi skin was fading, temporary protection from the explosive force, and I could see he was embracing someone else. Slow to let go, but when he did, his expression was intense emotion, unlike anything from Mira before.

It was a girl.

A girl who was an exact female replica of him.

His identical twin sister.

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you Mira ... and his twin.

Yes, Mira is the famed Kirak that Dagen mentioned the previous chapter, and now the identical sister Kelor -- Elia -- is united with him. Plus ... LOTS of Mishith stuff! What could be next now that the Herald has apparently been blown to smithereens?

Let me know your thoughts by commenting below (or in my forum thread)! It bears repeating that if you are reading this work serially, please subscribe, and send a like or a heart my way when you enjoy a chapter. Your feedback keeps me engaged 😇❤️

Copyright © 2021 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Thank you for reading, as always! For story discussion, please feel free to post in my thread here. Comments and questions are welcome!

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All I can is thank you for this update. My weekend is good.hihi

 

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8 hours ago, xleroc said:

Are we supposed to assume it was just divine providence?  Or did Shay's power summon Mira's essence from beyond the Veil to inhabit that Sharpeling body?

 

I'm guessing it was more chance that Mira found Shay after a couple of centuries. Can't remember exactly, but didn't Mira sense Shay and orchestrate their reunion by distracting the other sharpening away? Anyway, you ask some really good questions and have got me thinking too.

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17 hours ago, Seraph28 said:

All I can is thank you for this update. My weekend is good.hihi

 

Awww, I'm glad. If there's anything in particular you enjoyed, please let me know!

Thanks for reading!

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4 hours ago, xncrzy said:

Great chapter as always.  Love your work.🥰

Thank you, friend! If there's anything that stood out to you be sure to let me know. :)

Appreciate the love!

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17 hours ago, Goodie said:

Oh my, as if one Mira wasn't  enough  to handle, now there are going to be two of them. Mira has always been  my wee favorite, his strength,innocence and unbreakable devotion to Shay, what's  not to love? Oh, and he can kick ass like nobody, Mira rocks!!!! 

The writing is on the wall.  With more pieces coming together our heroes are going from strength to strength and with the destruction of their Herald the Sharpies are gonna have to learn a new song. Another excellent chapter, great work,  thanks.

Now there are two of them! Cue the Star Wars memes. Mira has his twin sister and the pair of them are free to wreck havoc.

What's not to love? 😍

Thanks for reading!

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Thank you for the update. I must say, though, that whether events happen -- by coincidence or by "well-arranged temporal conditions" (as you mentioned above) -- really makes no difference considering that it all boils down to your imaginative ingenuity and writing style. Truth.  I'm surprised your stories aren't published. If you have published books somewhere, please provide a link. 

On a different subject: After having reread the first two books, I'm saddened that Shay (and Mira, to an extent) will never experience physically growing into manhood. Being infinitely and eternally stuck in a 14-yr old body has a price. I'm just glad that he and Mira have each other forever. You know how some people pick a character out of stories and begin a hero-worship relationship with them? Yeah, can't do that to a kid character even though he's biologically over 200 years old. I'll stick to Konstantin. 😉  (Sigh). Leave it to me to always fall for the straight guy...

Anyhow, thank you again for bringing us back to Shay's and Mira's world. 

Edited by rewski84
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Stellar

Posted (edited)

On 6/28/2021 at 10:15 AM, rewski84 said:

Thank you for the update. I must say, though, that whether events happen -- by coincidence or by "well-arranged temporal conditions" (as you mentioned above) -- really makes no difference considering that it all boils down to your imaginative ingenuity and writing style. Truth.  I'm surprised you're stories aren't published. If you have published books somewhere, please provide a link. 

On a different subject: After having reread the first two books, I'm saddened that Shay (and Mira, to an extent) will never be experience physically growing into manhood. Being infinitely stuck in a 14-yr old body has a price. I'm just glad that he and Mira have each other forever. You know how some people pick a character out of stories and begin a hero-worship relationship with them? Yeah, can't do that to a kid character even though he's biologically over 200 years old. I'll stick to Constantin. 😉  (Sigh). Leave it to me to always fall for the straight guy...

Anyhow, thank you again for bringing us back to Shay's and Mira's world. 

You are too kind! I merely want to provide the accuracy and justification that might have been missed. I am not published anywhere other than GA, so you can all claim to have my full attention as an author!

On the physical development of the pair: well, I haven't said anywhere they won't ever age again past their current physical status, but I suppose it's enough to say here that they are something of a pink elephant and their situation won't be repeated because any rules regarding aqumi immortality and humans is codified AFTER the scope of Lucid Truth's story. What I *CAN* say about them is they will be legendarily famous in the future, and one of the descriptors of their famous personalities centres around being 'unaging sixteen year olds' -- so you have some idea how much further they went. Just a little bit ... but not far.

The curious thing about this is that both of them are completely comfortable in the bodies they have, and basically unbothered by being stuck that way. Shay's mind is his most crucial thing, and Mira is a purely physical creature in any sense. I wouldn't judge anyone for wanting to hero worship either of them as teenagers, nor also for wanting to choose a more overtly adult option. You can love Konstantin too, but you can love any of them :)

At any rate, welcome back! Glad to have you reading.

Edited by Stellar
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Wow- very exciting!   I too had wondered about shay finding Mira, and then decided it must have been the aquami going from him into Mira that brought in Mira the essence of the ancient midrith (sp?) K..what’s his name. And the aquami from planet into shays body,  bringing D.... I’m bad with names .     I hadn’t thought they had specifically chosen shay.... although seeing seeing that Miri and his sister were identical makes me think  either the physical  forms are affected by the aquami and the essence of the midrith they absorbed,  or maybe they did somehow end up in the right place at the right time , also being human nearly identical twins (being male and female )who happened to be the perfect vessels for the the midrith essences       I probably should read again what Stellar wrote about it all!

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Stellar

Posted (edited)

5 hours ago, Dorala said:

Wow- very exciting!   I too had wondered about shay finding Mira, and then decided it must have been the aquami going from him into Mira that brought in Mira the essence of the ancient midrith (sp?) K..what’s his name. And the aquami from planet into shays body,  bringing D.... I’m bad with names .     I hadn’t thought they had specifically chosen shay.... although seeing seeing that Miri and his sister were identical makes me think  either the physical  forms are affected by the aquami and the essence of the midrith they absorbed,  or maybe they did somehow end up in the right place at the right time , also being human nearly identical twins (being male and female )who happened to be the perfect vessels for the the midrith essences       I probably should read again what Stellar wrote about it all!

No worries about the names! There's a lot going on, so it's easy to get wires crossed.

You're not the first to experience this uncertainty and confusion over the early days of how the five alien personalities ended up in their new host bodies some 200 millennia after they originally died. So, I'm going to set this straight -- for you, and the others that were wondering in the above comments -- @Goodie and @xleroc if you don't mind me tagging you. Also @rewski84 and @Philippe if you are at all interested.

Ultimately, anybody else that reads the comments and sees this one is welcome to my abridged behind-the-scenes.

None of what I'm going to describe is real spoiler at this point. It is just filling in the gaps, but there will be fresh information that I haven't explicitly stated anywhere else. This might end up being discussed in the text proper of a future Lucid Truth chapter, but as of right now you can consider it a little extra Word of God about what happened in the past.

I'll put it in spoiler tags, so you don't have to read it if you don't want ... but here it is:

Spoiler
  1. The human researchers on late 21st century Lucere discover the DNA code fragments within the quantum field and realise it is a key. They separate the key into three distinct roles; administrative, protective, adaptive.
  2. Shay Andersen is imbued with the administrative sequence (although he is unaware that it is included as part of the genetic viral treatment he is undergoing for the degenerative condition he has). Going through different treatments that do not require stasis (and also without their knowledge), Synnøve Ellefsen receives the protective sequence, and Kajetán Dvoracek the adaptive sequence.
  3. All three are the optimal choices according to Dagen's farseeing, and enacting his intentions in his absence, the aqumi autonomous intelligence on Lucere uses a subtle manipulation of human systems and electronics to ensure these three are prioritised for treatment.
  4. Shay enters suspended animation, and the aqumi at Volkov binds the field into his body, activating the corresponding alien 'administrator' personality -- Sulin.
  5. At the same time, through a quantum binary pairing across space-time, the nearest aqumi node to Otsin on Dagen's Grace comes awake within the mostly inactive aqumi network. It remotely transmits Dagen's personality to Yugan, who carries a similar hereditary genetic marker, and becomes bound like Shay.
  6. Shortly after, Synnøve and Kajetán are caught up in the Sharpe pandemic and infected. They become sharpelings, but their DNA still carries the dormant activator sequences within the mutated human genes.
  7. Two centuries later, approximately fifteen years before Shay awakens from stasis, the autonomous aqumi intelligence acts again based upon Dagen's prescriptive foresight. There are two personalities matching the protective sequence within the quantum field, but only one recurring physical body that carries Synnøve's DNA. When the sharpeling generational reproduction phase happens, a tweak is made that causes an embryonic split. What would have been one new iteration becomes instead a pair of identical twins. This duplicates the protective DNA sequence and creates a second host body.
  8. Similarly, the autonomous aqumi intelligence also manipulates Kajetán's latest host (still in sharpeling form) to make her find and stay near the twins. This is purely in order to facilitate later events.
  9. At some point after this, the twins are separated and their locations diverge geographically -- again, by deliberate manipulation. One is lured to stay near Palatus in order to eventually encounter Shay, while the other two keep together and wander east, much nearer to Aspira.
  10. When Shay and his Hispanic companions encounter the sharpelings near Volkov, another autonomous aqumi manipulation occurs to separate the correct individual from the pack, so that Shay can deal with it alone -- and not be killed in the process by a dozen of them. Sulin acts through Shay at the right moment during the fight, and purifies the sharpeling. Though either of the two guardian personalities could have bound to the host body, Kirak, Sulin's mate, does so. This is yet another deliberate choice; the romantic attraction between the two humans is a common denominator of many probability branches (i.e. Shay and Mira would fall in love in most alternative versions of events), and meshing the mirror relationship of Sulin-Kirak with theirs invariably creates a much stronger and more effective duo. The emotional closeness is a powerful motivator and of critical important to their survival during the early phase of escaping Lucere.
  11. Thus, out of the five, Kirak's personality is easily the most synchronised with Mira's, as their personal interests are essentially identical. She is consequently the least intrusive and most hands-off, not needing any kind of actual possession until this current chapter of Lucid Truth, as he has been faithfully acting as she wants without needing direction.
  12. Certain other things after this, such as Yugan's dream projection to warn Shay, and Shay's healing of Mira when Le Renard stabbed him, were the result of gentle influences from Sulin and Dagen to ensure the human hosts survived, before any of the possessed individuals had conscious knowledge of how to use aqumi themselves.
  13. At the culmination of the escape from Aspira, the explosion in the sky caused by Shay purifies the second guardian host and binds Kirak's sister Kelor into Elia's body. Simultaneously, the adaptive personality Mesot is bound into Kajetán's DNA sequence, becoming Nyx.

So, that is canonically what happened.

Some of this detail has been refined since I originally wrote Hidden Sunlight, but most of this matches what I originally imagined. There were always luminous ghosts hidden on Lucere, though I don't think the audience ever quite realised how much of that journey was arranged to happen just so.

Consider yourselves enlightened.

Edited by Stellar
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Thanks Stellar, this makes a great appendix and event timeline for of DNA rebirths.

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This chapter was starting off a bit weak, at least for my personal taste. Since I am not a huge fan of the whole Dagenith and "fate" aspect of the story, whenever that takes a a central role I tend to become a bit disconnected with the story. So I left this chapter half read for a while and just decided to continue it today.

As usual, Mira came to the rescue with his awesomeness, once more making me wish there was a tv adaption of this. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half of the chapter and am looking forward to the next chapter once again! :)

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On 8/11/2021 at 5:18 AM, Scary said:

This chapter was starting off a bit weak, at least for my personal taste. Since I am not a huge fan of the whole Dagenith and "fate" aspect of the story, whenever that takes a a central role I tend to become a bit disconnected with the story. So I left this chapter half read for a while and just decided to continue it today.

As usual, Mira came to the rescue with his awesomeness, once more making me wish there was a tv adaption of this. I thoroughly enjoyed the second half of the chapter and am looking forward to the next chapter once again! :)

Considering the 'Dagenith and "fate" aspect of the story' is inextricably linked to Shay's own journey in the previous book -- something I'm sure you do enjoy -- this statement makes very little sense to me. This is because those two disparate pieces of the plot are now irrevocably combined and aren't in any way happening independently; they are occurring concurrently and at the same location. Mira's adventure starts about a fifth of the way through the chapter, but everything before that contains both human and Mishith characters, because of course it does. Basically, if you consider an entire pillar of the plot (and the lore behind them, which is the reason everything in this trilogy is happening) to be disconnecting you and a weakness, then I would question why you're reading this type of sci-fi at all. I'm not sure what to tell you, except ... you're going to be disappointed seeing a lot of that same 'weakness' in what's to come, because they are baked into the core of this novel.

Great that you enjoy Mira though, at least my effort on that wasn't for naught.

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On 7/16/2021 at 4:04 AM, Stellar said:

No worries about the names! There's a lot going on, so it's easy to get wires crossed.

You're not the first to experience this uncertainty and confusion over the early days of how the five alien personalities ended up in their new host bodies some 200 millennia after they originally died. So, I'm going to set this straight -- for you, and the others that were wondering in the above comments -- @Goodie and @xleroc if you don't mind me tagging you. Also @rewski84 and @Philippe if you are at all interested.

Ultimately, anybody else that reads the comments and sees this one is welcome to my abridged behind-the-scenes.

None of what I'm going to describe is real spoiler at this point. It is just filling in the gaps, but there will be fresh information that I haven't explicitly stated anywhere else. This might end up being discussed in the text proper of a future Lucid Truth chapter, but as of right now you can consider it a little extra Word of God about what happened in the past.

I'll put it in spoiler tags, so you don't have to read it if you don't want ... but here it is:

  Hide contents
  1. The human researchers on late 21st century Lucere discover the DNA code fragments within the quantum field and realise it is a key. They separate the key into three distinct roles; administrative, protective, adaptive.
  2. Shay Andersen is imbued with the administrative sequence (although he is unaware that it is included as part of the genetic viral treatment he is undergoing for the degenerative condition he has). Going through different treatments that do not require stasis (and also without their knowledge), Synnøve Ellefsen receives the protective sequence, and Kajetán Dvoracek the adaptive sequence.
  3. All three are the optimal choices according to Dagen's farseeing, and enacting his intentions in his absence, the aqumi autonomous intelligence on Lucere uses a subtle manipulation of human systems and electronics to ensure these three are prioritised for treatment.
  4. Shay enters suspended animation, and the aqumi at Volkov binds the field into his body, activating the corresponding alien 'administrator' personality -- Sulin.
  5. At the same time, through a quantum binary pairing across space-time, the nearest aqumi node to Otsin on Dagen's Grace comes awake within the mostly inactive aqumi network. It remotely transmits Dagen's personality to Yugan, who carries a similar hereditary genetic marker, and becomes bound like Shay.
  6. Shortly after, Synnøve and Kajetán are caught up in the Sharpe pandemic and infected. They become sharpelings, but their DNA still carries the dormant activator sequences within the mutated human genes.
  7. Two centuries later, approximately fifteen years before Shay awakens from stasis, the autonomous aqumi intelligence acts again based upon Dagen's prescriptive foresight. There are two personalities matching the protective sequence within the quantum field, but only one recurring physical body that carries Synnøve's DNA. When the sharpeling generational reproduction phase happens, a tweak is made that causes an embryonic split. What would have been one new iteration becomes instead a pair of identical twins. This duplicates the protective DNA sequence and creates a second host body.
  8. Similarly, the autonomous aqumi intelligence also manipulates Kajetán's latest host (still in sharpeling form) to make her find and stay near the twins. This is purely in order to facilitate later events.
  9. At some point after this, the twins are separated and their locations diverge geographically -- again, by deliberate manipulation. One is lured to stay near Palatus in order to eventually encounter Shay, while the other two keep together and wander east, much nearer to Aspira.
  10. When Shay and his Hispanic companions encounter the sharpelings near Volkov, another autonomous aqumi manipulation occurs to separate the correct individual from the pack, so that Shay can deal with it alone -- and not be killed in the process by a dozen of them. Sulin acts through Shay at the right moment during the fight, and purifies the sharpeling. Though either of the two guardian personalities could have bound to the host body, Kirak, Sulin's mate, does so. This is yet another deliberate choice; the romantic attraction between the two humans is a common denominator of many probability branches (i.e. Shay and Mira would fall in love in most alternative versions of events), and meshing the mirror relationship of Sulin-Kirak with theirs invariably creates a much stronger and more effective duo. The emotional closeness is a powerful motivator and of critical important to their survival during the early phase of escaping Lucere.
  11. Thus, out of the five, Kirak's personality is easily the most synchronised with Mira's, as their personal interests are essentially identical. She is consequently the least intrusive and most hands-off, not needing any kind of actual possession until this current chapter of Lucid Truth, as he has been faithfully acting as she wants without needing direction.
  12. Certain other things after this, such as Yugan's dream projection to warn Shay, and Shay's healing of Mira when Le Renard stabbed him, were the result of gentle influences from Sulin and Dagen to ensure the human hosts survived, before any of the possessed individuals had conscious knowledge of how to use aqumi themselves.
  13. At the culmination of the escape from Aspira, the explosion in the sky caused by Shay purifies the second guardian host and binds Kirak's sister Kelor into Elia's body. Simultaneously, the adaptive personality Mesot is bound into Kajetán's DNA sequence, becoming Nyx.

So, that is canonically what happened.

Some of this detail has been refined since I originally wrote Hidden Sunlight, but most of this matches what I originally imagined. There were always luminous ghosts hidden on Lucere, though I don't think the audience ever quite realised how much of that journey was arranged to happen just so.

Consider yourselves enlightened.

Thank you so much for the backfill. Although I suspected (and therefore, assumed) as much, your timeline explanations for all the divergent paths for each character and how they're truly connected really solidifies the greater picture. For me, that is both the current picture and all the possibilities your story can take as it unfolds moving forward. Thank you! ❤

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Scary

Posted (edited)

On 8/22/2021 at 6:42 AM, Stellar said:

Considering the 'Dagenith and "fate" aspect of the story' is inextricably linked to Shay's own journey in the previous book -- something I'm sure you do enjoy -- this statement makes very little sense to me. This is because those two disparate pieces of the plot are now irrevocably combined and aren't in any way happening independently; they are occurring concurrently and at the same location. Mira's adventure starts about a fifth of the way through the chapter, but everything before that contains both human and Mishith characters, because of course it does. Basically, if you consider an entire pillar of the plot (and the lore behind them, which is the reason everything in this trilogy is happening) to be disconnecting you and a weakness, then I would question why you're reading this type of sci-fi at all. I'm not sure what to tell you, except ... you're going to be disappointed seeing a lot of that same 'weakness' in what's to come, because they are baked into the core of this novel.

Great that you enjoy Mira though, at least my effort on that wasn't for naught.

You may call me shallow, but I mostly enjoy reading and imagining the awesome stuff that Shay and Mira do, not necessarily why they have to do it. Don't get me wrong, I also want to find out what exactly the Arbiters are, but I don't like if the outcome was "destined" to happen. It was nice seeing the Herald's prediction of the future proven wrong, but hearing that everything was arranged to happen the way it did by the Mishith also leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Edit: I've just read your forum post about how the events in Hidden Sunlight were manipulated by aqumi and by the Mishith in order to play out the way they did. I am kinda happy with your eplanation there - it makes sense. But at the same time I feel like Shay and his companions as well as us, the readers, were deceived by the Mishith. Especially with your wording, using for example "host" and "possessed", it becomes clear that they use our heroes as chess pieces and manipulate them to get the outcome they want.

Now, we don't know enough YET about the origin of the Arbiters, and it is hard to judge Sulin and Dagen for doing their best to save the universe, but deception and manipulation still don't sit right with me. And hearing that our heroes basically didn't have a choice in their actions from the very beginning doesn't make me happy either.

I hope this gives you some more insight on why my feelings are so negative about that part of the story. It doesn't mean what you wrote isn't great or excellent, you know it is. But I think I would have prefered it if these events had happened without any manipulation or "fate" involved, and thus I am displeased whenever it becomes prominent in the story. Luckily, great authors like you don't write just to please the readers (often, the most memorable pieces are those that clash with what you expected from them), and I am sure there are enough people who don't share my oppinion on this matter. I still just wanted to give you my honest oppinion, if anything, just to show how invested I am in what you have created.

 

Edited by Scary
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3 hours ago, Scary said:

You may call me shallow, but I mostly enjoy reading and imagining the awesome stuff that Shay and Mira do, not necessarily why they have to do it. Don't get me wrong, I also want to find out what exactly the Arbiters are, but I don't like if the outcome was "destined" to happen. It was nice seeing the Herald's prediction of the future proven wrong, but hearing that everything was arranged to happen the way it did by the Mishith also leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Edit: I've just read your forum post about how the events in Hidden Sunlight were manipulated by aqumi and by the Mishith in order to play out the way they did. I am kinda happy with your eplanation there - it makes sense. But at the same time I feel like Shay and his companions as well as us, the readers, were deceived by the Mishith. Especially with your wording, using for example "host" and "possessed", it becomes clear that they use our heroes as chess pieces and manipulate them to get the outcome they want.

Now, we don't know enough YET about the origin of the Arbiters, and it is hard to judge Sulin and Dagen for doing their best to save the universe, but deception and manipulation still don't sit right with me. And hearing that our heroes basically didn't have a choice in their actions from the very beginning doesn't make me happy either.

I hope this gives you some more insight on why my feelings are so negative about that part of the story. It doesn't mean what you wrote isn't great or excellent, you know it is. But I think I would have prefered it if these events had happened without any manipulation or "fate" involved, and thus I am displeased whenever it becomes prominent in the story. Luckily, great authors like you don't write just to please the readers (often, the most memorable pieces are those that clash with what you expected from them), and I am sure there are enough people who don't share my oppinion on this matter. I still just wanted to give you my honest oppinion, if anything, just to show how invested I am in what you have created.

To be clear, the Herald's augury was 'wrong' because it was unable to predict and account for the narrow and specific variables represented by quantum-focused participants like Kirak and Kelor, which was the point of Yugan's monologue to Shay in this chapter. Everything else it foresaw was essentially accurate, but that one factor was blinding and unpredictable, and the only thing able to be leveraged against it. Thankfully, this was successfully managed.

As for the rest of what you've said, I have two thoughts on the matter.

The first is that: yes, the Mishith have manipulated humanity in a broad sense, and the human protagonists specifically. However, any offence at such positioning belies a very amplified view of humanity's self-importance, and is particular to us because we are human. To them, we were (emphasis on 'were') one of a large multitude of primitive sentient species who had potential application in the celestial war taking place. Our collective feelings on being used in this way are less important than actually achieving a lasting victory -- would you care if a lab rat was aware enough to get angry that you were using it in an experiment that was intended to save the human race? I doubt it. Side note: the five personalities of Sulin, Dagen, Kirak, Kelor, and Mesot, are more empathetic and sympathetic than most Mishith would typically be, because of their direct personal involvement and having to literally live in human bodies.

Their species are not saints, and have examples of ethical mistakes in their history -- one such mistake will even come up in the future plot -- but to regard their behaviour as more morally questionable than our own would be hypocritical in the extreme. We've done worse to apparently lesser forms of life and not batted an eyelid out of concern. The extent to which this matters is extremely relative and it's worth remembering that the alternative is the destruction of reality, so ... from that view, I wouldn't have too many problems being manipulated.

Second: the protagonists are absolutely able to make choices, and it's because of those choices that events have gone the way they have. Rashid was the most accurate describing this in Veil of Shadow chapter 19 when he said: "Because he(Dagen) is trying to get a very specific outcome. If he told Shay too much or too little, we might do the wrong thing at the wrong time, and it could all fail. He(Dagen) is just leading us from place to place in the right sequence so we have the best possible chance of winning."

The agency of the human characters and their individualistic ability is probably the most important racial aspect present, and the theme of making impactful decisions that have consequences is heavily embedded into the narratives of multiple points-of-view. The concepts of 'fate' and 'destiny' exist here as branching scientifically deduced possibilities emerging from an extremely detailed predictive analysis that understands everything as probability, but one must not forget that the architect -- Dagen -- is less an actual puppet master than just an usher. There remains a strong undercurrent that ... he is not completely sure if what he's doing will actually work. 

Nothing is preordained, and those in the plot saying so have their own reasons for making those claims.

In any case, thanks for elaborating and explaining yourself.

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