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Veil of Shadow - 13. A New Authority

"Librae Arctis?" Ayize stared at me, uncomprehending, and then there was a flicker of memory. "Oh, wait! Isn't this the place Albans told you to go when you left Lucere?"

"It is. The gate to Earth was disabled, and he wanted me to to use the military's gate-link to jump here and then back to any colonial world that was safe."

"Hmm. Well, first, let's see what we already know about this solar system." He reached for the control interface and input a quick command. A moment later, an info-file popped onto the holo-screen, and Ayize began to skim over it, reading aloud. "Okay, we have five planets orbiting a F7V yellow-white main-sequence star, slightly larger than our own. Librae Arctis I and II are hot subterran and hot mercurian worlds, respectively. III is a warm superterran, and is on the outer edge of the habitable zone. It's classed as a 'psychroplanet' meaning it is cooler than Earth, but within the temperature range to support life. Apparently it was a popular choice to be terraformed and colonised, not long before the virus appeared."

"Yeah." Rashid leaned back in his seat, waving a hand in a sweeping gesture to include the space ahead of us full of xenomorph ships, disgust all over his face. "Just like half the galaxy could have been if this evil didn't find us. Imagine how many colonies we'd have now?"

Oh! The xenomorphs! I was forgetting that the ship waited on my every order and would not act unless told to. I needed to make sure our entrance stayed inconspicuous and that our presence was not out of place in any way. Ship!

Yes lord?

Take us in closer, as if we are one of them. Never forget that we are not. I reinforced this last statement mentally, adding extra emphasis to the fact that the arbiters were no longer in control. I am the fire and the shadow is my enemy, so it is your enemy too. If the shadow speaks, here or anywhere, you must listen and agree like a loyal servant, but you will only act as the fire commands. Do you understand?

Yes lord.

"That's the truth, brother." Ayize was talking as we began to move into the horde of alien ships, and he kept on reading the file. "The fifth planet is a cold neptunian world, an ice giant; then we have our friend here and subject of interest, Librae Arctis IV. It is of course jovian, rated as a Class I gas giant on the Sudarsky scale. It has six moons of planetary mass, with several dozen smaller, and fits into the same category as Jupiter, though with about 10% more mass. Also a similar temperature class and atmospheric composition, mostly hydrogen and helium. All quite unremarkable." He skipped further down. "What else is there?"

"Our history here?" I prompted, the African still poring over the holo-screen text. "This is an important place to them, so there must be a reason."

"Okay. The system was first visited in 2084. The third planet was surveyed by unmanned remote and given a grade of 0.81 on the Earth Similarity Index, with 1.0 being most like Earth. It was earmarked as a potential colony, though other worlds were being discovered around that time that were easier for adaptation to human life, so Librae Arctis III never received much attention. Not until 2103, when atmospheric stabilisation of the Tierra de Esperanza colony was finished and enough federal resources became free for a new world to be terraformed. Of course, it never happened, because the virus broke out the following year. Ah! Now we get to the interesting stuff. This research station was constructed in 2092 to study exoplanetary jovian weather systems and radiation emissions. The first gate-link to Librae Arctis was established a year earlier from the Sanqing system, as Librae Arctis was at that time too distant for a direct connection from Earth, and a second link from Prasada created in 2099. It doesn't mention anything about a link from Lucere, though."

"Two gates?" Rashid frowned, and then reached past Ayize and swapped the holo-view back to the system interface. He pulled up a list of sensor parameters and then started a scan. "They must still be in orbit somewhere."

"The gate-link from Lucere was supposed to be a secret military connection, so I guess it wasn't public knowledge," I told Ayize, "though I don't know why the Lucere end of it was just ... gone." Hold on though, he said there was a connection from the Sanqing system? "Uh, you mentioned the Sanqing Three, right? Which of the three colonies was Librae Arctis connected to, specifically?"

"Taiqing."

Oh ... shit.

"Hey," Ayize continued, his brow furrowing, "wasn't that-"

"-one of the four worlds the arbiter showed me too? Yeah, it was, and this means that all of those four are connected in a chain."

He was gazing at me thoughtfully. "You're right. Connected by us before this enemy even arrived on the scene. Earth to Lucere, Lucere to here, here to Taiqing."

I nodded, ideas beginning to form in my mind about how the early stages of the Sharpe pandemic likely could have gone. "So, I'm just thinking about why these four are important and what happened. Lucere's importance is obvious, because that's where the virus began, where the arbiters appeared and where aqumi is. Can't get much more 'special' than that. I still don't get how they appeared, but I know where, and that's in Palatus, on Aurum. Earth is obvious too. It has to be their goal, there's no argument about that, though they never tried to travel to it directly from Lucere, did they?"

"No. The only reason we knew it was a weaponised alien virus and not any natural phenomenon was because they sent a single ship, just like this one, to Earth as some kind of a scout. It was caught and destroyed by the orbital defences. They didn't send another, but the military analysis made available to the public declared, with a high degree of probability, that it came from ... Prasada." Ayize's speech slowed as he realised what he was saying.

Prasada, the other world that was connected to here, Librae Arctis.

The sequence of events was making more sense.

"Right, so they followed the link here from Lucere instead of trying Earth straight away. Maybe they couldn't do anything that ambitious so early on, or wanted to stay hidden, so they came to Librae Arctis and made it their base. There wouldn't have been many people on this research station, and it was connected to the colonial network, so probably a good place to work from. Then they infiltrated that network, using our gates to discover our worlds, and infect them one by one, before sending a scout through Prasada to check out Earth." A chill ran over me, goosebumps spreading on my arms as I thought how they had carried out the plan of systematically isolating human worlds so the populous could be subjugated and destroyed, all with a nearly flawless execution.

They were so close to succeeding without us even knowing we were under attack.

"Still doesn't explain Taiqing." Rashid interjected, cool as ever, eyes watching the scan status though still paying attention to our conversation. "What's so important there? Oh, found our two gates by the way, plus an incog orbital that looks a lot like a military auxiliary. Must be the secondary end for your Lucere link."

"It doesn't explain where they got these ships from either." Ayize folded his arms and sat back. "There are thousands of these damn things out there, but no alien structure of any kind. I don't see anything what's building, or, uh, breeding them, or however it is they're made. So, how the hell did they get them? We need to stake these bastards out." He produced a broad grin. "Shay, unless there's a reason not to, I'd like to take several days to stay here and just observe. Watch their movements, how often they come and go, get a good count on how many vessels they may actually have, any different types that exist and what they might be capable of, see what they're up to and why they haven't tried to attack Earth. Perhaps even find some clue that will let us know how they appeared to begin with. What do you think of that idea?"

The more data we can gather to inform Earth, the better prepared everyone else will be, and maybe I will hear from the mysterious voice again while we investigate this. It'd be stupid to not hang around and watch for a while.

"It's a good one. They don't know we're here and they won't, unless we do something really stupid. Trust me when I say that if I think anything is wrong, I'm going to get us out of here straight away."

"Then that's settled. Now, on to a more pressing matter." He cast a look to Rashid and Mira. "Who else thinks it's time for lunch?"

-o-0-O-0-o-

It was at that moment, Konstantin Andropov knew the displacement and chaos he suffered was all a necessary evil; that his life and existence before was a precursor to this moment. A moment where destiny was placed in his hands, where the words of Maxim Kerensky rang through his soul as the weight of that decision was presented.

There had been moments, so far, where the path had been certain, obvious to the learned gaze. Now, here it was laid bare and he knew that it was providence.

Chance.

Yet, he did not feel worthy. It did not seem right or fair that he accept this, and his reply to Kerensky was spoken in a room silent enough to hear a pin drop.

"Admiral, I- ... " The Russian floundered for a second, the surreality pushing all but the oddest emotionally-charged thoughts from his mind, " ... I do not understand why you say this to me. I am not seeking power, and th-"

"But you are." Kerensky interrupted him. No one else dared speak, the audience an invisible throng of eyes, a captive majority of humanity's population. If Martin Quân or any of the corporatists present wanted to intervene, they did not try. "You have given the most compelling case to reject both of the candidates offered by the established blocs in our political system. A cause for us, as commissioned officers of our most honourable armed services, to forego interests that are deeply ingrained. So deeply are those beliefs held that the very definition of impartiality becomes lost beneath the partisan hatred of ambition."

"That was never my intention," Konstantin protested. "I only came here to t-

"-tell us the truth?" Kerensky's second interruption was punctuated with a smile. "I know this. I trust your integrity and sense of morality because you are here for that reason. You were acting for the good of everyone, and what you revealed to the world will have ramifications reaching far beyond these walls and this moment in time. You have opened a Pandora's Box packed with legal, ethical and political troubles from the last 200 years of our history, both tragic and terrible, but it is a box that needed to be opened. Everyone listening to us, right now, knows exactly how significant this moment is. Many aspiring men and women try to change our world, and yet they spend their lives achieving just a fraction of what you have done in the last few minutes." He paused, glancing to General Venkatesan, who replied with a prim nod, a silent communication between comrades that told more than the PDN cameras could relate. "There is no doubt in it, to us. It was your job application, Mr Andropov, whether you realised it or not, and you have presented to us a résumé of your character." He gave a nod himself, curt and approving. "It is the finest. You have secured the support of the Defence Committee and the military, and the decision could not be more clear to me. It is simply a matter of making the choice."

The choice.

Was there actually one to be made?

Though that freedom always existed, because it was his own, if Konstantin really thought about it ... no. There wasn't a choice at all.

"Then I will do it," he told the admiral. "I accept the offer."

That had been yesterday.

Today was the swearing-in.

It was October 17th, 2318, and for the first time in 61 years, Earth had a new supreme commander.

They did not leave New York, the ceremony already scheduled to take place in the United Global Federation Initiative headquarters. The location was apparently chosen as an homage to the internationalist status of New York and the role American leadership had in forming and strengthening the global federation. Also, it was on First Avenue, by the East River, on the site of the long-gone United Nations assembly, the much older precursor to current events.

Contrary to Konstantin's expectation, the event was low-key, private, and largely free of the overbearing media attention he was dreading. Only a few public servants and some of the top military brass were in personal attendance, the rest being civilians of no particular consequence to the Russian. After the military succession's end, Lucas did not meet up with him again, purposely avoiding his company when the commotion over the final result erupted. Konstantin knew that fraternising with him at this point would be dangerously foolish; he was now a public figure, and subject to the sort of scrutiny and attention few people on Earth could rival. It was all due to his newly elevated position and unique historical nature of his selection, and so any overt link drawn between himself, Lucas and the Brotherhood was to be avoided at all costs.

The only other person Konstantin wanted to talk with was Kerensky, but the admiral had employed a similar strategy to Lucas. A priority message had arrived in Konstantin's PDN space shortly after he was whisked away from the Vanderbilt Complex. Though it seemed a tidal wave of popular opinion was trying to reach him through Earth's PDN, the network filters kept at bay, while Kerensky's message stated they would meet and talk properly once the formalities were done with, and after the media insanity had cooled.

He had been given his choice of attendant officers for the event, and settled on a young female major from the South American Special Forces corps. Well-spoken and very professional, her guidance was unintrusive but welcome. In a situation that was so far out of Konstantin's depth, he constantly felt like he had to pinch himself to see if it was real. The ceremony was soon done, and absent the media attention in the aftermath, he was instead subjected to the sufferance of polite conversation with the dignitaries present. All of them seemed to want to talk to him; to make an impression on the man of the hour and this was by far the most distasteful part of the experience to Konstantin. He wanted nothing more than to be done with the orchestrated dance put on for the audience; the social charade and 'smiles for the camera' begging for the prestige of a portrait with the new supreme commander.

It all felt so ... shallow.

He had just finished deflecting the 'charms' of the North American legislature's majority leader, a man whose rhetoric was as combative as it was wheedling, when the major steered him away to a side exit from the reception. Though the media attention outside the event had not lessened, once they were separated from the main crowd, the building was quiet. Confirming that the event was over, his attendant informed him that their transportation back to Europe was waiting.

The military didn't typically pick a new home base until the federal government's administration shifted to the next continent in the circuit. This rotation occurred every three premiership elections, fifteen years in total, and was mandated by the Concordat to prevent the permanent concentration of political power in any single major city on Earth. Europe was the location for the current electoral cycle, the military headquarters being in London, though the command had already moved to England from Germany in 2312, during Lebaredian's first term.

Konstantin quickly realised that this meant no more commercial transport; he could order his own means of getting anywhere whenever he pleased, and the military would provide it because ... he commanded them. This aspect of things and the fact he now wielded a validated form of authority over others was going to take some getting used to. Yet, the major paused, receiving a new message, and then she was directing him into a different room, instead of toward the building's liftpad. "Sir. I've just been told, there's someone else wants to meet you. Someone important."

Someone important?

His attendent did not follow, and Konstantin stepped through the indicated door into a disused office, only to find himself face to face with-

"Anton Guiterrez." The new premier was shorter than the woman whose position he succeeded, and seemed softer spoken. Konstantin had seen him in the media before Lebaredian's assassination, and now here he was as her replacement, the former vice-premier. "I apologise for how unannounced this is, but I wanted to meet you privately, in person, while I'm here to speak with North America's regional legislators."

His voice was quiet, almost lilting; he seemed reserved to the Russian, perhaps timid. Shorter, no more than 5'8 at the most, he had neatly trimmed brown-black hair, a slightly chunky build and a rich tanned Latin colouring. He was in his late 40s and his native accent, either Portuguese or Spanish, was almost indiscernible, the edges of inflexion polished away by many years of political argumentation in English. Guiterrez was about as inoffensive as a politician could get, his appearance an opposite to the image Lebaredian had given; a confident authentic leader figure.

Yet, still, that woman had betrayed everyone in an attempt to subvert democracy. How could Konstantin trust this man, who was her second-in-command for years, not to pull something just as bad, or worse?

Guiterrez must have sensed the hesitation and uncertainty as they shook hands, because he continued, not breaking eye contact and speaking quickly. "I want to assure you that I am not her. What she did was the greatest betrayal of principle in my lifetime. The SDCP has not faced a coup like that in decades. You don't know how pleased I am that you stopped the corporatist plot. You have altered the landscape in a way you don't realise."

The Russian's brow furrowed. "I did not act to force political change. I acted because it was the right thing to do."

"So you did," agreed the premier. "Altruism is so rare these days. I am glad you acted, but you must know we have to foster a positive working relationship together. There's a common enemy in corporatism, Mr Andropov."

"I will treat everyone with the same consideration," Konstantin rumbled, looking down at this man, evenhanded and fair. "There will be no favourites. The rules must be kept."

"Nonetheless, I am sure there is plenty for us to work together and compromise on." Guiterrez gave a forced smile, less a people's-politician than a policymaker wonk thrust inexpertly into the executive limelight by events. He shook Konstantin's hand a second time. "Thank you for this brief introduction. We will be speaking again, I'm sure."

An executive security guard pushed open the office's other door, holding it for Guiterrez and the premier gave Konstantin an encouraging look before he exited out. Left alone for a moment, he stared out the window, the late afternoon traffic moving along First Avenue, and thought for a minute.

Guiterrez had underlined the fact to Konstantin that he was not like Lebaredian. Also, to say just how much of an enemy MFM really was. If Guiterrez was really a true government loyalist and as dedicated to SDCP as he appeared, then Konstantin wondered if maybe he actually could have a real functional relationship with the new premier.

One that could reach past the intricate web of Earth's politics and allow them to achieve something.

Maybe.

Certainly, it was an auspicious start to his new position, but now, Konstantin had to leave New York, bound once more for Europe. He had to take the reins and start to figure out what could be accomplished; the Pandora's Box that he opened had sparked all kinds of trouble. The global balance of power was in an uproar due to his actions, the gamut of lies and obsfucation running deep and shocking the wider public. A lot of people were very angry, yet, still, beyond all of the chaotic polity of Earth, Konstantin's objective was the same. The most important task he had was to make the homeworld as strong as possible, a fortress for humanity, because this -- this -- was his duty to his fellow man.

Earth had to be resilient enough, united enough, to withstand what was coming.

This was how he could best help Shay, to prepare for the conflict that came from the stars, the true peril of the greater war.

So, it was onwards, to London.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The next few days were unexciting, despite the fact that we were in spitting range of a large number of alien ships. Ayize mostly kept himself busy with the reconnaissance work; trying to get unique identification and categorise as many of their ships as he could. Rashid used his time assisting with this, or alternately doing physical exercises to stay occupied. He was his usual brand of sullen, though he seemed more tense than normal and I guessed this was just because of where we were.

Then there was Mira.

The katana had apparently been acquired from Japan during their departure from Earth. Ayize told me about the escape, with Mira's spectacular dispatching of a bunch of federal cops leaving a big impression on him. Hearing the story made me laugh, because I knew exactly the sorts of amazing stuff Mira could pull off, and Ayize was adamant that he had not seen anything of the sort outside of holo-films. Mira was diligent though, and with the free time we had, he carefully polished and sharpened the sword's edge until it was honed to his liking.

The rest of it?

He spent it with me.

Though I was totally restricted by the fact that I couldn't use aqumi for even a moment without drawing some very unwelcome attention and risking our lives, Mira kept the boredom we were both feeling from being too severe. This mean a lot of physical contact, most often just holding hands or hugging, with kisses being stolen whenever he deemed it safe from the adults. In the quiet times, his silent empathic communication was all I needed and having him close always made things better, no matter what.

However, he was still full of surprises.

Though the passage of time was difficult to tell in space, we had been undercover at Librae Arctis IV for a full week, the system date informing me it was October 20th. It was reaching the point where we were nearly ready to leave. The two men were both catching some sleep and I was rifling through our food supplies in search of a snack, when I felt his hand in mine. There was a soft smile, his eyes hinting his intent; 'come with me, I have something to share.'

"Okay," I smiled back, "what is it?"

Mira led me into the main chamber to the cluster of seats around the control interface. He took the central seat in front of the holo-screen, the best spot for using the interface. I went to sit on the next seat along, letting go of his hand, but his arm slid deftly round my waist and pulled me in. Depositing me onto the chair between his spread legs, his other arm encircled, so he was hugging me around the middle from behind as we shared the seat. His head was over my left shoulder, his right cheek against my left, and all I could feel was the warmth of his body and the thumping of my heart.

"H-hey," I whispered, an unexpected nervous jitter creeping into my words, "what's going on?"

It took several seconds for him to piece together his response, and having found the words, he whispered in return: "I want to show you."

A shiver went through me, a ripple of anxious delight at the feeling of his cheek rubbing against mine, his fingers brushing my stomach. "Show me what?"

This.

He spoke telepathically into my mind, and then something was changing. The aqumi of his body was bleeding into mine, entwining together, imparting a subtle shift of knowledge, a transmitted quantum guide. Then, just like that, I was replying in kind without intending to, as natural as anything; the speech of the mind no longer a difficult and rare thing.

Mira.

Call for me whenever you have need, and I will come.

We can do this whenever we want? My breath hitched, barely able to believe the gift he had just handed me.

If we are not too far apart, yes.

Why didn't you show me this before now? I don't understand.

For nearly a dozen seconds, nothing, the words being carefully chosen, but then an answer.

We speak by sight and by sound, but the spirit is different. You are closer than everything, and your voice is the world. To be so near when I cannot touch you is torture. His hug around my waist tightened. It hurts because you are beautiful and I love you.

I closed my eyes momentarily, emotions going crazy within. Was it really this hard for him, affecting him this much? Blinking, I wiped away tears that had arrived with no warning. The things he put himself through for me were incredible. "Thank you for giving me this. I love being able to- ... to talk to you."

His only reply was to turn his head and kiss me on the cheek. For a minute we just sat like that, enjoying the touch, then he reached out with his left hand and activated the holo-screen. There is more to show you. Look at their slaves.

"Slaves?" I chose to verbally respond, not wanting to use the more intense medium of quantum telepathy that Mira had fully unlocked in me. I did not want to stress him without good reason, figuring that telepathy wasn't needed most of time. "Their ships?" I reached out myself, pulling up a view of the surrounding alien fleet.

They have names, after their nature. They are broken shapes in my memory, as are the arbiters. Mira pointed to one on the screen, of the same type as the ship we were currently in. I knew that Ayize had so far documented three distinct breeds of ship, and had been trying to subclassify them into operational roles, if it were possible. This was the smallest, the only one that Earth had seen and was officially described as a scout-destroyer, recognising an ability for combat and exploration both. This is the Loyal Disciple.

Like the naming of the arbiters, it seemed this title was quite specific, indicating again to me how exact our foe was about the ordering of its hierarchy and intentions. Their smallest ship was apparently regarded as a dependable minion. The irony of the name and our current situation was not lost on me, though before I could laugh, Mira pointed to another. It was the next largest up, what Ayize had designated as an assault cruiser, and it was several times the size of the scout-destroyer. There were less of these present and they were scattered at intervals throughout the throng, like centurions in a legion. This is the Fervent Emissary.

"Emissary, huh? I don't know what message they're delivering, but I'd rather not hear it." It was my turn to point next, though I had to adjust the view to find the target. The third type of ship was approximately five times longer and a much greater mass than the Emissary, easily larger than any human space vessel I'd seen, commercial or military. It was unambiguously labeled a battleship and just the view of it was extremely sinister, an elegant blue-grey monster, murderous and potent. They were rarer again than the cruiser-sized vessel, the equivalent of a naval ship-of-the-line. "What about this one?"

It is the Apostle of Joy.

Apostle, emissary, disciple. The alien descriptions all translated to terms that were so religious in nature, yet for the arbiters it was less a belief system than an unyielding interpretation of reality, absolute and final. "Are there any more?" I murmured. "Any that we don't see here?"

There is another, greater than these. The arbiters do not command it, and it acts as it will. They name it the Herald of Truth.

"The Herald," I breathed. It was the same entity that the arbiter on Berchande had claimed was 'singing the Music' while the arbiters were 'shining the Light.' This phrasing I'd heard before from them, always synonyms for the same two things; 'Artful Melody', 'Song', 'Hallowed Dawn.' These concepts were clearly fundamental to their existence, but I was given no clue as to what they really meant.

Once, there was nothing but darkness, but you freed me. He went to kiss me again on the cheek, but I pre-empted him, turning my head quickly enough so that it landed on my mouth. We lingered for a moment, his lips wonderfully soft and slippery. All slaves know the shadow in their own way. They have lived it. You freed this Disciple too. Talk and learn from it. Then a hint of levity crept into this extraordinary amount of serious mental communication from Mira, the normally inscrutable boy that I loved. I will stay with you while you do, because you are warm and I like hugging you.

Smiling, I did as he said, while Mira lapsed into silence. Ship! I commanded its attention, and it responded, as always, promptly. A thought had occurred to me though, and now I couldn't shake the feeling that I was treating it a bit too similarly to how the arbiters would have done. I needed to be in control for our safety, but I didn't want it to be a completely indentured slave either. I wanted it to be willing to help us, in spite of how it was designed.

Yes lord?

Two things. First, I am no lord. You are in my service, that's all. Second, you are no longer a Loyal Disciple. You are- ... what was it, exactly? I wasn't sure how to finish that thought, then a flash of insight. I was going to give a symbolic middle finger to the arbiters in classic American style. Your name is ... Liberty. Do you understand?

It did not respond immediately, perhaps not sure what to make of this change in status I had awarded, so I prompted it with the new name. Liberty?

Yes lord?

I snorted, again trying not to laugh. One out of two was good enough, some progress being better than none. Getting rid of the title was something that we would have to work on.

I want you to teach me what you know. I want knowledge.

Yes lord. State your desire.

My desire? There was something I wanted more information on, and that was navigation. I had already seen what amounted to an index of places with a coordinate system, but this still did not translate to how the ship knew exactly where to go. There had to be a point of reference, something that it was based upon.

I want to know ... how do you navigate? You have record of these stars and planets, you know identities for their location, but how can you remember where they are in space? What tells you where these places are?

It considered this briefly, parsing my question into an understood formula. Stars and planets; they are heavy. There is a weight.

A weight?

Yes lord. This weight is strong. It touches deep, near the horizon.

Stars and planets that were 'heavy' because they had 'weight'? What was this 'horizon'? The whole statement was a convoluted metaphor. It sounded like it was referring to mass and gravity as the defining factors. I wasn't sure exactly, but there was an easy way to find out, and that was aqumi, the 'fire.' Quantum unity included gravity, and the ship had seemed to understand what aqumi was when I first encountered it, even it if did not possess the language to fully describe the quantum-unified force.

Can the fire control weight?

Yes lord. The fire is deep, a master of many things.

Can the shadow control weight?

Yes lord. It did not elaborate more than this.

Show me how you see it, the weight.

There was an extended pause before the reply, the experience as strange to it as it was to me. It initiated a new mental connection, different from before, tentative, a dense threading together of subatomic manipulation and exotic energy, woven into a resonating network of sensation. It was a connection to the part of the ship that dealt with interstellar travel, the same strangeness that bridged space-time to jump between any two galactic points.

A connection that had run past gravity, and onward to the inexplicable lesser-known parts of physics.

Like Alice's rabbit hole, it was a path into something that was well beyond current human understanding, and I had the disconcerting feeling I was standing on the edge of an abyss, unsure of the wisdom of what I was doing.

You must follow, lord. No fire. No shadow. Touch near the horizon and you will feel the weight, all as it is. You will know it around you, all as it is.

Follow?

Follow and feel. It was insistent, wanting to prove itself, and then, like an excitable child tugging on the hand of a parent it was pulling me into that connection. In a descending spiral that was without direction, there was still the feeling of going down ...

... and down, and down, until ...

... I reached it.

What happened next, I was not prepared for.

For a moment, time seemed to stop.

At a lower level, past where aqumi unified everything, there was a place where the connection branched and spread. It split into a countless multitude of paths, all so very close but still diverted away from the 'horizon', the very smallest limit of reality. My consciousness brushed against the edge of it, and with that contact came an awareness. Librae Arctis IV was simply there, the planet a nexus of gravity upon the invisible three-dimensional map that I could feel.

It stood out and I knew it was there, a heaviness upon the medium.

A weight.

Then, that awareness expanded exponentially. It grew a billion-fold.

I could feel the gravitation of Librae Arctis I, II, III and V.

The star of Librae Arctis.

Nearby, a few dozen stars.

Further, there were hundreds.

Even further, thousands.

Then, millions.

Every single major source of gravity within hundreds of light-years, the sense of it finally dimming and stopping at some distance that I did not know and could not at that moment focus on, nor comprehend.

Overloaded.

I could not speak.

I could not move.

I could not think.

It was minutes before my perception normalised, my brain once again capable of processing what was happening. Immediately there was a second realisation; I could also feel their ships jumping, the comparatively tiny artificial bubbles popping at the origin and the destination as they slipped through space-time at the arbiters' whims.

If I could see them doing this, then that meant ... they could see human ships doing exactly the same thing.

They had always been able to do this.

Now I understood just how completely fucked we were, and why Earth's federal government, as Ayize told me, had placed an indefinite moratorium on space travel after the viral outbreak occurred.

Our ability to travel between stars was based completely on gravitational singularity technology. Whether it was the older method of orbital gates, or the portable ship-based systems that had developed while I was in stasis, it didn't matter. Whenever we left our solar system, they knew. Their ships could cloak, they had a jump range that was greater than ours and the ability to pinpoint exactly where we were trying to go, within hundreds of light-years of Earth.

Every single time we tried to leave, they could -- and would -- hunt us down and wipe us out.

It was how the arbiters had found us on Berchande.

Your command is done, lord. The mental connection relaxed and I allowed my concentration to ebb with it, letting go of the absolutely insane feeling of being aware on such a stupendous scale. The awareness shrank away, though it did not disappear entirely, the mass shadows of Librae Arctis' planets and star remaining, as well as the handful of nearby stars. It was the second permanent skill I had learned in quick succession, and the ability of being able to detect gravity sources from extreme distances was on par with the importance of telekinesis itself. Although I could not have learned the new skill without aqumi, it did not actually require any quantum magic to carry out. As the ship told me: no fire, no shadow. Just follow and feel.

I had discovered something that I could do, an ability granted through the means of aqumi that was incredibly powerful. It gave me an advantage that was indescribable. The enemy had no idea what I was capable of now, if I tried.

Thank you, Liberty. Just ... thank you.

Yes lord.

"Shay?" It took Mira actually speaking to make me realise just how unresponsive I'd been, the sound as impactful as always, his arms in a tight protective wrap about me.

"I- .. uh, I'm okay." I grasped his hands on my stomach, squeezing to reassure him. "I should to talk to Ayize, and then ... we should leave."

-o-0-O-0-o-

The arrival at Chișinău was around 4pm on October 18, later in the day than Kenji wanted it to be, the air cool and wind gusting sporadically as he stepped out of the terminal into Moldova. The second he recognised John Shearer standing in the lee of the Chișinău Central Railways building, by the pickup area, he felt an immense relief. Seeing a friendly face for the first time in four days was a big deal, and after the shock of the Florence assault, it was very welcome sight.

"Bloody hell, brother," the Englishman began, "look what the cat dragged in." He clasped Kenji's hand and they shook. "We almost gave you up for lost. It was pure luck that most of our field ops weren't in the hot zones, so seeing you in one piece is a sight for sore eyes."

"Uh, John, I don't have a fuckin' clue what's going on right now." Kenji kept talking as they walked to the car. "I was gonna head to the secondary in Prague, but that was a wash. I got tagged early when I was escaping and their eyes were all over the crossings into France, Switzerland, Austria. No way I could risk it, and th-"

"Tagged?" Shearer unlocked the vehicle and they climbed in. Being on the receiving end of a digital 'tag' meant being forced to abandon the vast majority of publicly accessible PDN. Shearer knew how smart Kenji was though, and he had totally avoided all but the most rudimentary means of using technology in order to simply not be caught. It took an incredible amount of daring to do this across Europe, though Shearer did not say it, preferring to avoid the added 'hero's burden' and associated survivor guilt that might conjure. "So, you were blind pretty much all the way through from when you left Florence and they didn't catch you? Jesus, Kenji, are you sure you don't have an angel or five watching out for your ass? It's a damn long way from Italy in total dark. Lemme guess though, you tried for the Serbian tertiary before realising that was fucked as well, and then came here?"

"Yeah. Man, I was terrified just taking the train to Bucharest. There were still so many of them everywhere, and I couldn't even do the most basic sweep or info-grab. Didn't know if they were still listening, waiting for me to try and touch the PDN. Something, fucking anything, so that they could pinpoint me."

Shearer didn't respond for a few seconds as they were pulling out of the terminal, shaking his head in amazement. There were bags under his eyes and he looked exhausted. "We haven't faced a major assault this unexpected since the business with the Panamanian militia in '07. Ayize ever tell you about that?"

"He's never said much, just that it didn't end well, but could have been a lot worse."

"Well," Shearer responded, "this is an order of magnitude higher in the 'worse' category, but there's plenty of other news too. Want to hear the good, the bad or the downright terrible first?"

There was good news, and ... 'terrible' news?

Kenji wasn't sure what he wanted to hear. "I feel like I've been hiding in the dark for a year. Haven't even had a chance to see a basic news report. All I caught is something about a terrorist attack on the premier in Brussels? Let's start with the good. Something to make this shit okay, please?"

"Lebaredian is dead." Shearer stated it bluntly, not dressing the fact up, simple as that. Kenji blinked, momentarily unable to process those words. The premier was ... dead? "Conniving bitch backstabbed Society and handed MFM the senate majority through legal fuckery, then was assassinated a couple of hours later. Before you decide this doesn't qualify as 'good', get this: the senate called for the military succession to happen, because they clearly planned this out beforehand as a part of their strategy. They scheduled the process really quickly, on the 16th, trying to get it all done as fast as possible before anyone had a chance to do anything, but guess who gatecrashed it?"

"Who?"

"Your guy, Andropov. Flew to New York, personally attended the event, and then made it onto stage. Did a big speech and blew the whole thing wide-fucking-open. He trashed MFM's candidate, the CorpSec boss, linked MFM to Yakutsk and the virus, and told everyone about this 'quantum tech.' Did it in front of an audience of a few billion people, and then the military and Defence Commission abandoned MFM's stool pigeon and handed him the job."

WHAT?!

"Did you just say they handed him the job?"

Shearer nodded happily. "I'm not much of a holo-news watcher, but that moment? It was fucking glorious. When they announced the decision, the expression on Quân's face was beautiful. Oskar made it the image-of-the-week."

Kenji just stared at the trees and flanking row of buildings behind them, as they cruised along Dacia Boulevard through Chișinău's Botanica District, toward the Brotherhood's quaternary command. All of the information that Konstantin had given them about Shay Andersen and Lucere had been one thing; fantastic and ridiculous, but it had slotted into place. Yet, Konstantin had been on Earth for, what, two or three weeks and now he manages ... this?

"There've been riots against MFM, and even independent corporations, all over the world. Of course, there's a push-back going on too, but everyone even remotely involved in politics, law or the media is going bananas over it. Andropov made waves, brother, and things won't be the same after this."

They turned into a small office complex off a boulevard side street, and drove into the underground garage. As they exited the vehicle and boarded the elevator for the fourth floor, Shearer kept talking. "That's the good news. Our gamble on him paid off big time. The bad news is that when they hit Florence, they also hit the commands in Prague and Leskovac, just like you figured out on your way here. CorpSec didn't just move in Europe though, they came at us all over the world. Not just us either, but other realist minors too, though as usual, the Brotherhood was targeted for the brunt of it. We got off pretty lightly elsewhere, but all up, 500 personnel killed or captured, and our ability to conduct field ops has nosedived for the short-term."

Exiting the elevator, the two men walked into the security checkpoint, and Shearer transmitted the AI their credentials. The door slid open, and there was anteroom with a second manual lock, where he flicked the override, waving a hand through the scanner. When they walked through that door into the command station itself, Shearer didn't waste a moment to call out to the nearly dozen Brotherhood staff present. "Hey everyone, look who found the warning in Leskovac."

The room immediately burst into a spontaneous round of applause, all of the men and women present standing out of respect. Oskar Heinrich, one of the other team leaders, strode across to him, shaking him warmly by the hand. "Ken, it's good to have you back."

"Heinrich." Kenji shook. "Thank you."

The German ushered him through, past the workstations and a small partition into a more private lounge area, Shearer following. The other Brotherhood staff were returning to what they were doing while the men sat.

"John has filled you in?" Heinrich reached behind his chair to a mini-fridge next to the wall and retrieved three bottles. "Hate to be a stereotype, but you need some Bavarian medicine. A good weissbier." He handed one to Shearer and another to Kenji. "A real drink, not the Dutch junk you ordered in Essen."

Kenji snorted, suppressing a laugh, the three of them popping the bottle-caps together. "It was Eindhoven, not Essen. We were in the Netherlands, you idiot."

"Hey, as if I can remember a little detail like that. I was drunk that night, you know."

Shearer was laughing too. "You were drunk half the trip."

"Ja. It was a fun week ... I think?"

"Damn right." Kenji chuckled, raising his up and so did the other two. "A toast. To better times."

There was the clink of bottles and then they drank.

"So, I've heard the good and the bad. I guess you better hit me with the terrible news."

"You haven't told him?" Heinrich shot Shearer a query and the Englishman shook his head, taking another swig. "Ah, shit." He looked squarely at Kenji, rubbing the stubble on his chin.

"Told me what?"

"Well, it's like this." Heinrich leaned forward, comradely, the bottle held in the air, hands moving as he explained. "You know LEF was busy in Poland and Ukraine right?"

"Right."

"When CorpSec did their crackdown, they hit Poland too."

Wait a second. Poland? That was where ...

Oh god.

Kenji felt the blood drain from his face.

"They arrived during the liaison. The LEF commander was killed along with our escorting agents."

Please don't say it. Please.

Don't let it be true.

His grip tightened around the bottle.

"Ken, you're our acting commander now. Lindani is alive, but he was captured by CorpSec at Wroclaw."

-o-0-O-0-o-

I didn't waste any time in telling Ayize what I had discovered. He concurred, noting that a wealth of data had been collected that would be invaluable to Earth's military strategists. There wasn't much more that could be learned at this point, and the question then became: how were we to deliver the information? Also, that we might have inadvertently put our anonymity in danger by coming to Librae Arctis directly from Berchande in our stolen ship, if the arbiters were expecting their brethren to return with news of a success.

"So, jumping anywhere near Earth is right out." We were all gathered in Liberty's main chamber, ready to leave when it was decided where to go. "What about somewhere else in the solar system?"

"It has to be in communications range," I told the African. "Don't we have a bunch of data to send?"

"We do," he agreed, "though we don't have to send it directly. There were two probes in the shuttle's storage. We can set one in orbit of a planet with the data, and tell it to transmit to Earth. They can come pick it up and we won't even have to be there."

"Where?" Rashid's question was blunt. "Mars?"

Ayize was quick to shoot that down. "No. It's possible there may be a military presence there. Not worth risking."

"Venus or Mercury?"

"I was thinking somewhere a bit further out. Not Jupiter itself, the radiation is a bit much. Maybe one of the moons? Far enough out that it'll be safe, but not too far that it won't take forever for Earth to find it. Shay, can you jump us right there?"

"I think so. I'm getting better at this all the time," I grinned. Okay, so, let's give it a shot with my new skills. Relaxing mentally, I let the new sense I had gained expand, but this time slower and less overwhelming than before. It was as surreal as standing in Aspira City and feeling the life forces of all the inhabitants, only many times more so. The sphere grew big enough that it had to encompass our solar system, and I addressed the ship.

Liberty, show me where this planet is.

It identified the mental image of Earth immediately, and with what amounted to a 'finger point', drew my attention to where it was.

Your command is done, lord.

There was the sun, the speck of Mercury, then Venus, and ... Earth.

I was feeling the distortion of Earth's mass on the interstellar medium.

Oh, wow.

It was a magical experience, almost serene, to be able to do this. I wanted to take longer and get lost in the exquisite complexity of how the universe's laws worked, but we were on a mission.

On to the blip of Mars, then Jupiter, a sizeable blob mirroring the shadow that Librae Arctis IV created right next to us. The 'weight' of many little moons were around it, but I picked one of the larger ones, as far out as I could find.

"Ready?"

A 'yeah' from both men, and an unspoken agreement from Mira.

Liberty, take us here.

Yes lord.

The jump was no less weird the second time around. The African quickly switched the holo-screen to the exterior view. Even at a reasonable distance, the sight of Jupiter, only half visible in sunlight, was considerable and familiar. It appeared several times the size of Earth's moon at the current distance, an oversized beige-and-white coin hanging over the satellite I'd chosen. The orbiting planetoid in question was brown-grey and rocky, strewn with craters and pockmarks.

"Oh, we're at Callisto." Ayize voiced his approval. "Nice choice. Good safe distance from that beast over yonder. This'll do."

Before I could respond, however, Liberty was speaking to me again, the first time it had initiated conversation. At the same time, it was pulling my attention to a dispersing gravitational bubble, one that had come with us from Librae Arctis.

Lord, a Disciple is here, it told me. It has followed us.

em>Give me Liberty or give me Death!
Shay just couldn't resist. He hasn't forgotten his roots, after all this time.
In other news, it seems Konstantin and Kenji both got promotions! Not everything is sunshine and sparkles though.
I'd love to hear from you all, dear readers. What are you thinking of Veil of Shadow so far? Send me a like or a comment or even a PM, if it takes your fancy!
Copyright © 2017 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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Chapter Comments

On one hand, following the story is not easy, because the chapters are published with large time gaps. As an avid reader of stories on this site, it takes a while: Do I know this story? Do I recall, what was happening?
On the other hand, very, very traditionial thought lines are mixed with excitingly weird trains of thought.
That's not a good review, is it? Maybe, it's better to write: I like this story like one of my favorite books/films, I read/watch them again, and find nuances I did not think of before. But I guess that's no review either.
So let me go with: I enjoy reading the story, and I hope there is more to come!

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I don't normally write reviews but this story is so good I am hooked. My only complaint is it takes so long between chapters. Thank you for sharing such a great story line with us.

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Well, it's no surprise that they were followed from that Librae Arctus place. they'd
better destroy them or take evasive action. Speaking of Librae A., That was a huge
trove of information revealed. What luck for Shay! Just don't test me on it later.
( I won't remember half of it). I'm happy that the space bug has a name now. I am
growing attached to it. Thanks for the new chapter, I enjoyed it.

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On 08/10/2015 04:26 AM, ItsMeMySelfAndI said:

On one hand, following the story is not easy, because the chapters are published with large time gaps. As an avid reader of stories on this site, it takes a while: Do I know this story? Do I recall, what was happening?

On the other hand, very, very traditionial thought lines are mixed with excitingly weird trains of thought.

That's not a good review, is it? Maybe, it's better to write: I like this story like one of my favorite books/films, I read/watch them again, and find nuances I did not think of before. But I guess that's no review either.

So let me go with: I enjoy reading the story, and I hope there is more to come!

Let me say that it is also a frustrating thing for me to have chapters taking this long to produce. Veil of Shadow has been particularly horrible in its second half, taking months to create the fiction that should have been produced in one quarter the time.

 

Your review is quite enough of a review! I aim for both traditional and innovative. I am glad you find new things on rereads, and that you reread it, period. There is definitely more to come, and hopefully soon.

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On 08/10/2015 06:31 AM, showzen said:

I don't normally write reviews but this story is so good I am hooked. My only complaint is it takes so long between chapters. Thank you for sharing such a great story line with us.

Thank you for reviewing me :) I know the wait can be a big one, and it's something I've been working on. I'm trying to cut it down for incoming chapters!

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Finally I have the opportunity to write a review!
First I have to say this was an amazing chapter! I really enjoyed it. There was a lot of information, some of which I probably will have to go back for to reread, but well, I was waiting for this so I liked it! :3

 

I really loved the naming of their ship. Great choice. :3

 

Also, this gets ***** + ** stars, the extra two being for the German beer. Finally something of my country in this story... :)

 

The information on how politics work were interesting and I can't wait to see what will happen to Konstantin... things play together nicely, first Konstantin gets this promotion and then Shay and Mira bring back all the necessary information - if only there wasn't that alien ship that followed them. I'm positive Liberty can kick it's ass though. :D

 

Will Yugan appear in the next chapter or is that one also focused on Shay and Konstantin? :3

 

Love Sammy <3

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On 08/10/2015 10:26 AM, Stephen said:

Well, it's no surprise that they were followed from that Librae Arctus place. they'd

better destroy them or take evasive action. Speaking of Librae A., That was a huge

trove of information revealed. What luck for Shay! Just don't test me on it later.

( I won't remember half of it). I'm happy that the space bug has a name now. I am

growing attached to it. Thanks for the new chapter, I enjoyed it.

That's Librae *Arctis. Sorry, I hate seeing my own creations spelled wrong :pinch: It's a major lynchpin in events and has now been discovered.

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On 08/15/2015 10:21 PM, Sammy Blue said:

Finally I have the opportunity to write a review!

First I have to say this was an amazing chapter! I really enjoyed it. There was a lot of information, some of which I probably will have to go back for to reread, but well, I was waiting for this so I liked it! :3

 

I really loved the naming of their ship. Great choice. :3

 

Also, this gets ***** + ** stars, the extra two being for the German beer. Finally something of my country in this story... :)

 

The information on how politics work were interesting and I can't wait to see what will happen to Konstantin... things play together nicely, first Konstantin gets this promotion and then Shay and Mira bring back all the necessary information - if only there wasn't that alien ship that followed them. I'm positive Liberty can kick it's ass though. :D

 

Will Yugan appear in the next chapter or is that one also focused on Shay and Konstantin? :3

 

Love Sammy <3

'Finally'?? I'll have you know, Germany is quite well represented. Klaus in Hidden Sunlight. A scene in Stuttgart a chapter or three ago, and now the character of Heinrich.

 

Yugan will reappear again soon. Everyone will have time in ths final quarter or so of the story. There are multiple threads that need tying together.

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There is no peace in sight. Why had Liberty been recognised and followed? What made them recognizable?

Where does CorpSeq have the power from? How do they stand beside the official military? What controls them? With the new supreme commander they should get their tails cut. I don't quite get it, who is in charge of the earth military power right now.

I think it is about time for Shay to appear on earth and shed some aqumi to get things straight.

Are Liberty and Shay new friends now? - interesting thought.

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Oops, missed this one too. Sorry!

On 3/23/2023 at 5:28 AM, BarkingFrog said:

There is no peace in sight. Why had Liberty been recognised and followed? What made them recognizable?

Who's to say what tipped the arbiters off? Maybe they just thought something wasn't right. A hunch perhaps.

On 3/23/2023 at 5:28 AM, BarkingFrog said:

Where does CorpSeq have the power from? How do they stand beside the official military? What controls them? With the new supreme commander they should get their tails cut. I don't quite get it, who is in charge of the earth military power right now.

This is answered in more detail in my chapter 17 comment.

On 3/23/2023 at 5:28 AM, BarkingFrog said:

I think it is about time for Shay to appear on earth and shed some aqumi to get things straight.

Well, returning to Earth might not be the top priority for Shay, as you will later see.

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On 3/25/2023 at 4:31 AM, Stellar said:

Oops, missed this one too. Sorry!

Who's to say what tipped the arbiters off? Maybe they just thought something wasn't right. A hunch perhaps.

This is answered in more detail in my chapter 17 comment.

Well, returning to Earth might not be the top priority for Shay, as you will later see.

I bet you hate it when that happens! :D

So, here I am at chapter 13 and now I know that @BarkingFrog's question is answered in 4 more chapters!!! Oy Veh!

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