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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.
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Veil of Shadow - 14. Ira Dei

"We're not alone here."

Both men turned to look at me and Mira tensed where he was sitting just from the sound of my voice.

"Hold on, what do you mean 'not alone'?" Ayize was no longer watching the holo-view, his retort snappy and his attention fully on me. "Did one of these things follow us?"

"Yes." The weight of the gravitational bubble was fading on the medium, some distance away from Callisto's orbit, and I spoke again to the ship as that bubble vanished entirely, going dark. Liberty, what is it doing? Is it moving to attack?

No lord. It remains still. The ship's keen sense of detection was keeping itself watchfully fixed on the intruder, currently a better tool available than the embedded human technology and my own aqumi. The shadow is silent. There is no hunger for battle.

If it begins to approach us or come into range for weapons, tell me immediately and evade any attack.

Yes lord.

"Not seeing anything. Scan is empty." Rashid was flicking through various options on the holo-screen. "It's cloaked?"

"Must be. I'm not going to reach out and try to find it, just in case they don't know why they're following us," I took a deep breath, still wary of the dangers of showing aqumi off prematurely, "but it is there. Just sitting still right now, not doing anything."

Not yet.

"Shay, that isn't much better." Ayize wiped his face with a hand, and stood, beginning to pace. Terse and more than a little stressed, he clearly wasn't pleased about this development. "Even if it's not about to jump out and ambush us, we are still being watched. This very second," he gestured through the wall to the encompassing space, away from Callisto, "one of those things is observing us. You can't tell me this is safe."

"But not attacking," I countered. "Look, they have to be uncertain about what we are. If they knew for sure that I was here, hiding on one of their own, they'd have sent everything to kill me. Why wouldn't they? They could have come in with all guns blasting and a hundred battleships, but they didn't. We were noticed somehow and they might be suspicious something's up, but all that followed us was one scout. That's it."

"So now what?" Rashid spoke to his boss, then to me. "Unless you can teleport assassin-boy over to take care of the problem, what are we meant to do?"

Mira cocked his head, as if he were considering the idea's merits, sending me a placid look that seemed to agree with the premise; 'if you can actually make that happen, I'll carve them into pieces.' Of course you would. If I could spirit you over there to 'take care of it', the arbiters wouldn't know what the fuck was happening.

"We load up the data and jettison the probe as soon as it's safe, that's what we do. Act like we don't have an audience. Just like you said, if it was going to attack, we'd already be in trouble." The African was looking my way again, the last statement directed at me. "Anything else we can expect from this guy?"

"I'd say no, at this stage. I think it's a scout and it's not going to be that bold. I'll know if it tries anything."

"Well, it better not." Ayize glanced at Rashid, who was already busy manhandling the probe into the main chamber, and dumping it onto the central console. "We've got things to do here, and dodging a space assault isn't on the list. On top of this: Shay, you need to figure out where we're going next."

I needed to decide that. We had to have a destination, somewhere else, after this, and it couldn't be Earth.

So, where next?

-o-0-O-0-o-

We stayed at Callisto for a number of hours. The probe was released into space, though Ayize did not let it begin transmitting to Earth. He had the impression that the xenomorphs potentially would not notice the separation of such a small object from our craft. If the probe was set to begin transmission after we departed, presuming the intruding ship again trailed us directly to our next stop, then we could likely tell Earth what we had found with our enemy none the wiser.

However, other things were on my mind.

The library of Liberty's navigational memory was immense; at my first introduction to it, I had thought there were thousands of records, but on further investigation that number was closer to tens or hundreds of thousands of individual entries. Perhaps there were even millions of stars, planets and other specific phenomena categorised and given label. I was also becoming more acquainted with the coordinate system the ship used, and while I still did not know what any of the symbolic tags equated to, with guesswork I could sometimes figure it out. Whether the reference was for distance, or a vector for direction, it was becoming easier to approximate where I needed to 'feel' for the mass shadow of a target planet or star, without having to resort to asking the ship itself.

As I interacted more, I began to notice a change in it, too. It was very subtle, but there was a sense of what felt like gratitude, though imposing human emotions on something that had a very different perception wasn't perhaps the right way to think about it. Nonetheless, it seemed thankful, and although this didn't appear to be tied to anything in particular, there were still notes of assertion mixed in with the flashes of an identity that I had seen. Like a downtrodden pet, it was so long used to total obedience, being nothing more than a tool of the arbiters, but now? It was recognising that it had some worth, that it had a voice, and that it was given permission for independent thought.

I could not stop thinking of these organic vessels and their role in events, even as I kept mentally flicking through the never-ending list of places. Just how independent could they become? Could I 'liberate' other ships like this one, in the same way, under the right circumstances? What about the larger vessels; would they be willing or were they more resistant? Was this something that could be exploited to hurt the arbiters? My instincts were telling me it wouldn't be so easy to turn their slaves against them. Those slaves were oppressed from the beginning, made by design to not understand any system other than the one where they were at the bottom.

Someday, I would change that.

In the meanwhile, I continued my trawl through Liberty's records, star after star after star. Though I found astronomy really interesting when I was younger, my knowledge was still limited on the details of it. Ayize, on the other hand, was clued in, also professing a childhood fascination with the sky. He noted that if he hadn't been so involved in the 'realist activism lifestyle' he might have made a career out of it. Curious, I asked him a question or two while I was going through the ship's catalogue. What I learned from him was evidential in what I was seeing from Liberty and feeling myself.

According to Ayize, our galaxy was reaching the age where it was almost 'red sequence', a period when star formation would largely stop as the gas required was depleted. The rate of stellar creation was slowing down, though the Milky Way was still active and among the brightest and 'reddest' spiral galaxies. Consequently, there were lots of older and comparatively cooler red, orange and yellow stars, with red dwarves making up a big proportion of what had been explored. There were still plenty like Librae Arctis and Earth's sun that were main-sequence and relatively common, but the further towards the hotter blue end of the spectrum we went, the rarer those stars became.

So where does that leave us? My hand slid through Mira's hair, while I sat staring absently into air, pondering the situation. His head was in my lap, the rest of him across a line of unused neighbouring chairs. His posture and the way he was lying looked so very uncomfortable, but in typical form, he was not at all bothered by the inconvenience. Relaxed and unconcerned, he had treated the chairs and my lap like they were the finest feather mattress and pillow, happily stretching out and then nearly immediately falling asleep, a skill Mira had mastered with ease.

I wish I could do that. Sleep absolutely anywhere. Smiling, I smoothed back a few wayward strands from his forehead. His hair was wavy and fine, and the feel of it on my skin, slipping through my fingers, was very pleasant and addictively sensual. At Earth, despite showing a quite rational mistrust of the man who wanted to get up close and personal with implements that seemed to be designed solely for torture, Mira had allowed the military barber to cut it. I had let him take off the wild edges and give a little style, but not much more than that. It would have been most practical really short, but I had an ulterior motive and it was the fact that he was completely gorgeous with it at medium length. A soft dark golden blonde, silky and lush, it seemed to flow and pool like liquid on the fabric of my lap.

He is really attractive. My heartbeat picked up and so did my breathing, gaze shifting across his face, fingertips combing through. It was a recurring theme, something that would still have been there if I had fallen for a girl instead, and that was the sense that I owed some cosmic debt to the fates for pairing me with a person that felt so 'above my grade' when it came to appearance. It seemed like the longer we were together, the more intimidating and pronounced that attractiveness became. Synnøve left him with the right genes. I wish I could thank her for giving me a boyfriend that, I think, looks like a model.

Then, I realised what I had admitted.

Boyfriend.

Never actually said that word to myself before. Always sort of assumed it would be 'girlfriend' for me, one day. It's so weird to think that I ... have a boyfriend. I was watching him more intently now, studying the shape of his face; nose, cheekbones, jaw, eyelids and 'lashes, and lips. Soft, warm, kissable lips; magnetic and intoxicating. Touching them was like poetry and I knew I was beginning to lose my focus and logical control as the desire to ignore everything else and just kiss him was inserting itself into my head yet again. No, I'm getting distracted and emotionally mushy. The urge to fawn over him could not have been stronger, but I reined it in, rhetorically addressing Mira as I watched him sleep. Okay, boyfriend, what am I missing? What would you tell me to look for?

Truthfully, where we had to go next came back to the voice.

Where are we going to find the owner of that voice? Think, Shay. Whatever species my mysterious alien friend was, if they were anything at all like us, they would need rocky worlds to live on, with a temperature that wasn't too hot or cold, a breathable atmosphere and a mass somewhere in Earth's zone so surface gravity wasn't about to crush anything that moved. My pondering was based on a bunch of assumptions, nothing that I knew for sure, and while I could have been totally wrong about all of it, I didn't have a lot else to go on. Okay, so the big majority of red dwarves and giants probably won't be suitable as host stars. So I need to narrow my search to those around the size of our sun. Any colour type is probably okay, blue through orange, so long as it also has a candidate world of the type needed to support life.

Sending my requirement to Liberty, I told it to filter and separate its records. In moments, there was a list of potential worlds forming in a sort of mental queue. That list began to expand very rapidly as the ship scanned through its memory with an efficiency that reminded me of an actual AI doing the same thing. Without wasting any more time, I plunged right into that list and began to review everything.

The first dozen, nothing stood out. Second, third, fourth, fifth; not any different. I wasn't even totally sure what I was looking for, just some hint that one of the endless procession was at least a place to try on the off-chance that it was right. Dozens and dozens more, without even so much as a gut instinct to draw my attention. I began to wonder if we would be sitting out here indefinitely, unsure where to go and unable to return home. It was only after maybe eight or nine hundred entries that something out of the norm occurred.

I was skimming over a stellar file, ready to skip to the next in the list as nothing seemed remarkable, then all at once, it hit me. There was a powerful feeling of déjà vu, that I somehow knew this random star, regardless that I had not been to nor laid eyes upon it before that moment. It was a part of my own feelings, but this particular emotion also felt provoked by the image, like I was recalling a long lost journey. It was not the star itself precisely, nor the scorched Mercury-imitation first planet, but the second planet, the only other one in the solar system. It was further out, slightly smaller than Earth, possibly with a breathable atmosphere and warm-to-hot surface temperature. The longer my attention lingered on that image, the stronger the feeling of familiarity became.

I had been intending for a more concrete hint than simply a glorified hunch, but there was something about this that was difficult to ignore. Not simply that it was the first and only lead I'd come across, but also that it was very specific.

An alien world from an alien memory.

This had to be it.

"Ayize." Mira's eyes opened the instant I spoke, a calm innocence and curious intuition combined within; 'you know where we are going, and I want to see.' I grinned at him in agreement. I sure do, and you won't have to wait long. Then, up to the African: "I know where our destination is."

-o-0-O-0-o-

The judge was impressed.

There was a cunning here, a ruthless perfidy. This guile had taken over their own artifice; the armoured shell containing the engineered neural web, linking the material and immaterial, was captured. This ever-reliant Disciple had been corrupted and blinded to the real, ripped from the security of its former life. If the act were not so hateful, so insidious, it could have been admirable in its audacity.

When it came to success, control was what truly mattered, and there was no higher authority than the Master.

Yet, there could be no acceptance.

Any admission that could lead to toleration was inherently self-destructive and wrong. There was not, and could never be, any compromise.

The Music was the truth, it was life and soul and purpose; the Light was perfection, it was purity and joy and eternity.

This was the essence of it.

Then, through the contemplation, as it awaited a change in the solitary watch upon the rogue Disciple, the arbiter got what it desired. The target left, jumping once more to another world. In the medium of space-time, the destination was revealed and witnessed.

Now was the moment to act.

Stepping back through the pathways of infinity, the arbiter came to the place of focus, where the host of many brethren awaited. From within the throng, it called forth a small force, the aid required for the long awaited coup de grâce.

Come, brothers. It spoke to those summoned, the whispers of kindred voices passing from mind to mind, ship to ship, as the knowledge was established. The scent is found. The hunt is renewed.

One spoke back, expecting a superior force, a display of power. We move with this alone?

Yes. It is enough. The end would not be difficult to achieve, and the instigating arbiter knew so. The prey is unclean, and ignorant of the Master's will. They are few and they are weak. It would take only these brothers to end the hunt. We are strong.

Another responded. Then show us the way, and it will be done.

Unity, consensus and clarity had been gained. The first arbiter revealed the destination, sharing where to go with its brothers. In harmony, they jumped together from the place known as Librae Arctis, to the new world.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The first few moments after arriving were nerve-wracking. I was feeling, with my gravity-detection sense, for the other Disciple to leave Callisto and trail us. Just waiting for the bubble of interstellar travel to pop from near Jupiter to where we now were. Liberty was in motion and we were already cruising in to the new planet when I felt it happen.

Except, the enemy ship did not follow.

It went back where it had come from.

"It didn't follow. It returned to Librae Arctis."

"No shit?" Ayize was surprised, as I was. "That's good, I suppose. Maybe we're off the hook." He switched his attention back to the rapidly broadening curve of the planetary horizon on the holo-screen. "Not that I'm complaining, but I was really hoping to not see another desert so soon."

I didn't have a chance to reply before Mira was tugging at my sleeve. His other arm extended, pointing through the floor, and I was momentarily confused over what this was about, but then I felt it. In that direction, far below, on the fast-approaching surface of the planet, there was a brilliant glowing beacon, as plain as day.

Aqumi.

"There's a node here. A quantum node." Wow, I was completely right. I shot a quick command to Liberty, telling it to adjust course to the node's location.

"Even better." Ayize's usual wide smile had reappeared. "Now we're on the right track. Your instincts are good."

My instincts? I'm not so sure they're mine at all.

He gestured to the holo-screen, now addressing Mira and Rashid as our bow view swung onto the new heading, the ship doing as told. Already we were closing on the surface, now only a few thousand metres above and probably not more than seconds from landing. "This place looks bearable. Another dustball, though not really like Berchande. It's got a surprisingly dense amount of oxygen and no visible plant life, which means it probably has some big underground lakes and oceans. Hotter than Berchande too, between 40 and 50 Celsius during daytime. No dangerous cosmic radiation. Only thing to worry about is being burned by the sunlight. It's fairly strong, so we need to cover up when we leave the ship."

There was a bump from beneath us before the ship went still, and I realised that we had landed. That was ... really fast. Rashid was shaking his head in amazement, even as Ayize was scooping up the environmental gear from the floor and handing it out. "Still can't get over how quick this thing is. Orbit to ground in, what, maybe three minutes?"

"Truth, brother. Moves through the air like a fish through water." The African finished donning his rebreather, as we all were doing, environmental coverings included, and Liberty's boarding ramp was lowering onto ground below. The atmosphere of the new world blew in, a warm dry breeze. "Remember: we can probably breathe the air, but it's actually richer than Earth's and has a higher concentration of trace elements, so I don't want to test it. Don't go native without a good reason, got it?"

Not leaving a moment more to safety instructions and caution, Mira was down the ramp as soon as Ayize finished speaking. I wasn't going to be left back, so I took off after him, the two adults close behind. We emerged from beneath Liberty's shadow to a first-hand view of the world I had directed us to.

Where Berchande was towering mesas and hills of spikes separated by kilometres of baked-solid desert crust, the surface of this world was a sea of rock in a storm. A chaotic ocean, the land was a mess of colliding lines, peaks and troughs, that crossed one another and ran back and forth in a labyrinth of dead-ends and twisting streetways. In front of us, to the left and right, behind, there were little paths that widened and narrowed, went up and down, threading between the taller formations and their spurs, descending into valleys and culverts. Then forging through it all, a handful of larger avenues through the rock like actual roads; straighter, wider and deeper. Everything surrounding was rough land, churned and chopped up, and where there wasn't rock there was sand. Though here, the sand was a proper powder and came in all shades of the different sediments that produced it; whites, beiges and browns, oranges and reds. Then above it all, the sun; a hot bright blue star in a sky that was brimming with hazy concentrated blue. The colour was so supersaturated that it seemed like it was an over-zealous imitation of Earth, a child's imagination or a fake.

Yet, it was entirely real.

"Well," Rashid interrupted our moment of shared experience, "never seen anything like that before."

Then, once again, the illusion was shattered.

I froze, a rising feeling of horror growing within. A cluster of bubbles appeared in space where we had been just a couple of minutes ago, a small group of Disciples jumping in from Librae Arctis.

Oh god. They're here.

Mira caught the change immediately, and he whirled to stare at me, standing from where he had been crouched, a handful of ruddy dust sifting through gloved fingers, sheathed katana in the other hand. He didn't know what it was, he just knew it was something because he knew me and my body language. The other two followed his attention to me with an uncertain curiosity. "Uh, they just arrived. In orbit," I managed. "Half a dozen of them."

"What?!"

"Seven, actually." Even as I spoke, arbiters were entering the planetary atmosphere, borne inside the group of Disciples, and I could feel their presence, not secretive nor subtle, but unmasked. Dreadful, proud and angry, they were here to kill and they didn't care that we knew. Mira straightened, tensing as he stared at me, the muscles along his jaw and neck visibly tightening. He was feeling exactly what I was feeling.

They're hunting us.

"Only got your sidearm?" The African spat his question at Rashid, lightning fast. "Might need more."

"Yes boss. Want the LG or the Malinski?"

"The LG. This shit's armoured." Ayize waved in the ship's direction. "Go." Then to me, a comradely whack on my arm to draw attention. "Shay. We need to focus. They're coming for the node?"

"They have to be."

Mentally, I had divided the surrounding area into four quadrants, based on Liberty's resting location at the centre of several intersecting gully paths. We had landed at the junction of five natural roads, cut through the rock by the elements. As wide as an eight-lane freeway, the northern path was the largest, with narrower versions snaking away from the meeting point to the east, west, southeast and southwest.

The northeast quadrant was mostly a single broad roughly-triangular raised plateau of rock, that extended some distance away. That plateau made up the eastern side of the canyonesque northern path, rising at least thirty metres above us, the gully curving into an increasingly-steep slope that was littered with sun-baked sandstone boulders and protruding slabs of dusty shale. The opposing western side of the gully was a series of uneven individual rocky outcroppings beginning from the intersection and continuing along the rough northerly line of the gully, like a row of towers forming a retaining wall. The northwest quadrant was mostly impassable high ground, too chopped up to travel on, and contained behind the wind-carved barrier of the tower-wall.

The other four gully paths were less conspicuous. Smaller and shallower, there wasn't a lot to notice about them, nor the land surrounding. In the two southern quadrants, it was flatter and more even on average, the land not as impassably vertical. I pointed to the node's location, buried inside the northeastern plateau, beneath the surface. "It's in there, under the rock. They'll be coming right here to find us, because they know that's the place we're after."

"Then we need to fight them." Blunt, but true.

Liberty, I need you to be undetectable. It was very important that the ship not be discovered, as it was our only means of escape. Can you hide from the shadow?

Yes lord. It did not hesitate to assure me. Asleep in the dark, the shadow will not know. When the fire commands, awakened again. Then, like a candle blown out, the ship's mind faded away, the outline of it next to us shimmering into invisibility. Just like that, it's in hibernation. Quiet as a mouse. Perfect.

"Boss, LG." Rashid was back, handing Ayize a large black and red gun that looked like some kind of heavy assault weapon. I knew the men had more than just Ayize's TMP and Rashid's rifle as weapons, but I was unaware about exactly what else was available. The barrel of the LG was long and bulky, the entire thing sort of rectangular and boxy-looking, and it was heavy. The African hefted it onto his shoulder, while Rashid kept talking, very quickly, the remaining time before the xenomorphs arrived running out fast. "They'll be here soon. Strategy?"

Real soon. This better be quick.

"Take cover, closed-loop only. Wait. See them approach." He gestured to the scenery in the northern gully; the sides were sprinkled with rocks of many shapes and sizes. Lots of places to hide, even from the air. "This'll be our ambush. Any targets of opportunity, we take 'em down. Mop up survivors and pray we don't overstep our luck." Ayize pointed to Rashid, then indicated the western wall, in the shadowed recess between the second and third rock towers: "You, in that space. Good field of view, easy cover." Then to me, pointing to a group of boulders on the upper eastern slope, roughly opposite where Rashid would be. "You and me, over there." Finally, to address Mira, though Ayize was met with a Mira-shaped hole in the air instead, my miracle having slipped away completely unnoticed. "Where'd he go?"

"Uh, up there." Mira was on the western wall's first tower, halfway to the top. He must have covered the distance at considerable speed, given that he had been next to us only a couple of dozen seconds earlier.

How does he always do that without anyone noticing him?

The word 'ninja' had never felt more appropriate.

"What is he-" Ayize gaped, but then quickly recovered, shrugging his free left arm in surrender, the right still balancing the LG on his shoulder. "Ah, whatever! He knows what he's doing. Doesn't need my direction." Then, sharp and punctual, to us. "Let's move!"

We took off running. The desert floor's sand was solidly packed and easy to run on, though I was already sweating from the extra layers of solar protection. A glance behind to the western wall while I was moving revealed Mira was no longer visible. He's finished the climb already?! It had never been more clear to me just how quickly he could move when he really wanted to. I wasn't worried for his safety; I trusted him more than anyone, but I didn't like not knowing where this was leading. What is he up to?

"Incoming, any second." Rashid's voice through our shared comms, in my ear, drew my attention back. We were on the upper slope, just having slipped into the lee of our rocky cover. Ayize touched my arm and jerked a thumb skyward, above our hiding spot. We waited, dead still, for a dozen seconds. There was nothing, but then like a dart, a Disciple skipped past above, super quick, a bullet through the blue and then gone before I knew it.

"First pass. Scout." Ayize whispered to me. "Second pass will be more thorough. Good chance to hit them."

"Boss, sensor feed is still good here. I got a read on all of them. They're dispersing into individual patrols, going a few klicks in every direction, except a leading pair. They're doing the central sweep, along our north-south axis."

"Roger, brother. Eyes on the approach." He was staring down the crack between two boulders, along the two southern paths, both of which meandered out of our direct view. The LG was propped against the rock next to us, too heavy for Ayize to constantly hold. "Annnnnnd .... there!"

Sure enough, there they were. In the distance, two Disciples had just come into view, one following the other. They were floating along at what seemed like a quick walking speed. A lot lower than the high-flying scout that sped past on the first run, they were at the approximate altitude of the northern gully's sides. The ships were approaching along the southeastern path, that led on into ours, and were searching very carefully, combing the ground as they came.

They're hunting us.

Ayize was right. We had to attack them here, or they would strike us instead.

We had to do something.

"Okay, this is the best I can come up with. We're low on options and this is probably going to go wrong, but we can't be passive. We gotta hit first, but this whole thing relies on one factor." He looked hard at me, totally serious. "Shay, can you do something to their ships? Crash or disable them, anything to take them out of the equation?

"Uh, yeah, actually." I nodded, thinking hard. There is something I can do. "I can deal with one of them, but they'll need to be close so I can do it fast and take them by surprise, before they can fight back. It'll probably only be a one-time trick though, because once they know I can do it, they won't fall for it again."

"To take them by surprise is the exact idea," Ayize muttered into the comms, both of us still staring at the approaching ships, now just short of the intersection to our south. "Shay, you got the front one. Brother, you shoot whatever comes out when it hits the deck."

"What about you?"

"Back one is mine." His grin had returned, wide as ever. Ayize picked the LG up. Tapping a button, the side cartridges popped up, energy cells ready for loading, and Ayize folded them up and into the breech. Automatically, the cartridges clicked in and the chamber sealed shut, the targeting holo-reticle popping into view while the nose-guard retracted to reveal a cluster of barrels. He lifted it to his shoulder, eye now on the sights. "Primed and fully loaded. Let us know when."

The Disciples were about a hundred metres away, strikingly dark shapes against the storybook brightness of the sky. Onwards they came, attention pinned to the planet's topography. I held my breath, heart pounding, when they crossed over where Liberty sat beneath, hibernating at the intersection's centre.

No change.

They continued, foreign shapes gliding along the canyon line. Closer and closer, only a few dozen metres from us and shrinking. "Shay, they're very near." Ayize was crouched, the LG's barrel pointed through a wedge in the rock as he tracked the approaching ships. "Not more than ten seconds. Gotta be soon."

It has to be very soon.

Sooner than very soon.

"Uh, what if I just said ... go now!"

Near enough to use for my intentions, ropes of aqumi shot out of my hand to the lead ship a few dozen metres above. The tendrils jabbed precisely through the ship's hull and coiled around its mind. In a heartbeat I constricted the noose, killing it. Instantly, it began to drop, the guiding consciousness eliminated.

At the same time, there was a thumping metallic drumbeat and a rush of air once, twice, three times. A salvo of guided shells blasted from the LG's barrels, twisting and swerving around one another in a hail of glowing red. The cluster veered drunkenly in all manner of unpredictable directions, before the guidance kicked in and en masse, all the ordinance turned to punch into the ship's hull in a medley of explosions. The second and third salvos hit at intervals of less than two seconds each, scattering the damage on different sections of hull. Listing to the port side, wounded and unable to stay aloft, the second Disciple staggered off course. It veered left, diving past the first tower in the wall, out of our sight off the side of the intersection into the western path's desert floor.

Yes! We just brought down two ships!

The lead Disciple thumped into the sand between our position and Rashid's. It plowed a short furrow, but the craft had little forward momentum and quickly stopped. Along its back, two access hatches opened, the organic metal wings hatching in a reflex action caused by death. From within it climbed an arbiter. Black fire wreathed the creature, a Gothic statue that looked so strange against the bright light and rich colour of the desert world. It was in plain sight and it looked dazed as it emerged, probably from the sudden crash and impact.

Dammit. Do I need to-

I didn't need to do anything. Right as we looked on, a blistering shot went through the arbiter's jaw. Then another in its cheek, and another into the actual skull, and then more, blazing bolts of heated-shot sniper fire shredding through the head in a pincushion of black and blazing orange. It fell off the ship's side, toppling down onto the sand in a heap of collapsing bone and dust.

"Excellent aim, brother! Nicely done." Ayize stepped into the clear, loading fresh energy cells into the LG's chamber as he walked down the slope towards the crashed Disciple.

"Malinski has a kick to it," Rashid told us, the satisfaction evident, "but I like her style."

"Ayize, come on!" I took off past him, turning only enough to call out as I moved. "If there was an arbiter on board the other one, we need to kill it before any other ships get here! Come on!"

"Rashid, with us!" Ayize's voice was a summons from behind me as he began to run too. "You heard him, let's catch the fucker!"

-o-0-O-0-o-

Settled inconspicuously next to a rock formation at the top of the first rock-tower, Mira's view was the ideal point for maximum tactical decision-making. From where he sat in a ready crouch, blade across his lap, he had an unobstructed view of everything nearby. This tower of rock was the intersection's corner stone and a high point for some distance. Waiting, he had observed other Disciples in the distance, conducting reconnaissance further out, but then the pair approached from the south, their heading much too close to ignore, and he knew what was necessary. The trap was set by the others, and Mira watched, and waited still, for it to spring.

When the lead Disciple was nearly over their position, it happened.

The front ship was eliminated cleanly and efficiently by Shay. The second was crippled by a volley of explosives from the African soldier, using another gun that was new to Mira. Heavily damaged, it went off course as the propulsion failed, and he stood. Shadowing the downed ship along the tower's edge, he observed it slide along the western gully's base, sending a small bowshock of sand forward as it plowed on. Mira reached the limit of his perch, eyes fixed on what was taking place just below on the desert floor. Escape hatches on the top side of the ship's hull were opening as the Disciple finally ground to a halt. Before it stopped moving entirely, an arbiter was climbing nimbly out, then leaping to the desert floor. This time, absent the watchful eyes of the human ambushers, it had exited the ship unimpeded. Cloaking, it shifted to the gully's wall, then began to approach the intersection, intending to turn the tables on the attacker.

Hunting for prey.

Mira waited moments longer for it to cross the exact point that would allow gravity and momentum to achieve what he desired. It was nearly directly below him when he jumped straight off the edge. A couple seconds later, he landed feet-first right in front of the surprised creature. Before it could react, he cuffed it across the face with the sword's hilt, then with an easy pivot and thrust, the katana went through the arbiter's chest. Mira sliced the blade upwards, the aqumi-flooded tempered steel ripping through the upper torso, neck and skull. A cloud of bony fragments and armoured shards flew out from the destructive slash in all directions, a strangled gurgling cry coming from within as it died, the black flame extinguishing.

Not the hunter, but the hunted.

"Mira!"

The other three were standing at the corner of the intersection, having just come into sight from the northern path.

Yet, he could feel something else.

The other ships.

Five more were out there, and they were now incoming. The element of surprise was gone. They were on their way, alerted by the signs of combat, and Mira's tactical options to deal with all of this were few.

In fact, there was only one thing that was acceptable right now.

Mira knew what he had to do.

He gave a single look to Shay, telling him everything that needed to be said.

Then, a moment, to ready himself.

No fear.

They were going to win this.

Drawing on as much of the hidden sunlight as he could muster, he leaped into action. Sprinting to the intersection, the rock and sand easy under his feet, the air rushing about him, stifling heat ignored, Mira took off, a blazing comet of celestial light drawing in the darkness to follow.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"What is he doing?"

"It's a diversion." I whispered, my hands clenched, voice shaking from the intense stress. I did not like what he was doing, but I knew exactly his intention the moment he shot away practically like a blur. "He's attracting attention to himself on purpose."

"Why?" Rashid was breathing hard, from the running and the heat. "We took down two but we can't use that play again. They'll know."

"Don't have enough ammo for five at once." Ayize agreed.

That wasn't what I was feeling from Mira though. The way he had looked at me, he wasn't doing this for Ayize or Rashid to try anything. He was doing it for me, because ... he was telling me to do something.

To do something.

But what could I do? What was I meant to do? My surroundings had nothing to help me, nor a way to stop any of the ships. Two Disciples were already cruising in to Mira's position and there would be others visible in the sky all too soon, drawn by the aqumi on display. How can I help him from here? All I have to work with is a bunch of rocks, sand, a really blue sky and ... the sun.

The sun.

Even at our median distance, the star was hot and blue and the intensity of the light meant most organic creatures would be fatally burned in just a couple of minutes. The arbiters, however, were made of stronger stuff and clearly immune to the surface level of exposure. But ... what about more than just 'surface level exposure'? Then I began to really think, and right then, I was seized by an idea.

An idea that was completely and utterly insane.

Very simple at its core, but risky and stupendously magnificent, if it would even work.

Yet, we were out of alternatives, and a crazy method to foil a threat to our existence was better than nothing at all.

I know what I have to do. That's if I can do this.

It had sprung from a childhood memory. My home in Seattle. The neighbour's kid, little Timmy Roberts, sitting on the pavement outside their house, using a magnifying glass to burn ants.

Only problem was, my insects were a lot larger.

Don't doubt yourself, Shay. You can make this happen. You have to, but you'll need a much better view.

"Ayize." He looked to me, and I spoke, clear and focused. "I have a plan, but I need you to trust me and just do it. We need to go up." I pointed to the top of the first tower, the same one Mira had scaled, next to us. It had plenty of ridges and handholds and was far from sheer. It wasn't going to be hard getting there. We just had to be quick. "Like, to the top, fast as we can."

Nodding, he did not question, and pulled me to the rock, motioning Rashid to do the same. As we began our ascent, I shot Mira a simple message, telling him all I needed for this to happen.

-o-0-O-0-o-

An open area, where you can bring all of them together.

There were four ships following now, though the fifth was not far. He sped along and across the winding tongues of rock that met through flaking caked ridges of sandstone, south of the intersection. Thrumming bio-steel spines crunched into the rock at his heels, the trailing ships finding such a small evasive target difficult to track. They were unafraid to fire, the ground in his wake carpeted with their fabricated adamantine projectiles, but Mira kept up a pace and an unpredictability that was not matched. All the while he ran, sprinting along straits, jumping from rock to rock and across gaps, around obstacles, easy vaults, leaps and rolls; never keeping a direct line, always changing course.

All the while, an eye was on the landscape, scanning and searching. Then, a break in the panorama, and somewhere ideal presented itself. In the broken rock further southwest of the intersection, there it was. A large tabletop-shelf formation, formed from a single slab of rock a couple of hundred metres wide, the surface flat and covered in loose sand.

This would do.

A flicker of attention behind revealed all five were now in pursuit.

Better.

He altered course, jumping down from a jutting stone abutment to an unbroken stretch of sand floor, and made a direct course for the tabletop formation.

Now, it was time to set another trap.

-o-0-O-0-o-

It took us only a couple minutes to climb. Ayize was first to the top, and he gave a hand, pulling me up. I stood and turned, looking out to where I knew Mira to be, and saw them. All of the Disciples were in pursuit, and though it was at some distance, I could feel how close their shots were landing. He couldn't keep evading forever, though he definitely wasn't stopping either.

But, they were all grouped up as they angled to fire on him, each trying to find the sweet spot to hit Mira while they dogged him, and they were all visible, hovering low over the surface in attack.

Just a couple hundred metres off, no less than five in plain view.

This is where I have to do it. I stared at the sky. Okay, Shay, just relax. Take a deep breath, concentrate. You know you can, you just need to make it happen. Remember how it felt, and then ... do it.

Remember what it's like to be connected to him.

Do it for him. Do it for yourself. Do it for us.

You do remember what it's like, don't you?

I remembered. There was nothing stronger than my feelings for him and definitely nothing more potent than how connected I felt. With the rememberance, how tightly I clung to it, a strange sentiment came, angry and strong. It wasn't just connection I felt, but a desire for ... vengeance. It didn't seem quite like my own emotion, but there was no time to think on the strangeness. From within, it felt like a floodgate of aqumi opened to me, responding to my mental state, my need. In but a moment I was flush with it, empowered. It filled me and I was standing straight, and strong. The desert world was a mosaic of red, brown and ultra-vivid blue, with everything I could see at my disposal.

Once more, I had awakened aqumi.

This was power.

It really is time to 'do it.'

Rashid's voice next to me was muted, witnessing Mira surviving the unsurvivable in a highly risky gambit that he not get hit even once. "Whatever you're planning, it'd better be something good. He is in trouble."

Oh, it will be good.

"Ayize, Rashid." No more than a monotone. "I'm about to do .. something. If you're gonna watch this, turn down the contrast, or don't look at Mira and those ships."

"Why?"

"Because," I whispered, "you might go blind."

Then, I acted.

Far above, aqumi formed into a massive cone in the air, one that extended far up into the atmosphere. Exerting gravity, light from all around, for kilometres, was bent into the cone's centre, into an increasingly narrow space. It was a gravitational lens, the collected sunlight focused into a single line, a line that I pointed right at the crowd of ships following Mira as he circled around the open space.

All of this, in less than five seconds.

Here it is.

From the sky, a column of dazzling light lanced down to the rock. An intense spear of pure solar energy, I guided it across the stone tabletop, tweaks of aqumi aligning the outpour with a surgeon's dexterity. It swept over and through the pursuing group of ships, and when it did, all five instantly caught fire as they were touched.

It's ... really working..

Not stopping, I drew in more light, enlarging the lens, and the diameter of the beam from the heavens grew, two dozen metres wide. Playing it across them, one ship exploded in mid-air, glowing chunks of it ejecting in all directions like a burst of fireworks, while the other four smashed to the ground in quick succession.

HOLY.

SHIT.

Beside me, the muted voices of the two men, both witnessing it despite the danger. Ayize's exclamation of total amazement peppered with surprised profanities came first, and then Rashid's quieter offering, a murmur in Arabic of 'Allaahu alakbar.'

I barely heard either of them.

My mind was elsewhere.

It was that moment that I was understanding, fully and completely, what Ayize had said to me on Berchande about unleashing what I was capable of. There was very little that was a realistic obstacle. I had summoned light from the sky and these things, these fucking demons from another place, were being consumed by it.

That moment, I really did feel like a god.

But more than that, there was an emotional satisfaction, a blooming joyousness that reveled in every single part of what I was seeing; at the fist of power smashing down from space to scorch the enemy that wished for our submission, our genocide.

Then I began to laugh.

I can do anything.

The sense of revenge, the sense of power was indescribable.

My hands went into the air, conducting the orchestra of light and heat and I shouted, not caring that I could not actually be heard by our enemy, for the first time in a while liberated and unburdened by the struggle.

"You want righteousness? Cleanliness? You want to preach death and judgment?" The heavenly beam bathed the tabletop, gliding over the flaming xenomorph ships on the surface. Arbiters were struggling to escape and flee from the melting burning wreckage, only to combust themselves under the overwhelming energy pouring down from above; the black fire no match for a garland of real fiery heat. "What about plagues and divine punishment?! Well, open wide, you cheap alien BASTARDS! Today it's the 'wrath of God'!"

And through it all, in the middle of the maelstrom, was Mira. Unscathed, unruffled, shielded from the cosmic firestorm at my wish, he walked calmly between the burning xenomorph husks, an angel amid crumbling blackened skeletons, as the desert sand under his feet turned to glass.

em>When life gives you lemons, don't make lemonade. Get mad. Demand to see life's manager! Invent a combustible lemon, and use it to burn their house down!
Shay is clearly an adherent of the Cave Johnson School of Crisis Management. In other news, Mira is still jumping off high places. Beginning to think he really enjoys falling out of the sky.
Likes, comments and reviews very much appreciated! Please send me your thoughts and your love!
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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Hey, only a short review, since I'm on my mobile and away at university. It was great to read a new chapter of this story! awesome writing! Its always great to read more about Mira and Shay aaaand I like where the plot is going :) the pov of the alien/evil thing was great to read :) looking forward to reading about the exploration of the planet :)

 

love
Sammy

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Dies Irae indeed! I hope Mira is able to curb Shay's newfound wrath and urge to vengeance. Looking forward to discovering more about the Voice, too. Great work.

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On 10/31/2015 01:14 PM, stanollie said:

My limited vocabulary knows only one word for all this: WOW!!!! Thanks and all good for the next chapter.

Thank you! You can expect a steady increase in dramatic tension as the book progresses into the final quarter.

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On 11/04/2015 08:12 AM, Sammy Blue said:

Hey, only a short review, since I'm on my mobile and away at university. It was great to read a new chapter of this story! awesome writing! Its always great to read more about Mira and Shay aaaand I like where the plot is going :) the pov of the alien/evil thing was great to read :) looking forward to reading about the exploration of the planet :)

 

love

Sammy

Glad you enjoyed it. Chapter 15 will feature more of everyone, including the main pair so you will get more of this new world.

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On 11/05/2015 06:43 PM, BrianM said:

Dies Irae indeed! I hope Mira is able to curb Shay's newfound wrath and urge to vengeance. Looking forward to discovering more about the Voice, too. Great work.

Well, it's possible Mira won't want to stop him! The arbiters are nobody's friend.

 

The owner of the voice that commumicated with Shay on Berchande we are already quite familiar with, though Shay has yet to meet him. The real question is: what was it that 'possessed' him? Where are these alien feelings and deja vu coming from? More to come on this! Glad you're enjoying it.

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I'm amazed at how much talent you have and just how good this story is, it must take a lot of effort to write and I really want to thank you for doing this so far. I really like the original descriptions and how the characters have been developing, though I sometimes wish for Shay to have a break and some fluff, poor guy.

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On 11/11/2015 06:35 AM, Unreason said:

I'm amazed at how much talent you have and just how good this story is, it must take a lot of effort to write and I really want to thank you for doing this so far. I really like the original descriptions and how the characters have been developing, though I sometimes wish for Shay to have a break and some fluff, poor guy.

Thank you so much! I appreciate your kind words, it's a thrill to be recognised. Honestly, you should see the big stack of paper, not to mention the folder on my PC -- the amount of development is a bit silly; some days I'm not sure why I got myself into this.

 

Character development is important. No-one sees what some of the characters have seen without it changing them, or simply revealing what type of person they are. Though, I was thinking I had given Shay enough bits of fluff to keep him going! Are more sexy-times needed? Mira certainly would not complain. Hmmmmmmm.

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The hand of God strikes the foul Aliens into ash! I could just smell the great burning. I just love this one now we will have to see if the Aliens will learn from this! I hope not! Just a great chapter:yes::gikkle::thankyou:

Edited by Albert1434
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Stellar, you topped yourself again. My kudos! :worship:

Mira and Shay are an awesome pair. What a perfect bond and love.

I looks like the arbiters are losing their terrifying prevalence. Aqumi is winning.

Great work! :wizard:

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On 3/23/2023 at 8:12 AM, BarkingFrog said:

Stellar, you topped yourself again. My kudos! :worship:

Mira and Shay are an awesome pair. What a perfect bond and love.

I looks like the arbiters are losing their terrifying prevalence. Aqumi is winning.

Great work! :wizard:

Forgot to respond to this one.

Some of my favourite parts are just writing the two of them together; I get a lot of fulfillment from it.

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