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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 - 16. Beneath And Above

A couple more cycles passed before anything remarkable happened on the journey through the wilds of Dagen's Grace. The dagenith trio had not slowed, and had reached the deepest region of the Morass. The forestscape was unquestionably perilous, the trees double the girth and thrice the height of any Yugan had seen. Here, everything strove for survival, and countless millennia of evolution were at play; the planet's natural selection amplified and exaggerated. Even the humble chitok was unarguably ferocious; larger, voracious and more cunning than those near Otsin.

Yet the Mishith knew this type of land well, and their intelligence and perception were not easily caught off guard. They had earned their place on this world, brimming with life and the need for adaptation, and their own ancient metabolic instincts had served well. Little could best them as a species, even three alone so removed from the safety of their kin.

Thus, it was Ralot who first noticed what lay ahead.

They had spent most of their travel as high in the canopy as possible, only venturing lower out of necessity. Dagen's Grace possessed some flying creatures that were dangerous, but the true threats were earthbound, and most were found nearest to the forest floor. Now came the concern as Ralot, then in the lead, had motioned for them to halt then to approach where she was.

There was quite a view to be had.

The hot light of Dagen's star played across the scene before them, a brilliant contrast to the restrained dimness and mottled colour of their prior travel. In front lay a yawning chasm that cut right through the forest to the earth, then beyond that some, to a river, that followed the ravine's base. It was perhaps fifty times the Dagenith body length in width and triple that in depth. The chasm continued to the left and right, a scar through the flesh of the planet, extending beyond sight in both directions. On the other side, the forest progressed unabated, and in the distance, there was visible a mountain; a precipitous giant of craggy rock and sheer ice, taller than anything in recollection and the stuff of legend.

Usun-Gar.

"The Mother." Mikom's utterance was soft but eager. "She awaits us."

"Matriarch." Ralot gestured, to a point far beneath the branch upon which they stood. "Do you not see there?"

Yugan and Mikom both turned their gaze downward. They saw it.

Stalkers.

In the gentle shade of overhanging vines, there was a commune of the telutuk. It was busier than a nest; the gathering was no less than a full blown hive. Dozens of the creatures were within sight, shifting restlessly along the ravine edge and in the smaller foliage, stone banks, and spore-flower growth that had formed in the space between the forest's edge and the chasm. They were skittish in direct sunlight, not enjoying the brighter backdrop, the overexposure complicating their vision and senses. At the same time, the hive was naturally defensible for the telutuk. Few of the jungle's aggressive fauna were able to approach with the tree cover so reduced, and there were plenty of nooks and niches for the stalkers to sleep and idle in. The location was one of convenience; the stalkers were willing to endure the more irritating ambience of the chasm, open to the sky, in exchange for a strategically-located nexus to breed at and hunt from.

"There are many." Ralot flexed her claws, eyeing the hive with some trepidation. "We must take another road. A way around, I say."

The matriarch grunted her disapproval. "Where do you believe that way lies, young one?" She gestured with each pair of hands to the left and right. "No dagenith have walked our path, as far into the Morass as we stand now. This forest is unknown, and this cleft is a great wound from sky to rock and water. Where does it end?"

"It is true," Yugan agreed. "I see no narrows, nor quick crossing. I do not think we can go around it. If we make a new course, it could take cycles longer. Our haste to reach Usun-Gar is important and we must not delay. My senses tell me time may be short, and the less spent in travel, the better our chances will be."

This time Mikom's sound was one of approval. "Just so. Then we must bridge this gap." Her eyes were darting over the hive below, and she focused in on a certain point. "There. What of that?"

Yugan followed her studied gaze. Above the hive's core ten bodylengths, and a little to the left, was a fallen wetwood. Unnoticed by his initial assessment, now it stood out. It was not as large as the living goliaths they were moving through; the trunk was perhaps only half the width, but it was still huge and thick, and nearly horizontal where it lay. The tree's base and upended roots lay on their side of the chasm, and recumbent it fully spanned the gap. The former apex was well through the opposing forest, vanished into renewed growth. Shrouded and swallowed afresh, the collapsed tree had merged again with the Morass; the fall had clearly happened some time ago.

A way across.

Only, not yet.

A pair of telutuk sat upon the trunk. Both were facing the opposing forest, on their haunches. With a calmness and a sense of patient tedium, they watched the forest. The giant cloudy windows of their eyes saw little but still, in conjunction with their other perceptions, were detecting much. The three Mishith waited a number of moments and the telutuk duo did not move, nor stir. Like fixtures, or guardians for the hive, they stayed motionless and wary.

"I have heard tale of this behaviour," spoke the matriarch, "and it is persistent. They may observe and barely act for a full daily cycle, but for others to take their place when at last they leave. It is like a duty, as sentinels."

"Then how?" Ralot gestured with the staff end to the far side of the fallen tree. "Even with good light on our side, they will sense us before we cross. Then they will call the other stalkers and there will be a horde drawn to hunt. A great many lurk below the crossing."

"That," spoke Yugan, his eyes firmly fixed upon the pair, "is why we must kill them first." He could feel Ralot's uncertain dismay at the suggestion, and Mikom's curious anticipation as both turned their gaze to him, surprised, puzzled.

"Kill first?" With a soft questioning hiss, the matriarch angled her head back, still partially upon him, but the stalkers also; two eyes on each, ears skewing quizzically semi-vertical. "You mean to use stealth in the beginning and to win the fight before they would know?"

"Yes. I have watched them move and react to a threat. When Turil fell, I saw their strengths and their limitations." His confidence was bolstering the mood, his own observations feeding a surety that they could accomplish what was needed. "There will be no alert. I can do this." Then again, changing the emphasis. "We can do this."

Ralot straightened next to him, her ears flicking in affirmation, standing tall. She was stoic, brave, and willing to come when aid was required. Yugan was glad Mikom had chosen her as their companion, and that Ralot had accepted the risks. "We can. We will."

The matriarch regarded them both, considering and comparing against the probability of bypassing the hive below, then she gave her assent. Her eyes gleamed, the gambit worth attempting. "Yes, we must. Yugan, you lead?"

"I will go first. Ralot will be next to me. Matriarch, you follow behind. We must move slowly and with care. Sound and movement to the smallest, if there is a chance of detection."

Together the three Mishith descended through the branch structure, dropping and climbing from limb to limb as needed. Even closer to the ground, the stalkers in the hive were none wiser, the distance great enough that they could not be noticed. Finally reaching the chasm edge next to the uprooted wetwood base, they scaled the roots with ease, their natural dexterity and balance making short work of the obstacle. Then, onto the bridge itself.

The pair remained stationary, and Yugan dropped into a low flat stance, the two females imitating his pose. Slow and very steady, they advanced; eyes were wide, muscles ready, reflexes poised. Foot after foot, the bodylengths grew fewer until it was only ten.

Then eight.

Then five.

Curious, one of the pair turned in a half circle to face the Mishith, lazily relaxed.

The dagenith froze.

The head moved, dipping slightly, and the coiled tail swiped through the air in a sluggish swish of bored contemplation. Abruptly it stood, going to all fours, the tail twitching again, before it stepped forward one, two, three steps. There it remained, the head angling back and forward, the gigantic milky eyes and pallid skin testing for something on the breeze, in the wood, from the sky or earth.

Waiting, listening.

Another few moments passed but then the telutuk sat again, evidently having imagined a disturbance. Resuming its dutiful complacency, it recast the visually-deficient gaze over the left shoulder, the attention along the chasm's length. The stalker's tail relaxed, a clear indication of suspicion averted, the limb dropping back to the wood.

With the utmost care, he began to unfasten and loosen the head of his spear, the fingers of all four hands doing their work very carefully and in the smallest slowest increments. Two eyes were on his work, the other two on the nearer telutuk; the further of the duo still faced in the other direction, unchanged from its original position. "Ralot," he whispered, just loud enough for her alone to hear, "the other stalker is yours. Go after I do."

From the edge of his vision he saw her head move, indicating to the affirmative.

Ready.

Creeping forth, he closed the gap to four bodylengths, then to three. The progress was pitifully slow, but the Mishith instincts were superb; patience, concentration, a judgement in spontaneity and deliberation both, coupled with a powerful sense of good timing. These were some of the many virtues of the Mishith racial character, and those qualities were made for these circumstances.

He had angled slightly to his left, the stalker's right, approaching from the less obvious side of its senses, as its focus stayed in the other direction over the chasm. At two bodylengths, he stopped and Ralot drew level with him. She gave him a glance and he returned it, giving his agreement. His grip shifted on the spearhead, the object held in his superior right hand, now prepared. Changing stance, he rose so very slowly until he was vertical, his muscles tensing.

Now.

Yugan leaped into action. Bounding forward three strides, the stalker jerked in surprise at the sudden movement, its reactions scrambling to respond to the imminent threat, but he was already upon it. The inferior arms wrapped around the spindly torso in a bear hug, pulling it close. The superior left hand clapped over its mouth, the claws digging in, an anchor into the flesh to forbid any sound. In a tight arc, the last hand came around, plunging the spearhead into the creature's face, killing it nearly instantly.

From next to him, Ralot darted the slightly-larger gap to the second telutuk. Its head flicked about, but the dagenithi's aim was impeccable. The staff smashed into its face on a whirling upward strike, the blow knocking it onto its back. In another stride she was upon the creature, stunned where it lay. A foot stamped onto the neck and Ralot's weapon spun easily between hands as she completed the kill. The staff end came down solidly in a polished finishing move. The impact crunched hard against the wood, crushing the creature's head, the bludgeon driven wholly through. The stalker was slain before it could react.

Mikom was next to them, handing Yugan the formerly discarded spear haft so he could refasten the blade; then together they were moving, as quickly and stealthily as they dared. The cleft through the land stretched to their left and right, the stalker corpses behind, and the brilliant green of the sky above. Below, behind, the hive lay idle, not alerted to the dagenith trio upon the tree-bridge, bypassing the watch and spanning the gap.

They were going to make it.

Yugan reached the tree cover first, Ralot right with him, the matriarch close upon their heels. Rapidly, the two younger were climbing, gaining height and putting distance between the forest's base and their goal: the relative safety of the middle canopy. At a medium distance up, the messier uneven branch structure became more interwoven and even, closing off the sky and chasm from the jungle environs. Mikom was trailing, but not by much, rising hand over hand through the plethora of spores and the gnarled offshoots of lower wetwood branches. She was only three bodylengths beneath where Ralot had vanished into the leafy interior with Yugan, out of sight and within cover, when something stayed her rise.

A weight, upon her right foot. Looking down, she saw it; the soft, damp muscular coil of a telutuk tail wrapped around her ankle.

From the spore fronds below, long thin limbs emerged, clamping onto the exposed trunk wood. The stalker's head came silently after, the nearly indiscernible focus of its massive directionless eyes fixed resolutely and unambiguously on the matriarch, from the moment it came into view.

Caught.

The mouth opened, and a soft vibrating purr issued. No longer small and innocuous, the tiny aperture broadened into a row of jagged, unforgiving teeth.

Then a second tail flicked from her other side, wrapping around her left ankle. Another stalker climbed from the foliage, reflecting its kindred in repose; a humming thrill of hunter upon prey.

They pulled.

Her grip was strong, but not strong enough. In an instant, Mikom was falling, dragged from so close to the safety of the forest's fastness. She thumped heavily onto the bridge, vulnerable on her back, but not one single micron of time was wasted even as the stalkers arrived on either side of her. All was supreme instinct and blurred reactions; two spiked tails whipped with horrific speed into the air as she brandished her staff. Still prone, she defended her position without trying to rise; one end of the staff flicked up and out to smack into the rightward stalker's torso, misaligning the tail jab to punch into the bridge itself. The other jab hit home, a puncture into her left superior arm. The matriarch growled softly, more in anger than pain, the staff whirring between her hands to repel the other telutuk, the barb pulling from her flesh. In the grace of time to spare, their aggression momentarily rebuffed, Mikom curled and rolled rapidly upright.

She would survive.

Stalker limbs were flying and she twisted as they came. One into her side, ripping a chunk from her ribs, another at the confluence of neck and shoulder, a sharpened circle of cutting hurt. The other limbs swerved, the tails darting in a terror of speed and peril. There was no doubt that mistakes were fatal, but she moved with every part of her knowledge to mitigate that terrible likelihood.

The flurry of her staff was beyond the reactions of the telutuk that assailed her; it struck the left on the torso and the right on the shoulder joint. One was spinning in an acrobatic avoidance of her onslaught and the other was recovering from the assault, a primate's answer to the greater strength displayed, a quickness of purer form.

Though, she could feel it, everywhere they touched.

Flesh and blood, a parting of ways.

Torn and divided.

She bled, but she moved as fast as she was able. Even-footed, they came at her again, the left foe managing another glancing cut on her torso before she repelled it with a quick thrust, while the right telutuk made use of the distraction. Immobilising the staff with its tail-grip, it bit into her guiding inferior arm, its forelimbs joining the bite, slicing through the skin. Mikom grunted and slapped it across the face with her superior right hand, a powerful backhanded blow with her claws fully extended. The damage was evident; the stalker knocked free in a spray of Mishith and telutuk blood, stunned and floored. In the blink of an eye, the matriarch whipped the staff back across her body and up into the air, then with three quick alternating blows, smashed both sides of the creature's head into a pulp.

One.

The second stalker was leaping onto her back as the final blow landed, mouth sinking in, limbs carving and tail stabbing all at once into a score of places. Mikom grunted again, louder, angry and wounded, turning to try and grapple with it as it clung to her. The staff was brought across and she bashed it with the shaft, the head next to her own as it mauled her. Then she found purchase with her superior left arm, gripping it by the head to fling it off, forward over the shoulder.

Rolling, a squall of thrashing arms and legs, the stalker sprawled, like its former companion stunned, but only for a moment. Yet, the matriarch had no illusions and did not let it recover; she was moving fast when she struck the creature, pressing it to the wetwood bridge with all her weight. The staff was across its chest, held by her inferior arms and pinioning it flat, while the superior right closed around the neck and the left clamped onto the face, the claws sinking into the eye with a deliberate and purposeful resolve.

"The Great Circle turns," she hissed into the telutuk's face, squeezing the neck tighter as she did, "and you go with it."

It gurgled, shivering and twisting as she gouged and strangled it, then with a final gasp, through the choking hold that the matriarch had, it forced a sound. A shrill keening scream of pain and forlorn misery reached into the heavens and echoed across the surrounding forest, and down into the chasm, before it cut off as Mikom ended the stalker's plight.

The alarm was sounded.

She stood, wounded but not wearied, bloodied but not broken. There were cuts all over her from the battle, more than she had ever received from a razor-leaf or a chitok, or the mire-haunt, or in any hunts for the tul-erelin and the vicious selet. She knew, however, even with the multitude of places she was hurt, that more were coming.

This would not finish here.

Not for Yugan.

Still, there was a strangeness present that the matriarch had not expected. She could feel a deep tranquility, a beautiful shining simplicity, that narrowed the path she walked until it was now a line.

On the far end of the trunk, five seconds after the death-cry, the first of the hive's inhabitants appeared. In a breath, there was a second, and a third, and before she could conceive it there were a dozen. Their perceptions were piqued and keen, the languid monotony of the day transformed into a hunt, and this time there was no hiding.

They were aware.

They were coming for her.

No, this would not be his end.

Above, peering from the hidden vantage of the forest's fringe, Yugan and Ralot had watched with a fearful anxiety, the fighting too intense and fast for their intervention. Now, with the better part of the hive's denizens crowding onto the bridge, the matriarch looked up and their eyes met.

In that instant, Yugan saw two things. A serene wisdom, quiet and calm. A strength within, the embodiment of everything they were, and could be.

She was Mikom, daughter of Karir, keeper of knowledge, bearer of the dagenith lineage and the truest Mishith that Yugan had ever known.

"Go to the Mother, for that is your destiny," she called, her voice carrying across the gap, clear and unafraid, addressing him directly, "and this ... is mine."

The Great Circle was moving, and their paths were split.

With not a word more, the matriarch of Otsin turned and went forth, the staff easy in her hands. Her arms were poised, back straight, feet sure as she strode to her destiny, a swarm of telutuk streaming across the giant wetwood to meet her.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Rashid Jahandar was a conflicted man.

Throughout most of his life, he had not been especially religious. As a child he had learned, alongside his older brother, the aayaath and hadithat of the Qur'an; first in Arabic and then Farsi. He was taught everything from the correct method of salat to the consequences of earthly life; that sin would lead to al-nar and the torment of Jahannam, while the virtuous would spend eternity in the paradise of Jannah. Growing older, he had not practiced his faith as devoutly as he knew he should. The demands of the modern world, the regional politics of the Middle East and the global fight of the realist cause, had all occupied his attention and thoughts for years, ever since he had embraced the Brotherhood of Man.

Now, here he stood on a desert world, light-years from Earth, in the presence of two who were little more than children. They looked and acted much like normal teenaged boys, but Rashid had seen something else entirely. Beneath that, they were immortal creatures who spoke a holy tongue derived from beyond the material existence. Beings that possessed power unheard of; one was able to heal disease and wounds, to dominate the physical world with his mind alone, to call down divine fire from the sky, and the other?

The other was a warrior, an assassin, a guardian; the most dedicated and unblemished individual Rashid had met. Unwavering in loyalty, his soul was pure and he was dutiful, honourable and the very definition of heroic; unselfish and without the trappings of ego. The primacy of science as an explanation had evaporated, and Rashid's emotions had completed the gamut. From irritated resentment and disgust in the beginning, then to incredulity, and finally to where he was now: remorse that his disbelief blinded him and a concealed awe for who and what Mira was.

Champion of Allah.

The surface of the tabletop was changed, a large swathe of it transformed into vitrified quartz silicate. Sheets of glazed rock and mini ridges of heat-slickened sandstone covered the site, the glass crackling audibly as it cooled, contracting and fragmenting. Four of the crashed Disciples were smoking wrecks, some still burning, their hulls liberally melted and deformed, while the fifth was no more than dozens of parts strewn about.

In between them, the charred remains of the arbiters.

A short distance back, Mira was resting on his haunches in a catlike crouch. His balance seemed effortless, left knee upon the rock, right raised a little so the katana was horizontal across it, hands loosely holding the scabbard. He made no movement as Rashid approached, though the soldier had no doubt Mira knew he was there. Rashid walked by the boy to get a closer visual of the slagged xenomorph remains, though Mira still did not stir, simply watching, statuesque.

Almost as if he was waiting for something.

"There is much in this life that we call 'sin'," Rashid stared out over the wreckage, then he turned and walked back in front of the boy, Malinksy held casually, barrel down, boots grinding on the heated sand. Mira looked to him, attention now unavoidably drawn, and Rashid matched his gaze. "It is shameful that my first thoughts were judgement of your sin only; of the temptation of lust, and boys lying with boys. I was blind. I did not see that he works God's will through miracles, and you?" The voice lowered, softer now but just as keen. "You are of al-hafathah. You fight without uncertainty because your purpose is holy warfare itself, and your jihad is ... him." The soldier extended his hand to the boy. "I ask forgiveness. Your cause is greater than mine, and I- ... I wish to help you, to fight with you, however and whenever I can."

Mira stood. Despite his watchfulness, his grip on the weapon was loose, his muscles relaxed. The curious impartial half-smile was present, and his eyes flicked over the man's face, evaluating his honesty. Satisfied, the boy took Rashid's proffered hand, and gave a small nod. His lips parted, and for a moment Rashid thought he was about to speak, but then Mira stopped abruptly. His grip tightened, his shoulders tensing, and the boy glanced away, over Rashid's shoulder, as if hearing a sound in the distance behind them. The soldier gave a start of surprise and confusion, the reaction strange.

Behind? What was-

The handshake was broken off, and Mira shoved him so hard and so suddenly that he went sprawling to the side. Less than half a second later, a black shape flew in a blur through where Rashid had been standing, the end of a predatory hunting leap.

Arbiter.

It struck Mira in the chest, but he was already moving with the attack, not against it. Falling onto his back, he used the leap's momentum to turn potential collision into deflection. With a well-placed and well-timed tactical hand-push, the creature was repelled, sent flying over Mira's head from the contact, on a continued tangent both unexpected and uninterrupted. The boy, too, completed his own reverse roll, and in the same movement as he came to his feet, the blade was drawn. Fire coursed along its length as it exited the scabbard.

The arbiter skidded, trying to regain balance and purchase on the sand, but Mira was already upon it. The first slash was quick, at its left flank as it turned, but the evasion was quicker, a very close near-miss. The boy had predicted the next move with too much ease, however. With a graceful flick of the wrist and sweeping slice, the second strike cut right through the arbiter's vulnerable right arm, just below the shoulder joint, a moment before it intended to feint away.

It hissed loudly, in surprise, anger and whatever emotion passed for physical pain, recoiling at losing a limb, and then Mira struck it again. The flat of the blade thumped hard against the arbiter's head, the force producing a dull metallic thunk of impact that knocked it to the ground. It did not try to right itself, and then he stepped forward, flourishing the katana easily and now unrushed. The wounded arbiter scrabbled desperately away along the sand while Mira followed, the distance between them shrinking pace by pace. It stopped backing when the flaming sword tip scraped the ebony ridges of its skull, the point of it pressing into the place where a human's jugular would be.

No escape.

"Mira, wait!" Rashid was next to him, eyes on the loathsome apparition, breath coming quickly and hard. The creature's very presence had a powerful mental aura, carrying with it a primal fear that begged him to flee. Even so cowed as it was, the xenomorph was the sort of unnatural threat that projected its malice, angry and terrifying, upon the world. His resolve and courage frayed at the edges just being near it. Rashid swallowed uncomfortably, but he spoke anyway. "Can we interrogate it? Find out more?"

You delay my end. The arbiter addressed Mira first, the featureless black of its eye sockets a diametric inversion of the flickering metal-bound fire afore it; light framed against darkness. Just as you delay the fate of the stripling beside you. The head shifted a fraction, nearly imperceptibly, the attention moving for a few moments to the soldier. Rashid shuddered, his olive skin paler than usual, but he would not, could not, look away. The Master is inevitable. All shall be clean.

The boy did not speak, nor move.

You are different. The arbiter's focus shifted back to Mira and its concentration seemed to narrow and become more acute. The others embrace the corruption with no doubt, but you do not.

There were ... others?

Why do you hide your demon? The litany continued, and the cold forcefulness of the arbiter's communication took on a more daring tone, a new insight that became taunting. They give themselves to the affliction freely, but you deny it your flesh. Do you fear what made you?

"Mira? Isn't there anything we can learn?"

I do not fear, he told the arbiter, for that demon is me.

Falsity and delusion. The mental voice mocked him. Brave thoughts from a weaker will-

"No," Mira whispered. The katana slid precisely through the centre of the arbiter's skull in a careful slow thrust; bone and rock shearing in two like paper as he split its head open. "Nothing more."

-o-0-O-0-o-

"Your ... brother?" Ayize sat next to me on the floor of Samed's node chamber, both of us taking a moment to figure out just what was going on. "Well, I thought your iqhawe was a blood brother too, until he glued his tongue to yours and nearly committed 'incest' in front of us. How's this one different?"

"Shut up!" I snorted and began to giggle, a mixture of mild embarrassment and shocked amusement. "I don't mean genetically. More like ... he's the brother of the one who possessed me."

"Is that 'Sulin'?"

"Yeah," I nodded. That's who it has to be. It's who I was. Who I am? Then, it started to sink in, when I thought about what I had just witnessed in my vision. I had seen a glimpse of what had come before the human colonisation of Lucere.

An alien civilisation.

"Ayize, I ... I saw Lucere when it was still called Sulin's Will. It was covered in their structures, and, it- ... um," I struggled to describe the amazement of that image, "well, it was incredible. I can't even tell you."

"I bet," he murmured, "and now it's all gone, and so were the xenomorphs before we somehow brought them back. Shay ... what happened? We're talking about a race that figured out quantum unity and spread across the stars, but when we arrived on the scene, there was nothing left except aqumi in the background. How is that possible? Those genocidal bastards that attacked us have had enough trouble finishing the job, so how could a culture so technologically advanced be completely erased to the point that there is nothing physical left?"

I shook my head. "Not sure. There was a war, I think, and something important must have happened at Lucere between them and the Sharpe aliens, but, they, uh ... " I trailed off, as something else began to occur to me. It was ridiculously obvious, and I had no idea why I hadn't thought of it earlier.

The future was known.

"But they ... ?"

"They knew they couldn't win. They knew that, uh," I paused, remembering the words of my vision and the language used, "victory on Lucere wasn't possible, so they ... hid."

Somewhere the body couldn't go, but the 'spirit' could.

"Where?"

"Inside aqumi." I bit a nail pensively, staring across the sandy ground, and the little motes of dust floating in torchlight. A place for them to survive. "Their own bodies might have died, but their ... personalities? Minds? Whatever it is, exactly, they went the only place their enemy couldn't find them. Somewhere they could wait for us to come along, because ... they knew. We were going to colonise Lucere, and we were going to fuck it all up and bring their enemy back from wherever it disappeared to. The DNA activator sequence was a key, and when our scientists figured out how to use it? Sulin had a new body." I looked across to Ayize. "He had me. He is me."

"Are you saying they could predict what was going to happen thousands of years in advance?" The African was blinking owlishly. "That they planned all this and prepared for it while we were still running around the veldt, beating each other with clubs and poking animals with pointy sticks?"

"Yes."

"And now," he continued, "this 'Dagen' is still out there, somewhere, waiting for us to find him?" Ayize frowned, the scar above his eyebrow scrunching as his forehead wrinkled. "Wonder what they look like. I hope they don't have tentacles. Kenji has subjected me to enough holo-horror as it is."

"Tentacles?" I made a weird face at him. "Well, I don't know about that, but I can tell you that Sulin wanted to find his brother, and they left us a path to follow."

"From Lucere to this place, and from here to ... where?" His look was blank. "And how do we find the next one?"

"I don't know. Maybe it's-" I stopped mid-sentence. Wait a moment, there was a common theme in that vision. On each planet, Sulin made sure to see the sky. "No, not a 'maybe.' It is the sky. For each world, Sulin saw the stars at night. That's what the vision was really showing me. The stars."

Ayize blinked as he processed this, and a calculating look appeared. "So, now you're wondering," he said, slow and thoughtful, "if we can triangulate a galactic location based on what the stars in a specific planet's night sky look like?"

"Uh, yeah?" I shrugged, meek and apologetic. "We can do that, right?"

"Of course we can!" The African's face split into a broad grin. "It may take days to produce anything like a proper match based just on your description alone, but our technology on the ship should be capable of providing answers. This is something we can, and should, get started on right now."

"Okay."

Wasting no time, Ayize immediately began a remote link to the ship and to feed it data based on questions he was asking me. I gave him the detail he needed, to the best of my memory. It was all describing what I had seen over Elkos, the third world from my vision and our new destination; mostly which stars were notable and could be used as reference points, where they sat in the sky relative to one another, and any other constellations that stood out. Also, any detail on the planet itself, though I could not remember much more from the vision than it was barren and covered in an atmosphere that was likely toxic to humans.

Though we were both focused on the task at hand, my mind began to drift after a few minutes, and I found my thoughts wandering to something Ayize had mentioned not much earlier, as we entered the node's underground chamber.

"Hey, you know you said we reminded you of your parents?"

"Hmm?" His reply was absentminded. "Yeah."

"Uh, I can't help thinking this," I spoke, hesitant, "but do you think we're too young to be in a serious relationship like that?"

I wasn't sure why I was asking Ayize something that felt rather personal, though I guessed it was because Konstantin wasn't around and Ayize was the only other open-minded adult that I could talk to. Maybe I just need some reassurance; an objective person to validate what I'm going through.

"You?" Ayize broke from looking at the portable holo-emitter's cosmological datastream, to give me his full attention again. "Normally I wouldn't say it's a great idea for a 15 year old to be so heavily involved with anyone, but you're emotionally mature. You're smart. You've had to grow up quicker and earlier than almost everyone else, because of what you've experienced, and both of you can do things that nobody else can dream of. I don't think the normal rules apply, and even if they do, you're clearly crazy over each other." He shrugged. "Take that as you please. Actually though, what I was really getting at when I said that to you, is ... my parents were devoted to each other, even before marriage. My father didn't look at another woman after he met her, and my mother? She would have done anything for him. Nobody else mattered in quite the same way as he did. Nobody else could." A second shrug, coupled with one of his broad smiles. "That's what I was seeing; the foundation of something that's built to last."

Oh.

"One piece of advice I will give though, since Konstantin wouldn't have, and I'd be willing to guess your father never gave you this conversation either. I'm sure you're going to love this." His smile became sly, knowing. "Try as many different variations as you can." Variations? What is he talking about? "You know, find out what you like and how you like it. Him on top, you on top." Oh. OH. I ... um, what?! "Bet he's really flexible. There are a bunch of positions, you know. Plenty to experiment with. So explore! Too many kids these days don't understand sex and their own bodies. Don't be afraid to find out, and for fuck's sake ... tell him. Not communicating the heart's desire properly has been the death of many well-intentioned men in history."

I couldn't look him in the eye, nor even at his face.

Please stop talking.

Please.

"Hey boss." Rashid was edging into the cave through the same way we'd arrived, with my miracle right behind him. He glanced around the chamber, giving it a once over, then back to Ayize. "Site is secure. One arbiter survived but Mira killed it. We're clear."

Not waiting for another second, I stood, grabbing Mira's hand as I passed him, and practically dragging him right back the way they had just come. Behind, I could hear Rashid asking where I was going, and Ayize chuckling.

"Don't worry, brother. Just gave him something to ... think about."

He was right.

I was thinking about Mira.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Kenji Shimizu was a man driven by an uncomfortable truth.

He knew that his brother, Lindani Mthembu, was a prisoner of CorpSec and had been swallowed by the vast global machine of its authority. He knew that he faced the combined might of the corporatist financial system and its material resources and personnel, all of whom were dedicated to the principles that their masters loved. He knew that the enemy they faced possessed an overwhelming advantage in manpower and technology, that they were secretive, powerful and totally ruthless, and that opposition to them normally meant death.

Ultimately, Kenji did not care.

Lindani was a brother. He was one of the few men who had vouched for Kenji, who had told him of what the Brotherhood really stood for, of what realism really meant.

It was freedom.

A better world.

A place where the dreams of their forefathers were real, where the poor and rich had the same chance; a world in which everyone was equal and the barriers that stood everywhere, that barred the way for so many, were finally gone.

Destroyed, in a pathway that could lead to the total liberation of mankind.

Lindani had inspired him, and had directed him to Ayize, who had broadened that message, and made it more important than anything else on Earth.

Now, that message was on trial, under threat, and Kenji could not sit idle.

He was one of the best hackers on the entire planet, and he was in charge of the European chapter of the Brotherhood.

It was time to break the law.

Delegating responsibilities to Heinrich and Shearer, Kenji made sure that he was essentially a lone agent. Though unhappy with pseudo-administrative roles, the two men were duty-bound and capable. They fell into those roles with enough enthusiasm that Kenji was satisfied he could depart to take care of what he needed to do.

The Ruthenian boundary.

The LEF knew something about Lebaredian's assassination, but it was not clear what or why. The key to it lay in their distribution of resources, and therein was the way that this mystery could unravel. Therein was the answer.

Kenji had sought more than a dozen separate realist sources as an entryway into the LEF's process, but none had been even remotely forthcoming. They were unusually succinct in their reporting and suppression of information, but a chance came for something more real. In a sweep through the Crimea, he located a prime subject. It was a young Ukrainian man in Sevastopol, no doubt expecting that his trail was as protected as he was by the terrorist apparatus of LEF, but Kenji caught the scent. He followed it, bouncing the signal through a score of decoys and then some, past slippery distractions and the many grasping digital fingers of the bureaucracy.

He had an address and that was all that was required.

The man was younger than Kenji, barely out of his teens, and he was not expecting a Brotherhood commander to show on his doorstep. Scrawny and quick, Kenji's target had a contingency plan for being caught by the authorities, but Kenji knew LEF better than the government and corporatists ever could. He disabled the security before it could fully activate, and overpowered the boy easily in the apartment. Then, it was a gun held to the face, the universal language of right and wrong.

It yielded results.

The question: what is the Ruthenian boundary?

The answer?

CorpSec is a fool. That's what the boy told Kenji. "All of Ruthenia, and European Russia? They can't see it. They don't know it. They're blind. They are stupid. They think they know, but what do they see? Ten percent. Less than that."

It was not what Kenji expected.

The boundary marked the edge of an area. This youth was a low-tier hacker working in the Transcaucasian corridor; one of many who were supporting LEF's latest project. Most of CorpSec's electronic data collectors in European Russia had been infected by a highly-advanced computer virus, engineered by LEF's own hackers for this specific task. The corporatists were being fed false-positives and false-negatives as LEF desired, to mask realist operations. The purpose was to, ultimately, allow freer movement of resources through Ukraine and into western Europe.

"Through any of their compromised regional systems," Kenji demanded, "have you discovered Brotherhood personnel? Specifically Lindani Mthembu."

"We've given the Brotherhood all intelligence we have on personnel abducted by those imperialist sons of bitches," the boy had retorted. "We can't tell you where he is, though we can tell you a high priority Xiang-Mueller crossed through Belarus' airspace eastward the day they attacked. That's it."

"And their data collection is 90 percent compromised?"

"Yeah," boasted the kid, "I told you they're stupid. We're only short ten percent coverage."

Stupid. CorpSec was many things; brutish, insidious and dangerous, but never lacking intelligence. Still, if Lindani had been on that priority transport that was departing Poland, but LEF had found no information on its whereabouts through Russia, then the answer was hiding in that final ten percent.

Back in Moldova, having ignored the youth's parting threats of reprisal for assaulting and interrogating the LEF's own agents, Kenji pondered the situation. The problem was that even ten percent of western Russia was big. He stared at the holo-news on his political stream as he thought how to tackle this problem, headlines scrolling past all the while.

Military chief requests interstellar travel ban be lifted for armed forces, petitions premier for support.

Rare and historic moment of cooperation as loyalist premier and corporatist senate leaders strike down military travel ban.

Partisan acrimony restarts; Guiterrez defunds CorpSec, senate responds with heavy budgetary cuts to a dozen federal agencies.

The political divide was becoming worse, and the bigger picture was concerning, though Kenji's primary focus was on the Brotherhood's goals. It was a shame they couldn't use Konstantin Andropov's authority to make this search easier, though the man was now in a position that such contact was impossible without endangering both parties.

With that thought came another, however.

There was someone else who, maybe, could help with the search. That was if they could contact him, though there were few technological barriers on Earth for someone like Kenji. This was the sort of thing he was an expert in, and he was going to use all the skills he had to get his brother back alive.

Lucas.

-o-0-O-0-o-

From the moment that I took Mira's hand, and led him back out of the chamber to the top of Samed's plateau, I knew something was not quite right. He did not look directly at me, and I could tell straight away that his mind was elsewhere.

The surface was cooling as the day came to a close, the bright blue star nearly touching the horizon. I pulled him on, away from the crack that led underground to a stretch of sand. We sat down between some of the rocky clumps that adorned the plateau, while in the medium distance, Liberty rested, dutifully hibernating. With the shadows lengthening and the light weakening, I was sure it was safe enough, so I removed the environmental coverings from my face and hands, and detached the rebreather, Mira doing the same. Still, he didn't look at me until I was settled right in front of him, and I gripped his arm, gentle but firm, wanting his attention.

"Mira," I began, "did something happen with that arbiter?"

The look was soft, clean, the mask gone, his brows knitting; 'it was not the arbiter.'

Not the arbiter? "Then what's wrong? Whatever it is, I want to know."

He stared at me, and then with the smallest smile, his right hand came up to brush my cheek. It sent a shiver through me and my heart fluttered, my left rising to rest on his. "You can tell me anything," I murmured, "anything at all."

His voice spoke into my mind, as lyrical and melodious as any confession of love he had made, as poetic as what I knew lay at his heart.

There are spirits living inside us, within the hidden sunlight. You know this because yours is the master of the sun. You are the lord of the secret fire, as he was, but you are still my Shay. I drew in a shaking breath at the last description, his thumb caressing my skin while he spoke, his eyes shining a pale silver-blue in the waning light. The shadow names them demons, for the fire is ever at war with the dark. The last arbiter believed I fear the spirit within, but the enemy does not see. For all the power it wields, it is still blind to the simplest and greatest thing, and that is love.

Love.

More than your spirit, more than the lost brother we seek, I am undivided. Her purpose and mine, her heart and mine; they are the same.

Her?!

Yet, I didn't need to ask. I barely even had to think about it.

I just already knew.

The companion from Sulin's vision, the one whom he had loved and promised he would see again? That was Mira's 'spirit'; that was her.

It was insane.

He had made that promise millennia ago, when humanity was nothing more than a bunch of primitives on a world far from Lucere. They had found each other again, through us, and the promise was kept. Maybe what Carlos had told me was right all along; we were destined to meet well before we existed. It was a strange love story, that went past time and space to the walls of reality itself; more bizarre and incredible than I anticipated.

How was any of this possible?

It was true, all the same.

There are only two things that cause me fear. One is to fail, as my life is meaningless without you. Here Mira stopped a moment, and drew in an apprehensive breath, the emotional uncertainty on display surprising for him, and jarring. The other is to become her, that I am only the blade and not completely the will behind it, that the eternal war we fight needs total union, that I lose sight of myself and of you.

Then, I understood.

"Mira, listen to me." I gripped his hand tighter, keeping it where it was, insisting he hear me. "Listen to me. They are within us. They're helping us, guiding us, and we are giving them the means to do what we all want, and that's survive. They may be us, and we may be them too, but we are still here." A squeeze of his hand, those gentle eyes glistening. "We are still here. The boy I fell in love with is compassionate, considerate and kind. He is strong, brave and selfless. He can carry the world on his shoulders. He is more of a man than most men I've met," my face flushed a little and I gave a small flustered smile, "and I will not forget him, and he won't forget me, because he is mine."

Always mine. Always us, together.

In awe, he let go of me, moving slow at first, then quick as a flash, hands were underneath my legs and behind my shoulders. In a heartbeat, we were standing; him on his own feet, me scooped up and cradled in his arms. Grateful, adoring but also teasing, his look told me the message was heard; 'more man than most men?'

"Twice as much," I whispered, giddy at being literally swept off my feet, fingers squeezing the glorious firmness of his triceps and shoulder.

'Not more than twice?' The teasing look didn't stop, now growing sultry, a little needy.

"Three times." A purr, more confident sounding than I felt. "You are three times any man I've met and I love every inch of you." I flushed again, knowing how the words sounded but still not caring.

Mira let go of my legs and shifted position where he stood, pulling me down and to the side. Deft and quick, the move was so natural that I was clinging to him again, upright, before I realised what was happening. Arms around neck, legs around his middle, then I let go with my lower half, so my feet could touch the ground. Both his hands slid around, to the small of my back, then parting on either side, tracing a semicircle forward around my waist, to stop at my sides. "And I love every part of you, from the smaller," he pulled me against him, forcing my stomach in and my hips out, "to the larger." Those hands dropped down, to my ass, cupping it as much as he could and giving a very firm squeeze.

"I- .. I- ... uh ... it's n-not that b-big!"

"Yes it is."

"N-n-no!" I spluttered, "it's not."

"Yes it is."

"No," I denied again, "it's not!"

"It is." He craned his neck so he could look down my back, and I did the same. "See?"

It's not that b- ... oh.

It was. He was right, though I could barely think, his speech having killed my logic centres, my face burning up. Did it- ... was it- ... has it always stuck out like that?!

"Every part," he finished, "is perfect."

I ... want him. I really really want him.

Right then, there wasn't anything I had wanted more, and some very recent advice came immediately to mind.

Have to tell him.

"Mira, our first time was above Lucere, and our second time was above Earth. so what if I want our third time to be, um," I swallowed, pausing; terrified but excited, aroused and nervous, "to be y-you, on top, making love to me, f- ... fucking me, right now, under the bluest alien sunset we've ever seen? What if that's what I want?"

In another first, Mira went bright red, shocked; his body answering the question as I felt him swell against me, squeezing my ass harder in reflex. Then, it was mouth on mouth, fingers through hair, and the two of us sinking to the sand as clothing was cast aside. Finally, it was warm air on bare skin, and him wrapped around me, on top of me, as we became one under the fading cobalt of Samed's evening surrender.

This book will be the death of me. To all readers: there is a concerted effort underway to get it finished before the end of this year. Production time is a major frustration for me, and I apologise again.
In other news, Kenji is a man on a mission, Rashid is undergoing an epiphany or two, and Mira? Let's just say he really loves That Ass. Like ... really really:wub:
As per normal, story discussion is found here, and any likes and reviews are very welcome!
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

Thanks for another great chapter, Stellar.
It gives us essential information about what/who Shay and Mira are, and Yugan and Shay seem to me closer than ever from meeting. Mikom's ultimate sacrifice felt very much "in character". I almost expected it.
One of the things I love with this story is that every time I think I understand all the parameters, you open up yet more avenues, causes and consequences... Everything keeps getting greater than it seems at first. It has the right balance of character development and interpersonal relationships, politics, ethics, spirituality almost. To some extent it reminds me of Peter Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction series. Is it an inspiration to you?

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Thanks for another fascinating chapter, I'd been hoping one would come out soon.
You took us back to Yugan's world, which seems to be a place that only gets more
deadly as we go along. Is there anything there that won't try to kill or eat you?
Dagen's Gift is a totally Unpeaceable Kingdom. Some of those nasty Stalker Telutuk
monsters got Mikom! I liked her, and now she's dead. What's Yugan going to do
without her? She was his wise mentor, -his matriarch and friend in a hostile world.

 

We now have a tiny bit more information about the origin of aqumi and it's creators
from the last of the Arbiter attackers. They are/were omnipotent, godlike beings,
and Lucere was once known as Sulin's Will.

 

Earth, meanwhile, still wallows in it's primitive venal, and incomprehensibly
tedious corporate world.

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On 07/04/2016 06:09 AM, Bleu said:

Thanks for another great chapter, Stellar.

It gives us essential information about what/who Shay and Mira are, and Yugan and Shay seem to me closer than ever from meeting. Mikom's ultimate sacrifice felt very much "in character". I almost expected it.

One of the things I love with this story is that every time I think I understand all the parameters, you open up yet more avenues, causes and consequences... Everything keeps getting greater than it seems at first. It has the right balance of character development and interpersonal relationships, politics, ethics, spirituality almost. To some extent it reminds me of Peter Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction series. Is it an inspiration to you?

The nature of Shay and Mira's identity as people and the 'heroes' of the story is a long and complex thing, interwoven with many other threads of the plot, so it is something of a slow reveal. Yugan and Shay are indeed a step or two closer to meeting in person, though I daresay the details of that are still a little ambiguous.

 

Ah, expanding the parameters! I am rather devious like that, aren't I? :) Good heavens, if only you knew how much further I intend to go with expanding the playing field!

 

Peter Hamilton! His ability to write space opera is nothing short of amazing. I have read the Commonwealth Saga and the Void Trilogy, but none of his other books. His writing, and that of Dan Simmons (the Hyperion/Endymion quadrilogy) are personal benchmarks for science fiction that incorporate multiple themes including politics, spirituality/mysticism, strong characterisation and classic science fictions. I would take any comparison of that sort as a very definite compliment.

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On 07/04/2016 08:31 PM, Stephen said:

Thanks for another fascinating chapter, I'd been hoping one would come out soon.

You took us back to Yugan's world, which seems to be a place that only gets more

deadly as we go along. Is there anything there that won't try to kill or eat you?

Dagen's Gift is a totally Unpeaceable Kingdom. Some of those nasty Stalker Telutuk

monsters got Mikom! I liked her, and now she's dead. What's Yugan going to do

without her? She was his wise mentor, -his matriarch and friend in a hostile world.

 

We now have a tiny bit more information about the origin of aqumi and it's creators

from the last of the Arbiter attackers. They are/were omnipotent, godlike beings,

and Lucere was once known as Sulin's Will.

 

Earth, meanwhile, still wallows in it's primitive venal, and incomprehensibly

tedious corporate world.

The dagenith trio have been crossing a part of their planet that is very wild and untamed; you have to be brave, desperate or just plain lucky to even think about travelling where they are.

 

Ah! The original inhabitants of Lucere have been gone quite some time, but they certainly left a lot of history behind. Plenty more to come on that count too, of course.

 

Earth is the same as always, though you will begin to see the intricate web of political intrigue advance towards a snapping point, upon which all hell will break loose ...

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Thank you so much for updating! I loved this chapter(like I always do) amd cant wait to read more! Finishing this story to the end of the year sounds awesome, but no worries. I know how it isbwith writing…anyway, i hope you are doing good! :)
love
Sammy

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On 07/08/2016 12:52 AM, Sammy Blue said:

Thank you so much for updating! I loved this chapter(like I always do) amd cant wait to read more! Finishing this story to the end of the year sounds awesome, but no worries. I know how it isbwith writing…anyway, i hope you are doing good! :)

love

Sammy

Thanks Sammy <3

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This is an incredible read. An intriguing plot that is complex, with well interwoven themes and protagonists that are amazing and admirable. The scientific and technological themes are clearly conveyed, well written and readily followed even if not always fully understood.
I am fully absorbed and enjoying every word.
Thank you for this wonderful literary gift.

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On 11/13/2016 05:28 AM, Cinnamon said:

This is an incredible read. An intriguing plot that is complex, with well interwoven themes and protagonists that are amazing and admirable. The scientific and technological themes are clearly conveyed, well written and readily followed even if not always fully understood.

I am fully absorbed and enjoying every word.

Thank you for this wonderful literary gift.

Thank you! My aim has always been a complex narrative with many interlocking parts. The characterisation is the ultimate driving force, so I am glad the protagonists stand out as individuals worthy of notice. There is more to come, so stay tuned!

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Mishith story was very hopeful to start with and then so sad! It was so well written and with powerful discretion!  Evil Aliens bite the sand in many parts! We learn much more then we knew! The great sadness is we are running out of chapters! Just loving this great story!:yes:

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What a desperate brachiation of the deganith trio using all of their limbs on top in the canopy of the Dagen's Grace forest in the morass! They have mastered half the distance through the marsh already when they reach that ravine. Even that they accomplish to surmount and get back to the tree tops when at the last instance poor Mikom being the last of the trio sacrifices and gets caught by the tail of a stalker. What a brave fight, but then she is being overpowered by assisting swarms of fellow stalkers. With a last glance she transmits all her wisdom to Yugan "and their paths were split"... Yet, it is so sad and heart braking. It has hurt me to read these lines. Another big loss. Out of four only two remaining. Why are you killing so many wonderful characters who so much deserve to be staying alive?

The aqumi revelation in the void of the hidden crack is beyond my understanding. I will yet have to learn to grasp all the strange phrases.

Then there's this wonderful scene with Mira and Shay, in the nude on the dusty gravel of a lonely planet under an alien sky, very close and holding each other tightly. I love that.

Thanks for a great chapter again.

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3 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Why are you killing so many wonderful characters who so much deserve to be staying alive?

Well, not everyone will make it out alive, but be wary of writing off anyone who doesn't clearly die in plain view.

3 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

The aqumi revelation in the void of the hidden crack is beyond my understanding. I will yet have to learn to grasp all the strange phrases.

This part of the chapter was hard for even some native English speakers to comprehend. It's very abstract and conceptual, so it may not be easy to immediately grasp.

3 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Then there's this wonderful scene with Mira and Shay, in the nude on the dusty gravel of a lonely planet under an alien sky, very close and holding each other tightly. I love that.

Thanks for a great chapter again.

I took special amusement in Shay not realising how great his butt looks until Mira makes a thing out of it.

It's the little things that bring us joy.

Thanks for reading.

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