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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 - 19. Unseen Consequence

The lunar fortifications were being strengthened as per the most stringent recommendations Konstantin had received. The distance between Earth's child and the homeworld was small in terms of mankind's ability to cross space, but the defences needed to be as resilient as Earth's and those at Mars. There were people living and working on all three, and the Russian had no intention of leaving any of them undefended. All of the military-industrial capacity available was dedicated to the reinforcement of the orbital defence network.

It would have to be enough.

He was in a shuttle cruising back to Alpha 3 from a long tour and discussion with the lunar commander, when a call came through from his aide. It blinked up on the passenger compartment's holoscreen.

"Tuuri, what is it?" He was a little clipped, not in the mood for disturbances, his mind still very much wrapped up in the burden of being responsible for so much. "It's been a very involved day."

"I apologise for the interruption, sir. It's just that I've had repeated requests to speak with you." She appeared very stressed, her job involving dealing with powerful men and women who didn't like their demands being turned down. "He is holding on the line right now, and has been very insistent, sir, and I know that you said you didn't want to hear from any corporatists, but-"

"Stop right there." Konstantin was firm, fighting the urge to be irritable and angry at the intrusion. "Explain to him again the rules and that I will not deal with political attempts at influencing my leadership. He can contact the civilian administration."

"Yes, sir. I will-"

Tuuri's face disappeared from the holoscreen. It flickered for a second then another image appeared abruptly, a new signal replacing the old. A man in his late fifties, balding and with a humourless seriousness to him. He started speaking straight away, not giving a second for Konstantin to ask what was happening.

"Sorry to hijack the conversation with your secretary. I don't like doing this, but the issues I need to discuss are far too important to be ignored."

"Who are you, and what do you think you are doing?!" A thunderous reprise, Konstantin delivered it to the screen with an equally weighty glare. "Explain yourself immediately!"

"I am Frederick Duynhoven, CEO of the Duynhoven Multinational. You have heard of it."

Duynhoven.

Konstantin had heard of it. The Duynhoven Multinational was the only corporation of significant size that existed and wasn't MFM. Though this new face was mostly an unknown quantity, Konstantin also knew that politically Duynhoven's positions often sided with MFM in the senate, and the CEO was no friend to the other factions involved in the tug-of-war over the rule of Earth.

"You know the rules, Mr Duynhoven," Konstantin snapped, "and I have no reason to let you insinuate or threaten your way into my graces. This call is over."

The shuttle was about to dock with Alpha 3, the pilot's notification light blinking in lieu of the standard verbal warning, because Konstantin was occupied in a call.

"Wait!" Duynhoven spoke fast, with a very subtle Afrikaans accent. "I know about Taiqing and the mission to Lucere! It's a mistake!"

"What?!" Konstantin stopped, his refusal halting. "How do you know about that? Why is it a mistake?"

"You probably think MFM are our best friends because we share a common philosophy and a political alignment." Duynhoven shook his head, the urgency gone from his voice now that the commander was actually willing to listen. "The truth is the opposite. They would dismantle and absorb my corporation and all its assets if given the chance. I have no more interest in MFM's ascendancy than I do in letting any other such group seize control. My goal in keeping senate seats is to moderate the worst of that excess; to keep some kind of balance and protect myself. It's also the same reason why my contacts within Corpsec-Space have been very busy recently. They have lots to communicate."

"You are spying on them." The Russian sat back in his chair, the shuttle now motionless in the dock.

"It's wise to know your enemy. In this case, I have to tell you: I know of the planned assault on Taiqing, I know of the mission to Lucere and I definitely know of the anti-cloaking tech that is being developed, because my own scientists have been working on the exact same thing."

"Then why is it a mistake?"

"Because we stole a detailed development schematic for the technology's implementation. RDA, their research branch, is arguably the best at what they do. They have the funding, they have the resources, and they have some of the most brilliant minds available, but ... even the best can be wrong. There is a very small error in their methodology. It is a critical flaw that means, potentially, the anti-cloaking devices will not always work."

"Go on." Konstantin's gaze had narrowed and he was focused but stern, wanting to hear this man out, even though he was not sure how trustworthy Duynhoven was. "What is the error?"

"I will explain as best I can, commander. The alien cloaking technology is incredibly advanced and it is nearly beyond our ability to comprehend. It uses a phase-shift mechanism that simultaneously allows certain cosmic phenomena to permeate through it as if it was not present, whilst still being present. We still don't know how they can decouple physical mass from the default interactions that happen with radiant energy, and that has made this problem so hard to solve. However, RDA's solution involves a detection matrix that matches the frequency with which the phase-shift oscillates, and also balances variables that arise due to movement. To simplify that concept so you know exactly what I mean, think of it this way: their cloaking is like a radio signal that could exist on one of a billion different frequencies. We didn't know where to listen before, but now we do."

Konstantin nodded. This all made sense so far, but there had to be more. "And the problem with this is?"

"The problem is RDA has concluded, incorrectly, that this frequency is a fixed value based on a certain cosmological constant, and is therefore applicable to all situations. It is not. My own scientists were very upset when they learned through our espionage yesterday that RDA believes so, because they know otherwise. Our conclusion is that the frequency is a scalar based upon mass."

"Based upon mass," murmured Konstantin, thoughtful. "So, your belief would assume the anti-cloaking technology would fail when there was a difference in the target's mass?"

"Yes." Duynhoven nodded, very sombre. "The baseline mass we have used is the same that RDA and your military use for experimentation; the little scout ship that was destroyed in orbit two centuries ago when the virus first appeared. This is the only case study we have, and for this the technology will work, but no live tests have been done on alternate masses to verify. If the rumours are true about the aliens having other larger vessels, then these ships will fool RDA's method with zero problems."

"Chyort." The Russian swore. "This ... is all true?"

"I am not about to say it in a court of law, but ... yes. Entirely so." Duynhoven blinked, still mirthless. "I would advise rethinking your Taiqing attack, commander. It could be a very bad move."

"Mr Duynhoven, I am not certain." He was conflicted, unwilling to quickly abandon something that seemed like the right course of action. "Corpsec-Space has done extensive testing and Mr Accioli expressed extreme confidence in RDA's findings. Isn't there a possibility that your scientists have made an error also?"

"There is always that possibility." The CEO accepted this point, but then quickly turned it around. "Yet, this time, they have not. I would stake my reputation on it, and I do not say such things lightly. Also, commander, your mission to Lucere is yet to return. Does this not concern you?"

"As you have such certainty in your scientific findings, I have faith in my fleet. It is true that the Lucere mission is overdue, but not yet enough to assume the worst."

"Faith. Hmph." Duynhoven grunted softly. "Your conviction is admirable, Mr Andropov. We may never be friends, but do not let your zeal blind you to reality. Your decisions have consequence, and you hold Earth in the palm of your hand." He smiled wanly. "No pressure, commander." He nodded. "I have said what I can. Good day."

The screen went blank, the call ending.

-o-0-O-0-o-

To Yugan, the endless forest of Dagen's Grace now felt like both a blessing and a curse. It was home, and all he knew, but in the most recent cycles, it was an inescapable danger and a destroyer of companions. The loss of the matriarch was a wound the eye could not see, yet the need for pause and lamentation was crushed, hidden, beneath the all-important need of Dagen's burden and the quest that was forced upon him.

The future.

Ralot had not spoken of it, and neither had he. In some way, it was still incomprehensible, but even with the painful acceptance, there was the constant travail of the Sylvan Morass, and the subtle intrusion of the night vision.

They could not talk, and even though he wished for it so strongly that it was almost an ache of wanting, the kitten's link lay just beyond reach, Yugan too far from the hidden fire of the mountains. Still, he saw it, the road that the human boy was walking, with the tendrils of fate splayed in possible paths. Times had existed where the probabilities were wayward and varied, the Enemy having a very real chance to gain ascendancy, but now, it had become refined.

Shay Andersen was searching for him. He was coming to Dagen's Grace, and he would arrive soon.

He would make it to this world, or ... it would all be for nothing.

Mikom's words remained in his thoughts.

The breaking of continual motion and the end of the eternal cycle.

"Yugan." Ralot was rousing him, and he sat, waking from his slumber. "It is early in the cycle. We can make it to the village at the foot of Usun-Gar. We can seek relief with them." She was passing him his spear as he stood, their minimal supplies already gathered and stashed.

"Relief." He repeated the word as he stretched, preparing himself to resume their travel, and then an odd thought came to him. "Why did you come on this journey, Ralot? It is a trial and you will not find much respite in it; not for a time."

"Yes, it is," she agreed easily, her staff tucked under the inferior right arm as an afterthought, "but the decision was not difficult."

"Why?" He came closer to her, and her stance softened slightly, her confidence quiescent. "Turil is gone. Mikom has fallen. I cannot promise that you will see the end."

"Yugan." Her sadness was evident; in her eyes, from the set of her ears, her grip of the weapon, and the way she spoke. "It is pain to witness death. Turil fought, but that was not enough. The matriarch was the best of us, but that was not enough. I am here, and it is not only because Mikom asked it, but because I wished to follow you."

The change in her demeanour was small, but significant, and Yugan felt the implications, the gravity of what she was saying through her body's signals: the desire to bond.

For the Mishith, it could only ever be reciprocal. Unrequited relationships, physical and emotional, were impossible. Their physiology prevented anything but a mutual joining, and it was only permitted when the shared chemistry of both male and female aligned. Then, mind and body were opened and within that harmony the bond could be made; a pairing around which love and family would grow.

Ralot was searching, receptive to this possibility with him, and he could see now the odd shyness, the hesitation that her silent admission brought with it. "I watched you from afar in Otsin sometimes, even when you did not know so much of me in return." She moved closer, slowly, and so did he. Both her left arms took both his right, a gentle grasp that just wanted to be nearer so the feeling could be shared. She held the touch, not letting it go, her voice dropping to no more than a whisper. "I am drawn to your courage, and maybe there will be more."

"Ralot." He took her right arms with his left, mirroring her previous gesture, and drew her closer, their heads touching in a grateful embrace. "I cannot say. If I could tell you, I would speak, but until this journey ends, all is uncertainty and doubt. It gladdens me that you came."

"For now, this is enough. I will follow."

"Then I shall lead." They separated, and he brandished his spear, pointing it in the direction of the mountain. "Come, let us reach the Mother!"

They began their travel once more, departing from the night's camp, high in the wetwood canopy. It had already started to thin, and was beginning to devolve into smaller, less sparse foliage. The spore flowers were not nearly as prolific here, and there had been no sign of any stalkers or chitok for some time. There were more dry-shells and fewer wetwoods to be found, and they were smaller. The edge of the Morass was very near, and the forest began to transition into the more familiar feel of the deep wilds, with a hint of the alpine as the ground's altitude began to climb nearer the Mother's base.

Their eagerness to be free of the dangers of the Morass gave them speed as they completed the final leg. It was similar terrain to near Otsin, but cooler and a little drier. Wild fruit trees like those on Kerelom's flank dotted the more open clear forest floor, and a family of errant mire-haunts squealed and fled off through the undergrowth, surprised by the dagenith as they fed on the dropped fruit.

"It will be welcome to see our kin," Ralot told him, "for the ancient forest is a cruel place."

"It is." He could only agree, as they slipped from the forest's border to beneath the open sky, entering the clearing in front of the village itself. Close by to their right, the foundation of Usun-Gar's ascent was visible. The mountain's base seemed colossal, and its thickness began to push upward, vanishing into cloud, a truly monumental piece of nature. "We are about to meet them. Look there!"

They crossed the clearing at a pace, the buildings visible, but then, something was not right. It seemed quiet, abnormally so.

As they got closer, it became clear why.

No dagenith were visible. None were emerging to greet them. Vines and grasses were dense; overgrown and tangled around each dwelling. It was unruly and not inhabited. No longer a village, this place was empty.

It was a ruin.

"Yugan, what is this? Where are the dagenith?"

Then, he saw it.

Just like the telutuk, he was too young to have encountered a selet in the flesh, but as soon as he laid eyes on it, he knew exactly what it was.

Walking out from between two houses, it was Mishith height, an arthropod insectoid moving on four nimble double-jointed legs. The legs were attached to a small abdominal junction, which narrowed vertically to a joint from which the prosoma began; the creature's combined head and thorax. The head was crowned by a large swept-back chitinous defensive plating, and beneath that a number of compound eyes peered out the front, the multiple facets catching everything that moved with high clarity. Two powerful lengthy mandibles extended out of its maw, while additional dual forelegs were attached to either side of the thorax. Shorter than the lower limbs, they were able to be used for lateral balance while at rest, or otherwise for attack. Both were more slender than their lower counterparts, but the grooved edges were razor thin, and terminated in a point. Not only did they resemble long thin stabbing blades, but there was a poisonous glisten, the very reason the selet had its name: the venom-shank.

Before he could utter a sound, a second and third were ambling into view behind it, and then with uncomfortable prescience, the first selet paused, its thorax swivelling at the abdomen joint. It halted, motionless, its attention focused directly upon the dagenith.

"Ralot," Yugan breathed, an angry desperation riding on the words, the selet still unmoving as it sized them up, its brethren standing in eerie imitation behind it; a predator judging the prey's initial reaction in a frozen standoff. "Make for the Mother with all the speed you have. Now!"

She took off, and he beside her. Without looking, he heard the staccato of thumping as the selet broke into action also, and the hungry raspy chittering sounds they made as they gave chase.

Ahead, Usun-Gar beckoned, the beacon of Dagen's fire far above within the mist.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The week was rapidly becoming a very trying one for Konstantin. He had spent some time thinking about Duynhoven's warning against the planned offensive operation. It was hard to trust either group of corporatists, and although they both had different stakes and different reasons for their actions, there was a common cause in survival.

If Duynhoven was wrong, nothing would change.

If Duynhoven was right, keeping the same course of action could potentially lose everything.

Ultimately, Konstantin had to err in favour of caution.

He contacted Accioli and informed the man that the planned ambush at Taiqing was to be postponed until further trials on the anti-cloaking technology could be conducted to be totally sure of its effectiveness against all foes. Konstantin also noted that the Lucere mission was now nearly a full day overdue, and the military intelligence's success probability was beginning to drop quickly by this duration. There was reason to believe problems had occurred, and that there was an increasing likelihood the mission personnel might not return.

Accioli's counter was that there could be explanations for Lucere other than the failure of the technology, and he went on to state how comprehensive RDA's detection assessment had been, including the wide array of possible evasion methods the xenomorphs could employ.

Konstantin's rejoinder had been to tell him that, regardless, Taiqing would have to wait.

The response to this was shocking.

Accioli had flatly refused, and this led to an explosive argument. CorpSec-Space had the resources to execute a sizeable operation without the federal military's involvement. The binding legislation concerning allied military space operations did not require Konstantin's approval for the conduct of independent actions when it came to matters of crucial importance by MFM's policy. Accioli stated that 'the directorate' had given him explicit instruction to continue, with their blessing.

Konstantin had angrily demanded to speak with this mysterious directorate, telling the Corpsec-Space head that the federal military was not to be a puppet of a corporatist board of executives. Accioli had sneered at this, informing him that 'you don't get to make those demands either' before summarily ending the call.

That was two days ago. Now, it was Friday afternoon and Konstantin was still in a sour mood, but he had a liaison to attend with the army leadership in London. He had no idea how he was to deal with the internal complexities of Earth's space forces, and this fact alone frustrated him. He was getting ready to leave, only moments from walking out the door dressed in the official regalia of the supreme commander, when his aide interrupted him.

"Tuuri," he sighed, "now is not the time. I have to be at my shuttle very soon. I do not have the patience to speak with another pushy bureaucrat or address a new batch of modified implementation statements, so help me God."

"Sir." She was quite serious. "You will want to take this particular call. Believe me. Please sit and I will put it through."

"Very well. This had better be quick."

He sat down at his desk and the screen flicked on, the call connecting.

The premier was on the other end.

"Mr Guiterrez!" He could not hide his surprise. "I was not expecting you."

"Commander Andropov, I need to talk with you urgently." The soft-spoken politician seemed different, hardened somehow from the recent events on Earth, his reticence having faded away. "My concerns must be obvious at this point, and they need to be acted upon."

"You are right that what is happening with the senate is worrying, but I am sure that your security agencies can restore order and that elections will be held." Konstantin nodded, his adherence to the Concordat's mandate unchanged. "Our democracy can endure this, as it has endured other times of crisis."

"It is more serious than that." Guiterrez gestured to the screen, open-handed, forceful. "The corporatist senators are now little more than a front for MFM to leverage its formidable power in undermining and destroying the state. Doubtless you have seen the news, but the reports that come to me, the extent of civil unrest and conflict, are worse. There is a lot of damage happening. This cannot be allowed to continue. Do you understand how precarious the situation is?"

"Mr Guiterrez, I do not-"

"They are a THREAT, commander! Their assets must be seized and their power base dissolved, permanently! For a return to peace and stability, the military must provide support. MFM means to oust the executive, and take my position so they have all of the civilian government under their control."

"It is not my role to-"

Once more, Guiterrez cut him off, demanding and blunt. For Konstantin to see this man so transformed was bizarre, and to imagine what must have occurred to make him so uncharacteristically audacious was disturbing. "It will be me, then they will find a way to get rid of you. If they don't do it by manipulation, they will do it by force. If you misunderstand me, I mean assassination. The time for debate is ending, and you must fix this."

"Premier." Konstantin finally managed to stop the man's flow, as firmly as he could. "You are asking the most serious thing possible from me. If the army steps in, then I am spitting upon what the Concordat stands for. It will damage the integrity of our system as much as anything else could."

"Understand that if you do not act ... there will be no system!" The premier spat the words, his face aglare with defiance and resolution. "You must come to the government's aid! You must protect the institutions that you were sworn to uphold through martial service! Do your duty!"

"Well, I ... "

Konstantin paused here, for a second not sure what to say, and then it struck him.

The full force of what this moment meant.

As at the military succession, he could feel the weight of providence bearing down. This was another decision with very heavy consequences. If he did nothing, it was certainly possible the corporatists could do exactly as Guiterrez stated: take control of the government. Yet, if he acted, he would be setting a dangerous precedent that directly and unambiguously undercut the principles on which the government was based.

The choice was between punishing the greed and ambitious lust of MFM that had caused so much turmoil for so long, or to hold true to principle, to the sacred oath of his word.

Righteousness or truth.

It was a test.

"Commander." Guiterrez dropped his tone, but the pressure and the persuasion were stronger than ever. "You know it must be done."

He wanted to.

Nothing was more appealing than destroying Quân, dismantling the corporatist network, casting down their apparatus of control and domination.

The allure was heady and emotional.

For a moment, a split second, the words formed on the tip of his tongue and he was prepared to speak them: yes, premier, I will intervene.

But, he did not.

"Mr Guiterrez," Konstantin's voice was thick, slow, and he forced the words, "I cannot do as you ask. I will keep my word."

The anger on the premier's face was a storm cloud but he managed to rein it in, just barely. "Then I hope you change your mind soon. Before it is too late."

The holo-screen abruptly went blank.

The Russian let out a long exhale of breath, his heart racing. The exchange was intense and quick, and he wondered if he had truly done the right thing. Only time could really tell, though the premier had been right about one thing.

The time for debate was definitely coming to an end.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The past was trying to devour her.

It was an ocean of darkness that pulled, climbing her limbs, dragging her backward; clinging and clawing and seeking to drown, to block out the sun. To pull her under, tear out the fire, the freedom she owned and served.

She did not know where she was, or how long had gone by. Just that it was an immense chamber, a structure of giant lines and curving rafters, black and blue and grey. Dim and choking, a suffocation infused with the twisting intangible web of void that her captor was imbued with, and born from.

All Elia knew was that she was alone.

For too long, she persisted in her defiance as a war continued between the substance of her body and what surrounded her. There was no rest from this assault, and no rest from her automatic defence against it, even as her fatigue reached past the point of encompassment and it became a state of existence; a tenuous perpetuity she was unable to give in to.

There was nothing real outside of what she suffered. It was an injurious penitence, a million times removed from any salvation.

This did not change until it spoke to her.

I am the Herald of Truth.

The sound of her host was an earthquake in the mind. It dwarfed the arbiters; so loud, so deep and resonant that it was a schism threatening to cleave her very essence.

It hurt and it was undeniable.

You will surrender, and you will serve once more.

No. Her response was not more than a whispered one, the best she could manage. I will never.

The Master wills it, so it shall be done.

I am free.

All await the Music and Light. None are free.

I am. I will be.

Then, know fate. Nothing could dissuade, nothing could put a mark upon the total surety, the absolute certainty that it spoke with. It was as if it were writing events just by saying them. Simply experiencing the magnitude of this voice was overwhelming, and then the pitch rose to what was a soul-breaching exclamation. Know the future! Behold!

Her surroundings dropped away and she was suspended in space above a world, a sphere of blue and green and brown and white. A million points of light were exploding about her as a swarm of two opposing shapes clashed, a whirl of conflict and struggle, as vivid and expansive as reality. Then, behind her, beyond her in space, monstrous shapes were moving in the vacuum and from them, siphoned out of the void's heart, a cascade of energy streamed to the surface.

Reality broke open when it touched, a wall of infinite broadness she had never perceived split asunder. From within the rift a misting darkness exploded, swarming across the surface. It spread rapidly, nothing giving it pause.

She could see it, hear it, feel it.

Millions upon millions of voices crying in abject fear, their freedom stripped away, until the colour was only a shrouding black, and there was nothing but silence.

This is the end.

Then the foretelling was shrinking, stars blurring as the augury shifted a great distance through space, and also time. It was another world, green, brown, white; awash with ruins, mountainous, rainy and forested. A vast collection of shapes warped into being above it, a force of power come to make war.

Here it begins. This place, the world they name Taiqing, becomes a beautiful sacrifice.

No. She managed to speak, so weak, so crushed by all that was shown. I will not let you. I will change it.

The augury vanished and Elia was back where she had been for an eternity, enshrined within an embrace she could not leave, would never leave. What strength was left she put into a struggle, a physical action against all the impassable bindings upon her, but it did not even allow a moment's movement.

The alliance sought will die in the birthing. The old foe will falter beneath the Light. The defiler will be broken, as will the betrayer near him, and you? In the repressive horror of the cavern about her, weaving tentacles of void slithered and snaked, and they flicked above where she was held, and with no hesitation plunged down and into her flesh. Arms, legs, torso, neck, head; everywhere. You will be an instrument of the Master's will.

Elia gasped, fought, struck at it, screamed, raged within her mind that was invaded by something greater than she had known. She had to believe in the fire's heat, the grace of it able to save her from slavery.

Freedom!

It was all there was.

Freedom.

It was everything.

Free-

Her voice was gone, silenced, and only the thunder of an omnipotent being remained; a god speaking the pure undiluted truth into her spirit.

You will kill them.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"So, we made exactly the same mistake they did?" Ayize was the last to finish pulling off his suit, all of us back within Liberty's hull, away from Elkos' heat and sulfuric acidity. "Poked a hole in something big, just to see what would happen?"

"Except in this case, 'something' was the universe itself." Rashid shrugged, nonplussed, taking a seat on a travel chair. "We've got a history of messing with things we shouldn't."

"For them, it was worse." I took a seat too and Mira imitated me, choosing the nearest to mine. "I have no idea how it was worse, but it must have been really bad. They basically had their civilisation wiped out in order to stop what was happening, and it was only enough to push the enemy back where it came from, until we repeated it."

"Through this 'Veil of Shadow'," mused Ayize. He leaned back, pensive, scratching his neck, eyes gliding over my face. "What did you say Dagen described it as, the 'foundation of reality', was it?"

"Yeah, that's right." I closed my eyes momentarily, recalling the phrasing. At the bottom of creation, both everywhere and nowhere all at once. I knew now that this was the same horizon Liberty had told me of. The smallest limit of reality, it was past where aqumi combined all the fundamental universal forces together, past where the antithesis of the arbiters' power seemed to flow; an untouchable intangible limitation that existed to divide our reality from ... whatever lay on the other side.

"I understand a lot more now, but there is still so much I don't know," I continued talking, telling the two men what I was thinking. "Dagen and Sulin were brothers. Sulin was the one in charge, a sort of commander, but Dagen was more like a ... seer, I guess is the word. He could use aqumi to see what might happen in the future."

"Then why not just tell us everything?" Ayize sniffed, his nose wrinkling. "Why be so coy and beat around the bush with all this interstellar hopping when he could simply spill the beans?"

"Because he is trying to get a very specific outcome." To my surprise, it was Rashid who answered. He gestured to me. "If he told Shay too much or too little, we might do the wrong thing at the wrong time, and it could all fail. He is just leading us from place to place in the right sequence so we have the best possible chance of winning. Right?"

"Right." I nodded and smiled at Rashid, who did something rather out of character and smiled back. Flustered at his unexpected nicety, I cleared my throat and went on. "He wants us to follow his path so I can find him, the reborn version. Just like Sulin found a new body in me, Dagen did also. There are others too." I glanced at my miracle, and he blinked questioningly, happy to have my attention; eyes wide, innocent and wordlessly charming. My heart fluttered and my chest tightened from this simple reaction. Never gets old. I love the way he looks at me. "Mira is one of them, and there must be at least one more, because Dagen used the plural."

"Mira, huh?" The African was taken aback, but only for a second. "That ... makes a lot of sense, actually. Fits with the rest of the traits you two share. So, I gather you had another vision of the next world in Dagen's chain?"

"I did. It's called Yahet and I saw the sky, just like the others."

"Well," he grinned, "no time like the present. You ready to get right back into the search?"

"We won't find Dagen if I don't."

Ayize chuckled. "That's the attitude."

So that's what we did.

No time was wasted in getting settled on Elkos. Though going outside was a lot more restrictive due to the planet's environment, it was still perfectly fine as a camp site. Liberty gave me no concern about sitting where it was, clearly hardy enough to weather the corrosion without bother. Mira and Rashid promptly went back to their own devices while the African and I went straight on with the task of locating Yahet.

However, there was a fairly major problem.

My vision of Yahet's sky had been covered in nebulous cyan-grey clouds that seemed to shift and hide portions of the sky. Where the stars were visible, they were fainter than normal and much more indistinct. I wasn't sure if this was from the planet's atmosphere or an actual nebula near the world, but it served to obscure the memory.

This simple fact slowed the process down a lot, and Ayize quickly became frustrated. Not by me, but the lack of potential because of difficult information. It wasn't long before I shared his irritation too, but we persevered in our sweep for candidates. Another factor was pointed out to me by Ayize too, and that was a plain fact: we were now a lot further away from Earth, so the stellar record was not as comprehensive. When I asked him just how far, he told me the distance was 2900 light-years.

Astonished, I did not realise we had gone so far in just a couple of leaps; from Callisto, to Samed, to Elkos. I knew that this meant we were much further from home than any human had ever been, and testing with my influence over the gravitational medium, I felt as far as I could, reaching to the maximum to see if the Earth was still detectable.

It wasn't.

The thought was both exciting and scary at the same time.

Our jumps had taken us out of the Gould Belt and away along the Orion Arm. According to Ayize, this put us closer to the galactic centre of the Milky Way, but not by much because we were following the arm's spiral inward. It did help a little in terms of where to search, as the assumption was that we were likely to continue in the same general direction.

We just had to pinpoint where, given the vague information that I had.

In the meanwhile, I occupied myself with reading more from the onboard encyclopaedia about Earth's technology. I wanted to know as much as I was capable of understanding when it came to how things had advanced while I was on Lucere. Gravity was particularly interesting to me, and I delved into that topic as far as I could.

Apparently, human control over gravity was still quite flawed. Originally, it was assumed that unlocking the ability to focus and change the gravitational field was the end-all for our understanding of physical science, but when it came to increasingly large masses and highly focused artificial gravity, there were a number of unsolved problems that prevented humanity from mastering it.

Those problems precluded things like faster-than-light travel from becoming a reality in the way science-fiction had imagined. It also gave limitations on distance when it came to singularities. Though the mathematical explanations for how singularities actually worked were available, they were incomprehensible and consisted of a bunch of Greek letters, symbols and numbers that were as strange to my brain as the Mishith alphabet was to someone like Ayize. The English explanation was that the singularity was a 'time-space compression stricture allowing a bimodal variable mass to exist simultaneously for the duration of the junction.' Translated into a version that actually made sense, I understood it to mean that the singularity basically used focused gravity to distort space so the origin and destination were in the same place for a fraction of time. When it finished, the 'pinching together' of space ended, and everything from the origin was now located at the destination only.

The amount of energy required to generate a singularity also limited the destination. Greater distances required exponentially larger amounts of energy, and although the technology had been refined and improved, with blips being ironed out and smoothed over, gravity and anti-gravity were still works in progress. Liberty's method, which also required bending gravity for the shortest moment to jump anywhere, was less intrusive and much more sophisticated, seeming to deal with shifting mass between two points with a greater elegance and ease than humanity was capable of. It was why they had a greater jump range, and it made me wonder just what else the aliens could do that I didn't yet know about.

I tried to catch up on as much history as possible too. It wasn't nearly as interesting or enlightening, but I wanted to learn as much as I could in my spare time. The days rolled on and it was getting near to a week since we'd arrived. The number of possible locations for Yahet was still high, and it was driving me crazy trying to remember more about the vision that the node had given me. It was like clutching at the wind trying to hold onto it; the sky over the next world was just a bit too cloudy, a bit too muddled to make out.

It was a predicament, but we just had to keep trying to narrow the selection.

At least, I had the companionship of my miracle, and through the labourious obstruction of our search, Mira's constant adoring presence made it all worthwhile.

-o-0-O-0-o-

There had been no chance to fathom what was happening before the girl had grabbed Lucas by the arm, insistently urging him to stand. He had done so, and then the urgency was directed away from the Valkyrie, to some point in the forest. The soldier had resisted for a few moments, limping to the fighter's hull and pulling himself up just high enough to reach inside and snatch the emergency survival bag from inside the cockpit's port dashboard.

He had followed her across the grassy field, hobbling as fast as he could, still not understanding the fearful pressure now that the marauding creatures were dead, but just as they reached the cover of the first trees, he was given very good reason.

Uncloaked, an alien ship arrived over the crash zone. Much larger than the Disciples and his fighter, the cruiser-sized vessel slowed and descended to touch down, here to investigate. From Konstantin's briefing on what enemy forces might be present at Lucere, he recalled a ship that matched the description of this one: the Emissary. No sooner than it had settled, exit points were opening in the hull and he saw at least five arbiters emerge.

"Shit." He swore under his breath, not even daring to raise his voice, still breathing hard from his near-death at the hands of one of those creatures, and from the continuing pain of his ankle. The girl was pulling at his arm, and he turned to her. Eyes wide, she was tugging him away, persistent, and her eyes seemed to be calling out a message. She didn't want to stay, these things were bad news.

Lucas followed her, casting a final glance behind him at the xenomorphs taking custody of his fighter and then he half-walked, half-stumbled away. They didn't go far, only a few hundred metres, before they entered a dense copse of smaller trees, ringed by undergrowth and largely hidden from the outside.

The girl had been hiding here, using this place as a sanctuary in the woods. Lucas immediately dropped to the ground, nearly falling over in the haste to take the weight off his feet. Opening the survival kit, he hurriedly rifled through it until he found painkillers, splint bindings, and other medical supplies to address his injury. Seconds after he finished applying them, he lay back, his body already relaxing and then, a few moments later, he passed out.

It was dark when Lucas came to, and the girl wasn't there. Setting up a portable lamp, he turned it to a low setting so it was inconspicuous and placed it in the middle of the enclosure, to provide a little light. Thirsty and still with a foul taste in his mouth, the soldier opened and gulped half of a bottled water. His ankle still hurt like hell, and he knew it would be stupid to try walking on it again just yet. He needed to give it a bit longer to settle down before he tried to get up, so he lay still, temporarily safe in the dim embrace of the stand of trees and long grass.

She appeared again about an hour later, entering the copse like a phantom. Approaching until she was just out of his reach, she sat down next to the light, looking at it like it was a novelty. It most probably was, as Lucas hadn't seen anything in her body language or reactions that told him she understood civilisation. She seemed to have no clue how to talk or what any of the things he carried were meant for, beyond the very basic. It was then that Lucas noticed something else.

Her hands.

There was no mark on the palms from the Sharpe virus. Konstantin had told him a bit about his time on Lucere, and included with that information was the fact that everyone on the planet was a carrier, unavoidably. Part of Konstantin's retelling had included the amazement of not seeing the palm markings upon meeting the boy Shay Andersen and his brother Mira.

Now, this girl too.

"You're just like them," he said, his voice a bit croaky from the dry throat and long sleep. She regarded him blankly, and he smirked. "Yeah, you can't understand me, can you? You have to be like them," he went on, "because there isn't anyone who can ... do whatever you did to that thing and walk away alive and uninfected."

The girl just blinked and continued to watch him. Her hair was black, straight but unruly. Short, and with a round face and very dark brown eyes, she had an odd sort of attractiveness to her. He guessed maybe seventeen years old, and of some ethnicity from the east of Europe, maybe Slavic origins.

"Wonder if you've got a name? I'm Lucas." He enunciated it slowly, and repeated it, tapping his chest. "Lucas."

No response, no change.

"Oh, um, you want something to eat?" He pulled a protein bar out of the bag, unwrapped it and held it out to her. She stared at the object as if it were about to commit some kind of heinous crime against her, then she plucked it delicately away. Biting off a corner, the girl chewed for only long enough to make a disgusted face then spat it out and offered the bar straight back, the offence now quite real. Lucas snorted. "Yeah, I don't like cherry flavour either. Personally I think it tastes like shit."

Done with listening to him talk and offer terrible snacks, she promptly lay down next to the light, curling up on the grass, and closed her eyes. Lucas observed it all with fascinated curiosity, her behaviour not unlike a study in anthropology.

A living human being who didn't know anything of human civilisation, not even speech, on a ruined human world.

"Nap time it is then," he murmured to himself. "Guess I need a bit more recuperation too."

So he slept.

The following day, he tried to get up to test his ankle, but the girl stopped him, a hand on his shoulder, her eyes demanding that he stay grounded. She seemed to know how injured he was, somehow, and was forcing him to rest. Further attempts were made to communicate, but she did not respond to the repetition of his name, or anything else spoken.

The girl had her own food stash, and the dried jerky and chewy bricks of nuts and sugar were tastier than the nutritionally balanced rations from the survival kit. She shared some with him and was surprised to find the jerky was cured venison and better than he expected. Still, it was a late on the third day when he was still immobile, and sure now that his ankle was as good as it could get without a doctor's attention. He was becoming antsy, his stay on Lucere much too prolonged. Earth had to learn what he knew.

He needed to return.

She was out somewhere else, not able to stop him from rising, and he decided to reconnoitre the crash zone. Limping through the forest, the survival kit on his back, he was careful to keep a low profile and make minimal noise as he got within visual range. The Emissary was still there, in the same location, and an arbiter was standing out in the open like a sentinel, statuesque and unmoving.

On guard.

He shivered at the sight of the thing, an abomination against nature.

To his mind, it was pure evil.

How to get past it?

Lucas had to return. He had a mission to perform, a duty to report the information gathered, and then, there was the matter of the girl. It was very important that she come with him, but given what he had seen her do, he knew there was no way to make her join him.

Something touched his left arm, and he jerked in shock, his instinct about to engage in fight, when he turned to see her next to him. Her eyes went to his face, worried, then to what lay ahead of them: the Valkyrie, the Emissary and the arbiters.

"I know you can't understand me, but I need to leave." His brow crinkled, her large dark eyes staring expressionless as he whispered. "People are depending on me. I- ... I have to go."

She continued staring for a moment, then another glance to the clearing, then back to his face. Her lips opened, slowly, and she touched her chest, imitating the way he introduced himself.

"Nyx." Barely audible, but ... she talked.

Caught unaware, he blinked, then smiled at her. "Nyx. Okay. That's good." Lucas nodded, then pointed to the Valkyrie. "That's where I have to go. I hope you can pick up what I'm saying. I need you to come too. I need you to trust me." He pleaded with her, letting his facial expression, his body language, do the communicating. Words were not her thing.

"Please, trust me."

Her eyes were searching his face, evaluating him over and over and over. For more than half a minute, she did not let go of his arm. Then she swallowed, nervous, and squeezed. A prickling sensation spread across his skin from her hand, like being doused with a bucket of insubstantial water. The world became shaded in strange off-colour tones. Everything felt a little dimmer, a veneer of weird gradients like he was viewing ultra-violet or in another spectrum, and when he looked down at himself, he realised why.

They were invisible.

Nyx was stepping forward, not letting go of his arm, and he moved with her. They advanced through the trees and out into the open, the grassy field flat and even. It was counter to his instincts to act this way, and approaching closer to the site, he could feel Nyx's right hand trembling where it gripped his arm.

Just being so close was very unsettling.

The arbiter was standing completely still, the behaviour reminiscent of a deactivated robot waiting for reanimation, yet he knew it was very much aware, very much awake. As they got closer, his anxiety increased, his heart beat rising. It was his height, as black as the darkest pitch, and all angular and bony. Skeletal, but tough, it had the appearance of a gothic suit of armour given life through magic. Flickering dark fire covered it, the creature standing right next to where they would need to climb in order to enter the fighter's cockpit.

Shit.

They closed the distance to no more than three metres, their progress slowing down as they got so near.

It did not move.

Two metres.

Still nothing.

At one metre, Nyx halted.

He looked at her, and she back up at him, her eyes wide.

Terrified.

In the same moment, the arbiter's head moved, turning part of the way towards them, like it had heard something in the distance, or caught a glimpse of movement, but it wasn't sure what.

Oh, FUCK.

Without thinking and without Nyx letting go of him, his soldier's training took over. He took a step forward, bracing his stance next to it, then lifted his free right arm and stabbed the military knife, backhanded, into the side of its skull.

It spasmed, shaking from the unexpected assault out of nowhere, struggling in that moment to recover, but Lucas was young, strong, a fighter. He thrust his arm forward, the knife ripping out through the back of the arbiter's head, chunks of its skull flying as the blade made a rearward exit. The arbiter jerked, and then collapsed forward, sprawling onto the grass.

Dead.

Fearful, his gaze flicked to look at the Emissary.

Nothing moved.

No alarm was triggered, no signal sent.

This was the break they needed.

He had to act fast.

She was tugging his arm again, understanding the opportunity too, and they clambered onto the hull, past the crumbling remnants of the arbiter's form. He dropped the survival kit back into its place, then began to enter the fighter. Nyx squeezed his arm again, confused, not sure where she was meant to go, and gently, Lucas pulled her down, begging again for her to trust him. She dropped into the pilot's seat, and he behind her. It was only built for one person, but Nyx was small enough to fit. Still, she basically had to sit on top of him. Cramped, his arms had to go around her torso to reach the controls, but there was just the room for both of them.

Now, the real test.

Lucas activated the power.

Please. You need to work. He prayed that the ship and its AI were still properly functional.

Please.

The energy system switched on, the AI seamlessly coming online. Immediately the Valkyrie began to link to his flight suit, the control apparatus synching up, all the interior interfaces blinking into view. The outer canopy closed, sealing them in.

Yes!

There wasn't much time. The xenomorphs were bound to notice what was happening within the next few seconds. He only waited a moment to see the system status display inform him that nothing on the fighter was inoperable, and then he punched the thrust without delay. The engines roared into life, the fighter taking off along the grass, and then with a heavy pull back, they skimmed through the trees and up into the air above Aurum, gaining altitude.

Free.

He was feeding more energy into the propulsion, the Valkyrie blasting through the stratosphere like a shooting star. Below, the planetary curve was expanding, and on the tac-map, the Emissary's dot began to lift off, the escaping craft identified and marked for death. The larger vessel gained speed with the same aerial nimbleness the Disciple showed, and then somewhere in the middle of Lucere's sky, it vanished from view, the detection array failing to break the Emissary's own invisibility.

Lucas needed no more proof.

The enemy still had their advantage.

He increased the thrust and began to weave the ship, not going in a straight line; the Valkyrie exiting the atmosphere then flying out of the orbital zone in a top-notch drunken blaze of glory, as fast as he could manage. He did not want to slow, he wanted to run as hard as he could, to put enough space between themselves and the planet so they could jump, completely unimpeded.

Mere seconds after they exited the final recommended orbital distance, two things happened simultaneously.

A blast of projectiles shot past his port wing, missing by just half a metre.

The AI gave him a warning, text appearing in the jump buffer's status bar, along with a timer: 'Singularity field error, gravitational binding mismatch. Restarting. Standby: 20s.'

With horror, he did not stop dodging, another volley shooting past above the cockpit, just three metres shy. Twenty seconds was an eternity in space combat, and he continued to feint and duck, rolling and swerving as much as the augmentation would allow, his reflexes trying to glean the smallest information he could from the enemy's probable position to let him stay alive for just that little bit longer.

"I'll get us there safely." Nyx was trembling in his lap as he manipulated the controls, the muscles in his arms taut. "We're going to make it."

A third volley cut past, the edge of it just slicing through the underside of the starboard wing. Little shards of metal flew free, vanishing behind them instantly and the fighter spun, pinwheeling. Lucas incorporated the motion into another roll, adding the hit to his evasion.

Four seconds.

We'll make it. I promise.

Two.

One.

Mama, I'm coming home.

Lucas hit the initiation, and the Valkyrie jumped, the fourth volley carving through the space it had just occupied, gone from Lucere ...

... to Earth, the magnificent superstructure of humanity's defences leaping into view and gliding past as the fighter decelerated to a safer normal speed.

Fingers shaking, Lucas punched the comms button, opening a channel with the command.

"Alpha 3, this is Swan-1 reporting in," he said, his breath raspy, eyes misting. "All mission objectives are complete."

-o-0-O-0-o-

It was more than a week since they had arrived at Elkos, and Mira was finding it a pleasant interlude. He didn't have to fight anything. There wasn't a lot to explore. The planetary surface had nothing else alive, and was more or less the same terrain in all directions; barren soil and rock, acidic pools and geothermal vents.

So, he had plenty of time to relax, and think.

Today, the time had reached the evening part of the cycle. The two adults were asleep, catching a few hours of rest while they could. Shay was lying on his front across several of the chairs, pillows beneath his elbows, stomach and lower legs. His crotch was supported by Mira's lap who was sitting upright in a middle chair, a willing party to the bodily support. The Other was busy reading off a holo-pad, something he had spent a lot of time doing recently; a study of Earth's science and history, to expand his knowledge.

The quiet and lack of interruption made Mira's contemplation easier.

Deep thought on the complexities of life was not inherently natural to him, and though he was capable of abstract thought with as much finesse as anyone else, Mira still had few occasions to devote much energy to it. Usually it was the here and now, analysis and interpretation that consisted of goals and structures devoted to his eternal duty as Shay's guardian.

Now, here, he was simply sitting and relaxing with his boy, and there were significant things churning through his mind that had been untouched, so far. New thoughts, new abstractions.

One was how Shay had changed since they left Samed.

It all seemed tied to the joyous carefree lovemaking they had experienced under the blue sunset. It was a wonderful sensual marvel, one of those precious gifts of intimacy that Shay had shared with him. Since that event, his beloved had evolved somehow and become more confident, less worried about judgement. The change was subtle to the eyes of others, and neither Ayize or Rashid had noticed any serious difference. Yet, by Mira's very acute observation, it was a big shift; less inhibition, greater confident, an ease in making physical affection that had not existed before. In particular, one behaviour exemplified it: Shay had taken to sitting on his lap preferentially, even when there was another empty seat right there. He would use Mira as a parking spot for no apparent reason at all sometimes. Just because he felt like it.

Not just once or twice either, but frequently.

Mira loved it.

The willingness, the fact that Shay wanted to get so close with no fuss, and the texture, the feel of it; the squishy softness in his lap, how Shay squirmed to get comfortable and the weight of his body.

It was a new type of thrill, and The Other's change had reacted within The Self too, generating feelings he was not used to: jitters, nerves, excitement.

Absently, he rubbed Shay's lower back with his right hand, the upper legs with his left. The action elicited a murmur of pleasant distraction, but did not cause a break from the boy's reading. The less engaged part of Mira's mind stayed immersed in the wonder of touch and physique. His beloved's shoulders and waist were so slender and compact, but without fragility; well constructed, put together in just the right way. The contradiction between pliancy and strength was always delightful and intriguing to his senses.

There was more on his mind than just Shay's newly developed boldness. It had catalysed a libidinous boost, something that was made even worse by being in close proximity all the time on Elkos. He was very horny, Samed's sexual encounter simply making him want it even more than he already did. It was exacerbated even further by The Other's very definite insistence that they show respect to Ayize and Rashid when all four were in such confined circumstances, by doing nothing of that sort.

Still, other things had not been forbidden him, and there was an alternative.

He had made a daily promise to his beloved on Lucere, to encourage their intimacy. Some of those days had been missed due to those foolish enough to separate him from Shay, but he had kept count, and now he was making up for lost time.

With his mouth.

Giving pleasure was just as satisfying for him as receiving it, yet Mira's amplified sex drive seemed to be stemming from something else. He considered it as he sat there, thinking yet further, and he still could not place it. Examining the causes, he knew his desire had always been tied to their love, the emotion which was the fundamental connection between them. These raw feelings were a refined version of the crude lustful urges, and Mira continued to follow that thought back to the source. Those urges, primitive as they were, arose because of the purpose his gender served; the crux of its biological role.

Reproduction.

His train came to a screeching halt, and Mira blinked. Not much could surprise him, but this? This was not expected. He felt confused, thrown off in an unusual way for the first time in a very long while. Was this really what it was about? He looked down at the boy lying across his lap, a captivating melody of youthful yielding curves and delicate lines.

All the intelligence, physicality, heart and soul that he yearned for.

Yes, it was.

Undeniably, inexcusably ... yes.

It definitely was. He knew this luminous being was what he wanted for the rest of his life, but now? Now, he knew he wanted to ... mate. He wanted to breed with Shay, and impregnate him, if he could. His imagination went unbidden onto a wild tangent, and for a few moments he had an odd vision; the two of them walking through some park on Earth holding hands, winter snow on the ground, bundled up in warm clothing, his beloved's belly swollen and heavily pregnant.

His face grew hot, his throat dry, his heartbeat racing. What ... was this? Why was he feeling this way, acting this way? It was impossible and nonsensical. Biology didn't work in this manner. Females were required. Yet that strange thought was stirring something deep within him, and it didn't seem to matter that there wasn't a girl in the relationship, or that they were both so young.

Mira wanted children.

A family.

Without more focused attention, his massage had unknowingly converged from left and right to the middle, both hands shifting into a butt-rub. There was a mumble of enjoyment, and his beloved's back arched lightly, the sensation being savoured. The two cushioned globes pressed upward from the motion, Shay's pants fabric drawing very full and stretched tight, the roundness and volume emphasised. Mira's head was swimming and his body responded immediately, his arousal near instant. Shay gave another quiet mmm of approval, his attention now drawn away from the holo-pad. Oblivious to what had been going on right next to him, the boy twisted around and began to sit up, a faint smile present.

"If you're trying to distract me, it's working." Quiet, just above a whisper, with a touch of humour. Then his expression changed, recognising the extremely odd mood. He could tell something was going on. "Hey, are you okay? What's wrong?"

Mira wasn't okay. Never had he felt so bewildered nor defenceless. His emotions were influencing him more than they ever had, and there was a tone of distress that he could not control how he felt. Shay's effect had become steadily more unrestrained on the psyche, a chaotic element that did things to him that he couldn't predict. It was unnerving and terrifying and intoxicating.

He needed it to keep happening.

He felt more human than he ever had.

Staring into his beloved's eyes, he was vulnerable, dazed, exhilarated.

"I love you," he murmured.

Shay blinked, then a shy look, and another little smile, biting his lower lip. Not breaking eye contact, he sat up straighter and slid across onto Mira's lap, straddling. Arms went around Mira's neck, their noses touching, Shay arched his back again, hips slightly upturned, butt sticking out at a very suggestive angle. "I love you. So much." Mira's beloved kissed him; sweet, light, a stroking of the lips, brushing of tongue, then apart. "You make me happy, and I don't say it enough. You deserve more attention."

Slipping off his lap to the floor, Shay began to undo the pants clasp. He was looking up as he did it, the soft sexuality and new emotional assurance serving to tent the straining fabric even further. "I'm going to take care of you, just like you've been taking care of me."

Then Shay's fingers were wrapped around him, followed by ... warm, wet, smooth. He could only watch, emotions and senses flying, as lips slid further along. The tongue swished, and he was harder, bigger than he ever remembered; the slippery heat making it feel like double the length. He whimpered, hands shaking a little as they wove through Shay's hair, wisps of it brushing his thighs; the hushed slurping as erotic as his beloved's enthusiastic sucking.

His legs quivered, and Mira suppressed the urge to thrust his hips, instead focusing on the sublime pleasure that washed through his body in waves. A low moan escaped him, Shay squeezing just above his knee, and he let go a shuddering breath. The gratification intensified, and he tried to hold it off for just a little longer, but he couldn't. His calves and thighs tensed, his sex swelling yet further and then ... release. It was blissful and powerful and it seemed to go on and on and on, pulse after pulse. His heart was thundering, his regular controlled breathing just a myth, and then Shay was pulling away, placing loving kisses on the abdomen as the pants were being fastened again. Climbing up, he placed himself firmly back across Mira's lap, arms encircling, cheek in the crook of Mira's neck.

"I don't know what's happening," Shay whispered, "but I can tell it's important to you. Whatever it is, you can tell me when you're ready, okay? We'll figure it out, both of us together."

Together.

It was those words that made him realise: one day, the future he wanted would be real.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Kenji was surprised how quickly Lindani had recovered. It had been only five days since his rescue from Kursk, but against the doctor's orders, he had resumed his duties and dragged Kenji along with him as they made their way to Poland. He had no idea why the younger Mthembu wanted to go back to Wroclaw, the very city he was captured at in the first place, and had so far avoided saying so.

"'dani," he huffed, following his brother along the Mikolaja Kopernika path through Szczytnicki Park, the sunshine bright on a cool winter's afternoon. "Won't you just tell me why you want to drag me all the way out here?"

"We're almost there, Ken." Lindani's pace was quick, his arm healed enough that a brisk walking speed didn't bother him at all. The ground was covered in snow, and the park was a tableau of the white-dusted brown deciduous branches and deep green pines. Ducks sailed through the icy water, content to swim even through the chill. "Here, if I remember the right place."

The African stepped off the paved trail and dug into the snow, searching. He kept at it for a minute, mumbling to himself. "He said it'd be right here. Must be close."

"Who said what?" Kenji shook his head, confused. "Seriously, just tell me why we're here."

"For this!" Lindani pulled an object out of the snow. It was a satchel, insulated to be waterproof so the contents didn't get soaked by the weather. He brushed the powder off it, and held it up for inspection. "This is going to make it all worth it."

"And this is?"

"Evidence." He grinned. "Just before CorpSec gatecrashed my meeting with LEF, one of the commander's aides approached me when nobody else was around. He was a bit jumpy, like he was doing something he really wasn't meant to be doing. The guy told me he knew something really important, really secret, about the premier's assassination."

"Lebaredian?" Kenji exhaled, a small cloud forming in the air. He looked at the satchel. "Did he say what it was?"

"No, he said he couldn't talk about it directly, but ... he did tell me that he left something that would explain in a location in Szczytnicki Park. He called it 'evidence' and he told me exactly where to find it. I never got to learn anything more, because the corporatists showed up and I saw the guy getting shot, along with most of LEF's personnel."

"Jesus."

"Yeah." Lindani unclicked the dome on top and opened it up. "It was really intense. I was lucky they didn't shoot me on sight too." He reached inside and pulled out a spiral binder. It had a black plastic covering, and the interior was full of paper, about a centimetre thick. "Let's see what he wanted to show us."

He opened the cover and Kenji came in close, so they could both see it. The cover page only had three lines on it.

LIBERTÉ - ÉGALITÉ - FRATERNITÉ

High Commissioner's Manifesto

23rd April, 2316

"Who the hell is the High Commissioner?"

Lindani shrugged. "Their leader, I guess. They've never been very open about who's running the show." He turned the page and there was a foreword on the second.

The weakness of Earth's government and society is endemic. Our current premier, Tamara Lebaredian, is secretly beholden to corporate interests, when not actively promoting the corrupt framework of liberal loyalism. The house of the Senate is divided by argumentation and is incapable of acting. It is by these flaws that we will ultimately fail. The sovereignty of the State must be protected at all costs, through the strengthening of the military's discipline to external pressures and the subordination of the high command to an ultimate executive power.

The values that democracy enshrines will not achieve this. The Articles of the Concordat will not achieve this. The institutions of the federation will not achieve this. It is only through a totalitarian unification of the State under supreme leadership that our safety can be assured for generations to come. It must be remade in a pure revolutionary way, by using the tools of democracy to first collapse the house of cards.

This will require the elimination of those who are enemies of the State and a purging of a great many individuals who will be dissidents to the creation of a secure world. Detailed information is contained within this dossier for the members of our enlightened Commission. This document is for your eyes only. You are my chosen few to pursue our fight into the future. It will begin with cutting the head off the snake. The premier will be dead within three years of this day, and from there the rest will follow. The dream will become reality.

"Ken, what the fuck is this?!" Lindani was staring at the text, gobsmacked. He flipped over a few more pages. "This is detailed information on ... senators. Bankers, government officials, judges, business leaders. Corporatists, loyalists, you name it. What they do, what they own, who they're connected to, how they should be dealt with. Fuuuck." He took a deep breath. "Did LEF assassinate Lebaredian? How? This 'High Commissioner' is a fascist madman. I never knew LEF was like this. He fooled the Brotherhood."

"'dani, he fooled everyone. We thought she was bad, but this? This is worse." Kenji flipped the pages back, so they could see the foreword again, and pointed at the foot of the page. "Look. That's who killed the premier."

Scrawled at the bottom, in flowing black ink was a signature, with a name beneath it.

Anton M. Guiterrez, High Commissioner.

This chapter is unique in that every single important character got face time. Sooo much going on, and now there's just ONE chapter left, folks! Can you guess how Veil of Shadow will end? Stay tuned.
As usual: likes, comments and reviews are all welcomed!
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.
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As you say at the end of this chapter, this one includes all the main characters
and their given situations, -most of them are desperate. There's also romance
developing in some interesting places. Mira wants to have kids with Shay?
Well, after that foray into theoretical abstract physics between Konstantin and
Mr. MinorCorp, (no romance), I begin to wonder if biological advances may
make that possible. This is fiction after all.

 

The real kicker is that now we have two clear Enemies of Earth, and not just the
Veil of Shadow, but this insane High Commissioner Guiterrez. Can on black hole
eat another? These are dire days for Earth...and there's only one more chapter?
I want more.

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On 01/23/2017 04:03 AM, Stephen said:

As you say at the end of this chapter, this one includes all the main characters

and their given situations, -most of them are desperate. There's also romance

developing in some interesting places. Mira wants to have kids with Shay?

Well, after that foray into theoretical abstract physics between Konstantin and

Mr. MinorCorp, (no romance), I begin to wonder if biological advances may

make that possible. This is fiction after all.

 

The real kicker is that now we have two clear Enemies of Earth, and not just the

Veil of Shadow, but this insane High Commissioner Guiterrez. Can on black hole

eat another? These are dire days for Earth...and there's only one more chapter?

I want more.

The technology exists in this future time for two men or women to have their DNA blended in an artificial process that creates a child. Mira does not know about this, of course, but he would be very happy to find out.

 

The Veil of Shadow is not an enemy of anything. It's a medium; a natural phenomenon like gravity and electromagnetism, and it is simply there, existing. The real enemy is the Master and its servants; the Herald, the arbiters and sharpelings. Guiterrez is also not the only foe on Earth (MFM really does intend to achieve global domination, as Quân was not shy about telling Kenji last chapter) but as a closeted fascist extremist masquerading as a legitimate democratic leader whilst running Earth's government, he is most definitely a dangerous man.

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This chapter was such a pleasure to read. I fell like I've been watching a movie. You have quite a cinematographic way of showing the characters move, interact, etc. I even get a picture in my mind's eye of all the weird alien creatures which inhabit this story ;)
I also love how you weave the webs of politics into this. Konstantin has shown in the past that he can be balanced and steadfast in his decisions, but with the sometimes limited information he is given, he is bound to make mistakes at times.
The next chapter promises to be full of decisive moments. With Lucas' lucky escape with Nyx, Konstantin's strategic decisions, Yugan's survival, Shay's efforts to prevent the worst scenario from happening, etc. we will measure how much your story is about fate and the world of possibilities that may occur, and how thin the thread that binds all this is.

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On 01/25/2017 07:19 AM, Bleu said:

This chapter was such a pleasure to read. I fell like I've been watching a movie. You have quite a cinematographic way of showing the characters move, interact, etc. I even get a picture in my mind's eye of all the weird alien creatures which inhabit this story ;)

I also love how you weave the webs of politics into this. Konstantin has shown in the past that he can be balanced and steadfast in his decisions, but with the sometimes limited information he is given, he is bound to make mistakes at times.

The next chapter promises to be full of decisive moments. With Lucas' lucky escape with Nyx, Konstantin's strategic decisions, Yugan's survival, Shay's efforts to prevent the worst scenario from happening, etc. we will measure how much your story is about fate and the world of possibilities that may occur, and how thin the thread that binds all this is.

I will say my imagination seems to work like cinematography, so your description does feel accurate. Thank you! I am glad it was so well received.

 

The politics phase of the story is drawing to a close, as the various pieces on the board are now more or less in place for the large-scale conflict to begin. Their actions and motivations are mostly clear by now and there are only a few whose ultimate purposes and drive -- and even identity -- are still secret. It is very much as Konstantin realised: the time for debate is just about over and soon, the story will fully enter the period of decision, action and consequence. Most of this will take place in the final book, but of course, chapter 20 is yet to occur.

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Poor Elia, I am hoping that something somehow, she will be saved! The space fight was simply great and meeting Nyx so beautifully written! Shay and Mira together is just so touching I just love it! Now that was a surprise omg Anton M. Guiterrez, High Commissioner is the bad guy! I had a feeling he was and thank God Konstantin did not do what he wanted!

Great chapter!:thankyou::worship::worship::worship::worship::worship:

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Stellar, you are keeping me from my chores that I need to do.... I am always enthralled and just have to keep reading. I can see it all, the landscapes, their colors, the lost and lonely planets....

And now, with no end in sight, let alone coming together, you promise only one more chapter. How can that be?

Okay, I'm being unfair: a loop is closed: Lucas and Nyx - that was great.

But Mira pregnant? Things are getting out of hand.

 

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7 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Stellar, you are keeping me from my chores that I need to do.... I am always enthralled and just have to keep reading. I can see it all, the landscapes, their colors, the lost and lonely planets....

Then I am doing my job as an author. This is all any writer ever wishes to hear.

7 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Okay, I'm being unfair: a loop is closed: Lucas and Nyx - that was great.

His escape from Lucere with Nyx was one of the most enjoyable stretches of the plot to write.

7 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

But Mira pregnant? Things are getting out of hand.

I think you've misunderstood (or stated incorrectly) this part. Mira's train of thoughts included a fantasy of Shay being pregnant, not himself. He is a little obsessed, no doubt, but it's clear he wants much more with his beloved.

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You are right, I have bent the story a little. There was that scene where shay told Rashid who took which role. And there Shay was not the "girl".

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7 minutes ago, BarkingFrog said:

You are right, I have bent the story a little. There was that scene where shay told Rashid who took which role. And there Shay was not the "girl".

This is accurate! I am very glad you recalled such detail! However, in the intervening time, Shay's first perspective is not so simple. Let me quote:

Quote

 

Emotionally, I wanted Mira to protect me. I craved the 'knight in shining armour' that he had embodied from the beginning. He was gallant and noble as ever, welcoming the opportunity to tangle with anything that could hurt me. Beyond that, he was tender, loving and a total gentleman.

Sexually, I wanted him to be 'the man.' I knew that sometimes I would prefer it the other way, but mostly? I desired a lot more sex like what we'd just had; the catalyst for how I was feeling. Mira, on top, hips on mine, arms encircling, breath tickling my neck and shoulders. Me, underneath, moving with his rhythm, yielding and pushing back, to make him completely exhausted and totally satisfied, because he deserved nothing less.

 

This should make clear that they are flexible in what they enjoy but that either will prioritise a certain position. :) Without being too crude, Shay likes being on the receiving end, and Mira likes being the one giving it out. The dynamic between them reflects this.

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Ok, then let's make Shay pregnant. Will be fun. The question then is, once he has received the new gene codes will he be a girl then? Maybe he can switch back after?

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On 3/26/2023 at 10:35 PM, BarkingFrog said:

Ok, then let's make Shay pregnant. Will be fun. The question then is, once he has received the new gene codes will he be a girl then? Maybe he can switch back after?

Oh, Mira's imagination has Shay as a pregnant boy. Nothing about his fantasy makes realistic sense, because it is a reflection of latent psychological desires, but it is quite specific: he fell in love with a boy, so it must be a boy to give him children, of course.

Naturally this is impossible in the strictest sense because of ... well ... basic biology.

You are right though, it would be fun.

They would enjoy the process of attempting to create a baby quite a lot.

Lack of success would mean repeatedly trying a great many times, just to make sure. 0:)

Edited by Stellar
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