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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. 

Veil of Shadow - 20. Midnight Hour

As soon as the message was received, Konstantin was on his way to the quarantine on the Beta 5 orbital. The station commander had done as requested, with the standard debriefing procedure suspended until the supreme commander could perform his own evaluation. The attendant military doctor warned him on arrival that they had confirmed only the basic requirements: planetary landfall had occurred during the mission and therefore quarantine was still required by military law. There had been no time for a proper check for disease clearance either, but Konstantin knew and had implicit trust that Lucas would have spoken otherwise immediately if there was any possibility the Sharpe virus was present.

Answers were urgently needed.

He told the doctor that he was overriding the quarantine protocol and entering Lieutenant Thessaloniki's isolation chamber. The doctor lodged a formal protest over this indiscretion, commenting on the risk potential, which Konstantin merrily acknowledged, thanking the man for doing his job, then promptly reaffirmed his order. He also commanded the station commander to keep complete privacy, an order the officer assured him would be kept throughout.

The 'chamber' was actually two rooms. One was a modest living section, with three lounge chairs, a table, and a holo-emitter fixed to the wall. The other was presumably a combination bedroom-bathroom area, though the adjoining door was closed. Lucas stood when Konstantin entered, saluting him. He was in mess uniform, a field splint on his right ankle, his stance slightly awkward because of the injury. Returning the salute, Konstantin immediately offered his hand and the two shook.

"My friend, I thank God's grace for your return." He gestured to the seats, encouraging the soldier to sit. "Please, do not concern yourself with rank and formality. I have ensured we may talk freely without prying eyes and ears. Be comfortable and tell me absolutely everything."

They sat and Lucas began to recount his experience on the Lucere mission. Konstantin was particularly interested in the initial combat against the xenomorph vessels, and Lucas described, with a mixture of pride and dutiful melancholy, how well his flight wing had performed. The alien scout-destroyers were incredibly agile and difficult to track, but the human technology and weaponry were at least an equal when the tactical impediment of invisibility was removed.

Following this, the topic was the intelligence extraction itself.

"A large vessel?" The Russian queried. "How large are you talking?"

"Immense," Lucas told him. "Big enough to be mistaken for an asteroid or even a small moon. The exact details are in my Valkyrie's data store and you can go over that as you please, though, something else concerns me more and that's the timing. You left Lucere with your boys, and then less than a week later, this monstrous ship arrives out of nowhere. For 214 years, it was dead quiet with zero activity, and then this?" He shook his head. "There's no damn way these two events aren't connected."

"Hm." Konstantin scratched his beard, frowning. "What did this thing do? How long did it stay?"

"Not long at all. Actually, this is where it gets really interesting. The big vessel acts as some kind of super-carrier, because it deployed several Emissary and Disciple ships to land on the planet."

"A mission detachment. Chyort." He sat back, folding his arms, thoughtful. "They are just like us in some unexpected ways; an organised military force, disciplined and focused, with specific goals. They may be evil bastards, but they were there for a reason, and I barely have to ask where they went. Aurum, very definitely. Somewhere in the Capital Arm, most likely?"

Lucas nodded his agreement. "Northern Leeuwenhoek. They landed, but were only there for minutes before they took off and returned back to the super-carrier, which then jumped away."

"Do you have any idea why they were on the surface?" Another thought occurred to Konstantin. "You returned solo, so what happened to the six remaining pilots in your flight wing?"

"I will tell you about how all this went down," he promised, "but first, I need to introduce you."

"Introduce me?"

"You know I made landfall, right? I crashed close to where the enemy sent their deployment," Lucas continued, standing up as he spoke, and moving to the adjoining door. Konstantin did the same, following him. "If she hadn't helped me, I would have died before I could get clear of my Valkyrie. I think she's part of the reason they were there."

She?

Lucas opened the door into the bedroom. There was a partition containing a shower and toilet, a wardrobe on the far wall and two single beds. Sitting on one was a girl, in her late teens. She was short, with straight black hair, in baggy sweat pants and a military t-shirt that was large enough on her diminutive frame that she seemed to nearly vanish inside it.

Konstantin's jaw dropped.

An image from Aspira City's Room Twelve filled his mind.

Just as Mira's resemblance to Synnøve Ellefsen had been undeniable, there was absolutely no question that this girl was descended from the last of Volkov's trial patients.

Subject Three: Kajetán Dvoracek.

It also meant two other very noteworthy things. Firstly, that she was just like Shay and Mira: her body filled with the quantum power of aqumi.

Secondly, until very recently, she had been a sharpeling.

Seeing a living example of the tortuous experience of his old home summoned back so many thoughts and feelings. He was instantly reminded of the horrors he had witnessed; the cruelty, insanity and struggle of simply being alive on the ruined husk of humanity's former utopia. The emotion was nearly overwhelming, and the way she looked at him pulled at his empathy. The expression was not as pronounced as Mira's perfectly neutral mask, but there was a distance, a silent isolated fearfulness, that spoke of the damage a lifetime of slavery had done to her spirit.

It was wrong.

Konstantin stepped forward, lowering himself to a kneel in front of her. She shrank back as he got closer, then he spoke, soft and slow. "I know you will not yet understand my words, but you may still know. I will never hurt you. I will do everything in my power to protect you."

Then he leaned forward and hugged her. She froze, tense and shocked at the unexpectedly affectionate gesture, intimidated by the seemingly enormous stature of the man and his arms about her. Yet, the flighty apprehension lasted only a moment, the fear but a snowflake in midsummer heat, and she relaxed in his arms and drew closer, wrapped up in the warmth of his embrace.

"I am sorry for what your life was. I am sorry for what they did to you," he whispered, "and I promise that it will pass. You will see a better world."

Letting go, he gently withdrew back to kneeling, and she sat back on the bed, her attitude calmed.

"Amazing." Lucas spoke quietly from behind. "That's the most at ease I've seen her."

"She has experienced things I cannot fathom," Konstantin replied, still watching her face, his inspection returned with a composure and reserved curiosity, "and I think Shay was responsible for this. He set her free, completely by accident."

The nova of energy above Aspira City.

It was the only logical explanation he could think of.

"I wonder," he mused, "if they will mean anything to you. Aqumi works in very mysterious ways, of this I have no doubt." Reaching into his pants pocket, he pulled out his pocket Bible, one of very few possessions to have survived from Lucere. The bookmark was a small print photograph Lily had taken and sneakily produced the morning they had left Palatus on the fateful trip to Aspira. She had caught them unawares on the balustrade overlooking the garden. Mira was hugging Shay from behind around the stomach, a big teasing smile on his face; leaning forward over the left shoulder in mid kiss-on-the-cheek, his hair glowing gold in the morning sunlight. Shay was clasping Mira's hands in front, his head and eyes angled down in customary shyness, face blushed with light embarrassment, but with a matching smile that betrayed how happy he was. Neither knew their picture was being taken, and it was a snapshot of innocence, and an extremely rare moment of seeing Mira express emotion.

"Here, look."

She took the photograph from his hand and examined it. The boy on the left, slight, brown-haired, reserved; she felt that she should recognise him. It was a splinter in the back of the mind, a nagging sort of half-feeling that would not fully manifest, but she still felt that air of remote unexplained familiarity. The other, the one on the right? The dark golden hair, the glorious aura of assertion, the fierce sense of easy confidence that she could tell even through the inanimation of a still image -- it was Elia. Completely her, right down to the facial features and the posture, except ... this was a boy?

Elia ...

Her fingertips trailed over his likeness, her lips parting as if she wished to speak, but there was nothing to say.

No words, no language.

"He matters to you, doesn't he?" Konstantin nodded, then stood, carefully, and turned to the soldier who was leaning unobtrusively against the door jamb. "My friend, you may have earned yourself another promotion today. I have a new responsibility for you. I will expedite you from quarantine as fast as is practical, and then you will be reassigned from your former fleet duties to the ground forces. Get any medical attention you need for your ankle and then go to the surface with her. You can take whatever special detail you wish, but do NOT tell anyone anything about who she is." He grabbed Lucas' shoulder and clasped tightly. Konstantin didn't raise his voice, but the emphasis on his phrasing was very heavy, laden with intensity. "Not the government, not the corporatists, not the realists, not even the servicemen with you. Nobody. Go somewhere safe and protect her with your life. She is the most important person on Earth right now. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir." Lucas glanced at Nyx. "I will do exactly as you command. I need to tell you about my flight wing, though, before you leave."

"Oh! Yes!" Konstantin nodded, "Please do."

"It's very simple. The other six were destroyed by cloaked alien vessels." His jaw clenched, anger evident. "Not the little Disciple fighters, but the cruiser class, the Emissary. I don't know why, but the detection array didn't work on them. I fled at top speed when they attacked and that's what caused the crash on Lucere. When we made our escape, I confirmed it. Watched one of them disappear off the tac-map like it was never there."

Proof.

"He was right." The Russian said it half to himself, though still out loud. Lucas shot him a puzzled look, the context unclear, but Konstantin was already thinking ahead. He tapped his wrist communicator. This information needed to be passed on immediately. There was still time to halt the upcoming offensive operation, but he would need to address Accioli without delay to present the evidence.

"Sir?" The station commander's voice came through it.

"Contact the CorpSec-Space office. I want to speak with Jason Accioli immediately."

"Yes sir. One moment while we- ... uh," he paused, something else interrupting his response. A couple of seconds passed, then the officer spoke again. "Sir, Admiral Jiang is calling on an emergency channel for you. I'm linking her directly to your comm."

Jiang?

"Commander." Jiang's voice started immediately and she began to talk without a second's gap; her words fast and the syllables stressed. This alone was significant, as the four senior flag officers were measured and stable personalities and they simply did not indulge in excitable behaviour. He knew straight away something serious was happening. "I have issued a fleet-wide standby on your behalf."

"What?! Why?"

"Seven minutes ago, the majority of CorpSec-Space auxiliaries and embedded stationed forces at Earth abandoned their orders and attached to a task force that had just formed in lunar orbit. This happened extremely quickly. To be clear: it is thousands of their ships and constitutes the majority of CorpSec-Space combat assets. This is not an insignificant percentage of our total force. I sent a status-5 op revoke to the CorpSec-Space command vessel and ordered them to return to their accepted schedules. There was no reply. I repeated the command under your acting authority and with threat of V17 criminal prosecution. Again, no reply."

"What are they doing?" Konstantin stared at little band of electronics on his wrist. "Why are they assembling now? The assault is not due to happen until tomorrow."

"They have already begun it." The steel in Jiang's tone was unequivocal. "A minute before this call, the entire task force jumped to Taiqing. They launched the attack without us."

-o-0-O-0-o-

On the bridge of the CorpSec-Space command vessel Langstrom, Jason Accioli stood and watched as the view of Earth blinked out of existence. Next to him was Chief Operations Officer Simons, the primary task-fleet commander.

The fleet reappeared at the planet Taiqing, one of the Sanqing triplets, and a former colonial world of the human race. The gravitational diffusers were already functioning at maximum efficiency, a new technological addition that changed the spatial tactics. It intended to take advantage of the xenomorph reliance on gravity as the defining factor in its mobility. Paired with cloaking detection, it would serve to be the enemy's undoing.

The corporatist battle groupings were already formed and now ready, awaiting the first sighting. The timing was well understood, and accounted for.

"It will be as we expect," Simons had informed his boss, just before the jump. The tactical command view was littered with a mass of icons, representing the thousands of CorpSec-Space ships. "Their strategic instinct is to send enough to win in a given situation, but not more. They will misinterpret the singularity effect due to the field's diffusion shadow and send fewer vessels in the first wave. They will also be revealed, so we will have the advantage in numbers and firepower. The second wave will likely be the same. At the point they can threaten us numerically, we jump back having lost only a fraction of what we kill."

"What margin are we talking?"

"The estimates run a kill-death ratio of 5:1 through 8:1."

Now, the first Disciples were arriving. Hundreds appeared en masse, and space instantly became lit up with a half dozen types of weapon-fire. Alien ships splintered and exploded by the dozens, scores and yet more appeared, and continued to appear.

Accioli stared, fascinated, and then a smile began to form, slow at first, but growing wider. "It looks like we were right. We are going to make fools out of the federal military. Andropov should have listened."

Simons nodded smugly. He glanced over the command view, the bridge quiet as the other officers were all busy with fleet communications and oversight. "Odd though. They're sending a lot of destroyers first. I was expecting something a little larger in the first wave."

-o-0-O-0-o-

At Librae Arctis IV, the brethren were gathered in near totality, as many as could answer the summons. All were waiting for the augur to come.

It arrived from the depths of the galactic plane, its own motivations and causes ineffable to the arbiters, its purpose indisputable, its authority unquestionable.

Simply, it was the foremost of the Master's agents, and all would obey.

The Herald spoke to the assembly.

The lesser foe has come to make battle. Thus, battle it shall have. A pulse of energy burst from it, a binding order that enveloped the entire swarm. Go now! Wear the Master's shadow and claim victory. As it was foreseen, so it will be done.

In silent agreement, every vessel accepted this order, and together the host jumped through the infinite pathways to the beginning of the final war.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"This is almost disappointing." Accioli pointed at the map. "We've lost only, what, twelve ships?"

"Fifteen," replied Simons, "but I agree. After all the ghost stories we've endured, I was expecting them to be a more difficult opponent."

"The directorate is going to be pleased." The CorpSec-Space boss nodded. "This will go some way to proving our legitimacy as an alternative to those loyalist idiots."

Simons made to respond, but before he could speak, out the front view of the starfield, a Kennedy-class cruiser exploded. The COO gaped and then called out to a bridge officer. "Marques! What just happened to the Toledo?"

"Sir! I- I don't know! It's outside the hot-zone! There's no live fire!"

Then again, a second later another cruiser in the medium distance burst apart, and then an assault gunship followed it, off to the right of their view.

"What- ... what's happening?" Simons stuttered, his voice rising. "Refocus the definition with a larger sweep and re-attune! The array should have this. I want to know!"

Another ship blew up, then another. Then two at once.

Five at once.

Eight.

Twelve.

Jason Accioli stared at the field of stars, his blood running cold, a putrid terror rising within, his breath coming short. The CorpSec ships were flaring exponentially, an expanding firework of horror that engulfed the fleet, the icons on the command map evaporating, the casualty count flicking from triple to quadruple digits in seconds. In the chaos, xenomorph ships began to uncloak everywhere, weapons shredding any human vessel in range, the tables now fully turned and stealth done with. In moments more, CorpSec were outnumbered two to one, three, four, five and counting. Simons was frantic, yelling for disengagement and retreat, but Accioli did not hear a word. Simply staring, ashen-faced, as he realised far too late just how wrong he was about everything.

The last he saw was an Apostle battleship appear directly off the Langstrom's bow, blocking the destruction beyond, then the shudder of a dozen projectile mounts as it began to fire.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The moments after Kenji passed through the civilian entrance of the federal military's London headquarters were a little scary. He had no idea if what he was doing would work or play out as he intended it to, but he had to try. It was either him or Lindani that had to do it. They couldn't tell anyone else what they had discovered, not even anyone in the Brotherhood, on the risk that somehow, no matter how unlikely, the information was heard by the wrong set of ears.

This was their terrible secret, and it had to be delivered to someone who could act on it.

He hadn't let Lindani consider being the one to go; not after the torture suffered at the hands of CorpSec. Kenji would sooner suffer worse himself than let his brother repeat anything like that experience.

No, it was his turn to be the object of risk.

It was his turn to take a chance for the common good.

The main thing that removed any doubt, that stopped second thoughts, was a small fact. There were several practical motivations, but the most important one was both personal and ideological. He knew that if Ayize was here and a part of the discussion, the elder Mthembu would have volunteered himself in a heartbeat. Granted, their boss was an extremely lucky opportunistic risk-taker with a knack for tactical decisions, but even without those traits, Kenji knew why. Ayize would have done it because he despised political charlatans and demagogues. He could not stomach xenophobia, autocracy, retro- nationalist impulses, the factional tribalism of extreme thinking that lionised military force and lauded violent solutions, that begged for patriotic fascism and servile blindness to base emotions. In short, he would do anything to stop those that sought to split the word apart in order to conquer it.

If Ayize had stayed on Earth and seen what was happening, he would hate both Guiterrez and Lebaredian, not merely because they were turncoats to their publicly stated causes, but because of what they truly represented. Yet, he would hate Guiterrez far more than he ever could the now-dead premier, and would oppose the man without a second thought, because this was exactly the thing the Brotherhood existed to defeat.

There was a better way.

It was why Kenji turned himself in.

It was why he refused the first attempt by the civilian clerk to direct him to London's federal police and insisted it be the military who deal with him.

It was why he told the subsequent guard detail and operations manager that he had information so politically sensitive that the government security agencies and judiciary could not be trusted with it.

It was why he promised that what he knew was so important he needed to speak with the supreme commander directly, and that if his word proved wrong and a waste of the military's time, they could then turn him over to the police themselves as a known Brotherhood 'realist terrorist'.

Kenji had never been to space before. He was not given a view of the ascent, and was seated in between two servicemen, who were silent and did not communicate at all until they were docked. Then it was along an enormous concourse, past docked ships, offices, training rooms; a veritable hive of activity. Finally, to a branching intersection, through yet another security gate, then a short corridor to a final door.

It slid open to reveal a large oval-shaped room. The far wall was a window into space, with the Earth below, and above, in front, was filled with ships and structures. There was a mahogany desk in the centre, facing to the entrance, with a chair behind it and a half dozen more in front, for guests. Plush burgundy carpet on the floor, wall sconces with torch emitters glowing a soft yellow, a little bookshelf on the right with a number of hardcovers on it; a rarity in modern times.

Konstantin was leaning against the desk, in the midst of talking to another tall heavily-built officer that Kenji recognised as Admiral Kerensky. The two were in a serious discussion over something when Kenji was escorted in, and the moment Konstantin made eye contact, he paused, a flicker of surprise playing across his expression. Clearly the supreme commander had not been told the identity of the person seeking an audience with him, and much like Lucas' carefulness, Konstantin did not react further to indicate they knew one another.

Both guards saluted and the one on his right spoke. "This is him, sir. Name is Kenji Shimizu, American national, resident of San Jose, California. Came right into the London HQ and told us to arrest him."

Konstantin wordlessly scanned him from head to foot, making some kind of quick mental evaluation, then he nodded to the pair. "Thank you, gentlemen. That will be all."

"Sir?"

"You may return to your duties. This man is not going to present a security risk."

"Yes, sir." They saluted a second time, then turned smartly and marched out, the door sliding shut behind them. Kerensky was watching, patient and enigmatic, while Konstantin straightened and walked over, extending a hand. They shook.

"So, Mr Shimizu," Konstantin rumbled, a glint of sly cunning in his tone, "you are prepared to risk arrest and imprisonment by extorting the military's attention over information. This is quite the gamble. Your information must be very impressive."

"Commander." The admiral spoke before Kenji could, and Konstantin looked back to him, querying. "You know him?"

Konstantin blinked, then let out a surprised laugh, followed by a sentence in Russian. Kerensky shrugged, a smug grin, then responding with a few words of his own in the same language. Finally, they switched back to English. "Besides, you're good with reading people, but I'm better."

"It was Kenji and his boss that got me out of Yakutsk alive, and accidentally introduced me to your protégé, so there's an unpaid debt there anyhow."

"Oh, I have no intention to tell anyone you know a realist agent or three." Kerensky ambled over and extended a hand too, repeating Konstantin's greeting. "We aren't meant to interfere in the whole political game, but that doesn't mean I'm without opinion. The Brotherhood is one of the only sane groups out there, though I can't say I love some of your more radical partners."

"Well," Kenji hesitated a moment, looking between the two older men, "that's kinda why I'm here. CorpSec did a big raid just before your succession hearing in New York, and a lot of our personnel were killed and captured."

"Yes, I remember reports about the CorpSec activity." The admiral nodded, delivering his thoughts with a dose of corporatist disdain. "Quân taking the extrajudicial horseshit a mile further than he should and still getting away with it. What about it, anyhow?"

"They captured our acting European CO at a liaison in Poland, and we only just managed to rescue him a couple of days ago. He had some, uh ... intelligence, about the premier's assassination."

"Lebaredian." Konstantin murmured it, then right away, he knew the purpose of Kenji's trip. "You found out who did it, and they are either an elected official or working for the government. That's why you had to come to me, yes?"

"Yes." Kenji pulled out a disc-shaped pocket holo-emitter, the only thing he knew the security would let him bring. He tapped in a security code and the device activated, projecting a screen above it. "This is a digital copy of the intelligence we received. Read it. The first couple of pages at least."

He handed the emitter to Konstantin, who held it up so Kerensky could also see. The room was silent while they examined the contents. Kenji watched their expressions. Kerensky's did not change, but Konstantin's jaw clenched and his hand tightened around the emitter as the information was absorbed.

After a minute, Konstantin hit the power button and handed the device back to Kenji, wordless.

"Only me and Lindani have seen this. No-one else knows about it." Kenji was as uncomfortable as he'd ever been, not sure how this entire thing was going to end. "I didn't want to believe it, but it is real. It has to be."

"Mr Shimizu." Konstantin's body language had transformed along with his voice. It was rigid, solid, upset. Furious. Though, the tone was short; cold, dead, leaden. "You are standing here to tell me that the premier assassinated his predecessor and intends to transform Earth's government into a totalitarian police state. Is this actually what is going on?"

Kenji swallowed, suddenly nervous, Konstantin's reaction very unsettling. "Yes."

"Then," he spoke curtly, his hands curling into sizeable fists, "we will find out the truth of this matter." Pointing to two chairs on the guest side of the desk, he indicated they sit. "You are to be my witnesses. Stay silent and watch. This is an order."

The admiral did as commanded, and Kenji followed along. The supreme commander walked around the desk and sat down in front of the holo-screen. He tapped several buttons, the system view flicking between windows, and then a call began. A man's face appeared, an aide.

"Good day, Commander Andropov. Regretfully, the premier is in a conference call and will be tied up for another hour. If you wish, I can schedule a-"

"I will speak with him immediately." The words were icy, uncompromising, in a way neither had heard from Konstantin before.

"I am sorry, he will b-"

"Fetch him now. Do not make me wait." He leaned toward the screen, body tense, and the aide went pale; shocked and fearful. "Go."

The man nodded, the surprised agitation clear, and the screen went on hold. About a minute later, it resumed. The premier was sitting at his desk, mildly irritated and professorial. "Commander. I take it this is urgent? I was in an involved discussion with the legal partnerships of the Business Union Organisation, and then I have several security briefings to attend about the civil disorder. Perhaps you have changed your mind?"

"We need to talk, Mr Guiterrez."

"Then talk!" The premier was the same as always, though a little more clipped because of the interruption. "I can only assume you are here to discuss CorpSec's continued flouting of authority."

"Actually, my question is a basic one: when are you holding elections?"

"Elections?" Guiterrez stared at him as if he were crazy. "You think we can hold elections when there are armed insurrections happening in three dozen places around the planet? That's ludicrous. Elections will take place when civilian society is fully secure."

Fully secure?

"What happens if that takes months or years, Mr Guiterrez?" He was speaking softly now, but ever-so attentive. "Is this acceptable to you?"

"Of course, we'll hold them as soon as we can," the premier's answer was practiced, smooth, reasonable, "but if it should take years to deal with the cancer of corporatism, then that's the toll. There is always a cost."

A price to be paid.

The destruction of the Concordat, piece by piece.

"I ask your attention, for a time. I have an anecdote to say."

"Of course." The premier purred the response, much easier and slick, a routine that seemed now too safe for Konstantin's liking. Too clever. "Speak your mind."

"Well," he began, "do you know that in the mid 20th century after the destructive conflict of the Second World War, the atomic age gave birth to a conceptual device called the Doomsday Clock?"

"I think I remember something about it, yes." Guiterrez shrugged.

"It was meant to represent the likelihood of humanity's extinction through a nuclear war between the two superpowers at the time, the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Midnight on the clock was the event itself, with the current time a symbolic measurement of how likely, how close, the experts believed that catastrophe was. It went up and down during the Cold War. The closest it came to the clock striking the hour was the first hydrogen bomb test during Eisenhower's tenure. Two minutes in 1953 if I recall my study of Earth's history correctly."

"That sounds right," the premier agreed. "You are certainly a student of history."

"Is it not wise to know the past? In any case, during the 21st century the meaning of this device evolved to describe any such thing that could end human life on Earth, but was still the most pertinent to a large-scale violent conflict. It reached one minute during the Tripartite War, a close thing during that time, before climbing again after the advent of the Concordat. We were not all that far from mutually assured death, but it seemed we avoided destroying ourselves. Yet, history has a bizarre sense of humour, because then ... there was 2104. The 22nd century was not kind to our species. What happened caused a revision: the clock was set to 28 seconds to midnight."

"No-one would argue the Sharpe virus was a threat that changed our world irrevocably."

"None indeed," Konstantin agreed, "and the time has fluctuated between 30 seconds and one minute for most of the last 200 years. The apocalypse has never been far from our door, but now, here we are, in the 24th century. You know, on a whim, I thought about this yesterday, with all that has happened recently, and so I checked it out. It happens the Bulletin made an unseasonal intervention and changed the clock just ten days ago. Do you know what it went to?"

"Enlighten me."

"The time is fourteen seconds to midnight," he paused, just long enough to let the number sink in, before adding two final words: "High Commissioner."

Guiterrez did not move nor react.

His face was stone, his stare immutable, his body language so still he could have been a corpse.

Nothing.

"Fourteen seconds until the worst thing imaginable will begin," whispered Konstantin, his whole upper body tense as if he was about to reach through the screen itself and throttle the man he was speaking to, "and you and the corporatists are playing games with the future of our species. This must end."

The premier shook his head, a strange bitter expression taking hold; clandestine, contemptuous, but still beneath a veneer. "I have no idea what you are talking about," he said, the words a verbal smirk, a thumbing of the nose, "but ... you? You need to remember your principles and your sacred oath, isn't that right?"

"I see you now for what you are." Konstantin held up a fist and clenched it in front of his face, a signal so utterly unambiguous that there was no possible misinterpretation. "A small man in a grand seat; a fraud who trades lies for the blood of patriots and heroes. Someone who would burn the world as he claims to save it."

"I am sorry, Commander Andropov." Guiterrez's voice was at a maximum disparity with his body language; his eyes screaming obscenities and derisive condescension while his lips spoke political neutrality and plausibility. "The business of our state beckons. You stay there in your office and act within your role. Keep out of civilian affairs." He leaned forward, a mirror to Konstantin's aggressive stance, both his tone and body language dropping to a temperature that was sub-zero, his voice low and sharp. "The Concordat is law, is it not? To break it is treason."

The screen went blank.

There was only a moment of silence before Kenji could not help himself.

"Holy FUCK. That was fucking crazy." He shook his head in disbelief. "Did I seriously just see the premier act like a psycho?"

"Konstantin." Kerensky could not wait either, his use of the commander's first name rare. "First Taiqing, now this. The worst case scenario is starting to become real. Guiterrez is a threat now too, on top of all else."

"Taiqing?"

Konstantin sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Just three hours ago, a massive corporatist blunder cost our allied space forces dearly, to the value of tens of thousands of ships. The price of this mistake cannot be overstated."

Kenji's breath caught, the answer not what he expected.

Tens of thousands?

"Mr Shimizu, you will be dropped back on the surface wherever you please. You have my gratitude for what you've done, and I hope your Brotherhood is ready to fight. It will be forced to get its hands dirty soon enough." He nodded to the admiral next. "Maxim, I want you to keep every battle-worthy ship we have on full alert until I say otherwise. Duynhoven's software fix to the detection system should have disseminated completely, but we cannot even think about relaxing. If there was ever a time to expect danger, it is now. Make sure Jiang, Lugor and Beaumont understand this properly too."

Kerensky gave a brief nod of his own in response, sober and comprehensive. "We will stay ready, but what about you? What will you be doing?"

"Thinking," replied Konstantin. "I have a choice to make."

-o-0-O-0-o-

The pursuit of the selet had no end.

Where the telutuk was a cunning stalker that could track through the smallest signals, the venom-shank was an opponent of single-minded devotion. Once it found you, it would either follow until you died or you killed it. There was nothing in between; this creature was a predator that had no equivalent on Dagen's Grace and no fear.

This Yugan knew.

It was something Dagenith children had impressed upon them at the youngest age: the selet is relentless. Run until it cannot find you, or fight it to the end.

If you were to encounter one, you had to be prepared for one of these outcomes.

The dagenith climbed, hand over hand, claw over claw, through the snow and up the rocky pinnacles and sheer expanse of Usun-Gar. The atmosphere was beginning to thin and they had continued now for some time at speed, but their bodies were hardy and the cold was not nearly enough to cause harm.

There was no pause for rest nor comfort; it was a marathon and the time taken pushed later into the cycle, the first signs of early evening approaching as they reached the highest part of the mountain

Behind them, dogged and unabating, came the selet. They were slower on the more vertical scree and across the ice where their bulkier shape was an encumbrance. The more nimble Mishith balance made easy work of the alpine environment, but the selet did not lose sight and they did not fall far enough behind to let go their hunt.

Ralot's endurance was admirable; she kept ahead of him, her speed and skill as good as his own, her determination not blunted by what came for them. Up she went, pioneering their path, and the mountain seemed to grow ever more vertical the more they ascended. Usun-Gar's cresting top quarter was already an extreme incline, and at the current height it was composed of vast sheets of hardened ice, angled smooth sedimentary rock and wind-carved lithic formations. It was a crowning earthen structure that grasped at the sky, forever calling the Mother's name in its struggle against the elements. The heat of Yugan's body was the forge of his own endeavour, and it empowered him to be as relentless as their foe. So he climbed still, their altitude rising furthermore, now far past Kerelom's utmost, far above anything he had seen.

The atmosphere was thin when they arrived at a break in the verticality. It was a nearly-flat stretch, allowing him to stand upright, and Yugan reached Ralot. She turned with him and they peered below. The creatures were navigating the treachery of the mountain just as fast as the dagenith had, the limbs anchoring and raising them, a pull at a time, higher and higher.

They were still coming.

It would not be long.

"Yugan." Her breath came fast, and she gestured vigorously. "We have gained so much height, but where is the finish? Is there a way? I cannot see above!"

"I do not-" he paused, a moment's consideration given, but then the clouds shifted and he saw it, in a moment of pure perfect chance. Away through the roiling fog and swirl, there it lay, not far above. An even portion of rock, a dozen paces wide, with nothing beyond but the fading green of the heavens.

So close now.

It was all revealed in that second; a short climb up another field of frozen rock above the very basin they currently stood at, then another smaller upper basin, just a light slope compared with the surroundings, and at the tip of that last gentle gradient ... the end.

The summit of Usun-Gar.

"There! It is there!"

"What?"

"The top!"

Then again, beneath them, the scrabbling of pincers upon frost, only now, too near and a threat. Both reacted the same, and they began to run across the lower basin. Even as their feet thudded through the semi-powder snow, the first selet was already pulling itself onto the flat and their chance was done, completed.

"We cannot make this climb with them at our heels!" Her voice was a howl on the air, and Ralot pulled him on, her right arms gesticulating wildly to a broad crevice in the rock's base, one that vanished into the darkening entrance of a cave. "There! It is a defence! We have to use it to stand and fight."

Fight?

"Yugan!" She shouted it as they ran, pulling him to the location. "I believe we will prevail. We must."

They reached the maw, and she turned, gripping him with her inferior limbs, the superior tight around her staff. The sound of the selet running on the snow filled their ears, at least three of them behind now. The look she gave him was tranquility, calm and confidence; they were in a storm and Ralot was what he needed to weather it.

Focus.

"No matter what comes," she whispered, a thunder amidst the winds, "I will be with you."

Together.

"We will prevail." He turned with her, spear in the superior right hand, as the first selet came charging up the terminus of the lower basin's slope.

The creature's forelimbs flicked up and stabbed down with a quickness that matched the telutuk. Ralot feinted to the right side, and Yugan to the other. His spear came up, but he could not land a hit, the insectoid legs forcing him to dive and roll, the points jabbing with deadly speed. She hit it first, a flurrying staff impact, hard into the thorax plating, but the selet shrugged it off. Turning, it pivoted back to aim for Ralot, the cacophony of stabbing implements forcing her back, the focus on her exclusively, and she retreated. The staff shielded the blows, absorbing what it could.

Using the opening, Yugan was in, taking the offensive, and he leaped onto the creature's side, its attention fully drawn. His weight caused it to skew, and as the thorax began to swivel back his direction, he brought the spear round in a frontal thrust with brutal strength. The weapon plunged into the selet's exposed mouth, buried half the way in, then Yugan gave it a secondary push, the spear point exiting with an explosive spurt of carapace and innards out the back of the head. He pulled it in reverse, the selet shuddering and collapsing as the shaft exited its body.

One.

Yugan was leaping away from the fresh corpse and then the second and third and were appearing, following their primary into the space left by its demise. Ralot was beside him, the passage into the interior narrow, the cave small. They did not know how much further they could retreat in their defence, but in front, the selet crowded the entrance. The two moved seemingly in tandem, side by side as the dagenith were, their advance an horrific waltz of combat, marauding and fierce. The first, an unavowed warrior, lunged for Ralot, and she parried it as she had to, her staff block smacking the limb away, then it was turning, the limbs changing their pattern, a new approach in its aggression against her

Unpredictable.

The second came for Yugan, and he too slapped the stabbing blades away, even as they moved so fast that he was not sure he could oppose it. Strike after strike, his spear fended the offence back, distracting it, pushing it off the side or into an odd posture. Next to him, Ralot was doing the same, guarding herself from the constant piercing assault.

Back and back they were forced, and there was no more space, the cave finished. They were against rock and there was nothing left, but the incursion still continued. Then the distress became severe and all too real, because Ralot's aggressor was gaining the ascendancy, and he could see her blocks were losing effectiveness and all but ready to fail. Yugan's eyes were on the selet in front of him, but also on her, his own foe pressing in closer now, and the time was right for him to launch a well- aimed finishing move, yet his attention was split.

She was about to be overwhelmed.

He could not leave her.

It stabbed near her arms, the shanking weapons walloping into the rock at her back, her response a flimsy switching of stance, a dodging, the repercussion fleet. Then she was too slow, and the creature's right foreleg landed a hit, punching directly into the muscle of her left shoulder.

No!

She screamed, the staff counter-smashing into the creature's eyes, propelling the blade out. Ralot slumped against the cave wall, her wound debilitating, while the creature recoiled from the blow with a screeching chitter, rebuffed.

Only for a moment.

He could not allow this to go any further.

He reacted on instinct, without thinking.

It happened in a heartbeat. He leaped into the embrace of his own venom-shank; inferior arms gripping a mandible each to force the mouth shut, his superior left arm closing around the nearest foreleg. His spear filled with a strange heat, a weighty light that thrummed with an inaudible deep note, a potent fire that came from within his body.

With his free fourth arm and all his might, Yugan threw the spear at the other selet.

It flew, a golden arrow, and with no resistance, it sliced right into the thick armouring, continuing all the way through the head and out the other side to hit the rock, killing the creature instantly.

He stood, victorious for one moment, but disarmed and grappling with the apex predator of his world.

There was no way out of this.

It was in that very instant, he heard it; a voice coming from beyond the fight, beyond their struggle, away across the stars.

Shay Andersen.

I need you! Show me the way!

-o-0-O-0-o-

It took twelve days before we had an answer.

The frustration was intense, because we had run into a dead end trying to divine the location of Yahet. Angry with myself more than anyone else, my mood was making me snap at people, and the other three all backed off, giving me space. I wasn't usually the type to make outbursts, but the difficulty of this task was driving me to distraction and I felt I was letting everyone down by not finding the next planet.

So I sat down, and lost myself in every tiny detail of Sulin's memory.

I tried to reach out to the quantum shadow of his personality that lived in me still, hidden somewhere within the smallest reaches of aqumi, to give me a hint, to broaden my knowledge, or anything really, to help.

Nothing seemed to change.

The vision was the same; thick clouds, both close and near, glimpses of stars. I watched it over and over again in my head, straining for something more than what we already knew. It was like pushing replay on a video, trying to find something missed the first time, or eke out an extra frame to give a clue. I repeated it until I was sick of it, but I kept doing it until, finally, I noticed something new.

In a small part of the sky, a certain area of cloud had the dim glow of the system's star. I had seen this before many times, but what I had never realised was the star's glow was misshapen, with a slight bulge off one side of it, that was ever so slightly dimmer.

It was a second star.

The news that Yahet was a binary solar system was all that Ayize needed. It took less than five minutes after that to find out where it was. Then we co-ordinated the information, the location of Yahet's stars putting us even further along the Orion Arm. I showed Liberty where we needed to go, and with no further waiting around, we jumped.

The stars were dwarves, orange and red, and Yahet was a lone world on a distant orbit. We cruised in close, all eyes fixed on the holo-view and Ayize began to read the stats. "A bit larger than Elkos, 3.3 Earth masses. Atmosphere has nitrogen and oxygen in generous amounts, but also a lot of ammonia."

White-grey clouds were thick, nearly filling Yahet's atmosphere, though there were snatches of the ground beneath. It was mostly frozen white, with the occasional dash of alkaline dark brown. "How cold is it?" Rashid asked it, all of us already aware that this was an ice world.

"I don't think we'll be landing." The African shook his head. "The surface temperature is -98 Celsius, but that's not the real problem. The terrain looks bumpy as hell, and the wind? Variable from 70 through to 150 kilometres per hour."

Take us in, Liberty. You remember what I said on Elkos. Assume the same here and for any world in the future, okay?

Yes lord.

"We may be able to get close enough to the node without landing." I stared at the rising curve of this new world, and within seconds spotted the node on our side of the surface. Easier than expected, I pointed it out to Liberty, a dot of hidden light near what looked like the northern planetary axis. "Already got an eye on the target."

The ship reoriented, the view changing, and then we were sinking into an alternating cloudy-clear mixture, space coming and going above as the Disciple descended. Though outside was just as turbulent as Ayize had said, Liberty's resistance and propulsion didn't register it, cutting through the atmospheric forces at play like they weren't present at all. Our ride was seamless, but then we came to a halt, the movement stopped.

We can go no further, lord.

Why?

Beneath is solid. There is no path.

On the holo-screen, the view cleared momentarily and I saw what the ship meant. The surface was no more than a hundred metres below us, and it was exactly as Ayize had said: bumpy as hell. It was a frozen version of Samed's cut-up rocky surface, only taken to the extremes. Gigantic glacial shapes, plateaus, huge curving cliffs and enormous sweeping highlands of solidified ammonia and ice, rent with abyssal drops and crevices that cut deep through. The worst part was the node was in the middle of this, at least a kilometre down.

This was a problem.

"Uh, please don't tell me it's buried." Ayize gave an exasperated huff and glanced to me. "It is, isn't it? Dagen has a really weird choice in worlds. If it's not sulfuric acid and burning hot sunlight, it's hiding the gift inside a planetary popsicle. How do you want to deal with this, Shay?"

How do I want to deal with this? There was one really easy way, and it was simply brute strength. I could force my way to what I wanted. After all, Ayize told me there isn't a realistic limit on what I can manage, if I put my mind to it. So, I'm going to do that here.

"Yeah, I think I have an idea. Keep your eyes on the screen, if you want to see a show."

A real show.

I caught Mira's glance, and a knowing sentiment came with it; 'you're going to do something amazing and I can't wait to see it.'

You bet your ass I am.

I took his right hand in my left, and squeezed it gently, wanting to just touch him. He squeezed back, and the faintest hint of a smile edged into his expression. Not letting go, I held my right hand out in the air, like a magician about to perform a trick, but really to just give myself a moment of mental stability and a chance to focus.

Then, action.

The men next to me could not see the net of aqumi I cast through the planet's surface, but to my eyes and Mira's, there was a sea of glowing lines extending into the frozen-solid landscape. I could not see directly what I was doing, but I did not have to, the results replicated on the holo-screen. A massive chunk of ice was rising, then with abandon I threw it away across the surface, merely a snowball tossed into the breeze. It landed kilometres away, and through the shifting clouds, there were glimpses of it bursting apart as it tumbled, colossal boulders and slabs breaking off. I heard Ayize draw in a breath and then chuckle, like a kid watching a really awesome explosion in a holo-movie, while Rashid began whispering something to himself in Arabic or Farsi. A second chunk followed, then a third, then several more; each millions of tonnes of excavated matter, but no more substantial to me than a breath of air. Finally, I stopped, the gap big enough, the node clear now at the base of an enormous crater ripped through the planet's shell.

Now you can go closer, Liberty.

Yes lord.

"No shit. That was the show." I let go of Mira's hand and Ayize slapped my arm, his grin matching my own. "You're really getting the hang of this."

"Yeah, well," I shrugged, nonchalant, the freshly created surface rising to greet us. "Someone gave me some good advice about testing my limits."

Liberty placed itself just as I desired, the node rising through the floor of the ship until it sat right in the middle of the room. With a touch, I deactivated the holo-screen so it was out of the way, then reached out mentally to awaken the node.

It reacted the same as Elkos and Samed. The calibration phase first, followed by the welcome note and initial dialogue as it restarted its network function. Then, twin gravitational pings from Yahet's binary stars, and from across the vacuum, Elkos sent an answering note. After that, the node seemed to do nothing, regressing into an idle mode, but I did not have to prompt it for the final part.

The vision came straight away. My senses contorted, and once more I was Sulin; once more I was upon an alien world. For the first time out of all I'd seen, there was life. Surrounding was a forest, a thousand signs of growth and biology. Above, a clear cloudless night sky filled with an array of bright stars, the black of the nocturnal cosmos suffused with an opaque but strikingly rich deep red.

"I remember Dagen's Grace."

Reality reasserted itself, the vision dissipating, and I was back within Liberty, the others watching me. I blinked, feeling giddy, because now I knew this was the final world.

"This is it!" I couldn't keep the excitement out of my voice and Mira was watching me intently, hanging on my reaction, Rashid and Ayize similarly enraptured. "I saw the last world. It was covered in trees! There were so many, I-"

The same moment Liberty spoke, I felt it, an intrusion that was never welcome.

Lord, a foe has come.

In space, just outside Yahet's orbit, a gravitational bubble popped, a ship arriving here from ... Elkos.

A Disciple.

A second later, I felt the arbiter's presence and Mira did too; unavoidable, disregarding stealth, as loud and notable as it could be. He tensed and I took a deep breath, our ship already doing what I had repeatedly told it to do: protect us. We were rising before I could speak, speedily ascending from Yahet's frigid wastes, and cruising rapidly on a tangent away from the new arrival. Ayize understood my reaction too, and he turned without pause to the console, bringing the holo-screen out of hibernation. The view flicked between system readings and the xenomorph ship was identified in two seconds. "We have a hostile. Just one."

"It's not moving yet?" Rashid was next to the African, poring over the readout. "What's the MO?"

I knew what was happening.

I could feel it.

The footprint of the arbiter's presence seemed to blossom, and it magnified, expanding, the void of its essence twisting from where it sat in space into a conduit to the verge of that strange horizon, the Veil of Shadow. An odd pulsing echo rang out, inaudible to the men, but I knew it, and Mira too; a vibrating weaving shout of energy through that fabric, a sound that rang across space-time further than I could comprehend.

A signal.

Then the moment passed, and the ethereal cry finished, retracting back into normality, and the enemy Disciple began to move, starting its pursuit.

"It was calling for reinforcements."

"Oh, no." Ayize turned to me, deadly serious, shaking his head. "No no no. We can't wait around here. We need to leave, now."

Yahet was fading into the background, Liberty sprinting at top speed now into empty space, but I could feel the enemy ship following just as fast. I knew aqumi shielding would be no guarantee against anything an arbiter could do, just as I knew stealth evasion with this much focus on our location was equally pointless.

Run. For now we just have to run.

"Where to?!" I clenched my fists and took another deep breath. "It'll take time to find the last planet and I only just saw it! If we jump anywhere else, it will see where we go and then it will just follow us."

"And if we stay here," snapped Ayize, "the reinforcements will arrive and then we will die."

"What do you want me to do? I can't magic my way out of everything. I'm not Dagen, I can't just look into the future and-"

Wait!

Dagen ...

There might be a way.

I pushed past Ayize, wordless, shoving Rashid back in my hurry. Into the rear chamber, I came to our things and plucked up the backpack. Unzipping it, I pulled the kitten from the nest of blankets it had been sleeping it. It woke, mewing loudly and I held it aloft, marching back into the main chamber. It had grown in the weeks since we'd found it, but it was still small, and still just as vocal as ever. Placing it on the centre console, I held it still and crouched so we were at eye level.

I'm sorry if this hurts you in any way, but I have to try.

Outside, the first volley of projectiles shot past us.

The danger was real, and I could not wait.

Reaching out, as delicately as possible, I touched the mote of aqumi inside the kitten's head.

Please hear me. You have to hear me.

You have to help.

For ten long seconds, nothing changed. A second volley spat by, even closer than the first, and dread began to grow, a fear that all my decisions had been wrong and that it was all a stupid mistake, and everyone - everything - was going to pay.

Then, finally, the kitten stopped its gentle squirming, and its pupils contracted dramatically. There was a subtle click of nothingness, an insignificant slip of reality, and my voice was crossing a gap that I could not perceive, a distance as vast and surreal as the arbiter's rallying shout.

I need you! Show me the way!

It was in my own mind, but it was also a bridge across worlds, striking some other place that I could not yet detect; another planet and, I hoped, another mind to hear it, to be listening again when I needed him.

Seconds ticked on, and I closed my eyes. The other three were silent, not daring to interrupt what I was doing.

Not even Mira.

I could hear their breathing, the hum of the holo-screen, the rustle of clothing.

A third volley flashed by and it skimmed against the starboard flank. Liberty juddered, its frame now vibrating slightly at the speed we were at. My heartbeat rose, my spirits sinking, no response forthcoming; so close to despair.

Please, anything! Show me the path!

All I had left was hope.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Konstantin Andropov sat.

He stood, arms folded, and simply watched the Earth outside his window.

He paced back and forth, for hours.

The news continued from the surface. Senatorial arrests. A purge of 'corporatist criminals'. Bombing of government buildings on every continent. CorpSec wrestling with federal police for control of cities, regional flashpoints. Restriction of goods and services in an economic strangulation. Riots and violence.

A civil war had begun, between an emerging revolutionary dictator and the monolith of corporatism.

The Concordat was dying.

There was no right answer.

It seemed his race was sending itself into oblivion willingly, and he was powerless to change the course it was going.

He did not know what to do. Everything he could choose was wrong in some way.

So, he resolved that if he had to act, he would cut straight to the heart as hard as he could. He would leave the devil no latitude, even if he was hated for it.

Sitting at his desk, he began to write a draft command to the army leadership in London:

Summary Action For The Restoration Of Civil Order: The Declaration Of Martial Law.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Yugan had to fight.

The selet pushed forward, but he had two arms on its mandibles, the other two on its forelegs, holding them back. Locked in a close embrace, he could forestall it but not let go of it, or it would skewer him with a dozen wounds given room.

Yet, there was no time.

He was needed now.

FIGHT.

Self-preservation was meaningless.

The dagenithi let go with his superior right, flicking the shanking leg away and plunged his claws fist first into the selet's eyes. It shrieked, the freed limb twisting round to stab into Yugan's side. The pain was burning hot, deep and terrible, and his voice rose into a roaring cry of anger and defiance. A strength exploded through his body, the secret fire releasing itself and he glowed with it. His hand withdrew from the goring, latched onto the impaling shank, and pulled it out, the multiplied potency tearing it clean off the selet's body at the socket.

The hands gripping the mandibles and the other leg pulled outward together, forcing the mouth wider and wide, and then it gave, the jaw splitting and bursting from the amplified force of his pressure, flesh and chitin spraying forth, the other foreleg tearing off at the base. The creature gurgled, shuddering, and Yugan stabbed both severed legs into the softer thorax underside as it tottered, then collapsed.

He had no chance to recover. From the cave entrance there was a new chittering sound, and Yugan stared at the moving shape; enraged, exhausted, and out of chances.

Yet, another!

A fourth selet appeared, a larger alpha hunter looming into view, a final foe trailing the three others, and it skittered in, legs bumping his spear aside as an afterthought, the fresh enemy coming for the two crippled dagenith.

No ...

From behind, out of the white mists, a blur flashed, a leaping shape landing on the creature's back before it could come any closer. Four arms jabbed under the ridges of the selet's thorax crown plating, where the grooves of its armour enabled it to turn, and twisted, wrenching upward with concentrated power. The legs shuddered, the creature squalling in surprise and fury, then there was a wet schlick of disjointed tearing fibres and membranes, and the top half of the head was torn off. The body promptly collapsed to the rock, the matriarch jumping off as it did, tossing the dismembered portion to the side.

"That is the best method to kill a selet."

Mikom.

There was no greater disbelief than his in that moment.

It was impossible.

"You fell." It was a thousand-fold mystery, Yugan unable to understand how this eventuality could be real, how she could be here, now. She was covered in half-healed telutuk lacerations over all her arms and shoulders, the skin dotted with spore flower burns, lek stings and smaller cuts from many other things. Her medial left eye was completely gone, closed forever, and the lateral left was damaged and not fully functional. She was leaner, more weathered, and there was a limping unevenness to her walk, but still able, still strong.

Still here.

"I fell. The Morass claimed me, but I fought. So I live."

Please, anything! Show me the path!

Shay's voice came, once again, and the urgency was brought to the fore. Mikom could see there was a pressure, her perception as keen as it ever was, a look only to communicate that she knew the peril coming. "To the summit, Yugan! I will tend Ralot. Go. Questions will wait!"

He took off at a run, his wound a pain, but barely slowing him. Out from the cave, then up the last stretch of rock. His determination was unfailing, his dexterity critically enhanced, and he reached the upper basin in moments. Then, a dash across the gentle curve of snow to a lip of rock. Yugan stepped over the shallow brink, and onto the flat that was the summit of Usun-Gar.

Then, just like Shay, he could see it.

A tiny dot of hidden fire, as luminous as a star, set atop the Mother.

From within him, a long dormant voice awakened and it spoke, an ancient Mishith dialect that was similar and yet different.

[ Burn, I command you! Light the way! ]

The torch flickered for a second, something in it altering, and then it flared, seeming to intensify a thousand fold, an unseen nova. As if by magic, the cloud and mist of the heights was blasted back from Usun-Gar, the sky all around the mountain clearing and below, everywhere he could see, was the forest, from horizon to horizon.

At long last, Yugan stood, his eye of Dagen's true blood, his feet on the foundation of stone at the roof of the world.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Hope was enough.

From a distant star, I felt a ping of gravity, then the answer from Yahet's stars.

Around that star, a single planet.

This is it.

Shay! The beacon is lit!

"I've got it! I know where!" My voice jolted the others, Rashid staring at the holo-output with a nervous intensity, and I handed the kitten to a shocked Ayize. "Hold on, we're going to jump!"

Liberty, go HERE!

A fourth volley slashed through the top of the hull and we were skewing, spinning. For a couple of horrifying seconds, I thought the worst. The ship did not reply and maybe it was too late, but then there was the strange inversion of leaping across space- time.

We reappeared at full speed. In front, a world blanketed in green, encased in flora, snaking with blue; rivers and narrow seas. The beacon was brighter than any node I'd seen, instantly visible from space, and even as we barrelled down, Liberty angled toward it without being asked, knowing what I was seeking.

Barely three seconds after our jump, the enemy Disciple appeared in space over Dagen's Grace. We were a distance ahead, streaking down into the atmosphere, but the enemy was rapidly gaining.

Something was wrong.

Liberty was not speaking back to me.

Yet, we were still moving, still propelled, and it was weaving, evading like it was possessed. The planetary horizon began to flatten, surface features defining, and the beacon was atop an enormous steep mountain. More and more projectiles shot past, the enemy much closer, barely fifty metres behind. One shot knicked the port flank, and Liberty rolled, the view spinning. Ayize was staring at the screen, his hands white as he gripped the console, Rashid's breath came fast, eyes locked rigidly on the approach.

We're going to crash. They'll hit us, they're too close-

Too close ...

I turned, in one swift motion reaching out with a blast of aqumi to the enemy ship, two dozen metres shy, and before the arbiter could do anything, I crushed the Disciple's mind.

In the same moment, the mountain top rushed up to meet us and we smacked down into the snow, plowing along the side of a basin just below the summit, to stop right at the very edge. Behind, the slain Disciple rammed nose first into the snow, coming to rest alongside in a bowshock of white.

-o-0-O-0-o-

Emerging from the hatched roof of the servant's corpse, the arbiter entered the biting cold of the new world. It was filled with green planet life, the trees dimming under a halo of the night sky's red, evening setting in. Above, on the peak, a candle of the blight pulsed and shimmered, the corrosive infection eating at the perfect tendrils of the Master's will.

Regardless, that could wait.

This arbiter had come for the defiler's death, the betrayer's fall.

It stepped off the Disciple's hull, but did not make more than one step before a grasp took it, crushing and powerful, and threw it to the rock. A heavy foot stamped upon the arbiter's chest and pinned it. A figure loomed, tall, proud and steadfast.

With it, two more of its kind.

There was an instant recognition.

A husk of the first war, a half-child of the ancient foe.

This was the other world they sought.

The place foretold in the augury; a catalyst of the final conflict.

"This is the fate of all your kind." The figure spoke, lifting a spear in one of its four arms. "Look upon the Mishith as you die."

The spear stabbed, the skull shattering from the force, and the arbiter knew no more.

-o-0-O-0-o-

I was first out of the roof hatch of our ship. I didn't know whether Liberty was alive or dead, but I couldn't stop to think about that. I didn't think either about the atmosphere, the temperature, the environment, any of the potential dangers. I had to see him. I had to make sure the arbiter was eliminated.

The other Disciple was close by, buried further into the snow. Next to it, an arbiter, crumbling and dead on the snow, and ... three of them. Two females flanking, and one male, pulling a spear from the remains of the arbiter's head.

Him.

They were smaller than the twelve-foot image of Dagen from Elkos, physically less somehow, but still, all three were between seven and a half, and eight feet tall. They had four arms, four eyes; thick leathery skin, broad limbs, an air of curiosity, intelligence, friendliness, nobility.

There was no question they would not hurt me.

He looked up at the moment I saw him, and our eyes met and locked. There was no break for twenty seconds at least, and then, still without looking away, he handed his spear to the older female and began to walk toward me.

I jumped off the side of the ship, onto the snow, not caring, and walked toward him.

We met midway, and he picked me up, the arms fully encircling me.

[ Brother. ] The words I spoke were alien, but natural and easy, and it was a reunion of family. [ Dagen. It has been so long. I have missed you. ]

[ Sulin. ] His hug was gentle despite his size, his voice a deep coarse rumble compared to mine. [ Your accent has changed, brother. You are also much smaller than I remember. ]

He put me down, just as carefully, and his upper hands stayed delicately on my shoulders, his central eyes shifting across my face.

It was something an eternity in the making.

There was so much more we both wanted to say, but the moment was snatched away.

Our enemy had followed the rallying call, and the all eyes were drawn to space.

Far above, four Apostle battleships appeared, dark silhouettes upon the celestial canopy. A second later, in the vanguard's wake, the Master's leviathan jumped into the orbit of the Mishith sanctuary world, ending the peace that had lasted for cycles beyond count.

The Herald of Truth had found Dagen's Grace.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The Taiqing catastrophe had occurred on November 10, leaving the space defences at a low point.

The declaration of martial law had occurred on November 11, the simmering conflict erupting into a full civil war between the military, government and corporate faction.

The augury had foretold the following day as the chosen time.

It was November 12 of 2318, a Tuesday.

At almost a quarter past two in the afternoon, GMT, it began.

From Librae Arctis IV, where the full strength was regathered, the first Disciple leaped into range of the human orbital defences at the homeworld. A dozen followed it through the void from the staging ground, and then a hundred more after that. Then a thousand.

Then tens of thousands.

A flood was coming to Earth, to bring the Master's will.

The moment of truth had arrived, at long last.

There is nothing for me to say that hasn't already been said. This is the culmination of three years of writing, so I hope the wait has been satisfying for you as the reader. This is the last chapter, but please turn to the epilogue for the final word on Veil of Shadow.
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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Yes, It is an excellent chapter filled to the brim with tension and drama, -landmarks really.

Shay and Yugan meet, and Mikom lives! Earth is poised for a huge fight and the timing couldn't be worse.

This is a short review since I have to read the Epilogue and can't wait.

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19 hours ago, Stephen said:

Yes, It is an excellent chapter filled to the brim with tension and drama, -landmarks really.

Shay and Yugan meet, and Mikom lives! Earth is poised for a huge fight and the timing couldn't be worse.

This is a short review since I have to read the Epilogue and can't wait.

 

Thank you! Everything has reached snapping point! The worst case scenarios are coming true all round, but now the plot has been concentrated down to two very important places: Earth and Dagen's Grace. Anyone of narrative relevance is at one of these locations, and in true fashion for the middle book of a trilogy, the situation for the good guys has hit rock bottom. During the third book, we'll be getting so far down that daylight is a fond memory only. Things are going to get rather bad before they get better.

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Thanks for that ray of hope, and given the story so far, a struggle of monumental size is expected.

Anything less would be disappointing.

 

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Fantastic end to this story. Sulin and Dagen finally reunited through their current avatar, and yet this is just the start of a new phase, with more fighting and adventures to come.

 

It has been three years indeed. But as I've said before, each of your chapters is worth the wait :)

 

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1 hour ago, Bleu said:

Fantastic end to this story. Sulin and Dagen finally reunited through their current avatar, and yet this is just the start of a new phase, with more fighting and adventures to come.

 

It has been three years indeed. But as I've said before, each of your chapters is worth the wait :)

 

 

I will admit, the dialogue Yugan got as Dagen's reincarnation was unabashed humour -- I could not resist turning it into a joke -- "You are less than six feet tall now and you speak like a fricking weirdo. You have changed, brother." Shay is definitely not a Mishith in stature, and his counterpart knows it. -_-

 

Three years. Three very long years -- I am glad you have stuck with me this journey and been so vocal in your opinion of it. I thank you for that and for when the sequel appears, in advance, for that too.

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Wow I had totally forgotten that Mikom was actually still alive. I reread this story thinking she was dead and even in the beginning I thought "Nah, ya gonna die soon anyway, old lady." Though, as things are currently looking, prospects are that she will "die again" pretty soon, but this time for real.

I honestly don't know how you intend to get humanity out of this mess in one, not-sharpling-sized piece, Stellar. Well, I am excited to find out, hopefully in the not too distant future.

Love you for this story either way, though. 💓

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On 12/27/2018 at 1:58 PM, Scary said:

Wow I had totally forgotten that Mikom was actually still alive. I reread this story thinking she was dead and even in the beginning I thought "Nah, ya gonna die soon anyway, old lady." Though, as things are currently looking, prospects are that she will "die again" pretty soon, but this time for real.

I honestly don't know how you intend to get humanity out of this mess in one, not-sharpling-sized piece, Stellar. Well, I am excited to find out, hopefully in the not too distant future.

Love you for this story either way, though. 💓

 

Why are you so convinced Mikom will die? Tbh, the humans are far squishier and easier to kill, not the Mishith.

 

Glad you enjoyed it. ^_^ When Spirit of Fire is completed, this is a possibility for what I do next, though it won't be the only possibility.

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Lucas made it back to earth with Nyx in tow so cool, what has taken place is revealed! And the CorpSec-Space fools are going to attack and all will die! And that is what happens how dumb this was sigh:no: Guiterrez is a traitor to everything he must hang! We will have to see if this comes to pass!! I loved the meeting on Dagen's Grace and the bastard Aliens. I can only hope for the next book:kiss::hug::thankyou::worship:

Oh My God its a cliffhanger! I have love this story so well written and I want more :rofl:

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Wow, wow, I scarcely can breathe. What a finish. Well, no, this is not the end. there will have to be more stories to come.

Thanks for having Mikom show up again, "That is the best method to kill a selet." :great:That was so cool!

Again, a lot of kudos to you! :worship: :worship: :worship: :worship: :worship: :worship:

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6 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Wow, wow, I scarcely can breathe. What a finish. Well, no, this is not the end. there will have to be more stories to come.

There is.

The final book of the trilogy, Lucid Truth, exists in an incomplete form.

Whether you read it piece by piece or wait until completion is your choice.

6 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Thanks for having Mikom show up again, "That is the best method to kill a selet." :great:That was so cool!

Just a reminder than unless you SEE a character die in the text, you cannot assume they are dead.

Like all Mishith, Mikom is very tough and capable of surviving much.

6 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Again, a lot of kudos to you! :worship: :worship: :worship: :worship: :worship: :worship:

You are most welcome.

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