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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 - 9. Smoke and Mirrors

The initial communication from Kenji regarding the Stuttgart mission had been surprising. Konstantin had not expected the Brotherhood to recover the mission objective so soon. The list of potential targets was extrapolated from certain clues in the stolen Tanami cache, and successfully narrowed to the nine most probable locations. Four were in Europe, two in Asia, two in North America and one in Africa. The Stuttgart campus wasn't even the highest probability out of the European theatre's four options, let alone overall, so it had been a welcome shock to take Kenji's call.

It had begun with Ayize contacting them the day after Konstantin's arrival in Greece. The Brotherhood team was on the move right as Ayize opened dialogue, only just having retrieved Mira from the Australian base and about to leave the continent. The news was startling though.

Shay was not on Earth.

The boy had been on the homeworld for less than a week before he was spirited offworld in a blatant contravention of the all-important law against interstellar travel. The moment Lucas heard this news, he became furious. Although he kept his composure, it was only just held in check for the sake of civil conversation. He told the African that if it was fine for CorpSec to break the biggest rules in executing corporatist plans, then the Brotherhood realists should have no misgivings doing the same. Lucas was quite clear: MFM were doing it because they knew they could get away with it, and if it wasn't for the current situation, no one would have known otherwise. More than that, Lucas told them it was almost a necessity that they match this sort of behaviour to beat MFM in the shadow war.

At that point, Ayize chose plain honesty and revealed his plan to them. It was simple but dangerous. Valuable corporate data was stolen from Tanami during Mira's extraction. With it, Ayize intended to locate and 'appropriate' a CorpSec shuttle to jump to Berchande. This was where Shay was being held and Ayize was going to stage a blitz raid on the captors to release the boy. Though, Ayize did not yet have a satisfactory means of bypassing the orbital military watchdogs, and this was a point of concern. The entire operation would stumble and falter if he could not generate a solution on the fly.

This was where Lucas stepped in.

Delving into the resources he had access to from his profession, and still absolutely incensed with anger, he carefully and anonymously duplicated the means for Ayize to sneak past the ever-present military 'cordon.' The African had been amazed at this turn of events, knowing very well the military's neutrality; he had not for a second presumed any help would be provided. Pleased by the unexpected good fortune of Lucas' assistance, he informed them in turn that two members of his team would be staying on Earth. His cousin Lindani Mthembu was in acting command of Ayize's branch of the Brotherhood paramilitary, with all the resources at his disposal that this would entail. The technical officer Kenji Shimizu would also be staying to assist.

Their primary task was to decipher MFM's intent and actions regarding all the recent secrecy, with a particular emphasis on how it connected to the Yakutsk incident. Ayize wanted the Brotherhood's name cleared and MFM's ruthlessness exposed. He requested, quite politely, that Konstantin and Lucas be included in this effort as much as they were willing and able, without risking their lives due to involvement with 'known terrorists.' Both men, Ayize reasoned, had insight to offer that could greatly help this cause, albeit for rather different reasons.

Lucas was still too angry to say much and did not promise anything more than what he had given Ayize already. Considering this was far better than what the Brotherhood commander had expected, Ayize wasn't about to push the matter. Konstantin, on the other hand, gave his assurance that he would do all he could to help, and that he had some inkling of where he would start.

Then Ayize's call ended, and that was the last they heard from him before he was gone, en route to Japan.

It was several hours before Lucas was calm enough to act rationally. His mood took a long time to die down to where he felt it was socially acceptable. Konstantin attributed it to a combination of several things. In their first vodka-fuelled discussion, he had done as Lucas asked and given a near-full account of Lucere. Little was left out, and it was this knowledge of Shay's quantum unity, combined with the already substantial hatred of corporatism and MFM's unflinching lawbreaking, that boosted the soldier's rage to astronomical levels.

Then a second call came through. This time it was the other half of the Brotherhood team. Konstantin had not been properly introduced to the other members of Ayize's team during their flight through Russia and Asia, so Kenji was not a familiar figure. Nonetheless, he was personable, quick- witted and easy to speak with. Transferring a wealth of data to them, all stolen from Tanami, the man joked about the 'spirit of friendship between revolutionaries' as the reams of highly sensitive information came flooding in. Though, in part the extroverted friendliness was a defence, as Konstantin detected some cautious hesitation in his demeanour.

Apparently Kenji was just as unnerved about exposing their operations to Lucas, as Lucas was about breaking his own professional oath, the associated anger and nobility of foiling corporatism notwithstanding. They were aligned in principle, but in reality were tied to very different organisations. Still, Kenji got on with his job, and told them that a preliminary sweep of the data had revealed plenty about the extent of MFM's operations, going back in part to pre-2104 and the late 21st century. The problem was there was nothing that could directly connect the corporate conglomerate to anything to do with Yakutsk or the related chicanery. A lot of the data was useful for a variety of auxiliary purposes, such as locating and stealing a CorpSec shuttle, but for their primary mission, it was essentially still a mystery. If either Lucas or Konstantin had any further insight in figuring out a path forward, the Brotherhood wanted to know.

It turned out that Konstantin had just the right kind of insight.

Before the call had finished, while they were still scanning over the data, Konstantin had a brainwave. Central among the Tanami information was plenty of detail about MFM's projects over that long time period, both before and after the formation of the overarching corporate system, and it seemed to all be quite legitimate. Objectively, there was nothing unethical or illegal about their operations. They were advancing human understanding in a range of fields, and how could that be a bad thing? The stolen information was just MFM's private internally-published portfolio of their own publicly-created entities. The common link between all of it was scientific study, but there was another commonality that Konstantin knew was more pervasive. Largely untouched upon here, it was the thing that bound modern society together like glue, and following it would broaden the net of connection, giving a more accurate idea of who was involved with what.

Money.

After a couple of very pointed questions to Kenji, Konstantin had proposed a daring plan. If the Brotherhood could locate and steal a small amount of quite specific additional information from MFM, he told Kenji he was certain a concrete link could be made that would crack MFM's aura of authenticity. The other two had listened to the idea and both agreed it was worth a shot. Lindani gave the go-ahead, and the Brotherhood's strategic resources were immediately set working to that end.

That brought him to the present.

"It's given us an advantage." Lindani was speaking, both he and Kenji visible together on the other end of the line. The Brotherhood teams had since returned home from Germany, and Lindani was now back in Florence at their command station. The family resemblence to Ayize was notable, right down to the cheerful grin, though Lindani was clearly younger and his face less scarred than the older cousin. "We only had to hit one target to get what we wanted, so it will be a lot harder for them to identify what it is we were doing based on a single instance, and also who we are. They may assume Brotherhood involvement given recent events and our history, since we are the biggest opposition, but there are plenty of other realist groups too and none of them love the corporations. All in all, it could not have gone much better."

"What I'd like to know," Kenji spoke up, "is how financial records from Lucere are relevant here? Sure, the pre-MFM corporates owned companies there. Four of the seven MFM founders invested heavily, but that's not unusual. Lucere was a big economy back then, second only to Earth."

Reference data popped into the video feed as Kenji spoke, highlighting those four primary Lucere investors.

* American Munitions, System Construction and Redesign (AMSCOR)
* ParaTech Consortium (PTC)
* Meyer-Gould-Johnson Investment Bank (MGJ)
* Planetary Mining & Industrial Shipping (PM&IS)

"Let me see. How would I describe this?" Konstantin rubbed his chin as he sat on the Thessaloniki's couch. The video-link was running from the holo-projector on the lounge table, visible to the room. Lucas was pacing thoughtfully nearby, not one for sitting still in such situations. "It all comes back to my boys. I'm sure this won't make much sense, but, uh," he paused, thinking over how to proceed, when the soldier cut in.

"I've got this." Pausing, he turned to address the Brotherhood pair and asked a question. "When your team was retrieving Mira, did he ... do anything ... different? Out-of-the-ordinary different, beyond what you'd expect from a kid his age?"

Lindani straightened on screen and gave them a curious look. "As a matter of fact, yeah. He kicked Rashid down and nearly broke my neck. Did it faster than either of us could react, like he was wired into the very best military-grade augments. That wasn't the freaky bit though. We witnessed him survive a hail of gunfire to his head and shoulders from multiple AMS Mk-XVII turrets. At the end of it he didn't have a minor flesh-wound or even a scratch. What was causing that?"

Konstantin smiled to himself. That certainly sounded like Mira, although .. deflecting bullets? That was new. Maybe the boy had learned another trick. He sure hoped so, as both of them needed to become as proficient with aqumi as they could. He cleared his throat. "Well, the unexplained things you have seen that would normally be impossible are the result of medical experimentation. Both Mira and Shay are what they are because of that."

"Woah there." Kenji held up his hands. "Just hold on a second. That isn't right. If you're saying what I think you're saying ... there hasn't been a corporate presence on Lucere since the gates were shut down and travel restricted in 2104."

The Russian nodded. "That's completely true."

Kenji shrugged, palms up, confusion all over his face. "Then, I don't follow. How is it possible for medical experimentation to take place today?"

"It's possible because the experimentation didn't take place today. It happened in 2104. Shay Andersen was there. If I am correct, and I am becoming more and more certain that I am, the companies that were conducting this experimentation were contracted either by MFM's founders or their subsidiaries, and done as quietly and anonymously as possible. I know they were messing with some very advanced tech, and they managed to embed it into Shay, giving him many qualities, not the least of which was ... immortality."

"What?" Lindani's face was blank, deadpan. He stared at Konstantin flatly.

"You are American, yes?" He gestured to Kenji. "Well so is Shay. He was born in Seattle, on Earth, in 2089. He was 14 years old when the experiments began, and has been alive on Lucere for more than 200 years. In all that time, he has not aged a day."

Both men continued to stare, and then after a few seconds of silence, Lindani spoke again.

"You're serious?"

"A couple of minutes ago, you told us what you saw Mira do. I want you to understand how powerful the technology attached to both these boys is. Lucere was, and is, a violent place. I saw Mira stabbed through the chest ... and live. I saw Shay pick up buildings using his mind, and toss them around like they were weightless. Do you get how advanced I am talking?"

Neither said anything. Still staring, speechlessly.

"There are two reasons they destroyed Yakutsk. To kill me, because I am ... was ... the only one who knows exactly what Shay and Mira are. At the same time, it drew all eyes to this 'act of terrorism' and blamed your Brotherhood for it, so none would notice the kidnapping of those two boys. More than kidnapping really, a grab to control that priceless technology hidden inside them."

"Christ." Lindani blew a breath of air noisily out his mouth, sitting back. His eyes flicked to the ceiling then to Konstantin. "Okay. Ayize knew something big was going on, but I don't think any of us were expecting this."

"He will find out himself on Berchande. Mira isn't much for explanation, but Shay? He doubts himself sometimes, but he's the smartest young man I've met."

Kenji had seemingly accepted the quite fantastic notion with little trouble, as his mind was moving on to the next logical step. "So, there were groups on Lucere doing experiments on humans with advanced technology, and you're confident you can connect the corporatists to them?" When Konstantin nodded, he went on. "Then what? Who's going to believe some story about a pair of immortal teenaged boys who can ignore bullets and psychically throw buildings around?"

A smile was broadening on Lucas' face. He cracked his knuckles, flexing his forearms and stretching idly while he paced. He had realised Konstantin's intention and it was clever. "If Shay was born on Earth and travelled to Lucere, there will be records. Travel records of him leaving the planet, government records, medical records, school records. All kinds from when he lived here. A lot of it will be publicly available."

"Exactly," said the Russian, his deep voice soft. "He is the key. We tell the world the truth, and link the past to the present."

"A full disclosure ... with evidence." Lindani looked at the man next to him, his own smile growing. "That ... might actually work. Shit, Ken, they'd never expect that. We could clear our name and nail them with Yakutsk in the process. It could destroy their public image. That's fucking brilliant."

Kenji hummed pensively. "Mmm. It could. So you," he looked at Konstantin, "must know what to search for in the Stuttgart data to make that link or you wouldn't have asked us to retrieve it. This leaves one final problem: delivering the evidence to the public. We need a platform to do it, one that can reach a lot of people."

"I can think of a few possibilities," Lucas added, "though this doesn't have to be decided right now."

"I can too, but you are right," the African agreed. "We'll be keeping a low profile until we need to act on this. Our politicians don't want us making waves. They're under a lot of strain defending the realist presence in the senate, so we don't want a repeat of the last few days without good reason."

"You made it out of Australia without being tracked?" Lucas sounded grudgingly impressed. "CorpSec's surveillance is probably better than the federal police."

"Hey, we've evaded worse than that. We are the experts in avoiding corporate asshattery." Kenji straightened his lapels in a comedic interpretation of a superspy, a satisfied cocky grin on his face. "You need advice? You call me. I've got the moves. I'll get you out of anything."

Lindani shook his head. "Ken, shut up." Then to the other two: "We're finishing here. Got plenty of things to deal with in the meanwhile. We'll be in touch when there is more to discuss."

"Until then," Konstantin agreed.

The link cut, and the projection dwindled to nothing. Immediately, Lucas turned to him. "You're completely sure you can link all this together?"

"Oh yes." There was no doubt left in his mind. "Call it family connections, if you like."

Konstantin knew where he would start. It was with a man who had abruptly left Earth for Lucere in 2097, a man whose choices had resulted in the Andropovs relocating away from the homeworld.

Mikhail Volkov.

-o-0-O-0-o-

The moment I realised the Sharpe virus was inside Rashid's body, I looked into him with the power of aqumi vision. It had been only a minute or two since the arbiter's claw had made the cut, but outside of Lucere, there were no carriers. It was straight from healthy to mutating, with the intermediate phase gone. The virus would multiply fast and begin the transformation straight away. Within a day, two days maximum, he would be one of them, a mindless predator drone working for the arbiters, like the thousands I had seen on Lucere. The original dark blot of viral infection on the shoulder had already expanded, and even as I watched I could see it growing, tendrils snaking as it began to multiply down his arm and toward his neck. It was horrifying to witness, and I knew I had to act.

There was no time to wait.

"Rashid, I think I can fix this." The words were tumbling out as quickly as I could say them. "It hasn't spread much yet, and I- ... I can try, but-"

"Don't care. Do it." He grunted, not hesitating in response.

"You could die, I don't know if-"

"Do. It."

I didn't need to be told again. I clapped my hand on his shoulder, right over the wound, taking a deep breath and then ...

Fire.

There was nothing enjoyable about the pain that Rashid was feeling, but burning that creeping blackness was a type of indescribable justice. Watching the virus shrivel and die because of what I was doing stirred emotions in me that I couldn't identify. It was a mixture of good and bad; good for the lives I could change, and bad? Bad because, for all the hurt it had caused humanity, I regretted that I could not do more to hurt it in return. I wished I could cripple the virus, the arbiters themselves, with the same level of pain given to us for so long.

Rashid's breathing was shallow, through clenched teeth, his nose wrinkling from the strain. His arm shook and as I withdrew aqumi from him, the patch of infection cleaned from his body; he let out a shuddering haaaa of discomfort. I helped him properly to his feet and we began our walk across the mesa top to the shuttle, Rashid leaning heavily on me. The engine smoke had petered out, and although I doubted it was able to fly, it was somewhere to take refuge for the moment.

Inside, I let Rashid go and he pulled off his rebreather and visor, taking big lungfuls of filtered air as he slumped onto a couch in the passenger compartment. His face was still drawn, the pain not even beginning to recede, and I recalled back to when I had burned the virus from Konstantin. At the time, I was scared I had killed him, the after-effects of the cure taking some time to pass. Rashid was luckier because it was just his shoulder, but I still felt an inadvertent guilt that I was responsible for all of this.

I need to distract him from the pain, at least until Ayize and Mira get here. Talk to him? Keep him occupied. Pulling up a chair on the slightly tilted floor, I cleared my throat. Talk. Even if he gets angry at you, or whatever.

"So, um, where are you from?"

He stared at me, his dark eyes almost screaming out 'why are you asking me such a stupid question?' in that same slightly bitter borderline-unfriendly way, but then the sentiment relented and he answered. "Iran. Tabriz." The words were delivered in a brief but punchy manner, only now tinged with the suffering of the current ordeal.

"Oh. I don't know anything about Tabriz. What's it like?"

"Lots of factories. Lots of monuments. Parks, museums, mosques. Too many people." He grimaced. "Terrible weather. Half the year's like winter, other half is a nuisance."

I guess it's the Middle East, so it's probably hot and dry all the time. "There're lots of places on Earth I want to see."

Rashid twisted on the couch, smearing the sheen of sweat and Berchande's grit on the paler-than- normal skin of his face. His eyes landed on me again, and stayed hovering on my face, like he was trying to figure out what I was doing. Then he spoke, his voice a bit laboured and a bit slower now, but still clear despite the pain.

"So, which one of you is the girl?"

For a second I wasn't sure what he meant, then I realised. My jaw dropped and my mind went blank. Did he just ask me about ... ?! The question was stupidly intrusive, but somehow it didn't actually feel malicious. Gobsmacked, I couldn't reply, so he went on. "You, right? Saw him naked. That must hurt."

Suddenly pissed off beyond belief, I found my voice. "It's not like that! Does it have to be 'male' and 'female'?" My speech was practically a growl. "We're both boys!"

"Uhhh," he moaned, "this must be a test! Forgive my weakness." His face screwed up, his whole body tensing, then he was switching to another language, a soft incantation that seemed almost feverish. "Huwa al-ladhii yushallii alaykum wa malaa'ikatuhu liyukhrijakum mina az-zulumaati il an-nuuri wa kaana bil-muminiina rahimaan."

What the ... ?

Then from nowhere, Ayize was next to me, the sound of him entering the shuttle having completely skipped my senses during my concentration on Rashid. He leaned in, forcing the man flat on the couch with a practiced firmness. A hypospray was in his right hand, and he held the injector to the man's neck above the cut shoulder. It gave a pressurised hiss, the payload delivered, and in seconds Rashid's eyes were beginning to glaze. He rolled onto his side, turning away from us, wanting some seclusion now that the pain was finally receding.

"What was that?"

"Painkiller." Ayize was stashing the injector back into an opened medikit as he spoke, before sitting down on another stool next to me.

"No, I mean ... he was talking in another language-"

"Arabic?" The African interrupted me. "Yeah, I heard that." He chuckled. "As well as the question before it. My Arabic isn't the best, since it's been a couple of years, but what he said was, more or less: 'God and his angels have mercy, that they may bring you out from the darkness into light.'"

God and his angels?

"Don't take it as a slight against you. If anything, I'd say it's meant as the exact opposite." Ayize shrugged. "Forgive the oddness of his curiosity. He comes from a very traditional Islamic community where certain things about the modern world are still poorly interpreted even today. Though, I gotta say, I kinda agree. Your boy cuts a hell of a figure without clothes."

My face was reddening instantly, and I stammered over my reply, feeling simultaneously confused, angry again, and embarrassed. "What would y-you know about that?"

Cheerily, Ayize gave his reply. "Oh, I lost my virginity to a friend of mine when I was thirteen. Been a few men since then, but I mostly prefer women. We are digressing here though, because there are bigger things happening right now than who is fucking whom and why." He looked me straight in the eyes. "When were you going to tell me you two can't be infected and these Sharpe xenomorphs can cloak themselves too, not just their ships?"

"Ayize, I-"

"-need to come clean." He jerked a thumb towards the shuttle's entrance compartment. "Mira's through there, but before you try to run to him, he's going to heal. Rashid will make it too, by the looks, though I still want to hear what happened there, but you ... you need to disclose what you know. I'm sick of waiting for answers." He voice took on an edge. Not nasty exactly, just harder than it had been before. "This shuttle can't fly. The only possible visitors we can expect are corporatist reinforcements or more xenomorphs. So how about you tell me just what the fuck is going on?"

I met his gaze. "When people find out ... what I am," I whispered, "it changes everything."

All they want is what's within me. That's it.

"Shay, do you know what's been happening on Earth for decades? Longer than decades; since this virus existed? A small group of very powerful people are attempting to take over the government, and they are succeeding. Some time in the not-too-distant future, they will have enough influence that we will have to fight a global civil war in which millions will die."

Millions ...

His expression was utterly serious and I could not look away. "I don't know if this war will be in five years or two years or if it's just months away, but it will happen and it's closer than it has ever been. I can't predict how long or what else is to come, but I can damn near promise you that the second we descend into chaos by tearing each other apart for control of our one remaining world, the xenomorphs will attack. They showed their cunning and intelligence 200 years ago when they destroyed the colonies. What happens if we let down our guard and fight ourselves?"

"They ... will win."

The image that flitted through my mind was the one the arbiter had showed to me. The Earth covered in a misting devouring darkness, the human race removed from it.

Defeated.

"Yes, they will," he murmured. "I am a realist. A just and secure democracy can exist. It has before and it could do so again, but until these xenomorphs are destroyed, it won't. You've seen the real enemy first hand. They are the biggest threat to our way of life, and fear of them is used as a tool to manipulate and fool the people of Earth. You don't have to trust me personally, but I want you to trust what I stand for; what realism means. Human unity and survival, not extinction. So trust that, if nothing else. Trust it enough to help me further that cause."

"Okay." He's right. We can't fight the enemy completely alone, but Ayize's knowledge only scratches the surface. There's aqumi, the arbiters themselves, that other alien voice in my mind. Oh god, earlier with Rashid and being 'possessed'? I'm not even sure what all that means, but I have to try explain it to him. I cleared my throat. "It's going to be crazy though. I mean that. Like ... impossible-ridiculous crazy that sounds more like a big fictional lie than what's real."

"Doesn't matter," he insisted. "Tell me anyway."

So I did.

It took a while. I began with my departure from Earth in 2104 and told him everything about what had happened on Lucere, then on to the more recent events. The craziest part of it was what had just happened in the last day or two. The kitten, the alien voice, being 'possessed' during the arbiters' attack only minutes ago. Ayize took in all of it, and out of all the people who I'd had to reveal the insanity of my experiences to, his reaction was probably the most level-headed of anyone's, except for maybe Konstantin. We sat there in silence for a minute, the wiry African's eyes having shifted to Rashid's resting form for the final part of my tale involving his comrade. Then, abruptly, he turned to me and spoke.

"I wondered why you were so well-spoken for a refugee boy, but I thought it just a result of Konstantin raising you. You've had a hell of a time," he mused. "These ... 'arbiters' ... though? Nobody has had communication from the xenomorphs, and you say that there is another alien species involved in this too?"

It was a strange relief to have all of that off my chest. At least now I can get someone else's perspective on it; someone who seems to have his head screwed on the correct way. "There is. I don't know for sure, but I think that the voice I heard through the kitten and whatever possessed me might be the same race. They're definitely enemies of the Sharpe ali- ... uh, 'xenomorphs', from long ago and they have to be responsible for creating aqumi or at least they were involved in it somehow."

"Maybe we've got common interests. Shay, there's an enormous amount for me to think about here but certain things stand out right away. First, the gas giant the arbiter showed you sounds like a marshalling place for their ships, so finding out more about that will be important. Second, it seems they used this 'Veil of Shadow' to come here from somewhere else, so learning what it is might give us some clues about their origins and why this all happened. Third, that your alien acquaintances could be potential allies. Making proper contact should be a priority. We need all the help we can get."

"Except we're stuck here." I sighed, folding my arms across my chest. "Whatever the arbiter did to the engines, it was more than enough to make sure we can't escape. Is there any way to contact Earth for help?"

Ayize shook his head. "The focus array they used in to open singularities is offline because the reactor is down. Even if it were working, it's calibrated specifically for connecting to places controlled by the corporatists. We wouldn't get a friendly reception. If anything, I'm more concerned about CorpSec sending a security deployment than more aliens coming."

Fuck. We are stranded. If only we could get around as easily as the arbiters could, then we'd have no prob-

Wait a second.

The arbiters.

Could I ... ?

I stood, reaching across to grab my rebreather and visor off the shelf where I'd dumped it. "I've got an idea," I told Ayize, who was watching me with some curiosity. "I'll need to go outside again, to look around, but I think it'll be worth it."

"You want me to come with you?"

"Don't worry," I said, my confidence building by the second. "You stay here and make sure Rashid is okay. I'll be fine. If I run into another arbiter hiding out there, I'll fuck it up with my bare hands."

With that, I flashed him a grin and slipped out of the passenger compartment's entrance, my plan firmly in mind.

-o-0-O-0-o-

It was several daily cycles before Yugan felt the need to connect with Shay again. The young dagenithi knew the human boy was safe at his homeworld, having witnessed his arrival. Though, as he moved through the wilds away from Otsin with Mikom and their otsinith companions, he had only the night-vision's truth to comfort him. The flowing river of future possibility and the bridge of spirit to Shay's pet creature were beyond access in these lowlands, deprived of that ability away from the Kerelom's secret fire.

Then came a concern.

The Dagenith knew the forests of their home well, and had conceptually separated the planet-wide ocean of trees into three stages. The first was the lightest, ideal for hunting, gathering, farming and settlement. There was little to fear in this graduation, unless one was a dullard or overly careless, and most villages would be found in this clime. Then was the second; the deeper growth. The wildlife was more dangerous there, the trees taller and stronger. It was a harsh land but rich; fewer settlements existed in these zones, though those that could survive prospered. They bred tough dagenith, their tribes capable of feats worthy of respect.

Then, the third. This was known as the ancient forest, and it was unquestionably perilous. The ground was further down, the treetops further up; there was wonderful plenty to be found and formidable risk both. Though many creatures existed to hunt and a cornucopia of food grew, fed by the filtering of nutrients through the layers of green, the largest predators of Dagen's Grace made these places home. It was where they nested, and it was an unusual experience to sight them outside of such bounds. So much so, that many younger dagenith had not seen the most feared marauders of their world. The ancient forest was that kind of danger, and tales of the trees themselves turning against intruders were recited to remind children of why.

Mikom had told them they were to enter To-Menir Osgarak within the next two or three cycles. In their tongue, the meaning of the name was the Sylvan Morass, and it was a large region of ancient forest that extended a great distance sunwise. They would not need to travel all of it, she informed them, but cutting through to reach Usun-Gar would shorten the route, for going around was many times further. They had to prepare for this, for the edge of the Morass would be passed soon.

That following morning was unsettling. During the night, his experience of the human world was reduced to nothingness. Just as Shay's long sleep within the artificial chamber, there was nothing but a blackness, with no sensation. Only this was simpler; the boy was merely unconscious. Then the same thing occurred the next night, and again the night after.

Yugan was worried.

Only a short distance before the Morass, he decided to tell Mikom of his uneasiness. It was out of character and certainly suspicious, but the matriarch had an immediate solution. They were crossing the lower slopes of one of several peaks that bordered the ancient forest, and if Yugan was to climb, he could make some use of the light within, to learn more of Shay's situation.

So he did.

Ralot, a female dagenithi of little more than his own age, came with him up the slope. She did not speak often, being a very stoic type, and by the time they had climbed high enough for Yugan to manage what he intended, they had exchanged few words. Still, he pushed on and raised himself a little further until they were in the snow itself. This particular mountain was steeper than Kerelom, and perhaps the added altitude would grant him more of the fire's clarity.

What he saw scared and angered him.

Shay was imprisoned in a box of pure white, forced into an artificial sleep by others of his own race. They had trapped his mind in a strange place, and in the many permutations Yugan saw of the future, so many outcomes were unpleasant. In most, the boy would fall for this trickery, and they would pluck the secret of the light from him; then they would cut into his body with needle-thin tools. Literally, they would carve holes into the heart of his personality in a bid to drain yet more information from the matter itself; or having learned all they needed, simply terminate his life without allowing him to awake. Then another layer of trickery beyond that, a crushing force that would not allow the light to run free, but would smother it to the same end.

Yugan could not do anything from here. Shay's pet was unable to physically help, and no amount of constructed mental imagery could penetrate into the boy's trapped unconscious mind. Though, here on this mountain, he felt stronger. He felt as if his voice could carry the distance, and to his surprise, again using the little creature as a conduit, it could.

He spoke directly into Shay's mind from his own.

The elation at managing this was extreme. It was an amazing thing to hear the voice of the one to which he had been joined for so long, to communicate directly. He warned Shay of the danger, convincing him to awaken. To his joy, this was exactly what happened.

Success.

Not long after, Shay released the animal from the bag it was hiding in, and once more, they spoke. Yugan told him of their link, of the connection provided them by the little creature's spirit, of the draining ward upon the prison cell. Even as he talked, he heard Ralot's voice, as if from a great distance, calling him awake. With great reluctance, he said a hurried farewell and released the connection, finding himself on Dagen's Grace once more.

"Yugan," she was next to him, shaking his right arms with a gentle insistence. "The matriarch said to not waste much of the cycle. We still have far to travel before night."

"It is not late yet." He looked to the sky, the sun only now moving lower into the afternoon. "My task is important. More than I can prove to you with words alone."

"This the matriarch also said." Ralot looked down the slope toward the forest, and outward where the Morass began. "I do not question, but I am wary."

"Stay," he encouraged her. "Mikom will understand."

There was only a momentary pause before Ralot gave her unspoken assent, her ears shifting to a relaxed tilt. Yugan closed his eyes once more, dropping back into meditation and immersing himself in the connection. For a while, it was mundane, and all Shay did was wait, sitting in his cell.

Then came a moment that was breathtaking.

The human boy needed his aid, and Yugan gave it. Like a call to arms, a royal dogma that was handed down, his help was demanded. For the first time, he felt the strange pull of the fire inside him, almost as if it were being dragged out across the immeasurable reach of space between them, though he were pushing with all his strength. It was a tide of light and he gave it willingly.

With their combined energy, Shay connected to Mira, freeing his beloved, and then he broke his own way clear.

Yugan felt no sadness for any of the humans killed. He knew what they might have done to Shay, what they would have done if allowed to win. He had witnessed enough of human nature through Shay's eyes on Lucere to know just how terrible they could be.

There was worse approaching, however.

He could see in the flow of upcoming chance, arbiters descending. With them were giant hunters, a voracious relentless sort. They would pursue and hunt the boy through the dust of this rocky world until Shay was run ragged and defeated by exhaustion, or caught and killed. Once more, he felt Ralot call him, and this time he knew he could stay no longer. It had been some time, and his own quest could not wait. Yugan sent one last warning, as direct as he could, before resurfacing to the here-and-now.

"I am sorry. We can depart now." His reassurance should have been enough, but she was not looking at him. Her ears were perked, her arms tensed, eyes moving about the canopy that was some distance below. "Ralot? What is it?"

"I heard it, from the lip of the ancient forest. Never before, but I was taught." She turned a little, enough that her lateral left eye could see his face.

"What did you hear?"

"From the Morass, closer towards the spur where the matriarch waits," the youthful rasp of her voice was there, like his, but now soft and apprehensive. "The sweet song of the shiver-stalker. It is their hunting call."

Yugan had not seen one.

He did not want to.

It was the telutuk, what the Dagenith also called the shiver-stalker; the other half of the infamous predatory duo of Dagen's Grace, opposite the murderous selet, the venom- shank.

Trouble was coming, and the matriarch was down there.

Mikom.

-o-0-O-0-o-

"You know," said Lindani as they lounged in the control centre chairs, the call to Greece just having finished, "I knew MFM was up to something the minute we saw the CorpSec special detail moving in the Sakha. It was right after Lebaredian's announcement about the three refugees from Lucere too. They hate Russia, they've never had any real traction there."

"Yeah." Kenji bit into another sherbert stick and chewed on it. "But this is huge. Boss knows how to pick 'em."

"Andropov seems to think we can defame them. I'm trusting that his scheme is gonna work, because if it doesn't, we don't have many leads. We've been stupidly lucky so far."

"That's for sure."

"Alright brother." Lindani stood, clapping Kenji on the shoulder. "Gonna take a shower and get a couple hours sleep. The civil liaison will be in tomorrow. I need to cover for Ayize while he's off-planet, and we gotta attend the counter-ops brief for Lithuania and whatever LEF is doing in Transcaucasus. So, take it easy in here."

"You too, 'dani." Kenji nodded absently to the African as he exited the room.

His mind had been wandering. Everything Konstantin Andropov told them had been borderline delusional on the scale of believable-to-impossible, though somehow Kenji did believe it was all true. The parts fit together, and the facts were there. The man had no reason to be spinning fantastic lies. Though, through all their planning about how to strike back, Kenji's mind kept creeping back to yesterday's news.

Politics.

There was something about it that bothered him, and he wasn't sure what it was.

Crunching the sherbet in his teeth, he summoned it onto the PDN screen, rewinding the cache back to the same reference point. The nagging feeling centred on the two military funding bills, which seemed fairly standard. It just struck Kenji as really odd that senators indirectly employed by MFM were among the biggest supporters. Odd because the corporatists stood to gain nothing from giving more money to the federal military. It was useless, in political terms, as it wasn't about to net MFM any advantage, and if there was one thing Kenji knew for certain about corporatism, it was that nothing was for free. Everything had a price, but neutrality was neutrality, and no amount of greasing-the-wheels was going to earn favour with the armed forces.

It just didn't make sense.

Then there was the other bill; the ethics-for-legislators one.

Basically it gave the premier the ability to temporarily dismiss any senator who was under criminal investigation for unethical behaviour. They could be replaced by an appointee until the outcome of the investigation was known. It had to be a serious violation, and it had to be accepted by the government's legal authority in order for the premier to use this power. Apparently a draft was complete and it was fast-tracked for discussion and a voting call in the next couple of days.

But ... why?

Why were they bothering? It would never pass. The loyalists were the only group who would vote for it, and Society wasn't even 100% in support anyhow.

There was no chance. It was pointless.

Kenji couldn't quite understand why these things nagged him. Politics was full of grandstanding and self-serving symbolism. Empty promises and image-manipulation were the food and drink of federal bureaucrats, and Kenji was a true realist in that he couldn't stand the double talk, but he knew most of it was just bluster.

It was what politicians did.

So why was this different?

Kenji sighed. Maybe he was reading too much into it. He probably just needed to relax. After all, the senate dealt with lots of potential laws. These wouldn't be anything special. It was paranoia.

He reached for another sherbert stick.

Everything was going to be fine.

-o-0-O-0-o-

In my haste to exit the shuttle, I had forgotten about Ayize's mention of Mira. He was sitting in the little boxy entrance compartment, sort of slouched back in the cubby seat beside the shuttle's side exit door. His head was against the backrest and his feet stretched out on the floor, and in my speed moving through I nearly tripped over him. I stopped just in time though, and when I got a proper look at him, I drew in a sharp breath.

A synthetic-skin bandage was wound around his torso and another around his upper left shoulder, in the same area Rashid was cut. The katana, sheathed in its scabbard, was lying on the floor behind his feet, and his wifebeater singlet was ripped in the same places as the bandages were applied, from the arbiters teeth and claws. The bleeding had stopped, but the synthetic material was still dyed a red-brown from what was bled. Mira's eyes moved lazily to me, and they were clear although glassy, a dopey smile on his face.

Drugged up for the pain.

Oh my god. What happened to you?!

He reached out a hand, wanting to stand up and greet me, but I stopped him, lowering his arm with a gentle push. He did not offer any resistance but a confused look.

"No, Mira." Tear prickled at my eyes, but I quickly blinked them back. He's always getting himself hurt protecting me. I hate it. I placed my hand in the middle of his chest, palm down. "I'm going to fix this right now. Just stay still."

"Okay," he whispered. I shivered from the sound of his voice, and he lifted his uninjured right hand to place it on top of mine. He was dreamily watching my face, his fingertips sliding lovingly over the back of my hand. I bit my lip, trying to hold back how sad it made me, how beautiful he was right then.

I'm going to fix you.

Through my hand, aqumi flooded into Mira's body. The muscles in his shoulder were badly savaged, and Mira's own quantum heat had been working at healing. Mine joined with his, and in contrast to how tense and wracked with hurt Rashid was, Mira gave a nearly inaudible sigh, a wave of tranquility washing over him. Inside, I could feel the tissue, regrowing, rebuilding, meshing together, knitting cleanly into the physical shape it had before. In no more than a few seconds, the final top layer of skin on his stomach and shoulder was fully formed and remade, and it was done. Mira was healed fully, the arbiter's damage nonexistent.

That is the real power I have.

It was that moment that I felt incredibly thankful; so full of gratitude that I could so thoroughly and so completely fix the boy I loved. It was an amazing intensely emotional few seconds, and I struggled again not to lose it.

Mira's hand grasped mine a little more firmly, tightening, and then I felt the aqumi inside him change. At first I wasn't sure what was going on. He was doing something to his body, and over about three or four seconds, his pupils constricted and he blinked, pulling himself upright more in the seat. The movement of his hand upon mine became not so aimless, his body hardening a little and then I realised what he was doing. He's ... un-drugging himself?! Wow.

I wanted to say something, but his wonderful reflexes were in play and he didn't give me a chance. The hand on my chest was gone, and then in a flash both hands were sliding around me, straight to his favourite hand-hold. He was picking me up and pulling me into the seat, and it was kinda cramped because the chair was really designed for one person. He didn't care though and in truth neither did I, Mira rapidly depositing me into his lap, my knees straddling his waist. In a heartbeat, his face was buried in my neck, his lips feverishly kissing along my throat and under my jaw, the hot wetness of his tongue tracing the sensitive skin. His hands squeezed my ass in a heavy massage, my own scrunched into fistfuls of his singlet as my head rolled back involuntarily, a whimper of pure pleasure escaping.

"Miiiraaa," I moaned breathily, taking enough care not to raise my voice, knowing there were other people still just within earshot. "We gotta s-stop th- .. uhh!" Our hips were rolling together, so natural it was almost automatic. My excitement kept growing every second, my underwear feeling so tight now that I was convinced it had shrunk two sizes. The rubbing of the fabric was magnificent, and in tune with Mira's tongue, his hands, and our hips, I was only moments away from making an incredible mess.

No.

Want to, but can't.

Not like this.

Shay, use your will power.

"Stop!" I whispered it fiercely, coming to my senses. Pushing him back down into the seat, I slid off his lap, climbing out of the seat and stepping back against the opposite wall to put a little space between us. "I want this too, you know I do, but ... not here. Not now. Okay?"

There was a momentary flash of disappointment on his face, but it was gone like the wind. Mira understood and he nodded his head, though he licked his lips unthinkingly, his eyes flitting across my face as he watched me. The message was clear; 'if I have to wait to touch you, I will admire you by sight alone.'

Flushing, I leaned down just enough to plant a soft kiss on his lips. "You'll get to touch me plenty. You're the only one that does," I murmured. Then I pulled the rebreather on, and the visor, and exited out of the shuttle.

Wow.

It took me a minute of standing in the cooler air of the mesa's surface before the tented-out material subsided and my head was clear enough to act. As I began to walk across it, I glanced down at my crotch and gave out a mental scolding. Stop giving me so much trouble, dammit. I can't save the universe if you're going to keep distracting me all the time. Yes, I know it's Mira and he's fucking perfect, but you're still going to do what you're told.

I tried not to think about the psychological implications that came with talking to my own body parts, and in seconds was giggling at the absurdity of my actions. Putting that silliness out of mind, I straightened my thoughts and decided to get down to business.

Right. I need to get on with this.

Switching on the aqumi vision, I scanned around the mesa top. There was nothing except for the shuttle and Berchande's dust drifting through the air; the facility was trashed and useless, and broken shuttle parts were scattered across the rock. What I was looking for wasn't here, so I wandered over to the mesa's edge and looked down, over the side that I had originally fled the facility from when the blade-hounds came hunting.

Nothing.

It has to be around here somewhere.

The top was a long, roughly ovoid shape, and following the edge, I walked around, watching the ground. At the far end close to the CorpSec shuttle, there was nothing, but then when I reached the long side, I spotted what I was looking for.

Yes!

Climbing down the mesa's side, this one being fairly easy to both ascend and descend, I jumped down the rock graduations until I landed on the hard silica crust of the desert floor. It sat only metres away, and I approached slowly, cautiously. As I got closer, I realised something even more surprising.

It's ... alive?

With great care, I edged the last metre, stretching out my hand until it touched the cloaked organic-metal surface of the arbiters' living ship.

font>Seems like Mira is still in Playful Mode.
Comments? Likes? Reviews? All are welcome!
Copyright © 2017 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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Chapter Comments

It was worth the wait. More than 8,000 words and the flow and transitions between narrators were much better too!

So glad to get my Shay and Mira fix! I can't wait for more!

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On 08/15/2014 06:45 AM, Daddydavek said:
It was worth the wait. More than 8,000 words and the flow and transitions between narrators were much better too!

So glad to get my Shay and Mira fix! I can't wait for more!

It is worth mentioning that my intended Veil of Shadow average chapter wordcount is above 8500 words. Hidden Sunlight hit nearly 9k per chapter, though that was heavily influenced by the word-heavy last few chapters. At any rate, I'm glad you liked it! I enjoy exposition, but this chapter for me fell into the "necessary but unsatisfying" category as a writer.

 

10 should be exciting.

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Great battle scenes and I like the pace of the story you have. It definitely does make up for looong pauses between updates. You could make this into an actual book.

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On 09/14/2014 06:46 AM, Unreason said:
Great battle scenes and I like the pace of the story you have. It definitely does make up for looong pauses between updates. You could make this into an actual book.
Ahh! The guilt! I'm not entirely happy about how slow this is to produce, although I am glad you are enjoying it.

 

I intend for both Hidden Sunlight and Veil of Shadow to become books at some point. That was a thing I wanted to achieve in 2014 but it doesn't look like it will happen this year.

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On 09/14/2014 06:46 AM, Unreason said:
Great battle scenes and I like the pace of the story you have. It definitely does make up for looong pauses between updates. You could make this into an actual book.
Ahh! The guilt! I'm not entirely happy about how slow this is to produce, although I am glad you are enjoying it.

 

I intend for both Hidden Sunlight and Veil of Shadow to become books at some point. That was a thing I wanted to achieve in 2014 but it doesn't look like it will happen this year.

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Wow, I haven't been around in forever... it's great though, chances are, I don't have to wait as long for the next chapter as usually. ;D

Anyway, this was awesome! Some of it was a bit of a repetition of what happened before but it made things easier to understand and all...

Shay does seem to become more and more self-confident, doesn't he? It really seems like a major change, but maybe that's just because it's so long ago that I read the last part...

Either way, I like the way things are going...

Are Yugan and Shay ever going to meet in person? I do hope they do... it' s probably going to take a long time for that, though...

Anyway, keep it up, this is awesome!

<3

Sammy

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On 09/18/2014 10:14 AM, Sammy Blue said:
Wow, I haven't been around in forever... it's great though, chances are, I don't have to wait as long for the next chapter as usually. ;D

Anyway, this was awesome! Some of it was a bit of a repetition of what happened before but it made things easier to understand and all...

Shay does seem to become more and more self-confident, doesn't he? It really seems like a major change, but maybe that's just because it's so long ago that I read the last part...

Either way, I like the way things are going...

Are Yugan and Shay ever going to meet in person? I do hope they do... it' s probably going to take a long time for that, though...

Anyway, keep it up, this is awesome!

<3

Sammy

I should apologise for missing this review; I was sure I had responded to all of them, but evidently not.

 

In any case ... yes! Chapter 9 is an exposition connecting-the-dots part of the story. A lot of information is being matched up by those on Earth, while Berchande is still recovering from the arbiters' wrath. Shay is always learning more about what's going on, and as he grows more aware and more accustomed to what he will need to do, his self confidence is growing to match that.

 

Though, of course, he is still human, and has Mira and the Brotherhood men to keep him grounded when things start to go crazy.

 

Will Yugan ever meet him? Well, I would turn that around and say: do you think it is realistic that they can achieve what is needed *without* meeting? It is no spoiler to say that the way in which Shay is linked with Yugan is not the same as his connection to anyone else who shares the quantum magic, including Mira. Answers are still needed, and many of those might not be possible until the two meet face to face.

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On 04/15/2015 03:23 PM, Celethiel said:
Nasty icky squishy bio ships... I likey! lol.

and boy our boy is frisky and I don't mean Shay.

Bio ships, bio ships everywhere!

 

Yes, he does get a little playful sometimes ;)

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There is one thing I keep pondering about: when Shay fought the arbiter he learned the date when the virus appeared on Lucere: February 13th, 2104 (this is a Wednesday, not Friday as you might think 😛)

Now how are dates handled across the planet colonies? I think, the earth time scale is being used. The rotation of Lucere will surely not match that of the earth. so, what timescale have they used? Is a year again divided into 12 months? With this keeping in mind, February (Earth time scale)  could occur in summer as well as in winter time on Lucere.  Have you put any thought into that??

Did I already tell you I loved the chapter again? Shape is building as more light is shed on the background of events. Now I understand Lindani and Kenji a little better.

Yugan is getting more and more powerful. He has saved Shay again. How will he relate to Shay once they meet? I do hope they will.

What a big advantage for me: I don't get struck by the cliffhangers, the sequel is already there. - wonderful. 🤪

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3 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Now how are dates handled across the planet colonies? I think, the earth time scale is being used. The rotation of Lucere will surely not match that of the earth. so, what timescale have they used? Is a year again divided into 12 months? With this keeping in mind, February (Earth time scale)  could occur in summer as well as in winter time on Lucere.  Have you put any thought into that??

Of course I have! The answer is that devising an entirely new annual calendar based on Lucere's orbit would have been a lot of work for very little point. This also occurred to me during the writing, but I opted not to do it. The in-lore explanation (existing in my mind, and not written anywhere) is that the local days and years would be similar to Earth -- Lucere is very habitable because it exists around a similar star to our own at a similar distance from its sun, with similar surface conditions. So, it is already very Earth-like in terms of its day-night cycle and orbital speed/distance around the parent star.

Any differences that accumulate over a duration would not matter because there would be kept two separate calendars; a local Lucere variation and the original Earth calendar. Given that humans raised on Earth -- and this would be most colonists even in 2104 -- would think in terms of the Gregorian units and standard 24 hour times, for simplicity's sake, the dates you see in Hidden Sunlight are the equivalent Earth versions and are essentially transliterated.

Something like this would probably be the standard on other colonies too, though I never had the time nor inclination to explore it in detail. Also, the colonies were wiped out, so ... the aliens solved that for me?

3 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Did I already tell you I loved the chapter again? Shape is building as more light is shed on the background of events. Now I understand Lindani and Kenji a little better.

Background information is certainly building here, though you will have to wait until Chapter 10 to get the lion's share of it.

Lindani and Kenji are also getting some spotlight; they aren't quite in the middle of a starfaring adventure like Ayize and Rashid, but they have their own roles to play.

4 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Yugan is getting more and more powerful. He has saved Shay again. How will he relate to Shay once they meet? I do hope they will.

Well, you'll just have to see! One would certainly assume this has to happen eventually, right?

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Several other authors who write about Earth and its colonies use a dual calendar. That is, they keep track of Earth time but also adjust to the world time they live on or visit.

It can be tricky, but it seems to work in several different authored universes.

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