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All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Shattered Destiny: A Galactic Adventure

Episode Five

Copyright © 2016 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com





SHATTERED DESTINY: A GALACTIC ADVENTURE


Episode Five


Shar has been taken, kidnapped, and Xarin will have to rely on every resource he can to save her.

But the Galaxy is falling apart. Around Xarin, one by one, the players in this twisted universal game shift. With no clear path forward, he must forge one, strike new alliances, and prepare for the greatest battle the Milky Way has ever seen….

Chapter 1

There it is at the edge of reality. It cuts through everything. Time, matter, space. Existence.

They call it the Storm. A chaotic confluence of energy. It pays no heed to the arrow of time. Any particle trapped within its net shifts backward and forward from the future to the past in an unending dance of history.

No culture has ever possessed the technology to access the Storm. Not the Gap, not the Illuminates, not the great archaic civilizations that came before them.

For if anyone could access the real power of the Storm, the multi-verse would lie at their feet. Not just its future, but its everything. All time and all space would be theirs for the taking….

Shar

Time ground to a halt, contracting like a fist pressing into a point.

I threw myself forward as desperation pulsed through my heart, tearing me apart from the inside out.

As the seconds danced down to a standstill, I sensed her. Right there at the edge of my awareness – Annie Carter.

This time, it was different. She did not loom in my mind like another personality, an entirely distinct me from the past, one I didn’t remember.

No. This time, we aligned. We became one. A one separated by time but still a consistent whole.

I had no idea what was happening to Xarin. Annie did. She shared her knowledge with me – if only for a split second – as I sprang across the remaining distance of this huge room.

I didn’t have a weapon, but I barely needed one as my body pulsed with so much rage, my hands and feet were transformed into the most powerful weapons of all.

I heard the scattering of claws and watched in my peripheral vision as two holes dropped away in the floor beside me. As I glanced their way, I saw they were endless pits of blackness, bottoming out through this massive refinery to some dark basement far, far below.

The mechanical spiders climbed out of those endless shafts, their metallic claws echoing and scratching over the floor.

I let out a lurching scream as they threw themselves at me.

I managed to catch one, my shaking hand wrapping around its back as I pushed forward and vaulted into a roll.

As I sprang to my feet, I threw it right at the man standing beside Xarin.

If you could call it a man. That part of Annie Carter’s mind that still resonated with my own recognized the creature.

It was known as a graft. A hideous amalgamation of artificial intelligence, brutal machines, and sentient flesh. The AI was grafted right onto the man’s brain stem and would override his emotion – including any scrap of compassion – subjugating him to cold, hard logic.

Though I threw the mechanical spider at the graft, the graft didn’t even need to shift to the side. The spider stopped in midair, somehow cutting out the velocity of my throw as it dropped down to the ground and lurched toward me.

I could hear the spiders behind me like some kind of metal wave crashing to shore.

They were right behind me. Right behind me.

“Get out of here,” Xarin screamed, face contorting in pure terror.

He wasn’t horrified for his own life – just mine.

I didn’t have time to appreciate that thought as I felt something crawl up my ankle and slice through my Achilles.

I screamed as I buckled forward, knee slamming into the resonant floor with a thump. Though pain jolted through me, I still managed to push into a roll. As I did, I latched a hand onto the spider who’d attached to my leg. I ripped it out with a scream and threw it on the floor.

Again, I sprang toward the graft. Using a combination of skill and pure luck, I managed to avoid the rest of the spiders.

I reached the graft just as it jerked to the side and snatched a weapon from its hip holster.

One glance told me it was some kind of stun gun. I instinctively knew that one shot would be more than enough to knock me out for hours if not days.

I swore I could hear the graft’s mechanical eyes grinding in its ocular cavities as it tracked me across the room.

It fired.

Something more than skill pushed me to the side at the last moment.

For just a split second, I became so attuned to Annie Carter that something happened.

Somehow, from some source, it was almost as if I could tell the future.

Awareness of where the graft would fire exploded behind my eyes in a vision of green energy, and I tipped to the side, dodging the shot.

The graft obviously didn’t expect me to dodge its blow, and it wasn’t prepared as I sprang to my feet just a meter from it.

I heard it lurch back, heard its mechanical joints grate and groan like rasps over metal.

I screamed as I rounded my shoulder and slammed it into the graft’s middle.

There was a snap of bone, and yet the graft was not thrown from its feet.

Instead, the man wrapped his arms around my body, lurching forward as he pulled me off my feet.

I bucked backward, using my momentum as I tried to break free from his grip, but his hands were clasped with all the strength of hooks locked together.

Xarin kept screaming my name, voice punching from his throat in a desperate, shaking gasp.

If I’d ever doubted that he could show genuine compassion for me, that doubt melted away. He seemed honestly terrified that he would lose me forever.

And in that second, as the graft’s grip tightened around my back, I became terrified of losing him too.

The connection. Our sacred connection. Whatever force tied us together across time and space, across the past and the future.

I was only starting to learn what it meant, what potential it held.

But now, as my mind opened up to Annie Carter, my heart split at the thought of losing that connection.

As the graft jerked me to the side, it wrenched my head with it, tearing my gaze off Xarin. I stared into the graft’s round, metallic eyeballs – two rotating perfectly circular discs with pinpricks of light in the middle. If I had any suspicion that this man still had a soul, staring into his cold gaze told me he was nothing more than the AI that controlled him.

“No, let her go. Let her go,” Xarin begged, voice pitching through the room despite its immense size.

The scampering of claws stopped behind me. My mind… it started to shut down, crawl to a halt as the graft’s grip around my middle became tighter and tighter and tighter.

With the last scrap of my energy, I twisted my head to face Xarin once more.

I stared at him. It felt like I truly saw him for the first time since meeting the arrogant Prince.

In a flash, I understood him, appreciated how his upbringing had led to his actions, and yet understood how far he’d come to break free from that past.

My body, of its own accord, reached out a hand to him.

Xarin was encapsulated in some kind of arcing, crackling shaft of light. Several whirling metal discs were at his feet, their activity becoming more pronounced and louder as the light became brighter and brighter.

Though light should be nothing more than mere illumination, for some reason I felt it was like two hands steadily wrapping tighter around Xarin’s throat.

….

Just when I thought it was all over, I heard a bellowing scream split the air from the other side of the room.

Footfall was followed by frantic gunfire.

I used the last scrap of my awareness to twist my head to the side. And there I saw him. Commander Castle. He came springing into the room, guns held high as he fired at the mechanical spiders. Showing his worth as a member of the Galactic Police, he’d adapted to the spiders’ fighting style. He no longer attacked them head on but concentrated on firing at their environment instead. Several well-placed rounds caught the sides of the tunnels they were using to enter the room, and they collapsed with a shaking clang that rang through the air and rattled my teeth.

Like a chaotic metal storm, the spiders remaining in the room plowed toward him.

The dauntless Commander drove right through their middle, setting his gun to spray as the discrete shots of light turned into one continuous long beam that cut from the ceiling to the floor. It wasn’t strong enough to destroy all the spiders, but it slowed them down as Castle pushed through them, leaped into a roll, and finally sprang toward the graft.

I used the last of my breath to scream at him. “No, save Xarin. Save Xarin.”

Castle hesitated but only for half a second. Then he whirled on his polished boots, the rubber squeaking over the metal floor.

That shaft of light was now moving around Xarin so quickly, it looked as if it would suck the air from around him.

Sure enough, with a wobble, he fell to his knees, one after the other.

With the last of his strength, he yanked a hand up and clutched at his throat desperately.

And with the last of my strength, I shifted a hand forward, fingers spreading wide as I reached for him.

But I did not and could not reach that far.

Commander Castle

He had no idea what was going on. But that was not going to stop him from acting.

He drove forward on instinct alone, letting his years of experience propel Castle through the metallic spiders.

He hesitated for a single moment as Shar screamed at Castle. Then he shifted, jolting hard on his foot as he brought his gun up. He fired at the rotating metal discs beneath Prince Xarin’s feet. And somehow, Castle’s aim was so pinpoint accurate, the beam from his gun dodged through two distinct balls of shielding and sliced into an unprotected panel beneath.

Those rotating discs erupted in a sea of sparks that scattered over the floor, dancing like fish pulled from the ocean.

The strange shaft of light encasing Prince Xarin blinked out like a candle plunged into water.

Xarin, already on his hands and knees, was thrown backward as the device beneath him imploded.

His large, broad back struck the floor with a resounding clang as his body skidded several meters until he stopped.

The spiders were still behind Castle, and they scattered across the floor.

He heard the man who held Shar – the graft – take a hissing, rattling breath.

Instinct told Castle to duck, and he threw himself to his feet just in time. A white-hot blast of plasma slammed into the floor several centimeters from his left arm, blistering the skin and filling the air with the scent of burnt flesh.

He screamed, lurching to the side and resisting the urge to clutch a hand over his arm. Instead, he propelled himself to his feet as he grabbed his gun with both hands. Strafing to the side, he snapped his gun up and around.

Lining up the shot and relying on every scrap of training he had ever had, he fired.

It was an unbelievably risky shot. Shar was still clutched in the graft’s arms, her body jerking to the side as she desperately tried to fight its grip.

Get this shot wrong, and the fatal blast of ionized plasma propelled from his gun would slice right through her back, cutting her in half.

And yet his aim held true. The blast from his gun sliced into the graft’s left arm, tearing off a section of flesh and revealing an intricate mechanical mechanism below. Whirling gears and pulsing lights peered out where there should have been bone.

The graft didn’t fall to its knees, clutch a hand over its injury, and scream in pain. And yet he saw the pain – saw it as the graft’s human eyelids widened around its metal eyes.

But just as soon as the agony kicked in, the graft’s head lurched to the side, and Castle imagined the AI took complete control of the man.

After all, there was no time for pain, just action.

Despite the fact Xarin had just been thrown several meters across the floor, Castle heard him shove to his feet, heard the echoing groan Xarin gave as he pushed forward with all his might.

Several spiders sprang toward him, leaping through the air with their pinpoint claws outstretched toward his throat.

Xarin, an Arterian, showed his superior strength by bringing up an arm and slamming it to the side. He caught all three robots, dashing them against the ground with a resounding clatter. A loud scream split from his throat too.

Rage. Revenge-fueled rage. Castle saw it ignite in the center of Xarin’s eyes. Castle had seen it before. He’d tracked down enough violent criminals across the spirals of the Milky Way to recognize that emotion. And yet this was on another level. He was suddenly struck by the fact that Prince Xarin would do anything – anything at all – to save Shar.

Shar, looking as if she struggled with the last of her strength, suddenly became limp, but not before she twisted her head to stare at him.

Now, Castle was a rational man. Some might say too rational. Over the years, he’d pushed his imagination aside. He’d pushed everything aside that had gotten in the way of doing his job. And yet, he couldn’t ignore the timeless sensation that stretched between Xarin and Shar as their gazes met. It was almost as if eternity opened out, as if a gate to the furthest reaches of the future and the past was suddenly thrust open.

The moment – though powerful – didn’t last. It couldn’t.

Xarin, a bellowing, rage-filled scream echoing from his constricted throat, threw himself at the graft. He rounded his shoulder, aiming for the graft’s back in a move designed to weaken his arms and his grip on Shar.

Though the graft ostensibly had the advantage with its device-riddled body, it didn’t have the anger. Xarin’s move was true, and he struck the graft with such force, it jolted down to its knees.

And yet it didn’t let go of Shar.

At that exact moment, Castle watched the graft’s hand dart to the side, one of its fingers extending with a sickly click as it pressed something on its wrist.

A moment later, a beam of light lanced down from the ceiling. It covered both Shar and the graft, and in a pulse of light, they disappeared.

Xarin lurched to his feet and reached out toward her, but she wasn’t there.

Though Castle could have easily succumbed to the surprise of the situation and remained frozen on the spot, he couldn’t afford to.

The spiders kept scattering over the floor, continuing their inevitable march.

He bolted to the side, firing as he ran toward Xarin.

Xarin’s face looked as if it had been riven by emotion, split right in two with grief.

He fell to one knee, but Castle didn’t allow him to fall to the other.

Castle wrapped a strong hand around Xarin’s arm and tugged him to his feet.

Then in possibly the greatest moment of his career, Castle single-handedly fought off wave after wave of spiders as he manhandled Xarin toward the door.

His thoughts ground to a halt, his mind filling with the immediacy of action. Those scattering claws, his beating heart, and the dead weight of Prince Xarin as he reached a hand out to the spot where Shar had disappeared.

Somehow Castle did it. He reached the door and plowed through. And though the spiders continued to relentlessly attack, he managed to stay alive. He pushed further into the refinery and further into this twisted tale.

Empress Qornax – the Stalker

An opportunity. This could prove to be the opportunity the Gap were looking for.

The Empress shifted to the side, locking her cold, rigid hand against the wall. With half her mind, she concentrated on substantiating her form. With the rest, she focused with pinpoint accuracy and single-minded greed on her task.

This was the opportunity the Gap had always looked for. Finally, a means not to simply open a door into this universe, but to gouge a hole right through it.

If they could access the height of the Storm’s power during the Great War, they could rewrite history. They could finally accomplish their greatest goals.

She no longer paid heed to her crew. Her mind was beyond that. For she could hear the excitement of the Gap. Hear them calling to her, singing, screaming out in greed. A task they had been trying to achieve since the dawn of the multi-verse was finally at hand.

The Empress shifted back from the portal in her quarters. She had been pressing a hand against it. And as that hand had pushed further against the glass, she’d lost hold of her form. Her fingers had spread into jumping, darting particles which had snapped and crackled over the glass, sinking through it with a hiss.

Now she shifted back just as a warning alarm split the air, a klaxon rattling through the quiet, still confines of her quarters. “Warning, something is attempting to breach the hull—”

She didn’t even bother to snap at the computer to silence itself. She brought up a hand, and in doing so, she accessed the computer’s systems directly, shutting off the warning alarm and hopefully preventing it from alerting the rest of the crew. The rest of the crew… it wouldn’t be long now until she could get rid of them and run this ship herself. For if she could plunge it through the gate and take it back in time to the Great War, she would be able to use it for the Gap. Nothing else would matter….

Suddenly, the com panel by her side beeped. “Is everything all right in there, Empress?” The Captain questioned. Perhaps there was a note of alarm in his voice. Perhaps it was suspicion.

She curled her lips into a smile. She did not require lips in her stalker form, but she was growing accustomed to them. They offered her a greater range of emotional display.

Now she brought up a hand, clutched it into a fist, and concentrated on each knuckle as it formed and pressed hard against her skin.

“Everything is fine,” she forced herself to say. “Is there any news on the anomaly?”

There was a long pause. Though it had taken the stalker a great many centuries to understand the emotion of lesser races, right now she easily picked up on the Captain’s hesitancy. “Perhaps,” he concluded in a quiet, careful tone.

If the Empress truly possessed a heart, it would have catapulted into a sprint.

She whirled on her foot, robes turning momentarily insubstantial as she marched toward the door with as much haste as her bipedal form could manage.

There it was again – the Gap in her mind. Their call. Their constant desire. Their sacred wish which soon, soon would be fulfilled.

Chapter 2

Prince Xarin

My mind spun with fear as we fled through the facility.

“Wait up.” Commander Castle ground to a halt, his boots skidding against the smooth metal floor. “I thought you were meant to have some kind of sacred connection to Shar? Can’t you tell where the graft has taken her?”

I didn’t answer.

Couldn’t. Because I just couldn’t feel it anymore. Nothing.

Despite the fact I’d never been terribly connected to my past life and Illuminate Hart, now any semblance of connection had disappeared entirely.

I was using every trick I knew to keep my expression neutral, to hide my panic. But it was there. It sailed through my heart, sank into my gut, and felt as if it was going to strip me bare from the inside out.

Gritting my teeth and forcing my tongue between them, I shook my head.

Castle squinted, shooting me a calculating look. “I don’t believe any of this. It’s farcical. The kind of crap your people have always fed the rest of the galaxy just to keep us onside. But I saw what she could do.” Castle’s voice shook with a note of recognition. “She knew where you were. She can sense your presence. So now I’m gonna repeat my question – why can’t you do the same for her? If you could do that right now, we wouldn’t have to run around, wouldn’t have to waste our time.” He clenched his teeth and spoke between them, his passion obclearvious.

Ostensibly, Shar had only traveled with this man for several hours. And yet she’d had such an effect on him that he now bared his teeth at me like I was his enemy.

Which hammered it home once more: everyone else had always been able to see Shar’s uniqueness. Except for me.

Maybe Castle could sense that the thin veneer of control I’d been exerting over myself was starting to crack, because he shifted back and shook his head. “Pull yourself together. But answer me. Why can’t you sense her?”

“Because I’m not sure what the graft did to me,” I finally answered. If you could call it that. My voice… it didn’t sound like my own. Far off. Weak. Childlike. The incoherent mutterings of a lost man.

Castle’s brow descended even further. “What do you mean?” His words were quick and snapped.

“I mean that even though you and Shar interrupted that process, I think….” I couldn’t answer. I brought a suddenly sweaty hand up and clutched it over my brow as I swallowed with enough force to suck my throat into my stomach.

Castle paled. I could tell he didn’t like me. I may not have been all that astute when it came to other people’s feelings – but Castle was making no attempt to hide his disdain for my race. Now that anger rippled over his expression. “You’d better not be lying. You understand how much she sacrificed to make it to you? I know you’re Arterian and don’t value any life other than your own, but—”

I snapped. I thrust forward, using my superior strength and speed to ram my arm against his throat, shoving him against the wall and pulling him off his feet.

His eyes bulged. But his hands were free. Technically, he could have tried to gouge my eyes out, could have put his thumbs in my mouth and tried to rip my lips with his nails.

He didn’t. Which was a wise choice.

I was cracking under the strain.

I stared at him wildly, breath coming in raspy gasps. “You think I asked for this? You think I like having this kind of responsibility? You think I abandoned her on purpose?” My voice broke. Shattered like glass. If it had been anything more than sound, it would have split the lining of my throat, and I would have coughed up blood.

Again, Castle didn’t make any move to fend me off, even though I was gradually cutting off his air supply. Instead, he looked down and made enduring eye contact. “Put me down,” he said slowly, voice full of tight control.

My heart beat hard, pelted in my chest, thundered against my ribcage.

… But I put him down. Not gently. I took a jerked step back, and he fell, slamming a hand out to steady himself on the wall so he didn’t pitch forward. Then Commander Castle and I faced one other.

He took a wary step to my side as he neatened down his uniform.

Despite the horror of what was happening to me, I still appreciated that his uniform was neat, impeccable. Yes, it was torn here and there from the fight, but it was still evident that he cared for it. The brass buttons that showed his command shone as if he’d buffed them every day.

Most other Galactic Police officers I’d met didn’t wear their uniform. Yes, it covered their bodies, but Castle was different. Even I didn’t wear my armor; it wore me. Whenever I slipped into the symbol of my race, what it stood for was greater than me.

It took an extraordinary man to be able to align himself perfectly with some external symbol of power. To wash away every question, every doubt.

Castle carefully neatened his tunic, patting it down with a practiced move before he took a step forward and faced me.

In a fight between us, there would be no question of who would be victorious.

I would win unless I were distracted or injured.

Castle would know that.

And yet that didn’t stop him from facing off against me, barely 20cm from my nose. He slowly stared up and met my gaze, his jaw clenching. “I owe you nothing, Arterian Prince. But let’s get something straight: I will help you if what I desire to protect is on the line. And the only thing I want to do right now is find Shar. If you can’t help me – then we part and go our separate ways. And if you try anything like that again,” Castle flattened a hand down his tunic, ironing an invisible crease, “I will cut you down. Understand?”

My gut recoiled at his tone. My hands wanted to clench. I wasn’t used to being told off. I wasn’t used to being talked down to. And with my thoughts a swirling mess of self-doubt and hatred, it took every scrap of control I had not to round my hand into a fist and slam it into Castle’s jaw.

He met my gaze. I met his.

I didn’t need him. I could do this on my own. But then a voice of doubt arose. I would have more of a chance by his side. And right now, it seemed as if I was up against impossible odds, so I couldn’t afford to ignore help.

For the first time in my life, I backed down. I took a step back, nodded my head low in clear deference, and made eye contact only with his shined boots. “You win. I won’t do that again.”

“I win?” His voice shook with apparent aggression. “Not good enough—” he began.

I swallowed the last of my pride and brought my hands up. This time I tipped my head back and looked him right in the eyes as I nodded low. “You’re right, Commander Castle. I need your help to find Shar. And I need to find Shar.” Again, I couldn’t control my voice. There was no point in even trying.

As a Prince, I had never strived for much. If something had been too far out of reach, I’d always convinced myself that I didn’t need it.

Now that wasn’t an option.

Thoughts of Shar filled my mind stronger than ever. Even though our connection with each other seemed to be broken, the mere thought of her expanded and took up my soul in a way I’d never appreciated possible.

Though I’d convinced myself I’d fallen in love with Princess Arteria, this was different. Though at one point I’d been ready to devote my life to her, I’d always been in control of my feelings. That’s why when her treachery had been revealed it hadn’t taken long to get over it.

This was different. Every feeling, every voice of doubt that sank through my mind in a constant choir of torture – they couldn’t be turned off. They were a part of me now. Slowly eating away at every other aspect of my personality until I became nothing more than an empty, soulless husk.

Maybe a little of my vulnerability leaked out of my expression, because Commander Castle’s stony look softened. “We can’t waste any more time. God knows where that thing is taking her. Now, I take it you weren’t lying to me—” he peered at me as he walked by my side, striding relentlessly forward. “You have no connection to her anymore?”

Silently, I shook my head.

He brought a hand up and scratched his chin. “Do you have any idea how this betrothal works? I mean, any real idea of the physical mechanics of this situation? How exactly are you connected to her? And if you are,” he made a face as if he were finding something hard to swallow, “somehow connected to her through lifetimes, how exactly would such a connection be maintained?”

I didn’t answer.

Castle quickly took it as me choosing not to share information with him.

Before he could growl and go back to threatening me, I brought up a hand in a placating move. “I don’t know.” My voice was a husky, low rasp.

“How can you not know? If this is such a sacred tradition amongst your people—”

I brought my hand up again, and this time, I looked him right in the eyes. “Commander, my people are liars. They don’t just lie to the rest of the galaxy – they lie to their own people, perhaps even more so. When I say I don’t know, it’s because I’ve realized there’s nothing I can trust anymore. The myths, the theories – they just don’t make sense. So, to answer your question, I simply have no idea how the mechanics of this situation work. If I did…” I trailed off.

Before I could spiral into more self-doubt, Castle cleared his throat. “Fine. But if you think of anything that could be useful, tell me. I don’t believe in magic,” he warned in a guttural rasp. “So there will be some physical explanation for this.”

I didn’t answer.

I didn’t believe in magic, either. I did, however, believe in uncertainty. The chaos that expands through the universe, through space and time. The true nature of reality that can’t be subjugated by a pathetic attempt to understand it.

We continued on through the facility.

I was glad that Castle remained by my side.

He may be no Arterian Tracker, but he was a good observer.

We didn’t come across another graft. Neither did we come across Shar. As the seconds ticked by, my desperation grew like a hole in my heart.

Shar, wherever she was, was running out of time.

Chapter 3

Shar

Again.

Again, I’d been captured by a madman. This one was different. For the graft had promised to help me. To rid me of Xarin so that he could be reborn into a greater, more useful form.

There’d been a time when, if anyone had promised me that, I would have jumped at the offer.

Because Xarin was my opposite, wasn’t he? Xarin the fool. A monster. A man I could never understand and who could never hope to understand me.

If I closed my eyes, I could remember the moment when he’d abandoned me and chosen Princess Arteria. The moment when he’d left me to die.

And yet, it was different now. Because he’d changed, and so had I.

I wouldn’t call it love beginning to form in my heart. It was nowhere close. Not yet. But it was a yearning. It was a need. The deepest desire not to have him taken away by someone else.

The graft said nothing. It was obviously acutely aware that I had no intention of helping it willingly. If it drew me into a conversation, I would just attack with the only thing I still had left – my voice.

The refinery stretched on, never ending. I was beginning to realize that it was much, much larger than what I’d previously suspected.

It also had to be more than a refinery.

True, I had no experience whatsoever with the unique technology of this place. And yet… there was a feeling in my gut. One that had grown and grown since I’d saved Xarin.

Something wasn’t right.

This place… it felt….

Suddenly, we walked into an open area that had a startling view of the refinery beyond.

As the graft led me toward a platform, I jerked my head back and gasped.

The view of the refinery was changing.

The previous orange force field that had kept it safe from the cold depths of space above was crackling, a massive line forming down the middle.

“What-what’s happening?” I spluttered.

The graft let an unusually cold smile spread across his lips. I could even hear the clink of the mechanical devices beneath his flesh as the move seemed to swallow his whole face.

“It is time to rekindle your destiny. Time to give up on Xarin and hope the process took hold enough to reset him in this lifetime.”

At the mention of his name, my heart felt as if someone had squeezed it into pulp. Despite my tired, pain-filled body, I jolted forward.

The graft slowly shifted its gaze toward me, but I could tell from the particular flicker in its eyes, it wasn’t concerned I would put up much of a fight. “Save your energy, Shar. Deep down, you have always desired this.”

My face became cold. “Desired what?”

“To hit refresh on his life. To wait for another iteration of your betrothed.”

Though the graft had offered only minutes before to free me of Xarin, this time I couldn’t control the fear winding through my gut.

As the platform we were on continued to ascend the side of the building, the graft brought its wrist up and started to type on some small, curious device latched around its hand.

“What are you doing?” I demanded in a shaking tone.

There was a massive crackle from above, and I momentarily jerked my attention off the graft to note that that line splitting the huge orange force field in two was only growing deeper as if it were trying to divide the very refinery in half.

“Though the process was interrupted, enough has taken hold. All we must do now is kill Xarin.”

“No. Wait. No!”

Though I screamed and screamed, there was nothing I could do. I tried to shove forward, but all the graft did was reach a hand out, clamp it on the top of my head, and weigh me down as if I were as light as a feather.

Prince Xarin

They were coming for us. Relentless. Wave after wave.

The mechanical spiders scampered over the walls, clawed over the floor, and scattered toward us.

Though Commander Castle was proving to be one of the most competent Galactic Police Officers I’d ever met, his skills weren’t enough.

As for me, between my pounding fear for Shar and the symptoms of whatever the graft had done to me, there was a limit on how much I could help.

“We have to get out of here,” Commander Castle screamed again, voice pitching high and arcing over the robots’ relentless scattering claws.

I didn’t want to hear that. I let the ringing in my ears and the reverberating, pounding beat of my heart drown out his words.

And yet, I couldn’t completely abandon the sanity behind them.

We were losing.

But I couldn’t give up on her. I’d given up on her too many times before. Even as we ran, as sweat trickled down my brow and stung my eyes, I could see it – a perfect image of the moment I’d chosen Princess Arteria over her. The moment I’d let Shar fall into space and ultimately out of my grasp forever.

Suddenly, I felt Commander Castle put on a burst of speed, and he rounded his shoulder, pushing into me just in time. He shoved me out of the way as several spiders leaped from the roof, their outstretched claws aiming for my eyes and throat. Commander Castle pivoted on his foot, brought his relatively simple gun around, and shot three of the spiders before they could even strike the floor. The others hit the smooth metal, rolled, and sprang forward in their constant drive to tear us apart.

My mind felt like a spinning atom, every thought pulled in by the neutron that was my desperation and fear. I couldn’t see sense, couldn’t even fight. All I could do was desperately put one foot after the other as I hoped that the next corner would reveal Shar.

And yet, the tiniest voice of reason still left in my mind told me it was hopeless. If we kept pushing on, the spiders would simply overcome us.

There was only one option.

“Goddammit, man – we have to get out of here,” Commander Castle spat with such a resounding voice, it sounded as if his throat was lightning.

He shoved into my shoulder once more, using his arm to collect a spider that had just tried to slice its claws through the top of my spine.

Though the spider’s outstretched, pincer-like claws managed to snag Commander Castle’s flesh, the Commander didn’t even hesitate in bringing his gun up and blasting the creature off his arm. Though the reflected light and heat from the shot seared a line across the Commander’s flesh, the man didn’t even blink. Instead, he shunted hard with his left foot, pivoted, rammed a flat hand onto my back, and shoved me forward.

“Xarin, for the love of god, there’s nothing more we can do here. You want to save her, then you have to buy us some time.”

If I wanted to save her….

That promise was enough. Enough to allow me to finally see reason.

It was my turn to shove hard into my foot and pivot to the side just as a spider aimed for Commander Castle’s back. It moved with such speed that even the competent Commander wouldn’t be able to react in time. I was another matter. I drew on my full Arterian abilities and grunted as I swiped a fist to the side, rounded knuckles collecting the spider right on its smooth back.

I put my all into that blow – all my anger, all my swirling hatred, all my desire to find Shar, no matter what it took.

And the blow counted. The spider slammed into the floor, its legs breaking from the impact.

“Move,” I snapped, shunting backward, kicking a spider that was aiming for my ankle. Then I plowed ahead.

“We have to get to a ship, get off this refinery. We’ll use the sensors to find out where that graft bastard is keeping Shar,” Commander Castle summarized in a quick breath.

Shar. I’d do it for her. I’d do anything for her. Tear this entire galaxy apart to find her.

That graft was one thing – half-man, half-machine. But me? The Milky Way was about to discover that I was much more than the arrogant, incompetent Prince it had once assumed me to be.

Commander Castle

Castle had no idea why he remained by Prince Xarin’s side. All Castle’s long years of training told him to ditch the Prince and head out on his own.

And yet something, something kept him by Xarin’s side. It sure as hell wasn’t loyalty. Though a good Galactic Police Officer should feel indebted to their Arterian masters, all Castle felt for this bastard was hatred.

And yet… he was still here.

Because Xarin needed him.

And at least Xarin had finally seen reason. They now pelted through the refinery, attempting to return to the graft’s ship.

Castle trusted that Xarin knew where he was going. That trust would probably backfire, and yet, Castle just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bring himself to walk away.

They ran, their footfall a constant droning beat as they shifted through the multiple twisting corridors.

Xarin had claimed that he could no longer feel Shar, but as Castle locked his fiery attention on the back of Xarin’s neck, he realized Xarin had to be feeling something. For every now and then, Xarin brought up a hand, slammed it against his chest, and locked the fingers there as if he were trying to reach through the flesh and grasp hold of his heart.

“What is it?” Castle demanded, finally unable to take the mystery any longer.

“It’s… nothing,” Xarin managed.

“Tell me,” Castle demanded in a growling bellow. Though he was following Xarin through some misplaced sense of loyalty, to hell with trusting him. He would not let this man get him killed.

“I feel… something.”

“Your connection to Shar? Is it returning?” Castle couldn’t contain his hope. To think, when he’d met Shar, he’d assumed she was nothing more than a mere criminal. But her loyalty, her dignity, and more than anything, her sense of determination, they had wended their way into his heart.


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