Excerpt for Shattered Destiny: A Galactic Destiny Episode Six by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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


Shattered Destiny: A Galactic Adventure

Episode Six

Copyright © 2016 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com

 


SHATTERED DESTINY: A GALACTIC ADVENTURE

Episode Six

Chapter 1

They say time is everywhere. Manifest throughout the entire universe. Through all space, through all creation. For time is the key to all change. Without it, all creation will perish. But there is a place beyond time. A place beyond even the most powerful creature’s reach. A place – a singular place in all the multiverse that the Illuminates were never capable of reaching. And in that place he resides. Biding his time. The true power of Core, ready to seek his revenge….

Shar

I roused. Slowly. So slowly. My consciousness felt… thick and yet thin. Slow and yet fast. All at once, it was as if it possessed every single feature of matter, as if it was some fundamental form that was undecided about which shape it should take. But then, it hit me. Like a speeding cruiser. My eyes blasted wide, and my breath caught in my chest as I tried to push up. And that would be when I felt a hand pressing down into my shoulder. A memorable hand. From the weight, to the pressure, to the warmth, to the traceable energy within, it was him. Him.

My once diffuse consciousness now focused into a single point. A singular moment of pure attention as my entire body pulsed with the realization that he was finally here. My betrothed. My true betrothed. Hart.

My eyes were wide open, but it took several agonizing seconds for my bleary eyes to fix on him. And yet, there he was, standing above me, a console of blinking holographic panels behind him.

The first thing that resolved in my bleary vision was the deeply caring smile pressed across his face. And yet, it didn’t take long until that very same smile hardened with clear determination. “You’re awake. And you must wake. We’re running out of time. Shar, concentrate on my voice. Concentrate on my voice.…”

Concentrate on his voice? All I wanted to do was slip into that voice forever more. I wanted it to claim me like the ocean would claim a sinking ship. I wanted to be absorbed by it so I would never have to face any other experience again. But he wouldn’t let me. Just as a satisfied, deeply touched smile spread across my lips and I decided to settle back into the arms of unconsciousness, the pressure on my shoulder doubled. I felt him wrap his fingers around the muscle as he tried to pull me into a seated position.

Shar,” his voice had a hard edge now, unquestionably more insistent. “We cannot waste time. For we have not been gifted any more. They are almost upon us. Shar, you must wake. You must… fight.” There was a true note of pity in his voice. True compassion. And though my addled mind was still feeling the narcotic effects of unconsciousness, I could still pick it up. It made my heart beat harder, my blood vessels constricting as what little fear I could still experience tried hard to focus my attention. But then I told myself to give up. Why bother? Why fight? Hadn’t I already sacrificed so much? Hadn’t I already fought with everything I had? Hell, hadn’t I been fighting my entire life? Prince Xarin was one thing. Maybe he’d had to sacrifice in his fight with the Zorv – maybe he’d had to sacrifice to fight the intrigue and constant machinations of his own people. But maybe that didn’t come close to what I’d been through and what he’d put me through. So I deserved this? Right? I deserved to finally give up….

But that would be when Hart pulled me into a seated position. And though the touch of his grip was still undoubtedly loving and caring, there was also an unmistakable hard, determined edge to it. “No, Shar,” he said in a deep, resounding, resonant voice that shook the very floor beneath me and finally pushed through my weariness. “You cannot give in. That you’ve come here is amazing. And it is the gift we have waited for. But you must continue to fight, Shar. No one else can end this. Only you. Only you.” At the end, his tone became unmistakably saddened, and yet, it never lost its determined edge.

Finally, I focused on him. And I pushed with all my might until I could see him in full. Though the smile was still on his lips, I could see a glimmer of fear playing in his deep, soulful gaze. It was fear that was matched in the tight movements of his mouth as he drew his lips back.

Shar, we have no more time. You must stand.” With that, he wrapped an arm beneath mine and in a deft move pulled me to my feet. There was no question whether I could stand. And, honestly, until he’d pulled me to my feet, I’d been sure I wouldn’t be able to keep my balance. And yet… there was something about the note of command in his tone. And, more than that, the unquestionable belief flickering in his gaze. While I would not have been able to stand without it, as he conferred that look upon me, I felt as if there was nothing I couldn’t do. Which was not a feeling I had ever enjoyed much in my life. From Xarin to my ceaseless survival working on refineries, I’d always been limited by the beliefs of others, never emboldened by them.

But now, even as Hart’s features stiffened with clear fear, hope pulsed through my chest.

There was a unique connection, too. Because this was it. This was it. The connection the deepest part of my soul had always been looking for, always yearning for, always searching for. Throughout my entire existence, I had always sought this. The true power of betrothal. But now, when all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around Hart and press my heart as close to his as I could, he pulled me forward, yanking me with a light but firm touch toward the wall. A door suddenly appeared directly in front of us, though there’d been nothing but sheer, clean silver metal a moment before. All Hart had to do was swipe a hand toward it, and the door was replaced with a corridor that appeared to lead upward. As we walked through it, I saw those carved symbols I’d seen on the walls of the refinery in the future.

The symbols… they were alive. Moving. Forming. It took me a second to realize it, but they manifested upon Hart’s approach. They were connected to him, somehow. Almost as if they were flowers turning their faces to the sun and he… he was the sun to which they responded.

Though his moves were jerky and it was damn obvious he was scared of something, he still retained enough attention to swivel his head to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a slight smile press across his lips. “The technology of this refinery is organic. It responds to my presence because, in many ways, I give it life.”

Though it was hard to control my weakened neck muscles, I tilted my head to the side and caught sight of him. “What do you mean? Organic? Like other illuminate technology?”

He shook his head. “The technology of this refinery is unique. We only just found it in the last stages of the war.”

“What do you mean? You found this refinery? The last stages of the war?”

“Shar,” his voice dropped low and had such an unmistakably caring quality to it, I swore my heart would melt. And that, there, was a statement that the previously hardened Shar would never have uttered. I didn’t connect. That’s how I’d stayed alive so long. And that’s how I’d continued to stay alive through these endless nightmarish trials. If I’d been the kind of woman to connect, I would’ve forgiven Xarin sooner. I would have forgiven him the moment my heart and soul had recognized his true form. But I couldn’t connect, I reminded myself again. For I should not connect. Do that, and I would only invite in more pain.

Perhaps Hart somehow knew what I was thinking, because his expression softened measurably. “There is much to take in, Shar,” he said in a careful and yet prying tone. His eyes flashed as they searched mine, the depths of his pupils inviting one to consider eternity. “There is much you do not understand about this process. There is much for you to find out about the true nature of betrothal. But,” his voice bottomed out, and his eyes stopped searching mine, “there’s no—”

“Time,” I finished off his sentence in a strangled voice. I tore my gaze from him and locked it on the winding corridor before us.

I felt him stiffen a little and then relax. “You must be full of questions, Shar, and I will endeavor to answer as many as I can. But there is one thing I must warn you about, one thing I must explain. The next stage of this war… it will be down to you. For you’re the only one who can fight him now.”

It was my turn to stiffen. And it was an agonizing feeling as every single one of my vertebrae contracted as if they’d been locked together as though they were magnets. Though, ostensibly, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, something within me understood. Perhaps it was Annie Carter; perhaps it was nothing more than my own instincts. But it was damn obvious from the now stiff feel of his fingers locked around my arm that this would not be pleasant.

Shar, Core has returned. He was never truly defeated,” Hart managed. And though his voice had been relatively strong up until that point, at the mention of Core, it almost broke. And that single moment of fragility was enough to push away every tender thought which had arisen at his proximity. It focused me back on the one thing that truly mattered. This refinery. This war. What was happening in my own time. The battle that was about to come.

Illuminate Hart took a stiff breath that pushed his chest hard against his stiff uniform. “When Annie and I defeated Core in our own time, unbeknownst to us, we pushed him into a realm that the Illuminates cannot touch, a realm far, far beyond our powers to reach.”

At the mention of Core’s name, my back locked together again, even harder this time, until I was sure I would fall over. But rather than let me stagger to my knees, Hart’s grip simply became firmer around my arm as he pulled me through the twisting, winding corridors. With every step we took, the symbols painted on the walls grew brighter and brighter until it was clear they were reacting to Illuminate Hart’s very presence. And there was something… fundamental about them. Something unique about this light. Something that hinted at questions I should ask, to mysteries I should seek to unmask. And yet, there was no time.

“Though it took thousands of years, slowly Core began to solidify his presence. When he was destroyed by his own device, unbeknownst to Annie and I, he was dispersed but did not dissolve.”

Illuminate Hart left it at that. One single word. Dispersed. And the way he said it? The way his voice dropped out as if someone had just shot him in the throat? It set my pulse thrumming in my ears again. While it was true I was connected to Hart more than I’d ever been connected to anyone else, this was different. It was almost like I became him in that second as his fear became my fear, and our fears became everyone’s fears.

It took him another tensed second until he gathered the strength to push past his raw emotion and pull himself together.

With stiff teeth and locked lips, he pushed on.

Over the eons,” he continued, “Core grew more and more powerful until he began to reach into your time. And there, he found he could project himself. And this is what he did. He found the Arterians, and he guided them forward.”

Though I’d been fascinated by the walls and their seeming organic response to Illuminate Hart until that point, suddenly I jerked my head toward him. “What?”

With a grim expression, he nodded. “Core, or at least the semi-corporeal form of his diffuse energy has been guiding the Arterians since the beginning. He is the reason they gained a foothold in the Milky Way. He is the reason they have been ceaselessly tracking down Illuminate technology and destroying all who get their hands on it. He is the reason they have been building an army,” his voice dropped down low, resounding with that same shaking pitch that made me wonder if one scream from him could tear the very refinery in half.

My heart gave a shudder, and I knew my eyes pulsed impossibly wide. “He’s been guiding the Arterians. But how?”

He’s their sacred priest. A being of seemingly insurmountable wisdom who has been guiding them since the beginning. As the years have wound on, he has grown more powerful, learning how to consolidate his form until soon he will appear once more.”

I shook my head. It was a reflexive move. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe Hart. It was that – with all my heart – I didn’t want to. I couldn’t. Because I couldn’t comprehend the level of threat he was now posing.

Going back into the past was one thing, but this?

It was different. So goddamn different. Because again, it spoke to that central part of my soul. The part of me that was Annie Carter. The part of me that had always been betrothed to every one of Illuminate Hart’s past selves.

And in that moment, as he stared into my gaze, I swore he felt the same thing. Our previous lives opening behind us in an unending ocean of time, possibility, and hope.

But that hope?

It twisted at his revelation.

“But how do you know this? You’re stuck in the past,” my voice shook with unmistakable disappointment. “You reside 2000 years before my time. So how do you know this?”

Even as I asked, I swore I already knew.

For there was only one thing it could be.

And he confirmed my suspicions with a silent smile. “The betrothal, Shar. I understand it has not been explained to you, but it exists through all time and all space.”

I shook my head in a light but defiant move. “But that makes no sense. I mean… you… you must have died to give way to Xarin, right?” If I’d been incapable of controlling my voice before, it was absolutely nothing compared with the way it wavered and pitched and shook and broke now.

Illuminate Hart appeared to soften even further at my clear distress, and I could tell from the soft look in his eyes that all he wanted to do was reach a hand out and embrace my cheek. But he didn’t. He never shifted his grip on my arms as he unceasingly pulled us through the refinery. I still hadn’t had the opportunity to ask where we were going. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to explain it, either. I was barely capable of keeping up with this conversation, let alone the terrifying prospect of what would happen next. Because what could happen next? If Hart was right – and I knew with all my soul that he would never lie to me – then Core was coming back. This time more powerful than ever. And he had a stranglehold over the whole of Arterian society. Though the technology of the past was unquestionably powerful, it was in the past. At some point, I would have to face Core in the future. And I knew that there was no way I would be able to match his power.

It was at that moment that Hart just did it. Though I could tell he’d been holding himself back before with his indomitable will, a moment of passion took him, and he reached out and clutched the firmest and yet warmest hand over my cheek. Instantly, I melted into his touch. Melted like I’d never responded to a man’s embrace before. It was so seamless. His hand against my cheek, it was so damn natural, so damn right. It felt like we were the same person, simply divided by skin and bone and circumstance. But his touch did not last; his hand did not linger.

In those brief seconds, he seemed to gather all the comfort he needed, and he pulled away swiftly, drawing his hand down to his side as he tilted his head to the left and broke eye contact. “Shar, there’s much I have always wanted to tell you. Much you need to know. But there is little time to explain. But it is not my place,” he began, for the first time a wry smile spreading over his lips.

Understandably, that smile confused me, and I shook my head. “What do you mean?”

“The truth of the betrothal process is something you will have to… learn with Xarin.”

Despite myself and the situation, I flushed. But Hart hardly gave me the time to appreciate what he’d just intimated. Instead, a distinct frown pressing across his face, he snapped his head forward as if he were picking up on something I couldn’t see. And yet, in another moment, I realized that regardless of whether I couldn’t see it, I could feel it. For suddenly this distinct, unforgettable tension swelled around me.

It was the kind of tension that locked my chest, buried deep into the muscle like an insect ready to eat my heart out. Despite the fact I was still weak, I managed to jerk a hand up and latch it over the rumpled, torn, burnt fabric of my clothes. “What is that?” I managed through a hiss.

His cheeks paled and his entire torso and neck tensed as he sucked a breath through clenched teeth. “Time. We’re running out of our last few seconds.” He snapped his head down to face me, eyes pulsing wide. “Shar, though I long to be given the opportunity to explain everything to you, this universe cannot gift us that opportunity. For now you must return. You must fight. Stop Core from forming in full. Stop him from killing Xarin in the future. And do all – everything you can – to stop him from returning to this time.”

It was a literal onslaught of information, and I recoiled my head as if Hart had slapped me. And yet, I could not close my eyes, and neither could I draw away from him. The entreating look in his gaze held onto me with all the strength of the universe.

My lips parted, and a spontaneous gasp escaped. “What do you mean? Return from the past? Save Xarin?” I added, mind instantly skipping to that fact. Though there was a great deal that Hart had just revealed, including the potential destruction of the past, for some reason my heart and mind could not be torn from Xarin’s impending doom.

Heart’s lips pressed into a grim frown. “You are the only one who can stop him now, Shar. And you must. If Core forms in full, he will command the considerable and unstoppable forces of the timeless realm. He will use them, turn upon the past, and finally deal the last blow in this eternal war.”

I shook my head again. It no longer felt so much as if I’d been slapped, but more as though Hart had pressed a gun into my brain and fired off a shot.

Too much information. Too much damn danger.

And yet, the prospect that Xarin could be swept up in this, that he could be killed once and for all… it was enough for me to press my lips into their own grim frown.

Hart took another tensed breath. “To do this, to defeat him, you must draw upon the full power of your betrothal with Xarin.”

My brow ticked down low until it hung heavy over my eyes. “The full power of betrothal? What does that mean? Isn’t it nothing more than… nothing more than a connection through time and space?” Even as I tried to deny the obvious import of what he was saying, I gave up. The look he shot me was one thing, but the feeling spreading through my heart was something else. Something far, far more powerful. It was the kind of feeling that told me without words that whatever existed between Xarin and me was unquestionably the most powerful and sacred connection in all the universe. And if only we could both learn to understand how to use that connection, we could change everything. And, just maybe, just maybe we could save everyone else too.

I wasn’t one for drama, wasn’t one for emphasis. I was one for survival. So I couldn’t process these feelings, couldn’t truly comprehend what was happening to me in this moment.

But perhaps Hart could. He drew to a halt, reached a hand out, and locked it against my shoulders. He opened his eyes wide and stared into my eyes as if he was searching for the door to my soul. “Shar, you must listen. Once you’re back in the future, you will have to locate Core. Then you must use the time weapon against him.”

“Time weapon?”

I will give it to you. I will instruct you in how to use it. But, Shar… this will be the hardest fight of your life. Core has been plotting his revenge for thousands upon thousands of years. He is unquestionably powerful. And as that power finally solidifies into a single form – into a single body – he will become almost undefeatable.”

Almost?

There’d been a time when I hadn’t thought about the world in terms of what I could defeat. Because there’d been a time when I’d taken each day minute by minute, second by second. I never forward planned, I never worried about what I would face in the future.

But that time was now over. Back then, I’d only cared about my own survival. Now? Now I could feel my soul being crushed with every passing moment as I considered the astronomical odds that I would lose and I would lose him in the process.

For where was Xarin now? Had he managed to survive long after he’d escaped the refinery? Was he out there looking for me? Was he on his way to the past?

Focus,” Hart said softly, his voice reverberating deeply. “I will be able to send you back to the Arterian homeworld. There, you must destroy the seat of Core’s power. To do this, you must draw upon your betrothal with Xarin. You must let him help you. For it is only together that you will be able to do this.”

The homeworld? Core is on the homeworld?”

Hart gave a tight nod that emphasized his rope-like neck muscles as they twisted hard into his torso. His mouth was nothing more than a twisted line of bitter regret as he took a stiff breath. “He has existed on the Arterian homeworld for centuries, grooming and controlling them in their secret takeover of the Milky Way. And during that time, he has been manipulating Arterian society from the inside. Using those acolytes closest to him, he has instructed the Arterian Empire to stockpile and search for certain Illuminate technology. Through the use of this technology, he has slowly solidified his power. And the final blow will come soon. For Xarin is en route to the homeworld to finally take ownership of his inheritance – my old vessel.”

Again I felt as if I were being assaulted by information, but this time I didn’t react. I simply held on as I waited for the information I’d sought for so long.

“There’s no more time,” Hart insisted once more as he redoubled his grip on my arm and began to pull me forward.

I lost all track of my heartbeat. It wasn’t just something in my chest anymore – it felt as if it were trying to extricate itself from reality. But it couldn’t. Because no matter how much fear assailed me and how much doom seemed to creep up on me from behind, this situation remained. If I didn’t pull it all together, if I didn’t summon the last of my strength and defeat Core, everything would be lost.

Chapter 2

Prince Xarin

Hope. Little by little, it was starting to swell in my chest. Thought by thought, second by second, the closer I came to the homeworld, the more I thought I had a chance.

Castle, however, wasn’t so sure.

We were both seated on the expansive bridge of my ship. While I had taken up position at the primary navigational control panel, Castle was sprawled out in the command seat. It hadn’t escaped my attention that there would have been a time when I would have considered that the greatest of all insults. For there had been a time when I had thought that being an Arterian Prince was something the entire galaxy should fear.

Now?

Now I knew full well it meant nothing. The trappings of my society, from my armor to my ship to my title – it all meant nothing. For we were nothing more than thieves who had plundered the wealth of the galaxy for too long.

Though hope was swelling in my chest, like a confused wave being pushed into shore by swelling winds, occasionally fears would assail me. And every time, they were centered on her. On Shar. Where she could be, what she could be doing. Had she ever managed to escape the graft? And if so… where had she gone? Where had the fear that was constantly assailing me come from? The fear that she had somehow slipped out of my grasp not just physically, but temporally?

I shook my head again, realizing just how stupid that thought was.

“I’m not going to bother to point out the obvious – shaking your head isn’t going to make us move any faster. And then I’m going to repeat the same goddamn question I’ve been repeating for the past half day – how long until we are in range?”

A stab of annoyance crossed through my gut. Trust Commander Castle to distract me with irritation.

I locked a hand on the console before me and half turned over my shoulder to face him.

He was truly sprawled in my command chair – one elbow locked on the armrest as his hand pinned his chin in place. The other leg was propped ever so indelicately over the other armrest. He looked as if he were enjoying himself.

Me? I clenched my teeth together and let out a terse breath of air. “For the thousandth time, Castle, I don’t know. Though I have now managed to couple the Illuminate transportation device to this ship’s systems, we will not know the full range of its capabilities until the last moment.”

Castle, to my further irritation, simply spread his lips into a somewhat satisfied smile.

I bristled even further. “I do not exactly see what there is to find mirthful.”

“I distracted you, didn’t I? I put a temporary halt to your whirling thoughts, right? Because no matter how many times I tell you to put it out of your head, you’re not going to do that. And,” he pulled his hand from his chin, removed his leg from the armrest, and leaned forward, locking his attention on me, “the more you allow yourself to be distracted, the less likely it will be that we’ll ever make it through this already harebrained plan. Got that?”

Again, I could hardly say I was used to being talked down to, especially by seemingly insignificant Galactic Police commanders. Instead of pointing that out, I pressed my lips into a grim smile and returned my attention to the navigational panel.

I set my fingers across the console, the digits moving swiftly at the full extent of my already considerable speed.

Once more, I checked the sensors. They were currently aligned to the Illuminate transportation device. I hadn’t lied to Castle. There was no way of knowing just what range the device would have until the last moment. The scanners of the ship, combined with the Illuminate device, were continually running matter density scans on the surrounding space. When we finally came within range of successful transportation, the scanners would alert us. Until then? We had to wait.

I know Castle was doing a relatively good job of pretending I was the only one lost in my thoughts, but as I glanced at him from out of the corner of my eye, I knew he was mulling over the exact same thoughts. He may have only known Shar for a short time, but it was obvious she’d had a significant effect on him. That, or the seemingly idiotic and by-the-book Galactic commander somehow appreciated that the universe was on the line here.

For it was on the line.

That fact slammed into me once more as I took a tight breath and settled my stiff fingers over the keys of the console.

While there was seemingly little I could do as we sat here and waited, that wasn’t true.

There was a thought that had been building in my mind for some time now. A throwback to the years I’d been trained and groomed for my role as an Arterian Prince. While, on reflection, I now appreciated that most of that training had been completely irrelevant, some of it had contained information on old Illuminate traditions. And one of those traditions related to the betrothal process.

It was meant to be a series of meditations that one could undertake to further the connection between them and their betrothed. By concentrating on the entanglement between themselves and their beloved, they could strengthen that connection, theoretically using it to achieve anything.

It was the kind of connection, according to legend at least, that could push through time and space. Like the entanglement of two atoms, it would not matter what temporally or spatially divided two betrothed individuals – as long as they knew each other, they would know each other’s minds and actions, despite the realms of time and space.

Before today I’d simply viewed these so-called meditations as nothing more than a myth spread by my false culture, now I wondered if there was something more to them.

Could they really be a way to strengthen my connection with Shar?

Ever since she’d saved me from that graft’s trap, I’d been certain that the connection between us had been all but lost.

… But how could it be all but lost? If at the heart of us was an entanglement that was stronger than distance itself?

I started to tune Castle out. I pushed his presence – however irritating – into the back of my mind as I focused on the possibility before me.

So far in this breakneck, torturous adventure, I’d done little that was proactive. I’d reacted to trauma after trauma, to possibility after possibility – but I had seldom created. And therein would lie the difference to solving this and finally reclaiming our destiny.

Suddenly, without warning, I pushed into the console before me, and I rose. There must have been an unusually regal quality about it, because the usually judgmental look on Castle’s face stiffened. “What?” he asked in a tone that was neither strong nor forthright.

“You have the bridge, Commander. There’s something I need to do. A chance… I must investigate.” Though I paused, my tone remained firm. And there honestly must’ve been something in it, because Castle didn’t question me. Instead, he locked his searching gaze on mine as I strode past him for the door.

“If the sensors detect that we’re in range?” he began.

“I will know,” I stated firmly. And I believed it. For I was determined – wholly determined to start creating this situation rather than being controlled by it.

Mark

Something was going to hell. Don’t ask me what. Maybe it was the situation, maybe it was the Milky Way. Hell, maybe it was the whole goddamn universe. Or maybe it was just my mind. Maybe I’d finally lost it. Too much deceit, too much pain. Too much sheer irrationality.

Princess Arteria and I were now standing on the blood-soaked bridge of the resistance ship. The rest of the crew had been killed. Filling the cracked, singed view screen in front of us was a massive picture of the Empress’ ship.

It was seemingly adrift in space – the engines and weapons switched off, communications a complete blackout. And yet, the scans we’d managed to make using the superior sensor technology of the resistance ship indicated that there was still one life sign aboard.

But that life sign?

It was registering as unknown.

Unknown.

Don’t look like that,” Princess Arteria snapped for what felt like the thousandth time, her tongue slicing over her lips like a whip.

That brought attention to her plush lips, and it would’ve been easy to plant a kiss on them, but I no longer felt like our games.

Because an undeniable sense of dread was building within me.

It was a dread I made no attempt to hide from Arteria. And it was a dread that was unquestionably driving her mad.

Princess Arteria may have been quick to give into pleasure, but it was clear from my interactions with her that she was incapable of understanding her own emotions.

For right now, though she hated it, she was reacting to my fear. A fear which she no doubt felt herself.

“For the thousandth time,” she repeated, her words whip-crack fast as they sliced out of those ever-plush lips, “it will be the Empress herself. The Empress of the Arterian Empire always has access to the best Illuminate technology. Though you assured me that the sensors on this resistance ship are the best in the galaxy, I assure you that the technology in the Empress’ body is better. She would have obscured her biological readings so that she could not be scanned from afar.”

I paused. A pause that I hoped highlighted every hesitant breath that passed through my tense, white, bloodless lips. “And you know that for sure, do you?” I finally queried.

Her gaze flashed. And while the defiant Princess would have assumed that the look in her eyes was strong, I knew her well enough to know it was nothing more than suppressed fear.

She hesitated, and I doubt it was for effect. A second later, she shook her head bitterly. “Of course I know what I’m talking about. I’m Arterian,” she pointed out, an undeniable arrogance to the move.

While there would have been a time when that very arrogance would have set me off, that time was no longer.

Instead, it was my turn to slowly let my lips spread into a mirthless smile. “You’d better hope you’re right, Princess. Because Arterian arrogance aside, those sensor scans seem to suggest that an unknown entity wiped out the entire crew of the Empress’ ship and has left it adrift. While I, like you, would never pass up the opportunity to lay our hands on Empress Qornax’s ship – I will pass up the opportunity to be completely consumed by an unknown, clearly violent biological entity.”

For a second she looked as if she wanted to ball up a fist and strike it into my jaw. A second later, it looked as if she’d rather plant her lips on my jaw, instead. Because that – that summed up Arteria completely. She didn’t want to kiss me. No, she just wanted to control me, distract me, pull me over to her side. And she would use anything in her considerable arsenal of seduction and violence to get her ways.

While ordinarily I was more than happy to let her use that arsenal against me, as I switched my gaze back to the zoomed in view of the Empress’ ship, there was a shudder in my gut. Unmistakable. Deep, strong, the kind of shudder that felt as if it didn’t simply come from you, but came from your shared connection with humanity itself.

“Do not act in such a way that leads to me becoming tired of you, Imperial Guard Mark Alexandros,” she said, her tone twisting with obvious violence. “Though you have been somewhat useful and distracting until now,” she said with a sensuous gaze – but one that did not last as another blast of anger swelled within her eyes, “your use can be overcome. Understand that you are nothing more than a tool. A previously loyal servant. And understand, more than anything, that you are nothing compared to me. I hold the wisdom in this situation. You are simply here to do as I command,” she said, voice reverberating on the word I.

I didn’t react. No frown, no smile, no words. Nothing.

Instead I cut my gaze off her and locked it on the Empress’ ship. “So you intend to board her?”

The Princess had been seated in the torn and burnt remains of the captain’s chair until then. Now, she planted a hand on her knee, and she rose, her ragged skirts shifting around her legs, the exact sway of them somehow making her look more glorious, despite the damage. “Yes, I intend to board. And I intend to take. For it is time that my family and I ascend to the Arterian throne. It has always been within us to rule. And now others will see that too.” With that, she pushed past me, her soft arm brushing against my own. While it would’ve been easy to reach a hand out, clasp that arm, draw her near, and assure her this was suicide, I had to remind myself that arm and the woman it belonged to was possessed of a singular will. More than that, my master had altered the Princess, studded her full of Illuminate devices.

So she was a force to be reckoned with, right? And maybe, despite my better judgment, that force would prevail. Even if it didn’t, perhaps this would be a fight worth witnessing.

So I turned with her, and we both headed through the ship to the hangar bay.

This would not be a simple operation, even if Princess Arteria assumed it would be. For doubtless there would be other forces intent on boarding the Empress’ ship. Most of the Arterian Army had amassed in this system, after all. It wouldn’t be long until those Arterian captains gathered enough courage to ignore their sensor readings and attempt to board the vessel. We would either have to dispatch them, or board first. To do that, we would need the full range of capabilities this resistance vessel had. Oh, and the princess’ full fury. But, as always, that would not be a problem.

The only problem would be once we were aboard.

The Stalker

So close now. Not long to wait. Not long to wait.

As the stalker loomed through the corridors and rooms of the Empress’ ship, its greed grew to such a point it felt like a storm swirling within each of its constituent particles.

For the end was almost upon them. The glorious end that would signal the final sweet note of this universe’s death song.

A song the Gap had been waiting to hear for countless millennia.

All the stalker had to do was wait. Wait and fend off the idiotic forces of the Arterians and the Galactic Army as they attempted to find out what had happened to this vessel. That, however, would be relatively easy. After all, this was what the stalker had been built for. True violence, true war.

Just wait. Just wait, and when the Gap had finally overcome the last barrier, they would push into this universe forever more.

And though that time would come soon, it could not come quickly enough. For there was another threat growing. Another player in this twisted game.

The one the Illuminates had called Core. The one who had tried to control the Gap, to destroy them and claim their power for himself. The one who had ultimately failed, but who had been banished to that realm. That place. That space of timelessness and yet power. The same space the Gap had once existed in themselves. For it was the same space they had been created in. The soulless, timeless, ever-cold expanse.

That foolish Illuminate was back. But this time he would be stronger than ever. The Gap had one chance – to end this before Core manifested in the real world.

Soon, soon the opportunity would arise, and the true battle for reality would begin.

Chapter 3

Shar

I was so conflicted. Broken on the inside, but still walking. The only reason I was still walking was that Hart wouldn’t leave my side. Finally we pushed our way through the refinery, until we reached a specific room.

And it was a room like no other. Because it didn’t feel like a room at all. It felt like a heart. Hart had already mentioned that this refinery incorporated organic technology, and as we walked into the room, my breath was caught in my throat. I’d never felt anything like it. The walls and ceiling were actually beating, throbbing like the inside of someone’s chest. There was a warm, faintly pulsating sensation shifting through the air, too. It made me feel as if I’d wandered into the very heart of the universe.

It also felt… alive. There was an unmistakable presence. An intelligence. A sense of all-knowing.

The lines and symbols which covered the rest of the walls of the refinery were also visible in here. But as they traced along these walls, they began to resemble the fine capillaries under someone’s skin.

I stood in the room, head angled all the way back, cheeks flushed and sweaty as I tried to process what I was seeing. It felt like I was connected to it somehow.

Hart was on the other side of the room, manipulating some strange device embedded in the living, breathing metal.

I heard him turn to me and let out a careful laugh. “It’s the most amazing technology in the universe, isn’t it?”

Technology?” I said, pushing the words out through another startled breath. “It feels so alive. Where did it come from?”

Though he met my gaze and held it, he did not answer.

What is it?” I tried once more, unable to give this up. “Is it Illuminate technology? I know the Illuminates were once the most powerful race in all the galaxy. So where does this technology come from? How did you make it?” I tugged my gaze off the pulsating walls and faced him. “I may not understand much about this, but I can appreciate that I feel something from this place. It’s… it’s a feeling I’ve never had before. It just has to be Illuminate technology, right?” I demanded, but there was an odd edge to my demand, because there was an odd edge to Hart’s gaze. In my head, he was so much more competent than Xarin, so much more knowledgeable, so much more powerful. So why did that look in his eyes tell me he wasn’t? And why did that mere fact make me feel so sick?

You may not want to hear this, Shar, but the honest answer is, we do not know. As I already said, we only found this refinery in the latter stages of the war. Though… it obviously has some kind of connection to the Illuminates and our powers, I have not had the time to investigate its secrets.”

But that makes no sense,” I protested in a weak, wavering tone. “The Illuminates know everything. You… you know everything. You have to be so much more powerful than Xarin,” I stuttered, knowing my words were pathetic the minute they left my lips, but incapable of stopping them.

Suddenly, Hart’s expression was unreadable. He hadn’t hidden his feelings up until that point, but now I honestly couldn’t tell what emotion was building in his deep gaze. “I can’t tell you what to do, Shar. But I can offer a word of caution. Though you may have had… tribulations with Xarin, your betrothed, in the past, you must press past them. I had,” he suddenly broke off as a wry smile pressed across his lips, “tribulations of my own with Annie Carter.” He paused as a distant, nostalgic look filled his gaze, “but, together, we overcame them. As you must overcome your issues with Xarin. For it is only together that you can save the galaxy and bring it the ultimate peace that it so justly deserves.”

I jerked my lips open, intending to defend myself. Instead I just paused. Paused.

I knew full well how to defend myself. Ever since meeting Prince Xarin, my head had been filled with excuses as to why I would never trust him.

But now?

Now I wondered whether out of all the enemies I had faced, my own arrogance and fear were the worst and most destructive.

This will happen again. It will continue to happen every time we are reborn. For it is our destiny to grow together each lifetime. But to do that,” his voice dropped low and reverberated softly through the room, “every lifetime, we must learn to trust.” On the word trust, I swore the whole room sucked in a relieved breath of air with him, the pulsating walls shifting in time with his words. “And you, Shar, must learn to trust Xarin now. You may have convinced yourself he is not worthy. You may have even convinced yourself that you will never love him. But first, Shar, you must convince yourself that he is trustworthy. Understand him, and you might find you will understand yourself in the process.”

But…” I began.

You have no other option. We will never have any other option. For as betrothed, we must serve this universe. Together,” he brought up a hand and slowly pressed the fingers into a light fist, “we are so much stronger together than when we are apart. Together, we can access powers and skills that we cannot when we are broken asunder. And, Shar, you must push until you can find that equilibrium. Push until you can reconnect.”

I didn’t respond. My mouth was open, and the words of defense were ready on my lips, but they simply wouldn’t come. Instead, it felt as if something started to crumble inside me. And it didn’t take a great deal of self-reflection to recognize what it was. It was that fear. That fear that in many ways had formed the cornerstone of my entire identity, for it was the fear that told me that I would always be alone. The fear that told me that connection – and, yes, trust – were the two most expensive things in all reality.

I’d held onto those thoughts throughout my entire existence. But now, in front of him, they started to crumble. And tears, of their own accord, washed down my cheeks, one after the other, sailing down and splashing over the torn collar of my tunic.

Silently, slowly and gently Illuminate Hart spread a hand toward me.

Without thinking, I reached out too.

In that instant, I could feel it. The connection wrapping around us, like the threads of the finest, largest web – a web that traced through every molecule of reality, through every second of time. It spread out into eternity and back again to the beginning of reality.

He tightened his grip around mine. “No more time. I can give you a weapon, teach you how to use it, and send you back to the Arterian homeworld. Xarin is on his way there. With my connection to him, I know where he is. Just as I know you will find Core on the homeworld. You must stop Core before he kills Xarin.”

Wait, no, I’m not ready to go back. There are still so many questions I have. Where do I find Core? How will I recognize him?”

He is the priest, and he resides in the sacred temple above the city. You will recognize it when you see it, for you will be unable to ignore it. Within you, the part of dear Annie that remains will guide you. Trust in her. Follow her.” As he spoke of Annie, he softened immeasurably. Which was saying something, as he’d hardly been filled with anger and spite before. Still, I couldn’t deny the obvious longing he felt for her.

It was the kind of feeling I’d always hoped someone would one day feel for me.


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