Excerpt for Ava Episode Three 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.

A Galactic Coalition Academy Series

Ava

Episode Three

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos: licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com



AVA

EPISODE THREE


Leana’x is alive. Barely. The cost of having AVA in her mind is finally taking its toll. Her time is running out. Worse – so is John’s. He’s at the mercy of the broken mind of Admiral Jones, and there’s nothing the Commander can do to get away.

In Episode Three of Ava, the Milky Way is thrown into chaos. With no one to trust and the walls pressing in, Leana’x and John must work together. But they can’t. And that will cost everyone….

Chapter 1

Leana’x kept throwing herself against the invisible shields, but they wouldn’t let her pass.

Sweat caked her brow far faster than the space suit’s internal environmental controls could let it evaporate.

She kept screaming until she was hoarse, until it felt as if her throat would be torn from her neck.

But none of it mattered.

She fell down to one knee, then the other, bringing her hands up, trying to beat the shields, but they wouldn’t shift. Nor did they burn her or rebuff her backward, sending her skidding over the stone floor behind. These were not ordinary shields, and this was no ordinary palace.

She had no idea how long it took until she gave up, her arms falling between her legs, her shoulders hunched down low, her head drooping down until her chin almost rested against her chest.

She began to sob, began to cry, until large salty tears streaked her cheeks.

There wasn’t a goddamn thing she could do. Worse? The connection between her and John… she couldn’t feel it anymore.

That bridge seemed to be closed.

Leana’x, Prime Queen of Artaxan One, brought her hands up, buried them against the visor of her helmet, and broke down.

Prince Maqx

He stood there and stared at the vault door, his head held at an angle, his eyes never closing.

… He could hear them.

The Force.

Just a fragment of them in his mind. Not enough of a direct line to hear what they wanted. But their greed? Ah, that came through as clear as possible.

It twisted through the Prince’s body. It reached his hands, made them curl into such tight fists, he felt his Replacement body stiffen like smart concrete.

He took a step back from the vault door, his head spinning.

For what felt like the trillionth time that hour, he brought up his wrist device and activated it. In a blink of light that looked like a mini flash of lightning flickering over the device, a hologram appeared over the machine.

It was an update. On Admiral Jones’ life.

The Admiral was still alive. But his life signs were stressed. He was fighting. What, the Prince couldn’t tell.

He watched the readings with all the focus of a man waiting to see if he would live yet another day.

Though the Prince should be rooting for the Admiral to win, the Prince was not.

He was waiting for the inevitable – for the twisted, cracked Replacement mind of Admiral James Jones to break under the pressure.

And then the Prince would happily take his place at the head of this operation. It would be better, for everyone. For the Prince already had a plan.

He just needed the time and space to enact it.

He stood there for god knows how long, watching the Admiral’s fight vicariously.

Though the Prince didn’t know who the Admiral was fighting, it was clear he wasn’t fighting the new Prime. So perhaps it was the useless Commander who’d become her sole protection in this harsh galaxy.

The Prince took another step back from the vault door, then another. He finally wrenched his gaze off the hologram and locked it on that imposing structure once more. His orders were clear – he wasn’t to leave this spot. For this was a time sensitive mission. Even if they didn’t know when the Prime would die and AVA would finally be forced to retreat to the Prince’s body, Maqx couldn’t afford to leave. For the split second AVA arrived was the split second he would have to gain entry into the vault.

For within the vault was everything the Force needed to finally break the wall that held them back from the Milky Way.

And then, finally, the full invasion would begin.

The Prince stared up at those massive shielded metal doors for several more seconds. Then he turned away.

Just one swift movement on his polished boot, and he left his position.

He strode down the empty hallways of the Prime building, the echoing pound of his footsteps the only sound in this imposing structure.

He rested his neck back, cracked his spine and shoulders, and smiled.

He had a feeling – a feeling that the Admiral’s plans would backfire. And when they did, the Prince would be ready. He would get a head start right now, so that he – not the Admiral – would see this mission through to the end.

Chapter 2

Leana’x

She sat there in front of the shields for god knows how long, just nestled there, her head against her knees, her eyes brimming with tears as she rocked back and forth, back and forth.

The only sound in this lonely stone palace was her bones as they creaked and the never-ending echo of her sobs.

The tears didn’t just streak her face – they covered them.

To think, she could feel this much crushing emotion at the passing of a man she’d once hated…

We don’t know he’s dead yet,” she spat at herself, but her voice was all twisted and wrong.

She was being pulled in two opposite directions. In her heart, she wanted to believe more than anything that the Commander – despite the crippling odds against him – would have had the skills to defeat the Admiral.

But her head told her something else. All those years of Academy training told her there was no way John could have survived against the Admiral’s next-generation technology.

Leana’x rocked back harder now, finally unhooking her arms from around her legs. In a moment of pure desperation mixed with gut-punching tension, she slammed her fists into the stone ground around her.

This wasn’t fair.

But she couldn’t stay here like this, sobbing her heart out as she waited for the Commander to come.

She had to get up, crawl through the palace, find something to help her.

Because she couldn’t forget one thing. Even if the concept of losing John was as brutal as being eviscerated by a space bull, a far worse fate would wait if the Admiral found some way of getting in here.

She’d… she’d seen his ship. The way it had been tiny at first only to grow. Technology like that shouldn’t exist in the Milky Way. She’d never seen anything like it, let alone heard about it from any of her friends in tech development.

And if it was that powerful, wasn’t there a possibility that the Admiral would be able to use it to break into this apparently impenetrable palace?

That thought galvanized her, finally saw her rock up to her feet.

She was shaky, so she had to stagger to the side and lock a hand on the wall.

It, like the rest of the palace she’d seen so far, was made out of stone. Not fancy stone, mind you – ordinary rock.

As she inclined her head over her shoulder and looked behind, the tunnel looked like it was out of some old Earth ruin, not the most sophisticated palace the Artaxans had.

And yet she couldn’t deny the feeling of the place, could she?

As Leana’x forced herself to take a solid step forward, she felt a thrill of nerves race up her spine. They sank hard and fast into her jaw, making it feel as if she’d been stupid enough to chew on a live wire.

She tried to shake off the weird sensation as she took another step forward, then another.

She was injured, tired, going crazy with grief, and yet, the distraction of this place was enough to draw her forward.

She emptied out of the relatively short tunnel she was in until she reached a set of stairs. They were sweeping and led down from a mezzanine level to what looked like an atrium below.

She paused with her hands on the railing in front of her. She twisted her head from side to side as she tried to take in the whole place at once.

One thing was growing abundantly clear – this was a building unlike any she’d ever entered. She’d never felt anything close to the feelings that were now exploding through her. They were so exquisite and powerful, she felt like they’d take her over completely.

She brought her hands up and tried to lock them on her arms, rubbing them up and down as she chased away the sensation. But the sensation wouldn’t shift, and her hands wouldn’t grip.

She kept walking forward. Her arms were loose by her sides now, as if someone had unhooked them from her shoulders.

It felt like something had hooked into her heart and was dragging her forward.

She went down the stairs, entered the atrium, then didn’t stop.

She twisted around and headed into a room that was directly in front of her.

The door looked like it was made of nothing more than stone, but as she approached, it shifted to the side without a sound.

Inside, it revealed a room.

The first room she’d clapped eyes on that wasn’t completely made of stone.

It had equipment in it – panels, computers. She didn’t recognize the design, but she could hear them softly humming and see the reflected light of a screen on the opposite side of the room.

The screen was on some kind of standby mode, but as she took a step over the threshold of the door, it turned on with a buzz. It was a specific buzz – one that didn’t just power through the room, but sunk into her too as she tried to take a surprised, jerked step backward.

But that would be when her back slammed up against the door. It had reformed behind her without a sound.

She turned suddenly on her foot, throwing herself toward it. She brought up her hands and struck them against the stone, but the door wouldn’t open, and her attempts to hit it did nothing.

Leana’x took a lurching step away from the door.

She was trapped.

Commander John Campbell

The fight was frantic.

But it didn’t last.

Though John’s armor gave him absolutely everything it had, though it pushed him to a place he’d never been, it just wasn’t enough.

It couldn’t be enough. Admiral James Jones had an entire prototype vessel with all of the weaponry that entailed, and John had nothing more than his bio suit.

John expected the Admiral to kill him – expected one well-placed ionic blast to slam right through John’s back, tear through his armor, and extinguish his body as if it were nothing more than a valiantly flickering flame.

But Admiral Jones wasn’t in it for the kill. Instead, he disabled John.

Using the vessel as a battering ram, he slammed it against John’s back, sending John skidding into the pockmarked moon surface until John’s entire form was pinned. It was like having an anvil on his body. No, it was far, far heavier. There was not a goddamn thing he could do as he was pressed relentlessly into the dirt but scream. And boy did John scream. He gave it everything he had, his lungs practically shaking, and yet, the scream wasn’t one of true sorrow.

Because Leana’x was fine.

He’d retained a connection to her up until a moment ago, then it had shifted. Almost as if something had blocked off the bridge that now existed between them. Kind of like a shutter slamming into place, blocking out the view from a window.

Though John could barely move, at least he could open his lips, and he screamed her name with everything he had. It reverberated through his helmet but could travel no further.

He waited.

One second, then two, then three.

His eyes were plastered wide, his head covered in a thick sweat his armor had no hope of evaporating.

And he kept waiting.

For the inevitable. It should come any second. He knew that. There was only one thing Admiral Jones would do. No questions. No second chances.

But death did not come.

John tried to incline his head to the side.

That would be when the Admiral finally appeared.

In a haze of light from a transport beam, the likes of which John had never seen, Jones appeared right there in front of John.

John didn’t beg. Not a single word. There was no way he was going to give this Replacement bastard the satisfaction of knowing he’d won.

Instead, John set his jaw as hard as he could while still cracking his lips open. “You might kill me, but there’s no way you’re going to beat the Coalition. They will come for you. Mark my words, they will come.” John’s words blasted out with all the combined fire and passion his beating heart could manage. And that was a hell of a lot considering these would likely be his last words.

But the Admiral still didn’t do it. He didn’t attack. He could. As John’s eyes sliced down to the Admiral’s belt, he could see the gun holstered there. It was a make John didn’t recognize, but one that possessed inherent power. Just with a quick scan from John’s armor, he could tell that a single bullet would be enough to completely pulverize John’s body.

And yet, the Admiral still didn’t fire.

That would be when John finally noticed the guy’s eyes. Wide. Fixed on John. The quality of them… completely goddamn terrifying.

John had seen a lot in his life. From his parents dying to the numerous skirmishes he’d fought on behalf of the Coalition – but what he saw in the Replacement’s eyes shouldn’t damn exist in this galaxy.

And that was the point.

For as John’s eyes widened as far as they could until the skin could’ve cracked and opened up the muscle beneath, he realized he was catching a glimpse of the Force.

His breath stilled, his heart stopped, and he watched.

The Admiral finally reached a hand forward. With his wide-open gaze locked on John, it was clear Jones had just come to some decision.

John, it seemed, wouldn’t die.

No. The Admiral had something much worse in mind for the Commander….

Admiral Jones

This made so much sense. More sense than killing the hapless Commander.

No. It was much better to access his mind, his body, his armor, and, more than anything, the unique connection he’d formed with AVA.

For now Admiral Jones was in front of the Commander, the Admiral could sense it. The armor the Commander was wearing wasn’t normal. It had been upgraded by something. Something not familiar to the rest of the Milky Way, but something easily recognizable to the Force within the Admiral.

AVA.

She’d somehow stretched between the new Prime and the Commander. How, the Admiral couldn’t tell. But that didn’t matter.

No. All that mattered was accessing that connection.

This was so much better than anything the Admiral could have hoped for.

For this meant he could access AVA directly without the meddling help of the useless Prince.

Jones had started this, and now he could end it with his own hands.

The Commander wisely chose not to fight as the Admiral leaned down, locked his hands on the Commander’s collar, and dragged him to his feet by his armor.

Though the Admiral couldn’t see into the Commander’s eyes through the opaque visor of the Commander’s armor, that didn’t matter. Just holding him, the Admiral swore he could feel Campbell’s fear.

So powerful. The kind of force that could shake right through a galaxy and remake it anew.

“… What are you doing? If you expect me to talk, you’re dead wrong. I won’t tell you a thing about her,” the Commander’s voice was even up until the word her. As soon as he referred to Leana’x, his voice sounded as if someone had shoved his throat into ice.

It was clear the Commander had feelings for the Prime.

Which was good.

For it meant when it came to killing the Prime, it would be easier. She wouldn’t see it coming.

The Admiral shoved his hand forward, and as he did, he maintained his mental connection to his ship. He commanded it to begin the transfer process.

An alteration of the basic transporter technology the modern Milky Way was built on, the alteration process borrowed heavily on Replacement technology and the footprint of the Force.

There would be nothing the Commander’s armor would be able to do to stop it.

The Commander seemed to pause as a red light shot out from the ship and encased him.

Then the man screamed. So deep, so shaking, so soul-crushing. It sounded like the Commander was having his brain ripped right out of his skull.

The Admiral did nothing but smile. A wide kind of smile he hadn’t had cause to show for so long. For it had been weeks since things had been going this well.

For finally, finally the end was in sight. An end better than anyone could envision.

In that moment, the Admiral wasn’t connected to the Force. If they ever tried to press into his mind again, they would do so much damage, the Admiral would be ripped asunder like a rock under the impact of a meteorite. But it didn’t matter; the Admiral knew this was the right path. His masters would sing his praises for this.

The Commander continued to scream, his voice now so hoarse, it sounded like it would crack. And crack it did as the man was suddenly pulled right off his feet.

The Admiral took a step back and watched the Commander as the red light from his cruiser locked the man in place. It suddenly spread the Commander’s arms wide, almost as if it were getting his measurements. And in many ways, it was.

Replacement technology was powerful, but it was also flawed. There were so many variables to account for, so many things that could go devastatingly wrong.

But there were so many things that could go right, too.

If you were careful.

So careful the Admiral was as he took a step toward the Commander and angled his head up.

The planet around them was nothing more than a barren wasteland, just so much dead pockmarked rock and rolling gray hills.

It was a suitable backdrop as the red light of the adjustment beam pulsed so brightly around the Commander, it could have been mistaken for a new sun taking form.

The Admiral waited. One more second. Then he stepped forward and opened his arms wide, almost as if he were accepting a long-lost friend.

The beam pulsed around him, growing up his arms and snapping around his head like greedy tentacles getting ready to drag him down to some impenetrable depth.

The Admiral didn’t scream. Not a single breath, in fact. He felt pain, though. True, hard, deep – the feel of a man who was being ripped apart from the inside out.

But the feeling didn’t last.

Just as the Admiral’s consciousness felt as if it could take no more, he felt himself shift.

His body crumpled beneath him, but his mind – ah, his mind spread. It felt like someone had taken his awareness, applied it to a knife, and spread it across reality like a generous serving of butter.

The next thing he knew, he was smeared right over the Commander.

The man was still suspended there in that ball of pulsing red light.

His helmet had been forced to recede, and now there was nothing to stop the Admiral from staring right into the Commander’s eyes.

The Commander was afraid. The Admiral wondered if the man had ever felt fear on a scale like this before.

No matter. One thing was certain – even if the Commander hadn’t felt fear like this before, he would feel fear like this – and much worse – soon.

For as the Admiral’s consciousness was spread toward the Commander, the Admiral took over, never to be pushed back again. Though it might take some time for the Admiral to gain full control over the Commander’s body, it was a battle the Commander had no hope of ultimately winning. It would simply be a matter of time before the Admiral took what was his and finally ended this.

The light suddenly cut out. No warning. Nothing.

No sound, either.

The Commander’s body dropped. Though it was limp, somehow, the Commander shifted at the last moment and landed on one knee with one hand pressed into the dusty ground below him.

It took several long seconds until he moved again. His body was rigid, like carved steel.

Then, finally, with the creak of joint and muscle, he tilted his head up.

He stood.

And he walked toward the stone palace.

Chapter 3

Leana’x

She sat there in the center of the room, her body crumpled in on itself as she hooked her arms around her legs with all her might.

She was no longer rocking back and forth – couldn’t spare the energy. All she could do was sit there and not look at the screens.

They felt like they were connected to her. But not in a positive way. No. It felt like they were somehow sapping her energy.

But there was a problem – she needed her energy. For with every second it was taken away from her… she felt thin, like someone was buffing her away.

She felt something oozing out of her nostril, and a second later, there was the faintest sound as a single droplet of blue blood splashed against her knee.

She jerked her head up and stared at it, finally unhooking her arms, bringing up a shaking finger, and touching it to the blood.

It was still warm, but only barely.

This couldn’t just be the fatigue and pain of her fights.

Leana’x could… she could swear something was happening to her.

Suddenly, the screen on the opposite side of the room shifted. No warning. In a second, it went from being hooked against the wall to zooming forward and coming to a stop right in front of her nose.

She screamed and jerked backward, trying to scuttle back before the screen could squash her flat. But it didn’t ram into her and pin her against the wall. It stopped just an inch in front of her nose. So much light spilled off it and lit up her face, it felt like she was staring down the barrel of a laser gun.

She inched backward, but the screen followed her.

It wasn’t a hologram – wasn’t just made of collected light.

It was solid. And it was floating, without a noise.

She brought up a shaking hand.

The screen seemed to react, and followed her move, shifting as her hand did.

I’m… controlling this?” she said to no one in particular.

Something answered. In clipped clear tones. But there was a problem. It wasn’t in the Standard Galactic Tongue. It wasn’t even in old Artaxan.

It was in a language she’d never heard before.

Maybe the electronic voice expected an answer, but when she didn’t give one, the screen shifted toward her once more, an insistent quality to the movement.

She didn’t throw herself backward like she’d be squashed this time; she simply stared at it warily as the voice repeated.

I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying. I don’t speak your language,” she tried.

The voice repeated its message yet again.

I don’t know what you’re saying!” Leana’x said again, the words quicker with emotion and frustration as a new wave of tears slicked her cheeks, trailed over her chin, and splashed against the torn, dust-covered fabric of her collar.

The voice repeated once more, and the screen got closer yet again.

Though the screen was on, she had no idea whatsoever what it was depicting. It could have been intel, or maybe live telemetry from some part of the moon or the palace, but she couldn’t tell. She simply didn’t understand the symbols, no matter how far she stretched her memory.

The voice repeated.

Leana’x began to sob louder. She also brought up her hand, curled it into a defeated fist, and struck it against the ground. Or at least, she tried to. Just at the last moment, she felt something reach out of the screen.

It happened in a snapped second – one her already tired mind couldn’t keep up with.

But there was no denying her senses as a blue hand made out of light stretched out of the screen and locked around her wrist.

Though Leana’x tried to shift back, the hand remained locked on her wrist, and she simply pulled it further out of the screen.

The next thing she knew, a full figure had formed, stepping out of the screen and looming over Leana’x.

Leana’x, now practically on her back as she stared up, dumbfounded, couldn’t say a word.

The figure looked like they were a hologram. They were blue and made of light, and yet, it was a light wholly different to the usual holograms she’d seen. Not just the standard holograms of the Coalition, but the more advanced light tech of her people too.

No. Whatever the hell this thing was in front of her, she had no experience with it whatsoever.

The figure resembled a female member of Leana’x’s race – without the blue skin, at least. From her thick green hair to her eyes, she resembled Artaxans. Even her movements were familiar as the hologram tilted her head to the side and stared at Leana’x.

“… Who are you? What do you want? Where did you come from?”

The figure didn’t answer.

That would be when Leana’x caught sight of her eyes. They weren’t like the ordinary eyes of an Artaxan. Instead, even from her position at the figure’s feet, Leana’x could see there were tiny little cogs and wheels of light within the woman’s retinas. They shifted this way and that, as if they were assessing Leana’x somehow.

The woman spoke. But it was in the same unknown language Leana’x had no hope of understanding.

Leana’x just sat there staring up at the woman, with no idea what to do.

The woman continued to tilt her head to the side, and as Leana’x looked up, she could see the woman’s eyes were still twisting around as those cogs of light moved like tiny machines.

Were they some form of scanner? It wasn’t as crazy as it sounded, because Leana’x swore she could feel something penetrating her, accessing her body somehow.

It took a second for her to realize what that was.

AVA.

Leana’x still couldn’t access AVA no matter how much she wanted to. For if only she could access AVA, the artificial intelligence would be able to tell Leana’x what to do, how to control this palace, how to save John.

At the mere thought of John, even though Leana’x thought she’d already felt the worst of her grief, her heart felt like someone had squashed it.

She even brought up a hand and crumpled it on her chest.

That would be when the woman finally reacted. Her pupils widened with an emotion that looked a heck of a lot like fear, and she leaned forward.

Leana’x didn’t have the time to buck back as the light woman reached forward and locked a hand on Leana’x’s forehead.

It was hot, and there was a shifting kind of feeling, as if the woman’s hand was made up of vibrating particles. Which it probably was.

Leana’x stared up at the woman, her eyes open wide.

It was almost like the woman was checking Leana’x’s temperature. And when she shifted back quickly, a worried look on her face, it was clear the woman didn’t like what she found.

Without any warning whatsoever, the hologram shifted forward and picked Leana’x up.

Leana’x spluttered and jerked, but there was nothing she could do. Not only was she weak, but the woman was made of light, goddamn it. There was nothing for Leana’x to fight.

Still, Leana’x wasn’t going to make this easy. She tried to buck and jerk off the hologram’s shoulder.

That would be when the woman cracked her lips open and said, “Still.”

Leana’x stopped dead.

The hologram spoke Standard Galactic Tongue after all?

Learning language. Speak more,” the hologram instructed.

Leana’x’s head reeled. Her thoughts felt as if they’d been fed into a blender, and she’d never have a hope of making sense of them again.

The woman strode over and reached the door, shoving a hand forward and elegantly swiping it to the side.

It riveted Leana’x’s attention on the woman’s fingers. They were heavily decorated with tattoos. Except they weren’t just tattoos. As Leana’x stared, she saw the little black symbols dart around, almost as if they too were live telemetry.

It took Leana’x’s breath away. She didn’t have time to think about how underequipped she’d been for this palace; she just let out a breathy hiss. “What are you?”

Living knowledge of palace. Speak more. Will learn.”

The last thing Leana’x wanted to do was speak. She wanted to curl in on herself and cry her heart out until John came back.

But John wasn’t coming back. There was no way he would have been able to hold the Admiral back, let alone defeat the man.

Just as dread and grief swept around her like a hurricane, the woman stopped and inclined her head over her shoulder, her electronic eyes locking on Leana’x. “Safe. Be safe. Can’t die.”

Leana’x shivered. The hologram was obviously continually scanning Leana’x’s bio readings, and it was just as obvious that the woman didn’t like what she saw.

Leana’x swallowed. “How sick am I?”

Dying. Need help. Will give it. Speak so I will learn,” the hologram said.

Leana’x stopped. Her head felt numb all of a sudden, as if she’d shoved her brains in a transporter and sent them to an ice planet.

Leana’x was dying? That was… that was the reason blood was still dripping out of her nose, wasn’t it? That was the reason she could no longer access AVA properly.

Don’t fear. Fear undermines, makes sicker. Strong. Stay strong,” the woman said.

Strong? How in hell was Leana’x meant to stay strong when everything she knew and loved had been taken away from her?

Leana’x had a secret, and it was one that everyone could see. She wasn’t someone who connected with people easily. Sure, she had a few friends, but she could easily count them on one hand. And even then, the interactions she had with them would never reach too deep. Because she never let anyone in that deep.

Maybe it was on account of her heritage, or maybe even without her title, Leana’x would have always been a cold and distant person.

But none of that was the point. The point was that right now Leana’x was feeling loss like she’d never felt it before. Because, without being aware of it, she had started to connect.

To John. The guy who’d once turned her life into a living hell. But the guy who’d now been taken away from her forever.

More blood slipped from her nose and trickled onto the woman’s shoulder. As soon as it touched the hologram’s apparent skin, it sizzled and evaporated.

The woman stopped. She inclined her head even further over her shoulder, now locking her full gaze on Leana’x, the hologram’s electronic eyes narrowing, the cogs spinning faster. “Whatever you think, stop thinking it. Hurting you. Can’t afford more damage. Damage lead to sooner death.”

It was such a cold way to put it. Worse, not only was Leana’x in this position, now she couldn’t even afford to grieve.

Just when she wanted to pull even further into her sorrow and just turn numb, the woman finally opened the door and walked out into the corridor. Except it was different to the corridor Leana’x had left when she’d entered this room. It was much wider. It also seemed to be high up a tower. She saw a glimpse from a simple window that seemed to show an unrivaled view of the naked, barren wasteland of the moon below.

Leana’x instantly tried to jerk toward it, even though she had no hope of pulling herself off the shoulder of the woman. Leana’x opened her eyes as wide as they could possibly go as she tried to catch a glimpse of John… or whatever was left of him. Something, anything to give her a sense of closure.

The woman stopped. “Why strain toward the outside?” she said haltingly.

John,” Leana’x managed, her voice so choked, an ordinary person wouldn’t be able to pick it up. “The Commander,” she added. “My…” she trailed off, incapable of finishing the thought as hot tears streaked down her cheeks and dashed against her collar.

John? The Commander? Who?”

I… I traveled here with him. He protected me from the various people trying to assassinate me. He… he helped me…” she defaulted to saying. What she really wanted to say was he’d died for her, and it was tearing her up inside. If John had never met Leana’x, he’d still be safe aboard his ship.

Leana’x should never have left the home world.

Withdrawing inside. Thinking. Stop. No more thoughts. Speak. So that I can understand.”

Leana’x didn’t bother to point out that to speak, one needed to think. She just felt the grief slam into her again as the hologram finally shifted past the window and continued to walk down the open corridor.

Though the last thing Leana’x wanted to do was be drawn in by this place, she couldn’t stop her curiosity as it welled within her.

Wherever they were in the palace, it felt different to the lower levels. It… felt more sophisticated, more intelligent somehow. Yeah, Leana’x could appreciate that didn’t make any sense. Because buildings, no matter how sophisticated, were not intelligent creatures. They weren’t creatures, full stop. They were structures made out of inanimate matter.

… so why did this place feel like it was somehow alive?

Speak,” the hologram commanded again.

Leana’x had no idea what to say, so she said the first thing that popped into her head. “What are you? What’s your name?” she added, as if that was somehow the most important fact she could learn.

I am Na’van. I am Light Guard.”

“… Light Guard? What’s that?”

Original protectors of Gift.”

At the mere mention of this gift, Leana’x’s back straightened as if she’d been struck, and a race of tingles slammed hard down her stomach. “What… what gift?”

Intelligence,” Na’van answered.

Leana’x stopped. Not that she was moving or anything. But her feelings stopped for a single second, her thoughts too.

AVA. Na’van was clearly talking about AVA.

At the prospect that Na’van knew anything about AVA, Leana’x opened her mouth to demand some answers, but she stopped.

Abruptly. Because she couldn’t afford for this to be a trap. AVA was the most important secret Leana’x had right now. And even if she was forced to shoulder this incredible burden on her own now that John was dead, she couldn’t give up.

You pause. Suspicion. No need. I know you are her.”

Again, Leana’x’s back pulsed with nerves. Hard and hot, they were the kind of tingles that felt as if they’d pull her skin apart. “Her?”

AVA,” Na’van said, and for the first time, there was an elegance about her voice, not just her movements as she continued to gracefully and easily heft Leana’x down the corridor.

“… You know about AVA?”

You are the new Prime. You are the new AVA,” Na’van answered smoothly.

Leana’x shook her head, despite the fact the move was unnecessary and costly. “I’m not AVA…. I just carry her.”

You are now AVA. But not whole,” Na’van pointed out as she narrowed her eyes at Leana’x.

Leana’x blinked hard, a few tears welling behind her eyes. “No… when AVA inhabited my body… there was a man present. John.”

The man who haunts you now,” Na’van said, her standard tongue getting better with every sentence.

Leana’x hadn’t used the word haunted, and she had no idea how Na’van had learned it, but it was apt.

Because John was haunting Leana’x, body and soul.

A few more tears leaked out of her eyes, but she didn’t bother to dry them. “Yeah… the guy who haunts me. He… died. Someone attacked him outside. An Admiral from the Coalition,” she continued to explain, even though Na’van would have no way of knowing what the heck she was talking about.

You mean a Replacement,” Na’van said.

How do you know that?”

I have already scanned your immediate memories.”

What? How?”

I accessed the specific region of your brain that allows communication through thought waves,” Na’van revealed as she continued to stride down the corridor.

Leana’x had no idea where Na’van was taking her, but that wasn’t nearly as important as what Na’van had just revealed. “You… you’ve been reading my mind?”

I have been accessing your recent thoughts, yes. It is allowing me to understand. This situation is critical. We must stabilize you now before going out to retrieve the other connection to AVA.”

It took Leana’x a moment, a moment where her brain struggled to catch up and her head hurt. But she pushed through it.

She blinked. “Wait… what do you mean retrieve the other connection to AVA? Do you mean… John’s body?”

I mean the man you call John. He’s still alive.”

Leana’x couldn’t think. In that moment, she felt herself stretch away.

Then she snapped back as she curled harder around Na’van’s shoulders. “What do you mean John’s still alive? You… are you somehow connected to the outside of this palace?”

I am wired into the scanners of this palace, correct. They continuously scan the moon for any new data. I have a lock on the man you call John. He was attacked by a Replacement. The Replacement contained him in some kind of radiation – one our scanners do not recognize.”

Leana’x was practically choking. She felt as if she’d never breathe again. But she managed to break her lips open and hiss, “So he’s alive? He got free? He killed the Admiral?”

The Admiral appeared to die on his own.”

Leana’x didn’t bother to point out that that made no damn sense. She just began to sob.

But the tears of joy didn’t last. She started to buck again.

What are you doing?”

Put me down. Put me down. I have to go out and get John.”

You can’t leave this palace. To do so would put your already taxed body under too much strain. Estimated time until you die would be 5 minutes and 38 seconds.”


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