Star Soldier Episode One

Her world is dying, and only she can help.

Ami is a soldier, nothing more than cannon fodder in a war that’s threatening to tear her world apart. When creatures from a cross-dimensional rift spill over her world, society as she knows it shatters.

All must fight to live. But when a creature with near limitless power choses her to save her world, Ami is swept into a fight for everything and everyone.

An action-packed sci fi, Star Soldier is sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s Axira.

 

Chapter 1

Ami

The sun is setting. Its dying rays light up the city and glisten off the megalithic, tall towers that reach to the sky. Though the higher levels are white and gleaming silver-blue, the lower levels are nothing more than a mess of dirty brown, gray, and black.

As the troop transport bucks and heaves along the narrow rail line, I find my breath.

I sit along one of the long benches, squeezed in between several other soldiers.

They all check their armor. Methodically. Carefully. Obsessively. Because it will be the difference between life and death.

Me, I don’t check my armor. I checked it before we boarded the transport. Instead, I sit there, eyes locked ahead, body rigid, hands clasped with tension, shoulders and neck muscles as tightly wound as a fastened spring.

The transport keeps bucking as we continue further down the hastily made rail track.

A few lights flicker on and off inside the transport as electrical surges power through the ship’s badly insulated systems.

This vessel – like all of its class – has been hastily made, sloppily scrapped together. It doesn’t matter if it won’t last a week, because it wasn’t intended to. In many ways, neither was I, nor my comrades. Not, of course, that the other men sitting around me would refer to me as a comrade. I am the only woman here, and I have a reputation – not a particularly nice one.

We’re closer now, I can feel it. Anticipation turns to sweat as it trickles along my brow, and my heartbeat triples until it thrums hard into my jaw. I clench my teeth so tightly together every knock of the transport is transferred deep into my chest and down into my stomach.

They are coming.

Ever since I’d joined the army, I’ve had an almost preternatural ability to sense them.

The enemy.

The void, as the official scientists of Gordana – my home world – call them. Monsters that appeared out of a cross-dimensional rift five short years ago. Our society hadn’t exactly been peaceful before. Prosperous, yes, ambitious, absolutely. But the rift changed everything. A planet that had once been obsessed with interstellar travel became occupied with only one task – surviving. Surviving the almost nightly incursions of the void.

They call them half ghosts – the monsters that came from the void. Fighting them is unlike fighting any other enemy I’ve ever seen, let alone heard of. They don’t always stay in the one place. They can transport, disappearing from one spot only to reappear in another several meters away.

That isn’t the end of their incredible, physics-defying abilities, either. Depending on the class of half ghost you’re fighting, they all have different skills. Some can conjure the elements, drawing with them water, ice, fire, lightning even. In many ways, it feels like it’s right out of a storybook, a movie, some useless bit of fiction. But it isn’t. It goddamn isn’t, and it’s destroying my world one day after the next.

The only defense against the ghost walkers are the light sentinels. Or at least that’s what the scientists call them. A strange kind of being that appears to exist in an interdimensional realm.

Just thinking about them makes my head spin.

“Five,” the lieutenant in charge pushes up from his seat, grabs a hand rail with white clenched knuckles, and spits the word.

Collectively, every soldier tenses. I feel the seat beneath me shudder as 24 grown men clench their teeth and lock their armored boots on the floor.

… I can hear it now. The hum. That strange, growing, shifting crackle that fills the air. The void.

Just across from me, there’s a tiny computer screen that shows the view from the front of the transport. The long vessel powers along the rails, its glistening body catching the light from the city above.

The lieutenant keeps counting down the minutes, and I keep staring at the screen, a sense of anticipation tinged with true fear coiling in my gut. I would clench a hand on it, but I can’t.

No fear. Never show fear around these bastards. It’s my motto. The only reason I’ve come so far. I’m not just the only female in this transport – I’m the only woman in my whole unit.

Gordana society wasn’t always so sexist. The rift changed everything. There are those in society – the ones with the power – who believe we simply can’t afford to waste any more women of childbearing age in the fight.

I bucked the trend. Because I’ve never stopped fighting. Anyone who knows me says one thing about me – I have something to prove. What that thing is, nobody knows. Hell, I don’t know, either. I’ve always just felt… pushed. Thrown into the fight by some force beyond me, some force I’ve never understood but can’t push away.

“One minute,” the lieutenant says, jaw clenched, eyes drawing wide.

Dark, fearful anticipation swells through the transport like a hurricane about to hit shore.

Now the buzzing in the air is almost unbearable. There’s nothing that can shield it. No amount of technology that can dampen it out. You could be in a thick lead box, but that godawful buzzing would still creep its way in.

The sound of the multiverse – that’s what the scientists call it. The beginning of the end – that’s what the grunts call it.

What do I call it?

… The beyond.

I feel it again – that preternatural sense. My eyes suddenly widen, my body tenses, and I wait.

One second, then another.

I lock my gaze on the computer screen by the door.

The transport powers over the rails. But suddenly – in a mere 100 meters – the rails give out. They drop away. Into nothingness. Into a void.

Because there’s an enormous black crackling ball in their way. It obscures a region of approximately 5 km² in the lower districts of the city. According to initial reports, the void has already torn through 80 building complexes.

80. I shudder to think of how many lives that was. No one else aboard would care. Or if they did pause to think of all the souls that had been sucked into the dimensional rift, they’d banish the thought in a hurry.

It didn’t take long from when the void appeared to society’s morals changing. In the beginning, it was about saving everybody. But when it became clear Gordana simply didn’t have the technology and resources to fight this war, the sanctity of life became the first real casualty.

Soldiers just don’t care anymore. They’ve seen it too many times. Too many people have been consumed by the monsters who live beyond the rift. And if you’re exposed to defeat on a daily basis – to loss, to death – the mind just starts to tune it out. What’s another body? Especially if it’s no one who’ll be missed. Losing a menial worker from the lower realms is nothing compared to losing a senior scientist from the towers that rise high above the city. If Gordana is to have any hope of surviving the war, it’s with those scientists.

“Contact,” the lieutenant spits.

I watch with wide eyes as the transport punches into the black void. I see it on the screen first – the view of our ship simply disappearing – practically throwing itself off the edge of a cliff.

Then I feel it. All around me. That dark, crackling, eddying power.

Everyone reacts to it differently. The soldier beside me begins to clamp his teeth together. The soldier on my other side shakes his head, jitters back and forth, legs jumping up and down as he hits his open, sweaty palms on his knees.

Me – I barely react at all. Or at least not visibly.

Over the years I’ve learned to internalize everything. Make no movements. No expressions. Say nothing.

Keep a completely cold, unreadable expression.

And I do. I’m the only soldier aboard the entire transport who doesn’t react to the energy snaking through the air.

Charges of electricity begin to discharge along the sides of the railing and down the walls. A few soldiers jerk back, trying to get away from them – the older ones, the ones who’ve been through this before, barely bother to move at all.

Though those crackles of dark, pulsing energy sink deep into your bones and set your teeth jittering in your skull, they can’t kill you.

There’s plenty that can kill you, though – but that stuff’s in the heart of the void.

“Contact,” the lieutenant suddenly roars.

I feel something slam into the side of the transport. It’s so strong, so goddamn violent it feels as if the metal casing will be ripped in half.

I jerk my head to the side, my gaze slicing up half a meter above my head. I see claws protruding through the metal, parting the inch-thick steel with all the ease of a finger poking through a clean sheet of paper.

“Move,” the lieutenant says.

Suddenly there’s a scream from outside. So powerful, so deadly. It’s like nothing else that exists on Gordana. It seems to shake through not just the floor and my bones, but pierce deep into my mind, too.

Suddenly the door on the opposite side of the transport opens. It’s every man for himself as every soldier rushes toward it, bodies packing through the doorway like sardines being chased into a net.

I hang back. Though another pulse of terror rips through my heart as I see that protruding claw curl against the metal, I go for my gun – not the door.

The claw is suddenly yanked back, and it pulls off a massive section of the transport wall.

Enough that I get a perfect view of a massive eye suddenly pushes close to the hole. I see it blinking. See its energy-covered skin. It crackles with green pulses – deep bursts of power that rise over its glistening eyeball then sink deep into the charcoal-black skin around it.

I take a single second to stare into that eye before I yank my gun up and start firing. Not at the eye, mind you – at the claw.

After a few mad blasts, I finally manage to obliterate a chunk off the claw. It sails past me and slams into the floor, gouging through the metal, several charges of electricity escaping everywhere and charging up my boots.

I grit my teeth and keep firing as I strafe backward. Finally I reach the door and I pitch outside, falling down to the cracked street below, rolling and punching to my feet.

All of the other soldiers have already fled the transport, pushing into the broken remnants of this section of the city, desperately trying to find cover.

There’s no point.

There’s nowhere safe from these fiends. You could find some overturned hover car and press your back against it, hoping the bigger ones wouldn’t see you, but the smaller ones – they can appear and disappear at will. The bigger ones will just distract you, and the smaller ones will creep up from behind, and… you’ll be dead in seconds. A screaming puddle of blood.

I’ve seen it too many times now.

So I don’t push backward toward the tempting cover of a half-destroyed metal wall.

Instead, I grit my teeth, sling my pulse gun over my shoulder, and surge forward like a wave from a tsunami.

Though I concentrate fire on the massive birdlike creature that’s torn through the transport, I know I can’t get too close. Get too close, and not only will its claws rip through me with all the ease of a finger pushing through hot butter, but it will be able to use its neural blocking technique. If you dare touch its body – if you dare expose yourself to too much of that green, crackling energy – it will shut you down. You’ll become a dribbling, twitching mess on the broken city street. And seconds later, the monsters will tear through you.

The lieutenant valiantly tries to give orders, but there’s little point.

This battle is too frantic, too goddamn messy.

As I twist my head to the side, rolling to my feet and dodging one of the small creatures as they appear right next to me, I see the blood and body remains. Already several soldiers have been ripped apart. That’s no overemphasis.

These monsters are so powerful they can tear you to shreds and spit you back out again.

I’ve never been to this particular section of the lower city. It doesn’t matter. They are all the same. Dingy, broken, cobbled-together with whatever resources the unlucky, hapless inhabitants can find.

That doesn’t change the details, though. Those striking details I’ll never be able to push from my mind when I settle down to sleep at night. The half broken dolls made from scraps of fabric, metal, and wood. The unfinished meals. The straps of blood soaked clothes.

Lives. Details of people’s lives. Lives that have been taken away by the rift and its monsters.

I clench my teeth as a bitter swell of emotion washes over me. It has just enough violent force to see me vault over the smoking remains of a broken hover car. One of the green half ghosts appears below me, a massive mouth forming and stretching toward my leg.

I’m wearing a few sections of armor. The fact is, I’m not important enough to be worth wasting a full set of mechanical plating on. Still, my boots and shins are protected by insulated plating. Meaning I can kick that half ghost with impunity and not fear that its green, crackling energy will turn me into a vegetable.

So I do. I spin around, catch it on the underside of its gaping open mouth, and send it spinning backward across the cracked street.

I yank up my gun, bare my teeth, and shoot it three times, three powerful hot blasts of energy snaking from my pulse rifle and slamming into its jittering form.

As soon as I’m done, it twitches, once, twice, then three times. Then finally it disappears in a halo of sparks that sink into the street and smell like burnt hair.

I barely glance at it as I swivel my attention back to the massive bird.

Whenever a void opens up there will always be one key monster you’ll have to take down if you have any hope of ending the infection.

This time I guess it’s the birdlike creature. It’s a class I’ve fought before. Class III, to be exact. Nasty big bastards who take a hell of a lot of coordinated fire to take down. Unless you’re lucky enough to have one of the light callers, that is. A super specialized group amongst the Gordana Security Forces who can summon the light sentinels.

And the light sentinels… I always shiver whenever I so much as think about them, let alone see them.

They are these amazing beings made of pure, dancing light. I can barely describe them. They look like glowing outlines that surge with power like blasts of a lightning storm seen from space.

There is one thing, however, that I can describe. Their abilities. They are possessed with such power it’s almost impossible to comprehend. Some of them have control over elements, like ice, fire, lightning even. Others shift the very ground. Just thinking about it sends shivers snaking down my spine and sinking hard into the base of my back.

If we had even one light sentinel here right now, it would destroy that Class III ghost in seconds. No one would have to lose their lives. And if there was anyone left alive down here – any citizens – they’d have a fighting chance of surviving.

The reality is, however, that the higher-ups would never bother wasting a light sentinel down here.

They are kept solely for the defense of the higher-ups – those who live in the upper echelons of the towers. The scientists. The politicians. The dignitaries. The people who keep promising that if only everyone sacrifices a little more, they will finally be able to close the rift and buy back peace.

Suddenly there’s a massive downdraught of air that pushes my red hair hard over my face and almost drives me to my knees.

I hear the flapping of wings.

I see the shadow, too. It darts above me, shifting closer, growing larger.

I scream as I shove hard to the side, roll, and thrust toward an open manhole to my left.

My heart almost punches open as I feel claws stretch toward my back. I’ll be dead before they puncture my skin – their green energy will rip through me and fry my brain.

I scream once more as I finally – somehow – reach the manhole.

I fall down.

It’s a good ten meters down to the floor, but somehow I twist and clutch hold of a metal ladder just in time. It wrenches my arm badly and another scream splits from my lips, but I don’t smash my skull on the ground below.

… The ground.

As I jerk my head down, I see it.

And it’s seething. Absolutely goddamn seething with green, pulsing energy. It looks as if I’ve climbed inside somebody’s brain and am witnessing the electric potential slam across their neurons.

I hang there, one sweat-laced hand gripped on the rungs as my wide, desperate gaze locks on the floor below.

I hear the screams from above. The shakes, too. The street above appears to pitch as something massive lands on it with a resounding, ear-splitting thump.

The ladder I was holding suddenly wrenches free of the wall. It tilts backward.

“Bastard,” I scream. Just before the ladder can pitch all the way back and slam me against the green, seething floor, I see a lip of concrete to my left. I jump toward it, fingers scrabbling into the dent and holding on for dear life as my face slams into the cold, dank wall.

Immediately I bring my other hand up, latch my fingers into the same hole, then lock my feet on the wall for purchase.

I begin to dart my head to the left and right as I desperately look for a way up or down.

Though it could be safe to jump to the ground from here, I’m not an idiot. If I jump into that green, seething liquid, it will climb over my body and completely disintegrate me.

I hear what sounds like hell above.

Pitching screams from the other soldiers as presumably the category III bird rips into them.

… No, that doesn’t sound right. It sounds far more violent, far more dangerous. As my eyes boggle in my skull, I realize it has to be a different kind of monster. Something even more dangerous.

“Shit,” I have time to scream before something else slams into the city street above me.

I see a blast of green energy so bright it shines down the open manhole, and I have to push my face against the wall to protect my eyes.

Slowly the flash ends, giving way to stars flashing through my vision.

The screaming ebbs, too. No, it stops abruptly.

As my ears ring and I push all my attention into my hearing, I wait to hear screams, shouts – something, anything to tell me the rest of my team is still alive.

… Nothing.

Good God… they’re all dead.

There were 25 men including me on that transport. And as I hang there against the wall, I realize I’m the last one standing.

The higher-ups obviously underestimated the infection. Another team wasted.

Though bitter tears touch my cheeks, I push them back as I continue to look for a way to get out of here.

I no longer have any intention of pushing up to the city streets above – I’m not that stupid. As soon as I lift my head through that manhole, it will be torn off.

No, it’s best to stay down here. Smartest, too. For as I tilt my head as far as I can to the left, I swear I see a black pulse of energy.

… The point.

All infections have a point. A central position from which the void formed and ripped itself from interdimensional space.

If you find that point and pack it with enough explosives, you can blow it closed.

On my back is a wireless controlled remote detonation pack. All the soldiers aboard the transport were given one. Our primary remit had been to come down here, fight back the monsters, and find the point.

I banish the last of my bitter tears.

I lock my gaze on that black point.

My pulse rifle is still slung over my shoulder. Though it’s dangerous, I lock one hand against the hole in the wall, push against the wall with my feet, and somehow find the strength to reach a hand down and clutch my gun.

It’s truly awkward, but I don’t have any other option.

Gritting my teeth so tightly it feels as if I’ll grind them to dust, I finally bring up the gun, push it into my hip for stability, and fire at the wall just a meter across from me.

My first shot glances off, pings against the ceiling, and sinks into the concrete.

I swear, spittle flying from my lips and splashing against the dank wall.

Then I fire again, and this time it works. The bullet manages to gouge a hole large enough for me to stick my fingers into.

I settle the gun back on its strap, then time a jump. Pushing into the wall, I manage to leap off and use all my strength to reach and grab the still steaming hole I shot in the wall. Fortunately my fingers are protected with rudimentary armor, so the skin doesn’t bubble and peel off.

In similar, desperate fashion, I manage to shoot my way across the wall, like a goddamn crazed rock climber.

I always keep my attention locked on the point, and never on the devastating screams of the monsters above.

Occasionally I hear cracks – and there’s only one thing they can be. Those monsters tearing through the remains of my team.

I keep my teeth gritted, my lips pared back. I hiss each breath through my clenched jaw.

And I concentrate.

Until finally, finally I reach it.

The point is just a meter behind me. With my fingers still pressed into the hole in the wall, I arch my neck around until I stare at it in full.

… It pulses. In an out, in and out, like a beating heart or a breathing set of lungs. It’s mesmerizing, and several seconds pass as I simply stare at it. Then I shake my head, clench my teeth, and reach a hand around to the remote detonation pack on my back.

I might be the only female on my team, and one of the only women in the Gordana Combat Forces, but I’ve earned my stripes. A deadly reputation, too.

I often succeed where others fail. I can’t count the number of times I’ve outlived my male counterparts.

I outlived them, not because I was lucky, not because I shrunk away from battle, but because I never goddamn gave up. The anger pulsing in my soul can’t be quenched. Ever since the rift opened up and the planet was plunged into a soulless war, I’ve always known that I will be the one to end this.

Don’t ask me how – it makes no sense. I’m just one woman. But as I time the throw and finally lob my explosive pack at that black point, that conclusion rings in my mind once more.

I feel as if I’ve been born for this. Picked. Chosen, somehow. As if some force far larger and more important than me has spied me in the crowd and decided that I alone will make a difference.

I can’t push away that thought as I watch my explosive pack fall just underneath that black point.

I could detonate it right here and now, but it will take me and the rest of the tunnel with it.

Instead, I shoot one last hole in the wall, jump toward it, and finally reach a section of floor that isn’t writhing with green energy.

I jump down, boots thumping against the resonating concrete.

Then I take several steps back, gaze locked on that black point.

There’s so much flickering, reflected green light in this tunnel that I know it dances over my face, up my drab gray armor, and pools under my dark gaze.

I turn hard on my boot and run.

As soon as I’m far enough away, I bring up my wrist. Clamped around it is the remote detonation unit.

I don’t hesitate this time.

I press it.

I fall down to my knees, wrap my hands around my head, and ride out the explosion.

It punches and rocks through the tunnel, the ceiling above half giving way and massive chunks of stone hailing down all around me. I have to dodge to the left as a huge section of metal pipe comes loose from some recess above and smashes to my side.

I kick it at the last moment, ensuring it doesn’t lob off my shoulder, and I roll back, punch to my feet, and push forward.

… I’ve always had this uncanny ability to dodge things. No, I can’t see the future. But… I just know when something is slicing toward me, can feel just before the floor gives way or something lurches to my side.

In similar fashion, I power down the tunnel, riding out the quake until finally everything begins to settle.

And it stops. Abruptly. The humming. The crackling in the air. It just ends. You never get used to it. Never. It isn’t pushed to the background of your mind whenever you enter a rift – it’s always front and center. It’s one of the reasons that very few soldiers can adapt to fighting it. There’s never any letdown. Never any peace, just that goddamn ringing.

I bring a hand up, settle it over my face for a few short seconds, let a harsh breath through my lips, then finally I move on.

I bring up my communication unit – which is strapped to my other wrist – and begin typing into it. I hiss through my teeth when I realize I’m in a communication dark spot, and it can’t connect to central command. I’ll have to find a way out of the tunnels first.

I slide into a strange kind of reverie as I continue to walk forward, looking for another manhole above.

… I can feel it again. Rushing down my back, prickling over my shoulders, building in my chest. That expectation, that ever-growing, unquestionable belief that something is about to happen.

I stop and stare over my shoulder several times, quick gaze darting to the left and right as I search the tunnel.

… I swear someone’s watching me. But the rift is destroyed, so it can’t be the half ghosts. I push that thought from my mind and continue on until finally I find a ladder leading up to a thankfully open manhole.

I push up it quickly and reach the broken street outside.

Immediately I tip my head back and stare at the sky. Not the broken, blood covered streets. Not the smashed hover cars, not the obliterated houses. The sky.

Because I can see it again. It isn’t some black, crackling mess cut off from the rest of reality – it’s there. It’s a pleasantly warm midsummer night. If I squint and stare past the light pollution of the towers above, I can almost fool myself into thinking I see stars.

“Where the hell did you come from?” someone snaps from behind me.

Though I’m not expecting the sudden voice, I don’t jolt.

I turn smoothly and stare at the guy. He isn’t from my team – he’s from a far more important unit. You can tell that from two facts – the sneer crumpling his lips and his blue and white armor. “Where’s the rest of your team?” he snaps.

“I imagine they’re dead,” I say point-blank. Then I drop my gaze and look at his sophisticated arc weapon. “You can lower your gun – I’ve destroyed the point. The infection is over.”

He keeps sneering. “Am I supposed to take your word for that?”

I tilt my head to the side and shoot him a dark look, though I’m sure not to make it too resentful. This guy is far more important than I am, and, importantly, can get me kicked off the combat forces with a single comment to my superior. Still, I can’t hide my irritation as I pull my lips back into a sneer. I also bring a hand up and point to the sky. “You can see the stars, asshole – the rift has been closed. I blocked the point with my explosive pack.”

The guy takes a threatening step toward me.

That’s when I hear footfall from behind. Slow, methodical. It isn’t hurried, and yet it somehow gives you the impression that it can get anywhere it wants to go real fast.

So that’s how I know it’s him.

My ex.

It’s also the sense that climbs my back. That deep, niggling irritation I get whenever he’s around. Don’t ask me how, but I just know whenever he locks his godawful judgmental gaze on the back of my neck.

So I frown as I turn.

And there he is.

Jason Everett. Commander of one of the light force units.

Maybe I turn too quickly – because at first, he looks at me with surprise. A second later, however, he locks that same judgmental look back on his face. “It’s you,” he says.

I have no idea how I’m meant to answer that. Yes, of course it’s fucking me.

He walks past me, close, maybe too close – maybe so close because he wants me to see his exact expression. His eyes are narrowed, his brow pressed low, and his lips are nothing more than a thin disapproving line.

Though I don’t want it to affect me, my stomach kicks, and that just makes me all the angrier.

I can’t believe I ever fell for a man like Jason Everett. But what’s worse – what’s just goddamn unforgivable – is that I never understood how a man like Jason Everett ever fell for somebody like me.

I’m not pretty.

I don’t have time to look after myself beyond my athletic figure. What’s worse, is I know I have a battering ram personality.

The day I locked eyes on Jason Everett, I figured I knew exactly the kind of woman he was interested in. Pretty. Kind. Almost princess like in their sheer bubbling innocence.

In other words, exactly like my sister. Melody is stunning. Shining blond hair, pearl-like skin, and a smile that can light up even the depths of space.

Suffice to say, Jason and I could never have worked. It was an explosive combination that hadn’t taken long to ignite.

Then the war came. And now he’s a commander in the Gordana Security Forces, and I’m nothing more than cannon fodder.

Jason walks all the way around until he stands next to the other soldier. He brings up some kind of device on his wrist and checks it, then mutters something to the soldier. The both of them turn their heads up and look at the sky.

The whole time I become angrier and angrier. Just before I can snap at Jason that the threat is fricking over already, he finally swivels his gaze down to me.

There – it happens again – right in the center of my gut it feels like a small fire ignites. I clench my teeth together and try to drive it out with all my might.

“The rest of your team is dead,” Jason says point-blank. “How did you survive, and how did you end the infection? I mean, I assume that was you who destroyed the point,” he says.

His tone is unreadable. Blank, just like his expression.

If there’s one thing more annoying than anything else about Jason goddamn Everett, it’s the fact he can seemingly switch his personality in under a second. He can go from looking at you like you’re the greatest disappointment to ever share his bed, to turning some professional switch in his brain and treating you like nothing more than a soldier under his command.

I take several seconds to answer. I look at him. I have to be even more careful with Jason than I have to be with the other soldier. If I follow the feeling swelling in my heart, I won’t just swear at the prick, I’ll reach for my gun.

I concentrate all of my deadly vibes into my gaze. I pare back my thin, white lips, “Yes, I figured out the rest of my team was dead. And yes, I destroyed the point.”

“Where is it?” he asks, that frigging professional tone never wavering.

I clench a hand into a fist.

I watch his gaze dart down and lock on it. “Where is it?” he asks once more, a demanding note ringing through his tone.

I bring a thumb up and point over my shoulder. “It was down in the tunnels.”

“Wasn’t it protected by a green wall?”

A green wall is a rather simplistic term for that bed of energy that surrounded the point.

I nod.

“How did you get around it? And more to the point, how did you find it?” Jason asks.

The other guy with him snorts. He flicks his judgmental gaze onto me. Even gives me the once over, not that there’s any way you can see my figure under my armor.

I make a show of tilting my head to the side and following the guy’s gaze until finally he brings his sneering eyes up and locks them on my face. “From the look of you, you ran away, didn’t you? Found the point by accident, ha? Or did one of the other guys destroy it and you’re taking the credit?”

I clench my teeth, round both hands into fists, and take a very deliberate and very threatening step forward.

Immediately Jason walks between us and spreads an arm toward me. He shoots me one hell of a pointed look. “Tell me,” he demands.

Though it’s agonizing, I tear my gaze off that creep and lock it on Jason.

He’s closer now. And staring up into his face… it’s easy to remember when we were together. Jason Everett isn’t your classic manly man, though he has a figure to match. A wall of muscle. And that isn’t anything to mention his arms.

He isn’t a manly man, though, because he isn’t insecure. I’ve been with a lot of other guys since who can’t stand the fact I’m one of the best-rated soldiers in the combat cores.

It doesn’t bother Jason that I can often run faster than him, and probably have more scores on my tally. What Jason Everett hates about me is I don’t know when to quit. He told me point blank before breaking up with me that he didn’t want a girlfriend who was just looking for a reason to die.

Well he’s wrong. I’m not looking for a reason to die – I’m looking for a reason to live. I keep throwing myself into dangerous situations because… because… because I’m looking for something. Because deep down in my soul I can’t turn away. Try explaining that to the stiff-jawed Jason Everett, and he’ll just lock you in another one of his deadly, penetrating gazes.

“How did you find it?” he repeats once more, voice slow and direct, making it clear he isn’t going to give this order again.

“One of those level III birds landed behind me and went to grab me – I managed to push myself through an open manhole just in time. I fell down and saw the green liquid covering the tunnel floor. The ladder I was on broke, and I managed to clutch hold of a hole in the wall. Then… I heard thumps from above,” I clench my teeth, and there’s nothing I can do to unlock them as the memory of the chaos floods back in, “then the screams, then they cut out. I figured the rest of my team had been killed.” I drop my gaze. “Then I saw it – the point.”

“How did you get to it?”

Though I’m trying to tell myself it’s all in my head – I swear I can hear just a hint of compassion filtering through his tone.

I jerk my gaze up, but unsurprisingly I just see his hard blue eyes staring back.

“I shot holes in the wall. Jumped to them. Like a rock climber. I reached the point, chucked my detonation pack at it, finally got past the green liquid, then blew that goddamn thing up. And now I’m here. Talking to you.”

The other guy snorts, and his brow stretches with a disbelieving look. “You expect us to believe you shot holes in the wall and jumped between them? I mean what the—”

Jason brings up a hand, he flicks it across his nose, and he stares at me. “Was your cam on?”

This time I really can’t hold back the sneer that flattens my lips.

It’s one thing for that creep not to believe me – another thing for Jason to second-guess me. Sure, I am his ex, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t trust me on this.

To his credit, he holds my deadly gaze as I wrap a hand around the cam collar that’s locked against my neck and pull it off. I throw it to him.

He catches it, swipes his thumb over it, and begins to upload the footage to the device on his wrist.

I can do nothing but watch him.

His expression doesn’t change as he watches the footage, not even a micron. There he is, watching me bust a gut jumping from goddamn holes in the wall, and he looks as if he’s watching nothing more impressive or noteworthy than a cloud scooting across the sky.

Finally, he finishes and throws me back the collar. “Good job,” he says.

Then he smoothly turns around before I can see his expression.

An expletive readies on my lips, but I never get a chance to say it.

For at that exact moment I feel something touch down behind me.

I turn.

And I face a light sentinel.

It’s right in front of me.

Massive. Amazing.

A being made out of light.

This one has the form of a bird. With huge, almost angelic-like wings and a massive bird-like face, it looks like some kind of tribal god.

The thing faces me, and I don’t turn away.

I can’t.

You aren’t meant to stare at light sentinels; you’re not even meant to face them. Especially not some lowly grunt like me.

But as it looks into my gaze and I look into its… it feels like the universe opens up. That preternatural ability I have that tells me what will happen next grows and grows. I can feel some conclusion forming in my mind – some allusive thought—

Suddenly a hand rests on my shoulder and pulls me back. Slowly. Carefully.

I jerk my head around to see Jason.

He doesn’t look at me; he keeps staring warily at the light sentinel out of the corner of his eye.

It isn’t until he drags me back several meters that he cracks open his lips and starts to hiss, “Are you trying to get yourself killed? You can’t look them in the eye. You a goddamn newbie?”

Anger explodes through my heart, and I jerk my lips open to scream at Jason.

But just in time reason takes hold. Not only is he my superior, but he’s right. You aren’t meant to stare a light sentinel in the eye. Not only can they turn against you, but get too close – and touch it – and you’ll be dead before you hit the ground.

They do something to you. Spread you thin. Smear you across reality like a painter taking a daub of color and mixing it into the background.

There’s only one person who can touch a light sentinel – their joined.

Light sentinels bind to only one human. A human who can, theoretically, control the light sentinel’s abilities.

Theoretically. It doesn’t always work. The bond between the light sentinel and the human is a delicate one. Only the strongest bonds allow a joined human full access to the light sentinel’s abilities. And if the bond isn’t strong enough, the light sentinel can turn.

Not enough is understood about light sentinels, let alone where they came from or how their mysterious abilities work.

Still, Jason is right – I almost made a rookie mistake.

And yet, even now I can barely pull myself away.

There’s just something—

Suddenly a soldier comes running up from somewhere. From the white-silver armor it’s clear who the guy is – this light sentinel’s joined.

He’s handsome in every respect – almost perfect looking. He has a chiseled jaw, startling blue eyes, and a runner’s body.

And yet his expression is just as dismissive as the creep’s behind me.

He shoots me a challenging look, obviously having seen how close I was to his joined.

He wrenches that look off me and locks it on Jason. “I got here just in time – where’s the infection?”

Just in time? You only need half a brain to figure out the infection has already been cured. Though I dearly want to point that out to this idiot, I hold my tongue.

Instead, my gaze is inevitably drawn back to the light sentinel.

… I… just can’t describe this feeling.

“The battle’s over.” Jason nods down low.

“Already?” The joined looks surprised. “They called me in saying we had three level IV category monsters. I got here as fast as I could. How’d you end things so fast?”

“We found the point. It’s been closed,” Jason says in that same goddamn professional tone.

We found the point?

Again I have no option but to hold my goddamn tongue.

It doesn’t take long from that point on for the rest of the troops to disband. An unlucky few are tasked with going house-to-house looking for survivors.

There won’t be any. Or if there are any, they’ll never be the same again. You don’t live through an experience like this and get to keep your personality unblemished.

As Jason continues to wrap up details with the joined and the rest of his unit, I walk away.

I get half a block before Jason catches up with me. “Planning on walking all the way back to the upper level?” he asks. Though I can tell he’s trying to keep his tone even, it’s about as flat as my EEG would be right now.

It takes me a second to settle the anger pushing through my gut. I turn and face him. “Yes, I’m gonna walk back to the upper level. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my transport got trashed.”

“Too humble to ask for a ride?” Again, you can tell he’s trying to keep his tone even, but this time it rocks even worse than before. His expression cracks, too.

I’ve told myself over the years that Jason Everett never had to try too hard to get over me. The second he kicked me to the curb would have been the second he banished me from his thoughts.

Now… I’m not so sure.

It seems I still have an ability to affect dear old Jason. Or at least an unrivaled ability to make him angry.

When I don’t reply, he takes a stiff step toward me. “You’ve never been able to ask for help, have you, Ami?” There’s a real bitter note to his voice. I’d be a fool not to pick it up.

I say nothing. I know if I so much as open my lips, I’ll start swearing.

Instead I turn and start walking away.

He doesn’t say anything for a few seconds, then he lets out a low frustrated chuckle. “It’ll be a hell of a long walk up to the upper levels. But you like doing everything the hard way, don’t you, Ami?” With that, I hear him turn away.

My gut clenches, sweat slicks down my shoulders, and my heart rams around my chest like a bear trapped in a cage.

But I don’t look back. Not once.

Not for him. Not ever.

Chapter 2

Ami

I wake up to a slice of bright sunshine streaming into my bedroom. I push up, gather my fringe, slip it behind my ear, and glance at the sky.

You can only see the smallest slice of it from my room.

My apartment is down on one of the middle lower levels. If you twist your head to just the right angle, you can see past the massive towers beyond and catch a glimpse of that startling blue sky.

I take a few seconds – almost a minute – to just sit there and stare at it, then I groan as my alarm beeps from across the room.

I push out of bed, the sheets slipping from my naked body as I crunch down to my knees, grab up a pair of shorts and a top, and cram them on.

Sweat already slicks my brow and runs between my shoulders, even though it’s only six in the morning.

It’s midsummer, and the lower levels always heat up like a goddamn furnace.

I scratch at my shoulders as I walk through my small apartment. I heave open the fridge door, grab out a premade meal, and walk outside to my balcony.

I’m lucky to have a balcony. Few do. Then again, few would consider what I have to be a balcony. It’s nothing more than a tiny, half-a-meter squared scrap of metal. But if you’re nimble, and you can climb, you can use it to get to a much larger metal service duct beyond.

I cram my pre-made meal into my mouth, holding onto it with my teeth as I push up, vault on top of the rails, and clamber to the service duct above.

The thing clangs as I lie down on it. From here, I really can see the sky. This service duct runs between buildings, and above there’s a completely unrestricted view of the heavens.

Still on my back and the packet still in my mouth, I rip it open with my teeth, place the plastic box on my chest, and begin to dig at it with my fingers, cramming the food into my mouth and pushing my head up just enough so I don’t choke.

I make it a point to look at the sky whenever I can, no matter how inconvenient it sometimes is. The sky… it reminds me there’s more out there. It reminds me of the dreams my people once had.

Before the rift opened up, we’d been on the brink of true interstellar travel. In fact, I’d been pipped as a promising candidate for one of the astronaut programs.

It had been my dream to travel the heavens.

A dream that will now never happen.

I don’t let the bitterness climbing through my throat completely ruin the taste of my meal. It’s there though, of course it’s bloody there.

My life had been….

“Ignore it,” I suddenly warn myself in a guttural tone, cramming some food in my mouth to distract myself.

I don’t get long to enjoy my breakfast.

A few minutes later, I hear the scrape of keys at my front door.

Though my front door is several rooms away, and by all rights I shouldn’t hear it out here on this service duct, I still can.

I push up and jump down, landing on my small balcony below with a resounding thump.

I walk into my kitchen just as I see two figures push into my house.

One’s welcome – one’s my sister. The other can go to hell.

It’s Jason.

I watch his expression start out as even but defensive.

Then he locks his eyes on what I’m wearing. Or what I’m not. I could be making it up, but I’m damn certain his gaze lingers on my figure.

I clear my throat.

He straightens up.

I lean against the kitchen door, a pleasant if small breeze shifting in from the open balcony behind me and ruffling my loose shorts and shirt.

My sister gives an uncomfortable squeak. “Sorry, I wouldn’t have let myself in if I’d known you weren’t… ready to receive guests,” she says politely.

I snort as I shift past, pull two drinks from the fridge, and set them down on the table. “It’s nothing he hasn’t seen before,” I comment under my breath. As I do, I flash my gaze to the side to see his reaction.

Suffice to say, it’s satisfying.

I watch him stiffen, watch that strong back of his become real hard and that equally strong jaw of his tense like a fist.

He clears his throat.

I reach over, grab one of the drinks I settled on the table, open it, and hand it to my sister. Then I lean back, cross my arms, and push my back against the fridge. I deliberately lock my gaze on Jason. “Any reason you’re here this early, Commander?” I emphasize the word with a barely concealed snarl. I dearly want to add if there’s any reason he’s here at all. After all, it isn’t as if he’s welcome.

“Oh, he was outside. I let him in,” my sister says.

I lift an eyebrow. “You were outside my apartment? Were you lost?”

I didn’t think that jaw of his could become harder. I was wrong. Now it looks as if it’s been chiseled from steel. “You have a summons.”

“A summons?” Suddenly my tone changes. It loses its hard, almost nasty edge. I even have to stop myself from gulping.

It’s Jason’s turn to look satisfied. But just as soon as that satisfaction twinkles in his gaze, it stops. Abruptly. I could be wrong, but he almost looks sorry for me.

My stomach kicks. “What’s this about? Why am I being summoned?”

“Because of what you did yesterday.”

I could snort and remind him I single handedly stopped an infection. I don’t.

An uneasy feeling picks through my stomach.

He watches me. Then he drops his gaze and looks at his feet. “It was the incident with that light sentinel. The joined made a complaint.”

I clench my teeth together and squeeze my eyes closed for half a second.

“Will she be okay?” my sister asks automatically. There’s undeniable fear twisting through her tone. My sister has always stood by my side. It doesn’t matter what I do. Doesn’t matter what awful mistakes I make – she’s always there.

Jason looks at me seriously. “That depends on what she does next. It depends on whether she can keep her mouth shut during the hearing and accept her punishment gracefully.” I can’t be sure, but it feels as if his tone twists on that word.

It twists in my gut, too. Yeah, I’ve never been pretty, never been anything special to look at. But is now really the time to bring it up?

“Why did you come here—” I begin, curling my hands into fists.

“Thanks so much for coming to tell us in person,” my sister interrupts smoothly. “I’ll do what I can to help her out.”

Jason swivels his gaze to my sister. “There’s nothing you can d—”

Melody smiles. And her smile could light up even the darkest night. “You underestimate me, Commander Everett— if anyone can pull my sister into shape, it’s me. First things first,” she turns her attention to me, “get in the shower. And brush your hair. And what are you wearing?”

“Something I picked up off the floor,” I say seriously as I clamp my arms around my middle.

“Now that’s done, I’m leaving,” Jason says.

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” I comment.

“Ami,” Melody reprimands me immediately, “he came here to warn you. The least you could do is say thank you.”

Jason pauses at the door, locking one of his large hands on it and twisting his head until he stares at me directly. He’s clearly waiting for that promised thank you.

Well he can wait forever. “Goodbye, Commander,” I say pointedly.

He opens the door and walks out.

Immediately Melody turns on me. “What the hell was that?”

“You really want to know? That’s how a normal person acts when their ex shows up out of the blue in the middle of the goddamn morning.”

“He came here to warn you,” Melody says through clenched teeth, clearly exasperated, her golden locks jerking around her face. “He came to give you a chance. You’re the one who keeps telling us that staying in the combat cores is all that matters to you. He knows that. And that’s why he came here in person, so you have some time to get your act together before you face the inquiry.”

“Face the inquiry? All I did was—” I clench my teeth.

“Just get in the shower. Oh, and if you see Jason again, for god’s sake, say thank you.”

I flash Melody a serious look. “There’s no goddamn way that is ever going to happen,” I say, but my voice is becoming weak.

Though I desperately want to ignore her, I can’t.

She’s right. Jason’s right, goddamn him.

If I want to have any chance of staying in the combat cores, I have to spruce up, swallow my pride, and gracefully accept my punishment, as Jason put it.

I throw off my clothes, get in the shower, clamp both hands on the metal wall, and grind my teeth together. Over and over again. It’s what I always do when I’m stressed. It’s a surprise I haven’t ground my teeth to dust and gotten a set of dentures yet.

My long red hair tapers down my back, sending rivulets of water running down my body. The showerhead barely gives off a trickle. Why waste water on a grunt like me, ha?

When I’m washed sufficiently, I dry my hair, dress in a towel, and go out to find my sister lining up a dress uniform on the table.

Melody crosses her arms and ticks her head to the side. “A little makeup wouldn’t hurt.”

I snort. “I’m a soldier, Melody, not a model.”

“All I’m saying is that it wouldn’t hurt to look respectable.”

“Just give me my uniform,” I say as I snatch it off her.

She gives me a disapproving look and an even dirtier one when I drop my towel and cram my clothes on. My hair isn’t completely dry, and a few wet strands stain my once pristine uniform.

She scoots over to me, plucks up my hair, and tuts. Still, there’s a smile on her face.

Soon that smile grows too much for me. “What? What’s so funny?”

“Funny? Nothing. Interesting – that’s the question you should ask. What’s interesting?”

“Ah, sorry – I’m not following.”

“Ask me what’s interesting,” Melody demands.

I narrow my eyes. “What’s interesting?” It’s never a good sign when Melody gets into a mood like this.

She finishes fixing my hair, takes a step back, and bites her lips. “That he’s still interested in you, even after all these years.”

I push away from her, locking her with a dark look. “If you’re talking about Jason goddamn Everett, then stop. That prick is not interested in me; he’s just doing what he thinks is right. Because he always does what he thinks is right.”

“You’re saying that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It is. Because nobody in this world ever measures up.” I really can’t keep the bitterness out of my tone now.

I’m nothing but a disappointment to the good Commander. And that will never change.

Chapter 3

Commander Jason Everett

I shouldn’t have gone there. Christ, why the hell did I go there? Some part of me – the idiot who can’t get his head out of the past – figured I owed it to her. It isn’t just the goddamn near impossible mission she pulled off last night; it’s everything. Though I would never tell her this, she’s considered one of the best soldiers at her level. At least in terms of her skill.

But it takes more than skill to be a successful soldier, especially these days.

I’m one of a rare breed – I was in the army before the rift opened up, so I know just how much the world has changed. Back then, back before those monsters pushed their way into our world, Gordana was a different place. Obsessed by progress, not survival. Now it feels as if we’ve abandoned every single one of our morals, all in a desperate, seemingly endless pursuit of an endgame. Anything – any way to end this brutal war once and for all.

“You’re a frigging idiot,” I mutter to myself under my breath, pushing out a hand, rounding it into a fist, and letting it drag along the rough metal wall beside me. It’s rare these days that I come down to the lower middle level. After all, I live on one of the upper levels. And what a different world it is. Clean, for one, well maintained, too. There’s a view as well. You don’t have to climb out onto an unstable service duct – like Ami does – to see the sky. Christ, it made me mad when we were still together to see her scramble over her scrap of a deck and vault up onto the service duct above. All for a slice of the sky thinner than your arm.

Hell, if I’m being honest with myself, I can admit that it still makes me angry. Because Ami Ming has never lost the ability to push my buttons in all the wrong, and right, ways.

I clench my teeth as I continue to walk, my hand still pressed into a fist.

“You’re an idiot for going there – what the hell did you expect would happen?” I continue to berate myself.

Ami can’t stand me. And fair enough – I broke up with her with no warning.

Why?

Though she’ll never admit it, Ami has hang ups. As you would if you had an adopted sister who looked like hers. Me, I’ve never compared Ami to Melody. In my mind, there’s never been cause for comparison. Back then – six years ago – before this insane war began, I’d never met a woman like Ami. Strong, defiant, blazing like a star. Back then, she’d been on the fast track for the space program. I’d been training too when they introduced me to Ami – a hopeful astronaut, just like me.

It had been instant. And electric. There’d just been something about her. But now I harden my jaw. I am well and truly over Ami, I tell myself firmly, because it can’t work.

You see, Ami has a fatal flaw, one that ruins every relationship except for the one with her sister.

Ami Ming doesn’t need anybody. Or at least, that’s the impression she gives you. Whenever you do something for her, go out of your way to warn her like I just did, protect her, or go out on a goddamn limb for her, she’ll always give you the impression she could have done it herself.

And there’s only so many times a guy like me can stand being pushed away.

Finally I let my hand uncurl and rest next to my leg.

I use all my might to push my mind off Ami and secure it on my myriad other problems instead.

More and more rifts are opening up higher and higher in the habitation towers. Not that the average citizen knows this, of course. The Gordana Government have such a stranglehold on the media they can and do cover up the destruction of whole habitat levels.

But there’s a real limit to how much they can keep lying about, how much they can sweep under the rug. The rift monsters are pushing in – further and further, every day.

Soon….

The communication device on my wrist suddenly beeps, and it’s such a surprise I jolt.

Taking a calming breath, I bring the device up to my mouth. “Commander Everett here.”

“Commander, get to the operations level. We’ve got another rift opening up,” a growling, heavy voice filters over the com line.

I make no attempt to hide the expletive that cracks from my lips. Pushing Ami goddamn Ming out of my mind, I run.

Chapter 4

Dr Melinda Howard, Primary Research Lab Alpha

They’ve been assessing the sample for weeks now. Every day it tries to adapt to the rudimentary shielding they managed to lock in place around it.

On many levels, it is fascinating. A true miracle of existence. It seems to possess an energy that simply defies the laws of physics.

On every other level, however, it is an abomination.

They originally captured the sample from a level V class monster in the hopes they could find a way to fight it. To find some weapon to gouge through its almost impenetrable armor.

Now they study it, piece by piece, splitting it apart, trying to find its secret. And yet, somehow, the remnants of the monster still attempts to fight them. You could see it twitch toward anyone who entered the room, see it try to build up a lethal charge with its physics-defying green energy. Its hunger for destroying human life is insatiable.

Its power is unstoppable, too. In fact, in all their experiments, there is still only one force that can combat it.

The light sentinels. Somehow the strange light energy they produce combats the monsters on the subatomic level. The two forms of light appear completely anathema to one another, as different as fire and ice.

Or at least, that’s how it had appeared at first. Most of the scientists working in the primary investigations lab knew the light sentinels and monsters were completely different. One scientist, however, Dr Melinda Howard, found out something different. Something she’s kept hidden from everyone she can. For nobody would believe her.

Though it sounds impossible, the light sentinels and monsters appear to be based on exactly the same kind of energy.

Dr Howard pushes back from the lab bench. Her neck is so coated with sweat that her white and blue lab coat sticks to it.

She twists her head toward the door with such a violent twitch, she hears something crack in her upper back.

She doesn’t care.

With a wildly beating heart, she keeps scribbling on the paper.

Her gaze darts up and to the side once more. To check on the specimen. It’s still there. Still pulsing away beyond the category III shields.

Though she majored in molecular biology and high-energy physics, it didn’t take her long to develop the mechanical engineering skills to craft the shields. One of more than a handful of key technologies she invented in her constant drive to save the planet.

It won’t be enough.

Again Dr Howard yanks her head up and stares at the door. This time with a wide, desperate gaze. The collar of her lab coat’s now stuck to the back of her neck so badly, she can feel it drag across the skin as she hunches forward over her pad and pen.

She has to get this down. Now.

Before the footsteps outside get any closer….

Chapter 5

Ami

Though I would have preferred to ignore my summons, clamber out on the service duct, and stare at the sky for the rest of the day, I can’t. There’s no way I’m going to give up everything I’ve worked for over the last five years.

Remaining in the combat cores isn’t some statement about femininity. This isn’t to do with the fact I’m a woman. I just… I can’t be kicked out. I can’t explain it, but I know it’s critically important I stay just where I am, doing what I can, fighting as hard as my body will let me, day in, day out.

It isn’t just for everyone I’ve lost – from my parents, to my closest friends.

It’s just….

“Push it from your mind,” I instruct myself through stiff white lips. “If you want to stay in the combat cores, it’s time to practice getting down on your knees,” I remind myself through a grimace.

I’m walking through the lower streets, headed toward one of the few elevators that lead to the decks above.

Once upon a time, Gordana was a sprawling, gem-like planet. When I began my astronaut training in orbit, it had been the fondest memory of my life to stare down at my home planet. It’d looked like a glass orb painted in the brightest colors you can imagine. I can’t count the number of times I walked up to an observational window and tried to cup the view of my home planet in my hands.

Now Gordana isn’t a floating gem in space. It’s a floating battlement. The human population has been pushed into clusters of habitat towers.

And the rest of the world? A wasteland. So dotted with voids you wouldn’t be able to survive out there for more than a day.

When the war began, it quickly became apparent that we couldn’t defend every country. Six months in, we started building the towers. It had been one of the greatest engineering projects our world had ever attempted. It had been unifying, too. Up until that point, Gordana had been split apart into relatively peaceful but still separate countries. A year after the war had started, we’d unified into clusters of towers, under a common fighting force.

Two years after that – when the voids had started opening up on a near daily basis – it had become clear we’d lost our unity. Survival from that point on was about sacrifice. Who, when, and how. It was all about leveraging one person’s life for another’s.

As I walk along the street, I keep tugging down on my dress uniform.

It’s one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever worn. It isn’t designed for a woman. It’s cut too high against my neck, pushing into my throat every time I try to swallow. And it gives my boobs about as much room as an elephant in shrink-wrap.

There’s barely anyone out on the streets this morning. Just a few hover bikes and a few ground cars. There was a downpour last night, and my uniform sticks to my neck in the humid heat that rises off the streets in shimmering lines.

I catch sight of several hover bikes zooming past – catching their reflections in the puddles that line the street like minnows scooting in the depths.

I cram my hands into my pockets, ticking my head from left to right, trying to eke out the tension locking my neck in place.

It doesn’t work.

Because there isn’t anything on this goddamn planet that will ever be able to push my tension back for long.

A dark personality – that’s what my first boyfriend called me. It was hard to have fun with me, apparently.

I shake my head as I realize my thoughts are becoming too introverted again.

“Goddamn him,” my lips spring apart with a jerk.

It’s him – I’m sure of it. The mere sight of Jason always pushes me into a dark mood.

In fact, I’m in such a dark mood I barely notice as the air around me gives a strange crackle.

With my hands firmly tucked in my pockets, and my gaze locked on the reflective puddles, I keep striding forward.

Until finally my teeth begin to shudder. It’s such a distinct and unforgettable sensation that immediately I stop. Immediately my eyes bulge wide.

An attack. A rift is about to open up.

Maybe a newbie would think that charge growing in the air is nothing more than an oncoming lightning storm.

Me, I just know what’s about to happen next.

It’s a scene I will never forget – if I live through this, that is.

Space… it twists. It warps in on itself like it’s trying to swallow itself.

Such hair-raising energy fills the air it feels like the skin along the back of my neck is going to be scraped clean off.

The energy begins to charge and spit all around me. Black waves of electricity that sink into the street and hiss like steam escaping a pipe.

A guy on a hover bike suddenly shoots past.

“No,” I scream at him, shooting my arms up, trying to get his attention.

But it’s too late. The idiot rides right into the center of that warping space.

… And he’s torn apart. He twists in on himself, snaps back like a spring pulled to the point of breaking and then struck with a hammer.

I gasp, a scream choking in my throat as his blood splatters the street.

That energy begins to build more and more until I can see – I can see a rift forming in space. I can also see a flash of something beyond… some realm. Some dark shadowy expanse.

Despite the horror of what’s happening right in front of my eyes, that glimpse suddenly locks me on the spot. It sucks my mind into it. Because I’m seeing what lies beyond. The dimension where the monsters come from.

The home of our downfall.

Suddenly reality slams into my mind with the force of a punch to the back of my skull.

I jerk back just in time, just before a lethal shard of interdimensional energy can jolt from the rift and slice me in half, turning me inside out and bleeding me dry.

I push into another roll, throwing myself several meters down the street, trying to ignore how hard my teeth begin to chatter as the air around me sizzles.

I have to get out of here, and I have to warn as many occupants as I can.

As I run, I try to bring up my communicator on my left wrist.

I jam my thumb into it, practically scratching at the button in my haste to turn it on.

… It doesn’t work. It beeps at me with a shrill note.

It can’t connect.

“Fuck off,” I scream, the words splitting from my lips so viciously it feels as if they carve holes into my tongue.

I keep running. I don’t have any other option. If I stop, even for a second, I’ll be obliterated by those charges of electricity. As it is, I shouldn’t be alive. But that sense – that goddamn preternatural sense that always tells me where to run, when to jump, and how to live – it’s with me, right by my side, deep in my chest, locked in my limbs, guiding me, telling me exactly where to go.

I suddenly throw myself to the side, down a dip in the road.

There’s a whole section of rusted brown road plating missing, revealing a large section of metal wiring and pipe beneath.

Somehow I roll at just the right time, and jump with just the right amount of force, and I manage to sail over those wires and pipes, hitting the road on the other side, rolling, and snapping to my feet with all the speed of a bullet.

I twist over my shoulder, glancing at the rift behind me for just a second before I snap my head back around.

It’s growing, getting larger by the second, twisting more and more sections of space into it. Anything that’s close enough begins to warp. I watch in horror as the guy’s hover bike is swallowed up. I can hear the metal screaming in fatigue even from here. I fancy I can even feel the sudden blast as the fuel tank explodes in a hail of sparks and fire.

That explosion is violent, but it isn’t nearly large enough nor directed enough to take out the rift.

I snap my head back around and jam my thumb feverishly into my communication device once more. “Come on, you bastard, come on,” I scream, voice pitching so high it’s finally discernible over the crackle of the growing rift.

It won’t connect.

And I know why. I suddenly jerk my head back and see the black crackling bubble that’s formed over the section of the city I was in.

A void.

No communications will be able to make it out. And unless I can find a weapon, I won’t make it out, either.

I can’t outrun the void. I might be able to outrun the split in space, might be able to push myself fast enough to get out of its way, but there will be no way I’ll be able to avoid the monsters. And sure enough, several seconds later, I feel that distinct cracking split the air.

My teeth jitter harder in my head, slamming together with the power of somebody hitting me repeatedly over the back of the skull.

A few seconds later, I hear a pop behind me.

There’s only one thing it can be.

I dart forward, pushing to the side and throwing myself down a sudden incline in the road.

Just as I do, a shadow looms from above me. A piercing, splitting cry rings through the air.

I feel the swoosh of wings, a downdraft flattening my hair over my forehead and almost sending me driving down to my knees.

I swear, voice a choked, screaming mess.

My gaze flashes from left to right, calculating with all the speed my fear-filled mind can muster.

Finally, just in the distance, I see something.

This area of the city is obviously no longer used. Inadvertently, I’ve run into what us combat soldiers always refer to as dead zones.

They open up all the time. Areas too far outside of central populated districts. Areas it’s simply too expensive to police and protect.

A few stubborn people always stay. But not for long. If the bands of criminals and pirates don’t get them, the void will. The void tends to concentrate its attacks on lower populated areas, trying to use them to get a foothold into major districts.

There’s only one good thing about this current fight.

I’m pulling the monsters away from the populated areas of town and toward this completely abandoned section.

But I’m not an idiot – I know that’s the last bit of luck I can rely on.

Gritting my teeth so hard I feel every jolt from every step reverberate down into my neck, I reach another split section of road.

The broken concrete and bitumen continue on one side, only to lead to a sharp, deep abyss of about three meters wide before the road continues beyond.

“Shit,” I scream, voice punching through my throat and echoing through the crackling, humming air.

Immediately, I feel another swish behind me. I have to roll, ducking my form and tucking it into a ball as something lands where I was standing.

I feel the unmistakable thump and scrape of claws slicing into the street – hear it, too. That godawful screech of concrete and metal bolsters being uprooted and torn apart with all the ease of flesh being ripped back by teeth.

I cautiously twist my head to the side to get a bearing on the creature behind me.

Fuck, it’s right behind me. I see right through its green, pulsing, distended white eyes.

It’s like staring into the terrifying face of death itself.

The creature puts on a burst of speed, swishing at me with so much force, the downdraught of its wings almost flattens me against the street. I voluntarily push myself into a flip to control the momentum, and I dart to the side. But I still have to somehow bridge the three-meter gap in the street before me.

I jerk to the side, dodging again as the creature slashes at me with its claws.

This time I’m not so lucky, and the corner of one of its green, pulsing appendages manages to scrape past my arm.

I’m quick, though, and throw myself to the left before it can slice through my skin. Instead, its claws do nothing but destroy my dress uniform.

I spin. As I do, I see more monsters pull themselves out of the street – out of the abandoned, dilapidated buildings on either side of me.

Though most of them are lower class monsters, at that exact moment, I tip my head back and see what should be an impossible sight.

A level VII.

A level VII.

My mind… almost breaks.

I’ve always been a brave, if idiotic woman. I’ve never shrunk back from fights. But as I stare up into that terrifying sight, reality strikes me. There’s absolutely no way – no way – I’ll be able to defeat that level VII. I won’t even be able to run from it.

I’m a goner.

I’m a goner.

Maybe the smart thing to do is stand here and take it – to face my attacker, to go down with dignity.

I can’t.

Instead, though it’s stupid, I turn and run – right at the gap in the road.

I’ll never make it.

I’m athletic, but I’m not a goddamn long jumper.

That doesn’t matter.

My mind seems to slow down as I reach the gap. Springing forward, I jump for all my life.

Just as I do, that massive monster swoops in from behind.

And the downward draft of its huge flapping wings is all it takes to push me over that final distance.

I manage to reach the other side.

I make it!

But my elation can’t last long.

That category VII monster is still on my tail.

I scream, voice shaking right down into my lungs, sinking into my stomach, biting into my legs.

Even in the heat of almost impossible battles, I’ve never felt like this.

Now I can’t deny that unless help swoops in to save me, I won’t make it out of here.

Despite the fact I’m on the run, despite the fact half a second will make the difference between me living or dying, flashes of realization and imprints of memory dart through my mind.

I see it all, the whole sorry tale that led up to this point.

Every bad decision, every loss.

And yet, my goddamn thoughts center on Jason more than they should.

Another second, and it won’t matter. In another second I won’t have a brain.

That level VII monster behind me shrieks.

I’ve never heard anything like it, anything so loud, anything so violent.

It’s right behind me, and the decibel level is so high, instantly my ears begin to ring with a fuzzy, disrupted hum.

I jerk my head to the side, but I’m no fool, and I keep running, darting in and out, flipping, rolling. Doing whatever I can to make myself an unpredictable target.

It works, for a short time.

Then I reach another break in the road. This one’s larger. 10 meters, to be precise.

Even if I give it my all and benefit from another one of those powerful downdrafts, there’s no physical way I can make that jump.

It’s all over.

… It’s all over.

This is it. This is how my life will end.

I should shut down. Should appreciate there’s no longer anything I can do.

Give up – some old, dark part of my personality tells me.

The rest stands there.

The rest controls me. Controls me until I turn and face the level VII monster.

It’s right behind me.

Close enough that I can see into its gaze.

Close enough that there’s nowhere to turn.

Its whole face – whole face – takes up my field of view completely.

This is the part where I should cower, blubber, give way to that final, fleeting pulse of fear. Take heed of that prehistoric part of my brain that wants to cower in its final moment.

I don’t.

I stand there, and I face it.

I wait for the end.

One second.

Two seconds.

Three.

The creature continues to stare at me.

My whole body has never been locked with so much tension as I wait, wait for the monster to swoop in and crush my form in its massive, powerful claws.

One second. Two seconds. Three.

Nothing.

It continues to hover there before me, the continuous powerful flaps of its wings blasting air back and forth across my body.

My hair is now a tangled clump at the base of my neck.

I know my face is completely covered in the general muck and dirt I picked up when I rolled and pushed myself through the wet city streets.

None of that matters.

The only thing that matters is the look in its eyes. It… draws me in.

Second by second, until time becomes irrelevant.

Some part of me is aware of the fact that the rain is still driving down around me, gushing through the city streets, washing down from above.

Far, far in the distance I hear sirens. They’ll be warning the inhabitants of the middle lower level of this attack.

They ring in my mind, but they can’t shake me from my reverie. I’m frozen on the spot.

Trapped. But even if this is the last thing I will ever do, I’m determined to face this creature.

There are very few stories of level VII monsters.

The only other one I know of happened in one of the other habitation towers. And the monster destroyed it. The entire tower.

Every level.

Even the scientists and important dignitaries in the upper echelons hadn’t been spared.

The entire thing had been completely obliterated by the monster.

And here’s another one. A level VII.

And all I can do is face it.

I have no idea how much time passes. Split seconds, minutes – it doesn’t matter.

Only the steady, never-ending pulse of its wings and the look in its eyes can penetrate my world.

I… can’t be sure, but it feels… it feels like it’s trying to communicate with me.

The very first thing Gordana scientists tried when the rift opened up was to communicate with the creatures.

They failed.

Whole battalions of soldiers and scientists paid the price.

From that day, it was made crystal clear that there would be no negotiating with the void.

The monsters were not peaceful explorers, but conquerors.

Every second, the small scrap of reason left in my mind tells me that this second will be my last.

No more, it keeps saying.

It will kill you.

Kill you.

But it doesn’t.

The monster keeps staring at me, assessing me, as if for some task.

I’m like a specimen locked in a lab.

At first, I convince my mind that it’s looking on at me with nothing but curiosity.

It’s an emotion I can't stand.

Then comes the menace.

I feel a twinge in my back as fear climbs my spine like nails against the flesh.

It’s almost as if I can see the monster’s mind working, see it coming to some unholy conclusion.

It doesn’t smile.

The half-ghosts don’t have faces like ours, let alone similar methods of communication.

But I know – oh god, I know that right here and now, if it could, it would flash me the coldest, most menacing smile it could.

Finally it begins to move, toward me.

Our scientists have studied the creatures, in every way they can, but it’s notoriously hard to trap them for observation. For they only exist in areas where the void opens up. If you want to investigate them, you have to recreate a controlled rift.

I’ve heard tale that certain scientists have done it, but it’s so hard to separate myths from fact. I can’t count the number of ridiculous, impossible stories I’ve overheard other soldiers share before a transport lands.

There is one, however, I can believe.

Apparently the more developed monsters, level III and onward, possess some kind of innate scanning technology. It is far, far more sophisticated than the rudimentary scanners my people developed for our first stages of interstellar travel.

If the myths are to be believed, these sophisticated, higher-level monsters can scan you right down to the molecular level.

Maybe that’s what this creature is doing now as it slowly approaches me once more, that fixed look still playing in its massive eyes.

I could back away. I should back away.

But there’s no point.

The conclusion of this fight is already set in stone. And I’m not going to turn my back to it. I will face death, instead.

With that ringing, final sentiment playing in my mind, I watch.

I tick my head up, snarl, and wait.

A second later, the creature reaches me.

Rather than extend one of its powerful, deadly claws toward me and obliterate me in an instant, I hear a crack.

I stare down, surprised to see another appendage suddenly spurt from the center of its pulsing, glowing green chest.

It pushes toward me.

Time slows down.

The inevitable conclusion of my death no longer flashes before my mind. Something else does.

I’ve heard other rumors on the troop transports, hastily told between nervous new soldiers.

Occasionally the monsters don’t destroy you.

Occasionally they sweep into areas to kidnap people.

It’s one of those rumors you can expel easily.

I’ve been on enough missions. Monsters don’t capture people – they only ever tear them to shreds.

Yet there’s no denying the look in the creature’s giant green malevolent gaze.

No denying the fear that suddenly spikes through my heart.

This thing – it wants me alive.

But it isn’t going to get me alive.

At that moment, something happens.

Some switch is flicked in my mind, in my body.

I feel a surge of some kind of energy.

It shoots and rips through me as if I’ve swallowed lightning.

Before I know what I’m doing, I dart backward.

And I hear something.

From somewhere.

Not close.

Not coming from the rain slashed streets around or the abandoned buildings.

It’s further.

Further away.

Beyond this realm.

And it calls to me.

It can’t be in my head, because the level VII monster hears it, too.

I watch its eyes open in clear desperation, watch some kind of terrified realization flash through its gaze.

Then it waits no longer.

It pounces at me.

But it never reaches me.

For at that exact moment, something opens up before me.

A rift.

But this one doesn’t crackle black with dark, malevolent energy.

Instead, it’s white, a distinct new white like bright sunshine piercing through azure blue tropical waters.

I even have to bring a hand up and protect my face.

The category VII monster shrieks.

The sound is so powerful it feels as if my inner ears will explode.

Then something touches down.

Before me. That bright white light gives way to… an outline.

A sentinel.

It takes a few sharp, pulsing, heart reverberating seconds until reality catches up with me.

A sentinel has come to my aid.

But some distant part of my mind tells me it won’t be enough. There’s no sentinel on record that can destroy a level VII monster. The only way to defeat them is with a targeted nuclear strike to destroy the void that sustains them.

I know that. But there’s nothing that can stop the overwhelming sense of relief as that outline continues to form before me.

That blue, beautiful, glowing outline starts to take shape. Its form changes, pulsing in and out.

There’s a moment. Where the two creatures just appear to stare at each other.

So much passes between us in that single moment. So much energy.

Then the level VII monster rears back and slices toward the sentinel with its claws.

The sentinel spreads out – instantly doubling in form.

I stagger backward.

The creatures continue to fight.

My mind keeps telling me that there’ll be no way the sentinel can defeat the level VII monster. I keep waiting for it to be torn apart, for its glowing body to be split like a sparking cable.

But it fights. And it continues to fight.

Somehow it’s an even match for that massive, pulsing half-ghost.

I can do nothing but stand there and watch, my heart a pulsing, slamming mess in my chest, my teeth chattering in my skull, mind and my thoughts nothing more than a fear-filled void.

The sentinel is strong.

Incredible.

I’ve never seen one of its like.

As the monster pushes toward it, reeling back and revealing three huge, crackling green claws, the sentinel pushes forward.

The longer the sentinel fights, the more its body begins to resemble a recognizable shape.

Back before the war, Gordana society possessed a rich cultural and religious heritage.

The native people of the North and South shared several myths and traditions.

The light angels were one such tradition.

Creatures of energy that were meant to watch over humans from the heavens and grant their wishes.

Right now, right here, right in front of me, that light sentinel begins to resemble one of the most powerful angels from myth. Xin.

Its body extends, wings begin to form in its shoulders, and glowing lines of light start to wrap around its form like perpetually orbiting strings of ribbon.

The level VII monster thrusts forward once more, but Xin pushes forward, too. There are now 12 glowing lines of light darting in and around its form. As it snaps toward the monster, those lines harden, like circular swords surrounding its body.

As soon as the lines of white lash out and strike the level VII monster, it screams. Its blaring shouts split the air, louder than any clap of thunder.

I’m shunted back as I clasp my hands over my ears and wait for the shrieking to end.

The street below begins to buck and pitch.

Light and sparks spew out in every direction.

The level VII monster pitches back as Xin throws itself forward once more, those twisting lines of light pulsing brighter and brighter, whiter and whiter, until they look like slices of the sun.

Finally, with one last ear-splitting, ground-shaking cry, the level VII monster is obliterated.

Ripped to shreds.

Those lines of light plunge into its body and split its skin with all the ease of a knife paring back the flesh around an orange.

Its body strikes the ground – or at least its remains do. For a split second, I see into one of its massive eyes.

It appears to use the last of its energy to twist around and stare at me. It gives me one final directed blink as it virtually stares right into my soul. Then it disappears. Its body turns into sparks and wisps of smoke that drift up into the rain-filled sky.

It disappears.

Leaving me alone.

With the sentinel.

I’m down on my hands and knees, staring up, wet hair trailing over my slack, surprise-filled face.

The sentinel turns.

Slowly.

And it begins to watch me.

….

I… I’ve never seen anything like it. Even in my dreams. It seems completely impossible.

Everything I have – every scrap of primal sense and every ounce of training – tells me to look away. They tell me to jerk my gaze to the floor and to scamper backward.

But I can’t. I can’t wrench my gaze off it.

The sentinel continues to dart in and out, in and out, until finally it swoops in and presses so close to me there’s barely a centimeter from my face and its.

Instantly, I can feel its power.

Not just the energy crackling and reverberating off its skin, but the promise of strength in its deep gaze.

My lips part, cracking open like rivulets of water breaking from an ice drift.

There’s only a centimeter between us. A centimeter between me and death. For if I reach out a hand and touch the light sentinel, I’ll be disintegrated. Broken down on the molecular level.

And yet, I can’t stop myself. I feel my face press forward, feel my arms draw up, my fingers spreading toward it.

The creature continues to consider me, its darting gaze pushing backward and forward, before finally those iridescent, laser-like eyes lock on mine and don’t shift.

… It seems to reach out to me.

Call to me.

Or something does.

Deep from within my soul, far down beyond the depths of emotion to some realm I’ve never known – I hear the call.

I can’t stop myself anymore. Can’t hear the reason screaming in my mind, can’t pay attention to what scraps of training I have left.

All I can do is reach forward… and touch it.

I should be blown apart instantly. I should die in under a microsecond. I should be torn apart, split asunder, cracked like I’m nothing more than a picture that’s been thrown into the sun.

None of that happens.

Instead, my hand presses against its glowing face, and I feel… eternity, or something close to it. I see flashes of some faraway, unknown realm open up before my eyes. A realm so different to my own, so alien. And yet I see it through the light sentinel’s eyes. For a fraction of a second, it’s as if I merge with the light being, and experience the world just as it does.

But that fraction of a second passes.

Reality strikes me. Like a fist to the jaw.

I leap back.

The sentinel jerks forward. It follows me, keeps its face – the center of its forehead – pressed against my own. I try to lurch back again, but it won’t work. It keeps following me, staring into my gaze.

Just as fear threatens to punch my heart to pieces, it… it smiles. That collection of light particles that resembles a face suddenly shifts, and I swear I see a human emotion reflected in that strange conglomeration of pulses and crackles.

Compassion.

Some endearing connection.

Long before the rifts opened up, back when Gordana was obsessed with conquering interstellar travel, there’d been many arguments among our scientists.

If we encountered aliens, what would they look like? And beyond their appearance, could we ever hope to have enough commonality to understand them? To interact with them?

Right now, right here, I get my answer to that question as I stare into an alien’s face and see enough of myself that I understand.

I stop fighting it – stop trying to pull myself back. I keep staring into its eyes as it presses its forehead against my own.

Time passes. In chunks, in waves. It’s impossible to tell just how long I stand here touching that sentinel, but finally it shifts away.

The latent fear still pulsing through my heart doubles as I wonder what it will do.

There are plenty of stories of untamed sentinels attacking people.

But just as soon as that fear takes root, I dismiss it.

Because the sentinel… it’s still looking at me with that exact same compassionate stare.

Maybe I’m making it up – maybe I’m only seeing what I want to see. After all, it’s alien. I’m human. I can’t really hope to understand it.

And yet, I do.

And the fear – it simply melts away.

The light sentinel doesn’t say anything, can’t say anything. But it doesn’t need to. As I stare at it, I feel as though I’ve never understood something so completely in all my life. It also feels as if something – someone – has never understood me so fully, either. I’ve always been an enigma to everyone, even my sister, even myself, sometimes. But the sentinel – it understands me. In a wave of insight that’s impossible to push away or ignore, I appreciate I will never meet anything that will accept me more fully.

Before I know what I’m doing, I open my arms to it.

And it disappears.

Not at once, but gradually.

It slips away.

It doesn’t disappear completely, though; it appears to form some kind of light cloud. One that darts around the broken street for several seconds before it shoots toward me.

Before I know what it’s doing, it swoops around me and strikes my back. The blow isn’t violent, but I feel it sink beneath my skin.

And energy – pure, undiluted, incredible energy – suddenly pulses through me.

I scream, not out of anguish, but surprise, as the sensation grows and grows and grows.

I fall to one knee, then the other. My body begins to buck as more and more power shifts through it.

My eyes start to roll into the back of my head.

I have just enough time to jerk my hands up and stare at them before I fall forward.

And what I see is a dancing blue shadow beneath my flesh. One that pulses in time with the rhythmic beat of my heart.

One that’s now part of me.

And I’m part of it.

Chapter 6

Commander Jason Everett

It’s when I’m resting back in my apartment, legs pushed through the railings of my balcony, head tilted back and locked on the sky above, that I get the call.

I bring my wrist device up and frown as I see the caller’s ID flash over the small LED lit screen.

“Melody? What the hell is she doing calling me?” Even as I ask that, a realization strikes me like a 10-ton truck.

Ami.

Ami, unsurprisingly, will have stuffed up during her hearing.

And she would have got kicked out.

I should care – after all, I cared enough this morning to head all the way down to the lower middle level and warn her.

But after her particularly warm reception, my heart has hardened.

Reluctantly I swipe my finger over my device, rest my hands back through the balcony railings, and tilt my head to the sky once more. “There’s nothing I can do, Melody,” I say before she can answer.

It’s a lie. There’s probably something I could do, but I’m sick of risking my command over Ami. Yes, she’s a great soldier – better than most – but, no, that doesn’t mean she’s a one-woman army. The Gordana Security Forces will get by without her, and maybe this will be better, for everyone. Because Ami has a tendency to burn bridges and start fires wherever she goes.

More than anything, it will be better for me. It’ll put my goddamn mind at peace knowing Ami isn’t throwing herself around, just looking for a way to die every goddamn day.

Melody doesn’t say anything.

All I can hear is harsh, rapid breathing. It’s edgy, unstable.

I frown, tucking my head down and reluctantly drawing my gaze off the sky above. “Melody? You there?”

It takes a long time for her to answer. In between edgy gasps, I hear her tears.

Something hardens in my gut.

Something close to absolute terror.

Don’t ask me how, but I know exactly what she’ll say next.

“Ami’s dead,” Melody finally finds the breath to speak.

At first, I do nothing. At first, I just sit there, staring across through the rails, mind blank.

Then it happens. Realization.

It strikes me like a goddamn battering ram to the gut.

Melody begins to cry through a gasping raspy throat. “They… I… don’t understand… she was… just heading to work. Wasn’t even on a mission.”

I think I can control my voice. I intend to, but as soon as I open my mouth, my damn throat cracks.

I’m meant to be a hard man – a man who’s faced terror too many times to count. But that doesn’t stop the tears suddenly welling in my gaze. “Slow down,” I manage through clenched teeth, “slow down, Melody. How did she… how did she die?” I croak.

“I don’t know. Nobody’s been able to recover her body.”

For a single second a spark of hope ignites in my heart. I find myself pressing forward, find my hands wrapping so tightly around the rails I could wrench them free. “If they haven’t found her body, there’s still a chance—”

“She was in the middle of that rift attack yesterday. The one in the lower middle level…. The streets were completely obliterated, Jason. There’s nothing left.”

Once more, it strikes me. This time for good. Whatever last scrap of hope that managed to kindle in my heart evaporates.

It’s burnt up by reality.

I suddenly let go of the rails and sit there, shaking.

I know I should speak, offer Melody some kind of solace, repeat the trite goddamn words I use on family members who’ve lost their loved ones.

This isn’t the first time and won’t be the last time I will have to accept the demise of someone under my command.

But….

“They’re saying they’ll never be able to recover her body… that she… that she was probably burnt up. Obliterated. I… I—”

I squeeze my eyes shut, bring a shaking, white-knuckled hand up and wrap it over my face.

I keep begging with myself to speak – to offer Melody some solace – but I can’t push the words from my throat.

Everything closes up, everything shuts down.

“Jason? Are you there?”

“… I’m here,” I manage, though it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done to force my bloodless lips to speak.

Silence spreads between us. An empty, soul crushing silence like the sound of cold wind rustling over Gordana wastelands.

“They said I have to organize her funeral. Though she was a member of the security forces, she wasn’t important enough to justify a government funeral. I… know this sounds pathetic,” Melody’s voice is absolutely shattered with emotion, “but I’ve never… I’ve never organized a funeral, I don’t know where to—”

“Don’t worry, Melody, I’ll do it for you,” the words are out of my mouth before I think them through.

I won’t retract them, though.

Maybe I owe Ami nothing. Maybe I’ve always known from the day I met her that this was how she’d go. But that doesn’t mean I can walk away from her sister.

“Oh, Jason, thank you, but you don’t have to do that—”

As the conversation continues, she sounds weaker and weaker, more and more broken.

Her sobs become violent, too, choked. Like she’s about to start hyperventilating.

I still sit there. I still shake.

“I’ll do it, Melody,” I say through clenched teeth as another wave of bitter realization strikes me.

I’ll have to contact the proper channels through the security forces and find out what really happened.

The security forces have, in all likelihood, lied to Melody. There were probably some remains of Ami – just nothing a family member should see. It’s easier to tell people their loved ones were disintegrated – easier than admitting their remains were smeared across a 10-meter square radius.

“Just leave it to me,” I instruct Melody once more, this time with a firm tone.

“Thank you,” Melody continues to cry, sobbing uncontrollably now, “she would have appreciated this.”

With that, Melody ends the call in a hail of sobs.

Ami would have appreciated this? My help?

Despite the fact I’m torn apart by sorrow, I can see the irony in that.

Ami didn’t appreciate help from anyone.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to back down on this. If only for me, I’ll pay Ami her last respects.…

Chapter 7

Ami

I wake. With a start.

It’s raining, and I’m lying face down on the street, a growing puddle of water almost completely covering my mouth and nose.

I splutter, pushing back with a jerk, my loose hair trailing through the muddy water and slapping against my neck and forehead.

My eyes bulge as I stare around the street, catching sight of the total destruction and heaving in a breath.… It takes seconds, precious seconds for my mind to catch up.

I was in a fight with the void. And something… something stopped it.

A light sentinel.

Suddenly, I swallow a mouthful of air as I jerk to my feet, snap my hands up, and stare at them in total, gut-shaking surprise.

I take another jerked step back, my completely sodden shoes slapping through the puddles of water at my feet.

I lurch my head up and around again, checking for anyone close by – but there’s no one. I’m completely alone.

When I fought the void, I was knocked into an abandoned section of the city.

Bringing a tense hand up and pushing my crooked fingers through my muddy hair, I suck in one breath, then another. Then another.

My head spins, my ears ring, and with every ragged breath, I feel as if I will fall to my knees once more.

I force myself to keep standing, to keep pushing forward as I take another awkward, unbalanced step through the puddles at my feet.

My teeth begin to chatter, and a truly nauseous, cold, giddy feeling pushes hard into my throat and jaw.

I bring a hand up to my mouth and clamp my fingers over it, but I can’t stop nausea from clutching high through my throat.

In another second, I lurch down to my knees, clamp a sweaty, rigid hand on the broken street, and throw up. Violently.

My body keeps shaking as I finally finish, wipe a quivering hand over my mouth, and jerk up to my feet.

I lock my arm around my middle and use every scrap of determination I can to force myself to walk forward.

I have to get help, my confused mind tells me.

Help.

But it takes an agonizingly long time to find my way back to the normal, habitable section of the city.

And by that time, my memories have returned in full.

In fact, just when I stand on the cusp of the habitable section, fixing my gaze on a long yellow ladder that will take me up to a bustling street above, it hits me.

Beyond the fight, beyond the sentinel…. I… I’ve become joined.

As that thought reverberates through my mind like a vicious blow from a hammer, I jerk my hands up and stare at them. I turn them over, one by one, frantically, with the jerking movements of somebody looking for a spider crawling underneath their skin.

When I can’t find anything – no sign that I’ve been joined – no glowing, shifting energetic mark – I almost begin to relax.

Then my memory strikes me once more, this time with all the force of a hammer blow to the skull.

I take a shaking, shuddering gasp as I lock my shaking hand on the top of my already torn shirt and jerk it down.

I keep trying to look over my shoulder, but it’s impossible.

Eventually I push down to my knees and align myself until I can see my reflection in a puddle.

… And I see the shifting light. That dancing, pulsing energy, trapped just beneath the surface of my skin.

It forms a symbol – an unmistakable symbol that spreads across my back from one shoulder to another.

A set of angel wings.

… Again it feels as if my mind will slip away from me.

A heady, unmistakable nausea spins through my stomach.

I gag once more, fall down to both hands, and throw up.

Violently.

Then I drop to the side, curling into a fetal position as my mind tries to slip back into unconsciousness.

A powerful ringing splits my skull. Pounding into it. Hammering like fists.

Though it’s tempting to curl up into a ball and wait for this nightmare to end, I have to get out of here.

Get home.

Sleep. Wash. Figure… this out.

I stand up. And I start walking.

It’s raining again. The streets are drenched. As I wrap my arms harder and harder around my middle, clenching my teeth to push away not just the cold but the realization of what happened to me, I start to hear traffic in the distance. I finally make my way back to civilization.

By the look of the light hanging low in the sky, I’ve been unconscious all morning.

At least that’s what I believe. When I finally make it back to civilization, and reach an area with shops and storefronts, I tilt my head back, stare past the dirty gray walls, and gasp at a newsfeed playing along a half broken video screen.

Between the flashes of news stories and updates on rift attacks, I see the date.

It takes me a few startled seconds to realize it’s tomorrow. I’ve been out of it for a day. I haven’t been lying face-first in the street since this morning – over 24 hours have passed.

At first I don’t believe it. At first I just stand there, arms wrapped around my middle, hair nothing more than a ragged mess down my back. Then I find the composure to walk – no – stagger inside the small store and ask the shop attendant. The guy locks me in a dark gaze, eyes darting down my bedraggled form. It’s clear at first that he thinks I’m a drifter. An addict. Some wretched soul who hasn’t been able to take the stress of the war and ended themselves with mind altering drugs instead.

Then I see his gaze flash to the remnants of my uniform. “Combat soldier?” he asks, a wary look playing in his gaze.

I continue to lock my arms harder around my chest, my teeth chattering in my skull. “Yes,” I hiss through my words, “I’m a combat soldier. That doesn’t matter. I know this is a stupid question, but is there something wrong with that TV screen out there?” Without removing my arms from around my middle, I gesture toward the door with one of my hunched shoulders.

The guy shrugs, a suspicious look flaring in his gaze. “Why? You want to put your propaganda up there?”

It’s my turn for my gaze to flash with anger. “I’m broken and bruised – do you really think I’m here to put propaganda on your TV screen? I just want to know what day it is.” More panic pumps into my heart as my mind snaps back to the possibility that I’ve been out of it for over 24 goddamn hours.

Though the guy’s expression calms a little, it doesn’t completely lose its suspicious edge. “Doesn’t the Army provide you soldiers with fancy communication devices? You too stupid? You drop yours?”

“Just tell me the fucking day,” I spit.

Maybe I should be nicer.

I can appreciate the reason he’s being an asshole.

He would’ve seen my uniform – especially my dress uniform – and assumed I was one of the entitled bastards from the upper levels. Someone who’s come here to assure the populous we’re doing everything we can to protect them while all we’re doing is using them as cannon fodder to understand more of our enemy.

With another dismissive look, the guy nods. “The screen works. And you’re not going to take it off me,” he begins.

I turn away. My mind starts to ring. Starts to pound.

I’ve been out of it for a day.

I’ve been lying there in that puddle for over 24 goddamn hours.

My mind continues to reel, continues to spin faster and faster as if it’s trying to push into orbit.

By now a bitter metal taste has spread through my mouth, and I can feel each heartbeat reverberate through my tightly clenched jaw.

I have no other option.

I stagger home.

Nobody stops me as I push through the streets.

Though I’m in a dilapidated, broken state, my hair a mess around my shoulders, my face hooded and shadowed by sweat and fear, not a single person takes a moment to push toward me and ask how I am.

Everybody keeps to themselves. Because there’s no point in involving yourself in a stranger’s troubles. You want to live, you keep your head down and your business to yourself.

It’s better this way.

If someone had stopped me, someone had tried to ask what the hell happened to me, I wouldn’t have been able to answer, anyway.

The closer I get to my apartment, the more the reality of my situation sets in.

I’m joined.

I’m a frigging joined….

Finally I reach my apartment building.

Again no one stops me as I stagger to the right door.

I unlock a hand from around my middle and push my sweaty fingers against the backup security lock. As I’m a member of the combat forces, I have an electronic security panel by my door. It’s a backup feature, designed to alert people should anyone break into my premises.

God knows where my keys are, but fortunately I can open the door with the right code.

Clenching my teeth and supporting my extended arm against my hip, I type in the right code. Or at least I think I do.

The computer beeps back.

I try to type in the right code again, but once more the frigging thing blares at me.

Finally I get fed up with it.

The damn thing’s always acting up.

I developed a way to circumvent it years ago.

I push forward, lock my arm against the wall for support, take several steadying breaths, then latch my fingers around the computer panel. With a suitable snarl, I manage to pull it right off the wall. The panel exposes a bed of wires beneath, and clenching my teeth in concentration, I begin to manipulate them until finally there’s a click.

My door opens.

And I push in.

Instantly I notice my stuff’s been moved.

There are a few personal belongings on the table, some clothes strewn over my old couch.

I think nothing of it.

Maybe I did that myself before I left yesterday. My mind’s so blurry, I can barely remember what I’ve done.

So I waste no time.

I pull off the scraps of my clothes, dump them on the floor, and push into my bathroom. I reach in, turn the tap in the shower on to full, then stagger over to my mirror.

It’s small. I can’t afford a larger one, wouldn’t want one, either.

I only have to look in the mirror to assess my injuries, not my appearance.

Now, with a violent swallow that could tear my throat in two, I slowly, nervously turn around and reveal my back to the mirror.

I have another mirror in just the right position so that I can see the reflection of my back in full.

… And I almost fall over.

Another punch of pure fear sails through my gut, slicing so hard into the base of my stomach it feels as if it will slice my legs off.

A massive glowing, dancing symbol is cut across my back.

It hasn’t disappeared.

Those angel wings.….

It takes me a few seconds to regain my composure.

Then finally I push into the shower.

And there I remain, for countless minutes as I try to let the running water wash away the past day and a half.

Chapter 8

Commander Jason Everett

Years ago, I had to organize my brother’s funeral.

He’d been one of the first combat soldiers to be killed by the rift monsters. Back when we hadn’t known a goddamn thing about how powerful and dangerous they were.

I can still remember it. Every detail.

It had rained that day, just like it’s raining today.

I know from my experience back then that it’s best to get these things over with quickly. You have to grieve, and the only way to do that is to stop yourself from reliving the experience over and over again.

Get the funeral out of the way and try to let life push it out of your mind.

So it’s set for this afternoon.

I slowly make my way past the base of Ami’s apartment building, tipping my head back and staring at it as I do.

Though we could have had the funeral in the upper realms – considering both mine and Melody’s positions – that’s not what Ami would have wanted.

Ami hates class. I can’t count the number of times she’s bitched about it to me.

So for her, we’re doing this down here.

It’s when I’m right at the base of the tower, taking a long good hard look at it above, letting my gaze dart to that position where Ami had always dangerously climbed from the porch that my communication device beeps.

It’s such a shock that I almost jolt.

But as I grit my teeth, I answer it. “Commander Jason Everett here,” I say through a terse breath.

Not now. They couldn’t call me back to base now.

I told them I was going to a funeral. I told them to leave me alone unless all hell broke loose.

And heck, all hell could have broken loose. In the past several days, the number of rift attacks has exploded. Every several hours – they’re attacking us every several hours. No one can keep up. The Light Division – made up of joined who have access to light sentinels – are rushed off their feet.

“Is this Commander Jason Everett?” an unfamiliar voice asks in a low, to-the-point tone.

I frown.

“It is, who is this?”

“I’m from this tower’s security division. You’re listed as the next of kin and contact point for the deceased Ami Ming’s apartment, are you not?”

I frown even harder.

“I am,” I confirm. “What the hell happened?” I cut straight to the chase.

“There’s been unauthorized access to that apartment. It is currently in progress. We’re sending security personnel, but it will take some time for them to attend – other priorities,” the guy summarizes blankly.

My teeth clench together as pure anger rips through my gut. “Tell them not to worry. I’m close.”

“I can’t allow that, sir,” the guy begins in a familiar, professional, authoritative tone. “This is a security situation, and civilians cannot become involved. You will just have to wait for a team to attend.”

“Check the file in front of you, sir,” I say in a pointed tone. “I’m a Commander in the Security Forces. I think I’ll be able to handle it myself,” my voice drops and becomes real dark.

The guy gives out a soft laugh. “That you are. But don’t kill the drifter – I don’t want to have to send a cleanup crew.” With that, the guy signs off.

Drifter – that’s what I assume it will be too. Some asshole who figured now was a good time to sort through Ami’s stuff.

The bastard.

I waste no time in powering toward the tower, taking the lift to Ami’s level and sprinting toward her apartment.

As soon as I reach it, I realize somebody’s pried back the security panel.

Though my hackles are already raised, my suspicion starts to lift through my heart.

The hacked wires behind the security panel look sophisticated, practiced. Maybe this isn’t the work of some drugged-up asshole – maybe I’m dealing with a more coordinated team of thieves.

So I approach more warily now.

Fortunately I have override codes, and I reach forward, push the security panel back in place, and type them in with a quick, practiced hand.

The door opens with a beep.

I push in.

Slow. Real slow.

My teeth are clenched hard in my jaw, darting nerves slicing down my back. As soon as I enter the room, I let my gaze slice in every direction as I look for the scumbags who’ve broken into the apartment.

Nothing.

Then I hear it.

The water’s on in the bathroom.

… Those assholes. Those goddamn arrogant assholes.

Not only have they broken into her apartment, but now they’re using her water rations for a shower.

This is one shower they’ll never forget.

I’ve already plucked the gun from the holster around my hip.

I clench it tightly in both hands and approach the open bathroom door.

It sounds like there’s only one of them, which will make this all the easier.

I walk past a set of soggy, torn, muddy clothes discarded on the floor beside me.

If I had half a second and half a mind, I would realize they’re a security force dress uniform.

I don’t have half a mind, and my brain is too busy cursing the bastard I’ll find inside.

Finally I push into the bathroom with one last heave.

The guy’s in the shower, separated from me by an old, dank, mildew-covered plastic screen.

I shove into it.

And I see Ami.

She isn't facing me. Her back’s pressed against the wall, eyes half closed. But as soon as I shove into her shower, she reacts. She takes one look at the gun in my hand and throws herself at me.

My mind has half a moment to register her naked form – the bruises down her shoulders, the cuts along her hands.

Then she throws herself on top of me.

She punches me in the gut with a crippling blow, wraps her bare arms around my back, and heaves.

The blow is hard enough and sudden enough that I let go of my gun.

It scoots to the bathroom floor, bangs against the toilet, and stops against the wall.

Ami skids toward it, kicks it with her foot, pushes into a roll, then grabs it up in one neat move.

Then she stands above me, her naked, glistening, wet form outlined in the little sun that can make it through her scrap of a bathroom window.

I just sit there and stare, chest heaving up and down, mind drawing a complete shuttering blank.

“Why the hell did you attack me?” she hisses. Then it’s almost as if she sees me for the first time. “Jason?” Her voice punches up high.

I can’t stop staring at her, and no, it isn’t just her naked body and the way the water glistens off her round breasts and tapers down her smooth stomach.

She’s alive.

Ami’s alive.

She takes a hesitant step back but doesn’t drop her gun.

Maybe she’s registered the shock playing over my face, because she lowers it, only a fraction, though. “What the hell are you doing in here?” she snarls through gritted teeth.

“Ami?” Finally, I find my voice, and there’s no hiding – absolutely no hiding the surprise, fear and complete gut-wrenching shock that shakes through it.

Though she’s still got both hands around the gun and it’s pointed right at the center of my chest, I watch her hesitate.

You couldn’t fake shock like mine.

“You’re,” I struggle through a breath, “you’re alive.”

“Of course I’m alive,” she begins.

She stops.

She stares at me.

Something a hell of a lot like pure shock runs through her gaze.

Again my attention locks on her bruised, cut form.

“You’re alive,” I choke over my words once more. “How the hell are you alive?”

Finally, slowly, she lets the gun drop.

I’ve never seen her look the way she does now. Never seen the great Ami look completely shattered. But there’s no denying the broken expression that cuts across her features like a knife slicing her brow in two.

I push my back into the wall.

We face each other.

Ami isn’t some conventional beauty. Not like her sister.

She doesn’t have a smile that can light up a pitch-black night, and nor does she have bouncing hair that sits against her shoulders likes silk.

But Ami is athletic, trim. And I can see every line and curve of her body as water continues to glisten down her.

She makes no attempt to hide her naked form. Instead she stares at me with those wide, fear filled eyes. “… You thought I was dead?” she finally asks hesitantly.

And I finally lock my eyes on her gaze. Confusion crumples my expression, and I know my eyes open as wide as they can go. “How the hell did you survive? What happened? You were in a region that was completely obliterated by a void attack yesterday. What happened?” I make no attempt – no attempt whatsoever – to hide the fear, surprise, and yet happiness, that spikes through my tone.

It takes her a long time to react, and as I stare into her gaze, I see the shock.

“Ami,” I say more slowly this time, deliberately taking long pauses between my words, “what happened to you? Everyone thought you were dead. How did you survive?” Again I deliberately let my gaze lock on the bruises that cover her shoulders and stomach. The sun’s pushing through a small window behind her, and for some reason, I swear it’s tinged with blue. Or at least something’s blue. Because Ami’s shoulders appear to glow somehow.

She finally lets the gun completely slacken in her grip, and she takes a wary step backward.

I follow.

Carefully.

I’ve dealt with situations like this before. Soldiers who’ve come back from some soul-shattering, shocking fight only to lose their mind and sense of place completely.

I duck my head down and look her right in the eyes, offering her the only sense of stability I can. “Ami,” I control my tone, control every breath, “it’s me, Jason. Now you need to tell me what happened. How did you survive?” I try to keep my voice even, but on the word survive, it cracks.

Again a wave of complete shock at the fact she’s alive strikes me. But I push it back with a hard swallow.

I take a step toward her.

She takes another step back, eyes still as wide as two fists.

“Ami, it’s okay. You can tell me. It’s over now. You’re fine. You’re alive. And we’ll get you checked out. But tell me – what happened?”

Finally she shifts.

Finally she locks her gaze on me, and it looks as if she truly sees me for the first time.

Her brow knots down low. “Jason, get the hell out of my bathroom so I can dress,” she snaps.

And just like that, the Ami I know and hate to love snaps back.

“You’ve been injured,” I begin.

“Clearly,” she snarls, “but get out of my bathroom, and take the damn gun,” she throws it at me with no warning, “and give me a chance to get dressed.”

Ami has never been ashamed of her body. But, keeping her back to me, she reaches out, grabs a towel, and shrugs into it. She doesn’t wrap it around her chest, but rather locks it over her shoulders. Then she nudges her head toward the door and bares her teeth, “Get out.”

I’ve caught the gun, and I bring both hands up in a placating motion.

I walk out, but not before giving her one last long glance over my shoulder.

She slams the door behind me so hard her small apartment rattles.

I make it over to the couch before I practically fall into it.

Instantly my head begins to spin.

I have to wipe away the last 38 hours of total gut-punching misery.

Ami isn’t dead. She isn’t dead… but as I lock my eyes on the bathroom door and hear her awkwardly dressing within, I realize something else – whatever happened to her, she isn’t alright, either.

Chapter 9

Ami

My heart’s beating. Thundering in my chest. I’ve never felt a more debilitating sensation.

I keep slamming a hand onto it, keep willing it to calm down.

It won’t.

It isn’t just the fact Jason appeared at my shower curtain with a gun.

It isn’t just the fact everyone clearly thought I was dead.

It’s the sensation that keeps pulsing through me.

The feel of the mark along my back.

Because I can feel it. With ever more growing sensitivity as every second passes.

I’m joined.

I can’t goddamn deny that as I turn and glance at my naked back in the mirror once more.

Though I want to stay in here and scream at Jason until he gets out of my apartment, I’m not an idiot.

He isn’t going to leave me alone, no matter what I say.

So I dress quickly, thankfully finding some old clothes in the wash basket by the door.

It’s a skimpy pair of shorts and a torn T-shirt, but it’s an improvement on being naked.

Locking one hand into the door, grinding my eyes closed, and pushing a breath through my teeth, I finally gather the courage to shove through the door.

Instantly he’s on his feet.

Instantly he’s pushing toward me, that slack-jawed gaze considering me with all the surprise of a man who’s just seen a ghost.

And hey, I am a ghost to him.

… It suddenly strikes me.

Everyone thinks I’m dead.

My cheeks pale, my heartbeat doubles, and saliva swarms through my mouth as I snap forward. “Melody – she doesn’t think I’m dead, does she?”

Jason brings a hand up, wipes it through his hair, and nods. “Ami, what the hell happened?”

I just stand there and stare. Even if I wanted to tell him the truth, there’s no way I can put my experience into words. The… the way that light sentinel looked into my eyes. The sensation of the mark emblazoned across my back…. And, more than anything, the niggling knowledge in the back of my head that I will never be the same again.

“Ami,” I watch him grind his teeth together, finally a little of his shock giving way to irritation, “where were you? What happened?” There’s still that caring note to his voice, but one look at his face and I can tell he’s getting gradually more and more irritated.

I don’t answer.

He dips his head low in a move I’ve always found irritatingly sincere. “Ami, you were in an area that was almost completely obliterated by the void,”, he says with the kind of slow direct tone you’d use on the senile, “how did you get out? It’s been over 38 hours since anyone has seen you.” I start to see suspicion welling in his gaze. “You haven’t been hiding out all this time, have you?” he says through such a clenched jaw, it looks as if he’s trying to swallow his own teeth.

Though the sensible part of my brain tells me to get Commander Jason Everett out of my house before he finds out what really happened to me, the reactive bit can’t help but clench my teeth. “You think I did this for a reaction?” My voice shoots up real high.

Jason’s expression doesn’t change – he keeps considering me with that same dark look.

Maybe it’s reverse psychology, but it goddamn works.

I take an angry step toward him and look right up into his face. “I woke up an hour ago in a muddy puddle of water in one of the abandoned sections of town. The short answer is, Commander,” I spit that word out, “I have no fucking clue what happened to me. Satisfied?”

Instantly his expression softens, all the anger melting away like a glacier that was suddenly destroyed by a nuclear blast.

He takes another cautious step toward me, this time dipping his head to the side as if he’s trying to take me in all at once.

Instantly I take a step back, reinstating my personal space as I cross my arms and glare at him.

“You sure you can't remember a thing?”

“Jason, stop pushing me – I have no idea what happened. But I’m fine,” I quickly add through a choked gasp.

I have to be careful here – super fricking careful. I have to put Jason’s mind at ease without giving him too much of an idea what really happened to me and without worrying him so much that he’ll take me to a doctor.

His gaze pointedly darts down to the massive bruise on my left shoulder.

My stupid T-shirt isn’t long enough to hide it.

I shrug back and clutch a hand over it, dropping his gaze and locking my eyes on the door.

For several seconds, he does nothing. Then he clears his throat in a low, slow, pointed move. “I know you hate accepting help, Ami, but for God’s sake – everyone thought you were dead,” his voice chokes.

There’s no denying it. No ignoring the pain, the lost quality to it.

Though I desperately want to keep my gaze locked on the door, I can’t. It jolts, jerking toward him.

Jason Everett is one of those infuriating men who tries to hide his emotions every goddamned day of the week. You never knew what he’s truly thinking.

Now he makes no effort whatsoever to hide his feelings as he locks that penetrating gaze on me. “We all thought you were dead,” he repeats in a hollow tone. “The least you can goddamned do is come with me to a hospital. Then you can tell me everything you remember—”

It’s tempting to go through with his offer. Rational, too. It isn’t just the pleading quality to his gaze. It’s… he’s reminding me right now why I was so cut up when he broke up with me.

But the second I step one foot in a hospital, the massive, unmistakable glowing mark along my back isn't exactly going to be missed.

I take another step back, my hand clutched on my shoulder, and I shake my head.

“Ami—” anger punches through his tone.

I suddenly jerk my head to the side, locking my gaze on the small slice of view visible through the porch window.

Immediately I watch him swivel his attention to follow mine. “What is it?” he snaps.

“You hear that?” I ask through a tensed, locked jaw.

Jason presses forward, face a picture of concern as he shoves toward the porch window. I watch him thoroughly analyze the view, from every angle, that darting penetrating gaze of his probably picking up every single detail, no matter how minute. Eventually, however, he turns back to me. “There’s nothing there.”

Nothing there?

I can hear it. Feel it. It’s like it’s vibrating in my bones.

I push onto the tips of my toes, press one suddenly sweaty hand against the metal wall, and arch my neck toward the window.

I can tell Jason’s ready to dismiss my act – but he still takes a strong step toward me and stares from my crumpled features toward the direction I’m staring in. “Ami – there’s nothing there.”

I… can't explain it. It feels like… feels like….

Before I know what I’m doing, I turn sharply on my foot and throw myself toward my front door.

“Ami?” Jason snaps, jerking toward me.

But I’m quicker. I reach the front door, slam a hand on the handle, and wrench it open.

I’m not wearing shoes, and the scraps of clothing I managed to find in my dirty linen basket in the bathroom can't really be called clothes.

That doesn't matter.

I power down the corridor.

Though Jason won medals for track and field in high school, he’s never been able to beat me when I push myself into a true sprint. I’ve never known if he was holding back just to make me think I was better than him, or if I was really faster.

Right here and now I find out.

I peel away from him, even though he’s screaming my name and running after me as fast as he can.

I don't take the lift at the end of the corridor – that would take too long. Instead I throw myself down the stairs that lead to the street below.

My mind’s a pulsing mess. I can feel it. This humming. It’s growing in my chest, pushing down into my stomach, vibrating through every bone.

My body seems to know what it is, and a second later, my mind catches up.

A void.

A void’s about to open, and I have to get there before it does.

Back before I was joined, I’d always had this preternatural sense that told me whenever to duck, whenever to run, whenever to shoot.

This is different. This is on a scale I’ve never experienced.

A void isn't opening up close to my apartment. This area is populated enough that if even an iota of thermic radiation is picked up – the precursor to a rift tearing itself through space – the city alarms are turned on. When it’s activated, the warning klaxon is piped through every audio system, and there wouldn’t be a room in any house or any section of street you could run to get away from that death knell of a blaring alarm.

So no one else has picked up the forming void.

… Yet.

I know one’s coming.

I can't be wrong.

I keep hearing Jason screaming my name. His voice doesn't just pitch with anger – there’s real desperation in there. Panic. If I was in my right mind, maybe I’d stop. Maybe I’d try to explain what’s going on with me.

I don't, and I can’t. Instead I throw myself down the stairs so fast, I almost slip. Every time I threaten to topple over my own feet and smash my skull on the unyielding concrete and metal steps, I throw a hand out and catch myself just in time.

Finally I make it down to the door that leads onto the street. I shove my shoulder into it, grip the handle with a sweaty palm, and jerk the door open.

Then I throw myself outside. I turn on the street, darting my head to the left and right, staring in every direction as I try to get my bearings.

Jason’s right behind me. Though the door swung shut, I can still hear him screaming through the other side.

I push off just as I hear him shove his shoulder into it with a resounding clang.

I shove forward.

I see a hover bike parked to my side.

In fact, if I’m any judge, it looks like Jason’s.

I don’t have to think. Just act. Before I know what I’m doing, I throw myself on top, my hands a blur, and I bypass the security controls and gun the engine.

Just before the hover bike can jerk two feet into the air and shoot forward with all the speed of a land cruiser, I feel somebody bolt onto the bike behind me.

Jason.

He’s finally caught up.

He wraps one arm around my middle, his strong arm shoving hard into my stomach as he brings his other arm around and tries to grab the bike controls from under my fingers.

I push into him, trying to shove him off, but it won't work – he just wraps those arms tighter and tighter around me. “Ami, get off the bike,” he says in a strong, direct tone that doesn't waver with emotion but is rather as steady as a gun held by a robotic hand.

The bike’s already in motion, and it shoots forward, zigzagging as we both fight for control.

“Ami, you’re not in your right mind – just bring the bike to a stop,” he says in that same deadly even tone.

My mind’s ringing now. Buzzing. It feels like an electrical storm going off between my ears. I know my eyes are as wide as they can go – I can even feel the skin around them stretch to the point of cracking.

That humming is growing louder and louder. Louder and louder. It seems to penetrate every one of my muscles, inching in between the flesh like spiders burrowing through my bloodstream.

I’ve never felt a compulsion like this. Never something so commanding, something so strong.

I have to get to the void before it opens up. I have to.

As these crazy, uncontrollable feelings slice through my body, they concentrate on my back.

Unbeknownst to me, it begins to glow.

“Ami,” Jason begins, tone now bridling with anger.

He stops.

Suddenly.

“What the hell is on your back?” His voice shoots up high. He stops trying to wrestle the thruster controls from me – he just locks one hand on the handle and pulls back.

I shunt into him, finally releasing control of the bike as I push my back into his front – desperately trying to stop him from seeing what’s emblazoned across my shoulders.

“Ami, shit,” he snaps, doubling forward, collapsing both hands over the thruster controls on the handlebars, and finally jerking the bike upright before it can slam into a passing hover car.

Some jerk leans out of his window and swears at us.

Jason slams on the brakes.

The bike skids to a halt on the sodden street, water flying over my naked legs and bare feet.

It starts to rain again. It isn't light at first – it opens up with a downpour.

Jason doesn't jerk back off the bike – he isn't that stupid. He keeps one arm locked around my middle and hauls me backward.

Suddenly I’m as limp as a doll – as unresponsive as a scrap of fabric being tumbled around by the wind.

… It’s about to open up.

Above us.

The void.

“Ami,” Jason’s voice is soft now, probably a reaction to how slack I’ve become. “Ami,” he says again softly, “I’ll get you some help, I’ll get you—”

Crack.

The humming starts.

The void’s about to open up.

Jason stops. He stops as the humming rips through the air. I can even hear his teeth start to clatter in his jaw.

“Shit,” he screams.

He guides me down to my knees, keeps one hand locked on my shoulder, then jerks up his wrist device. “Central Command, Central Command—” he begins to say in snapped, spitting tones.

Beep.

I know that beep. It means the communication network’s down.

No signal.

No signal.

Jason screams.

Me – I can't move.

I just kneel there, arms held limply by my sides, in exactly the same position where Jason dropped me.

I can't… can't….

Suddenly I jerk my head up and stare at a point about 10 m into the air.

Tiny particles of black light appear.

A second later, they start to grow.

And grow.

A void is opening up.

Chapter 10

Jason Everett

Christ. Goddamn. A rift is opening up.

Not now. It can't happen now. Not here.

We’re so close to a heavily populated population center.

The casualties will be enormous.

And Ami…. I swivel my head to the side in a jerking motion as I watch her. She’s crumpled on the pavement, so slack it looks as if the world has fallen on her shoulders and crushed her.

I’ve never seen her look so thrown, so weak. It looks as if she’s a shadow of her former self.

And that’s nothing to mention the light. I’ve seen it – I’ve seen something reflecting underneath her top. Along her shoulders – it’s—

I jerk my head up as I see that black point of light start to form 10 m into the sky.

Ami’s head is already directed toward it. She already faced it long before it began to form. And in a split second, I realize she took me here.

Before my mind can really comprehend that fact, I duck down, wrap an arm around her middle, and try to pull her back.

Just as I do, the rift waves start to form – slices of violent energy that slam out of that growing point.

They warp space.

If you’re unlucky enough to stand too close to one, it will twist you inside out and leave you as nothing more than a questionable lump of flesh and split bone.

I don’t call Ami’s name, don’t desperately try to reason with her – she’s out of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if in seconds she lost consciousness completely.

Finally, God finally the alarms start to blare. Those bastards in Central Control clearly start to do their jobs as they pick up the rift forming on their systems and start the city klaxons.

The street around me becomes a cacophony of screams and the blare of warning alarms that cut through the city with all the volume and force of strikes of lightning. The only thing that can rival them is that goddamn humming in the air.

My teeth chatter so violently in my skull, I’m sure they’ll rip from my head and jitter across the floor.

I keep dragging Ami back. But she’s so unresponsive, it’s like hauling around a dead body.

I jerk my head to the side as I watch a child run from one of the habitation units on the left of the street. “Get out of here, run in the opposite direction,” I scream at the crying child.

Just as I do, something slices toward my back. Some part of me knows what it is – some part of me that’s fast enough, aware enough to realize it’s a pulse of unstable radiation coming from the rift.

Some part of me is even aware enough to realize I’m about to die.

I don’t.

Just at the right moment, Ami snaps back into action.

She shoves into me, shunting me backward as that dark energy slices over her shoulder. It takes out a chunk of her hair, burning it off in a puff of smoke. She twists her face to the side, but doesn't stop moving as she darts forward.

She turns hard once more, twists around, grabs an arm around my middle, and shoves me. It’s enough that I dodge yet more slices of radiation. They power through the city street – slamming into lighting poles and slicing them in half. They smash into the road, obliterating whole chunks, revealing the wiring and pipes beyond.

It’s like being in the heart of a chaos storm.

Ami doesn't stop. Now she’s started, she’s like a blur of motion.

She twists, latches a strong hand on my shoulder, and keeps pulling me forward. “Get your goddamn gun out,” she spits.

Despite the chaos, it’s still in my hip holster.

With a jerk, I tug it out.

Just in time.

Half-ghosts start to appear. In flashes, in bursts of color in my peripheral vision.

I twist around, shooting one just as it punches out onto the street to my side.

Before I can congratulate myself on my good shot, Ami jerks into me suddenly, slams her right hand over mine, brings the gun up, and fires right in front of us. Just as a ghost appears.

She hadn’t seen it – couldn’t have been that quick. But her aim is true, and the bullet slices through the ghost at a critical moment, disintegrating it completely.

If you can get a half ghost just before they form in full, you can destroy them with a much smaller energy yield.

But what Ami did was impossible. It was… as if she’d known exactly where the ghost would form before it did—

I don’t have time to consider that impossible thought.

I start to hear something from above.

A screech.

Unmistakable. It isn't man-made – isn't metal fatigue as another lighting poll is split in half.

No. It’s a monster. And from the particular blare of its voice, it has to be a high-level fiend. Or maybe there are two, maybe even three.

Instantly I realize there’s nothing we can do. We have one gun. That’s it. Ami is incredible, but incredible can’t win this.

We’re about to die unless the cavalry can get here in time.

But Ami doesn't stop moving.

She shunts forward with almost impossible speed, dragging me behind her until I almost can't keep up.

And that glow… the glowing light along her back is getting brighter and brighter.

She drags me forward, and my gaze darts down until I see something – I swear I see something under the rumpled fabric of her thin T-shirt.

That blue light.

It isn't coming from the street – something isn’t shining on her.

Something’s shining from within her.

I don't have time to consider what the hell is going on – the screeching grows louder.

A second later, something jumps off a building to our side and slams into the street in front of us. The force of the blow is powerful enough that it shatters the road plating, metal spewing everywhere in great chunks as the wiring and pipes beneath split. Sparks of electricity and spurts of water crackle and splash everywhere.

And I look up into a category IV monster’s eyes.

This one has the form of a massive lion-headed creature.

It looks like one of the old monsters from Gordana myth.

You see, all the rift monsters borrow their appearances from Gordana myth. And no, that doesn't mean that the old prehistoric religions got it right – gods and demons and angels don't exist. The rift monsters are simply sophisticated enough that they’ve been able to learn as much as they can about Gordana society, borrowing the fiendish visions of our history to destroy us with.

In other words, they specifically altered their appearances to have the greatest emotional impact on us. They want to look like the gods from our legends, because it will be easier to make us crawl before them.

The pitching alarms ringing through the street change. They take on an even angrier blare.

They’re so loud, so insistent, it sounds as if they’ll destroy the city.

While most combat units can tackle a level III infestation, a level IV is another matter. Unless somebody can access the origination point in space where the infestation began and detonate a large enough explosion to take it out, we’ll need a light sentinel to destroy the level IV monster.

I say we – but there’s no way.

Ami and I won't be getting out of here.

Ami still has an incredibly strong grip on my arm. Her fingers don't just dig into my muscle – it feels as if they’re trying to latch onto the deepest part of me. Even if there’s a category 10 earthquake, I doubt anything will break her grasp.

She tips her head back and looks right up into the face of the monster.

I catch sight of a slice of the side of her face.

She looks… ready for something.

That’s the only way to describe it, and as my mind chances on that description, a surge of exhilarating fear shoots down my back. “Ami,” I find myself calling her name once more.

She doesn't hear me. Maybe she can't over the blare of the alarm and the screams filling the streets.

All she does is stare at that creature. Not with fear. Just with certainty.

“Ami –” I begin.

I don't get a chance to finish.

Ami thrusts forward.

I lurch forward and try to catch her.

I can’t. For at that exact moment, something explodes over Ami’s back.

Light.

That blue light that had been eddying over her back suddenly glows with such power, it looks as if a fire has exploded under her skin.

I jerk a hand up, cover my eyes, and twist to the side.

Ami slows down as if she’s suddenly trying to walk through water.

The rain continues to drive down from above, and as it strikes her face, shoulders, and chest, I start to see steam as more and more light shoots off her.

The level IV monster suddenly reacts.

It lurches toward Ami.

She will be dead well before it crushes her – its radiation will burn her like a body falling into the sun. She’ll be nothing more than a collection of particles drifting away on the wind and flowing down with the muddy water into the storm drains.

But it doesn't reach her.

At that exact moment, a light sentinel appears.

I’ve seen it so many times – I’ve worked with many light sentinel units over the past five years.

So I know the process. Every step of the process.

This time it’s different.

This time… my heart virtually explodes with fear. My mind rings, my mouth becomes dry, and my eyes open with such force, it feels as if somebody has slammed their hands on my face and jerked my head back.

Ami is joined.

And it’s not just any light sentinel.

For whatever reason, every light sentinel takes on the form of a creature from Gordana myth. Not gods, but angels. And every light sentinel takes on the form of a different angel.

Their abilities tend to match those outlined by legend. And the more powerful angel the light sentinel takes the form of, the more powerful they are.

In Gordana myth, shared between every race, is the legend of Xin.

The Savior of Worlds. Half angel, half goddess.

Ami throws herself to the side, falling down to one knee, then another, water splashing around her legs as the rain continues to drive into her shoulders and hair. It hits the heat and light of her body and instantly turns into hissing steam as if she’s so hot, she’s about to burst into flames.

Xin forms in full, just a few meters in front of Ami,

Though the level IV monster would be strong enough to push through most light sentinels, it shouldn't have a chance against Xin.

It’s rebuffed, instantly. Lines of glowing, pulsing light shift around Xin. 12 of them. They look like bendable, ribbon-like swords. And they act like them, too.

As soon as those glowing ribbon swords slam into the level IV monster, it’s shunted back, a terrifying, echoing scream splitting from its throat.

Ami is down on one knee, her head hunched forward, her hair a trailing wet mess over her shoulders.

Her body is shaking back and forth, back and forth, no doubt at the energy it’s taking to sustain her connection to Xin.

It’s incredible she’s still awake, let alone breathing.

It takes a hell of a lot of directed training for someone to learn to use their joined – especially if they’re as powerful as Xin.

But here Ami is, on her knees, but still conscious.

With training, she might get to the stage where she can control Xin. But for now, Xin simply acts of its own accord, fighting for her.

The light sentinel pushes forward, every movement met with a crackle and surge of light that pushes back not only the dark storm, but the looming shadow of the creature.

It should be impossible for a newly joined to fight like this. But it isn’t.

The level IV slashes at Xin with its massive, powerful claws, but there’s nothing it can do. Every time its claws slam into one of those 12 pulsing ribbons of light, they slice through its flesh – splatters of green blood and energy spewing everywhere.

I’m barely aware of anything.

Barely aware as a sudden light arcs high overhead, indicating a troop transport is sweeping into land. Indicating help is finally on its way.

All I can see, all I can stare at, all I can watch is Ami.

I can barely deny the urge to run forward, collapse my arms around her shoulders, and hold her. Do that, however, and that light spewing off her back would burn me.

The monster gives one final, ear-splitting, ground-shaking cry. It’s so loud, I have to jerk my head to the side and cram my hands over my ears.

Then Xin slices forward once more.

And the monster is obliterated. Green chunks of pulsating flesh slam against the broken street, tumbling several meters until they stop, bursting into ethereal black flame and disappearing completely.

The lights of a hover transport still cut through the rain from above, the helicopters partially visible as they shunt through banks of cloud.

The rain drives down even harder now.

So hard I can barely see Ami, even though she’s only several feet in front of me.

I push forward – wobbling, shaking, my whole body a jittery mess.

Somehow, she’s still on her knees. But her head, which had once been lolled to the side, tilts to the side as Ami uses the last of her energy to stare at Xin.

As I push forward and scoot as close to Ami as I can, I watch the light sentinel.

Xin.

Even though I’m not meant to stare, I can't wrench my gaze off the creature.

It pushes around, those swords of darting light still slicing back and forth around its body like waves against a shore.

Xin hovers over Ami, head tilting down as it stares at her.

As the rain drives down around Ami, pushing hard into her flimsy T-shirt and shorts, completely exposing one shoulder and a line across her left breast, Ami does nothing but stare back.

By all rights, she shouldn’t be conscious.

She is.

The sirens continue to blare above, and far in the distance, back where the point opened up, I start to hear a unit taking on fire, presumably dispatching the remaining monsters protecting the point.

It will be easy work. The level IV would have been the Vanguard – and that’s been taken down.

Finally, with one last lingering look at Ami, Xin shifts back.

And she looks right at me, right in my eyes.

I know I’m meant to look away.

I’ve been dealing with light sentinels for five years. So, goddammit, I know I’m meant to look away, but I don’t. Can’t. Somehow Xin holds my gaze as if she’s opened up a path into my very soul.

It is… as if she’s trying to tell me something. Trying to communicate with me without words.

It’s such a strong, undeniable sense—

Suddenly, a troop transport cuts through the bank of swirling, massive storm clouds above. It shoots toward our point, shifting searchlights slicing across the street, the pools of muddy water that slick the road plating reflecting every beam of light.

I bring a hand up to protect my face.

Xin disappears. With one last look at me. Even though I’ve jerked my gaze off her, I can see Xin in my peripheral vision.

She stares at me, then she shifts back into beams of light that circle around and return to the symbol in Ami’s back.

Instantly I bolt forward, wrap an arm around Ami’s middle, and catch her before she can fall face forward into the rain slicked road.

I feel her heaving breasts push against my forearm as I quickly lean forward, grab up the sleeve of her top, and straighten it.

Just in time.

The troop transport lands.

The light that had once been pulsing out of the symbol on Ami’s back stops.

Abruptly.

The troops rush out of the transport, virtually in a stampede.

It’s chaotic watching them through the driving, pounding rain.

I just… kneel there, one arm still pressing into Ami’s back, locking her against me for support. Either hers, or mine.

It doesn’t take long for the point of infection to be destroyed.

Soon enough, the sky comes back.

That black crackling mass that had split us off from the view above ends with a snap.

Reality hits me.

Virtually between the eyes.

Ami is a joined. Not just any joined – she’s joined to one of the most powerful light sentinels I’ve ever seen.

Her life… will never be the same again.

The end of Star Soldier Episode One. Star Soldier Episode Two is currently available.