A Dramatic Turn of Events
“They say there’s a special place in the Abyss reserved for traitors.”
Payle frowned at his partner. Jakub never paid much attention to the tales of Kuldaan. He cared even less for stories about the Maker. Myths and fairy-tales, he called them. Payle wasn’t sure what to think of either, but of one thing he was certain: What they were planning to do was wrong.
Jakub pushed his wire-framed glasses against the bridge of his nose and stood. “This should do nicely. What do you think?”
Payle eyed the steel case on the floor, suppressing a shiver despite the warmth of the laboratory. There was no cause for alarm, he knew. After all, Jakub’s expertise in the field of explosives was well-documented. It was said he could build a bomb out of onions if necessary. It was his great gift, his contribution to the universe. At least, that’s what Jakub claimed.
But in Payle’s estimation, the man’s true gift wasn’t something crafted by hand. Jakub was a man who could organize armies, direct supplies, and coordinate hundreds of battalions with his left hand while curing disease and advancing propulsion technology with his right. Most dared not dream of developing a quarter of the smarts Jakub possessed. He’d been blessed with more intelligence than any man could ask.
More intelligence than any man should ask.
“Well?” Jakub was still waiting for a response.
Payle took a deep breath. “You know what I think.”
He wasn’t a large man, but Jakub had a menacing presence about him, especially when he lost his temper. With arms crossed, he gave Payle an impatient frown. “Why are you here, then? Why do you align yourself with us when you do not support our cause?”
“I support our cause,” Payle growled through clenched teeth. “It is our methods that I oppose.”
Jakub rolled his eyes and turned back to the counter, wiping his hands his shirt. “Our methods have placed us on the brink of a monumental victory," he said, typing notes into his data pad. "Years of hard work and meticulous planning have gone into this operation. If all goes well, the Aeden Alliance will lose hundreds of senior officers in the coming days. But while our people celebrate success, you will be sulking in a corner somewhere.”
Payle put a palm to his forehead. “I did not sign up to fight from the shadows like a coward. I agree that the Alliance has oppressed us—all of us—for far too long. But this plan of lies and deception will do more to hurt our cause than to help it!”
Jakub whirled around. “We don’t have the manpower for a direct confrontation, Maker curse you! We have to struggle just to procure what weapons and supplies we have! If we were to waltz out into open space to declare war on our enemy, we would be crushed like ants under a child’s foot!”
Though Jakub could be intimidating, Payle was no pushover. He stepped forward and grabbed a handful of Jakub’s shirt. “I seek to end the oppression and bring some measure of peace to my homeworld. And I don’t believe these acts of terrorism will squeeze one ounce of mercy from the Aeden Council. Might will not win this fight, Jakub! We must get them to negotiate with us!”
Jakub’s jaw tightened. “Take your hands off of me, you fool. I am not your enemy.”
Without realizing it, Payle had pinned him against the counter. Allowing himself a frustrated growl, he released Jakub and turned away. “I am sorry. I just do not believe this massacre will help to further our cause.”
“Do not worry, my friend. In one week’s time, you’ll see the difference. Besides, you are right about one thing.”
Payle looked over his shoulder. “And that is?”
Jakub tapped a finger against his temple. “Might will not win this fight. The brilliance of the Viochiati will triumph over the Aeden Alliance's brawn.”
His grin sent shivers down Payle’s spine.
It had been far too long.
Arus rotated his sword in long flourishes, twisting and stepping through the warm-up routines that Master Eaisan taught him so many years ago. The hilt felt comfortable in his hands despite having been in storage for weeks. And though the vacation had brought a much-needed respite from the rigors of the field, there was a part of him that had missed daily workouts with his fellow soldiers. Now he was back, rested and refreshed and ready to take on the dark underbelly of the universe again.
Del’Carjhal was one of the smaller Alliance outposts in the Omega Region of the universe. The base was located on the snowy planet of Vaank, a giant world on the outer rim of the Athena solar system. Arus had been assigned there after graduating from training camp eighteen months earlier. He wanted to make a difference, to help people in need. And in Del’Carjhal, need was abundant.
Because of its less than favorable climate, Vaank had become a haven for criminal activity. The harsh weather conditions made it relatively easy for smugglers and pirates to set up hidden installations from which they could conduct their illegitimate business. Though the planet itself was largely desolate, others near to Vaank were densely populated. It was those civilizations that the Alliance had come to protect, those worlds that had been raided by pirates and besieged by a war they never saw coming.
Arus could empathize with their plight. His own homeland had been nearly destroyed by an invading army when he was a boy. It drove him to follow his father’s footsteps by dedicating his life to defending those who could not defend themselves. Whether he was delivering food to impoverished colonies or tracking and arresting pirate lords, he knew that there were a lot of people counting on him. And he was not going to let them down.
A bitter wind blew as he rotated on his heels, raising the sword above his head. His heavy white coat, made of several layers of satin and fleece and wool, deflected most of the cold. Its fur-lined hood often caught falling flakes before they could reach his face, and sturdy winter goggles shielded him from the rest.
“Good to have you back, Boss.”
The voice came from a silhouette to the right. Sergeant Linard Baird, a seasoned soldier who’d spent over seven years in Del’Carjhal, emerged through the snow. A master sniper and excellent strategist, as cunning as he was deadly.
“Good to be back, Sergeant,” Arus responded, continuing his exercises. “Did I miss anything exciting?”
“Same ol’ nonsense,” Baird told him. “Commander’s got himself all riled up over supposed raids on a number of Luncia’s weapons facilities. We’re expecting orders at any time, though I'm sure he’ll keep us in the dark as usual.”
Luncia was the capital world of the Athena system, a technologically advanced planet populated by close to two billion humans. Their governing authorities entered into an agreement with the Aeden Alliance over two decades ago in an effort to protect the system from an onslaught of attacks by offworld pirates. In exchange, the Alliance gained the right to mine a valuable luncian resource called tridonium, a lightweight metal which some Aeden scientists believe holds the future of starship construction. But the luncians' new allies did not dissuade the pirates from their goals—whatever those were—and twenty years later, they continued to wage war from Athena's shadows.
“That’s a bold move for the pirates,” Arus said, sweeping his weapon low along the surface of the snow. “If they're desperate enough to take such risks, it could indicate that our efforts to disrupt the smugglers’ supply chain has been effective.”
“For sure,” Baird said with a nod. “How was Manwana? Had to have been better than this ice cube!”
Arus focused on a single snowflake and promptly cleaved it in two. “It was gorgeous. Best vacation I’ve ever had.”
It had been Kitreena’s suggestion that they visit Manwana to celebrate both his sixteenth birthday and his recent promotion to Lieutenant, Junior Grade. Several months had passed since their last opportunity to spend quality time together. Her duties as first officer aboard the Refuge, one of the Aeden Alliance’s most decorated and respected starships, kept her busy. But Damien, Captain of the Refuge and close friend to Arus, arranged things so that they could all take a much needed leave together while the Refuge underwent scheduled maintenance and repairs.
“Did you get a chance to see the Shel Falls?” Baird asked. “Most gorgeous waterfall I’ve ever seen!”
“Indeed.” Arus twisted again, swinging his snow-covered boot into a roundhouse kick and following it with a downward swipe of his sword. “Actually, Kitreena’s coin purse was stolen while we were there.”
“Really? I bet you made the thief wish he’d chosen a different target.”
Finally, Arus sheathed his weapon and faced Baird. “Actually, I didn’t have to. It was rather amusing. We were standing along the observation path opposite the falls when this kid yanked the pouch right off of her belt. He didn’t make it two steps before Damien snatched him up by the scruff of his neck! I almost felt bad for him; poor boy couldn’t have been more than eight years old.”
Baird let out a boisterous laugh. “I bet he soiled himself.”
Arus couldn’t help but chuckle. “Actually, the look on Kitreena’s face was probably more terrifying. Needless to say, he returned the purse without protest.”
Another voice, this one far deeper, came from the right. “One can only hope the act was not a symptom of a troubled youth on a reckless path.” The towering figure of Sergeant Merculas Garren came into view, his powerful arms folded across his broad chest. “Welcome back, Lieutenant. It is good to see you.”
Arus returned the greeting with a slight bow. “Likewise, Sergeant. How’s the arm?”
“Good as new,” Garren replied. “I assume Baird has told you the news.”
“The weapons raids?”
“What? No, that’s old news.” He turned to Baird. “You didn’t tell him?”
“I was getting to it.”
Arus looked back and forth between the two. “Getting to what?”
“Nasael has set a new record at the Proving Grounds,” Garren told him. “He beat your old record by three and a half seconds.”
“And he’s issued an open challenge to anyone on the base who thinks they can beat his time,” Baird added. “We all assumed you’d be up to the task once you returned.”
“Three and a half seconds, huh?” Arus repeated with a frown. A month or so before leaving for Manwana, he'd set a new record on the Del’Carjhal obstacle course. It was a tough challenge that tested every aspect of a soldier’s physical and mental prowess on the battlefield. Arus’ previous time had been four minutes and twenty-two seconds with perfect accuracy and no penalty points. Shaving another four seconds off of his performance—especially after two months of downtime—was going to be difficult.
But a difficult challenge had never stopped Arus before.
“I’m a little rusty,” he admitted, “but I worked hard for that record, and I’m not going to give it up that easily.”
Wide creases formed in the scarf covering Garren’s mouth, suggesting a smile. “Shall I inform Nasael?”
Arus nodded. He never liked to be arrogant, but there was nothing wrong with healthy competition. “Tell him that he has three days to enjoy being the record-holder. After that, I’ll be taking back what’s rightfully mine.”
The Del’Carjhal Proving Grounds served as both a training facility and a recreational area where many platoons met for daily workouts and training drills. Most often, that meant gathering along the western perimeter to participate in what had come to be known as the Trials of Fire. There, soldiers tested their endurance in various physical and mental challenges until they could no longer continue. The last man standing was declared winner, usually to be awarded with an extra day of rest. To the east, an assortment of seats and cots were set up where friends could socialize and the weary could rest between drills. The obstacle course stood in the center of everything, a string of near-impossible challenges lined up one after the other. Some men theorized that it was expected that soldiers fail the course so that they might learn to recognize insurmountable odds in the field.
It was a behemoth of a structure consisting of six challenges designed to test a soldier's mental and physical conditioning. The first was called the Cliffside, a rigorous climbing wall that forced many into early submission. The Drawbridge followed, a ten-pace bridge that began to open just moments after the starting buzzer. Participants were challenged to make it through the first obstacle and across the gap before it became too wide. Any who failed to reach the other side fell into a pool of ice-cold water below. Wet or dry, runners next faced the Ice Tornado, a hollow column of ice standing straight up beyond the bridge. To pass through, soldiers had to place their hands and feet against the walls and shimmy their way to the top. There had yet to be a soldier to successfully completed the ascent after falling into the pool.
The fourth obstacle was Marksman's Mountain. Using a provided rifle, course runners were required to shoot down fifteen automated targets flying above the course. Hangman's Drop followed, a series of parallel bars that descended in a spiral to the ground. The final challenge, simply called Death Row, amounted to little more than a shooting gallery. Twelve turrets—six on either side—fired lasers at runners as they used sandbag walls and other various cover points to reach the finish line. The beams were harmless, of course, but if any struck the runner, points would be deducted from his or her overall score.
It was not unusual for newcomers to spend twenty minutes or more completing the course. Experienced soldiers averaged five to eight minutes. Few had finished in less than five, but with hard work and dedication, Arus had managed to do it. And though Nasael had a way of getting on his fellow soldiers' nerves, Arus had to respect his ability. He was a dedicated soldier and a hard worker even if his ego frequently got the best of him.
Still, Arus had worked hard for that record, and the time had come to reclaim it.
He arrived just after dawn, stomping his feet on the entry mat to loosen clumps of wet snow from his boots. Baird was waiting near the storage lockers, sipping tea from a steaming cup. Chief Laine Morsul accompanied him with her digital notepad in the crook of her arm. She was an older woman, though her precise age remained a mystery. Aside from Kitreena, she was the only Morpher Arus had ever encountered. Morphers had the ability to transform into beings entirely different from themselves, but the Chief had yet to give Arus—or anyone, for that matter—any clues regarding her transformed state. No one saw fit to pry, and Arus certainly wasn't going to ask.
Besides, Chief Morsul's duties to the Alliance had nothing to do with morphing. She was a mathematics wizard. Considered by many to be the warden of the Proving Grounds, she walked the facility from end to end and back recording each soldier's performance statistics. She measured everything from the basics of diet, weight, and size to unpredictable variables like jump heights, objects carried, breathing rhythms, and water consumption. Her calculations gave each man and woman a very distinct report of where they excelled, where they fell short, and what they might do to improve.
She smiled when she saw Arus, a pleasant if contemptuous smile that suggested she was skeptical of his guarantee to beat Nasael's record. "Well, well, well," she said in her scratchy voice. "The robot-boy returns."
Arus unbuckled and removed his heavy coat. There was a time when that sort of remark might have stirred at least some feelings of sadness, but no longer. He'd learned to accept the cybernetic implant fused to the left side of his head and even appreciate the robotic arm hidden under the left sleeve of his tunic. And his eye, the little metal cylinder that had been crafted from a modified sniper's scope, had become an integral part of his life. The synthetic components interfaced directly with Arus' brain, allowing him to combine the split-second calculations and projections of the implant with the decision-making intelligence of the human brain. The result was a blend of man and machine—what some thought to be the perfect weapon.
Chief Morsul mostly referred to him as a walking calculator.
"Morning, Chief," Arus said, hooking his coat inside his locker. "I hear Nasael has set a new benchmark."
"And I hear you think you're going to surpass it already," she replied, tapping her fingers across the notepad. "I don't see how you expect to do it."
"He'll do it," Baird told her. There was a bit of satisfaction in his eyes; the thought of anyone taking away Nasael's bragging rights was reason enough for excitement.
The age lines in the Chief's face darkened as she frowned. "Either way, just shut that thing off first," she said, pointing a finger at the implant.
"Of course, Chief," Arus agreed. While the implant did provide various advantages in combat situations, Arus refused to use its abilities to give himself any sort of edge over his fellow soldiers during training exercises and competitions. He wanted to be on the same level as them; it helped him retain a strong connection with his humanity. Any non-vital functions remained deactivated.
With a shake of her head, Morsul was off to the watchtower at the end of the obstacle course where she would later oversee Arus' run. He sometimes got the feeling she held some sort of malice toward him due to the implant—it was the only one of its kind in the known universe, and many people feared what they didn't understand—but he shrugged the feeling away just as quickly as it surfaced. The Chief took special care to ensure that every competition was fair to the participants involved, and there was no reason he'd want her to treat him otherwise.
"You nervous?" Baird asked, dropping a tiny piece of peppermint into his tea. An experienced man at forty-five years of age, Baird was one of those soldiers that never lost his cool. Tall, lean, and relaxed, his scratchy voice sometimes cracked like an adolescent boy's. Standing beside Arus, he sipped his tea and flicked his thin black mustache. "You look it."
"Just out of practice," Arus replied, gazing up at the Cliffside. Running a hand through his crimson hair, he suppressed a gulp of anxiety. That bloody wall had always been one of the toughest parts of the course. No matter how many times he scaled it, the mere sight of the structure churned his stomach. It was built to simulate a rocky mountainside with grips placed few and far between. And though his artificial arm could pull him up with relative ease, the advantage was something Arus would never consider. "I wish I'd had a chance to get in here and train a bit before today."
Baird nodded in understanding. "What's the commander kept you busy with since returning?"
"Briefings, mostly. Captain Ressia and Captain Prinst brought me up to date on what's happened since I left. The increased starship activity near Irius has me concerned. It's a prime location to serve as a hub for any illicit activity in this galaxy."
Baird frowned with a slight shake of his head. "I heard they were going to send a few fighters and even an assault ship out that way soon. Doesn't sit well with me. Situations like this call for a more delicate approach. Could be just rumors, though. You know how stories get blown out of proportion around here."
Arus' thoughts turned to the billions of innocent lives across the Athena galaxy, the men, women, and children who were simply trying to live their lives in peace. It brought his homeworld of Terranias to mind, where the Kyrosen had disrupted his otherwise peaceful society with bloodshed, war, and death. Now, these pirates were doing the same across Athena. It had to be stopped. It would be stopped.
"Don't worry," Baird said, patting his shoulder. "We'll put an end to whatever they're cooking up. For now, just focus on the course."
Forcing the worries aside, he turned his attention to the pool beneath the drawbridge. Although the facility was heated to a comfortable temperature, that water was always bloody cold. And the Ice Tornado stood behind it. Just thinking about the walls of ice inside that tower made him shiver.
"You look scared."
Nasael appeared to Arus' right, waves of various colors rippling across his skin. A member of an odd race called Clu, Nasael's complexion changed based on his surroundings. It was a genetic defense mechanism not unlike a chameleon's ability to blend in with its environment. His gray flesh, a cross between scales and skin, had the ability to produce a wide range of additional pigments. And though it wasn't perfect, it certainly gave his people an advantage that was not shared by many species across the universe.
Arus spared the corporal a glance and inclined his head. "Good morning, Nasael."
"A very good morning, indeed. I trust you've adequately prepared for today's challenge?"
Arus shrugged. "I could've used a few practice runs. But given that we could find ourselves fighting for our lives at any moment out here, I live each day like the fate of the universe just might find its way into my hands. It makes tasks like this seem just a bit trivial in the overall scheme of things."
Nasael's brow furrowed over his blood-red eyes. To some, he was probably a visually intimidating individual. A head taller than Arus with a well-defined physique, he was a good ally to have in a fight despite his arrogance. His tail, which reminded Arus of an alligator's, whipped against the floor. "You fear embarrassment," he said, his raspy voice full of pride. "You know you cannot win, so you seek to minimize the importance of the achievement."
While there was a certain amount of truth to that—a little less pressure might have calmed Arus' nerves—there was no fear of embarrassment. "There is no shame in defeat, Corporal. I'd rather try and fail than never try at all."
A voice called from the distant left. "Arus! Come, you must warm up!" Garren stood beside the Trials of Fire, waving his large arm over his head.
"Good luck, Lieutenant," Nasael said through a toothy grin. A wave of silver rolled across his skin. "I'll try not to gloat when you lose."
For the next ten minutes, Arus ran endurance drills with Garren. A man of excellent health, Garren was an expert in human nutrition and fitness. When Arus transferred to Del’Carjhal, Garren had been the first to welcome him to the base and even offered a tour of the facilities. During their talks, Arus mentioned that he would need a sparring partner, and since Garren had never lifted a sword, he offered to assist Arus in honing his skills as a rifleman if Arus would in turn train him in the ways of the blade. And though, when activated, the implant gave Arus the ability to fire any laser weapon with pinpoint accuracy, he refused to rely solely on artificial skill. Machines could be tampered with, altered, damaged, or destroyed, and Arus wasn't about to risk finding himself in a situation where he could not properly defend the people he was sworn to protect because the implant was malfunctioning.
By the time he turned his attention to the obstacle course, Nasael was standing along the eastern perimeter tapping an impatient boot. A group of Aeden soldiers gathered around in anticipation of Arus' attempt to reclaim the record. Some smiled as he approached the starting mark, but he paid no attention. Master Eaisan's voice floated through his head as though his old teacher was coaching from the sidelines. Focus, patience, and will, Arus. Without these, you will fall on your face before taking a step.
Chief Morsul's voice came over the intercom. "Are you ready, Lieutenant?"
Arus nodded. "Ready."
"You'll have fifteen seconds before the drawbridge begins to raise and one minute and thirty seconds before it is completely open. Start when you hear the buzzer. Good luck."
Anticipation set butterflies loose in Arus' stomach. He believed what he had told Nasael; there was no shame in defeat. Unfortunately for him, only a select few agreed. If he failed, Nasael and his friends would never let the matter rest. Shaking his head, Arus kneeled with his back to the course—that was the generally accepted starting position—and silently cursed himself for arrogantly guaranteeing victory three days earlier. Me and my big mouth.
The buzzer sounded, and Arus leapt to his feet. With a burst of adrenaline, he dashed to the Cliffside and began to ascend. The senior officers of Del'Carjhal often ordered changes to the positioning of the grips so that there was no set pattern participants could memorize in order to shorten their time through the course. The climb was different from one day to the next, and for Arus, that meant finding his way to the top would be just as challenging as the day he first arrived on the base.
"Come on, Boss!" Baird called. "You can do it!"
He started slowly at first, hands sweeping across the holds and notches above in search of the shortest route to the top. There would be no time to analyze options, no time to second-guess his chosen path, and certainly no time to backtrack. Once he decided on a course of action, he had to stick with it. Picking out a few of the larger grips, he followed a path up and to the left, trying his best to keep a steady pace. Some of the holds were big enough for him to wrap his hand around, but others were so small that they might as well have been coins pressed flat against the wall. About a third of the way up, he found himself with no way to advance; the grips above were just too small. He could probably get his fingers around them, but that wouldn't be enough to support his weight.
A quick glance revealed two solid notches in the wall a moderate distance to Arus' right. If he timed it properly, there was a chance he could jump to them, but the wall above that section leaned forward at a sharp angle. Ascending would shift Arus' center of gravity to a point where his arms would need to support the majority of his weight. It would be tough, but the most important thing was to keep moving.
From somewhere ahead, the repetitive click of the pulley system signaled the opening of the bridge. From both the Chief's calculations and Arus' own experience, he knew he had about a minute left to get to the drawbridge if he wanted to have any chance of avoiding a bath in the icy pool.
With a grunt, he swung his body to the right and flew toward the waiting handgrips. He grabbed both as he came down, bracing a boot against the wall to break his fall. Some quiet applause came from the spectators. Using all the strength he could muster, he scurried upward as fast as his limbs would move. When the positioning of the holds allowed, he scooted back to the left to escape the angled portion of the wall and continued climbing. Finally, with beads of sweat clinging to his forehead, he pulled himself over the edge to the top of the platform.
The bridge was just ahead.
Commander Terras paced back and forth in his chambers. Every senior officer in Del'Carjhal was assembled and waiting in the briefing room adjacent to his office. He'd always been a punctual man who obsessed over schedules and timeliness, and the usual morning briefing should have been well underway by now. But word had reached his comm that a crucial piece of intelligence was being escorted into the compound. Details were sketchy, but what he'd managed to piece together seemed like good news. Great, even.
Petre Sanse, Terras' captain of the Del'Carjhal recon unit, discovered some sort of data transmitter in the field. Its size suggested that the information it collected was being sent offworld, and that meant it was likely connected with the pirates. A discovery of such magnitude would open the door to numerous opportunities for gathering intelligence on the locations, movement, and communications of the enemy. Indeed, great news.
Upon hearing of the find, Commander Terras summoned the senior staff for Sanse's report. Fifteen captains, seven lieutenants, and four other commanders sat in the briefing room. The only person missing was—
The door opened and Lieutenant Crux poked his head inside. "Sir! He's here!"
"About bloody time," Terras muttered, grabbing his jacket from the coat hanger in the corner. "Is it in working order?"
"He hasn't said, Sir. He just arrived."
Slipping on the coat, Terras followed the Lieutenant across the hall to the briefing room. The other officers were murmuring amongst themselves, craning their necks to get a look at Sanse's discovery. It sat on the table in front of the room, an unimpressive silver box with small indentations on either side. Behind it, Sanse stood with a somber look in his eyes that suggested many good soldiers had died in the process of recovering the unit.
Terras saluted him. "Welcome back, Captain. I'm relieved you've made it back in one piece."
Oddly, Sanse did not return the salute. "Thank you." He seemed distressed.
Hoping to lend a shoulder of sympathy, Terras lowered his voice. "How many soldiers were lost, Petre?"
It took a moment for Sanse to reply, but when it did, it was as though he hadn't been paying attention. "What? Oh. None. No casualties, Sir."
The answer surprised Terras. "Are you alright, Captain? You seem . . . troubled."
Sanse shifted his eyes to the silver box beside them. "Fine, Sir. Ready to give my report."
With a reluctant nod, Terras put the matter aside. Temporarily. He'd speak with Sanse in private at a better time. For now, there was business needing attention. "Ladies and gentlemen," he began, turning to the rest of his officers, "I want you to take a good look at this box. It is going to be your life for the next forty-eight hours, so play close attention while Captain Sanse gives his report. Take notes, ask questions, and stay focused, because this ordinary looking box may hold a wealth of information about our enemies." Motioning toward Petre, he stepped away. "The floor is yours, Captain."
Sanse said nothing at first, instead allowing an uncomfortable silence to fill the room. His eyes, distant and unfocused, rested on the box in front of him. It was as though something was eating away at him from the inside, a burden heavy enough to bring a battle-hardened warrior to his knees. As the silence dragged on, Terras considered putting the meeting on hold. The transmitter was safely in Alliance hands; that was the important part. The report could wait for a few hours if that might allow Petre to compose himself.
Terras was about to say so when the captain's eyes suddenly focused. Jaw set firmly, he shifted his attention to the other soldiers. "I've been a member of the Aeden Alliance for seven years," he said. "And over the course of these seven years, I've often imagined how this day would unfold. What would I say? How would I feel? And now, as I stand here before you—many of whom I consider to be honorable soldiers and close friends—I find myself deeply torn. There is sadness. Remorse. Pain. But there is also joy. Satisfaction. Even excitement. Because today marks a tremendous victory in this fight."
Unrest crept over Terras as the captain continued. The man spoke with a tone of finality usually reserved for victory celebrations and retirement speeches. It was as if this had been the last mission of Sanse's career. But he was a young man in prime condition. He had the potential to be an excellent commander one day. Perhaps even a general.
"Over the years, I've gotten to know many of you. Even some of your families. You're good people with good intentions. You want to make this galaxy a better place for everyone, and I appreciate that." He removed the captain's rank insignia from his uniform, and a chill rolled down Terras' spine.
Something was wrong. This was not a victory speech. And it was not a retirement speech.
"But I have spent seven years here at Del'Carjhal turning men into cripples, wives into widows, and children into orphans. Our strike on the enemy supply cache last month killed nearly two thousand civilians. I've got enough blood on my hands to earn two eternities in the Abyss." Dropping rank insignia on the table, his gaze returned to the box on the table. "So when I received word that my assignment would come to an end today, a part of me almost felt relieved." He drew a small silver disc from his pocket, a wafer shaped like a coin.
"What is this all about, Captain?" Commander Kurn asked, rising from his chair. "Are you trying to tell us you're retiring?"
But Terras' face was pale. It had been many years since he'd been a soldier in the field, but his instinct hadn't dulled beyond all use. Sanse's voice, his body language, his speech—they suggested he was on the verge of doing something rash.
The captain looked Commander Kurn in the eyes and, with a flick of his wrist, tossed the silver disc into the air. "You might say that, Sir."
The device was something unlike anything Terras had ever seen. It hovered above the seated soldiers, spinning with an almost inaudible whir. A narrow beam of light—a tiny stream of blue—shone down from its center. Gliding from left to right in long sweeping movements, the beam blinked each time it passed over an officer.
"What is this?!" Terras demanded. "Petre, explain yourself!"
"Fifteen captains, seven lieutenants, and five commanders." He spoke in a quiet monotone voice. "All Del'Carjhal senior officers present and accounted for." Upon completion of his sentence, the disc fell to the floor. The previously blue light now glowed blood red.
A single beep came from the box on the table.
Arus pushed himself up and ran as fast as he could, a fresh surge of adrenaline fueling his charge. The drawbridge was higher than he'd hoped, but there was still time to cross the gap. Maintaining speed as he ascended the rising structure, he prepared for the jump.
Everything went wrong.
As he planted his feet at the bridge's crest, there was a deafening explosion. It came from somewhere outside the Proving Grounds—perhaps as close as the barracks. The blast startled Arus so that his legs faltered as he leapt, giving his body only a fraction of the momentum it needed. Desperate to avoid falling into the frigid water, he extended his arms and crashed chest-first into the angled edge of the bridge's opposite side. Metal ridges in the steel surface provided temporary grips for his fingers as he dangled precariously high above the pool. Clinging with all of his strength, he looked up just as the northeast corner of the Proving Grounds burst inward in a shower of debris, sending chunks of rock and shrapnel hurtling across the facility. Survival instinct kicked in, and Arus released his hold on the drawbridge.
The fall seemed to last a lifetime. He could see people racing in every direction, their screams a mixture of frightened shrieks and barked orders. Then he hit the water, a bed of frozen needles that pierced straight to the bone. He panicked at first, struggling and squirming and flailing his arms about in an attempt to right himself before finally forcing both mind and body to relax.
For a moment—a brief moment—he could see the surface of the water. Then it was gone, obscured by a gnarled slab of debris that crashed into the pool. Arus rolled, frantically kicking away to avoid being crushed, but the sinking chunk of mangled metal and stone came down on his back and pinned him to the floor. Though not heavy enough to shatter his spine, the block forced free what little air had been left in his lungs.
Twangs of pain shot through his body. The water seemed to press against him just as much as the debris. He needed oxygen. Complicating matters, additional pieces of rock and twisted fragments of metal continued to fill the water around him. If another large segment came down on top of the first, he would be crushed. There would be no wiggling free; the stone was too wide for that. Had he been facing up, the strength of his artificial arm would've been sufficient. But with his entire torso trapped, there was no leverage to maneuver. He was down to his last option.
In an instant, the weight was gone. Arus barely had time to comprehend what was happening when he felt two strong arms wrap around his middle. With just a few powerful kicks, his rescuer returned them to the surface where Sergeant Garren and Lieutenant Breila pulled them from the frigid water. Arus gasped and choked on all fours as Garren kneeled beside him.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Arus inhaled as much as his lungs could hold. "I think so," he panted.
Nasael rose beside him, shaking the excess water from his hairless head. The temperature seemed not to phase him for some reason, though there was much about the corporal that seemed odd. He wore no shirt, as was often the case. Even when trudging through the snowy terrain of Vaank, he often needed to be reminded to put on a shirt and coat before leaving the base. Most often, he wore only loose gray breeches and boots. Arus assumed that Clu were simply not used to such harsh conditions.
"Thank you, Corporal," Arus said between breaths.
"Of course, Sir," he responded. Waves of blue and grey rolled across his skin. "Are you injured?"
Arus shook his head. "No, thank you." Bruised, perhaps, but not injured. His attention turned to the ruins of the north wall. "By the Maker! What happened?"
The majority of the wall had been destroyed, seemingly crushed from above by some sort of debris. Much of the ceiling had come down with it, including the segment that had pinned him underwater. With the Proving Grounds now exposed, the winter air swept in unencumbered. But as Arus raced to the wreckage alongside his fellow soldiers, the harsh winds were little more than a distant concern.
"That looks like a piece of the Command Station," Lieutenant Breila said, pointing at a giant section of wall partially buried beneath the rubble. Indeed, the color and arrangement of the individual blocks differed greatly from the stone used to construct the Proving Grounds. It appeared to be a portion of one of the Command Station's towers.
Upon arriving beside the wreckage, Arus' heart stopped. There, looming in the sky to the northeast of the Proving Grounds, stood the remains of the Command Station. Only half of the structure was left; it looked as though it had been torn in two. What remained would soon be consumed by spreading fire. Across Del'Carjhal, plumes of smoke rose from various buildings. Whether or not the fires had been initiated by falling debris or were separate incidents wasn't yet clear, but either way, it didn't much matter.
Del'Carjhal was in flames.