Book: Shattered Lineage



Shattered Lineage




Shattered Lineage


Dave Walsh



Copyright © 2020 by Dave Walsh

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.



Contents


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The Shattered Prince.

1. The Captain.

2. The Artist.

3. The Captain.

4. The Artist.

5. The Captain.

6. The Artist.

7. The Captain.

8. The Artist.

9. The Captain.

10. The Dreamer, Fading.

11. Datar the Destroyer.

12. The Captain.

13. The Dreamer, Suspended.

14. The Captain.

15. The Dreamer, Frayed.

16. The Captain.

17. The Dreamer, in Motion.

18. The Captain.

19. The Pilot.

20. Datar the Destroyer.

21. The Dreamer, Stirring.

22. The Captain.

23. The Pilot.

24. Datar the Destroyer.

25. The Captain.

26. The Pilot.

27. Datar the Destroyer.

28. The Captain.

29. The Pilot.

30. The Captain.

31. The Pilot.

32. The Dreamer.

33. The Artist.

34. The Pilot.

35. The Captain.

Also by Dave Walsh

About the Author

Author’s Notes


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The Shattered Prince.

The hulking wreck of the Integer lay buried in the sand, flames still crackling along the hull and smoke billowing up into the sky. Datar's boots sunk into the sand, the anticipation of each step driving him mad with power. No Gra'al had heard the voice of the sunken god, somehow only puny Terrans serving as conduits for His power. The presence was undeniable, though. He was here, on Endigo, in that ship, at least whatever remained of him after the usurpers destroyed yet another part of his culture.

Datar grimaced at the heat of the hull, fighting through the pain to tear away the panels and gain entry. He had to work fast, before anyone from Liuenta found their way to the wreckage and the first blood of his revolution would spill out onto their soil. Endigo was the home to ghosts, but the blood would be Gra'al blood, and on Gra'al land. His revolution would not be bloodless, that much Datar knew, but he did not intend to discern between Terran or Gra'al enemies, they would all be dispatched just the same once His power was harnessed. The thin, long mane of hair atop his head collected into a narrow braided ponytail decorated with small ornaments from his conquests. Some just bone fragments, others teeth or bullet casings. There were 24. Those were just his prized kills.

The inside of the Integer was a mess: waterlogged, banged up from the explosion on Thuul and the subsequent crash into the vast desert of Endigo. The ship stank of seawater and Terran filth, Datar grunting while he walked along the wall over the overturned ship towards the cockpit. It forced him to crawl up into the cockpit due to the angle the ship had settled in and the damage it had taken through its flight, the smoke thickest inside the cockpit. There was a man barely breathing laying on the ground, impaled by a panel that had broken free and pinned him against the wall. Feeling Datar's presence, the man's eyes darted open, red and wild.

"You have come for Him," the man said.

"I have come for my destiny," Datar replied.

"No Gra'al has ever wielded His power."

"Until now." Datar unsheathed his blade from his back, gripping the long, triangular blade with a long, double-handed hilt tightly.

"You'll never know His power." The man laughed through his own dying breaths.

With a flick of his wrist, the blade cut clean through the man's neck in one swift motion, blood spraying from the artery out onto him, coating him in a fine red mist. Datar smashed the cockpit window out with the hilt of his blade, hopping down onto the sands, leaving behind him a trail of red while he clutched at the man's head by the crown of gray hair that wrapped around his scalp. His eyes were wide open, serene and all-knowing somehow.

Smug Terran.

Datar clomped back to his ship, sheathing his blade and wiping the man's blood away from his eyes and smashing his palm against the scanner by the door. A ramp extended down to his feet, inviting him into the Ligent, the head clasped in his hand and the first part of his plan complete. Now he just needed to find the boy.


One


The Captain.

Quiet had become the enemy since Thuul's destruction. Somehow, after almost a year of nonstop chaos, the quiet wasn't welcome or a warm embrace; it was deafening and all-consuming. Everything around her was still, quiet and disarming. Drake had been gone for three months, living with Bruce and working as a sort of artist-in-residence for Vetru, and the communications had slowed to a drip now that he had found his rhythm there.

Valencia had been deluding herself to think the crew was like a family. Maybe it was what she was missing in her life and what she was looking for. Or maybe this was what a real family was like: cold, distant and only calling occasionally. She didn't really know. The Trystero and its crew were the closest thing that she had ever known to a stable family life, and she had to deal with Drake's absence, because at least Bec and Gentar were still there. There were not just a fine crew, they were good friends and the real family that she needed.

Gentar was down in the hold doing pull-ups on Atticus's old pull-up bar he had installed long before she ever set foot on the Trystero. She had gone down there to read, an old paperback she haggled for back on Biztsoft tucked underneath her arm. She sat down anyway, her back against the cold metal hull, and just watched while Gentar hefted his giant frame up and gracefully let it down, repeatedly until he hopped down and wiped his brow.

"Oh, I didn't see you there, captain," he said.

"That's okay, I was being quiet," she said.

"I was just using Sergeant Rose's equipment and thinking about him. A complicated man, he's really made me think about your people differently."

"I never really thought of Atticus as complicated. He was just a man of principle."

"He hated my people with a burning passion, captain."

"That's an understatement."

"Yet he put his life on the line for me, as I did for him and then did for Drake Rose."

"Because you're a good person, Gentar, that's why. He was too, just in his own way. He needed to figure out what mattered to him and what didn't."

"It's unfortunate that some of those lessons came in his final moments."

"That's life for you, isn't it?"

"That's a rather morose lesson," he said. "Although I'm glad that I could help Drake Rose when I did."

"I miss him, Gen," she said, letting the words spill out.

"As do I. He's where he belongs right now, though. We have to remember that and respect his decision."

"I know, I just wish that I could let him do his thing but have him closer, you know? Like he had the art classes on Biztsoft..."

"He didn't particularly care for those, did he?"

"I don't know, he never talked to me about them. He was actually pretty open about what he was working on, at least."

"True enough. I believe he felt uncomfortable with the commercial implications of the training."

"Yeah, I guess. I don't know. I wanted him to spend more time with Bruce, I just didn't know how that would impact me."

"He's still alive, captain. That was a group effort. Perhaps he was meant for the life of a truth-teller instead of that of a daring space rogue."

"Is that what we are?" 'Daring space rogues' out on the frontier?"

He merely shrugged.

"Whatever it is we are I don't know but I don't think it was the life for Drake Rose or the warlord."

"You're probably right," she said. "Still doesn't make me feel any better."

"I wasn't trying to."

"What's this?" a voice boomed from the stairwell. "We planning our next mission out here?"

"No, Jimmy," she said. Jimmy, the guy they had hired back on Biztsoft on a very temporary basis, strut down into the cargo hold, his blaster pistol affixed to the hip of his tight black pants. He stuffed his frame into a tight black sweater and his dirty blonde hair had enough product in it to keep it looking windswept even in the depths of space. "What have I told you about wearing your sidearm aboard the Trys?"

"Yeah, I know," he said. "I thought it was just a suggestion is all. Gotta be ready for action, ya know?"

"No, I don't know."

"Yeah, well, that's just who I am." He drew his blaster, spinning it on his finger and slamming it back down into its holster. "Ready for action."

"Give me a break," she said. "Hey Gen, go wash up, I'll go check with Bec to see how much time we've got until the rendezvous."

"Agreed," Gentar said, stomping off towards the shower.

Valencia stood at the foot of the stairs, Jimmy leaning back against them and taking up the entire stairwell. She cleared her throat, him seemingly not noticing or just choosing not to. She let out a sigh and kicked his boot; him smirking at her. "Sooo, Valencia," he said, letting his tongue roll for dramatic effect.

"Jimmy, so help me, I will kill you right here and now," she said. "Get out of my way."

"I was just thinking that we really should get to know each other better, you being the captain and all and me, well, being the suave rogue that you picked to come along. The best man for the job."

"You were the only one I could afford," she said.

"Don't act like that," he said. "Really, you and I both know that we have a connection."

"Yeah? Let's test that connection on this next job, which you should get ready for." With the toe of her boot she pushed him aside, stepping past him up the stairs and doing her best to ignore him.

"Alright, we'll talk later."

"Don't press your luck," she muttered.

Valencia paused at the door to Drake's room, right next to the empty room that Atticus had lived in. She hadn't been overly sentimental, at least she didn't think so, letting Gentar live in the old captain's quarters because they were larger. She had thought of Deuce as an uncle and owed a lot of what she had now to him and Atticus, but still, the ship was the ship and space was limited, even if they never had the full complement of six crew members.

The sergeant wouldn't be coming back, but Drake? Who knew? She left his room the way it was, especially with how crazy the last year and a half had been for them, it was impossible to know what the future may bring. At least she held onto hope that he'd be back. The ship without the grumpy sergeant, the moody artist, the crying baby or even the Sentinel whispering in her mind felt unbelievably empty. Bec was in her usual position, curled up in the pilot's seat with a string of licorice hanging from her lips and her headphones on, pushing her hair back in a frizzy swoop.

"Cap," Bec said, resting the headphones around her neck. "What's up?"

"Honestly, just trying to get away from Jimmy."

"Ugh," the pilot said. "Talk about skeeving me out."

"Why'd we hire him again?" she asked.

"Because we need someone else, unless you want me to install a remote pilot program on this old girl."

"We talked about that already."

"Yeah, I know. I don't think the Trys would take kindly to that, but you never know."

"I appreciate you humoring me, Bec, although we both know you would rather die than let an AI control this ship."

"I know, I know," she said. "I'm just worried about you is all."

"It's noted and appreciated."

"We've had one helluva run, Val. Maybe it's time to look into doing something else?"

"I'm not sure what else there would be for me out there, what about you?"

"I dunno, I'd just have to find another ship... not that I want to or anything."

"You are a good pilot," she conceded.

"Thanks, cap."

"Anyway, how long until the pick up?"

"Any time now. These are the coordinates they gave us. I'd say we give them twenty minutes and—oh wait," she said, flicking a switch on the board. "Looks like they're here."

"Get us docked and ready, I'll make sure Gentar is ready to go. Easy job, right?"

"Easy job, cap."

Shattered Lineage

Valencia and Gentar stood at the ready by the airlock, watching through the small window while two figures approached with a case in-hand. Jimmy was mulling around in the back, doing his best to look moody and intimidating, Valencia doing her best to ignore him. If they were lucky he'd just stay back there and not stick his nose into the job like he seemed to have a knack for. She remembered back to her first mission where the captain had scolded her and told her to stick behind and tried to remain calm with him, but she at least had common sense. Jimmy? Not really.

"Captain Vasquez?" the stout man in the front carrying a shock rifle asked.

"In the flesh, you must be Delgado."

"Uh huh," he said. "This here's Zeren and Jora, the twins we call 'em."

"Are they actually twins?" she asked, studying the pair. They were wearing encounter suits and it was difficult to tell exactly how similar they looked. The woman was tall and lean with a shaved head while the guy was pudgier with messy short hair.

"These two?" he asked. "Nah, we just call 'em that because they're inseparable. You know how it is with crews."

"Yeah."

"So, anyway, this crate here is the goods."

"Gen, you mind checking it out?" she asked.

"Sure, captain," he said. "With your permission, Mr. Delgado?"

"Of course." He motioned towards the crate, the twins cracking it open to show a case full of various gems. "Careful with that stuff, it's stable enough as it is, but any sparks or you jostle it too much and, well, I don't have to tell you."

"No, you don't," she said. "Zed-4's a bitch to handle."

"You're telling me, I've been working for the mines for fifteen years now, until you've seen this stuff ignite it's hard to know how dangerous it really is."

Gentar carefully held up a crystal, rolling it around in his palm before lightly placing it back in the case. The twins closed the lid, snapping it shut only for Jimmy to clear his throat and swagger over. Valencia sighed and shook her head. "What is it, Jimmy?"

"You're just gonna trust them like this?" he asked.

"Yes, Jimmy, we are," she said. "This isn't a complicated job here."

"And if this isn't the real deal?"

"What is he talking about?" Delgado asked. "Who is this?"

"Wouldn't you like to know," he said, slithering towards the case.

"Captain?" Delgado asked.

"Jimmy, I don't really care at this point. We've got the goods, I'm sending a message to the buyer and everything is cool, okay?"

"I dunno, Valencia," he said, rolling his tongue again.

"I've been working for Zircon Mines for fifteen years," Delgado said. "This is Zed-4, there's nothing suspicious here."

"Well then," Jimmy said, slapping the lid back open. "I'm sure you won't mind if I do some inspections myself, then."

The twins drew their guns and pointed at Jimmy. Jimmy shook his head and laughed under his breath, brushing the hair out of his eyes with the barrel of his pistol. Gentar was reaching for his rifle, Valencia holding her hand out to him and motioning for him to stop. Jimmy straightened himself out, his blaster in one hand and a Zed-4 crystal in another.

"Getting a bit tense in here, like I'm gonna find out this isn't Zed-4, huh?" Jimmy pointed his blaster at the crystal. "If this was real, would you be pointing those guns at me? I think not."

"Jimmy, put the damned crystal down and apologize, right now," the captain ordered.

"I got this, cap," he said. "I can smell a rat from a mile away."

"He's insane," Delgado said. "He's absolutely insane."

Gentar looked at Valencia, motioning with his head towards Jimmy, her returning the nod. They'd have to be careful to make sure the Zed crystal didn't get damaged and blow them all into dust and also needed to avoid Delgado's crew getting an itchy trigger finger and making things a lot more complicated. She looked at Delgado, then the twins and gave a slight nod, Jimmy still in awe of himself and his own cleverness. With another nod to Gentar they sprang into action: Valencia snatching the crystal from his outstretched hand and while she distracted him, Gentar wrapped his arm around the man's neck, tugging him backwards onto the ground.

Jimmy's blaster clattered against the ground, Valencia kicking it aside before returning the crystal to Delgado's hand. Jimmy was groaning on the ground, Gentar hovering over him. "Stay down," Gentar said.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "Clearly things aren't working out here. You have my deepest apologies and I'll be sure to make it up to you."

"It's fine," Delgado said, slapping the lid shut. "We'll be leaving now."

Valencia wanted to bury her head into a book and hide the shame that had taken hold of her, instead she stood there with a dumb, fake smile on her face while the three of them exited the ship and clomped back across the tube to their own ship. Jimmy was leaning against a crate and rubbing his neck, groaning and mumbling to himself like a child, and Valencia wanted nothing better than to just shoot him out of the airlock and be done with it. Instead, she helped Gentar secure the crate against the bulkhead.

"You didn't even run a test on it," Jimmy muttered.

"A test? How long have you been in this business, you asshole?"

"It's common sense, it's always the ones that seem—"

"I will only say this once before I give in to my burning desire to see how long you last outside of that airlock: shut up."

"Hey, you know what? I know where my expertise isn't wanted, but Val—"

Valencia brought her forearm down across his jaw, Jimmy whimpering and rubbing at his sore face.

"Don't you dare roll that tongue again, you hear that? I asked you a question: do you hear me?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"You're damned right."

"You could've gotten us all killed," Gentar said.

"I was just—"

"You were being a smartass," she said. "You thought you were being clever, but you weren't and you aren't. You're just an asshole, Jimmy. If you're lucky, we'll dump you at Biztsoft. Another damned word out of you and the next rock we find floating out there, we'll leave you with a suit and a beacon."

"Understood," he mumbled under his breath.

"I said not another damned word."

His eyes grew large, and he nodded his head in fear, Valencia stomping off towards her quarters. "Asshole," she said.


Two


The Artist.

The small taste of Triinal that Drake had gotten during their first trip there was only scratching the surface. Instead of being treated like an outsider, his status with Vetru meant he was introduced as a member of House Lazaar with close, personal ties to not just the head of the house, but the Warlord Regent himself. There were very few questions asked of him—at least directly—and thanks to his relation to Bruce, Drake maintained a sense of mystique over the rumored involvement in the downfall of the usurper Giga, which meant being treated like a hero.

His brush danced along the canvas inside his cavernous studio. His favorite deathdrone band, Gaean Tears, drove the rhythm to his manic painting through his earpiece. The Gra'al paints differed greatly from the oil-based paints he was used to, Drake sheepishly requesting expensive sets of them at first before forcing himself to learn how to work with the chalkier Gra'al paint. When fresh, Gra'al paint was a joy to work with, colors flowing freely and vividly filling his canvases, forcing him to expand where his compositions went. The only downside was that they dried quickly and when they dried became a chalk-like rock that were more trouble than they were worth to make workable again, meaning that he also had to adjust how much paint he prepared and how quickly he moved.

Previously he'd pause and think more, every stroke deliberate and calculated. His strokes conjured from somewhere deep within, the kind that came from a place of discomfort and subconscious wills that he tried to suppress. He knew that Thuul and whatever that being was that took over his mind had been destroyed, but it didn't stop the memories from flashing back to him in his dreams or the laughter from not haunting him. At least it wasn't during his waking hours, and at least it wasn't real anymore. He was dead, along with the Children and those complicated memories. Images from when he blacked out would come to him in bursts, overpowering him and would usually be followed by a few days of bed rest at the behest of Vetru's doctor, who was learning more about Terrans than she ever imagined through Drake, although he didn't consider himself typical of most humans and not a great test subject.

A cry from the next room pierced through his music, Drake pausing for a moment before sighing and slapping his brush into the little jar of water on his workstation. The worst part about trying to paint using these strange Gra'al paints with a kid around had to be the interruption that always led to dry, chalky paint that he had to toss out. There were advantages to painting on freshly laid paint as well, but he was there for a reason: to be with Bruce. The painting was extra.

"I'm coming, buddy," he called out.

He ducked through the door into Bruce's playroom. The doors in the grand buildings for Gra'als were all tall enough to fit a small ship through, but in most buildings meant for normal use? They were just a bit shorter than the average Terran doorway, making him have to duck down each time. Vetru always laughed watching Drake bob his mop of hair down beneath the door frames and would only laugh harder when he'd misjudge and smack his head.

Bruce sat on the ground, tucked into a neat little blue shirt and pants, tears streaming down his pudgy cheeks. His favorite toy, a rubber paintbrush that he had gnawed on considerably, sat by his side and a bottle of the slightly green milk the Gra'als drank that came from a six-legged pack animal called a Drex was overturned in front of him. Drake sat next to him, tugging the heavy baby onto his lap, gently bouncing him on his knee while he shushed at him.

"It's okay, big guy," he said. "What's the matter?"

"Hurts," Bruce squeaked out.

"It's okay, what hurts? Did you fall down?"

Bruce nodded his head.

"He was trying to climb up the shelf," a voice came from the next room. The usual chiding tone of Vetru's partner, Sudra.

"C'mon, buddy, you know you aren't supposed to do that."

"You can't leave him for too long like that," Sudra said. She stepped into the room with her arms crossed. "He just gets into trouble."

"I know," Drake said. "I thought that you were watching—"

"I try," she said. "It's not my job, though. You came here to be with Jek'tu."

"I know, I know, trust me. I just want to be able to paint sometimes, too. You guys have given me so much freedom and so many resources it feels like a waste not to use them, you know?"

"I was happy to raise Jek'tu as our own," she said. "He's a sweet boy with too much pressure on his shoulders that he doesn't even know yet and I'm happy to help..."

"But?"

"But you've been spending more and more time painting and I've been spending more time with Jek'tu."

"I'm sorry. I just sort of go through these ebbs and flows where my mind is a mess and... I understand, okay? I'll spend more time with him."

"It's time for his nap now, anyway."

"Already?" Drake glanced at the antique Gra'al clock on the wall, built out of stone and early organic matter that their ships are built of, a slim stick of rock traveled along a sheet of different-colored rocks from across the Gra'al Empire. Sure enough, it was just past midday and Bruce's tears were a blend of pain, frustration and exhaustion. "Alright, Bruce, let's get you to bed, okay?"

"No bed," Bruce snapped. "No bed!"

"Alright, alright," he said, hefting himself and the child up. "I know you don't want to take a nap but you need to."

"I have an appointment now," Sudra said. She was ready to leave, Drake noted, dressed in a blend of modern and traditional Gra'al fashion: an earthy-toned tunic draped with vibrant, organically enhanced fabric that glimmered with a green that still sent shivers down his spine. Her face was more angular than most of the Gra'al he knew, with a more pronounced jaw and nose, her skin a lighter hue of grey bordering on being off white. They awarded the title of Huntress to most women in her position, which came with decorative crowns and blades, only for her to reject it as the Huntress Regent, choosing instead to remain humble.

"Okay," he said. "When can we expect you back?"

"Vetru and I have a dinner later tonight, so perhaps we won't see you until tomorrow."

"Alright, have fun, then."

She gave a curt, uncomfortable nod before leaving the room. It was a learned behavior from Drake that she was attempting to acclimate to but wasn't entirely sure of just yet. Still, it was a small gesture of her learning and accommodating for Drake while he helped raise Bruce. In turn, Drake did his best to raise Bruce to be a Gra'al, which meant learning the language, feeding Bruce food that was local to Triinal and doing his best to keep the customs of his people at the forefront. His Gra'alian was terrible by most accounts: awkward, bumbling and slurring out the words, but it was still an attempt. Of course, Bruce's first words were in Terran standard, which came as a shock to nobody considering it was Drake's native tongue and what he spoke naturally.

Bruce could walk just fine at this point, still Drake carried him when he wanted to get somewhere quickly. Sometimes expediency mattered beyond trying to hammer a concept like walking and self-autonomy into the little guy's head. Vetru's home itself was large, sprawling, and what Drake would expect from a great leader of another race. There were fewer guards than expected but that was, in part, Vetru's unwavering faith in his image as a beacon of hope to the Gra'al people, supported by endless polling data that different branches of the government ran and Vetru tried to ignore. He wasn't the type of ruler that locked himself away in a fortress and kept to himself.

That meant that Drake and Bruce lived most of their lives undisturbed, allowed to come and go as they wished, taking occasional visitors, but it was mostly just Vetru checking in or Sudra helping to watch Bruce while Drake painted. He knew that for Bruce's own good he needed to be around other kids more, so he took him to the park occasionally but it was usually just Drake and Bruce playing together for most of the days with little contact with the outside world. It turned out that raising a kid was extremely isolating and left him feeling inadequate at everything he had done or failed to accomplish before meeting Bruce and Bruce taking over his life.

"Here we are, buddy, you want a story?" he asked.

"No bed," Bruce grumbled.

"I'm tired, Bruce and I know you are, too. Please, go to sleep, okay? Here, I'll tuck you in and read you a book." Bruce ambled into bed, Drake getting a strong whiff of something rancid and catching him before he could get too comfortable. "Um, how's that diaper?"

With both hands he pulled Bruce up towards his nose, an acrid confirmation that he needed a new diaper. Drake snatched one off of the shelf next to the bed along with a few warm wipes, swiftly unfastening the diaper, wiping, folding the messy one up into a neat ball and tossing it aside before securing the other one and cinching his pants up. Bruce was otherworldly tired, his little eyes struggling to remain open and his hands reaching out almost at random. Drake laid him back down on his mattress and dragged his favorite blanket up over him, rubbing his hand down the side of the boy's arm while he drifted off to sleep.

It was never that easy.

This meant he could actually get some painting done, and maybe his paints hadn't turned into a chalky mess that he'd need to clean up before he could get started again.

Shattered Lineage

The residence that Drake shared with Bruce was built onto the side of Vetru's home, his painting studio a cavernous atrium with a wall of windows that overlooked the great city of Venga, the capital of Triinal. Still, he liked the idea of it being a cave, draping long pieces of canvas from the ceiling to block out the light and afford him the ability to paint in low light just like he was used to aboard the Trystero. A pang of regret hit him hard, Drake needing to suppress the distant bellowing laugh in the back of his mind, a relic of the past he had to remind himself didn't exist anymore. He had a video message from the captain waiting for him that he'd been sitting on for a few days. He never meant to be like that and not respond right away, it was just something that happened with him.

Drake strolled through the hallway, snagging a Dengenfruit from the kitchen to chomp on while he worked. The slightly sour, almost apple-like flavor made it easier to palate compared to a lot of the other fruits that came from Triinal. Vetru had been buying supplies from Biztsoft and having them shipped in for Drake to feel more at home, which was nice, he still tried to meet them halfway and consume some of their local foods. A sudden, sharp pain made him cry out, Drake almost crashing to the ground only to catch himself against the small shelf that Bruce had fallen trying to climb before. He had stepped on a small starship toy of Bruce's that was wet, covered in the boy's saliva. Drake would be happy when the kid had a complete set of teeth and stopped gnawing on everything already. Damn Gra'als and how many teeth their mouths could fit.

Drake's heart froze at the sound of something from his studio. Though hard to discern, it almost sounded like footsteps on the stone floor inside the atrium. The room remained dark throughout most of the day and only a small throw rug sat in the middle where he painted most of the time, the rest of the floor echoing off the stone walls and partial roof that didn't have windows. He had to be hallucinating again. The strange after effect of his time on Thuul and the encounter with Him was the distant echo of laughter in his mind and sometimes seeing and hearing things that weren't there.



"Sudra? I thought you had somewhere to be?" he called out tentatively. "Sudra? Is that you? Vetru?"

No response.

His heart skipped a beat. Not everyone had been happy with Vetru's temporary ascension, especially those from House Gigar, which faced harsh punishments and humiliations for following Giga's rebellion and slaughtering innocent Gra'al at the behest of a madman. Vetru had assured him that there was peace brokered between the houses but Drake always worried that the anti-Terran holdouts would look to him as a prized trophy to spark a new revolution, never mind Bruce.

"Seriously, Vetru, is that you?"

No answer again. Drake grabbed for the nearest blunt object he could find, wielding a lamp like a bludgeon. He'd feel foolish about it later, for now he had to worry about what waited for him in the next room. With caution he approached the doorway, crouching next to it to listen in. Another set of clomps against the stone floor confirmed that someone was there and they weren't answering.

"I have a weapon and I have a call out to Vetru's guards," Drake said. "You don't want to mess with them, trust me."

One deep breath later and Drake dashed into the room, lamp in hand, ready to smash whoever was there over the head only for it to be empty. Just the small table with his paint supplies, his easel and stool on the small rug in the middle with the dramatic light streaming down from above onto it. The canvas sheets by the windows moved with the wind, Drake cursing under his breath at his foolishness: he had left one of the windows open again.

"Such an idiot, Dray," he muttered under his breath.

Resting the lamp on his table, he pulled the giant curtain aside, tugging at the window control and cranking it shut, the great window groaning with each turn. He didn't remember leaving that window open, but he also wasn't exactly getting a ton of sleep with Bruce's last set of teeth coming in and him up all night crying for the last week or so. Time had been lost to him and his paintings had taken a backseat to basic survival, which felt perverse considering all the life-or-death situations he had been in before and somehow this was survival. Raising kids was a trip. Moving back through the curtain, his stomach dropped at the sight of a shadowy figure standing before him.

"Vetru?" he asked.

"Wrong," the voice replied. The figure stepped out of the shadows, muscular and lean, even for a Gra'al, with an uncommon strip of hair in a mohawk atop his head, his face marked with green and red symbols down the right side of it that Drake couldn't make out. In his hand he held a large, bone-hilted blade that angled almost into a scythe, the light from above reflecting off it and onto Drake's face. "I am not a traitor to my people."

"O-kay," Drake said, raising his hands up. "I'm not sure who you are or how you're here but I called Vetru's guard, they'll be here any second."

"No, they will not," he said, rotating his blade to show splatters of green blood along it.

"Who are you? You're insane, what do you think you're doing?" Drake was backing up, the lamp now well out of his reach. Not that it would do much good for him. "I've done nothing wrong."

"I am Datar," he said, standing in place while Drake attempted to retreat.

"Okay, so Datar, what can I do for you?"

"You killed my father."

"What?" Drake scanned his memory, wondering if something else had happened when He had control over his mind. "I couldn't have, I mean—"

"I am Datar, son of Giga, the heir to the House Gigar."

Drake's blood ran cold, his eyes bulged out.

"A-are you here to kill me?"

"Kill you?" Datar advanced, his blade outstretched towards Drake's neck. "If I wanted your head, it would already be mine. No, I need you to harness His power."

"What? What are you talking about?"

"You're coming with me."


Three


The Captain.

"You sure you want to do this?" Jimmy asked. He looked like a sad, lost puppy standing there in the dock, a bag in each hand, his holster empty.

"If I were to be the type of captain that allows an asshole like you to do whatever the hell you want aboard my ship I'd be doing everyone—including your dumb ass—a disservice," Valencia said. "My job is to keep everyone safe, and I can't if everyone isn't going to listen. So yeah, I'm sure I want to do this."

"Valencia, please," he said.

"Get out of my sight, Jimmy. I don't ever want to see you by my ship or my crew again or I'll cut your balls off, you understand?"

"B-but—"

"Do you understand?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Now get out of here."

Shoulders hunched over, Jimmy slinked away from the ship, towards the bustling dock and the promenade of the all-too-familiar Biztsoft Station. Their docking station cost them a fortune before, but after their last few adventures the consulate's office had waived their fees, a peace offering of sorts for being completely worthless in assisting them whenever they needed it. It was still a far cry from the VIP hangar that they'd seen before, with uninterrupted access to private lanes and not having to deal with the random patrols and searches, but it'd do. An old junker like the Trys didn't belong in a fancy place like that, anyway.

"So now what?" Gentar asked.

"We go it alone," she said. "If someone comes along we'll know, right?"

"I'd feel more comfortable with a fourth."

"Same here, but you know what? The former captain of this ship got along fine with just three."

"Didn't he die being sucked out of the airlock?"

"Yeah, but I mean... it'll be fine."

"Whatever you say, captain," he grunted. "We should get this onto the loader and make the drop soon."

"Yeah, we will, don't worry about it. Hey, Bec?" she called over the comm.

"Yeah, cap?"

"We're gonna go make the drop, if you wanna lock her up and go in for supplies that'd be great."

"Can do," she said.

"Maybe a bit less of the red ropes this time?"

"Pfft, c'mon, cap," she said. "Jimmy was dipping into my stash."

"Fine, just be quick, this drop shouldn't take too long."

Shattered Lineage

Gentar sat across from Valencia in her favorite cafe on the promenade, absently picking through a comically-large bowl of soup that the menu claimed was an old Gra'al recipe with a new Terran kick but he hadn't stopped grumbling about since it was laid down in front of him. Valencia sipped on a cup of tea, savoring it for a second and closing her eyes, wondering where she had steered the crew wrong and if Jimmy was just another in a long line of very poor decisions that disqualified her from leading anyone, never mind the crew of the Trys.

"That went well," Gentar said, breaking the silence.

"What? Oh, yeah, right, the job went just well, yeah."

"You seem preoccupied, if you don't mind me saying."

"I hired that guy, didn't I?"

"Yes, you did, but I don't see—"

"I hired him, I brought him into our crew—our family—and I knew he wasn't a good fit. I knew it."

"There weren't exactly many options, captain."

"No, there weren't, but the clearest option was sitting right there in front of me the whole time."

"Which was?"

"That we go it alone. I dunno, I guess I just saw something in his attitude that reminded me of myself when I wanted to get out into the great expanse and have adventures."

"He's older than you were and clearly not as measured."

"Yeah, well, you didn't know me back then."

"Sergeant Rose saw it fit to continue working with you, he even gave his life for this crew."

"That was a long time ago when he decided that and look where my leadership sent him."

"Captain, if you don't mind me saying..."

"What is it?"

"Ever since Thuul you've been doubting your abilities as a leader when, truthfully, you were able to lead us through a very complicated situation virtually unscathed."

"Yeah, well, why did Drake leave then?"

"Because of the boy," he said. "It's quite admirable, actually."

"What is?"

"That he opted to care for the boy like that, that he didn't want to risk his life again. He's growing up into a man now."

"Maybe he is, I don't know, I just don't feel good about it. Then Jimmy? What was I thinking?"

"It's always better to have a larger crew. How were we to know this mission would go so smoothly? We were lucky, we've seen how these can go," he said.

"I know that you're right, Gentar, I dunno, I'm just beating myself up over all of this and I'm not sure how to process it. I wanted to be that captain that everyone liked being around. That gave people chances. The kind of chances that I would've killed for when I was alone on this station."

"Not everything is about you, captain," he said. "Sometimes people just have their own issues to work out. Drake is doing that right now. He's walking his own path."

"And we're walking ours, right?"

"Yes, we are."

Valencia stared into her tea mug, the bag sitting off to the side on a small plate, the mug half-empty. Her thirst had slipped away throughout the course of their conversation and her mind had drifted to if there even was a next job for them. It had been years since they embarked without a new job to guide them, and it didn't help that she felt lost as it was.

"Any leads on the next job, captain?" Gentar asked.

"Umm, not really," she said.

"Oh. Do you want me to look?"

"I'm not really sure at this point, Gentar."

Gentar nodded at her, a gesture that she understood didn't come naturally to him, but he had picked up throughout the year and a half that he had been a part of the crew. Gestures were important to humans and how they interacted with each other while audible cues were important for Gra'als, their facial structures leading to less facial tics and muscle control.

"What if we took a vacation?" she asked.

"A vacation?"

"Yeah, you know, like where we just go somewhere and enjoy ourselves for a bit? Maybe we could go visit Drake and Bruce or something?"

"That doesn't sound like a bad idea," he conceded. "I'd like to keep abreast of what's been happening in the Empire."

"Right, you and Vetru can talk about... that stuff."

"I'm sure Drake Rose will be excited to see us."

"Yeah, I hope so, he still hasn't replied to my last message."

"That's how he is sometimes," Gentar said. "Remember, he's caring for Jek'tu right now."

"I guess so. Hey, let's surprise him, then. Just show up unannounced and visit."

"Agreed, let's collect Becca and return to the Trystero."

Shattered Lineage

A somber hush had fallen over the crew on their journey. Even the idea of visiting with friends and taking some time off wasn't enough to bring cheer to any of the crew. Becca and Gentar exchanged glances whenever Valencia was around, making her think that they were walking on eggshells around her to not set her off. They knew that something was off with her and not how to address it. Valencia was down in the cargo hold with an old paperback in hand, although she wasn't really in the mood to read much.

Whenever she closed her eyes all she could see or think of were the horrors from Thuul and the overwhelming sense of loss that she felt in relation to Emma, or the Sentinel, or who knows if there was a way to separate them out and understand the difference between the two or how she felt. The link between the two entities had solidified in her mind and they existed within the same plane of reality, even if she never met the real Emma Browning and the person she met was a projection from the Sentinel with those piercing green eyes.

"Hey Val," Becca's voice broke through the darkness.

"Oh, hey Bec, sorry, I was just resting my eyes a bit."

"Yeah, no problem. Just wanted to let you know that we're just about to Triinal. I know you wanted it to be a surprise and all but Gentar thought it would be a good idea to contact Vetru, you know, so they wouldn't be caught off guard or anything."

"Sure, hey, why not, right?" she asked. "That's fine, yeah. It'll be a surprise for Drake, right?"

"Yeah, for sure. It'll be really nice to see them. It's been a while, huh?"

"We haven't been back since we dropped him off, so yeah, it's been months. Shit, Bruce is probably what? A year and a half now or something?" Valencia asked, trying to remember what it was like to be around him and how different it would be now.

"I think so, yeah."

"He's gonna be big, wow. Last time we saw him, he was barely walking. He's probably running around now."

"Yeah, Drake sent a few vids, remember? It's always better to see 'em in person, right?"

"I don't know," she said. "Never really had someone else's baby to go see before."

"Oh, right, I forgot about your whole... family thing. Yeah, my sister's kid is probably what? Five now or something? That's crazy."

"I didn't know you had a sister," Valencia said.

"Yeah, right, I guess I don't talk about her much. She lives on Biztsoft, I go visit her whenever we dock for a bit. She's a botanist, deals with food and keeping a natural air supply, that kind of stuff."

"Wow," Valencia said. "I never knew."

"I'm sorry, Cap, it just never came up is all."

Valencia forced a smile and opened her book up to a random page, pretending to read to bring an end to the conversation. She was doing her best to fight back the tears that were welling up from showing, although she was sure her eyes appeared a bit glassy, making her raise the book up to obscure her face. The pilot clacked her tongue and headed back up towards the kitchen without another word, Valencia fighting the guilt at feeling so betrayed and so alone. She knew Becca better than anyone else, she thought, but even then she only knew a fraction of what went on in her life.

"Keep me posted on an ETA, Bec," she shouted after her.

"Got it," Bec replied.

Ugh.

She needed to do something about her attitude, and fast. No, she didn't know everything about her crew and no; they weren't her real family. What did that mean, anyway? They spent every day of their lives together on the Trystero. There wasn't room for much else beyond their jobs and each other. They should be allowed to have their own private lives, even if she didn't have one. When did Valencia go from the strong, no-nonsense captain in their eyes to the object of their pity? Did it even matter anymore? Being vulnerable around another person still made her recoil instinctively, perhaps just because of how she lived her life up until this point. There were a few tender moments with Becca now and then, but that was it.

Tossing her book aside, Valencia took a slow, deep breath and steeled herself for the inevitable: the look in their eyes when she came into view, the hushed, soft tones and saccharine words. She was beyond that, though; it was time to get out of her slump and enjoy their vacation. Triinal was a giant planet, full of life, culture, and she happened to not just be friends with the leader of the House Lazaar, but the Warlord Regent to the entire Gra'al race. Gentar was tending to his weapons at the kitchen table, her pausing for a moment and remembering when Atticus sat in that same chair and would meticulously pore over his rifles like his life depended on it.

"We get clearance yet?" Valencia asked Bec.

"Oh, hey, Cap," she said. "Haven't heard anything back just yet.

"That's weird, isn't it?"

"I guess so. We're just sort of in orbit now, waiting for clearance."

"Should we contact Vetru again? Or go through someone else?"

"Well, Vetru is who isn't responding, at least nobody from their home is."

"You said you sent a message along before, right? Did he ever respond?"

"No, but it was sort of short notice."

"Has anyone from control messaged us?"

"Yep, I told them we were waiting to hear from Vetru directly and they buzzed off in a hurry."

"Okay," Valencia said. "Contact them again and get clearance through them. If we have to take a car, it'll be fine."

Valencia instinctively hovered over Bec while she worked at the comms, unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong. Vetru was busy considering the breadth of his power and responsibilities, but someone at his home should have responded at some point. The urge to call Drake directly was overwhelming, surprise or no surprise, just to know he's alright and quell the fear bubbling up inside of her. Still, this was supposed to be a vacation and Valencia needed to relax instead of chasing ghosts in her mind nonstop and assuming the worst.

Bec brought the ship in uncharacteristically with little friction. The smoothest landing of their time together should have felt like an accomplishment and instead felt like an ill omen of things being wrong somehow. The three of them boarded a car to head towards Vetru's home, her unable to take in the sights of Triinal and its complicated infrastructure due to the knot in her stomach. Both Gentar and Bec sat quietly, either not sure of what to say or understanding that nothing they could say would make her feel better until they could prove her fears unfounded. There were a few emergency vehicles out in front of Vetru's house, her boots hitting the ground the second the car came to a stop.

"What's going on in there?" she asked.

"No admittance," said the nearest Gra'al. "We're working with the Warlord Regent right now to secure the area."

"Where's Drake?"

"Who?"

"Drake! The Terran who's living here," she exclaimed.

"I'm not really sure—"

"My friend," Gentar said, "we're friends of Vetru. Please, let us in."

"Wait." The Gra'al grumbled, looking over the crew. "You're Gentar."

"Yes, I am, and this is Captain Vasquez and Becca Johnson. We're friends of Vetru's and a member of our crew is staying here."

"Oh," the Gra'al said, pausing. "You should go inside. The Warlord Regent should be just up ahead. Go talk to him."

Valencia dashed up the stone steps, around the beautiful fountain and through the tall glass doors into the grand, open foyer to find Vetru and Sudra speaking with a set of Gra'al in uniform, Bruce wailing in Sudra's arms, his cries echoing throughout the grand hallway. The breath was knocked out of her for a moment, Becca's hand on her shoulder to either reassure her or ensure that she didn't fall over. Her mind was racing, a green flash piercing through from her subconscious that sent a tremor through her whole body.

"Vetru, where's Drake?" she called. "Where is he?"

"I'll handle this, Warlord Regent, sir," one of the uniformed Gra'al said.

"No, wait." Vetru stopped him, advancing slowly towards them. "Captain Vasquez, I'm sorry I didn't get back to you sooner, it's just—"

"What happened?" she interjected.

"It's Drake," he said. "We returned home last night and three of my men had been slaughtered, their heads severed. Jek'tu was crying alone in his room and Drake was missing."

Just like that, her lungs were emptied like a Gra'al punch to the gut.

"Who took him?" Gentar asked. "Who would dare defy the Warlord Regent like this?"

"It's only a theory," Vetru said, "but I think it's one of Giga's men."

"I thought that was taken care of? Who of his men would be loyal enough to defy you?"

"Like I said, it's just a theory but... he did have a son."


Four


The Artist.

The ship was cramped and dark, Datar not bothering to bind Drake's hands or lock him in a compartment, not that it seemed like there was anywhere to stow him aboard the ship. The walls were lined with weapons, and a lone bedroll sat tucked away behind the pilot's seat. Other than that it was just crates piled in the back and a small food synthesizer near what he assumed was the shower and toilet area, the only door other than the outside airlock.

"Where are we going?" Drake asked.

Datar grunted.

"What do you want with me?"

Datar shifted in his seat, reaching for something from the seat next to him and tossing it at Drake. Drake flinched, a thud of an object smacking against his chest and into his lap. He pried his eyes open only to find the head of Tuck sitting in his lap, the blank expression on his face staring up at him. A scream escaped from the inner recesses of his being. The horror at the man's head in his lap made him squirm, thrashing his knees until the head spilled onto the floor with a squelch. A rumbling in the back of his mind tugged at him. The laughter that had been so distant came uniquely into focus for the first time since Thuul.

"What are you doing?" he croaked. "That's Tuck, I thought he was..."

"He boarded the Integer and was able to blast off before the explosion," Datar said calmly. "The explosion pushed the ship out and sent it careening onto Endigo."

"But... why? Why did you hunt him down and take his head?"

"Are you this much of a fool?" Datar asked.

"I don't understand what you want from me."

Datar spun in his chair, approaching Drake and kneeling in front of him, cradling Tuck's head in his arms, the gray hair matted with blood, stuck to his mottled flesh. He hovered over him for a long moment, Drake frozen in fear of what this madman would do with him, all the while the laughter—His laughter—haunted him from the depths of his mind like a bad dream he couldn't shake.

"The power to finish what my father started. The power of a god."

"Y-you can't," he said. "No Gra'al was ever able to—"

"No Gra'al was Datar of House Gigar!"

"You're insane," Drake said.

"I'm reclaiming my destiny from the hands that stole it from me!"

"What do you want with me? I'm nobody."

"You were there when my father died," he snarled. "Not only that, you were there on Thuul and felt His power."

"Whatever that thing was is dead, we blew it out of the sky into bits."

"His power lives on," Datar said.

"How?"

"In the minds of those that he touched. That's why this one was vital to me. I've seen the documents from the Terran."

"What Terran?"

"The one that looked to harness His power."

"You mean Jordache?"

"Whatever his name was doesn't matter. I've studied his work."

"How'd you get a hold of his work? I thought Valencia handed the datapads to..."

"Foolish Terran! I broke into the ship left behind and gathered whatever I could. I've gone wherever the path has led me, including Endigo for this one's mind."

"B-but he's dead."

"The organic matter in his mind has been rewritten. This acolyte contains the essence of a god now."

"Then what do you want with me?"

"You were chosen," he said. "And yet you show no signs of His power."

"I rejected it! I overcame whatever it was. You won't find any traces of that monster in me!"

Datar bellowed out a mighty laugh.

"There's nothing!"

"So you say, Terran." Datar stood up, placing Tuck's head back into a small case and sealing it shut with a hiss. "You will be the conduit to unlock the power for me. I'll not just be the most powerful Gra'al ever, I'll be the most powerful being in the universe."

"There's more to it than that," Drake said. "You can't just... harness whatever that thing was. His power was dangerous, it destroyed and nothing else."

"It was that being that gave Gra'al the power of organics," he said. "It was that power that made us the force that we are today."

"His race exiled Him," Drake said. "There have to be more of them out there. No Terran or Gra'al could stand up to one of those things, never mind more."

"I fear no one! Not some puny Terran, no Gra'al traitor, and surely no ancient race of extinct gods! You think if they still had power they'd leave one so powerful under the supervision of a broken down sentinel like they did? Whatever they are, they're gone now, there's just His power and it will be mine."

"You're insane."

"And you're the fool who rejected this power and the fool that will unlock it for me."

"Where are you taking me?"

"To Lidar." Datar smashed his fist against the synthesizer, producing a bulb of water and a packet of what looked like Terran rations, tossing them into his lap. "Keep your strength up."

"Why Lidar?"

"You ask too many questions, Terran."

"Because of your father?"

Datar went silent, flipping a few switches on the panel and slowly turning back towards Drake.

"You do not talk about my father, Terran. You do not get to question me. Shut your mouth before I put you in stocks."

Shattered Lineage

The craggy, uninviting surface of Lidar was one that would be burned into Drake's mind forever. After everything that he'd been through he'd always remember the feeling of watching his father bleeding out on the ground, him hunkered down on the corpse of Giga before Becca swooped in, raining down fire onto Giga's henchmen and ending that particular nightmare. Datar pushed Drake down the ramp out onto the landing pad. Lidar was just as desolate as the day they had landed there in search of refuge from Datar's father, what felt like a lifetime ago.

"There's nothing here," Drake said. "It's just a dead planet with a few old artists holed up."

"You know nothing about the Gra'al," Datar growled.

"I've lived on Triinal for a while now," he said. Slowly, Drake spoke in broken Gra'al, "I can even speak your tongue."

"Poorly," Datar said. "Never speak like that in front of me again. The translator will suffice."

Datar stuffed Drake into the seat of one of the cars by the landing pad. Drake would've guessed that after what happened there with his father, Giga and the Elders they would've tightened security on the planet, yet things remained virtually identical to the last time he was there. It spoke to the power of Gra'al tradition and to leave Lidar as a sacred place to remain undisturbed.

The car crawled along the familiar road, through the vast nothingness. The occasional ruin would differentiate itself just enough from the landscape to catch Drake's eye, but there was never an attempt to rebuild. The occasional sculpture dotted the landscape, different from the last time, Drake unable to decipher the meaning behind them, understanding that they weren't meant for him after his time on Triinal and speaking with other truth-tellers.

Datar remained stoic during the drive, zipping along past the broken structures and canyons until heading towards the square. The place where their standoff happened and where Drake's father made his last stand. The home of Giga's last stand and Gentar's near-death experience. Char marks from the firefight marked the square. The upturned ship that had been made into a great hall bore the brunt of the visible damage from the missile Bec fired at the soldiers, ending the conflict with an exclamation mark.

"Why here?" Drake asked.

"I said no more questions," Datar said, bringing the car to a halt.

"My father died here, right in front of that building," Drake said.

"Not before slaughtering mine."

Drake could not respond, staring at the ground where the battle had unfolded. He still remembered the feeling of blind firing while hiding behind the hulking corpse of Giga, screaming out for his father while the fire from the Gra'al shredded his flesh. His captor didn't have firsthand memories of the battle, but this place held the same importance to him as it did Drake.

"This place has bad memories for both of us," Drake said carefully. "Why are we here?"

"There's something I need from the Elders."

"I don't know if you know these Elders that well," Drake said. "They aren't keen on the whole involvement thing."

Datar approached the entryway to the building, three of the Elders shuffling out wearing their traditional Gra'al robes: the middle one with a decorative thread along her robe to infer authority. Datar drew his scythe and stood before them defiantly. His ship was chock full of weapons yet he only brought the one blade with him, much like on Triinal, where he had fought through the guards at Vetru's home to gain access to Drake's studio without as much as firing off a shot. Datar exuded an uncontrollable, dangerous energy in everything that he did, like he was ready to explode at any second.

"Who stands before the Elders of Lidar?" the middle one asked.

"Datar of House Gigar," he snarled. "I'm here for the crystal."

"Datar, son of Giga," the Elder spoke. "Your father spilled Gra'al blood on our sacred land, brought Terrans to our most revered place and sowed chaos like no other. Since the House Accord, no one had dared to spill blood on Lidarian soil. This place is not for you, son of Giga. Nor is it a place for him."

"I'll say it again: I'm here for the crystal."

"The Crystal of Thuul is of no consequence to someone like you. You bear the guilt of your father's crimes against the Gra'al people and belong on Endigo."

"I've gone to Endigo and everywhere else in the Gra'al Empire. I've scoured the galaxy only to be led here. For the crystal."

"No ghost could ever gain access to the Crystal of Thuul. Begone with you."

"My father came here for guidance from you only to do nothing while these... these... Terran fools slaughtered him!"

"We are to remain neutral," explained the elder. "We are to preserve Gra'al culture and history. The crystal remains a vital part of our history, gifted to us along with the power of organics."

"So you admit it was a gift from a god!"

"We only know what the scrolls tell us. We only know what our history wrote about it. The gift may have been a secret to these generations, but not in the past."

"And you asked no questions of He who gave the gift?"

"We weren't here, it was our ancestors, long before the war, long before Lidar was reduced to ashes. Now we stand guard, neutral keepers of Gra'al history and culture, keepers of the crystal."

"You don't even know what it does," he snarled.

"We don't," another said. "But we know our duty is to protect it."

"Then I'll claim your heads for my collection," he said, tightening his grip on the blade.

"Might I remind you about blood being spilt on these hallowed grounds?" the middle one asked.

"My father already did it," he snarled. "And I've already faced your banishment. You don't understand the power I am to possess."

"And you don't understand—"

The one on the right chided Datar, Datar closing the distance in the matter of a heartbeat, with the flick of his wrist the scythe flashed across the man's neck, him dropping to his knees grasping at his throat. When his body hit the ground his head rolled to Datar's feet, kicking it aside while green stained the surrounding ground, turning his wrath towards the other two elders.



The middle one stood, impassive in her defiance. "Once again a son of Gigar has defied tradition."

"I care not for tradition," he said. "Only the power to make our people strong again! What are traditions if we've lost our way?"

"That is not for me to decide," she said.

"That fool Vetru is blinded by Jin'tu's misguided beliefs! My father knew the path and now I'll surpass him."

"Your father killed millions of innocent Gra'als," Drake said.

"No one asked you, Terran!"

"If this is the path you're to walk, we cannot stop you," she said.

"Then step aside before I have both your heads," he said.

"I will not step aside," she said. "If you dare enter the temple to obtain the crystal, you'll step around me."

"Get out of my way." Datar pushed her into the other elder, stomping into the building. Drake heard the laugh in his mind, distant and ominous. The Children's voices were no more, but now things were coming into focus. He had been killed, but parts of His consciousness still existed. He was a carrier still. Somehow, even though he had cast the demon out of his mind, there was still a part of him that forever bore the stamp of His tinkering, unable to shake free the great power of what could only be described as a god.

The elders stood over the dead man, green blood still oozing out of his neck onto the ground. Drake wasn't sure what to do. If he made a run for it, there didn't seem to be anywhere else for him to go. There were no shuttles he could hop onto, and Datar's ship was a small fortress he'd never be able to crack. Just like on Thuul, Drake was out of options, lost again, and this time he wasn't sure that his crew would be there to rescue him. Vetru would find out that he's missing but something about Datar felt more dangerous than normal: he had slipped through every protection on Triinal and at Vetru's estate to snag him and could've taken Bruce if he wanted to.

How much of Drake's life would be spent with no control over his own fate? There was no reasoning with someone like Datar. He had it in his mind that he would harness that awful power and somehow Drake would help unlock that power for him. The rumbling inside of his mind brought the familiar tones of His voice rushing back, more than just the subtle laughter this time.

"My power extends beyond your comprehension," He said.

"You're dead," Drake said aloud, "I saw you die."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, yes, I saw you die. You're not here. You died."

"My power is growing again."

"No, it's not," Drake shouted.

The world around him snapped out of existence, the darkness falling over him in a heartbeat. The laughter that had been confined to just the back of his mind echoed, slipping all around him.


Five


The Captain.

"So we're just going back to Biztsoft?" Valencia asked, dejected. She stood in her usual spot in the cockpit while Bec was in the pilot's seat and Gentar in the co-pilot's chair. "We're just giving up?"

"If Vetru has people investigating the disappearance, then we shouldn't interfere," Gentar argued.

"I'm not letting this happen again," Valencia said. "Drake is one of us, he's family and Vetru can use our help."

"What help can we be when we have no leads?" he asked.

"Look, Cap, I know what you're feeling but I'm just not sure what we can do," Bec said. "We've got nothing to go on."

"That's not true," Valencia said. "He said that he thought it was Giga's son."

"He thought," Gentar said. "That is the key word here."

"So we've got nothing at all then? So we should just sit back and do nothing? What about this guy's ship? He didn't just magically show up there, are they incapable of tracking him?"

"They said his ship was very advanced," Gentar said. "Small, agile and able to avoid most detection."

"I refuse to believe that there's nothing we can do," Valencia said. "I refuse."

"Cap, you should go rest for a bit," Becca said.

"I concur. I'll see if I can get any information on Datar from my contacts, but for now we have nowhere else to go," Gentar said.

"Fine," she said. "You guys find out what you can."

In her mind she at least upheld the idea of poise when she stomped out of the cockpit down towards her quarters, but she knew that wasn't true. Valencia was a mess, and there was no way to hide it. Feeling helpless was not something she could ever get comfortable with, nor was it how she spent her life. She always had to be tough, and those small moments where she let herself be vulnerable were few and far between, although they had intensified of late. Everything went wrong with the Sentinel, with Emma.

Her head hit the pillow hard, finding herself again exhausted and lacking sleep. During their trip to Triinal something felt off to her, and she was right, although she wasn't sure how. Valencia closed her eyes, letting the cold darkness embrace her. A set of green eyes blurred into existence, Valencia frozen in place. The figure of Emma appeared to her—just for a fleeting moment—only to blink back out of existence, leaving her alone in the dark. Her eyes sprang open, her breath heavy and sweat beading on her forehead. She jumped to her feet, unable to sleep. Gentar was sitting at the kitchen table, slamming down grape rations, staring at her.

"Captain," he said.

"Hey Gen," she said, hovering over the table. "Sorry, I just couldn't sleep."

"Oh? You were in there for six hours," he said.

"What? How is that possible?"

"I don't know," he said. "We're almost to Biztsoft, though. I was just going to come wake you up to prepare for landing."

"I saw her again."

"Captain Browning?" he asked.

"Yeah, Emma."

"You've been seeing her more and more lately. I wonder what that means."

"I don't know. I really don't know. This one felt intense, though. I just closed my eyes, and she was there. Then I opened my eyes again, and six hours had passed. We killed that thing back there on Thuul, right?"

"I don't know anything that could survive that. Even some sort of powerful being like this."

"Then why do I have this feeling like the Sentinel is trying to warn me?"

"Captain, the Sentinel died destroying that beast on Thuul. They're both gone. This is about a rogue Gra'al looking to avenge his father. If anything, I should be the one worried, I was who killed Giga."

"I can't shake this feeling, though. They have something to do with this."

"Well, there isn't much to do about it on Biztsoft."

"No, I suppose not. We're going in the wrong direction, then. Hey Bec," she called out.

"Hey Captain, we're landing here in just a minute, just got clearance."

"Never mind," she said.

"Maybe it'll be good to relax a bit, or maybe we should go to the Consulate."

"Pft. That fool? Not unless we have to. Unless..."

"You're getting an idea?"

"Whatever happened to Jordache's ship, you think?"

"We left it there in the hangar. I would assume after all that happened, they would've done some serious inspections of it. They wouldn't want anyone finding out about the research he was doing."

She sighed.

"Gentar, we might actually have to go to the damned Consulate's office."

Shattered Lineage

The Consulate was about as obnoxious as always, even after all the good that Valencia and the crew of the Trystero had done for humanity and the Terran government. Prevented another war, stopped a raging, vengeful god from taking over the galaxy. Still, after enough prodding, Consul O'Hara admitted that they had failed to secure the ship quickly enough, leaving it in the hangar pending a more thorough investigation, only for someone to break into the hangar and tear it apart. They were unsure of what exactly was taken or why. All they had was security footage that showed a Gra'al with a long, braided mohawk and a large blade on his back exiting with a few crates. Somehow he got into a restricted hangar with no one noticing, at least no one living, with two dead security officers left behind headless.

"Why would Datar go after Jordache's ship?" Becca asked, sitting across from Valencia at a booth tucked away in a dark corner of a restaurant. "It makes little sense. What does Jordache have to do with getting revenge on Drake and Gentar?"

"I don't know," Gentar said.

"It has nothing to do with getting revenge on them," Valencia said. "Nothing at all. There's no connection there."

"So now what?"

"I'm thinking," she said, stabbing her fork into her drab salad. "I still can't get the Sentinel out of my mind and that somehow it has something to do with it. Look, why would Datar care about Jordache's ship if it didn't involve the Sentinel and that beast? What if we're thinking about this the wrong way? This isn't about Drake because of his father and his role in Giga's death, this is about Drake because that thing took over his mind. He didn't go to Jordache's ship and take that kind of risk for nothing. No, he did it for a reason."

"I'm not sure I follow," Bec said.

"It's just... I don't know how to explain it. I just know, okay? Datar is going after things related to Him and the Sentinel. We're not gonna find him here."

"So where are we going, then?" Gentar asked.

"We have to go to Thuul."

"Thuul is just a cluster of rocks," Becca said. "There's nothing there."

"But that's where he went," Valencia said. "He went there, I know he did."

"Then I guess we're going to the ruins of Thuul, then," Becca said. "Want me to go get her warmed up?"

"Please, if you don't mind," Valencia said.

"I'll go with her, we'll be waiting for you," Gentar said.

They drifted away from the restaurant, leaving Valencia alone in the booth with her salad and her tea. The waiter came and wordlessly removed their plates and disappeared back into the bustling kitchen. She knew that Thuul was nothing but rubble; the planet torn to shreds by the assault, yet there had to be something there that could lead them on the right path. Becca and Gentar were doubting her, that much she could sense through their silence and stilted actions. Maybe she was losing it, but that didn't mean she didn't have a duty to hunt down Datar and get Drake back home. Or, well, at least bring him back to Triinal with Bruce and Vetru.

Although it pained her to admit it, she needed this as much as she needed to find Drake. She needed something to tether her to reality and keep her from this sense of drifting alone in the galaxy without a purpose. Being a captain of her own ship, in control of her own destiny had been the most important thing to her for so long but now that she has had it for a while, the dawning that it was the people that mattered, not just the ship or the sense of freedom had completely shifted her view of reality to the point of it feeling alien.

"Well, well, well," a voice came from across the room. "Fancy seeing you here, Captain Vasquez."

Valencia looked up to see Jimmy sauntering towards her, cursing under her breath.

"Didn't expect to see a renowned captain such as yourself in a dive like this," he said, sliding into a seat across the table from her.

"Sure, go ahead, take a seat, I was just leaving."

"No, c'mon, please, hear me out," he pleaded.

"Hear you out on what? I'm not giving you the cut we worked out for that job, Jimmy. You fucked up and almost blew up my ship and I had to take your cut to pay off Delgado for the misunderstanding."

"Okay, look, I know I screwed up. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"No, Jimmy, I really didn't want to hear from you at all again. Silence is what I want to hear."

"No, please. Captain Vasquez, give me another chance."

"Another chance? At what? I don't even have a job right now, I have something more important to do."

"Like what? Can I help?"

"There's no money in it, Jimmy. Go screw."

"That's okay. I'm not just in this for the money, see? I've changed! I've learned my lesson, I swear."

"It's not a job, Jimmy. This is about family. This is about my crew."

"Just tell me what I can do to help, honest."

"You're telling me you want to come to the ruins of Thuul to help track down a genocidal maniac that I think is trying to use my friend to gain some crazy power that I'm not sure we'll be able to stop if he succeeds."

"I'll do anything."

Valencia crossed her arms and sighed. He was relentless.

"Please. I promise."

"Fine."

"No way! You won't regret this, I promise, and I'll—"

"Jimmy if you as much as disobey one order or piss me off even a little I'll shoot you out that airlock before you can roll that damned tongue of yours, you got it?"

"I do. Promise."

Shattered Lineage

"Captain..." Gentar stood at the mouth of the Trystero, glaring down at Valencia and Jimmy.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," she said. "You don't have to tell me. Don't say a word."

"I understand," he replied.

"Hey Gentar," Jimmy said, lugging his bags up the ramp.

Gentar returned with a grunt and headed back into the ship. Inside things were quiet, Valencia needed to reassure herself that she wasn't making a huge mistake letting Jimmy back on board again. The truth was that more hands could only help, and that they would be facing the unknown. They knew nothing about Datar outside of him being Giga's son and that he raided Jordache's ship, walking off with a crate full of something. The Consul and Terran gov had dropped the ball with his ship, waiting for some sort of expert to fly in and take a look when there were no experts on this newly discovered race of all-powerful beings outside of Drake and probably herself. Foolish, as always.

Becca saw the captain and gave her a hug, rubbing her arm. "It'll be alright, Cap. We're onto something here, we've got a lead, right? Plus..." She paused, noting Jimmy hefting his bags back into the room he occupied before. "What's he doing here?"

"Hi Becca," he said, "I'm sorry about before. Really. I'm gonna make it up to all of you, I promise."

"Uhh, okay," she said, glaring at Valencia. "Is this for real?"

"Yeah," she said. "It's for real. I'm a softie, what can I say? Let's get to Thuul, then, or what's left of it."

"The Trys is all fueled up and ready to go," Becca said. "I'll get us on our way if we're ready."

"Yeah, we're ready. For what? I don't really know."


Six


The Artist.

The universe swirled all around, flashes of light streaking the sky. A low hum of a voice echoed in an ancient tongue that felt familiar while remaining alien and undecipherable. While it was a lone voice, the power of it was overwhelming. Each time it paused a streak of light and a jolt brought new scenery, a new star system came into view like the voice was searching for something.

"Wake up," a harsh voice tore through the stars. "I said wake up!"

A sharp pain in the ribs jostled Drake back into reality. He curled up on the floor of Datar's ship, the Gra'al standing over him with his boot planted into Drake's stomach. Drake groaned in agony at the pain, rolling onto his stomach and trying to pick himself up off the ground, still in a stupor. He had taken over his mind again, and Drake did not understand how.

"He was killed," Drake said. "I saw him die. How could He?"

"You were in some sort of trance," Datar said.

"He... He was in my head again."

"His power lives inside of you still. That's good. Get into the chair, we need to take off and I need you alive, especially knowing he's still there."

"What?"

Before Drake could clear the cobwebs out of his mind, Datar had scooped him up from behind, dragging him to a chair against the wall, slamming him against it and hastily fastening the belt over his shoulder. Datar ambled up to the pilot's seat and set the ignition sequence for the ship, pulling the glowing, green crystal out of a pouch on the breast of his shirt and inspecting it. A sharp pain drilled into Drake's mind, him screaming out in pain, grasping at his head in agony.

"Interesting." Datar pocketed the crystal again, the pain subsiding. "We're going to see what power this really has."

The ship lurched forward, pressure planting Drake to the back of his chair, his head still swimming in a mire. The crystal that Datar had taken from the elders glowed green and felt like it bore right into his mind when he brandished it. He had fallen into a fugue state again, something that rested in a distant part of his memory and registered like a dream that had happened and was forgotten when he woke up. Yet this time it was vivid. That evil lurking in his mind was at the forefront now.

Fear was the only emotion that Drake could discern in his jumbled mind. Fear. Not of Datar and what he had planned, for as dangerous as he felt he was not Him, nor would he ever be. Few people had ever experienced the power of Him firsthand, to the best of his knowledge just the first acolyte, himself and poor Tuck. He almost retched, remembering the blank expression on Tuck's severed head in his lap. He still didn't understand how Tuck had gotten the Integer off of Thuul before the explosion and somehow survived long enough to have Datar hunt him down and claim his mind.

"Tell me more about this blackout," Datar said, spinning in his chair to face him.

"What?"

"You've got two options, Terran. The first is you work with me to channel His power and maybe you survive. The second is that I do whatever I need to and you die."

"That doesn't feel like much of an option," Drake said.

"Then you've made my life easier."

"Wait," Drake said, panic setting in. "I can't make any promises, I just..."

"Puny Terran," he bellowed.

"Where are we going?"

"That's none of your concern."

"I'm going there and you're going to do something to me there..."

"I have a remote lab."

"Where?"

"You expect me to tell you that? I told you no more questions."

The Gra'al moved back to the pilot's seat, chomping on what looked like some sort of dried meat that smelled sickly sweet. Drake remembered Gentar's proclivity for the grape-flavored rations, the sweetest flavor and how a lot of the local food Vetru had introduced him to on Triinal had been extremely sweet, much further beyond his own taste. Even the drex milk they had been feeding Bruce was sickeningly sweet, making the already-sweet formula Drake had concocted for him back on the Trystero seem downright bland in comparison. By the time Drake arrived on Triinal Bruce had already acclimated to the formula but Sudra had complained about how long it took for him to acquire a taste for drex milk, which struck her as absurd considering his lineage.

Drake's stomach rumbled, him unbuckling his seatbelt and stumbled to his feet, bracing himself against the wall. His hand was right over an assault rifle. Datar glared back at him and laughed, motioning for him to grab at the rifle. Drake continued to gain his composure, making his way to the synthesizer, doing his best to ignore Datar's insults.

"Go ahead," he said. "Grab one of my weapons. See what happens, Terran."

"I'm just hungry," he said.

"Fool."

The entire panel was entirely in Gra'alian, Drake having to push inside his mind to remember his lessons in the language. Drake pressed a few buttons, aiming for an apple-flavored protein slush, the machine instead the machine spitting out some sort of strange-smelling soup. Drake glared down at it and cursed under his breath.

"Not a fan of gestulch?"

"What? I wanted an apple protein ration."

"There's no waste here, Terran. You'll eat it or starve."

Drake sunk back into his seat with the warm soup in his hand, a wide, disposable spoon felt wrong in his hand but he'd have to make do. The broth was sweet, but the chunks of large, stringy meat were downright bitter, a strange combination that made him choke on his first bite. Datar burst out laughing at the scene. Drake continued chomping on the stew, doing his best to ignore the awful mix of flavors. The small bits of fruit that helped flavor the broth weren't terrible, him trying to eat the meat first, leaving the sweeter fruit for the end to help wash away the awful taste of the meat.

"We're approaching my lab," Datar said. "I'll need you to be out for it."

"What? What do you mean?"

Before he could understand what was happening, Datar wrested the crystal from his pocket, Drake's mind overwhelmed by a loud buzz that made his vision blur. "No!" Drake screamed out, dropping the bowl on the ground, clinging to the chair like his life depended on it. "Don't do this!"

A shroud of darkness fell over him.

Shattered Lineage

"Wake up, Terran." Datar's voice broke through the haze, a large Gra'al hand smacking him across the jaw. The brunt of the force jolted him awake, the initial sting festering into a dull ache within moments, meaning that Datar had only lightly tapped him considering how powerful most Gra'al were.

"Where am I?"

"You're in my lab," he grunted. "Look around."

Drake's vision was still murky, the dimness of the large room not helping, either. Surrounding him was a dark, cavernous room with a ceiling made of rock and augmented by what looked like a haphazardly assembled room jammed into a cave. There were tables, tanks that were the size of a person, and instruments littered throughout. Bulky bundles of cables snaked throughout the room, winding over stairs and traversing through railings. There was a rancid smell in the air, Drake turning around to find himself face-to-face with Tuck, his blank expression confined to a tube, suspended in a liquid.

"Damnit," he groaned.

"Ah yes," he said. "I need to keep the specimen fresh, I can't let the material spoil."

"What do you even know about this... thing, anyway?"

"I know more than most ever will. Until it's too late."

"I don't get it."

"With all the data I've collected I've come to understand the one you call Jordache and his research into Him."

"Then you know what I already told you: Gra'als are immune to the mind control stuff. There's no way for you to harness it, not that it's possible."

"You're the missing link," he said.

"What do you mean by that?" Drake felt warm at the assertion. "I was just some pawn in this game."

"You were able to overcome His mind control! No one else has proven that. Even Jordache was able to briefly overcome it, but only through the use of an unstable substance. Once he distanced himself, the hold was weaker and easier to ward off."

"So then why me?"

"Because you pushed Him away when He was at his most powerful, you fool!"

"I killed Jordache in cold blood! I destroyed the other acolyte! I almost killed Valencia! Who knows what else happened?"

"And you saw the universe, you traveled faster than these old hyperspace lanes could ever allow us to go."

"I was stuck on Thuul, or on the Trys, when that happened. It was a hallucination. Is this really what you're doing with your life?"

"Silence!" He smashed his fist against the metal table he was working at. "You don't understand what it's like to see your father fail and need to pick up where he left off. You don't understand what it's like to have your lineage shattered by a few foolish Terrans and a traitor to your kind. Merely slaughtering you all wouldn't bring him back, wouldn't restore order to the Gra'al Empire. No! A new leader must arise and the dawning of a new era is the only way for that to happen."

"And you channeling some crazed alien-god-thing is the way to do it?"

"You don't know your Gra'al history well enough, Terran. Before organics we existed on Lidar alone, that old, hulking, burnt out mass of a planet that was destroyed long ago. We traveled in space but had no access to these hyperspace lanes, nor the military capabilities that we have today. Then organics were discovered, and everything changed. It ushered in a new era of Gra'al expansion. We reached out to the stars like the masters of this galaxy that we truly are. New planets were forged in fire, the great houses were born and our understanding of technology went from proficient to what you see today."

"... and then?"

"And then Terrans arrived and that fool Jin'tu decided we needed to co-exist instead of defend our galaxy. We gifted you that planet you call Terra as sovereign land and your stations crawled out further and further into the galaxy, branded monstrosities that brought more and more of your people to our borders."

"So it's all our fault, then? You know, we didn't have a home. The Exodus led us from our broken world to the stars and the one world we found almost killed us before we found Terra."

"Which you took, the plague of humanity spreading with no end in sight."

"We didn't know we had neighbors!"

"So you shot us down when you found us."

Drake remained silent. The beginning of the Terran-Gra'al War remained hotly contested, the tale taught to Terrans was that a Gra'al battlecruiser roared into view of Terra and fired upon the few ships in orbit, while the Gra'al history books tell a story about the cruiser being on a scouting mission to investigate disturbances they'd recorded at Terra only to find a hostile force.

"That's what I thought."

"It doesn't matter how the war started," Drake said. "I know some of my people kinda suck and all but that's not all of us."

"Of course not. The rest are like you: foolish traitors."

"Alright, whatever."

Drake carefully walked the length of the lab, doing his best to make note anything that he could use to his advantage. Old Terran pads were strewn about, a few larger terminals mounted on overhead telescoping arms with wild bunches of cables descending from the ceiling down into the rear. Nothing in the lab screamed well-adjusted or logical. Drake was in the hands of a certified madman, not that he needed the lab to be confirmation.

Datar's lab seemed like it was a mess, but there were no tools anywhere to be seen, something that would make a possible escape more difficult for him. There was no way to know how remote this lab was, instead all Drake knew was that it was tucked into a cave and that he had been "out" for some length of time, how long he couldn't know. His mind was muddled and murky, Drake needing to force himself to concentrate, to not let His power overcome him again.

"I don't think you understand what this monster really is," Drake said.

"You act like I'm ignorant, Terran, yet I've dedicated myself to this."

"What does that even mean?"

"You notice I'm not speaking through the translator? My disgust with Terrans didn't stop me from mastering your language. You think I don't know about your history? You underestimate me as some fool prince whining over losing his birthright."

"I mean, you kidnapped me and you want to use me as some sort of tool."

"What I'm doing is more important than what you could ever understand, Terran. This galaxy, our people are but two colonies of ants warring with each other over a mound of dirt, ignorant to the greater struggle at play."

"So, what, then? You want us to band together to what? Find this race and challenge them?"

"What Terrans choose to do is your own business. I care not what Terrans do."

"So, wait... you aren't looking to rekindle the war and kill my people?"

"I won't lie, I have no problem dispatching with your people and continuing my father's work."

"I thought that's what you were doing."

"My father's ideals have not changed, nor has my thirst to reclaim what belongs to House Gigar. The discovery of the being changed everything. The fact our elders knew of these beings and their gift and kept it as the big secret alone would be enough for me to stage a coup and force change. But we Gra'al cannot stand against power like this. No one can."

"... we did kill it, you know."

"An entire Gra'al fleet needed to rain destruction down upon it for that to happen! Never mind a creation of that race was the catalyst for it!"

"Doesn't that tell you something?"

"No, all it tells me is that an entire race of these beings would be impossible for us to stop."

"He was imprisoned for tinkering with your history," Drake explained. "That's why he was there, that's why the Sentinel was there. They want nothing to do with us. And look, Terrans and Gra'al defeated it together, that's my point."

"Pah," he spat. "Humans are pliable minds, ripe for their control."

"Then why do you need me alive, then? Just do what you did to Tuck here and use my brain matter for whatever you're doing if we're just conduits for His control."

"A conduit is correct," he said. "You can handle the power of Him, whatever remains of His power is alive in you and you alone."

"I can't control it, though. You've seen it yourself. Even being around that crystal gives me a headache. If I see it he takes over my mind completely."

"You were the last piece of the puzzle, now I just need to assemble everything."

"So I'm just some sort of tool for you, then?"

"Do you think I wish to need some Terran who helped murder my father and shatter my family's legacy? You're unharmed because I need you this way. If you wish, I can place you in stocks, otherwise enough with the questions."

"They'll come for me."

"Who will come for you? You're just another Terran. Vetru will look, oh he'll look alright until the shame of my assault on his palace will fade and he'll give up."

"No, he won't," Drake said. "I know he won't. Even if he does, my friends will never stop looking for me."

"Your friends will never find me or this lab. At least not until it's too late."

"Too late for what?" Drake asked, his blood running cold. "You still haven't told me what you plan to do with me or how I fit into any of this, just that I have some power that you need and I need to be alive for it."

"When I wield His power for myself and I'll be unstoppable."


Seven


The Captain.

What remained of Thuul was, for lack of a better word, a mess. In fact, it was a dangerous mess. Apparently a planet being bombarded by an orbital strike like that left very little to gawk at, just an unstable, dangerous mass of asteroids, the larger chunks slower to disperse. Bec was being careful not to get too close considering how volatile things were, the ship still shuddering from being pelted with smaller rocks and needing to fight the strange gravity ebbs.

"Captain," Bec said, jaw clenched, "I really don't know what you expect to find here but I'm not sure how long I can keep us in orbit without us getting pulverized."

"There has to be something here," she said, standing over Becca's seat and glaring at the readout on the scanner. "I swore there would be something here, I just have this feeling."

"Cap, I know you've got that feeling but if the Trys is gonna survive, we need to back off."

"Fine," she said. "What's the nearest planet, again?"

"Endigo," Becca said.

Valencia froze, her stomach churning, and a flash of green in her mind momentarily sent her backwards into the seat behind Becca. She clenched her eyes tightly and hoped to see Emma again, for her to materialize and give her something—anything—more to go on than this lingering hunch that Thuul was important. Nothing happened, instead just a dull scraping at the back of her subconscious.

"Everything keeps pulling me back to Endigo," she muttered.

"What?" asked Becca.

"Just... why Endigo?"

"It's just the closest planet, Cap. If anything, they'd probably have a better idea of the fallout from all of this."

"Fine, punch it," she said, the ship rocking from another bombardment of debris.

The ship jumped forward, Bec steering it towards the hyperspace lane that led to Endigo's orbit and punched in the coordinates, the slight nauseous sensation of jumping between planes keeping her planted in the seat momentarily. She had to accept the chance that all of this seeing Emma in her mind was just a daydream, some residual effect from her whole ordeal and a symptom of the stress and depression she was suffering through. The sense of loss was driving her mad all while she was trying to come to logical conclusions about the trauma she had been through without actually talking it through with anyone else.

"Okay," Becca said. "To Endigo we go."

"Great, I hope we can find something there."

"We have some contacts there, right? That Gint guy that helped Drake out?"

"Yeah, I almost forgot about him."

"What did you mean about Endigo pulling you back, Cap?"

"It's hard to explain," she said, crossing her arms tight across her chest. "My first job on this ship took me there, we were doing some sort of arms deal with a local resistance group on the planet."

"Whoa, that's heavy," she said. "You were an arms dealer?"

"Not really, no. The old captain took a risk on his last big job and things sorta blew up in his face."

"But you were there, right? On Endigo?"

"I was. It was a really strange place, desolate and makeshift. Reminded me a lot of that city down on Thuul, actually, or even the elder settlement on Lidar."

"You mean just pieced together from old ships and junk?"

"Yeah, the Gra'al have a weird way of repurposing their old ships and broken down stuff that we never got a handle on. It's kinda cool, I think."

"Maybe, I never really thought about it."

"Anyway, so you were there before, right?"

"It was a long time ago."

"But that means you still met a few people there."

"Yeah, I did. There was the resistance leader there, Brial, I'm not sure I'll ever forget her. She told me something that really stuck with me a long time ago."

"Well, what was it?" Bec prodded.

"So, she saw me dealing with Deuce and an obviously angry Sergeant Rose and said, 'don't let them break you' to me before we left."

"She said that to you? Just you?"

"Yeah, she pulled me aside to say it. It was sort of my inner mantra for a while, helping me to get adjusted to all of this." She motioned with her hands to the ship.

"I've heard there are big changes going down on Endigo. I wonder if she's still there?"

"I don't see someone like that going anywhere. Who knows? Maybe she's there. Do we have any sort of comm link for Gint?"

"I do here somewhere," Becca said, scrolling through files via a projection. "Ah, here. Yeah."

"Send him a message, tell him we're coming and we might need his help again."

"Shouldn't we tell Vetru, too? You know, just in case?"

"Yeah, last time I was here, there were a few ships in orbit serving as sentries, I'm not sure what the security is like here since he took over. Last thing we want to do is piss off our friends while we're in their territory."

"Fair enough, I'm on it."

"Thanks, Bec."

Valencia scooped herself up out of the seat and plodded back down the steps into the kitchen. Jimmy was sitting on the crash couch with a small holoprojector in his lap watching some modern drama that she had never seen before, him straightening out at the sight of her and clearing his throat. She made him nervous, which was good. For now. He needed to learn what it was like being a part of the crew and to take orders.

"It's fine, Jimmy," she said. "I'm not gonna bite your head off. Just a change of plans for now, we're going to Endigo."

"Endigo is a prison, right?"

"Was, I'm not sure what's become of it. Vetru spoke about giving them their freedom or at least relaxing things a bit there."

"Oh, cool. What are we doing there?"

"Looking for clues."

"Sorta like a needle in a haystack?"

"A what?"

"Oh, just some old saying my grandma used to say, it's like... trying to find a spanner in an ocean, you know... something small and impossible to find?"

"Yeah, I get it," she said. "Be ready for when we get there, it's a dangerous place."

"Okay, I got it, captain."

"Good."

Gentar was down below, running laps around the small cargo hold, sweat staining his tight white shirt. One of the few Valencia had printed up with the Trystero's muted horn logo printed on the back. None of them ever asked her about the muted horn or the name of the ship, not that it bothered her, it was just something she had to entertain herself. Gentar had grown leaner since his time aboard the Trystero, with little to do outside of work out in the hold and human food differing from most Gra'alian fare rather dramatically. She always offered to stock more Gra'al food, but he declined, instead fixated on the grape rations.

"I noticed we're not staying in orbit around what's left of Thuul," he said, still jogging.

"Yeah, sorry about that," she said, sitting down on the bottom step. "Things were a bit rocky there. I'm not sure what I expected to find."

"Which means we're going somewhere else."

"Which means we're going somewhere else, yeah. We're going to Endigo."

"The ghost planet," he said.

"The nearest planet. Becca had a good point that maybe as the neighbor they have some clues."

"I'm not sure it works that way," he said. "That the debris would find its way there, I mean, if that's what you're thinking."

"I don't know, we've got nothing else to go on."

"You know, Captain, there are times when it's okay to not have the correct answers. We're all lost sometimes."

"We're tracking down a madman that stole Drake. We have a clue to go on, I'm just following it, okay?"

"I understand, it's just..."

"It's just what?" she asked.

"I fear you need rest and that you're pushing yourself too hard here. Vetru's forces will be on the lookout for Drake, especially with this new information we've gathered, they'll be on the path."

"I'm not going to give up, Gentar. I'm not. I'm sorry. I know you have my best interests at heart here, but I know what we need to do."

"You can't save him on your own, Valencia," Gentar said, rarely breaking his usual decorum.

"I know, that's why you guys are with me."

Shattered Lineage

The sight of Endigo brought an overwhelming sense of nostalgia over Valencia. This was the place where things technically all went right and all went wrong for her. That one job on this planet went off without a hitch until they were leaving and her actions caught up with her, costing the life of the only person that had given her the time of day in Captain Deuce. Granted, his death was also what led to her becoming the captain of the Trystero. Yeah, her mind was churning, staring down at the giant dust bowl of a planet. Unlike the last time, there were no battle cruisers in orbit, just a few satellites and nothing else.

"Um, Captain..." Becca glared up at Valencia, an uncertain look plastered over her face. "You said this world was kinda weird, right?"

"Uh huh. What's wrong?"

"So, I contacted Gint and no reply, but there's nothing else. At all. There's no control center, nothing."

"Endigo is the planet for ghosts," Gentar stated. "They are exiled here and left to their own devices."

"What does that mean, exactly?" Becca asked. "I thought it was some sort of prison planet?"

"It is, just not the kind of prison that you're thinking of. They're allowed to live out their lives as they see fit, they are just not permitted to leave the planet."

"Vetru said he was looking into changing that, didn't he?" Valencia asked. "I mean, there aren't any ships up here. Last time I was here we had to be boarded and inspected before being allowed to land."

"I'm not sure what's happening here, really."

A blip on the board lit up.

"What's that?" Jimmy asked from the background, doing his best to stay out of the way.

"Um, what?" Becca turned to the board. "Oh, weird, we're getting a signal."

"Pull it up, Bec."

"This is New Dredge Control, unidentified ship come in, please," a voice squawked over the comm.

"New Dredge?" Valencia asked, laughing. "Are you kidding me?"

"It appears that they rebuilt on the nearest planet," Gentar said.

"I know I was sort of joking about the similarities between Thuul, Endigo and Lidar and all but... I didn't think they'd actually do this," Valencia said.

"Those people formed a tight bond on that planet. They were there for nearly ten years, reintegrating to their respective societies wouldn't be easy," Gentar noted.

"Okay, guys, but what do I say?" Bec interjected.

"Oh, uh, tell them it's the Trystero and that Captain Vasquez requests clearance to land."

"Got it."

Becca was right back on form, the landing on Endigo rocky, tumultuous and made Valencia grip the armrests of her chair, although it made her overcome with joy for something so familiar to exist inside of the chaos of the moment. There was a makeshift landing pad and port set up, it looked prefabricated and like it was just dropped from space onto the planet's surface. Stepping out onto the surface there were more and more of those prefabricated structures in the distance, making New Dredge look a lot like a sort of outreach from the Gra'al towards the survivors to help build a new home. Der'lit stepping out onto the landing pad was not impossible considering the circumstances, but a welcome sight.

"Der'lit." Gentar stepped forward, offering his hand to the fellow Gra'al, the two gripping forearms with each other.

"Gentar, good to see you again."

"Greetings, Der'lit," Valencia said.

"Ah Captain Vasquez, when I heard it was the Trystero in orbit I knew I had to send a signal and welcome you to our new home."

"I'm glad that you rebuilt," she said. "I just didn't expect it to be here, of all places."

"It was the closest planet and there was plenty of free space. Vetru has been exceedingly accommodating in helping resettle us and providing the structures."

"Why not reintegrate back into the galaxy?" Jimmy asked, Valencia forgetting he was there behind them.

"Who is this?"

"Oh, this is Jimmy," Valencia said. "We're giving him a trial run."

"Ah. So some of us did return home. The galaxy has changed since the war ended, though. Our homes are not what they once were. Dredge was our home and the people surrounding us became our tribe. So most stayed here and helped rebuild."

"It's really something," Valencia noted. "Although it's gotta be weird, right? Going from a water planet to a desert planet."

"There are some growing pains, yes," he noted. "Instead of fishermen we need hunters, farmers, miners and everything else. There have been some growing pains, yes, even a few defected to Liuenta."

"Defected?" Gentar asked.

"Yes, joined up with the Witch's armed resistance."

"The Witch?"

"Brial," he groaned. "An armed resistance leader in Liuenta that believes in the sovereignty of Endigo."

"I'm assuming you disagree?" Gentar asked.

"Endigo is for ghosts. Traitors. We fought for the Empire and many of us died there on Thuul, their bodies knowing no rest. Traitors wish for their freedom and lineages to be restored, pah," he spat. "I didn't fight for that."

"Not a fan of reform, huh?" she asked.

"No, Captain Vasquez, I fear not."

"Do you have relations with Liuenta at all?" Gentar asked.

"Some, yes. Basic trade. Vetru removed the blockade on the planet, but there's still little traffic. They could leave if they wished, or had the means..."

"They've been stuck on this planet just like you were stuck on Thuul," Valencia said. "They don't have the means to get a ship."

"They have rifles, armor, weapons of war. Anyway, I suppose you're not here to discuss the Witch or our relationship with our new neighbors. What brings you to Endigo, Captain?"

"We were actually heading to Thuul, or, well, what's left of it. We're searching for something, or I guess someone."

"Oh?"

"Drake has been abducted," Gentar said.

"Again?" he laughed. "Surely you jest."

"No," Valencia said. "Sadly, it's not. We believe it's Giga's son who did it and somehow it relates back to Thuul and that monster we destroyed."

"Related how?"

"We aren't sure yet. That's why we went to Thuul, to see if there was any sort of trace left behind. I don't know what I expected to find."

"Thuul is merely dust now."

"We saw."

"As you can see, much of Thuul ended up back here on Endigo. The planet was bombarded with small impacts for weeks, including a few ships, even."

"Ships?" she asked, perking up.

"Smaller vessels mostly, although, I believe that ship you brought to Thuul was discovered in the desert."

"The Integer?"

"I believe so? I'd need to check the records, there are detailed reports."

"Captain..." Gentar stared at her for a long moment. "How did the Integer end up here?"

"I don't know, Gentar. I have no idea. Last we saw, that ship was sinking into the ocean. I have no idea how that thing would end up here."

"This was a while ago, mind you, I may be remembering incorrectly here but there was a passenger aboard. He flew the ship here, although the blast did alter his course, and the computer was heavily damaged, we couldn't figure out where he was going."

"He? Who was it?"

"We don't know for certain..."

"Was it someone from Dredge?"

"Like I said, it wasn't for certain but..."

"Der'lit, I appreciate your caution here, but if you know anything..."

"We believe it was Tuck."

"Tuck?" Gentar asked. "That couldn't be, we saw him sink down..."

"... into the water right by where the Integer was," Valencia said. "Wait, why don't you know for certain?"

"His head was missing."

Valencia froze.

"What do you mean his head was missing?" Gentar asked. "From the crash?"

"No, it was a clean cut. Spotless, I might add. We didn't find any evidence of his head there on the ship, either."

"So his head was missing?" she asked, head spinning. "And the cut was clean?"

"Could it have been a ceremonial Gra'alian blade?" Gentar asked.

"Like I said, the cut was clean, brother. Of course it could have been. I don't know what a Gra'al would want with Tuck's head. Tuck never did anything to anyone."

"Gentar," Valencia grasped at his shirt for support. "Gen."

"Yes, Captain."

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" she asked.

"I fear so."

"What are you thinking?" Jimmy asked.

"Datar was here," she said, heart full of dread.


Eight


The Artist.

Drake's eyelids were heavy, bearing the weight of the world and forcing all of his willpower to pry them open. The lab was a blur of blinking lights and chrome panels with the overwhelming whir of machinery grinding through his mind. His daze wasn't like when He took over, instead Drake felt disembodied, like he had woken up from a long sleep. Datar stomped around in an encounter suit, hovering over Drake that only just discovered himself bound to a table tilted upright, his arms and legs bound by heavy metal manacles that hugged him tight but not enough to cut off his circulation.

"If you struggle the binds will tighten," Datar said.

"Wh-what are you doing to me?"

"Stay still. The scan isn't complete yet."

A strong buzzing in his mind made Drake cry out in agony, unable to curl up or move, just writhe within his binds, screaming out. Datar watched on passively, making notes of the readouts like they were routine and Drake wasn't in searing pain. Drake's muscles tensed against the restraints, the metal digging into his flesh and the sudden awareness that there was a piece of machinery latched onto his head forcing an even more profound panic.

"I said stay still," Datar barked. "Stupid Terrans, this sedative wore off too quickly."

"Why are you doing this to me?"

"I need to understand His symbiosis with you better," he snapped. "Now quiet down!"

The pressure inside of his head was growing, to the point of his vision blurring. Drake's screams morphed into just a low murmur of constant horror, giving way to the laugh reverberating in his mind. The cold darkness rolled over him like a storm encroached with a fury. The pressure and His presence were competing to overcome him, take charge of his mind and being. Drake fought to remember Bruce, his smile when he put him to bed last but the fear of him being left alone without Drake ceded ground to the battling forces. It was too much to handle. Things were spinning out of control and...

Silence.

"Wake up, Terran." Datar cradled Drake's chin in his hand. "C'mon, wake up already. Fine."

The tension of the shackles released him, Drake's body flopping over onto Datar who caught him in his arms, dragging him across the floor and propping him up against a wall. Datar shoved a bulb of cold water into his hand, the perspiration on the outside bringing back memories of Thuul, the Children, the Acolyte and Tuck. Tuck, who's blank eyes were staring back at him from his new home in a tube. The bulb trembled in his hand, Drake trying to summon the energy to bring it up to his lips, Datar guffawing and charging at him, grabbing his hand and pressing both his hand and the bulb up to his lips. Washing down his throat, the cold spread of the water helped clear his mind, if just briefly.

"That's enough for today, Terran."

"Wh-what did you do to me?"

"Tests," he grunted. "I already told you. So many damned questions."

"B-but to what end?"

"I already told you, is your mind that scrambled? I need to find a way to channel the power that sits latent in your mind."

"And?"

"And what?" Datar hovered over Drake, returning to a terminal.

"Did you get what you needed? Am I done?"

"We're not done until I have the power of a god."

"Oh."

Datar continued working at the terminal, taking a moment to slip out of the oversized encounter suit, tossing it into a heap on the table next to him. Drake savored each sip, focusing on the water and the water alone while it worked its way down into his gut, coating his throat, imagining his mind getting the same treatment. A buzzing remained in his ears from everything, a ring around his head still throbbing from the headset that clamped onto his temples. There wasn't much more of this that he could tolerate.

"Grah!" Datar slammed his forearm down against the surface of the table, leaving a giant head-sized dent in it. "Of course the fourth power conduit blew. You, Terran."

"What?"

"Stay here. Recover. You're no good to me like this. We're not done yet and I need you alive, of a clear mind."

"Then why are you doing this to—"

"Enough!" Datar growled, snagging a spanner from a small chest, slamming the drawer and stomping off to the door. His palm smashed against the controls, door whizzing open and the Gra'al disappearing through it. A jolt of adrenaline surged through Drake's veins. This was his chance, if there ever was one. If he wanted to avoid more torture like that, he needed to make his move and make it immediately.

His hand climbed up the wall, gripping onto a panel and mustering up all of his might to pull himself up off the ground. Drake stumbled, bracing himself against the wall with both hands, his head spinning still, but there wasn't time to let himself recover. There was only one door that he could discern, the one that Datar had left through to go repair the power conduit. Drake shuffled along towards the door, moving from the wall to a table, the table to a terminal and then to the table Datar had smashed his fist into. The glint of the drawer Datar pulled the tool from caught his eye: in his rage he hadn't secured it, it opened just a crack. Drake dashed for it, almost crashing headfirst into it and closing it on accident. Catching himself and his breath, he tugged the drawer open, sifting through the tools, looking for the heaviest one, picking up a mallet.

Exhausted and his head spinning, Drake decided. This would have to do. This would be his chance and he'd have to hope he could temporarily stun Datar with the mallet, at least long enough to find his way to a comm or even his ship, not that he was confident in flying it. Drake flattened himself up against the wall by the door, the only place inside of the confined lab that he'd be able to get the drop on the Gra'al. Waiting for him was pure agony, his mind in chaos, the bubbling laughter rising up and tormenting his senses. Focus, he needed to focus, to not let Him take over.

The sound of the door cycling made him freeze in place, the hammer heavy in his hand. The door zipped open, Datar grunting and cursing in Gra'al under his breath. Drake readied the hammer, pulling it back over his shoulder, ready to smash across Datar's chest when he walked through the door. His palms were sweaty, and each breath felt like it was trying to escape from his control, forcing focus across multiple senses that he couldn't quite bring himself to do.

Datar's foot crossed over the threshold, grumbling along the way. Drake took a deep breath in and heaved the hammer at him with all his might, the heavy head of the hammer arcing towards the Gra'al's body at high velocity and... Stop. Datar's palm extended, fingers wrapped around the head, stopping it dead in his tracks. Drake attempted to wrest the hammer from his hands, tugging with all his might, Datar pulling back, the hammer flying back over his shoulder and clanging on the ground. In an instant Datar's large boot flashed up, planting firmly against Drake's chest, the force sending him crashing back against the wall, the back of his head smashing against a panel.

"Foolish Terran," Datar hovered over him.

Shattered Lineage

"I was taking it easy on you before," Datar explained, Drake tightly strapped back into the cold table from before. The dull, throbbing pain in the back of his head was accentuated by the familiar pinch of the apparatus that he bore like a crown of thorns. Datar had forwent the encounter suit, stewing in his madness and Drake's betrayal. "I let you have free rein over everything, the only condition being you cooperate. Did you really think that little trick would work? Ha! I will get what I need from you, Terran, damn the consequences.

"Do you really believe that I care about what happens to you? I was keeping you comfortable in case that impacted your performance. It's your brain that I need to unlock, not your personality or any other weakness that you Terrans flout as strengths. You, a truth-teller like the ones of great? Pathetic. Vetru has led our people into an abyss, serving as the buoys for the dead weight that is Terrans. You serve only to drag us down, to bring us to your pathetic level. He chose us for a reason, Terran. Not you. We are strong, you are weak, there is no other way. I will harness you like a living battery, I want you to understand that. I will use you to further my quest to unite the Great Houses and bring order to this galaxy. I realized repairing the power conduit that I was going about this the wrong way. You are a conduit, I shouldn't be looking at you as a problem I needed to solve to extract His power and become a god.

"No," he continued, the pressure mounting in Drake's mind. "That was all wrong. You are not like the rest, right? You're different. That's what they told you your whole life, wasn't it, Terran? That you were some special flower ready to blossom amid the weeds. Perhaps they were right, in a way, you are to be my battery. You will follow me like a small pet, obedient to your very core. All while you feed the power into me and I become something more. Oh yes, something beyond comprehension."

Datar stomped over to a shelf, routing around and picking up a tool that looked like a small pistol, slamming it down on the mangled table and slipping down into the depression. He violently jerked at a terminal, slamming an array of inputs while Drake's mind throbbed inside of his skull, expanding out to grind against the walls of his head, sending shock waves throughout his system. Datar snatched the gun up and pulled something from the terminal, loading it into the gun before bringing it over to Drake.

"This is going to hurt," he grunted, pointing the tool at Drake's head.

"Wait, stop, no—"

A new point of pressure arrived, Drake's flesh slick with sweat underneath the cold metal tool with the warm point. Before he could plead further, the gun hissed and something popped in his mind, the pressure unbearable at the point of entry. Datar had shot something into his head, an alien apparatus that lay dormant for just a mere moment before activating, a surge of power overcoming him like the mighty waves of Thuul.

"Wh-what have you done to me?"

"Quiet," Datar commanded. "Now I must complete the circuit."

The tool turned to his own head, Datar staring at him while pressing the nozzle of the gun towards the side of his head. His body visibly tensing up before his finger pulled the trigger, the gun making the same whir delivering the blow to his head. The mighty Gra'al grunted, tossing the gun aside before doubling over in agony, a rare sight for someone as proud of him. He roared again, slamming his arm against the terminal, snapping the arm and sending it clattering against the ground, cables still holding on for dear life from the ceiling.

"Arg!" Datar screamed out, clutching at his head. "It's in my mind!"

Exhaustion had washed over Drake from fighting the battle inside his mind. The laughter remained, echoing hollowly throughout, only now there was something else there, something pulling at it. He fought to remain conscious, Datar pulling himself across the floor to another terminal, mashing his ham hock against the keyboard. Upon his last stroke, a rush of pain zipped through Drake's mind, tears streaming down his cheeks, the room blurring under stress. Drake could feel the tug-of-war raging inside of him, reaching into those inner recesses for good memories of Bruce, his father, the captain, Becca and Gentar to hold on and not let go.

Datar howled in unison with him, his suffering bleeding through into Drake's mind. At first just a twinge of pain seeped through, Drake able to feel the metamorphosis the Gra'al was undergoing, like a low murmur in the distance. Those feelings intensified, coming through in waves, lapping against his defenses before the flood came. Pain zipped through Drake's neural pathways in parity with Datar's. Their screams morphed into a chorus inside the cavernous lab, echoing into a song of misery. The dark cloud from Him bristled against Datar's consciousness, first just a snip, a trial where they felt each other out before a violent wave of Datar's will met with the power of a god. Drake tried to hold on, reaching through the enshrouded darkness for Bruce.

Bruce's hand broke through the storm clouds, the osmosis of Him and Datar obscured the rest of his body unfolding in Drake's head. Drake's hand quivered, reaching out for Bruce's small, stubby hand, craving the warmth and familiarness his touch brought. His humanity slipped with every surge of the storm. Datar steadied himself, breathing in a mighty breath, holding it for a moment before exhaling, planting his feet firmly on the ground.

"I'm becoming something more," they echoed in unison. "The power of the gods flows through me."

Drake wanted to scream, but his mouth remained unresponsive, his voice a part of the chorus, much like the Children on Thuul and the Acolyte. The power had never been in his conscious mind but the hard drive of his brain was being rewritten, new partitions forming and memories being overdubbed and morphed, no longer his own but a part of a new being. Drake clenched his fist, Datar's hand trembling, the power of his will pushing back, Datar's hand thrusting open wide, canceling out Drake's control entirely. He was slipping.

Everything was slipping.

Darkness encroached while competing voices merged from a cacophony into a focused chant.

"The power lives in me now," Datar said.

Datar glared down at Drake. A strong sense of familiarity and pity suppressed the urge to burst into laughter. Datar willed his hand into a fist, with a flick the husk before him burst free from the restraints, falling to his knees before Datar, looking up at him with glassy green eyes. A wry smile, a gesture previously unknown, painted Datar's face while the power coursed through his veins, solidifying his status as no longer merely a Gra'al but an all-powerful god.

"I'm unstoppable."


Nine


The Captain.

"I don't understand why you'd want to speak with Brial," Der'lit grunted. "The Witch only cares for herself."

"You have to understand something, Der'lit. You are the people of New Dredge are very important to me, but Brial has played a role in all of this madness as well. She helped Drake escape here over a year and a half ago, which led to us stopping Giga. You said there was a dispute over the Integer?"

"Yes."

"So where is it now, then? Can we go see it?"

"No," he replied. "The Witch claimed it for her own. There was a dispute over Tuck's body, although one of her men was able to talk some sense into her. Some old coot scrapper that found the thing."

"So wait, the Integer is in Liuenta, then?"

"Whatever's left of it," he groaned. "Knowing those savages it's already been gutted and a new hovel stands in its place."

"That's not that different from what you did on Thuul, was it?" she asked.

"That's different. That was about survival."

"Okay, so, how do we get to Liuenta from here? We tried hailing a contact there, to no avail. Is there some sort of landing pad or control?"

"Who knows with them? I can provide a land vehicle, it's no more than 20 clicks east from here over the great dunes."

"Then why not fly?" Jimmy asked.

"Would you trust them with your ship?" he asked.

"We'll take you up on your offer," Valencia said.

"I'll make the preparations, you'll need to leave now, before it gets too late if you wish to arrive before nightfall."

"Thank you, Der'lit, we appreciate your assistance."

Der'lit left the crew alone at the small, metal table built into the prefabricated building's floor, flowing up like a fountain frozen in steel to give way to the round tabletop. Becca was picking at her cuticle on her thumb while Gentar drummed his hands absently on the table. Jimmy cradled his hands in his lap, his legs crossed together beneath him. Valencia couldn't help but laugh at how haggard the crew looked.

"What's so funny, Cap?" Bec asked.

"We just look so defeated," she said. "C'mon, let's get to Liuenta before nightfall. Bec, can you remote the ship there if you need to still?"

"Uh huh," she said. "I think we worked out the kinks in that, right, Gen?"

"Erm, yes, I believe so. It's still untested. Captain, if I may suggest, it would be more efficient to just fly the Trystero there."

"I don't disagree," she said, "but we're a guest here and I'd rather not upset our host or disrespect him. You Gra'al seem to remember everything."

"That we do."

"Alright, c'mon guys, we've got some ground to cover on a strange planet."

The vehicle gave her even further flashbacks to her old job, Der'lit providing a crawler with tank treads to make their way across the rocky desert terrain of Endigo. The four of them fit comfortably inside, Gentar taking the controls of the Gra'al vessel—heavily modified with both Terran and Gra'alian markings—considering Becca was the furthest thing from a light touch behind the wheel and Gentar proved a better driver than any of them.

The rocky, unforgiving desert would have been a death sentence to anyone stranded there, but much like Thuul, the Gra'al survived and perhaps even thrived there. Valencia initially believed the Dredge residents have moved from one extreme to the other, but traversing over the rocks and sand only served to help her understand how similar the two planets were in their inhospitality for life. These were survivors, as were the residents of Liuenta, even if they couldn't quite get along.

With each and every bump Valencia imagined herself back on Darcloud, hiding on the ridge, watching while the captain and sergeant spoke down below, a heavily armored crawler looming over them. She remembered each blow from inside the crawler, the woman she fought with, shooting in the arm before smashing her over the head with a spanner to save herself. Atticus trusted her to do the right thing and care for Drake, even if he was older now and off on his own, she would still do her best for her crew. Her family.

"Hey Cap," Bec shouted. "Cap, Johnson to Cap, where'd you go back there?"

"Oh, sorry," she said, shaking from her daze.

"We're here. At least I think."

Before them stood a large, makeshift gate built from scrap parts, carved out of a greater wall of scrap and ship parts. Such an undertaking would take hundreds of ships, her understanding the warnings from Der'lit. She'd only seen a small slice of the planet prior, a landing pad and a building. Seeing this up close, the sheer volume of the project overwhelmed her. Never mind that the original ghosts were left with just the pods or dropships they were blasted to the planet in. A lot of ships had been repurposed to create such a settlement, which meant not all the ships had intended to make Endigo their home and were most likely taken by force.

"Alright, so uh, how do we get into this place?"

"I don't know," Jimmy said, kicking his door open. "Only one way to find out."

"Jimmy, you set foot out there without me telling you to and I'll drag you back to the Trystero, blast into space and toss you out before we reach orbit."

The door quietly closed.

"Captain, I believe there should be sentries here. I'll approach, I believe I'm a familiar face, at least more than you three."

"I'll cover you," she said.

Gentar ambled down from the crawler, climbing over the treads, his boots kicking up dirt. He approached the gate cautiously, his hands up to show he was unarmed. The gate creaked open, a lone Gra'al woman emerging, a torn brownish-red scarf wrapped around her neck, blowing in the wind. Her rifle popped up, pointing at Gentar.

"Who goes there?"

"We're friends of Brial's," he said.

"You aren't the first to say that."

"We're here about the Integer, the ship that crashed here."

"Tell Der'lit he can fuck off. It's ours."

"I do not speak for Der'lit. I'm Gentar of the Trystero."

"What house is that?"

"It is no house but my ship. I have and remain a loyal servant to House Grimdar, although I travel with the Trystero."

"With Terrans?"

"With Terrans," he said. "They're back there on the crawler."

"And you have business with Brial?"

"She knows us," he said. "Or at least knows the man we're looking for, Drake Rose."

"We don't have any Terrans here."

"No, he's not here, but there was a Gra'al that came for the Integer and took something. That's what we're here to talk about."

"How do we know you aren't another of Der'lit's spies?"

"Because we aren't," Valencia hopped down from the crawler.

"Who are you?" the sentry asked, gun jumping towards her.

"I'm Valencia Vasquez, captain of the Trystero. I understand you need to protect Brial, but she knows me. If she's busy that's understandable, is Gint here?"

"Did you say Gint?"

"Yes, Gint."

"How do you know Gint?"

"We're the crew that he helped out over a year ago. We're the ones that killed Giga, blasted that monster on Thuul, you know, that crew."

"But you know Gint? That miserable old bastard?"

"Who's saying my name?" a voice asked.

"They're saying they know you," the sentry called back to someone obscured behind the door. "Some Captain Vasquez, Gentar... something about a Trystero and Drake Rose."

The gate creaked open wider, Gint appearing behind the sentry, placing his hand on her shoulder, then on her rifle, lowering it. He quietly said something to her that Valencia and her translator couldn't hear and she disappeared back behind the gate, tugging it open wider to make room for the crawler.

"My friends," he said. "I never thought I'd see you again."

Shattered Lineage

A chill ran down Valencia's spine at the sight of the husk of the Integer. There it was, banged up almost beyond recognition, panels and engines stripped out. Becca wrapped her arm around Valencia's, giving her a squeeze with her hand. The brief, overwhelming moment passed, and she was fully in control, returning the squeeze. Jimmy had glanced over at her, gawking until their eyes met and he pretended to be scanning the large, makeshift hangar they were in.

Gint wore a ragged flight suit with a brownish scarf dramatically dangling from his neck, much like the sentry at the gate had been. Valencia remembered all those years earlier, a younger Brial had worn something very similar. The winding streets of Liuenta were both an amateur engineering marvel and a squalid mess, Valencia could not decide on which. Everything on the planet bore the tattered marks of being repurposed. They hadn't wasted a single scrap of material. The people paid no mind to them, although they seemed to know and respect the older Gra'al.

"I'm guessing this was the ship you were talking about," he said.

"Yes, that's it," she responded.

"Not sure what you want with it."

"It's not really the ship we want, we're looking for clues. Anything would do."

"Clues for what?"

"Drake's missing," Becca said. "Okay, not missing as much as kidnapped."

"What? Who'd kidnap him?" Gint asked. "That boy'd never harm a fly."

"Giga's son," Gentar explained. "The same one that came here in search of this ship."

"The one with the hunter braid?" Gint asked.

"Yes," Gentar said. "That is Giga's son."

"How do you know him?" Becca asked.

"I saw him, narrowly avoided him is more like it."

"Wait, what?" Valencia asked. "When he came here you saw him?"

"I thought he was one of Der'lit's men, honestly." Gint sat down on a cargo crate in a huff. "They don't know to leave well enough alone. I'm not the biggest Brial fan in the world, but we're doing something important here."

"What's that?" Jimmy asked. "Looks like junk to me."

"Sounds like someone doesn't understand the value of reclamation to me," Gint spat.

"Sorry, he's new," Valencia said. "I'm sure you could explain the whole you making good with Brial later. I'm really not trying to be rude, it's just... Drake."

"Right, no, of course. I'm sorry, I just... We're fighting for a better future. There's no reason we can't establish a new house here. We've all been punished enough, forced from our families to never return. What's the point of punishment without redemption?"

"Gint, I can't make any promises here or anything—and I've already made the case for Endigo—but Drake was kidnapped from Vetru's palace in broad daylight on Triinal, three of his elite bodyguards slaughtered, their heads cleanly severed. Then the same happened on Biztsoft, him stealing research material into that thing from Thuul."

"The god thing? The one that apparently gave us organics? What, you think I didn't hear about that?"

"No, that's right," she said. "That's exactly what he's after and this ship here? It was on Thuul."

"I know you were there and all but how do you know that?"

"Because I piloted it there," Becca said.

"The guy onboard, the one that Datar decapitated? He was... I'm not even sure what to call it... infected, I suppose, by that thing. That's two distinct things he's done in relation to that monster, three if you count abducting Drake."

"What does Drake have to do with that thing?"

"We were on Thuul together," Gentar said. "The monster's drones captured Drake and had him under some sort of powerful trance that I don't quite understand, only Terrans are susceptible."

"He still has flashbacks," Valencia said. "So do I, although not from that monster in particular but the Sentinel that was there to protect the planet."

"The information we got about that whole situation didn't make much sense beyond another planet getting destroyed. Didn't shock me to hear it was Vetru," Gint said. "Our people have a way about them."

"Vetru means well," Valencia said. "It was my doing, really. I called in the airstrike. There was no other way."

"That planet was a graveyard anyway, I'm just saying one Warlord or another, it doesn't make much of a difference," Gint said.

"Vetru is an honorable Gra'al," Gentar barked defensively. "He carries on the legacy of Jin'tu and holds the great hall for Jek'tu's ascension!"

"Alright, alright," Bec said, standing in between them. "Let's chill out here, we're all on the same team."

"I get it," Gint said. "I'm just some bitter old fool's all."

"You're a friend," Valencia said, reaching out and placing a hand on his shoulder. "We know you've been through a lot, so have we. Trust me, if you had seen that thing you would have made the same call. It wasn't about us, it was about everyone. That power is beyond comprehension, and Datar is after that power. We need to get Drake back and we need to find out what he's doing and stop him."

"I understand," he said. "Look, here's what happened, okay? Brial gave me some fancy title and all that nonsense, we made good and we still share that bond over Ge'et. It's nice to have new memories to talk about with him... Alright, sorry, I'm losing my train of thought here. I'm still a scrapper, is what I'm saying. A ship gets downed nearby and I'm there before anyone else. Always.

"So I'm there, routing around, and the fella on the ship is alive. He's barely hanging on and mumbling nonsense. I didn't have my translator in, obviously. Why the hell would I, right? None of your kind down here since Drake caused that scuffle and my Terran is a bit rusty, so I'm trying to talk to him when I hear a ship land." Gint hopped down off the crate and stretched his back out. "Ship lands and look, we've been having problems with those New Dredge types. Terran and Gra'al living together? Great. We're over here fighting for our freedom, trying to establish a new house and make Endigo respectable like and these people get handed land here, are gifted homes and materials and no one will listen to us.

"They want more, though! They think they can come out and scrap like us, even though they've gotten more than we ever did. The entitlement of it all. It just feels like a slap in the face to us, after all we've been through. We've tried to be diplomatic, and we're just stuck. We don't have a powerful fleet at our disposal, we can't even muster up more than a few shuttles to meet with anyone and plead our case. Yet these bastards have whatever they could need and more. Why? Because they were willing to kill your people blindly, and I wasn't? We're at peace now and the killing is over, we don't want to kill your people and frown upon it but my honor and life was stripped away because I didn't want to kill your kind? Rotten, rotten, I tell you."

"I know," Valencia said. "It doesn't make sense, really. Like I said, I'm more than happy to keep pushing your case to Vetru."

"I know you will. Thank you, anyway, I'm sorry, I get so lost in these thoughts these days..."

"It's fine, we understand."

"Anyhow, that ship landed, and I didn't want to get into another fight. The last one left me pretty banged up, I'm not much of a hand-to-hand guy, you know? So I backed off. Felt bad about that fella in the ship mumbling nonsense and was afraid he'd rat me out, but he was talking nonsense, so I took the chance."

"So what did you do?" Gentar asked.

"I hid. That ship was pretty banged up, but the facilities were in good shape. You know? Center of the ship and all, reinforced door for privacy and all."

"You hid in the bathroom?" Jimmy asked.

"You're damned straight I did! Damned fool, what else was I supposed to do? I caught sight of him, a real madman there. That hunter braid told me he was up to no good. House Gigar has always been a bit off, ya know? Kept to the fringes like they did, the rogues of the Gra'al."

"Did you overhear anything?" Valencia asked.

"The one was babbling. Like I said, my Terran isn't great, and I didn't have my translator in. He was saying something about power and 'Him,' whatever that is supposed to mean."

"So Tuck was still under that beast's control?" Gentar asked. "That's concerning. Do you think Drake is still...?"

"I don't know," Valencia said. "He's strong, we have to hope he's okay still, but I don't know. I can still sense the Sentinel inside of me and the Sentinel wasn't malevolent like He was. Did you hear anything else, Gint?"

"Datar was talking nonsense about 'the power.' Said something about his destiny and lopped the poor bastard's head off. Of course, he was impaled by the ship anyway, he wasn't getting outta there alive, I don't think."

"Destiny?" she asked.

"Destiny."

"I was right," she mumbled to herself.

"What?" Gentar asked.

"He's after the power. He has to be."

"That thing is dead," Gentar said. "We destroyed it and an entire planet. The Sentinel gave its life to destroy it."

"It's still alive," she said. "It has to be. That's what the Sentinel, or whatever is left of it, keeps trying to tell me. He lived on through Tuck."

"Tuck is gone," Gentar said.

"The brain matter, remember? He took the head, and he's got Jordache's research, damnit."

"You're right," Gentar admitted, solemnly. "But that doesn't mean he's still alive, if he was alive he's dead with Tuck."

"No," she said, a shiver overcoming her. "No, he's not. Drake is still alive. Drake is alive and so is He."


Ten


The Dreamer, Fading.

A voice called out from afar, slipping between the eddies of gravity that remained unstable. His body was heavy, an awareness remained that his body existed.

The Dreamer had dreamed before, except inside those dreams he had been integrated into the inner workings of the universe, woven into the threads of life themselves. Now he was an intruder hijacking access to the wonders, aware of his own inability to be something more, something different.

The voice that had plagued him morphed into something different. No longer the same menacing, destructive force, but something different. The dream had morphed into a worse reality than before, if at all possible.

Another voice formed around him, closing in like confined walls of a madhouse. The dreams before were dark, but traversing through the unknown at least shielded his fragile consciousness from the horrors of his own warped reality. Now hyperawareness reigned supreme.

His fist trembled, lifting up towards the stars, an unconscious move beyond his dream. The new voice, the amalgamation of hatred, power and vengeance, although something about that felt like a coating, a covering that hid something else beyond his reach.

"The power lives in me now," the new voice echoed throughout the universe.

The Dreamer pushed harder. The universe breathed out again, exhaling through its collective lungs.

"I'm unstoppable."


Eleven


Datar the Destroyer.

The power was unlike anything Datar could have imagined. Never before had any Gra'al possessed such power. His father destroyed an entire world, a flex of his command muscle. House Gigar believed in Giga enough to bond together, merge their collective power, and leave it at his destructive disposal.

Those same believers turned their back on Datar, pushing him away out into the cold, on his own. Now the power of a god coursed through the essence of his being. Unfathomable power. The boy sat slumped over next to him in a heap, glassy black eyes staring up at him. Datar could sense everything that existed within him, the places his mind had traveled to, the hyperreality that unlocked. The bond between them was artificial, although temporary. With time the transfer would grow beyond the artifice and electronic, merging organic matter. For now, the boy remained in his dreams. Wordlessly he ordered him to stand up, the shambling husk straightening out in front of him, another smile rumbling from somewhere deep inside, an artifact from the melding of a Gra'al mind with that of an infected Terran mind.

Datar reached his hand out, summoning an energy from deep within. His mind served as an extension of his hand, further and further out towards the bubbling jar containing the other Terran's head. Rumbling in place, pressure mounting inside while the preservation fluid bubbled intensely, Datar felt the smooth surface in his grip even though it was feet away. In an instant it sprang into action, flying into his open palm.

This was just the beginning. A minor trick at his disposal. The Terran notes explained only some of the potential applications for their people. He believed they could use His power to control inanimate objects, expanding into industrial applications like herding and crushing rocks for mining or even crowd control. Terrans thought small, this Jordache concerned about morality, living in fear of His power from when the Terran felt the touch of a god. Now Datar felt the power flowing through him, only to find himself at a loss for what to actually do with the universe at his fingertips.

Infinite power needed a vehicle. If House Gigar bowed to his father's will, they would bow to him now, being forced to reckon with casting him out to live under Vetru's peace. Destroying a planet was within his grasp, a mere trifle for someone with his power. He'd need to foster that power before demonstrating it, though. They'd never doubt him or his power again.

The husk's mind was in turmoil, a defense mechanism inside conjuring images from his past in an attempt to wrest control again. A dark laugh materialized from deep within at the pathetic display of sentimentality. He clomped out to his ship, the husk obediently following behind and securing himself into the seat against the wall. The controls to his ship were familiar, yet felt like a toy in his hands.

The ship burst from the cave and out into the abyss of space. The asteroid remnants of Thuul provided the best cover for his lab and the only place in the galaxy where the residual powers of Him were strongest. The hidden lab had served its purpose. Now it was a liability. Not that it mattered if they discovered anything about his plans. There would be no stopping him. Let them try.

The physical confines of his body, the ship and hyperlight travel rumbled inside him. Reaching out with his mind, he brought himself to the space outside of his ship, traversing the hyperlane beyond the restrictions of corporeal existence. The stars blurred in an instant all around him, Dir'lock, the home of House Gigar floating before him.

Not an illusion or an image of Dir'lock but the planet itself. His body and the Ligent still almost two hours away. A mere growing pain, or at least something to consider. The universe had been unlocked to him while his physical body remained confined to the laws of physics.

There was no time to lose on his path of vengeance. The power to control his own fate had been out of reach for his entire life now it was there, under his control. The Great Hall of Dir'lock had been built on a cliff-side overlooking the grand Burent Ocean, a now-toppled statue of his father crumbled in disgrace by the Garden of Gigar, the other edifices to great leaders still standing. Vetru had stripped away the memory of his father, ordering him stricken from their history as anything but a villain, a cautionary tale. A pretender sat on the dais now, a mere puppet without the lineage, his lineage. His name summoned a rage from the depths of his memories: Tardeep.

His rage swirled the great ocean by the cliff-side, waves battering the shores violently, stirring from the clouds. Tardeep would know the fear of betrayal to Giga and the House Gigar. They believed his father to be the chosen one, the one to bring House Gigar not just back into favor but to rule over Gra'al society with an iron fist. Datar reined in the power of the waves, summoning the power of the water to converge and form a figure. The swirling, towering figure of Datar stood before the great house, his voice bellowing in the wind.

"Tardeep the Traitor," he called. "Tardeep the Traitor, come and face the spurned god."

The mighty door of the great hall, the door that had sent shivers up his spine as a youth swung open. In all of his opulence, the doors that had towered over him now were cosmic dust compared to his scale and power.

A figure stood defiant in the wind, his tunic billowing behind him at the power of Datar and his watery presence. Tardeep stood, the pretender to the throne, the disease that plagued House Gigar like he was the true-born leader.

"What trickery is this, Datar?" he called.

"The only fool remains you and the other traitors that dare call yourselves Gigans."

"I don't understand what this is," he called. "Your father committed unspeakable acts against our people. We tried to help you, Datar, but you refused."

"Your offer was a joke. You dared insult me: a brave hunter and heir to the Gigan legacy with some ceremonial role? The day of reckoning has come and all will see my power."

"I'll have none of this," Tardeep shouted. "Our agents tell us you're hours away. If you dare invade our airspace, you'll be shot down like the villain you are."

"You'll restore my lineage and sacrifice yourself as repentance. There is no deal beyond this."

"Enough of your tricks, Datar. You're an insult to an already terrible stain on Gra'al history, if that's even possible." Tardeep turned towards the door, the rage overwhelming in Datar, the watery hand reaching out, grasping onto Tardeep's torso, the massive, flowing appendage engulfing the Gra'al leader. He thrashed in the water, doing his best to resist, only it was futile. A low, bellowing laugh echoed off the mountains, filling the great hall he had once dreamed of inhabiting.

The fear was apparent on Tardeep's face. The understanding of the power Datar possessed made him lavish his foe's inability to respond. "You are powerless in my hands, you traitor. I should smash you right here and now, but I want the people to know what became of you. I want them to see not just my power but the futility of challenging me, of your failure and Vetru's failure to control House Gigar."

"W-what are you doing?"

"I'm reclaiming my right and forging my own destiny for all the Gra'al. I'm unstoppable."

Shattered Lineage

Power was not just the actual, physical or mental abilities in his possession, it was perception. This was a lesson that Datar's father never learned. Datar becoming a hunter awaiting his time at the head of House Gigar taught him the lessons that weren't taught in the Gigar military. The more fearsome one appeared, the more respect they commanded. In Datar's case, that meant the long braid lined with the trophies from his highest profile hunts.

The Ligent cruised into Dir'lock space unimpeded, Datar forcing Tardeep to release any alerts placed on his vessel. Datar's feet crunched against the broken stones from Giga's fallen statue, this landing site chosen for symbolic reasons. Tardeep stood, defeated before him, crumbling to his knees before Datar.

"Spare me, please," he cried. Some mighty leader of the proud House Gigar.

"Pathetic," Datar boomed. "House Gigar deserves better than a groveling fool like you."

"Y-you're a madman," he said. "Datar, think this thro—"

Before he could finish, he gasped for air, clutching at his neck. Datar stood unmoving, reaching out with his mind to cut off Tardeep's airflow. His life was fragile and entirely in Datar's hands. That power alone wasn't new for a powerful hunter like him, just effortless and expanded. He wouldn't need to move a muscle to snap him out of existence. The husk stood behind him, power flowing between them. The power of a god being tethered to a Terran was temporary. Soon there would be no need for a conduit, the power entirely his and the weak husk discarded once and for all.

Before Datar had sucked the life out of the Gra'al leader he relented, almost too late, him writhing in pain in the rubble of Giga's shattered statue. Datar watched his rival gasping for air, attempting to massage his throat, coughing violently and uncontrollably. The image brought him great pleasure, a tiny voice in the back of his mind reminding him that Tardeep was only a minor player in the game, of no significance.

"Wh-what do you wa-want?" he coughed.

"If I snapped my fingers I could destroy you, wipe you from existence like you were never here. The Gra'al people would worship me unconditionally, a mighty warrior bringing us to true galactic prominence. But it would be a hollow victory.

"Instead, I wish for them to follow, not because I command it alone, or because I set the fear of my infinite power in them. No, I want them to follow on their own. Power begets power, iron forges iron. When they see my power, when they understand not just what I, but what Gra'al everywhere are capable of, they'll not quake in fear or tremble on their knees before me. They'll rise up and follow me while we claim this galaxy and beyond for ourselves. The true destiny of the Gra'al is not here, confined within this broken down remnant of a galaxy at the whim of some weak, doomed Terrans.

"No, the Gra'al people will continue our ascension to be true gods, the real power of the universe." Datar snatched Tardeep up by his shirt, dragging him towards the garage, his body pounding against the hood of the crawler, arms and legs splayed out like a sacrifice left out for a carnivore as bait. There was no need for physical bindings, Tardeep frozen in place.

The husk clambered into the driver's seat, Datar mounting the top of the crawler like a conquering hero. With no need to verbalize a thing the crawler lurched forward, emerging from the garage into the Dir'lock midday light and towards the bustling capital city of Plentuu. The great house sat just on the hillside looking out above the city, far enough away to be seen with reverence and awe but close enough to remain visible and within a short drive. Datar's mind reached out to the engine of the crawler, refusing to wait for the vehicle to move along at its normal speed towards the city center. He had waited long enough. Intensifying the speed that sent them barreling down the mountainside.

House Gigar had waited long enough.

The Gra'al had suffered long enough.

Plentuu reflected the Gigar way: striking, tall spires piercing the sky in stark, jet black or gray colors. The artwork was dark, vivid and primal. The beauty to the Gigar was not in vibrant colors or abstract shapes, but the sharp, forged power reflecting the hardships they had overcome. The soft and serene had a place for them as a contrast, used sparingly to lasting impact. The streets were lined with loyal members of House Gigar, the more traditional, off-white, v-shaped tunics hung over their more contemporary Gra'al clothing like you'd find on Graa Prime.

Traffic intensified past the access road to the great hall, Datar impatient, pushing them aside and out of their way while they sped past. With a groan he relented control over the engine, allowing it to slow down, moving over the faded gray of the paved roads along the grid toward the center. House Gigar would understand the power of their leader, the vision and abilities that stretched out into the universe, spanning beyond the grasp of mere mortals.

In the square a giant statue of Gigar, the founder of House Gigar towered over every building for a twelve block radius, a law instated after the rapid expansion of the city and planet after the fall of Lidar. They never bothered to build a larger edifice, so no building within the direct vicinity could eclipse it, him remaining a towering presence over the most populous and in demand portion of the planet. The car came to a halt underneath Gigar, a small crowd of onlookers gawking. Tardeep was visible on the hood, his cries for help jarring those nearby from their daily routines.

"People of House Gigar," Datar shouted, his voice echoing loudly throughout the square. "Your true leader has returned. I, Datar of House Gigar, son of Giga, have come to dispose of Tardeep, a traitor to our house. House Gigar under his watchful eye has become nothing more than Vetru's attack trig, leashed and muzzled, our power and agency stripped from us. And I, the true leader, was banished to Endigo."

The crowd had swelled since he began speaking. The hubris of Tardeep, believing himself to be the true leader, sitting atop the cliff-side unprotected and the rest of House Gigar too broken down to challenge him. Datar paced on the roof of the vehicle, each stomp reverberating beneath him.

"My brothers and sisters, I will not beseech you to just believe me. I know that you've been beaten down, forced to believe in Jin'tu's misguided way. The Terrans as allies? As our equals in this galaxy? They're invaders who took our land and continue to expand to this day. The DMZ is littered with them, glib and fearless of us, the Gra'al, the true children of destiny! Tardeep was not the disease," he spat. "Tardeep was a symptom of the rot in Gra'alian society. They forced him upon you, cast me away, and for what? My father was a man of vision but his vision did not unify."

"His power was that of fear, of telling you to follow him, not showing you why to follow him. I'm not here to spill more Gra'al blood. If anyone dare oppose me, do so now, for the blood that I spill will be only against traitors. I will not lead from above, forcing you to do my dirty work, I'm here to show you that I'm here with you."

A Gra'al stepped forward, older, haggard looking with a long, straight blade unsheathed from his shoulder. Datar felt the twinge of excitement course through his body, just like before when someone would challenge him. Datar freed his hutar from his back, wielding the scythe in his grasp, beckoning the man to move forward.

"Who dares oppose Datar the Destroyer?"

"Ab'car," the man said. "Tardeep is my sworn brother, I'm bound by oath to protect him."

"You and many others, yet only you stand before me."

"As you said House Gigar has been subjugated, relegated to second-class citizens."

"And yet you dare challenge me."

"My oath was to him."

"Did you serve my father?" he asked.

"My oath was released when he died," the man explained. "I swore a new one to Tardeep."

"Where were you when I took him, then?"

"Tardeep is proud, a man of the new era not leading by fear, like you say you will."

"Do you wish to be released from your oath, then?"

"My honor leads me here," he said. "You will not harm him anymore."

"When I strike you down, I'll do it as painlessly as I can," he said, jumping down from the crawler. "Gra'al of honor like you deserve a warrior's death."

The man circled, tossing his sword from one hand to the next while hunched over, ready to pounce. Datar stood in place, the internal struggle a decision between demonstrating the depths of his power right there for all to see or give this warrior the death he deserved. His powers were even beyond his own comprehension, able to see forward to the thrust of the blade toward his side. Datar moved leisurely out of the way, the man staggering forward. He regained his composure, throwing an arcing blow towards Datar's shoulder, the hutar springing up reflectively and catching the blade with a clang. The strength of the blow was consequential, the kind that previously would have made Datar stumble. Instead he stood firm, parrying another blow. The man's breathing had intensified, the blows coming faster and harder, less disciplined. With an exhale, Datar parried another blow, the blade of the hutar flashing before his eyes, a stream of green blood erupting from the neck of the man, his body hitting the ground before his head. A hush came across the crowd.

The husk emerged from the vehicle, gathering up the body and head, stowing them in the back. A warrior like that had earned his respect and his place among the honored. Gasps came at the sight of the Terran handling the body. A few moved in like they would attack Datar, only to walk into an invisible barrier set by Datar. A few pounded their fists against the barrier, confused, the rest conceded to his power.

"Anyone else wish to challenge me?"

A few muffled calls, the streak of blood leading towards the car enough of a deterrent. Tardeep continued to cry out. "He's a monster! You don't understand, you don't—"

His mouth sealed shut. Those in front cried out in fear.

"People of House Gigar, let me reveal my true power to you. I promised you I would not lead by fear, but by inspiration. Datar the Destroyer is no mere mortal. The power of a god lives within me." His arm outstretched, hutar dripping green blood. "Behold!"

With a flick of his wrist, the towering statue of Gigar rumbled overhead, the arm straightening out in unison with Datar's. Datar clenched his eyes shut, the power of his life-force exploding from inside of him and flowing through the statue, breaking down the rock at a molecular level, infusing it with organic matter and life itself. In a burst of energy the towering form of Gigar morphed into a twenty-story Datar, the screams from down below had given way to fear.

"Fear not what you don't understand, my brothers and sisters. Datar the Destroyer will not just lead us to be masters of our galaxy, but the universe. Follow me to our destiny!"


Twelve


The Captain.

"I assumed that finding Drake Rose was our priority," Vetru's projection flickered on the console of the Trys.

"It is," Valencia said. "If we find Datar we find Drake."

"That is if he's still alive."

"Look, we know what he's after now. We know that he's after that... monster's power and that Drake is related to this somehow."

"Captain Vasquez, while you know I respect your judgement, we hit that thing with two orbital assaults and the planet was ground to dust. Nothing could survive that."

"Then how'd we find Tuck and the Integer on Endigo?"

"He escaped, plain and simple. Like you said, though, Datar beheaded him. How do you know he didn't do the same to Drake?"

"I can... feel it, I don't know how to explain it. There's some sort of link there from my time aboard the Sentinel and when that thing took over his mind."

"Captain, my people question that decision daily. I have no problem defending my actions and I believe that what we did was correct, but how do I explain something like this to them? That the son of a genocidal traitor is acquiring Terran heads to summon the power of this god-like monster to take over the galaxy? I'm not sure that I even believe it."

"You should," she said. "Have I ever lied to you?"

"No, you have not. I'm not trying to question your judgement, Captain Vasquez, I'm merely..."

"What? Let me have it," she said, sensing his reticence. "You think I'm losing it, right?"

"I believe that you could use some time away from all of this. Let us conduct the investigation, my best teams are on this and we will find Drake Rose."

"I'll rest when we've found Drake."

"Captain, I must urge you to reconsider. We already have a lead that Datar's ship was seen returning to Dir'lock."

"Is he insane?" Gentar asked. "He's been exiled from House Gigar."

"I've been trying to contact Tardeep to no avail, but as soon as I do I'll let you know. If Datar returned to Dir'lock, they'll detain him at once."

"Like they did on Triinal?" she asked.

Vetru's image flickered again, the pause palpable.

"We know to expect him now and respect how dangerous he is. Captain Vasquez, if he's out there we'll catch him."

"Understood. Stay in touch," she said.

"Captain... Don't do anything foolish."

"Vasquez out," she said, his hologram vanishing.

The four of them sat silently in the cockpit of the Trystero, Becca in the pilot's chair, the sound of her teeth gnawing at a bright red rope of licorice. Jimmy was quietly sitting back there, doing his best to stay out of their way. While their first mission with him he had been an unavoidable, omnipresent force of nature, he was hardly visible, understanding the gravity of the situation. Becca and Gentar exchanged looks, Valencia knowing the next question would be where they went next. She could sense everyone's doubts, even Vetru picking up on her mental state.

As tired as she was, Drake needed her. When she allowed Atticus to bring him on board, she had been leery at first. Drake was young, almost too young for the kind of work they did. Most of their work dipped into the gray area of salvage, skirting around any sort of local legislation and using Bec's skills as a pilot to get them out of any trouble they attracted. The impetus for their abrupt about-face into more legitimate jobs was having a teenager on board. Not just any teenager, but a moody, brooding artist who simultaneously craved acceptance and to be left alone. She wasn't much older than him but still felt like a surrogate mother of sorts considering all they'd been through and how she got to watch him grow into the man he was, or was at least becoming.

"I already know what you're going to ask," she said. "So just get it over with."

"I thought we were going to Dir'lock?" Becca asked.

"As did I," Gentar confirmed.

"Jimmy?" she asked.

"That seems like where we need to be going, yeah," he said.

"So you aren't going to mutiny or lock me in my room until you think I've rested enough or—"

"Captain," Gentar interrupted. "For as long as I've known you, I've known you to be an honorable captain. Not just that, but a caring one. If it were any of us out there, you'd be fighting for us. None of us know what you went through and I'm only now starting to understand the scope of it."

"Yeah, Val," Becca said. "What we're saying here is that we're with you no matter what."

"I know that I'm new here and all," Jimmy said, "I just want you to know that I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

"Then I guess it's decided?" she asked.

"Dir'lock," Becca said. "Coordinates are already entered. We're ready on your mark."

"Punch it."

Shattered Lineage

"What's wrong now?" Valencia asked, her head foggy from her nap still. "Don't tell me another planet blew up."

"Cap, you better get up here," Bec called over the comm.

Valencia stretched her arms out wide, her fist banging against the wall, recoiling in pain. She had slept for longer than she thought and still couldn't shake the overwhelming fatigue that plagued her. Her jacket was slung over the chair in the corner, snatching it up and pulling it on over her shoulders only for a flash of green to stop her in her tracks. Wherever they were going, there was a magnetic pull between the memory of the Sentinel and that planet. Her head heavy, she sunk down into the chair, giving herself a moment to collect her thoughts. The campsite flickered all around her, Emma shouting at her and wildly gesturing only no sound was coming from her.

"I can't hear you," Valencia called, voice modulated like she was underwater. "I can't hear you! Emma!"

Valencia lurched forward, trying to leave behind the Trystero and claw her way into the campsite. Her vision flickered between the two, one foot firmly in the campsite, the dirt crunching underfoot and the other still on the thin taupe carpet that lined the floor of her room. Clenching her eyes tight, she screamed out, focusing every last bit of her energy on the campsite, imagining Emma sitting there, a long stick in hand stoking the flames, the warmth of familiarity washing over her.

Crickets chirped around her, the sound of the fire crackling.

"Open your eyes, Valencia," Emma's soft voice greeted her warmly.

"Emma." Valencia threw her arms around her, Emma returning the embrace, dropping the stick on the ground. When she pulled back, the stick had morphed back into her hand, her visage pulsing and distorting briefly only to correct itself. "What's going on?"

"I'm not powerful enough to stop Him this time."

"I thought you were dead?"

"It doesn't really work that way, Valencia."

"What does that mean?"

"My physical form was destroyed and only a shard remains."

"But we killed Him, right?"

"No," she said. "Not entirely."

"So you're telling me that whatever that thing was... we didn't really destroy it?"

"He still exists, yes."

"Then what did we destroy?"

"His corporeal form has been destroyed but the shards remain alive."

"How? I don't understand any of this. I saw you blow him up. That should be it. Lights out."

"I've been trying to reach out to you, Valencia, but without His power to amplify mine I could only come through in short bursts. I was incomplete."

"So what you're telling me is you're complete now? What does that mean about his power?"

"It means He's regaining His power."

"Then how do we destroy it? I'm not sure Vetru is going to be keen on blowing up another planet." She kicked some dirt at the flames, picking up a smooth stone from the ground and rolling it around in her hand. "Are you telling me we'll be doing this forever?"

"No," she said. "If His power regenerates, I'll be powerless to stop Him."

"Can't you call somebody? Weren't there a whole race of you?"

"I'm but a Sentinel," she said. "I was created to watch over Him."

"And you failed. What does that mean for us?"

"Unless you can find a way to stop Him, I'm not sure."

"So wait, you said you couldn't summon up enough strength to communicate with me... Does that mean you're inside my head? For real? I thought I was just having flashbacks and..."

"My life shard exists within you now, Valencia. I can sense your longing and sadness, but I'm still here, for now."

"I don't know what any of this means, Emma. Does that mean you won't always be here? Are you dying again?"

"That depends on you."

"Okay, fuck," she said. "So wait, you're able to come through now. What changed?"

"His power is growing."

"Just from whatever gunk was in Tuck's head?"

"No," she said. "The Acolyte was not powerful enough for him to survive for long. The Acolyte could sustain him for a short while before burning him up."

"Then where is this thing?"

"We're close, very close now. His power is growing with each passing moment. I've detected a large surge of His energy."

"Just tell me already: where is the power coming from? How did he stay alive if Tuck wasn't capable?" she was panicking. What if he had killed Drake?

"The one who killed me," she said matter-of-factly.

"Who killed you? I thought it was that monster?"

"The vessel He controlled. The one that you saved."

"You mean Drake?"

"Yes, the one you call Drake."

"No, no, no. That can't be. Do you mean that he killed Drake to obtain this power? Please, that can't be true," she said, not wanting to believe it.

"No Gra'al has ever shown the aptitude to be a conduit," she said.

"Then how? How would he gain this power from Drake, then?"

"I don't know."

"Then what do I have to do?"

"You must destroy the vessel."

Shattered Lineage

"Hey, are you alright?" Jimmy was standing over her, a look of concern on his face.

"What? Yeah," she said, picking herself up off the ground. "I'm fine."

"What happened there? You were calling out, talking in your sleep. I don't know. I guess you fell out of your bed."

"I wish it were that simple. How close are we?"

"We're here. It's pretty strange, though."

"Great, just what I need," Valencia pulled her jacket up over her shoulders and tugged it taut. "He's here."

"Who's here?"

"Datar. I don't know about Drake, but if Datar is here, then Drake—if he's still alive—should be."

"How do you know?"

"A feeling."

"How accurate are these feelings of yours?"

"I don't know how to explain it, and I'm not sure you'll understand. You kinda missed the whole thing with the all-powerful aliens and the planet explosion thing."

"I get that feeling a lot like I'm constantly missing out on stuff."

"Yeah, something like that."

Valencia walked past him, Jimmy doing his best to not look hurt, running his fingers through his hair and exhaling deeply. Doing her best to feign confidence, she strut into the cockpit where Gentar and Becca were sitting, transfixed at the view through the window. Dozens of warships were in formation just outside of the planet's orbit in an astounding display of power. None of them said a word, Becca just gave Valencia a nod While Gentar just stared forward, shaking his head slowly and deliberately.

"This is an ill omen," he muttered.

"What do you mean?" Valencia asked.

"Vetru would not mobilize a force like this. This is not his doing."

"So what? They're just going to war?" Jimmy asked from behind her. "With whom?"

"With us? With the Gra'al? With everyone?" Valencia asked, not looking for replies. "Datar is angry, who knows what he's capable of, especially with this power."

"So what do we do?" Becca asked.

"Did you try hailing anyone?"

"Are you kidding me?" she asked. "Look at this shit. I'm not doing a damned thing until you order me to, even then I'm gonna question your sanity for real if you think we should go anywhere near this planet."

"Why don't we go around them?" Jimmy asked.

"This is what we can see now," Gentar said. "They're filling up our entire view. Knowing House Gigar and their capabilities, there are entire fleets inbound. He's gathering his forces."

"Who is?" Jimmy pressed. "You said he was an exile, right? There's no way that he's already done this."

"Giga's death insulted and deeply wounded House Gigar, never mind Vetru's ascendancy to the Warlord Regent. They believed in his revolution and accepted Tardeep only after many concessions were made."

"Such as?"

"Keeping their war machines. Not paying a steep tax for Giga's sins."

"Why would they do that?"

"These are proud people, you cannot just strip away the things which make them proud. Yes, they destroyed everything related to Giga and his line was removed from the leadership. His cousin was installed instead and thus a new era began."

"So they got to keep these warships and were left unchecked?"

"You do not understand my people."

"I understand that this is a very bad idea!" Jimmy shouted. "You can't leave monsters like this unchecked. Look at them! Look at this! That fleet destroyed an entire planet!"

"I already told you the reason!" Gentar stood up, glaring at Jimmy.

"These assholes head to Terra and we're all fucking gone! Vetru is a fool!"

Gentar's movements were swift for someone his size. In one fluid motion he was out from behind his seat and his head cracked across Jimmy's chest, sending the darkly decorated man slamming back against the wall. Flattened up against the doorway, Jimmy slumped down to the ground, Gentar standing above him, fist at the ready. Grasping a hold of his tight black shirt, Gentar raised him up and growled in his face.

"You do not get to question Vetru's actions."

"Okay, okay, stop, please," he begged.

"Gentar, put him down," Valencia said. "We've got enough problems here."

"Fine." Gentar slammed him down hard on the ground, Jimmy groaning in agony. Valencia stepped over him and looked down at the tactical readout. The Trys had lost count of how many ships there were. The lights from the ships dotted the space in between them and the planet, to the untrained eye, would look like bright but distant stars. Instead, they struck fear in her. There was no way they could handle that sort of force.

"Can we contact Vetru without alerting them?"

"Not at this range, no," Gentar said.

"What's the nearest system, then?"

"The Prime system."

"As in Graa Prime?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Bec, set a course for the nearest system, then. We'll contact Vetru when we're out of the hyperlane."

"But Datar's here, right?" the pilot asked.

"Throwing our lives away isn't going to get Drake back."

"Agreed," Gentar said.

"So what are we going to do, then?" Becca pressed. "If he's here, then Drake's here."

"Bec, you just said you'd question my sanity if we went down to that planet. Now you are acting like I'm abandoning him here. I can sense Datar's presence and he's getting stronger."

"You can sense him!? Captain, what's going on?"

"You just have to trust me."

"I'm just saying, do you think Datar is on those ships?"

"No, I don't."

"So that means he's on the planet, right?"

"Becca, I agree with Captain Vasquez. We aren't getting past a blockade like that anytime soon."

"You know..." Valencia's gears started to turn.

"Captain Vasquez, we need to alert Vetru to the formation of this fleet at once! We need to go to Graa Prime!"

"If there's a chance of getting Drake back, I don't know. Emma told me—"

"Emma's dead," Gentar said. "Captain, she's gone. The Sentinel is gone."

"So was that beast! But look at where we are. You need to trust me."

"Captain, I—"

"Now it's my turn to assert my dominance," she got in his face. "Gentar, the Sentinel is still alive."

"How?"

"I'm the Sentinel."

"I don't understand."

"Neither do I, really. But she told me that there's something inside of me, a shard, that it grows in power the closer it is to that thing. To Drake."

"You don't mean..."

"I do. She told me that it's still alive in Drake, or at least was in Tuck and probably somehow Datar now. There's no way he was able to mobilize these fleets without some insane display that scared them into this."

"Or motivated them," Gentar said, sitting back down.

"There was a comm relay back a ways, right?"

"Yeah," Bec said. "Why?"

"Can we send an encrypted message through it to Vetru so it wouldn't alert the fleets?"

"Yeah, I mean, it'll take a lot longer to get there."

"How long?"

"Probably five or six hours, but no, it won't alert the fleets because the frequency is so low and uses such little bandwidth."

"Send it, then."

"Captain, there's no way to get around these ships," Gentar protested.

"You forget that before we took Drake on we did some smuggling, Gen," she said. "Bec, that moon over there, you think we could do the boomerang move?"

"What's the boomerang move?" Jimmy asked, wiping blood from beneath his nose.

"You'll see. Gen, is that moon populated?"

"No," he said. "That's Dermon. It's an icy, inhospitable moon that House Gigar attempted to mine but found only death there."

"Great, Bec, slingshot us around," she said.

"Got it, Cap," Becca said, licking her lips.

"You think you can still do it?"

"In my sleep, Cap. I thought I'd never get to do this again."

"Good, we should be able to sneak around this formation."

"What about landing clearances?" Jimmy asked. "How are we going to get on the planet?"

"If we burn hard enough, we'll register as a comet or space debris."

"Are you insane, Captain?" Gentar asked. "At those speeds we'd need—"

"—a pilot that can handle it," Valencia said.

"Luckily you've got the best pilot in the 'verse right here, Gen," Becca said, a broad smile adorning her face. "Buckle up, everyone, we're gonna eat some serious G's."


Thirteen


The Dreamer, Suspended.

Rage.

Pulsating through every neuron was nothing but pure, unbridled rage. The stars reached out, calling for a reply, while in the darkness all he could do was long for relief from the internal struggle that raged within the Destroyer.

The Destroyer's power was growing and the Dreamer's was fading.

A delicate balance kept both alive, but with each successive display the Destroyer's strength grew while the Dreamer continued to fade from existence. The rumbling of His voice had slowed down, morphed into something different, instead a combination of Him and the Destroyer. They were fusing together, something virtually impossible before.

The Dreamer paused, considering his circumstances. The Destroyer had done unspeakable things to achieve his goals and become more than any other being in their known galaxy. The universe was closing in around him. For the first time since the Dreamer knew the universe and the stars, they felt claustrophobic. What was there left for the Dreamer if the darkness continued to engulf the universe under the power of the Destroyer's hatred?

The power the Dreamer knew under Him was full of fear, anger and betrayal, yet the darkness had been kept at bay. The darkness existed, but there was a limit of what it could reach. Inside of the Destroyer's mind, those limits were null and void.


Fourteen


The Captain.

Valencia's fingers dug into the armrest of her chair, body flattened out against the chair. Bec was accelerating beyond the comfort of anyone inside the cockpit of the Trystero while the ship used the moon's gravity to shoot them around and blast them right towards the atmosphere of Dir'lock. The fleet was gathered on the other side of the moon, allowing them to get by without appearing like a mere blip on a radar for a moment. Short enough to appear like an error and rocket them to the planet fast enough to avoid the planetary defenses.

As long as Bec could stop them before they splattered against the countryside of House Gigar's home world.

"Breaching atmo in three!" Bec gurgled as clearly as she could, considering the circumstances.

The sudden lurch of the ship meant they had broken into the planet's atmosphere, the Trys quaking under the pressure of dipping into clouds. Bec continued the acceleration to avoid any defenses. Jimmy groaned behind her, enough to bring as much of a smile as she could muster to her face while the force of gravity sat on her chest like an army of Gra'al soldiers. The pull of gravity felt never ending until there was a clear view of the ground racing towards them, Valencia couldn't help but clench her eyes shut, Bec mumbling under her breath.

The violent jerk of decel flung them forward, pressed hard against the uncomfortable harness, digging sharply into her shoulders. The ship was plummeting at breakneck speeds to Dir'lock's surface, a large mountain's peak reaching up to them, looking to impale them and smash the ship to bits. Bec ground her teeth over the comm—or perhaps it was the ship itself struggling with the decel—landing thrusters working overtime to prevent them from flattening into an interstellar pancake.

"Almost... there..." Bec mumbled through the comms. "Almost..."

"You got this," Valencia murmured. "You—"

A splash of fluid smacked against the back of her chair, splattering all over the windshield. Jimmy, not used to Bec's aggressive landings, especially one that felt like the end, had lost his last packet of rations. Mixed berry, by the smell of it. Valencia couldn't help but laugh. The stench of sour rations dripping throughout would have frustrated her any other time, but a dance with death adjusted her tolerance always.

"Almost..."

Slam.

One last violent decel and they narrowly avoided colliding with the snow-capped peak of the mountain beneath them, a sigh escaping from Valencia. Then, just like nothing had happened at all, Bec straightened the Trys out and brought it in for a smooth landing on an atoll just off of the shore from Plentuu, the capital of Dir'lock. Valencia waited for her legs to stop shaking and took a few deep breaths, only for Bec to unclip from her harness and hop out of her seat.

"Now that's how you do it!" She smacked the bulkhead with her palm and hooted.

"Well done," Gentar said stoically.

"If anyone could do it, it was gonna be you, Bec," Valencia said. She freed herself from the harness and looked behind, Jimmy passed out in his chair, covered in a light purple sludge that had escaped his mouth. "Wake up, sunshine. You've got some deck swabbing to do."

"Erg," he stirred. "W-what? I... oh no, shit!"

"Yeaaaah," Bec said. "That's some nasty stuff right there."

"That landing... ugh," he said.

"Don't worry, you get used to it," Valencia said. "You still gotta clean it up, though."

Bec and Valencia laughed while Jimmy stumbled around, his skin a sickly pallor. He did his best to appear like he had things under control even if the rest of the crew didn't care or believe it for a moment. Gentar stretched himself out, grunting at his bad shoulder and rolling it gently. Bec littered his good shoulder with rapid-fire punches, still full of adrenaline from the landing.

"So what's our plan, Cap?"

"It's always a plan, isn't it?"

"That was a landing of a lifetime, Val. It better not be for nothing. So let's do this."

"Dir'lock is a densely populated planet, Becca," Gentar said. "We won't just march into Plentuu and find what we're looking for."

"We're looking for something strange," Valencia said. "Datar is dabbling in something dangerous here. Those fleets wouldn't mobilize for nothing, right?"

"Correct," Gentar said.

"If they're rallying around something, I bet a Gra'al and a few Terrans would draw a lot of attention, especially now."

"I agree. I was going to suggest I go alone, Captain. I'm less likely to draw attention."

"You're not exactly an unknown," Bec said.

"Yeah, Gen. You were the one that killed Giga. Granted, you'd get further than any of us."

"Then it's decided."

"You're going to be careful, Gen," Valencia said. "We aren't in a position to take any other unnecessary risks, you got that?"

"Copy that, Captain. You don't need to worry."

Shattered Lineage

Gentar had been gone for over an hour and Valencia couldn't silence the doubt simmering just beneath the surface. She hugged her knee tight, sitting on the ramp overlooking the ocean from the atoll, her comm unit sitting silently in front of her. Picking at a length of grass, ripping it apart piece by piece nervously. Gentar took the small loader they had, floating it across to the shore on its thrusters before he gave an awkward salute and rode off towards the city that loomed in the distance.

This moment of calm, ocean wind whipped against her and reminded her of the now-destroyed Thuul, felt perverse considering the situation. Drake was a prisoner of something yet again, only this time there was a personal reason for it and not some universe-spanning, all-powerful being without a reason to care about Drake. A Gra'al looking to channel this power, especially the son of Giga, was far more dangerous for Drake. Somehow.

"Sorry about that back there," Jimmy said. "Mind if I...?"

"What?" She looked up at him, motioning to sit next to her. "Yeah, fine, whatever."

"Thanks. I don't know what came over me, maybe a bad ration or something."

"It's fine, really. You'll get used to landings like that. That's how Bec is."

"So I can stay?"

"Uhh, oh, right, I don't know, Jimmy. We'll have to see. I don't even know if we survive this. You guys monitoring the local news feeds?"

"Bec said something about it, yeah."

"Maybe you should help. An entire planet's worth of newsfeeds is a lot for one person."

"Oh, right," he said. "I was just..."

"You were just what? Now's not the time, bud."

"No, no," he said. "Seriously, what? I came to check on you. Bec sent me and—"

"I get it," she said. "Don't worry about it. Go check and let me know what you pick up, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, good."

Jimmy picked himself up and clomped up the ramp, leaving Valencia alone with her thoughts yet again. There was so much wrong that watching the gentle ebb and flow of the waves against the reef helped calm her down. She never got to spend much time on a planet, most of her life now split between Biztsoft Station and the Trystero. Her time on Thuul was a blur of violence, pain and suffering. Those split decisions that she was forced into still bothered her. There was no way that they got everyone off of Thuul before the explosion, and she had to live with it. The official reports had the official numbers, but she still avoided it, not wanting to know what she was responsible for, even if they saved the galaxy another time without as much as a "thank you" from the Terran gov.

Their relationship with the Gra'al Empire since Vetru's claim to the Warlordship had improved immensely, more so than their relationship with their own people. Terrans had been bleeding over more and more through the DMZ, to the point where there were debates about even bothering calling it the DMZ anymore. Things were good, peaceful. The rescue mission from the remnants of Thuul turned into a shared mission between the two, the first such. Vetru had lifted any sanctions against Gra'al living on Terran stations and doing business there and even allowed them to work within the local planets over their border—at each House's discretion, of course. Back here, in the deepest depths of Gra'al space? Chances of seeing another Terran were thin, especially knowing Giga and how he ended.

"Um, Cap?" Bec squawked over the comm.

"Yeah?" she asked. That kind of call was never good, at least not for the last year or so.

"You gotta come see this."

"What now? Can't you ever call me about something good? Is this good?"

"Um, just come check this out."

"I'm not in the mood," she barked. "Just tell me."

"There's uhh a giant statue of one of Datar's grandpas that is uhhh... I don't even know how to say this."

"What?"

"Datar is controlling it."

"Controlling what?"

"A statue. And it looks like him now."

"W-what?"

"Yeaaaaah, you heard me."

"How? I don't even understand. Have we heard from Gentar yet?"

"No and, well..."

"What?"

"His comm isn't sending back any pings. It's dead."

"Damnit," she muttered under her breath. "Damnit. Bec, fire up the Trys, we've gotta get to wherever that thing is."

"Are you kidding me?" Jimmy shouted.

"No," Becca said. "Buckle up, buttercup."

"You're all insane."

"That we are," Becca laughed. "C'mon, Cap, get up here."

Valencia rushed in, the heavy ramp closing behind her. She stopped by the armory, tugging her pistol free and slipping it into the holster on her hip. "I'm coming," she said. Dashing up the stairs and through the kitchen, she bound up the stairs to the cockpit two-by-two, sliding into her seat and securing her harness and fingering the gun controls. "Let's do this."

"Wait, what?" Jimmy asked again. "Are we really going to do a frontal assault on some living statue?"

"No choice," Valencia said.

"Only way," Becca confirmed.

"I'm on a ship run by insane people," he said.

"Yep, so take those controls, junior, and wait for my signal," Valencia said.

The ship burst free from the atoll, rocketing up into the sky, racing towards the giant city skyline before them. Valencia continued to signal Gentar's comm, hoping that it was just a matter of interference and not something worse. Her heart raced in her chest, knowing that another member of her crew was in danger and the only way to keep everyone safe was to risk everyone's lives. Again. This had to stop sometime, just not yet.

The Trys's board lit up, incoming messages demanding identification that chirped out of existence at the flick of a switch from Bec. Over the top of a few of the buildings ahead there was movement. There was no way to know exactly what it could be at first until the distant presence in her mind pulsed, the world briefly illuminating in a fiery green hue. Blinking it away and shaking her head, Bec noticed and said nothing, focusing on flying. The first barrage of anti-air missiles were incoming.

"We've got fast movers," Bec shouted.

"On it," Valencia said, guiding the weapons towards them. The two missiles went down easily.

"What's that up ahead?" Bec nodded towards something looming beyond the buildings by the square. "You sense anything?"

"Yeah," she said. "That's him."

"Him who?" Jimmy asked.

"Datar."

The Trys bucked, ascending just above the skyline and dodging another battery of missiles deftly. Bec didn't always need someone to shoot them down, in fact, rarely ever did, only when things got hot. A sharp pain temporarily blinded Valencia, crying out in agony to see the figure of Datar, his normal size, standing over a kneeling Drake with jet-black eyes. When her vision returned there in front of them stomped a giant Gra'al figure, stone crumbling with every movement, the sound of its mighty feet against the ground filling the surrounding air.

"Ho-ly shiiiit," Bec said.

"What is that?" Jimmy asked breathlessly.

"That's it," Valencia whispered. "He's back."

"What do we do?" Becca asked.

"I don't know," she said. "I mean, we should just see what happens. If it notices us, we fire."

"We fire?" Bec asked. "What about Drake?"

"I don't know, I don't see any other—"

"Captain," Gentar's voice warbled over the static-filled comm. "Captain come in!"

"Gentar?"

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"We're coming to save you, duh," Bec quipped.

"No! No! Abort!" he called. "He doesn't see me."

"It's too late now," she said. "We're in the shit already."

Another set of missiles launched at the Trys, Valencia tracking them and blasting the first, then the second down from the sky, the massive, lumbering beast turning to face them, bellowing out a deep laugh. "So you've finally come for the Terran?"

"Was that just a talking statue?" Jimmy asked.

"Bec, open up the outside channel."

"Gotcha. You're hot."

"Yeah, what of it?" she asked. "Datar, right?"

"Datar the Destroyer," he corrected. "Hold your fire, everyone."

With that command the barrages halted, an eerie silence befalling the square. The Trys hung in the air, the massive, stone hand of Datar reaching up and grasping onto the top of the ship, rocking at his command. "Bec! Power down!" Valencia shouted at the pilot who obeyed, shutting down the ship's engines. Datar placed the ship on the rooftop of a tall building, almost at eye level with the lumbering statue. "Here, wait here," Valencia said.

"What are you doing?" Bec asked.

"I'm done with comms, I'm gonna see this bastard face-to-face."

"Excuse me?" Bec called after her, too late as Valencia was out the door and ascending the ladder to the ship's aft. The hatch popped open, Valencia clipping herself onto the tether and planting her feet firmly on the ship's hull. There she was, staring down the giant stone approximation of Datar, or at least one of his distant relatives, a shiver running down her spine.

"Foolish Terran," he laughed. "You dare face me outside of your ship?"

"I guess so," she said, sensing the power emanating from the giant beast.

"I always heard you were a fool. I never knew you were a proud fool."

"I don't really care what you think of me, Datar. I didn't care what your father thought of me, either."

"The power I have in my grasp is beyond your understanding."

"No," she said, "it's really not. I've seen it, remember?"

"You don't fear my wrath? You're more foolish than you look."

"I just want my crew back," she said. "We can deal with... whatever this whole thing is later. I just want my crew back."

"You stand before a god and you worry for your crew?"

"Yep," she said. "I stood before a god before, remember? I blew him into oblivion, in case you forget."

"The power of House Gigar stands ready at my command. The power to destroy planets and your entire pathetic race."

"Where's Drake?"

"I'm not through with the Dreamer yet. Nor will I ever be."

"Don't make me have to kill you," she said.

His laugh echoed through the entire city, buildings rumbling only to cut off. There was a commotion down at street level, Datar grumbling, his hand smashing down to the ground, sending a shock wave through the street. "You insolent traitor!"

"Cap, what's going on?" Bec said over the comm.

"I don't know," she said, the dawning that Gentar was still down there. "Oh, no... Datar! Don't kill him!"

"I don't take orders from you or anyone, Terran!"

"Don't kill him, please," she said. "I'm here for my crew, like I told you. Please."

"I care not about your crew," he said, snatching the figure up in his hand. "But the crew of the Trystero hold weight in this galaxy. You'll serve as my herald."

"Excuse me?"

"Here," he said, dumping Gentar on the hull of the ship with a thud. "You'll need the traitor for this."

Valencia rushed to his side, the mighty Gra'al groaning, a wave of relief running through her. She embraced him, the tug of her tether stopping her from a full hug. Keeping her eyes on Datar, she dragged Gentar towards the hatch. "Bec, Jimmy, I need help with him." Jimmy rushed to the ladder, Gentar slumping down towards the hatch, Valencia doing her best to catch him by his feet but his weight was too much, his body slamming down against Jimmy and flattening him to the ground.

"Tell Vetru. Tell your people. Tell them a new age is upon us. That House Gigar will no longer sit idly by. The stars are ours."

"I'm not doing that." She stood, defiant.

"I could crush you out of existence without twitching a muscle. You're insignificant in the face of my power."

"I'm not leaving without Drake."

"Yes, you are," he said, the mighty stone finger pushing her back to the hatch. Valencia tumbled down, smacking the back of her head against the hull, the tether catching her before she could smash into the ground, leaving her dangling from her hip. In a snap, the hatch slammed shut. Valencia unclipped the tether, her body hitting the ground with a thud, crawling to the cockpit where the crew was waiting.

"Captain!" Gentar called. "Hurry!"

"Erg," she said, the cockpit entombed in darkness. "What's happening?"

"Come," Gentar's strong arms wrapped around her arm from his seat, tugging her off the ground and into his chair on top of him. His arms engulfed her warmly before the ship lurched forward, then launched backwards, flying from the palm of the massive statue's hand.


Fifteen


The Dreamer, Frayed.

Familiarity blurred on the periphery, voices, faces and names, thin wisps of ideas trailing off out-of-reach.

The power was consolidating, folding in on itself and forging itself into something new, different and impenetrable. The dreams that were once wide open continued to compress into this new nightmare of a vision.

Shackles of the conjoined minds and serving as only a conduit between the two overwhelmed, leaving no room for outside thoughts. A voice echoed there, faintly in the distance, like a radio broadcast intercepted from the depths of space, decaying and distorted but still there.

"Where's Drake?"

The name.

A label that meant something, had a rich history and was enough to cause the bond to falter. The connection buzzed, a wire loose and ungrounded in the circuitry, fraying enough to provide, if not an answer, at least the room for a question.

Where is Drake?


Sixteen


The Captain.

The ship crashed through the atmosphere and out into orbit, bodies of the crew strewn about the cockpit of the Trystero. Valencia's back ached, having fallen from Gentar's grasp after Datar had flung the ship like a child throwing a ball. Jimmy had gotten sick again, which at least elicited a chuckle from Valencia—interrupted by a wave of pain radiating through her lower back—this time she at least wasn't in the path of it. Bec massaged her neck and began wrestling to control the Trystero, which was spinning aimlessly in space.

"What was that?" Valencia asked.

"I believe he threw us off the planet," Gentar said.

"I guess so," she said. "Bec, where are we?"

"Hold on," she grunted, fiddling with the controls. "There. Fine. Erm, lemme get my bearings here..."

"We should be right outside the planet, right?" Jimmy asked. "There's no way that he just... threw us that far."

"I don't think you understand the power he possesses," Valencia said. "We could be anywhere right now. With a snap of his fingers, he could snuff us from existence. He wanted us alive."

"Yeah, he wanted us for a very, very specific purpose, I'd say," Bec said. "Like very."

"What do you mean?" Gentar asked.

"Gen, look at these readings, I want to make sure I'm not hallucinating again."

"Fine." He peeled himself from the chair and glared at the board. "That can't be..."

"What?" Valencia asked, massaging her back with her palm.

"Looks like we get to see what Graa Prime is all about sooner rather than later," Bec said.

"You're kidding me?"

"She most certainly is not," Gentar said.

"Wait, wasn't Graa Prime light years away?" Jimmy asked.

"Jimmy, clean up my cockpit already," Bec said, "but yes. My readings show we went through... I don't get this at all, some sort of uncharted hyperlane?"

"None of this makes sense," Gentar grumbled. "I'm not sure how he was able to throw us this far, this fast without us being crushed by the acceleration."

"He's a god," Valencia said flatly. "He can do whatever he damn well pleases."

"Then how do you suppose we stop him?" Gentar asked.

"The Cap'll find a way, she always does."

"I appreciate the high opinion," Valencia said.

"You will. You always do."

"I'm not sure it works that way this time. You saw that thing. You saw what Datar is capable of. We couldn't even get near Drake, didn't even catch a glimpse of him."

"That's not entirely true," Gentar said.

"Oh?"

"I saw him. He was there, back in the crawler at the foot of Datar. Just before I could get to him was when they noticed me."

"You saw Dray?" Bec perked up. "Was he okay?"

"I don't know. I tried to get his attention, but he just sat there."

"I need to hit the med bay," Valencia said. "Tell me when we get clearance to land. And Gen? Make sure Vetru knows what's happening."

"Copy that."

Each step was a fresh jolt of pain running down through her hips and her lower back. Falling down while tethered at the waist didn't do her many favors, either. She was getting too old for this kind of stuff, even if she hadn't reached 30 yet. This line of work was supposed to be stressful, but she never imagined it being like this. The whole crew was relying on her to come up with some sort of miracle plan that would not only rescue Drake but put an end to the reign of Datar's terror. The same Datar that had taken the form of a giant statue and hucked the Trystero to the next planetary system.

She leaned back against the wall of the med bay, in no mood to lay on that bed for however long it'd take for a scan. Instead, she overrode the commands to order a dose of stims, grabbing the nozzle of the dispenser and tugging at the hose that attached it to the supply tanks, pressing it right up against the nape of her back and pulling the trigger. First came the squeeze, then the prick of the needle while the nozzle whooshed, pumping the stims into her bloodstream. Her muscles tensed up instinctively before the numbing sensation spidered out through her nervous system, relaxing her muscles and mind.

"You won't find what you're looking for on Graa Prime," Emma flickered before her.

"I must've really dosed myself," she said, trying to shake the illusion away.

"Valencia, they alone can't help you."

"You can't be here, Emma. We've been over this. You're dead, this is just residual mind guck."

"The more powerful He is, the closer you are, the more powerful I am."

"Yeah, well, I don't feel more powerful, so what does it matter? I can't stop some statuesque god-Gra'al."

"You can learn."

"What kind of mystical shit is that? I can learn what? How to kill Datar? What am I gonna do?" Valencia pulled her pistol from her hip and aimed it at Emma. "Shoot him with this pea shooter?"

"If there is one thing that I have learned it is that even when time surrounds us, the events of the future and past are suggestions."

"So what? You're telling me that you know what happens and you're pushing me in the right direction?"

"You experience time differently than we do."

"You're a creation, some... I don't even know, okay? Some sentient organic AI that found its way into my head and won't let go, now you're filling me with these worthless ideas about my destiny."

"Valencia, you are special."

"No, I'm not," she said, wiping away a tear. "I'm not special. I'm just some messed up girl who stumbled her way into owning a ship and yeah, you know what? It worked for a while. They all believed me, the great Valencia Vasquez, caaaaaptain of the Trystero. Shit, we even saved the galaxy a few times, didn't we? My luck ran out, though, and I'm just that runaway again, lost, cold and afraid but having to play tough. I'm done."

"Your crew needs you. Your people need you."

"My crew needs me like they need a hole in their head, alright?"

"I told you that I'm growing more powerful, Valencia. I'm still bound to you, though. If you will not act, then I fear His power will grow out of control. Your Drake is the perfect conduit for Him."

"Yeah, and? What does that mean, anyway?"

"It means he serves as a power transfer, of sorts. He exists within your friend's being now, integrated into the core essence of his existence."

"You're telling me that Drake will always have... that thing inside of him?"

"I fear it is not that simple. They are bound. Without His original host body, He can never be again. What's left is within those he touched."

"But Drake overcame him, pushed him out."

"He took control. There is no way to purge Him once he has found a host, I'm afraid."

"So what? He'll never be rid of that thing now? That's just who Drake is now? Some latent monster with a battle raging inside his head?"

"If we don't help him, then no. Datar is using him as a conduit."

"You've said that much already."

"What I mean is: Datar is transferring His power from Drake into himself. If he completes it, well..."

Even in her depleted, doped up state those words hit her hard.

"Well what?"

"There won't be anything left of either inside of him."

"So what?" she asked, tears streaming down her cheeks. "What can I do with that? How can I stop that thing?"

"Alone you can't, Valencia. But together we can."

"But how?"

"We need to find Them."

"Who?"

"Them. My creators."

Shattered Lineage

The conference room they sat in was open. A giant slab of polished granite the size of a small crawler sat in the middle of the room, serving as the table where the Great Houses of the Gra'al Empire met. At the head of the table sat Vetru, rolling his shoulders at the discomfort of his ceremonial robe displaying now just the insignia of House Lazaar on his left shoulder, but on the right the mark of the Warlord. In ceremony there was no distinction between the real thing and the Warlord Regent, apparently, although Valencia was guessing they didn't find themselves often in a situation where someone was actually willing to acquiesce the role when the heir was of age. Three chairs on either side lined the table, all filled but the one for House Gigar. Each Gra'al wore their own ceremonial garb with their house insignias on the shoulder as well, each grave in demeanor.

"My brothers and sisters, you know why we've called this meeting," Vetru said. "Datar has taken control of House Gigar and is mobilizing their fleets."

"The combined forces of the Gra'al Empire will crush this rebellion before it can begin," Gurak of House Grimdar said, his white hunter's tail decorated with dozens of small trinkets.

"Why are there Terrans here?" Priyiu of House Bodun, an older, wrinkled and hunched over Gra'al growled.

"The crew of the Trystero have proven themselves allies of not just the Gra'al, but all living things," Vetru said. "I will not hear a single word against Captain Vasquez and her crew. Once again, she's here to help us. In fact, we know of House Gigar's betrayal thanks to her."

"We'd notice the fleet mobilizations on our own," Priyiu sneered.

"With all due respect," Valencia stood up, straightening herself out and taking a deep breath, "you wouldn't understand what Datar is capable of."

"I know full well what a Gra'al Hunter is capable of!" He slammed his fists onto the concrete, the table quaking.

"Once again, with all due respect, I'm not sure that you do, sir. Remember that beast on Thuul?"

"The one Vetru's fleet destroyed," Gurak said.

"Along with the entire planet," Priyiu added dryly.

"Yes, that one. It possessed power beyond any of our understanding. Power that could give or destroy life with a simple gesture."

"And?" Priyiu asked.

"And Datar has that power now."

A low rumbling came from the Gra'al turning to each other, Valencia standing across the table from Vetru and smiling at him, offering him a shrug while he attempted to reign the crowd in. She looked down at her crew, Bec and Gentar sitting at one side and Jimmy awkwardly picking at his fingernails at the other side of the table, next to the empty chair for her.

"You're getting a crash course in foreign relations," she joked to him.

"What? Oh, yeah, this is crazy."

"Just stay quiet, okay?"

"Yeah. I uhh, I don't belong here."

"None of us do," Gentar said.

"I apologize, Captain Vasquez," Vetru said. "Please continue."

"Thank you. As I was saying, Datar has found a way to acquire that power. I'm not sure how much of it he wields or what he understands of it but I do know that he's getting more powerful by the minute."

"Is that how you explain the statue?" Innit of House Jedar asked, his cleanly shaven head polished to a fault.

"That's Datar right now, yes. That's why we need to work together—all of us—to stop him."

"Then we blow House Gigar's fleets out of the skies!" Priyiu shouted.

"It's not that simple," she said. "If Datar's powers continue to grow, we won't be able to stop them. You also may have to worry about him influencing your own people."

"You don't have to worry about House Bodun, loyalty has never been our problem."

"The Captain here believes that Datar wishes to deliver the stars to the Gra'al people. Make us gods," Vetru said. "As foolish as that sounds, I've seen that great beast up front, I saw it take an orbital barrage that should've destroyed a planet like it was nothing. We need to exercise caution."

"Then what do we do?" Priyiu asked. "Sit back and let them do as they wish?"

"No, we will mobilize our fleets but we are not to engage unless we must. These are Gra'al brothers and sisters, and there is no need for unnecessary bloodshed. Datar is a traitor, out for his own revenge, but the rest are just doing what they believe is best for their House and their people. If you are fired upon, fire back, if they're planning a strike you intervene. Otherwise, do not engage."

More murmuring among the Gra'al.

"And what of the Terrans?" Innit turned to Valencia. "What is your government's role in all of this?"

"We're working on that. I'm trying to arrange some meetings now. I can't make any promises, though..."

"What's the point of protecting the Terrans if they won't work with us?" Priyiu pounded the table again.

"I'm just as frustrated as you are," Valencia said. "Trust me."

"I still haven't heard a word about how to stop this traitor, either."

"We're working on that," Vetru said, glaring at Valencia. "The Captain here has the full support of the Gra'al Empire to explore any avenue possible."

"About that..."

"Yes?" Vetru asked.

"Perhaps we should talk about what I'll need in private, after the meeting."

"Secrets, Terran?" Priyiu pressed. "If you have words for the Warlord Regent, you have words for the rest of us."

"I just..."

"It's only fair," Innit added. "We need to work as a team. All of our futures are at stake."

"Fine," she bit her bottom lip. "I'm going to send the Trys and the crew back to Biztsoft and I'm going to need a ship from you."

"What are you talking about, Captain Vasquez?" Gentar asked.

"Cap, what's going on?" Bec turned to her.

"Look, I wanted to talk about this privately, but obviously... I need to find whatever these things are, whatever this race is that created the Sentinel, and we need their help."

"How are you going to find them?" Bec asked. "We know nothing about them."

"That's not entirely true," she said. "We have Jordache's research and—"

"This is a fool's errand," Priyiu laughed. "You aren't humoring this, are you Vetru?"

"Humoring? The Captain has my full support. We'll provide her with the fastest ship at our disposal and anything else the Empire can provide."

"Val, but how?" Bec asked, ignoring the bickering Gra'al. "We're a family, we stay together, remember?"

"I know, it's just... I need to do this."

"How are you going to find them?"

"Emma, remember? She's a part of me now. They made her, it's our only chance."

"If this is the plan, this is the plan," Gentar said, standing up. "We should move out and stop the petty arguing."

"Agreed," Vetru said.


Seventeen


The Dreamer, in Motion.

The rolling horror continued.

With each passing moment, the light of the universe became the dark dreams of the Destroyer. The power of existence breathed between the artificial link, limited in bandwidth from the artifice. Before long the link would be consumed, acclimated into the universe and rendered obsolete. Evolution was the key.

The Destroyer was no longer dreaming, instead overwhelmed. The power was mutating inside of him, manifesting in ways the Dreamer understood, but his voice was silenced to the give-and-take between Him and the Destroyer. The physical came into focus, stars streaking the Dreamer's vision until, through some voyeuristic sense, they were inside the great statue that lumbered forward.

The skies were filled with points of light, each one destructive and powerful on its own, combined they were a terror that could destroy worlds. Even that was nothing compared to what they had become. The Destroyer understood the ability to transcend time-and-space, but his mind was bound to the corporeal, insistent upon being among his people to instill an emotional response. The sense of pride was palpable, mobilizing the great collection of lights to move out, disperse and impose his will.

A cold chill broke through the numbness.

This was a march to the end.


Eighteen


The Captain.

The bright, empty hangar housed just two ships: the broken down—but entirely charming—Trystero and a sleek, small, single-person deep space vehicle that Vetru had commandeered for her journey. The lump in her throat was only outdone by the knot in her stomach, unsure of what to say to the crew who were standing there, waiting for her to do or say something profound. A flicker of green danced in front of her, the vision of Emma standing before the small ship only for a fleeting second.

The small ship was aerodynamic in all the ways that the blocky Trys wasn't: sharp, angular, with a set of retractable wings to help when flying in an atmosphere, the engine and jets all positioned at the rear of the ship. The hull exterior had the same gray with a vivid green hue that the organic-infused Gra'al ships all had. At least whenever she found Them—whoever they were—the look of the organic material would be familiar enough to signal who she was.

"We'll take care of the Trystero for you, Captain," Gentar said, breaking the silence.

"Thanks, Gen," she said, turning to him. "I'm not sure how long it'll take me or where I'm even going, but..."

"We trust you to do the right thing," he said.

"Yeah, we'll be fine," Bec said. "If anything goes wrong, we'll just blame Jimmy here, anyway."

"Gee, thanks," he said. "I guess?"

"Yeah, you'll all be fine," Valencia said.

"I just hope that you are, Val..." Bec said.

"Yes, yes, of course," she said, wiping a tear away. "Look, I better go. I have no idea where the hell I'm going or how I'm going to find them, but you guys have to get to the Consulate at Biztsoft."

"We'll do our best," Gentar said.

"I know you will. Oh, so, I guess someone needs to be in charge of the ship while I'm away, huh?"

"Yeah, congrats, Gen," Bec said, slapping him on his bad shoulder.

"Erg," he grumbled.

"Actually, Bec, you're in charge, alright? Just don't blow my ship up, you got that?"

"What?" she asked, her jaw dropped. "Y-you're kidding, r-right?"

"No, I'm not—"

Before she could finish, Bec charged forward, almost bowling her over with a powerful embrace. Valencia returned it, taking comfort in her friend. "I'm so proud of you," Valencia whispered. "You've come a long way, take care of them, okay?"

"I promise you," she said. "I promise, Val, you won't regret this."

"I know I won't."

Shattered Lineage

Valencia's heart sank while she stood in the hangar, waving at the Trystero blasting off towards Biztsoft. The last time she left the ship like this, her life changed forever and the chances of that happening again were high. Not only was she hoping to contact a race of sentient, all-powerful beings in hopes of asking for their assistance in stopping the rogue that the Sentinel had been tasked with overseeing, she had to do it fast. That rogue that was exiled for providing assistance to the Gra'al and changed history forever. To say that this was madness and that this quest felt hopeless was an understatement.

Gra'al and Terran explorers had been out beyond charted space, never to find anything else. Terrans had traveled here during the Exodus, which at least removed one direction. The only point of interest from there was Gaia, the planet they originally believed would house humanity only for the acid rain and other environmental concerns proved the planet entirely too hostile. She remembered Atticus and his pock-marked shoulders filled with scars from the rain on Gaia; him rushing to pull his brother to safety only to get scarred up himself, his brother dying in the process. The last small crate of rations slid down into the hold on the underside of the ship, Valencia siphoned off a three-month supply from the Trys before they took off. The new ship was cramped, with only a small section behind the cockpit for her to sleep and one of those weird, retractable toilets in the wall. It would all have to do.

The technician walked her through the fuel converter earlier, noting that most alloy-rich asteroids would provide ample fuel through the synthesizer, so the chances of her being left on the float weren't put to chance, either. Everything was ready, except for her. She scrolled through her small comm unit. A message from Bec came in just moments after the Trys left reading you've got this.

"She's right, Valencia," Emma flickered before her.

"Agh," Valencia jumped. "You really need to stop doing that."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you."

"Yeah, it's fine. I should get going, anyway."

"We'll need to convince Them."

"Convince who of what?"

"Them, my makers. We'll need to convince Them to intervene."

"I need to find them, first."

"Leave that to me."

"Okay, fine, you drive, then. How far is it?"

"I'm not sure how to properly communicate that."

"Alright, then, so this is how this trip is going to be. Fine."

Valencia crouched down through the hatch into the cockpit, doing her best to acclimate herself to the wide seat before pressing the controls to seal the hatch and pressurize. There wasn't enough time to translate all the controls, so Gentar took some utility tape from the Trys and wrote labels down for every part of the control board. Her comm unit was equipped with a visual translator that she could use for the rest. It was just one of those nice, weird gestures that Gentar did that made her feel warm inside about having him on her side. That's why she had to do this: for people like Gentar and the crew.

With a deep sigh, she powered up the ship; the engine rumbling around her. "I'm coming, Dray," she whispered under her breath.


Nineteen


The Pilot.

Things felt... different, to say the least. Bec had spent years in that same, broken down faux leather seat at the helm of the Trys, but none of them came with any real responsibility. Well, outside of making sure they didn't die a fiery death. No big, right? That was sort of a big responsibility, actually. Even with everything as crazy as it was, there was a silver lining there.

Sure, they were racing back to Terran space to talk to a bureaucrat that had been almost entirely dismissive of the crew throughout all of their trials and tribulations, never really said thank you for all the people they saved multiple times already and still wouldn't give the Trys a spot in that sweet hangar that they know exists and is mostly empty. She gnawed at a rope of red licorice, doing her best to soothe herself and keep her mind from racing out of control.

Acting captain.

Had a nice ring to it.

"Um, Becca? Becca?" Jimmy's voice cracked through her daydream.

"What is it, pipsque—errr, Jimmy?" she said, trying to remember she was in charge.

"Hi, right, I was just wondering what the plan is when we get to Biztsoft."

"Plan? Oh, right," she said, scratching her head. "We don't have one yet."

"Shouldn't we?"

"I think I liked you better when you weren't afraid of everything, Jimmy."

"Yeah, well, before I joined this crew—"

"Temporarily."

"—right, yeah, before I temporarily joined this crew I didn't know how... dangerous everything was."

"Life with us will do that to ya," she said. "For now, just keep your head down, alright? These political types are hard to navigate."

"Who is it?"

"Just some suit, it doesn't matter, really, we'll handle it."

"I mean, I'm from Biztsoft, maybe I can help..."

"Nah, you just stand there and look pretty, alright? Leave this to us. C'mon, we might as well get Gentar and call a meeting."

Jimmy conceded, slinking out of the cockpit into the kitchen with Bec eyeballing the controls before leaving the cockpit herself, hopping down the stairs with a spring in her step, slapping Gentar's broad shoulders with her palm and pulling up a chair next to him. He sat in his usual chair, staring down at a small stash of grape rations. Usually he would tear into them, peeling the label off carefully as opposed to drink them through the small spout meant for human mouths. Instead, he sat there, staring at them.

"What's wrong, Gen?"

"I'm just thinking is all."

"I've never seen you sitting there just staring at good packets of grape like that," she said. "Those usually don't stand a chance when they get near you."

"I know."

"Okay, great, I get the chair and everyone gets all morose on me. We've gotta focus on the mission at hand. They're all counting on us."

"Your people won't help," he said. "They never do."

Bec went to retort but stopped herself, laughing at the absurdity of it all. "Yeah, they're pretty awful, aren't they? But we still gotta try, at least. The Captain wanted us to do it, so we do it."

"It feels like we're wasting our time," Gentar said. "We should be fighting with Vetru and the Gra'al against Datar."

"I mean, okay, but no. We're not gonna do that. If you wanna, go right ahead, Gen. I'm not gonna stop you. I need you, you better bet on that, okay? I need you, but if you think that's what you need to do then do it."

Gentar sat silently, his fist slamming down against the metal table and sending shock waves throughout it. Bec did her best to hold it together. She was the captain, right? She had to put on a strong face. Gentar snatched up a ration from the table, punctured it with his thumb and peeled the side back, tossing the sludge into his gaping maw and swallowing hard. He repeated the process while the rest of the table remained silent.

"That mean you're on board, big man?"

"Of course I am," he said. "You're the captain. You'll always have my support, Becca."

"Thank you, Gen." She couldn't contain her smile, smacking her palms down on the table. "We're gonna do this. They're gonna have to listen to us. If they don't, then, well, I'll find a way. I promise."

"What do you mean?" Jimmy asked.

"I don't really know yet. All I know is that we're all in trouble here. They can't just sit on their hands like they've done the last few times. They have to believe us. They just have to."

Shattered Lineage

"What do you mean he's too busy to see us?" Bec asked, balling her fists up by her side in rage. "That's bullshit! Get Consul O'Hara out here now!"

"Ma'am, I'm sorry, he's busy right now," the man behind the desk answered. "I can leave a message if you—"

"You don't get it, do you? A genocidal maniac has the power of a god and is coming for all of us!"

"Umm, right," he said. "I'll pass that along."

"We're the crew of the Trystero," Gentar interjected. "We've saved countless lives multiple times now. Have you no shame? We've been nothing but reliable and a force for good in the DMZ and beyond. We've risked our lives, we've faced loss, and for what? For some stuffy little Terran to tell us we can't even talk to someone about the impending danger?"

"Look, I'm sorry—"

"Forget this," Bec said. "We're done here. When Datar and his fleet come barrelling through the DMZ for everyone, please remind O'Hara that we tried. We tried and some snot-nosed punk doomed all of humanity by not giving us a damned meeting. C'mon, guys."

Before he could retort, Bec stomped off, arms crossed, Gentar and Jimmy following behind her. There wasn't much else she could do, but failing on her first mission sure felt like a kick in the pants. She knew O'Hara was an asshole and that he didn't care for her much but had assumed a warning from the most reliable crew in the DMZ about the fate of humanity hanging in the balance again would at least yield another meeting.

"I don't want to hear a damned word," she muttered.

"I—" Jimmy started.

"Not a word, pipsqueak! You got that? We're not failing on my first mission, not when the stakes are this high. No way, no how."

"What do you propose?" Gentar asked. "We've stormed his office before."

"That was Valencia," she said. "If I'm gonna be captain here, we need to do things my way. I'm never gonna get ahead trying to be like Val, I've gotta be me."

"What does that mean?" Jimmy asked.

"That means whatever the hell I want it to mean! Has anyone ever told you how insufferable you are?"

"You sound like my ex-girlfriend," he laughed.

"Dream on."

"No, I didn't mean it that way, really. I was just saying, when I broke up with her she told me I was insufferable."

"I'd say she had taste, but she was with you in the first place. I guess she learned, though. What was she? Some bartender or something?"

"Nah," he smirked. "She's a reporter. Always working, always champing at the bit for a big break and a story that would get people to take her seriously. I couldn't deal with that anymore, it was too much of a bummer."

"And this is how you came to find yourself needing work?" Gentar asked.

"More or less, yeah."

"You were living with her?" Bec asked. "Or, should I say, she was taking care of you? Loser."

"Yeah, well, it's not like she's lighting the world on fire breaking news, so I think I'm doing okay for myself."

"I've not paid much mind to Terran news before," Gentar said. "Are these reporters considered with the same weight that they are in the Gra'al Empire?"

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"In the Gra'al Empire our reporters are seen as invaluable, given free rein to observe and report as they see fit, a true—"

"Gen, you're a genius," Bec interjected.

"Excuse me?"

"That's it! You just gave me the best idea."

"What idea is that?" Gentar asked, puzzled.

"Jimmy, we need to call your ex-girlfriend."

"What? So you can ask her embarrassing shit about me? Pass," he said, rolling his eyes.

"No, you dense fool," she said. "Although, sure, that doesn't sound like a bad idea. No. What I'm saying is she's a journalist. Do you need me to spell it out for you?"

"What do you mean?"

"She's a reporter, you dumbass! We have a story! A giant, crazy story!"

"And you want me to call her?"

"Yes, I want you to call her," Bec growled. "Of course I do. How are you this dense?"

Shattered Lineage

"So wait, how do you know these people?" the reporter asked. She was short, at least shorter than Bec by a few inches, fair-skinned with bright red hair pulled back into a tight ponytail that bounced off her black blazer.

"They're my crew," he said. "Sort of."

"Sort of is right," Bec said. "I'm Captain Becca Johnson of the Trystero. Well, acting captain, I guess is the right way to say it. Either way."

"Brena Connelley," she held her hand out. "Still not sure how Jimmy ended up on the infamous Trystero."

"So wait, you know us, then?" she returned the handshake enthusiastically.

"Who doesn't? C'mon! At least in media circles you guys are legends. The Battle of Lidar, then the destruction of Thuul. You guys are larger-than-life, I still don't get how he ended up with you or why you're contacting me, of all people."

"The Captain has a soft spot for losers like him," Bec said.

"Glad I'm not alone in that."

"Hey," Jimmy retorted, only for both women to stare daggers at him.

"She actually almost airlocked him on his first mission."

"No! You're kidding, you have to tell me what happened." Brena sat down on her small blue couch in her cramped quarters. "Oh, um, I'm being a bad host here, does anyone need a drink?"

"No, we're fine," Bec said. "But yeah, this dumbass almost blew the ship up."

"Was he doing that whole pouty bad boy act?" she asked.

"Yes! Blech, right?"

"I know! Ugh, what was I thinking?"

"What were you thinking is right," Bec said.

"Ladies," Gentar interrupted. "I believe we're here on a serious matter."

"Right, sorry, Gen," Bec said. "Yeah, oof, he's right. We're in a lot of trouble right now. In fact, we all are."

"Who is?"

"Humanity. Again."

"And the Gra'al," Gentar added. "It's a matter of galactic importance that impacts us all."

"Okay, that sounds pretty heavy," she said. "So what do you need me for?"

"We need you because Consul O'Hara was too busy for us."

"He's like that," she said. "I've been trying to get him to comment on a few stories for a while now, but I've got nothing, so I'm not sure I can help you there. My contacts aren't exactly great. Turns out nobody likes a reporter who isn't doing fluff stories."

"Go figure."

"You Terrans are still puzzling to me to this day," Gentar said.

"Yeah, turns out the Gra'al love their reporters. Maybe we could hook you up with Vetru after all of this and get you out there, you know, in the mix."

"You mean the Warlord Regent Vetru? Of House Lazaar?"

"The very one," Bec beamed. "He owes us a few favors."

"Wow, I mean, I'm honored, really. Do you think there's room for something like that? Me embedded with the Gra'al? Wow."

"No sweat," Bec said, hoping she wouldn't have to actually try to broker that deal some day. "We just need your help to get this story out."

"What story?"

"You remember Thuul, right?"

"Remember? Who could forget? What a story that was. Thousands of Terrans and Gra'als living together on a planet, trapped there by some sort of ancient alien AI that was keeping some all-powerful alien from escaping, only for it to escape and you guys to clean it all up. You evacuated just about everyone and blew the whole planet up! That was the story of the year."

"Yeah," Bec said. "Living it was something else, let me tell you."

"I can only imagine. So what kind of story do you have, then? You said Consul O'Hara won't see you? That's a story of its own and a huge one."

"I'm not sure how big of a story that is: asshole won't do his job, ya know?"

"True enough."

"Anyway, Thuul, right? That all-powerful alien. What if I told you that a part of him survived? Not just that he survived, but that the son of Giga of House Gigar found a way to use that power and he's going to use it to take over the galaxy."

"What?!" her jaw dropped. "No, okay, very funny, Jimmy. You got me one last time, you miserable prick."

"No, Brena," he protested. "She's telling the truth."

"I know you and know how you are. This is very funny. I told you I don't want to hear from you again and you show up here with these people and claim this? You want to ruin me so I'll take you back or something and no, no I am not taking you back."

"Look, girl, I get you, alright? This guy is a bozo, we all know it."

"Hey!"

"But I'm telling you the honest truth here. I wouldn't mess around with something like this. We need your help. You remember how the Sentinel was plastered all over the news when it was discovered? We need that."

"The Sentinel?" she asked.

"That floating alien ship at Thuul."

"Oh, right. Sorry, the whole story was so crazy it was hard to keep track of sometimes."

"What I'm telling you is real. That's why we need you. We need your help. We need you to tell this story and to get people to care. Can you do that?"

"Um, yeah, I guess I can. I think?"


Twenty


Datar the Destroyer.

Datar's new plane of existence was something he needed to adjust to. The giant rock god Destroyer sat atop a throne fashioned from a nearby building, his fist smashing the top off to make for a perfect seat, the two adjacent buildings serving as arm rests. The ominous presence gave a sense of authority to everything he felt. Still, his mind inhabited the body he'd known his entire life, finding comfort in it even if his new powers extended out into the stars and beyond his own comprehension.

The Terran remained unmoving inside the crawler, Datar climbing into the back and ordering it back up the mountain quietly, while everyone's attention remained on the massive stone avatar. While he could traverse the galaxy as the stone avatar, it felt cumbersome and limiting. Leaving it there and communicating through it was his plan for the moment. If he'd stick to that depended entirely on his understanding of his powers and what he was capable of. Throwing that Terran ship into orbit felt good. He was in control for once and no one could stop him.

The crawler stopped on top of the crumbled statue of his father before the hall, the Ligent sitting there like he left it. He could traverse the stars with his mind, explore the depths of the universe and command great fleets of destroyers. In the blink of an eye he could snuff out a life, or at least he believed he could, he'd yet to demonstrate such an ability but the rumbling inside his head told him that anything was possible. His senses were alive, taking in the salty smell of the ocean breeze, the air thick and saturated. Somehow he'd never noticed it before, always caught up in his missions. A small, bright yellow flower poked through the rubble of his father's smashed statue, Datar leaning over and brushing away the dirt and rocks from it.

He grunted, plucking it from the ground and tucking it into the pocket on his vest.

The Terran followed his unspoken command, moving from the crawler to the Ligent and strapping himself into the fold-away seat in the back. There was an unspoken comfort about his own ship, and being alone like he was. In a heartbeat he went from a lone hunter to the commander of House Gigar's mighty, destructive fleets but there was a part of him that never saw that happening and hadn't planned for the eventuality of them actually ceding to his will as easily as they did.

The next steps in this revolution hadn't been planned out.

Reaching out to the stone avatar, he shouted a proclamation. "Assemble, my great fleets. Let them cower with fear while we show our true power. When the time is right, we will show them the power of House Gigar."

Cheers echoed through his head, some from the square by the stone avatar, others a chorus of voices from the ships, his mind serving as an open conduit for the entirety of his forces. Datar grimaced at the chaos and pushed it all away, isolating himself inside of the Ligent with just the Terran as his witness.

"Speak," Datar growled. "I still do not understand the depths of my powers."

The Terran sat silent.

"I ordered you to speak!" Datar reached out with his mind to the fragile link between the two, sending a pulse of force and pain through it. The Terran screamed out from his chair, gasping for air. "I said speak."

"I... where am I?"

"You've awakened."

"W-what's happening to me?"

"That is not why I've stirred you, Terran. I need answers."

"Answers to what?"

Datar fired up the engines to the Ligent, setting a course for his lab by the remnants of what was once Thuul. The cluster of asteroids served as the perfect place to hide his lab, no one daring to follow the small, sleek Ligent through such a dangerous place and scanners returning erratic results. The ship bucked, violently thrusting off the planet and out into the atmosphere. The Terran squirmed behind him, the link between the two meant his pain transferred across, Datar gritting his teeth.

"Answers, you Terran!" he shouted once they'd breached into orbit. "My powers, tell me more about them."

"I don't know," the conduit said. "Whatever the hell you want them to be."

"That is not a sufficient answer," he said, pounding his fist against the console. "I need to know."

"Why would I have those answers?"

"Because these powers come from you, you fool!"

"Yeah, well, if I had these powers why wouldn't I just snap myself out of here and break this link?"

"Because you are weak. I will take whatever's left of you and make it my own."

"Why would I help you, then?"

"Because I'm the one with the power."

"No, you said I am, and you're just borrowing my power."

"It's not borrowing! It's being transferred, Terran. You wouldn't understand."

"I'll never help you hurt anyone. Ever."

"Then you'll die."

"You're just going to kill me anyway," he said. "Why should I care what you do with me?"

"Because I can make whatever is left of your life a living nightmare."

"It already is."

"It could be a lot worse. I dare you to test me."

Shattered Lineage

There was a strange comfort in walking through the door to his lab again. That sort of basic, familiar touch was needed during such a momentous transformation like he was experiencing. Being a god was all he ever dreamed of but now that the power was filtering through the bridge and dispersing through his veins his grasp on reality was slipping from him. There needed to be a context for his existence beyond power alone.

The Terran stared at him while Datar sat at the table with the large, fist-shaped dent in it from before planting his head in his hands. The bond between the two had spurned a vicious headache, the growing pains of godhood, something that would be forgotten once the power had consolidated into himself and no longer needing to be tethered to some weak Terran.

"You keep thinking that I'm weak," the conduit said. "I can sense it."

"And?"

"Yet you need me. I can feel something inside of you that isn't a madman."

"Madness? Ha. You Terrans have no idea about madness or what it is that I am about. You have no honor, no dignity, just your sense of pride and superiority. You mask it all behind this frail body and weak mind, but you look down upon us, your superiors by nature. That is the wrong that I'm fixing."

"The war is over," the Terran said.

"And what are we? Partners of your pathetic race? Friends? You came to our land and took as you saw fit. So here we are, arms wide open, accepting you into our galaxy, living on our planets and infecting our sovereignty. Terra? Ha. That's Pitar! A mining planet that was won in a hard-fought war by House Gigar."

"Is that what this is about?"

"No! This is about more than some planet. The Gra'al deserve our place in the stars! This... this thing with this power, that's what we deserve! He dared give us a gift only to withhold the true power to the universe. Now, this power is running through my veins, I can feel it."

"What if it doesn't take?"

"What do you mean?"

"The whole 'Gra'al minds weren't good hosts' thing, the reason He gave you the organic tech in the first place instead of just assimilating your entire race to His will."

"That's because Gra'al are stronger than Terrans. No being could control a Gra'al!"

"He's controlling you now, though, isn't he?"

"I am in control!"

"Then why is your head pounding like this?"

"I do not answer to you!" Datar exploded to his feet, sending the table flying to the wall with a kick from his massive boot. The Terran cowered in fear, collapsing, Datar himself feeling the pressure mounting inside his mind until it was overwhelming. Desperately he grasped for anything to keep him up, the blackness encroaching on him.


Twenty-One


The Dreamer, Stirring.

An ornate rug stretched out beyond what the Dreamer could see, suspended in the stars, long and narrow. The gold fringes hung off the edge, the deep red and green pattern a contrast to the darkness and light blues of the expanse. Before him lay the Destroyer, dazed and upset. He fought to his feet, wordless, while his eyes scanned the horizon.

"What is this?" he asked.

"This is what you wish for," the Dreamer responded.

"I don't understand. This is now what I see when the power flows through me."

"You are unworthy."

"You dare imply that I, Datar the Destroyer, am unworthy?" Datar stomped forward, grabbing towards the Dreamer, his hand passing through, sending him tumbling to the ground.

"Your mind cannot fathom the vastness. This is only a glimpse of what you cannot be."

"The same power that flows through you flows through me now, this is a facade. You are playing games, Terran."

A dark laugh rumbled around them, shaking the rub and sending Datar down to his knees. Datar smashed his fist against the rug repeatedly, enraged at the scene. His power intensified, able to quell the laughter of the great Him that only existed as a memory, a ghost inside the shell.

"You will listen to me. I am Datar the Destroyer. I control the universe now. You wish to contain me? You've failed. When I've transferred the life force from this Terran, the transformation will be complete and I will have transcended whatever limitations you have bound to my people. We will reclaim our galaxy, and then the universe will be ours. You cannot stop us."

The Dreamer reached out, sensing a disturbance in the distance. A low hum bound to Him that was scanning, searching for something. Not Him, not the Dreamer or even the Destroyer, but something else. The lumbering beast that called his existence home shuddered, a violent surge of energy flowing through him, through the Destroyer and reaching out for it. The energy existed in contrast to His own, fending it off from His weakened state.

The Destroyer cackled.

"I understand now," he said. "This is a test. You wish to test me and my worth. You will not get the better of me. I will find that which binds you, I will destroy it and set you free. Once I've destroyed the power that binds you, there will be no restraints on the power, it will flow freely to me and I'll possess more power than any other being in the universe."

"The Sentinel and Him must always be," the Dreamer said. "A natural contrast understood and bound to Our being. It cannot be undone. The damage was to the core."

"If He lives on through this Terran, then the Sentinel lives on through the other," the Destroyer said. "I will hunt them. I will kill the Sentinel and then the Terran, unlocking the power."

"Without the balance..."

The Destroyer rumbled, power surging through him, channeling from the Dreamer and fading the periphery. The rug began to unravel, thread-by-thread, a wild wind whipping at them, the Destroyer's laugh merging with His own, a cacophony of violence and malevolence that only intensified and grew.

The Destroyer was unleashed.


Twenty-Two


The Captain.

"This is pointless," Valencia said, smashing her fist against the console. "Why did I let you talk me into this?"

Of course when she was actually talking to Emma she was nowhere to be found. Two full days out into uncharted territory and it was far more complicated than she had ever imagined it would be. Those hyperlanes that their vehicles all traveled back home? Yeah, those took ages to discover, map and traverse before deciding if it was stable or not. There were a few crude tools aboard the ship, all entirely in Gra'al, that measured the integrity of a hyperlane, but while traveling she needed to be hyper-vigilant. If one of those hyperlanes decayed, collapsed or grew unstable, she had to immediately kill the hyperlight engines, then search for another lane. All while using her comm to translate the Gra'alian readouts.

The lane she had just been in grew unstable, forcing her out of hyperlight and into uncharted space. Her stomach grumbled, forcing her to give up on finding a new lane for the moment, setting the scanner to automatically probe the system for her best way forward, deeper into the spinning arm of the galaxy. Ambling around her seat and plonking herself down on her bedroll, Valencia stretched her legs out in front of her and her arms up over her head, fist smashing into the ceiling, again. Valencia cursed under her breath.

"It's only been two days," Emma said, sitting cross-legged in front of her. "Don't give up hope so easily."

"For all I know Datar has blown up a planet already or blinked everyone I love from existence."

"He hasn't," Emma said.

"How would you know?"

"I was just grappling with him."

"Wait, what?" she asked, fiddling with a packet of chicken soup rations. "What are you talking about?"

"He reached out to me."

"By 'he' you mean Datar, Drake or that thing you're linked with?"

"I mean Him, although I could sense the Destroyer there."

"And Drake?"

"His lifeforce was there but faintly."

"So he's still alive, then," she mumbled, sucking down a sip of sludge.

"Yes. I was able to fend him off, that's why the hyperlane grew unstable."

"So you're saying that this power struggle destroyed the hyperlane we were in? The one that was actually working for more than a few hours?"

"I'm sorry, Valencia, there was no other way."

"Yeah, well, I need to stretch my legs. We've been in this bucket for two days now and I need to actually stand up and walk around. Let me see what this scan has for us. Hopefully, at least somewhere to land for a few minutes."

Valencia pushed past the illusion of Emma in front of her, having lost her reverence or fear of what the apparition meant or stood for anymore. The Sentinel was a part of her subconscious and something she had to live with, not something to be in awe of. The scanner hadn't been running for very long, which meant that chances of it having found a new hyperlane were slim, at least ones that she could traverse for very long, but planets? There was a better chance of finding a planet or moon with favorable gravity and hopefully stable enough temperatures to allow her some time to get out of the ship. She had been so gung ho to get out into the wilds of space and start exploring that she didn't think of what being out here would actually entail, how lonely and cramped something so expansive and immense could be.

Taking care to not press the wrong key, she pulled up the coarse reading for the system she was in and sighed deeply. A binary star system. Great. While some had stable planets, most of those systems were a wash for anything beyond two balls of fury rotating around each other. Funneling her rage, she kicked at the wall, rotating the chair back towards her paltry living quarters and sliding out of the chair onto her knees, fighting off tears.

"This was a stupid idea," she mumbled. "Stupid. Stupid idea."

"It's a distraction from our goal, anyway, Valencia."

"Stop it, alright? Just stop. I don't need whatever it is you're doing here. I have no idea what I'm doing, what I'm looking for, or how any of this is going to save Drake and everyone else. I'm just lost, okay? I'm lost."

"You have me."

"What does that even mean? You're an AI that somehow bore its way into my skull and I can't get rid of and spare what's left of my mind."

"I'm more than that, Valencia."

"Yeah, you're the little voice in my head that led me out into the middle of nowhere. Big difference, really."

"I wish you'd be patient with me," Emma said.

"Patient with you? You led me out here with no idea where we were going. I'll be lucky if I ever even get back and now you're telling me that Datar and whatever that thing is that I thought we killed tried to reach out to me?"

"It's complicated, but yes."

"I thought you could see time differently than I could? Nonlinear or whatever? If so, and you're in my mind, then why the hell can't I see what I need to see?"

"I fear it doesn't work that way."

"Yeah, well, it doesn't seem like much is working, anyway. So Datar reached out to you. What does that really mean, then? We haven't really talked about that."

"No, we haven't."

"So?"

"I'm not sure what you're asking."

"I'm asking what it meant that you had to fight him off or whatever, that he knocked us out of a hyperlane like that. I knew you two had some sort of bond, but I didn't think it was like that."

"I'm constructed from his own organic matter. That's how Sentinels are crafted. Our goal is to be bonded to one of Them."

"So a lot of these things go rogue, then?"

"Not exactly, no. In fact, He was the first to do so."

"So instead you're what? Protectors?"

"They exist in many different forms, many planes of existence. Interaction with other species, especially those who are limited as you are—no offense—requires corporeal entities, much like the Sentinel you knew and the beast from Thuul."

"So he was confined to err, corporeal form then?"

"Yes, with me as His glue, so-to-speak."

"Okay, I kind of get that, I think. You were made from his matter and were used to bind him to one plane of reality, this all some sort of punishment for messing with the Gra'al?"

"Yes, precisely. It is our way to not involve ourselves with those of single plane existence, those who are not ready."

"So what makes you think that your creators are just gonna... I don't know, feel you and answer your call?"

"Because they do. It has already happened."

"Like now? Like they know and are coming?"

"Oh, no, I'm sorry, I mean it happens in the future. Sometimes it's difficult to communicate specific events like this."

"Okay, so it's gonna happen then?" she asked, breathing a sigh of relief. "Good, so how long from now?"

"I'm not sure."

"How aren't you sure? You see everything from the future and past, can't you tell me when something happens?"

"No, because the events on this timeline have not been triggered yet."

"So then trigger them!" Valencia grunted. "Are you kidding me? How are you this dense?"

"When it happens it'll happen, Valencia. You need to trust me."

"So what? We just float out here forever until something happens. What? You won't tell me, but I'm supposed to believe you."

"Yes."

"And you still didn't tell me why that thing was reaching out to you, either."

"Because our power is linked to each other."

"So?"

"I fear that He sees me as the obstacle to consolidating power, the Destroyer, that is. The Destroyer is not a natural vessel, although there's a chance the powers could be absorbed."

"Once again, I can't read between these lines, Emma. I don't know how this works."

"He's coming for me."

Shattered Lineage

The small ship throttled forward, light from the stars streaking around the cockpit while it pushed through the tear in space into the hyperlane. If her readings were correct, this one should last them at least ten hours, long enough to get some sleep and have something to eat. Watching the controls in case of an emergency would be the protocol for traversing an unsullied hyperlane like that but at this point her patience has grown thin and the idea of being trapped forever in some pocket dimension didn't bother her all that much. At least it couldn't be worse than being trapped in a small ship with her imaginary friend.

"Shouldn't you be watching the controls?"

"This ship could fit in the cargo hold of the Trys," Valencia said. She pounded her fist on the chair behind her. "See? If I need to hop into action, the pilot's seat is right there, a foot away."

Emma fell silent.

"For some all-powerful being that can see into the past and future and whatever else you sure don't have any idea of how to deal with people."

"I thought we were friends," Emma said, crestfallen.

"Same here. Turns out being trapped in a small space really tests the limits of one's patience when on a suicide mission to find some hostile alien-god race knowing that another alien-god is coming after us. Go figure."

"I understand that you're frustrated," she said. "What can I do?"

"You're powerful? Right? Bring us to wherever we need to be. That's something you can do, isn't it?"

"No," she said.

"Then what can you do? How about transporting me out of this bucket and just end my suffering already?"

"Oh," she said.

In a blink the ship had disappeared, the smell of fresh air, pine trees and a fire replacing the stale, recycled air and that strange smell the synthesizer made when synthesizing new fuel. Valencia opened her eyes to the warm surroundings of the campfire where she had met Emma and her crew for the first time. Emma was sitting next to her, not appearing in the same, glitchy apparitional status but instead fully formed, just like she remembered her.

"You mean you could do this the whole time?"

"I can't do it for long," she said. "But I can do it long enough for you to stretch your legs out."

"Thanks," she said, standing up and almost losing her balance. "Whoa. Turns out not standing for a few days can make this whole thing weird."

"I'm sorry," Emma said. "I just was so focused on reaching out to Them, then fighting off Him that I forgot."

"My god," Valencia said, tugging her knees up one-by-one. "I can't believe how confining that is. Who thought that ship was a good idea?"

"The Gra'al," Emma said, smiling.

"Yeah, they're pretty nuts, aren't they? Ugh, I can't even believe where everything has ended up. If you would've told me two years ago that I'd be friends with more Gra'al than Terrans or that I'd be some respected captain, I'd laugh in your face. If you told me I'd have a hand in saving both our people? I'd probably drop dead from laughter."

"Where did you see yourself?"

"Dead? In a Terran prison camp? I don't really know. We weren't exactly discerning with a lot of those jobs. Finding Bruce and Gentar sorta moved us away from the whole salvage operation thing and onto honest jobs."

"That's bleak."

"That's life for most of us out on the float. We got lucky."

"Yeah, although, you know, I see things differently and luck wasn't involved at all. This was who you always were and who you were always meant to be."

"I'm never really comfortable with this stuff," she said.

"What do you mean?"

"Predestination. Like I have no control over the outcome of my life. I'm not into that. It doesn't feel right."

"That's not quite what it means. Time is fluid. During the moment you can look and see the future and the past, but those are impacted by everything else that happens during those moments. So if I see something that happens in the future now, it's impacted by now. If things change dramatically within now and then the timeline shifts and instead, I'm able to see the future forged within those moments."

"What?"

"Um, if you do something that changes the outcome of the future, you change the future. That's the easiest way I can put it."

"Okay, I get that. So you're saying it's not predetermined, that I still have control in this?"

"Yes. What I see now is different than what I saw twenty minutes ago. What I'll see in another twenty minutes will be different again."

"That's insane."

"That's existence. That's why it's difficult for single-plane entities to understand us."

"I'm not exactly the smartest being in the galaxy and I'm starting to understand it."

"I'm not sure that you'll ever be able to fully grasp what life is like with this kind of vision and abilities, but you're you, Valencia. You're more open to understanding than most would be."

"Thanks, I think."

"I'm glad I met you, Valencia. There's more to life than seeing everything or having power. I was there a long time on Thuul before you came. I never knew what friendship was."

Valencia reached out and grabbed Emma by the hand, the warmth of her touch making Emma jump a little before Valencia sat down next to her. She wrapped her arm around her shoulder and pulled her in tight, Emma resting her head on Valencia's shoulders. Her chin buried into Emma's soft hair, just for a moment Valencia forgetting that she wasn't real and that this was just some complicated projection, one of the powers the Sentinel had.

"I'm glad I met you, too, Emma. I'm glad I met you."

They sat for a moment in the embrace, Valencia's heart a flutter, much like it had been when she first met Emma and felt that spark. Things had gotten a lot more complicated since she understood the true nature of "Emma" and who she really was. Her thoughts had drifted to the real Emma Browning, the one that she never met and didn't have glowing green eyes or the ability to transcend time and space, or transport Valencia to a lovely campfire. That initial connection she felt for the real person wasn't actually for her, it was for the Sentinel, a sentient creation that was the fusion of organic matter from a literal monster and technology, allowed to exist in a symbiotic relationship with said beast, tasked with keeping it in place for eternity.

Every strand of the real Emma Browning felt wrong to her, from the eye color to the immaculately kept ship, the bland clothing and her inability to tell off that awful prick of a pilot, Rian. "Emma?" she asked after a long pause.

"What?"

"How much of the real Emma did you take?"

"I'm not sure what you're asking."

"You knew so much about her when you assumed her form."

"I know everything about Emma Browning, every part of her mind, every memory and feeling."

"Do you think we would've... you know?"

"What?"

"Been close like this? The real Emma and I?"

"I can see a lot of things. But that was never fated to happen. That path has been closed now."

"I know, but we get along so well, I was just... nevermind."

"I think I understand, but I want you to know that I'm Emma because you want me to be, also because this is who I am to you. I'm Emma now, although I'm still the Sentinel. We are one and the same, what matters is—agh!"

Emma tensed up in her arms, Valencia grabbing onto her to keep her upright.

"Emma? Emma, what's wrong? What's?"

"G-get... the... c-controls! He's... fighting... m-me!"

"What?"

"Destroyer! H-he's... he's coming!"


Twenty-Three


The Pilot.

"So wait, why do I have to be the one in front of the camera again?" Bec asked, sitting uncomfortably in a chair in front of a vid screen. She had zipped up her jumpsuit for once and had been fussing with her hair for at least twenty minutes, never comfortable with it. "Does my hair always look like this?"

"You're a Terran," Gentar explained, again. "If I were to appear there would be a matter of distrust from the source."

"You're Gentar! You've saved the galaxy how many times now?"

"You're Becca Johnson, pilot of the Trystero and you've saved the galaxy just as many times as I have. Plus, your flesh isn't a tough gray like me."

"I just... I'm not sure about this. Is this what the Captain would've wanted?"

"This is your plan, Becca," he explained. "You should be the one in front of the camera."

"Yeah, well, I don't see you with a better plan."

"I didn't say that I had one."

"You know, Gen, I think you're enjoying watching me squirm like this."

"Me? Never."

"Okay," Brena emerged from her bathroom, a fresh coat of makeup on her face and her hair cascading over her shoulders. "Wait, is that how you're gonna... umm, is that what you're wearing?"

"Yeah, what of it?" Bec asked.

"Nothing, it's cute, it's just... a little rough, I guess?"

"Gaia help me," Bec said. "This isn't about me, it's about saving our butts. Wait, do I really look that bad?"

"No, it's fine," she said. "I've just never done an interview like this before, I guess. Just the usual, glossy sit down with low level politicians and business people. You know the types."

"Yeah, rats," she said.

"Pretty much, yeah. How do I look, Jimmy?" Brena asked, taking him off guard.

"Oh, uh, great? Yeah, great. Both of you look great."

"He's scared to death," Bec said. "I love it."

"It is sort of nice, isn't it?"

"I'm standing right here," he said.

"I know," Bec said, relishing his discomfort. "We both know. You're trying to earn your keep on the Trys, right? You're gonna have to learn to live with taking shit from women above you on the food chain."

"I gotta tell you, I was skeptical about this at first but this could be huge."

"Well, yeah, look at the feeds," Bec said.

"She's correct," Gentar added. "Just in the last few hours alone, we've seen reports about House Gigar's fleets. The time is now."

"My editor hasn't signed off on it yet, but if I present this to him, there's no way he'll turn it down. Just no way."

"I hope," Bec said. This whole plan still seemed far-fetched to her. The media had never been her friend and had largely ignored the role of the Trystero in their exploits in keeping peace in the galaxy. Gentar had been the one to put Giga down and stop the possibility of another all-out war. The Cap ordered the strike that destroyed the god-thing and they all played a huge role in things. They remained a footnote at the Terran gov's discretion, underplaying their own lack of involvement in such acts of heroism and refusing to talk about some ragtag crew on a broken down old freighter being behind some serious bonding moments between the Terrans and Gra'al. Figured.

Gentar was right, though. In the time they'd been preparing for the interview in Brena's apartment they'd been glued to the vid screens, all of which endlessly looped the few minutes of footage of the massive Gigar fleet embarking out towards the Gra'al Empire, heading right for Lidar. The usual talking heads were on screen, either downplaying the importance or predicting another war and calling for "pre-emptive strikes" against the Gra'al. Terran news still sorely lacked for Gra'al perspectives and instead wheeled out non-com officers much older and less experienced than Sergeant Rose as their "Gra'al experts" with each one less informed than the other. This only added to the sense of urgency she felt, which was spliced with dread over her looking stupid in front of the galaxy. Out of instinct, she poked at her hair again.

"Seriously, you look great," Brena said. "Stop worrying."

"Easy for you to say, look at you."

"Well, thanks," she blushed. Brena fiddled with her personal comm, a floating camera unit coming to life and hovering off a shelf against the wall. A soft light fell over the two women, Becca again fiddling with her hair, catching herself and folding her hands in her lap.

"You ready?" Brena asked.

"Wait, what do I do with my hands?"

"Just act natural, trust me. It'll be fine."

"Okay, I'm trusting you here, just don't make me look bad, okay?"

"You'll be fine, really. Okay in three... two..." she nodded. "This is Brena Connelley with Biztsoft-1, your source for breaking news here on Biztsoft Station in the DMZ. I'm here today with Becca Johnson, ace pilot of the legendary freighter Trystero, the unlikely heroes of the Lidar Incident and the Thuul Rescue, here with a chilling warning. Ms. Johnson, thank you for joining us today."

"Hi, yeah," Becca said. "Um, so things are pretty messed up out there right now."

"Can you elaborate on that? What exactly are you referring to?"

"I'm sure by now everyone has seen the massive fleet being mobilized in Gra'al space by House Gigar."

"Right, there has been little information coming from our Gra'al partners about this incident."

"Well yeah, because the Gra'al Empire isn't responsible for it."

"Are you saying that House Gigar is acting independently... again? Have they once again gone rogue hoping to stoke a galactic war?"

"It's not that simple. Vetru has... Vetru of House Lazaar, the Warlord Regent has done a great job of keeping the houses unified but..."

"But?"

"Datar, the son of Giga has convinced his people, by threat of force, to follow him."

"He's one Gra'al, what could the threat be?"

"He's more powerful than any other being in the galaxy, maybe even the universe."

A silence hung in the air for a long moment, Brena giving a confused look to Becca.

"Could you... I'm not sure that I understand what you mean by that, because of the fleet he's commanding, correct? The same fleet responsible for destroying an entire planet?"

"Yes, he does control that fleet, but that's not what I'm talking about."

"Then could you explain?"

"I honestly don't even know where to start. The Terran gov hasn't been entirely honest about the Thuul incident."

"There was something about a rogue alien threat that needed to be contained and destroyed, if I remember correctly."

"That was the official story, yes. That's not the entire truth, though."

"Which is?"

"The Terran gov was complicit in research into organic technology, like the kind that Gra'al use on their warships. The beast on Thuul wasn't some minor threat, it was a literal god-alien responsible for giving that tech—among others—to the Gra'al to help them reach out into the stars."

"Wait, am I hearing this correctly? A god-alien?"

"Yes, it's become somewhat well known in Gra'al space now, I'm not sure why the Terran gov has played it down so much."

"And you know all this how?"

"Because I was there. Because I saw this thing. I saw its power and what it did to my friends. No other Terran has stared down anything like this before and lived to talk about it."

"You're saying that the Terran gov was working to... what? Co-opt technology from this... god?"

"Yes. They weren't directly conducting experiments but were aware of and assisting the person doing them. I'm not sure what else their roles were, though. We were told not to talk about it."

"But yet, here you are," Brena forced out an uncomfortable laugh, "talking about it to us here tonight."

"Because there's no choice. Consul O'Hara refuses to see us, he won't even give us the time of day and something needs to be done now, if there is even still time."

"If there's still time? Is this situation really this dire?"

"I don't even know how to explain this. This race of god-like aliens exist, they traveled here, or at least one did, and looked to expand his power through the Gra'al. His people found out and imprisoned him on Thuul, which was supposed to be his tomb, until the battle and—"

"Wait, slow down, you're going to have to elaborate on this here. This is a lot of information."

"It's all real," she said.

"You're telling us that the reason the Battle of Thuul ended so catastrophically was because that planet was a tomb to this god and he somehow... killed all of them?"

"Something like that. It doesn't matter, though. What matters is that he had these powers, and that's why we blew up the planet and him along with it. But a part of him escaped. Datar has it and he's... he has that power."

"What power is that, exactly?"

"Anything that he wants it to be."

"Excuse me?" she asked, laughing. "You're surely pulling my leg now, this is ridiculous."

"No," she stated, deadpan. "Look, I have a video of him taking control of a statue. He's only going to get more powerful."

"So... what exactly are you proposing we do, then? I don't understand."

"We need to join forces with the Gra'al," she said. "We need to do it now. Not wait for the Terran gov to get their thumb out of their asses and move. We need to band together with them or Datar will destroy them, then destroy us."

"But how do we stop such a force?"

"We can't," she said. "At least not now. We need to help, though. The Captain is on a mission to find this race."

"You mean Captain Valencia Vasquez?"

"Yes."

"She's... on a mission? To where?"

"Nobody knows. She's trying to find his race so they'll help us stop him."

"But there's nothing we can do to stop him?"

"There's nothing, he's a god."

Shattered Lineage

"Was it too much?" Becca asked. "I feel pretty good right now. I'm all pumped up."

"Umm," Brena paused.

"What's that pause?" she asked.

"That was insane," she said. "Seriously, I don't know if I can use this. You call the Terran gov complicit in crimes, you flat out accuse them of obscuring the truth and your story is, frankly, hard to believe."

"Oh," Bec said, sinking back into the chair. "So now what?"

"She's being entirely honest," Gentar said. "That's precisely what's happening right now."

"Brena, sweetie," Jimmy started.

"Don't sweetie me."

"I'm sorry," he said. "But it happened. Look, watch the video from the Trystero."

"Ah, right, the video," she said. "You never mentioned the video until during the interview."

"Here, look," Bec produced her personal comm, pulling up the video. She flicked it to the large screen behind them, the flickering video of Plentuu Square, the lumbering statue in the frame. Datar stomped, bellowed and shouted, Brena's jaw dropping.

"You... weren't making this up?"

"I told you!" Bec said. Excitement welled up inside her. "See?"

"I... what is that? Is this some sort of... trick?"

"It's very real," Gentar said. "We wouldn't be asking for your help if we didn't believe in it."

"This is insane," Brena repeated. "I can't believe it. What are we going to do?"

"You will bring this video to your station, along with the interview," Gentar said. "We need you to convince the Terran people to help."

"There's no way they don't air this," she said. "There's no way, if it convinces people I don't know."

"It's a video of a giant rock monster shouting about unlimited power," Jimmy said. "I mean, c'mon."

"Yeah, I just... this is huge, this is gonna make my career."

"If we survive this," Bec said.

"We always do," Gentar said. "As for making careers, that's not important to us. Any reward for your assistance is good, though. We appreciate your faith."

"Yeah, I... wow, just wow. Consul O'Hara is gonna flip when he sees this."

"Good," Bec said. "How's my hair look, anyway?"

"It looks fine," Gentar said. "C'mon, captain, we need to get into contact with Vetru."

"Yeah, we do. Thanks again, Brena. Really."

The two women embraced, Brena petting Bec's hair poof. Bec forced a smile, hating it whenever anyone touches her hair. She had to be strong, though, appear in charge and let the small things slide. Channeling Valencia was harder than she thought, but she had years of experience watching the captain do her thing. The crushing responsibility wasn't her speed, and she wasn't sure how Valencia dealt with it all the time. No wonder she was so morose all the time and seemed like she was losing her mind. Making those decisions and needing to own them was exhausting. She felt the energy drain out of her with each passing second while the pressure crushed down on her shoulders. They strolled back to the ship, Becca with a newfound respect for just how much bullshit Valencia dealt with and how nobody would believe you until it benefited them. Brena was nice and all, but her skepticism broke any sort of bond she felt up until the second she produced the video and Brena's mind went to career advancement. Figures.

"Consul O'Hara is going to be unhappy when this airs," Gentar said. "I'm not sure his name should've been brought up like that."

"Yeah, well, screw him. I'm the acting captain, and I think it's time he learns where his place is. I'm in charge and he can go screw."

"Fair enough. Now where to, captain?"

"We need to join up with Vetru. Then hope the Terrans mobilize something for us."

"They never do."

"We've made it incredibly hard to ignore us. This time they're gonna have to act."


Twenty-Four


Datar the Destroyer.

The Ligent hurtled through space, ignoring traditional hyperlanes for ones of Datar's own creation. He could see between dimensions and planes of existence, much to his delight. He stewed over needing to rush away from his all-powerful fleet to finish the consolidation of his powers. Still, it was a necessary task that required his immediate attention. The fleets had mobilized, and through his power he could reach back whenever he wished to assume command. For now, the fear and awe he inspired was enough to push them onward to victory.

The Terran sat quietly in the back, confined within his own body just like Datar pushed him to be. The echo of the voice in his mind continued to laugh, pressing him forward and forward still, towards the uncertainty of the Sentinel, a devious machination, another sap to His great power. Once the Sentinel's powers had been absorbed, Datar could do away with the Terran—so the voice whispered—and assume his place as the rightful ruler of the galaxy, onward to the universe.

"Terran, speak," Datar commanded, releasing him from his frozen state.

"W-what now?" the Terran asked, stirring from his stupor.

"This Sentinel," he said. "I can sense it, but it's able to reject my will."

"It's the yang to the yin of His power."

"Explain," he barked. "Stop speaking in Terranisms."

"It's the balance, created by His race from His own organic matter, meant to act as a counterbalance."

"If this power is unlimited then how is there something able to deflect my powers?"

"Because that was why the Sentinel was created."

"I know that, you fool!"

"No, you don't. Otherwise you wouldn't be asking that."

"This is a painful process, becoming a god is not seamless. There's... so much going through my mind right now, I'm trying to focus."

"Because your mind isn't a natural receiver. You were never meant for this power."

"I was meant for any power I demand," he said, pounding his fist against the armrest of his chair. "I've heard enough from you."

"Yet you need me," he said. "Otherwise why stir me at all?"

"Terran, understand that once I destroy this Sentinel that you're next."

"You won't destroy the Sentinel. Because I won't let you."

"You dare oppose me," Datar burst up from his chair, stomping over to the Terran. He sat in the chair, strapped in like a baby, fragile, weak and puny. Datar snatched his shirt. "I could destroy you right here and now."

"Then your powers will disappear completely. You'll just be Datar again."

"I am Datar the Destroyer."

"And I'm the puny Terran that could take everything away from you in a heartbeat."

"How?" he asked, doing his best to suppress the mild panic. There was no way that this puny figure could take anything from him. "You don't have the power."

"I could kill myself," he said. "Blast myself out of that airlock."

"I would bring you right back, I have that power."

"Not over me, you don't. Once I'm gone, the powers are gone."

"Not if I destroy the Sentinel, the voice told me."

"He's using you," he said. "He's going to reclaim His power for himself, not be subservient to you."

"And you know this how? I'm tired of being told what I can and cannot do, that is not my destiny anymore."

"It's what he did on Thuul. Search your memory, look for the acolytes, look at what he did to them. They were incubators. Only you're more of a fool than any of them: you're doing his dirty work for him."

"You know nothing, Terran scum."

"I know your fate," he said.

"You know nothing! We're approaching your friend. She'll fall before your eyes and then I'll rip the last vestiges of my power from your fragile, sad meat sack of a body and control the galaxy."

"You'll fall just like your father did, at the hands of the crew of the Trystero."

"You dare speak of the mighty Giga?" he fumed, freeing his hutar from the sheath. The Terran sat unmoving at the threat, the curved blade of the hutar held up against his throat. Datar snorted in his face. "I don't need you, Terran. Remember how disposable you are."

"My father helped destroy your father's reign of terror," he said. "I was right there when it happened. Now I'll be here to see you fall as well."

"I am not my father," he said, sheathing the hutar and stomping back to the controls. "You'd be smart to witness my restraint. This is not about myself or my father, Terran. This is about the Gra'al people emerging from the mire you Terrans helped put us in and reclaim the galaxy as our own.

"As much as I would enjoy destroying you and exacting my revenge, this is not about my family alone anymore. You may have stolen my lineage from me but I've taken it back, I've found a way to not just assure the Gra'al gain an advantage in our home yet again but that we're able to subjugate the Terrans and destroy them for good. That is why I'm best equipped to lead the Gra'al into a new era. The era of Datar the Destroyer."

"She won't let you," he said.

"I'd like to see her try."


Twenty-Five


The Captain.

"I don't understand why we're stopping," Valencia said, the ship orbiting around a small moon lined with a dense jungle cover. The scans showed breathable air and a moderately comfortable temperature, albeit a little warm compared to what she was used to.

"The Destroyer is approaching," Emma said.

"Yeah, and? Shouldn't we be trying to get space between us and him? We're looking for whatever your creators are and stopping like this seems suicidal."

"We cannot outrun the Destroyer forever. We need to face him."

Valencia glared down at her readout from the planet, looking for a clearing to land in. Her stomach churned at the idea of facing down that damned beast again, especially one melded with the son of Giga. To say she's had her fill of Giga would be an understatement. It still wasn't clear how they would be able to handle Him, in whatever evolved or devolved form He was in. There was some solace in the fact that Emma had swatted him away a few times already, but she seemed tired, even scared.

A clearing large enough sat on the far side of the planet, Valencia steering the sleek ship around, wordlessly descending towards the surface while Emma sat by her side, both an illusion created by her mind and a living, tangible being that she placed all of her trust in. Unlike Becca, Valencia eased her way down into the gravity of the moon, worried that a bumpy landing would further upend her stomach and bring up the chicken soup rations she had choked down earlier, a taste she wasn't particularly fond of on the way down, never mind on the way back up. Valencia flicked on the landing AI, letting the ship handle the last bit of descent rather than worry about the minutiae of sticking a landing. That kind of thing was Bec's territory, not her's.

The ship cut through the dense forest ceiling, down through the branches and into the clearing, a pang of familiarity washing over her. She'd only spent a brief amount of time on Terra, never in the forest, and yet the deja vu of the setting weighted heavily on her. Then it hit her. No, it was nothing like Terra at all. Nothing.

She froze in place, eyes fixed on the clearing, the elaborately laid out logs and the campfire burning in the center.

"Um, Emma...?"

"I understand this will be difficult for you."

"Is this the fucking clearing? Is this the planet?"

"It's a moon," Emma said. "The answer is more complicated than that, but yes."

"Wait, have you been... teleporting me to this moon?"

"Not exactly," she said. "Like I said, it's more complicated than that. Teleportation? No. Co-existence between two physical locations? Yes."

"I... so it wasn't a simulation?"

"Not exactly, no."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"You were never meant to exist in two places at once," she said. "This place is known to our people. It was the only place that I knew you could handle."

"Are you telling me that we might actually find your people here?"

"If They choose to meet us here. I cannot make any promises."

Valencia popped the hatch on the side, slipping out of the chair and out of the ship, breathing in the familiar air once again. This was a place that she knew well, in fact, she was just there, at least sort of, but now this was different. Her feet were really there, not in between there and somewhere else. For a brief moment she pushed aside the fear of oncoming doom and just enjoyed stretching out, having her feet on solid ground again and being in a place that she intimately knew.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.

"Tell you what?" Emma asked, sitting next to her, stoking the fire.

"Tell me what this place was, that it was real?"

"Would you have believed me?"

"After everything that's happened? Why wouldn't I believe you?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "I'm sorry, Valencia. I just wasn't sure how to explain it. Sometimes I forget how different you are from other corporeal beings."

"You're inside my head, Emma. I'm pretty sure I have no choice than to be different. You, somehow an AI, exist outside of the realm of technology in my damned head. None of this really makes sense anymore, why wouldn't I believe that I was in two places at once?"

"I don't know," Emma said, smiling back at her. Valencia laughed, Emma following suit, the two women sitting together in front of the fire, waiting for what could possibly be their doom. "I'm sorry, Valencia."

"About what?"

"About not telling you. I should've."

"In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. I'm glad I'm here with you right now. That we're here together. That's what's important. So, I have a question."

"What's that?"

"You're inside my head, you should already know."

"I don't pry into your thoughts," she said. "My shard may be inside of you, but I let you exist on your own. I never would pry into what makes you, well... you."

"Thanks," she said. "I was never sure how to broach that whole thing without sounding paranoid."

"I understand," she said. "I haven't always understood how to interact with humans. I still blame myself for the death of Captain Browning and her crew."

"Yeah," Valencia said. "I don't know about that. I know you and I know you aren't malicious."

"I try not to be," Emma said. "I fear my programming has controlled my actions in the past. Many lives were lost trying to keep Him a secret."

"What's done is done," she said. "I've done some pretty messed up stuff in my time as well. Some of those jobs we took before? I don't want to talk about them, never mind reckon with whatever we did or the people that may have gotten hurt because of them. What matters now is that we both turned things around, right? Life is weird and complicated. We just... do the best that we can for the people we care about. That's what we do. That's why I'm here."

"That's why I'm here," Emma said. "They created me for a purpose, but I lost that purpose. I was able to find another, though."

"Oh?" she asked, Emma locking eyes with her. "Oh, right."

"Friendship is new to me, I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not good at this."

"It's okay, I'm not really, either. That's probably why I'm out here and always have been instead of dealing with my family back home. They never got me and I never got them, I doubt leaving had any real impact on them."

"I'm just glad that we found each other," Emma reached her hand out, Valencia taking her hand into her own. The warmth between the two felt close, intimate and real, real beyond whatever she'd experienced before at the campsite.

"So now what? We just wait?"

"I've been sending out signals to Them," she confirmed. "The only problem is that beacon attracts not just my creators, but Him as well."

"He was already coming no matter what," she spat. "Fuck 'em, let Him come. Together we'll take him on."

"I'd like that," Emma said.

"Then we'd better get ready. I have no idea how we're gonna deal with Him."

"We'll find a way. We always do, right?"

"Yeah," Valencia said. "Always."

Shattered Lineage

Being there, on that moon entirely, not just halfway meant that a certain sense of deja vu but also brought a new vividness to what had felt like a fever dream previously. There was life on that moon. Those tracks that Bran talked about weren't in his imagination, well, the imagination of the projection from the Sentinel, but those were real. Those animals simply couldn't exist within multiple planes of reality. A small, scaled bird-like creature chirped overhead, its scales decorated to mimic the leaves and made it difficult to spot, although its chirps and calls were loud, abrupt and abrasive. This was a dream that became a reality.

"Do you know when night will fall?" Valencia asked.

"Soon," Emma replied. "This moon is far enough from this system's star that it gets rather cold, though. You were shielded before, I'm not sure if we should stay out much longer."

"That's too bad," she said. "I was looking forward to sleeping out under the stars. Maybe in that cave? That cave is here, right?"

"Yes, well," she blushed. "It is, yes. It's different from what you saw, with the crew. There are animals on this moon and many are predators."

"So you're telling me what, then?"

"We should spend the night in the ship. Just to be safe."

"Fine," she said, dejected. Valencia was just looking for some small joy before the showdown with Datar. Fate had loomed heavily on the horizon before, a few times now, which made this not as scary. Instead, the understanding that she would either live or die, depending on the circumstances, replaced the dread. Worrying about it wouldn't do her any good. Back inside the ship, she snatched up a ration, exhaling at the label: sour apple. She cursed Gentar under her breath and him hoarding the grape for himself all the time, leaving a grab bag of acceptable and downright awful packets of protein sludge. The ship's systems were bare bones, which meant the synthesizer programming was limited to fuel and life support only, leaving food and drink for storage.

"Any chance we could catch some sort of small animal and roast it or something?" she asked, peeling back the wrapper of the packet. "I've about had my fill of rations for now."

"We should preserve our energies, Valencia," Emma said.

"For what, though? What are we even expecting? This guy that can turn into a statue? This guy that can travel in his own hyperlanes faster than any other living being can travel? Who can snap any living being out of existence with a wag of a finger?"

"He doesn't have that power yet," she said.

"Then what power does he have? How do we know?"

"His powers are growing, I can sense them—"

"Then why can't you sense your creators? Where are they? Or maybe you can and you know they aren't coming, huh? This whole mission was stupid," Valencia said, sucking down some sludge, lips puckering. "Gah, who thought sour apple was a good idea? What's even a sour apple, anyway?"

"Valencia..."

"I should've never bothered with this. I don't belong here."

"Then where do you belong?"

"I belong with my family, on my ship. If we're all gonna die at the hands of this madman, then we should be together, at least. At least I'll have Dray, I suppose."

"And you have me," Emma said.

"Yeah, I do have you," she said.

The warmth from before had cooled considerably with the setting sun. There wasn't anything in particular that Emma did or said that bothered Valencia, just the realization that she was tilting at windmills at the behest of some rogue entity taking the form of a woman she felt a kinship with but had never really met. A relationship built on a deception that felt so real, even if it was both literally and figuratively only in her head.

"Please don't be upset with me," Emma said.

"I thought you said you didn't read my mind, that you left me to it."

"I'm not reading your mind, Valencia, I'm reading your mood. That dour look on your face tells me all I need to know."

"Yeah, sorry. I just thought I was ready for this, you know, death and all that. I've faced it a few times before. I just had the crew before. Sometimes you don't realize what it means to be a part of a unit with others until you don't have them. You take it for granted, you know? Well, I guess you don't know."

"I do, actually," she said. "Our friendship is more valuable to me than I could ever express to you, Valencia. It's hard to explain in terms you would understand, but I stood watch for hundreds of years, alone, programmed to do my duty. There were moments where His power would surge, where He'd attempt to rise up and overcome me and I'd fight alone, in the dark and silence.

"Whatever I was didn't matter, because I was a tool. Any of those possible feelings or will of my own were suppressed, latent. They were there, a part of both my programming and integration with Him, just not something I was supposed to be concerned about. Then they came. At first it was Gra'al. Explorers, looking to find something on Thuul and I needed to fend them off. It was never many at a time, always just a few. The curious, the bold and brave and I'd examine their systems, able to feel their ships intimately."

"... because they derived from Him," Valencia muttered under her breath.

"Exactly. Each one a part of a neural network that I was a part of, each one screaming out. I needed to suppress them, to quell the urges and any possible connection to Him, otherwise he'd grow in strength. Of course, I couldn't sense much within the Gra'al themselves. They were closed off to me.

"Then the battle happened and... I wasn't able to handle it, everything was overloading, and He made his move, attempting to network with the ships and arise. I... Valencia, you have to believe me, I had to sabotage them, I had to sever the connections I..."

"You had to kill the ships?"

"Yes, I..." she stared off at the wall for a long moment, the dull green-gray wall breathing and bowing at her gaze. "I had no choice, I had no understanding. Plus all of those humans, their minds, their... I understand now what happened, the harm that it caused, I just didn't want him to destroy everything. In humans I was overwhelmed, but for the first time I felt something, I saw things. I saw flashes of brilliance, of pain, of sorrow, suffering, yes. I also saw happiness, joy, love, all of that within the span of what you experience as hours. Even disabled, the Gra'al ships still fought on, overpowering the human ships and..."

"... and the battle ended, both sides losing."

"Yes," she said. "Both sides lost and... you're going to think I'm a monster, aren't you? Please, don't answer, let me tell you everything. If you wish to think badly of me then please do, I just want you to know everything, okay?"

"Okay," Valencia said. She sat quietly, allowing her to continue.

"Thank you. Then... he came. After a long time of being undisturbed, the man came. His mind was in chaos, clouded and obsessed. That was the first time that I felt... I'm not sure the right word for it. Dirty?

"He came aboard, much like you did, although at the time I didn't understand how these interactions work. There was no way to know what he was doing or how to deal with him without hurting him. He took parts of me, went back and forth between his ship and mine, scraping and prodding at my lining. He found a way to... circumvent me, to invalidate me. That's how he made it onto the planet, that's how he knew about Him. I was frozen, I didn't know what to do."

"Jordache was such a sleazeball," she said, a shiver running down her spine. "I'm sorry he was your first real human interaction, Emma."

"I didn't understand what he was doing or why he was doing it until it was too late. He had captured Him and was moving Him off the planet. This... Jordache as you called him, knew how to get around my defenses and I believe that He took advantage of this. The only defense I had was to push against Him, so I did. That worked, and I thought everything was done, until... Captain Browning came with the same goal. I was prepared then, or so I thought. I took them here, I studied them, their intentions, and fought back when they tried to remove Him from the planet. The Children had grown in power, I was scared and... and..."

"Hey," Valencia said, reaching out and taking her hand. "It's okay, alright? It's over."

"It was awful. I knew these people. I was inside their minds, I knew their hopes, dreams, everything about them. I knew they meant to take Him, and that they didn't understand what they were doing, just at the whims of Jordache, that, as you said, sleazeball. But the Children's power was overwhelming, I was afraid of what would happen if I let them get too close, I... Valencia," Emma's face was streaked with tears, something Valencia didn't think was possible. Her hand balmy and squeezing Valencia's tight. "Valencia, I didn't know what else to do and I... I did my duty. I'm so sorry, I didn't want to, I didn't know what else to do. The Children were so powerful, and the threat of Him on the galaxy was so overwhelming. Suddenly I had these conflicted emotions, I wasn't ready for them, I didn't understand them and I made a call. It was the wrong one. I killed them. I killed them and I regret it, I..."

Emma collapsed into Valencia's arms, tears streaming down her cheeks, buried deep in her shoulder. Valencia held her tightly, rubbing her back and doing her best to soothe her. She was just a child, thrust into sentience and emotions without any support system or cultural background to help her cope. There was just nothing. A spark of life and then pain.

"It's okay," Valencia said after a prolonged silence. "It's okay."

"I met you right after," she said, muffled in Valencia's shirt. "I met you and felt that spark, that connection. I understood then what I had done."

"It's not your fault," she said. "It's not your fault, Emma. You're here now, and you have me. Together we'll deal with whatever is to come, okay?"

"Thank you, Valencia," she sniffled. "Thank you for showing me that I belong."

"Of course you do," she said, pulling Emma back and massaging her shoulders. They locked eyes, Valencia nodding. "And when we're through here, there's always room for you in our crew. Always room for you in my life."

"You don't know how much that means to me," she said.

"Yes, I do. I do."

"I..." Emma paused, a look of horror frozen on her face.

"Emma. Emma," she shook her. "Emma, what's wrong?"

"H-he's... He's here."


Twenty-Six


The Pilot.

"This is madness," Consul O'Hara's projection appeared on the Trystero's dashboard, Becca staring forward with a smirk on her face. "This is treason! How dare you implicate us, and me, by name, even! You couldn't wait for a meeting?"

"Nah," she said. "We tried, your guy was pretty rude to us. Not like you've ever listened before."

"This is madness. You expect to strong-arm us into action here by going around me to the media? Where's Captain Vasquez? Put her on."

"She ain't here, chief. I'm the acting captain, so you're dealing with me."

"Report back here immediately," he fumed. "Report back or I'll have your license revoked."

"No can do, already racing to meet up with Vetru."

"With the Warlord Regent? Where do your loyalties lie, Ms. Johnson? This isn't a game!"

"No, it's not. Datar is about to destroy everything we know and care about, and you're worried about losing face. Tsk tsk, Consul."

"You blabbed to the media! You called us liars! You leaked restricted infor—"

"I told the truth. It's about time people knew the danger we're in. I did what I had to do to get you to listen. That's on you."

"This is preposterous! There will be serious repercussions, Ms. Johnson. This isn't over."

"Mobilize your forces, I'll have Vetru's people contact you. K? Bye."

She flicked the call off, his projection disappearing into thin air. Becca exhaled deeply, falling back into the comfort of her old chair. Being the captain was the pits, just the absolute worst. Gentar sat silently next to her, studying his news feed.

"So, what's going on with you? I think Consul O'Hara is gonna put a contract out on me."

"Oh, sorry," he said. "I'm... distracted. Datar's fleet mobilized, the reports from Gra'al intelligence claim it's heading for Lidar."

"Lidar, huh? Wonder what they're planning there."

"The place of Giga's death, never mind it being the sacred home of the Gra'al Empire. Datar is no fool, he understands the power of symbolism on my people."

"You sure he's not gonna try to blow it up?"

"No, I'm not," Gentar said. "I just have a feeling that he wouldn't. The way he was talking to them didn't show pure malevolence or nihilism. Datar wants what he feels is best for the Gra'al Empire, at least in his mind."

"Which is what?"

"I'm not sure, although my guess would be to restore things to a previous iteration of the Gra'al Empire, where the Gra'al ruled the galaxy alone."

"By alone you mean without us, huh?" she asked, not needing an answer.

"I fear so, yes. Not everyone shares Jin'tu's vision of the future."

"Vetru does," she said.

"Vetru is of a new breed, one that sees the anger and hatred that Giga displayed as a sad relic of a past that should be abandoned."

"That's what you think, right?"

"Like it or not, our people are here, together. Our people working together is the best way forward. There are things that Gra'al do better and other things your people do better. Together we could accomplish great things. Divided we can only move towards mutually assured self-destruction."

"I dunno, you guys wiped the floor with us last time."

"Gra'al organic technology has been difficult to contain," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if there were Terran warships that haven't been deployed yet with organic technology. Terran determination along with self-healing ships would make for formidable foes. Your people are also more... settled than they were when the war started. Resources will no longer be a problem. Terrans concentrated themselves in a few smaller systems while the Gra'al are spread out, each house occupying its own system, and while we are an empire connected, our houses still live and operate independently from each other. I fear if Terrans wanted to, they could attack house-by-house, divide and conquer. We need each other more than either side would like to admit."

"Yeah, I guess so," she said. "It's a good thing we are working together, huh? Because we are. We're all in this together, even if it's kicking and screaming."

"You'll make a fine captain one day," Gentar said.

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Just thinking out loud. You weren't intimidated by your own government. You're doing the right thing and not just for your people but for everyone. You do it without blinking. I know you don't think of yourself that way, but you're a fine leader."

"Yeah, well," she said, taken aback. "I don't know. I learned everything I know from the Cap. And as long she's captain, I'm the pilot. That's how this works."

"I'm not telling you to move on or anything, just that if push came to shove, if that's the right Terran adage, you'd be great."

"Aw shucks, Gen." She punched him in his bad shoulder, Gentar recoiling in pain, the both of them bursting out laughing. "Don't make me feel these feels."

"Well, where to, Captain Johnson?"

"Acting Captain Johnson," she said. "We'll go see Acting Warlord Vetru because apparently none of us are the real deal and we've gotta save the galaxy."

"That instills confidence."

"What's going on?" Jimmy asked.

"Did you finish cleaning the bathroom?" she asked.

"Yeah, I mean, when am I gonna see some real action, here? I'm ready. Didn't I prove myself with Brena?"

"Look, bud, you'll get all that you want and a whole lot more in a hurry. We're heading to Triinal to meet up with Vetru and his fleet."

"What about the Terran fleets?"

"If they come, they come, but we have to accept that they never listen to us, who knows what they'll do this time out. Strap in, we're gonna hit it."

"Yes, err, captain?"

"You're damned straight."

Shattered Lineage

"Have you heard anything from Captain Vasquez?" Vetru asked, standing before them on the bridge of the Mark V. The Trystero was neatly parked in the hangar bay again, the last time things got bloody, which made Becca uneasy. She straightened herself out and primped her hair for a moment.

"No, not yet. I'm still acting captain."

"I thought she'd be back by now."

"Have you heard anything from her?"

"No," he said gravely. "We're going to have to move forward without her assistance."

"We can't count her out yet, can we?"

Becca leaned back against a panel. The Gra'al sitting there grunted at her, Bec grunting back which shut him up in a hurry. After dealing with Gentar and his mood swings for as long as she had, she knew what worked when dealing with Gra'al and their strange power struggles. The bridge of the Mark V was vast and cavernous, the great windows overlooking the stars reaching up two stories. The stations the bridge crew sat at were rounded off so they'd wrap around the average Gra'al and ensure the vast controls were all within reach. She'd never boarded the ship where they found Bruce, or any other ship for that matter, but she couldn't shake the idea of seeing a crew like this bloodied up and strewn about. No wonder Drake got so moody.

"I appreciate your faith in the captain," he said. "For now, we'll have to try to find a way to stop Datar on our own. Through force."

"Yeah, that'll work," she said. "Remember that giant fucking squid swallowing an orbital barrage for a snack?"

"We have to hope his power has not grown that strong yet."

"Hope, eh?"

"Yes, hope. What of your people? I've not heard from anyone yet."

"Are you kidding me?" she asked.

"It seems Consul O'Hara has not reached out yet, even after all of that."

"God, he's such a snake."

"What's going on?" Vetru asked.

"Oh, we just did a whole thing and thought he was going to reach out."

"And what exactly did you do?"

"Broadcast the truth about Thuul, the alien and Jordache through the media after O'Hara wouldn't meet with us."

Vetru chuckled.

"What? That's my play and I'm sticking by it."

"You're a fiery one," Vetru said. "Grave matters like this, pride should not be an issue. I'll have Bru'tiel, my envoy on Biztsoft, reach out to him. We're not too proud to ask for help from our neighbors."

"Yeah, well, let's hope my people get a fire lit under them."

"Let's hope indeed."

"Where has Datar's fleet positioned itself?" Gentar asked.

"Here," he said, tapping on a panel to bring up a display that filled a large portion of the front cockpit window. The map showed Gra'al space, him dragging his fingers along the projection. "They're advancing on Lidar right now from their own space. Thus far there have been no major skirmishes, most of our fleets have followed orders and not fired upon them yet."

"Gen and I were debating what they wanted with Lidar," she said. "You don't think they want to blow it up, right?"

"No, I don't believe so. They crave a return to and an amplification of the old ways. They crave a Gra'al exceptionalism that isn't rooted in our current reality. Although, I do fear what an all-powerful zealot could do to all of us."

"So you think he wants to take control, then?" she asked.

"Yes, I believe so. A rallying cry. Unseat the Elders and plant his flag in the ground of our ancestral home."

"I never cared for those elders much, anyway," she said.

"Like them or not, their neutrality remains an integral part of Gra'al society."

"I feel like I understand a lot about your people but then there are some things I just can't wrap my head around."

"Then we're in agreement," Vetru said.

"We cannot let them compromise Lidar," Gentar said. "Can we?"

"I don't think we have much choice. If we engage, it'll be a bitter, brutal battle. That's without Datar and his powers."

"If he unseats the Elders, then what power do we have left? Imagine the signal that sends," Gentar grunted.

"Imagine us firing upon our own people and sparking yet another in a long line of wars between the Great Houses."

"We didn't start this," Gentar said. "Datar did! And his father before that! We're here on clean-up duty trying to hold things together."

"I know, my brother." Vetru placed his hand on Gentar's shoulder. "We'll find a way. We always do."

"Sir!" One of the bridge crew turned to him.

"Yes, Plitar?"

"Sir, they've struck House Bodun's fleet."

"Damnit, Priyiu," he slammed his fist down on the console. "Never listens. What is the damage?"

"The battle is ongoing, but House Bodun's fleet cannot hold up to House Gigar's combined fleet. More troubling..."

"Yes? Finish the thought."

"More troubling is there have been defections."

"Defections?" he asked.

"Why would they defect to a madman?" Bec asked

"So it's begun," Vetru said gravely. "Full speed ahead to Lidar. We must demonstrate our strength. Many of our brothers and sisters will bleed today, I fear. There is no other way."


Twenty-Seven


Datar the Destroyer.

The moon was dark, although that didn't matter to Datar anymore. His eyes adjusted with ease, a part of his newfound powers. His fingertips buzzed at the surge. The Ligent sat in the clearing he created, uprooting the trees and casting them aside. With the Terran following behind, obedient and placid, he advanced through the trees, stomping towards the Sentinel. With each step more and more power flooded into his veins, pumped through his heart and made him understand the importance of the Sentinel.

The Terran was vital to unlocking His power initially but no, there was no way that he'd be able to become the god he's meant to be while the rest of his power segmented itself away. Datar's heart rate increased with anticipation. There was no way that the Terran protecting the Sentinel could oppose him. With the power he already possessed, he could destroy planets if he wished, never mind some fragile, puny Terran. With a wave of his hand, trees uprooted and flew out of his path, carving out his own path to the future.

Stumbling behind him was the Terran, clumsy and foolish as always. Destruction was perhaps wasted on a race such as the Terrans. Instead, their susceptibility to mind control could be favorable for his machinations. Imagine an entire race of weak, puny Terrans under his command. The Gra'al could achieve more with no need to expend energy on trivialities. The thought brought a rare smile across his face.

"Datar!" a voice shouted from the clearing. "Datar, let him go."

"You dare refer to me by my name?" he asked, bemused. "You Terran, out of my way. I'm here for the Sentinel."

"You won't get her," the Terran said.

Datar pushed the rest of the trees out of the way, hurling one at the Terran before him, a green wall erected in front of her, the tree bouncing off and smashing into the ground. Datar studied it for a long moment, searching for the Sentinel. A small ship sat by the cliff-side in the clearing, although it looked nothing like the diagrams he had seen. Still, the life force was there, pulsating in the air in front of him.

"Her?" he asked. "The Sentinel exists outside of your binaries."

"Yours too," she said. "Not that it matters, right? You being a god and all."

"Ahh," he said, recognizing the Terran from before. "You're the one who defied me before."

"Yep," she said. "That's me."

"So then where is the Sentinel? I felt its power then, I feel it now. Where have you hidden the Sentinel? Surely not inside that Gra'al ship."

"You really don't know, do you?"

"Don't make me tear it out of you," he said, clenching his fist. "You stand no chance against me."

"You don't know who I am, do you?"

"If I search this Terran's mind it'll be mine, but no, let you have your moment. Tell me who you are, Terran."

"I'm Captain Valencia Vasquez of the Trystero and I'm your worst nightmare."

The look she gave him dripped with determination, Datar learning the intricacies of Terran expressions through the power transfer with the conduit. She looked like if she could, she'd stare a hole right through him. He bellowed a mighty laugh, unable to contain himself. Somehow, that Terran felt like she could oppose him. The same one as before, who stood on top of that broken down old ship and demanded his conduit.

"You wish for the Conduit to be yours? When I'm through here, neither of you will escape this moon. It'll serve as your tomb, I'll broadcast it to the entire galaxy so they'll understand the foolishness of opposing Datar the Destroyer."

"You're as foolish as your father."

"My father has nothing to do with this."

"Oh yeah? You know who I am. You know who we are and what we did."

"I'm well aware. It was the Gra'al traitor that murdered my father, along with my father's hubris. My father wished to lead the Gra'al people through sheer force alone. He was a fool just like the rest."

"Then what do you call this? What do you think this is? You're here, wielding this power and how? Dispatching a fleet? You're a bigger fool than him."

"I'm inspiring my people," he spat. "I'm showing them that Gra'al can be more than just custodians of the galaxy, cleaning up every Terran mess and placating you weak fools instead of crushing you like we should have before! Your race will bow to me, under my control, be the perfect servants."

"We'll never do that. You know why?"

"No, humor me, Terran."

"Because I have what you want."

"You have nothing I want," he said. "The power of the Sentinel is why I'm here, you are a mere triviality."

"No, I'm not."

"Fool. Stand aside, I'm through wasting my breath on you."

"No, I'm not," she shouted, pushing her hands out towards him. Power resonated from her, a green figure materializing between them, assuming the figure of a Terran female. She was immense. Large enough to do battle with the statue. Reality set in.

"Y-you," he said. "The Sentinel shard is within... you?"

"Yes. It's been me since back on Thuul. You're too full of your own shit to understand that."

"That's impossible."

"Is it? Look at where your power comes from," she said, pointing behind him. "A puny Terran. You're nothing without us."

"No, I'd still be a Gra'al while you'd still be Terrans. I could crush you without my powers. You? Without the Sentinel, you're nothing."

"I'll take that bet," she said.

"Excuse me?"

"I said I'll take that bet. Emma stands down, and it's just you and me. No powers, no tricks, no bullshit. We fight."

"Are you... joking?" he asked, incredulous. "You believe that you, a Terran, could take me, a proud Gra'al Hunter?"

"Yep," she said. "I'm willing to try, at least. Because without those powers? You're nothing. A killer? Sure, but without them you're nothing more than just a sad, broken little boy trying to live up to his father's broken legacy. It's pathetic, really."

"You dare—" he started, finding it too late. The Terran dashed at him, jumping feet-first at him, her boots sinking into his chest, sending him crashing down to the ground onto his back. The wind was knocked out of him. Before he could compose himself, she drove the point of her elbow down onto the bridge of his nose, green blood gushing out, vision blurred. She went for another attack, with his mighty arm pushing her away while he rolled onto his stomach, picking himself up. "You dare attack me? You'll die!"

From the ground her leg shot up, swinging like a pendulum at the back of his knee. The blow stung, his knee buckling only briefly, able to keep his footing. She went for it again. This time he was ready for it, lifting his leg up and bending his knee, checking the kick with force, pressing down. His knee drove down against her shin, pinning her to the ground. She cried out in agony, her free foot kicking wildly up at his chest. Datar laughed again, each blow bouncing off him, the determination not washing away from her face.

"You fool," he muttered, bringing his fist down hard across her jaw. She faltered, collapsing to the ground from the blow, Datar cackling while he straightened himself up. "This is what you're throwing your life away for? You never stood a—"

A flash of sharp pain struck him from the groin. Her knee came up like a piston, doubling him over. His body recoiled, another knee that made him crumple down to his knees. The Terran rolled up to her feet, rushing at him at full speed, vaulting off of his leg and bringing her knee up to his jaw, him reeling backwards. She lined up for it again, rushing again at him, vaulting off his leg only for him to bring his hands up and catch her by the waist. She rained down blows with her fists onto his head, Datar standing back up with her weight on his shoulders, hands locked around her waist, driving her down back first onto the ground with a thud.

She shuddered, writhing on the ground, her body quivering. Datar felt powerful, unstoppable even. There were no doubts in his mind that he could destroy her in hand-to-hand combat. He had even toyed with her a bit and let her get some blows in. Otherwise he would have simply crushed her like he just did.

"You fought well, Terran," he said, hovering over her. He reached back, unsheathing his hutar, the blade spinning in his hand. "Now I end this, the Sentinel's power will be mine."

"You'll never," the Terran shuddered again, blood bubbling up from her mouth.

"Speak up, make your peace with whatever maker you Terrans have. This foolishness is over now."

"Y-you'll... never..." she whispered.

"I can't hear you," he said, leaning in closer, close enough that he could feel her labored breaths. "Speak up, puny Terran. You've earned my respect."

"Y-you'll never get her," she said.

"Ha! You fool--"

A splatter of blood spurt from her mouth, up in an arc, landing on his face with a splatter. Rage boiled up inside of him, hutar primed and ready. "I'll kill you!"


Twenty-Eight


The Captain.

Datar reeled back, wiping the blood from his face, giving Valencia the opening she needed. Everything burned, the adrenaline pumping through her veins, helping her work through the pain. There wasn't time to assess the damage. It didn't seem like anything was broken, at least. She hoped. In a blind rage he wildly swung his hutar down at her in an arc, the curved blade hurtling towards her head like certain death. Timing it just right, she moved out of the way; the hutar sinking into the dirt and rock.

That was her cue to move into action, bucking her hips up and throwing her legs up around his arm, pressing against his chest. Her arms wrapped around his wrist, squeezing and twisting it free from the pommel of the sword. Straightening out, tensing the muscles in her legs with every last ounce of energy she had, she dangled from his meaty arm. He wailed out in pain, attempting to throw her off, which only tightened the hold more, her hips a fulcrum that hyper-extended his arm. Those years of close quarter training she got from Barrett back on Biztsoft in exchange for throwing him a few crates of rations a month had paid off. Datar kept thrashing, her cinching the lock in tighter.

He pulled back, lifting her off the ground only to slam her down against the cold, packed soil. Valencia attempted to absorb the blow, taking it on her shoulders, although she was losing her grip. He went to pick her up again, Valencia transitioning, rolling her leg up around his neck while the other slipped under his arm, then up around his shoulder, all while still gripping onto his arm. She locked her heels together, attempting to choke him, all while he thrashed about, trying to swat her away. Her foot slipped into place under her knee, tightening the choke hold, him coughing while bucking, unsure of where to move. Valencia pulled down on the back of his head, grasping onto his mohawk braid, which only seemed to anger him further.

His mighty free hand pounded against her hips, each blow a concussive eruption of pain, although she was fighting for her life and couldn't let go. He drove his knee into the small of her back, bone crunching on bone, forcing her to cry out in pain. She couldn't let go, but she had to fight every instinct in her body to keep that hold locked in. He screamed out, lifting her up off the ground while she dangled off his neck still, his raw power overcoming the vice-like choke. She was up high on his shoulders again, panic setting in that he would slam her onto the ground again. There was no way she'd take another of those blows. When she felt him driving her down she flowed with it, arching her back with the momentum, legs still locked over his neck and shoulder. Her head tucked under his legs, the momentum sending his head smashing down against the ground, his body skidding against the ground. They untangled from each other, which was good and bad. Her back was screaming out in pain now, her fighting back up to her feet only to buckle under the pain, screaming out.

Datar clutched at his neck, fighting for air. For the first time since the fight started, Valencia saw Drake from the corner of her eye, turning to face him in his placid, unmoving state. She extended her hand out towards him, watching him remain emotionless and cold, her heart wrenching to see him like that. Out of her corner of her eye she saw Datar back on his feet, charging at her like a freight crawler, his good arm stretched out, slamming hard against the side of her neck, the force mashed her into the dirt, face down on the ground.

"Sentimental fool," Datar spat. Her neck was screaming out in pain, joining her back in a concoction of suffering.

Valencia glanced up, spitting dirt out from her mouth, blended with her blood to see Datar freeing his hutar from the ground. He stalked towards her, a devious grin on his face, his right shoulder drooping down and the hutar in his left hand. She pushed up with her hands, trying to pry her broken body from the ground, her back and neck fighting against her will, collapsing to the ground in a heap. She needed to move, but her body was betraying her, the damage from the powerful Gra'al too much. All it would take would be one more blow and that would be it, the end of Valencia Vasquez and whatever sad legacy she leaves behind.

"D-dray," she muttered, reaching out to him again. "I'm... sorry, Dray."

Drake remained impassive, Datar with his hutar ready to finish her. Valencia clawed her way toward Drake, fingers digging into the dirt. Datar's boot planted against her shoulder, stopping her cold in her tracks. Valencia groaned, Datar pulling his boot off and planting the toe of his foot into her stomach, rolling her onto her back.

"You'll look into the eyes of your conqueror," he said, arm still hanging by his side. "You'll see the face of god before you die, the face of Datar the Destroyer. I have no need for powers to destroy you, there's no need for a god to end the life of a sad, pathetic Terran like you, whatever you call yourself. You fought well, I'll give you that. I'll give you something no Terran has ever deserved before: a warrior's death."

"F-fuck you."

"What was that?" he laughed. "Are those your famous last words?"

"Fuck... you," she spat at him again.

Datar pressed the blade against her neck, smiling down at her. He reared back, holding the blade high above his head, the light from his ship's floodlights glinting off it. The instrument of her doom flicked down towards her, the light reflected from the blade blinded her momentarily, her heart skipping a beat, time slowing down at her imminent destruction. The reflection disappeared before flashing green back at her in a brilliant display. Datar flew back, slamming hard against a tree, the trunk crunching under the pressure.

The power of the Sentinel flowed through her, the pain in her back and neck still there, still pulsating, Emma's power flooding her veins, integrating further with her DNA, assuaging the wounds and giving her the strength to fight back to her feet.

She turned to her side, Emma standing there next to her, smiling back sweetly at her. They embraced, Emma flickering green before her. The warmth was still there, it just felt different, like it surrounded both of them, enshrouding them together. Emma pulled her back, hands on her shoulders, staring into her eyes. The intense green of her irises flickered like flames dancing inside her head, Datar groaning in pain on the ground.

"There's not much time," Emma said.

"I had him," Valencia said.

"I know you did," she said. "I just couldn't sit back and watch him do that, though."

"No, I had him," she reiterated. "I..."

"It's okay," Emma said, pulling her in for a hug. She felt more power surge through her, like a transformation was happening. "Just let me do this."

"W-what are you doing?" she asked. "I feel so powerful, I feel okay, I—"

"Please, Valencia," Emma was crying. "Please, just let me do this for you."

"I don't understand," she pulled back, Emma's body emitting green trails that were bleeding into Valencia. With each passing second she grew stronger, Valencia tearing up herself while Datar stirred on the peripheral. "Emma, what are you doing?"

"I'll always be a part of you, Valencia. You don't know how much you've meant to me."

"No, stop," Valencia said, pushing Emma's shoulders with the palm of her hands, her unmoving. "Please, no, don't leave me. Not now!"

"This is the only way to stop him," she said, translucent and fading with each passing second. "We'll be together. That's what matters. I'll miss our conversations the most."

"What the hell are you doing?" she shouted. "Emma, no, please!"

Datar roared, stomping his foot on the ground, uprooting the surrounding trees, dust flying out in a cloud around him at his pure, unbridled rage. Hefting the hutar up over his head with both arms he lept into the air, much higher than a normal Gra'al could ever do, Valencia able to feel the power of Him flowing through him. The transfer intensified, her eyes clouded, Emma a green apparition that engulfed her, shifting on top of Valencia, the two women overlaid like two beings coexisting between parallel dimensions, on raw instinct alone her arm shooting up, forearm extended. The hutar blade burst into flames on its approach, burning white hot and intense, the moment of impact Valencia screaming out, a green glow overcoming her arm, a translucent, shimmering green blade materializing and deflecting the blade at the last possible second, green sparks flying out around them.

Datar swung again, the two blades clashing with more sparks flying out, Valencia pressing hard against him, the two blades grinding against each other, the rage of Him flowing through Datar and the passion of Emma powering Valencia's defiance. She raged back at him, kicking away at his leg like she was chopping at a tree with round kicks, Datar focused on the blades, pushing with all his might against her and the power of the Sentinel that had overtaken her. Datar reared back, planting a headbutt against the bridge of her nose. Their blades untangled, Valencia staggering back. He rushed at her again, flaming hutar in hand, Valencia rearing back and throwing a high round kick right at it, another blade materializing around her shin, making contact with the blade and sending it flying from his hand, although Datar's momentum didn't disappear, his shoulder driving into her back, throwing her face-first into the ground.

"So you couldn't do it alone," he laughed. "Now the Sentinel shows itself at last. I'll destroy it once-and-for-all, consolidating my power."

"There's no chance, Datar," she said, picking herself up.

"Then come at me," he said, beckoning her. "If we're using our powers, you'll see how easily I can destroy you."

"You're a madman, Datar," she said. "If I have to die to stop you, then so be it, but you aren't gonna get your way."

"The Gra'al Empire is already bowing to my will. While you battle me here, House Bodun has fallen, their forces understanding the power of Datar the Destroyer and a better future for my people. The defectors will be welcomed with open arms."

"Your people are better than this," she said. "Both our people are. They will not let fear guide them down this path. Not this time."

"Your people? Ha! Fear has guided everything in Terran history. Do you think me ignorant to your history? I've seen all of it. You turn on each other for no reason other than greed and power. The Gra'al houses have fought, yes, but never for personal gain alone! We fight for honor, we fight for the best way forward. Your people fight for nothing! They'd destroy their home like they did before, just to say they rule the ruins. Your exodus, as your people call it, was because you couldn't control each other. You consider my father a madman? I spit on you, Terran! My father studied your people, he studied your true nature and saw the naked truth. You divide over nothing, granting power to the corrupt, allowing them to destroy not just your home but hope itself.

"Did my father make mistakes? Yes. Did he spill more Gra'al blood to secure his own ascension? Of course he did, but there must be sacrificed for the good of the many. He saw you for what you were, saw the patterns and saw you gaining power again. He knew what it meant, the cycles you Terrans lived through and what to expect. This power that flows through my veins? You Terrans are to blame, not me. Your people disturbed His slumber for what? Your own greed! Your own power! You arrogantly thought you could control Him and harness His power for yourself to control this galaxy? Pathetic."

"You know that's not true," she said. "Most of it, yes, but we weren't gonna let that happen. We were down there, we risked our lives to fix that mistake. My people have made nothing but mistakes, but that's not on me. I've done everything I could to fix that. I've tried to bring our people together, and now you're trying to divide us again. For what? For yourself. Don't fool yourself with this big talk. You're full of shit, Datar."

"Think what you will," he said. "I care not what you think, just how you die."

Datar charged forward, Valencia bracing herself for the oncoming attack.


Twenty-Nine


The Pilot.

A torrent of violence erupted all around them, explosions blowing out the sides of Gra'al warships before the organic matter began attempting to repair itself, patching over the holes although equipment and bodies danced in the vacuum of space amidst the missiles and blaster fire. Becca stood, clutching onto Gentar's hand, on the bridge of the Mark V, Jimmy silent and out-of-the-way behind them. Vetru paced, taking reports and making split-second decisions, barking out the orders with veracity and a sureness that Becca studied with care. Before Valencia took off she never bothered thinking about the stressors of command, of other people's lives being in your hands, but now watching someone as competent as Vetru working his magic was taking a masterclass in leadership firsthand.

The smaller fighters dotted the battlefield, blasting away at each other, almost indistinguishable from each other outside of the house insignia displayed on the side of each ship. She knew that the heads up displays in the ships allowed them to paint the opposition forces as hostiles to differentiate them from friendlies, but from the bridge the battle was almost impossible to follow. It was violence for violence's sake, Gra'al blood being spilled gratuitously in the name of Datar and his revolution.

"This is insanity," Bec said.

"This is war," Gentar replied. "If there's one thing my people know how to do, it's this. Our whole history is littered with it."

"I'm sorry, Gen. I know this is hard to watch."

"House Bodun's defection has me deeply disturbed. Behind House Gigar they have always been the most militarily minded house, they are formidable foes on their own. Even with half of their fleet destroyed, them paired with House Gigar is deadly."

"Priyiu went down fighting," she said. "I didn't care for him but he wouldn't have defected like his people did."

"Perhaps. I don't know what to believe anymore."

"We can't lose faith," she said. "Not yet. I hate just sitting here doing nothing. I feel like we need to be out there, fighting."

"Perhaps. I don't know anymore. What good can we do?"

Becca didn't know how to reply to Gentar. A fatalistic Gentar was something she'd need to adjust to, not anywhere near his usual demeanor. Not that Gentar was usually some bright, shining star in the abyss. No, dour would be how she explained him, but never fatalistic. There was still his faith in goodness and in doing the right thing. In action. Maybe this was the worst part of being in charge? Needing to not just come to quick, decisive and correct conclusions but also inspiring those around you to keep their heads on and not lose faith. What made this especially difficult was Gentar was usually who she'd turn to for advice, but now the shoe was on the other foot.

"C'mon," she said, tugging on his massive arm.

"What?"

"We're gonna head to the Trys."

"Why?" he asked. "There's nothing the Trystero can do against Gra'alian battleships."

"Oh bullshit," she said. "Remember when we took on those cruisers?"

"I believe that was before my time," he said.

"Oh, right. Well, sort of. You were unconscious. Still. We did. And we're still here, right?"

"I suppose so, but this is battle. The Gra'al fleets are best equipped for this battle."

"Okay, fine," she pouted. "Look, Gen, I just... seeing you like this makes me feel like I need to do something, okay? You aren't usually like this. I'm trying to cheer you up."

"By sending us off into battle?"

"Well, giving us some meaning here. I don't know. Figure something out. Maybe we go after the captain."

"We have no way of tracking her, do we?"

"Look, well, no, not really, but I don't know. We know what direction she headed in."

"Even attempting to escape this battle would be suicide," he said. "I appreciate your attempt at improving my mood, Becca, and you know how much I value you, just... this is my people tearing each other apart over a demagogue. He offers nothing but false hope and division. He stands on a platform of bigotry, removing the agency of your people and the choice that my people made to make peace with our new neighbors, to help you to survive instead of wipe you from existence."

"Yeah, well, my people aren't exactly being great, either. I don't know, I feel like we're so alone out here. If my sister and nephew weren't back on Biztsoft, I'd say we never bother going back and I just live out my days here in the Gra'al Empire. You know, fuck my people already. They've done nothing for me."

"They're your people," he said. "That's your decision."

"I'm mostly venting, I don't know. I just don't enjoy feeling helpless, either."

"Throwing our lives away does nothing for either movement."

"I can't help but overhear your conversation," Vetru said. "There may be a use for you yet."

"Oh?" Bec asked. "I'm listening."

"This is perhaps a bit... unconventional, but I've decided about the Endigo matter."

"What does Endigo have to do with this battle?" Gentar asked. "They have no fleets, no say in any of this. They're ghosts. They are no longer a part of the Gra'al Empire."

"They asked for their independence," he said. "These defections won't be the last. I fear we'll need every last Gra'al. Datar could very well offer them this independence. Without Thuul, Endigo serves as the closest planetary system to the DMZ and Terra."

"You fear they'll offer them a place in their new empire to make use of their tactical position," Gentar said. "That makes sense."

"I was planning on offering their independence regardless, even if it feels hollow to offer it now, in our time of need. There were a few of the Great Houses that opposed the offer, one of which has now fallen in battle... we'd have the votes, regardless."

"So, what does this mean, exactly? Why us?" Becca asked.

"They know you better than I. They'll trust you more."

"They knew the captain better," Bec said.

"You still have contacts there, correct?"

"Well, yeah, of course, it's just... I'm not Valencia."

"No, you aren't," Vetru said. "Nothing about this is ideal, nor is this how I wanted to present them with this decision. This is how it is."

"So, what? I just go and tell them that they're free now?"

"Yes."

"Alright, I can do that. That's easy."

"I also need you to ask if they'll join us. We'll need every last Gra'al for this fight. We can send a few cruisers and battleships for them to set up a perimeter. Some Ground defenses as well."

"Wait, you want me to go and ask them to basically go to war for a government that exiled them?"

"Yes," he said. "I understand this is no small task..."

"This is a fool's errand," Gentar said. "Yet I understand the need."

"We'll do it," she said without pause.

Shattered Lineage

"Home again, home again," Bec said, sliding into her chair and firing up the engines. The familiar hum was a welcome distraction from the battle raging outside the Mark V's cavernous hangars.

"What're you gonna need me to do?" Jimmy asked.

"You know, stand there and look pretty, can you do that?"

"I guess. I just mean, how can I help? I feel like a third wheel here."

"Valencia brought you back for a reason," she said. "That thing back on Biztsoft? That was great, okay? You earned your keep as far as I'm concerned. Just pull none of that moody shit you did before and we're cool, alright? I'm in charge here, I'll tell you what the plan is when we get there."

"Okay."

"But uh, for real, we'll probably need you up here on the guns for now. Things might get heavy and Gen will need help."

"Oh?"

"I agree," Gentar said. "We'll have an escort but we need to be prepared for anything."

"So you need me up here?" he asked.

"Yep," Bec said. "Just be careful is all, not sure we'll always be able to tell friend from foe without Gra'al targeting computers."

"Copy."

Jimmy slipped into the chair behind Gentar, turning to face the gun controls. She still didn't care for him much, but he was doing his best. They all were. Who knows? Maybe he'd grow on her and become an actual part of the crew. Maybe.

"There it is," Gentar said, pointing to the board.

"I see it," Bec stared down at the panel, clearance from Vetru. "Looks like we're heading out into the fray, boys. Buckle up. You're lucky, you've got the best damned pilot in the galaxy on your side."

She pressed the ship forward, lifting off and rocketing out of the hangar, into the battle. Almost immediately the ship rocked from a near miss, Bec slamming on the brakes and rolling to the side. She had to break towards the port side of the Mark V and meet up with their escorts. The ship surged forward, narrowly avoiding a fighter before it slammed into the hull of the Mark V, scrap from the explosion pelting the side of the Trys.

"Shit, shit, shit," she muttered under her breath. "Gen, be on the lookout for debris, shoot down the bigger parts."

"Affirmative."

The Trys glided along the underside of the Mark V, rolling out of the way of incoming fire in what Bec would like to believe looked effortless even while she jerked and banked hard with each and every turn. The ship shook with each near-miss, Bec blowing an errant strand out of her face. A blow struck the Mark V above them, a large piece of scrap flying out and smashing into the starboard side during a roll, klaxons blaring overhead.

"Damnit! C'mon, old girl," she shouted. "You can do this."

The ship was fighting her, shuddering and jerking against her when she looked to turn. Her fist smashed against the wheel, the ship bucking before she corrected it. There was something wrong with the steering, if not worse.

"What's the name of our escort ship?" she asked.

"The Geent," Gentar shouted.

"Contact them! Tell them we're coming in hot! We need space in the bay to assess the damage!"

"It'll be a tight fit..."

"Just do it!"

Gentar pounded away at the console with his wide digits, dancing along the small keys made for Terran fingers. He'd grown used to it since joining the ship, although his messages sometimes came across as garbled thanks to mis-strokes. She used to think it was his awkwardness with the language, but no; it was just his fat fingers. The Trys continued to fight her, worse than she ever had before. Readouts showed them losing air pressure in the cargo hold and a fuel leak that could lead to disaster if they took another hit. Still, she tried to push them out, the bay doors of the ship in front of them parting in what felt like glacial fashion.

"C'mon!" she shouted. "Hurry uuuuup! Brace yourselves, this is gonna be—"

The top of the ship scraped against the doors, a terrible grinding sound filling the cabin, sparks flying overhead. Gra'al in the landing bay scrambled to get out of the way at the fast-approaching Trystero.

The ship slapped against the ground, the metal of the landing gear grinding against the ground, the ship skidding towards the wall. There were too many Gra'al around to fire to stabilizing thrusters and they weren't at the right angle, they just had to hold on—smash. The ship rested against a wall, Bec's neck sore. She looked up at the gangway right outside the window, part of it mangled, a few Gra'al attendants standing there aghast, smoke billowing up.

"Alright," she said. "Good landing. Everyone alright?"

"What the hell," Jimmy grumbled.

"I'm fine," Gentar said. "What about the Trystero?"

Becca let a deep sigh escape, just looking at him for a moment and silently nodding her head. Klaxons blared, and emergency systems had kicked in. She vented the ship, blasting open the airlocks to make sure they didn't suffocate for no reason. The Trys was in rough shape and it all happened under her watch.

"Let's get out and meet with the captain here. Who is it?"

"Captain Lowenth," he said.

"Yeah, right, umm, him?"

"Her," he corrected. "She's a decorated commander in House Lazaar, it's a great honor to be aboard her ship."

"Yeah," Bec said. "Because the Trys isn't going anywhere for a while and we've still got a mission to accomplish."

"The ship will be fine," Gentar said. "I'm sure the techs can fix her up just fine."

"I sure hope so," she said, running her fingers along the panel. "I don't wanna be the one to tell the cap that I ruined the old girl."

"It'll be fine."

"I hope. I wonder how Valencia's doing."

"You know her," he said. "She's always doing okay, she's tough."


Thirty


The Captain.

Valencia groaned, writhing on the ground, the moon flashing green around her. Emma's integration did bring with it great powers that she didn't quite understand yet, but still couldn't make her stop feeling pain. That was for sure. Datar mounted himself on top of her, raining down blows with his fists against her jaw, each one stinging, blood flying everywhere.

"Even with the Sentinel's powers, you're no match for Datar the Destroyer," he said, standing above her. "You needed those powers to keep me from destroying you. But me? These two fists alone are enough to show the true power of the new Gra'al Empire."

"This isn't... about a fair fight," she coughed. "You idiot."

"Go on, do your worst, Terran," he said, slapping his bad arm as a show of defiance. "Finish what you think you started."

Valencia sized him up. She could go for the arm again, but he was ready for it this time and she needed to avoid getting slammed down again. The truth was, she was just about out of tricks. Everything she knew about fighting was more or less expended already. With a labored breath, she rolled over to her side, pushing herself back up, using a fallen tree as support. Datar bellowed out a laugh from behind her, sensing his victory. There was Drake again, passively staring off into the distance.

"Drake," she said. "Drake, please, wake up..."

"Ha!" Datar cried. "He's mine now and has been this whole time. You're passionate pleas for him to help you are nothing. He can hear you, I'm sure, but my control has won out. I have won."

"Drake, please," she begged. "Think about Bruce. Your father. The crew. Please, I—"

"Stop stalling, Terran, be done with this madness. I have a galaxy to rule."

Taking one last look at Drake, she turned to face Datar. She was fuming; the anger bubbling up inside her at everything he stood for. He wasn't just trying to take over the galaxy; he wasn't just trying to imprison mankind in a placid, docile state, he was taking the only family she ever knew and loved.

"You motherfucker," she said. "Nobody messes with my family."

"Your family? Ha! You foolish—"

Before he could finish, she launched herself at him, gliding through the air, driving her knee into his jaw. Datar stumbled backwards, Valencia's leg flashing out in a round kick to the injured arm, connecting flush, sending the limb flailing about. Datar charged at her again with his good arm, looking to crush her. Thinking fast, Valencia dropped down, driving both boots into his kneecap. Datar fumbled forward, falling down to one knee, Valencia rolling back onto her feet, launching a flurry of kicks again at his arm, the Gra'al screaming out in agony. Coiling up another kick, she cried out, focusing her energy to her shin, a green flash producing a row of glowing, green spikes. With all of her pent up anger and frustration she unloaded the kick, this time aimed towards his head, letting out a bloodcurdling scream while her boot arced up towards the side of his head.

Just before it landed, a flame erupted from Datar's good arm, his forearm catching the blow just in time to avoid what would have been a bitter end. Her foot smacked back down against the ground, immediately flashing up again, his arm deflecting the blow. Back up to his feet they danced with each other, Valencia throwing deadly kicks at him while his flaming arm smacked them away.

"I'll kill you!" she cried out.

Datar deflected another blow, smashing his head against her nose again, more blood flowing out and into her mouth, the metallic taste making her retch. While she was dazed he rushed in, shoulder driven into her midsection and lifting her up off the ground, driving her backwards. Her back smashed into a tree, the momentum from both bodies sending them crashing to the ground in a mangled heap of broken branches. Mustering up the strength, Valencia threw her legs up around his arm again, immediately applying torque and pulling with everything she had. Datar screamed out, the pop from his bone snapping echoed through the forest. He pulled back, her letting go, letting his own momentum send him smashing into the ground.

"Some god," Valencia said, perched on an overturned tree trunk, spitting out blood onto the ground. "You want to take everything from me? From my people? I'm not gonna let you, not if we have to fight here for the rest of our lives, not if it's for eternity."

Valencia stalked over to Datar, who was grasping at his arm, attempting to reset the broken bone. The power of this alien race may have been inside of them, but their bodies were still fragile vessels never meant for such overwhelming power. The warmth of Emma flowed through her, urging her to stop, to pull back, but Valencia just made note of it and continued towards him. Her shin kicked at his arm again, Datar screaming out in pain, toppling over into a heap.

"Where's your powers now? Neither of us were meant to wield this power. We're just tourists with a new tool we don't understand. You were never going to build some new empire, you just wanted to make us pay for your father's failure."

"That's not true," he barked. "My father's failings are not my own! I was exiled just for the blood that flowed through my veins. Out of some fear that I'd follow in his footsteps, that I'd become unstable. I was a hunter! I had done my part for the Gra'al Empire and still, they exiled me! Some fear that I was like my father. He's my father, of course I'm going to be like him."

"You were," she said. "You are. You're bent on the destruction of my people, you're obsessed with your own race's superiority at the cost of mine."

"Your people invaded our space! Stole our land! Terra was House Gigar's to develop! Yet we were told to back down, that the war was over! And we let you have it. You have it, it's yours, you greedy fools. You couldn't take care of your own home and now you destroy ours!"

"What about Lidar? You did the same damned thing! Look at that planet, ashes of your own violence and foolishness. Don't you dare lecture me on my people's stupidity. I've made peace with it, and I've made peace with your people. I've done my part. What've you done?"

"You cannot shame me into believing you to be righteous," he said. "You're just as bad as I am. We're one in the same, with these powers flowing through our veins."

"You're wrong," she said. "I'm nothing like you. This power wasn't my choice. It wasn't Drake's choice, either. You hurt people for your powers, Datar. Whatever you've convinced yourself of your inquisition is just a lie. You're lying to yourself."

"You know nothing of me! Everything was taken from me before I had a chance to even become who I was meant to be. My lineage was shattered, and you had everything to do with it. I was a hunter before you killed my father, and then, in the blink of an eye, I was a ghost. I was nothing. My loyal service to the Gra'al Empire was null and void. My Great House was taken from me. For what?"

"For our people to coexist, for us to move forward together."

"A foolish notion! You know nothing of us! You know nothing of what we need! That's why my revolution is just. I refuse to let you stop me!"

He charged forward again, his good arm erupting into an inferno of rage, Valencia deflected the first blow with her own forearm, the heat from the fire scorching the air. She wasn't ready for the charge, though, on the defensive, backing up with each percussive blow. Datar reared back, looking to land another headbutt, Valencia holding both arms up and catching his head with her hands. He snarled at her, continuing to push forward, her teeth grinding at the exertion only for a sharp burning sensation to pierce her side. Valencia screamed out, tumbling back, Datar's flaming fist lodged into her side right below her ribs. She felt the makeshift blade slide out of her and collapsed to the ground, blood pouring out.

The wound flashed green, numbing up, the latent Emma attempting to seal the wound, blood pooling up around her on the ground. She could feel the life force inside her flickering, trying to escape. Valencia clutched at her side, Datar laughing again. She clawed her way back to a tree, propping herself up against it. With each breath, more blood seeped from the wound.

"You fool," he said. "My arm will heal. That? Ha! Your life is forfeit. I told you I'd best you."

"F-fuck... you," she said. Taking a deep breath, she staggered to her feet, leaning against the tree to keep herself upright. "I'm not done... yet."

"It's a mortal wound. Stay down. Perhaps you'll see the sun rise one last time," he said. Datar turned his back to her, limping away towards his ship. Drake fell into line behind him, shredding whatever was left of Valencia's heart.

"D-drake," she cried. "Pl-please... no. Don't... leave me."

He paused in place a few paces behind Datar. Valencia reached out to him, not just with her hand but her mind, trying to touch him. There had to be a way to reach him. If Emma could reach out and into minds, that meant that she could as well. There had to be some sort of link there still. This was Dray. This was her. She reached and reached, feeling for his mind somewhere deep inside of him, buried beneath the hatred and alien consciousness.

"Terran, come," Datar barked. "I control you. The Sentinel will die, I can already sense it. Then nothing can oppose me."

There, a faint spark ignited, like a distant echo of a cry from deep inside a cave. It was fear. A scared shard of a consciousness buried deep beneath the overwhelming forces at play. The sensitive soul of an artist was there, fighting against a powerful storm of hatred, fear and rage that swirled inside of him, looking to take every last ounce of his being from him. Drake turned slowly to her, looking at her passively, just a stranger passing by, gawking at the massacre.

"D-dray, please," she reached out. A glimmer of Drake flashed over his face, anguished, scared and unsure of himself. She could sense that Drake anywhere, the boy that she watched grow day-by-day, more of a man every moment. More of the man that he chose to be, the man he wanted himself to be, not what others wanted to be. She smiled back at him, still clutching at her side.

"Valencia," he muttered under his breath.

Datar collapsed in the distance, screaming out in pain. A massive power surge overcame her, Valencia sensing the power from Datar momentarily escaping his control, flowing back into Drake. Drake's eyes opened wide, hand reaching out for her. "Help me."

Drake collapsed again, the power shifting back to Datar, who stomped back over, grasping his good hand around Drake's neck. With his one mighty hand he lifted him up by his neck, slamming him down hard against the ground. Valencia cringed, stumbling forward, pain shooting through her with each step, trying to reach Drake before he could do any more damage.

Datar picked him up by his neck, slapping him a few times across the face and laughing, holding him there, propped up while Valencia clawed her way to them, leaving a bloody trail behind her. All she could think about was saving Dray now, doing whatever she could with her last ounce of life. Datar laughed, tucking Drake's head down and locking his hands around his waist, hefting him up onto his shoulder. Before he could send him crashing down to the ground Valencia mustered up every bit of energy she had left, launching herself at him again, both knees up, flashing green with blades extruding out.

Smash.

Her knees drove into his massive chest, the three of them tumbling to the ground in a massive heap of blood, gore and dust. Drake groaned, Valencia crawling to him, Datar stirring behind her, shoulders oozing green blood. Datar flashed hot, a towering inferno raised up around him. She stared up at him, feeling weak. She had given everything she had, and it wasn't enough. Still, she could protect Drake, whatever that meant, Datar fuming, the flames growing up past the trees.

"I'll destroy this whole moon!" he cried. "You'll pay for this! And I'll continue my march to domination!"

"It's okay, Dray," she whispered, cradling Drake's head in her shoulders, pulling him in close. "I'm here, I'm here. We're together."

The flames exploded around them, a mighty explosion roared, Datar screaming out, the intensity from the flames all-encompassing. She squeezed Drake harder, his own arm reaching up and squeezing back, a tear streaming down her cheek, the warmth flowing through her. With a surge of power, Emma's rage flowed through her, pushing back against him, against the flames. Green flashed around them, clashing with the flames. Datar screamed out, Valencia's voice joining him in chorus, the power of the Sentinel grating against the flames of Him, two parts of the same, growing more and more volatile. The pressure was mounting, nowhere else to go and...

Boom.


Thirty-One


The Pilot.

"Look, I understand that," Bec sat, arguing with one of Brial's revolutionaries via a static-filled comm link. "I know Brial doesn't use comms. Tell her it's the Trystero. Becca Johnson and Gentar."

"She has relayed that without Captain Vasquez she doesn't trust you."

"Doesn't trust us? The hell she doesn't," Bec said. "We're here with good news, damnit."

"Good news? There's a war going on out there. What? Does Vetru or House Gigar need to conscript us?"

"N-no," she said. "Not exactly."

"See?"

"It's not like that, seriously. See these warships up here? They're yours. There's more, too. A planetary defense grid, a whole stockpile of weapons, it's all yours. Just like your freedom."

"Brial will not speak with you."

"Fine, you know what? This is for all of us. All of us. Gra'al. Terran. Endigoan. Everyone. I'll just contact Der'lit in New Dredge. Der'lit will know what to do with all of this stuff."

"Wait..."

Bec couldn't help but click her tongue. She knew it was low to bring up Der'lit, considering how New Dredge and Liuenta didn't exactly get along. They were the two largest cities on Endigo, the rest smaller, unaffiliated and, by all means, incredibly dangerous, which left New Dredge and Liuenta as the hubs of civilization on Endigo. New Dredge was technically sovereign already, but a planetary defense system would require them to work together, although she knows better than to let that spill out immediately. That'll be a special surprise later. Brial came into view, appearing via a green hologram on the projector on the bridge of the Geent. Captain Lowenth stood beside Becca, the type of hardass that only the Gra'al military could conjure up who felt uneasy with some Terran coming aboard her ship and technically being in charge of the operation. Becca may have been in charge of the operation, but Lowenth damned well let her know that it was her ship. Her uniform was immaculately pressed, splendidly polished badges perfectly in place, and the small braided mohawk on her head to show her past life as a hunter before becoming an officer for House Lazaar.

"Becca," Brial said. "I hear you bring some news for us, of course, with a catch. There always is."

"Sort of. Thanks for speaking with me, I know you wanted Valencia..."

"Where is Valencia? Off on some fool mission?"

"Um, yeah, pretty much. She went off into the unexplored regions in search of an alien race."

"Ah, yes," she laughed. "That sounds like Valencia."

"You know the cap, if there's someone worth saving, she's there."

"Who is she saving this time?"

"Everyone, as usual. Although, I guess more directly Drake."

"Of course. I remember. Still no luck?"

"He's with Datar and, well, you've seen what Datar has been doing."

"Yes, I have. I'm waiting for his people to either bomb us to oblivion or try to make nice with us."

"I'm pretty sure you understand the tactical value of Endigo."

"Of course I do. I'd say it was foolish to place their prison planet right near Terran territory, but it wasn't exactly Terran territory back then, was it? If I were a betting woman, I'd say that Vetru has an offer for us that we can't refuse."

"More or less, yes."

"Ah, our independence at last, conscripted soldiers without a house from a prison planet of their own making."

"Not exactly, no," she said. "I'm not sure all the intricacies of it, but I'm pretty sure you're getting everything you want, Brial. It's a good deal."

"A better deal than you ghosts deserve," Lowenth barked. Becca glared at her and cleared her throat.

"Vetru's dog barks the truth of the matter, does she not?"

"No, she doesn't speak for Vetru or myself. You get to establish your own house, you get what you want. These ships up here? They're yours."

"The good captain there doesn't seem too happy with that."

"The Geent is a fine vessel," she said, straightening herself out. "The Warlord Regent believes it'll be best suited here, under your command. I'm sure I'll be rewarded with a much finer vessel upon my return."

"Surely," Brial said. "Such a selfless act is always rewarded, isn't it?"

"Annnyyyway," Becca said, trying to get the two Gra'al to stop the passive aggressive assaults. "Ships, a planetary defense system, a whole bunch of weapons. It's all yours. You're back in the Gra'al Empire."

"And the catch?"

"I guess that you're back in the Gra'al Empire? You take this stuff, you're a Great House of your own making, but you're taking orders again."

"Of course, freedom isn't free, is it?"

"It never is, we both know that."

"Sadly we do, don't we? So we're a great house. What of New Dredge?"

"That's on you two. The planetary defense system? Yeah, you're gonna have to work together. Sorry."

"That's not the worst, I suppose. Have you contacted Der'lit yet?"

"No, I went right to you, Brial. This deal is for you. New Dredge already has what they need, although this may shift the balance of power a bit..."

"It's a deal," she said.

"W-wha? Really?"

"Yes, you can correspond with Plex on the details. I need to make the announcement."

"Okay, great."

The comm link clicked off, Lowenth had stomped off already in a huff. Becca checked on the repairs to the Trystero. The old girl had taken a lot of damage and it wouldn't be a quick repair job by any means. Another sigh escaped her, knowing that the Trystero took massive damage not just with her at the helm, but calling the shots. Her mind drifted back to Valencia and Drake.

"I fear we'll see action soon," Gentar said. "Not everything will be as easy as that."

"What do you mean? And that was easy? I'm sweating, Gen."

"You did well," he said. "Brial is notoriously difficult, as we're well aware."

"Weapons, warships, nukes. I doubt she could resist. As soon as I mentioned New Dredge and the scales being tipped she, well... things got a bit easier."

"Such is life. The war approaches, though. Another of House Gigar's fleet is moving towards Endigo."

"Damnit," she said. "Is it a large one?"

"Large enough to handle us here."

"How long do we have?"

"Hours, if that."

"And is there an estimate for repairs on the Trys?"

"Considerably more than that."

"So, what? We just sit here and wait to get shredded up?"

"I'm sure I can make use of you three," the captain said.

"Great," Becca sighed. "Just great."

Shattered Lineage

"Are you kidding me?" Becca asked from the small seat at the gunner station. Gentar was on one side and Jimmy on the other.

"The ship is under crewed," Gentar said. "Brial's people won't know how to operate the ship outright, at least most won't. Those that served on a warship prior will have some training. We'll need all hands for when House Gigar's forces arrive."

"Couldn't we have at least stayed on the bridge, not be sent down here to the gunner station?" Becca asked.

"I don't believe the captain likes the idea of forfeiting her ship."

"No, she doesn't."

"I don't think she likes you, either."

"No, she doesn't," Bec laughed. "At least it's mutual. Still, Vetru sent me, it's not like I asked to take her ship away."

"Lowenth is repairing the Trystero for us, she saved us from a bad situation back there and has been hospitable enough," he said. "I understand things aren't ideal but, when are they?"

"Just... none of this is working out. I'm sick of it. Where are the Terrans? Where's Valencia? Where's Drake? We're here on a diplomatic mission and were completely unprepared for battle. I just feel so..."

"Helpless?" Jimmy interjected.

"Yeah, that," she said. "Thank you, Jimmy."

"Sure," he said. "Sorry, I just feel like a third wheel here."

"You wanted to join a crew at exactly the wrong time," she said. "Just in time to die a righteous death at the hands of some zealots alongside people that are more or less strangers. I'll say this, though: you played a part in this."

"Who knew that having a shitty relationship with a local reporter would pay off, huh?"

"Go figure," she said. "But yeah, you don't need to be here. That's my whole point. Things are gonna go down soon. It's gonna be ugly and you don't have to be here for it. We can get you a shuttle and send you back to Biztsoft and if we survive all this, we can revisit you joining the crew."

"You've done an admirable job for us," Gentar said. "I'm happy to have been wrong about you. I agree with Becca, though. This isn't your battle."

"Guys, I appreciate it and all, but it's okay. I knew what I was getting into. I thought I had to swagger and exaggerate to hang with you guys, but the captain gave me another chance, then you guys gave me another chance. I just... I can't leave now, no way. Isn't that what being a part of a crew is all about? I can't just leave."

"I know you want to see action, Jimmy, but this isn't some mission on some distant moon where we might blast at a few assholes who try to cheat us then all have a drink and laugh about it. This is a Gra'al fleet, these guys are dangerous and they mean business."

"That's fine," he said. "It's my life, and I chose this. I wanted to be here."

"I admire your conviction," Gentar said. "Becca isn't wrong, though. This is our battle, I feel responsible for it, I was the one that killed Giga and set off this chain of events."

"Look, my point is this: we don't even have the ship, it's being worked on right now. We're sitting here in this gunner station, far away from anything. The best we can do is blast down some fighters, but realistically, we're just doing busy work here. You get up and someone better trained than you will take that seat and do a better job anyway, no offense."

"Okay, fine," he said, dejected. "Maybe I can help repair the ship, then?"

"Alright, alright," she said. "That's fine. Go check on the ship and keep me updated, okay? That sounds great."

"Thanks, captain," he said, wandering off.

Hearing that said aloud made a chill run down her spine still. It wasn't something she ever knew she wanted in the first place but now, hearing it and experiencing it, even with all the bullshit that comes along with it, has shown her she could be more than just a back talking pilot, there was possibility out there.

"He's trying," Gentar said.

"Yeah, he is, I guess. He's gonna get himself killed for nothing, but that seems to be the way, huh?"

"I suppose--"

"Attention all stations," Lowenth called over the ship's comm. "We have contact. I repeat, we've made contact. Hold for directions. I repeat, hold your fire."

"Shit," Becca said, watching the scanner populate with blips in a hurry while they dropped out of the hyperlane. Almost as fast as they appeared on the screen, the ship started to take damage, the fleet opening fire without as much as a welcome message. At least she guessed not being on the bridge and all.

"All stations, return fire!" the captain shouted over the comm.

"Let's do this," Becca said, pulling the heads up display only to curse under her breath, remembering that it was entirely in Gra'al.

"Here," Gentar said, inputting a few commands on her station, the labels overlaid with simple Terran commands. "That should help."

"Who knew, right?"

"Vetru has been working on this, he still has faith in our people working together someday."

"Wow," she said, the ship rumbling steadily, a reminder that they were under siege. The gun rotated at her tug of the twin sticks, pointed at an incoming fighter, pummeling it with blasts of energy before the engines exploded in a fiery burst.

The two of them worked in unison, shouting back and forth of incoming threats, tagging the fighters with gunfire. Gentar was focused as always, Becca letting him take the lead. She'd feel a lot more comfortable behind the wheel of the Trys, That wasn't an option, though. Out of the corner of her eye Becca noticed a swarm of fighters protecting a ship bigger than a shuttle, but blockier.

"Gen," she called, pointing at the cluster.

"I see it," he said. "We need to focus fire on the breaching ship."

"Breaching?" she shouted. "They're sending soldiers over?"

"Yes," he responded. "Standard Gra'al protocol."

"Where's it headed to?"

"Looks like this sector. They tend to target hangars, or gunner stations. The biggest threats."

"So they're coming for us, then, because we're shooting down their ships?"

"Yes."

"We need to prepare, they're gonna be here in--"

The sound of the breaching ship locking onto the hull made her stop in place. She pulled her pistol from her hip, Gentar tugging him free as well. They both knew they needed to find cover and fast. There should be a dispatch of Gra'al soldiers coming, at least she hoped, but they didn't have time.

"Over there," Gentar pointed to the doorway across from where the Gra'al ship was cutting through the hull. They hunkered down, a small crew of six Gra'al soldiers dashing past them into the gunner station, taking defensive positions.

"They've got no cover in there," she said.

"They know what to expect," he said. "We need to ensure the other gunners are protected."

"Why aren't they leaving their station?"

"Gra'al soldiers never leave their stations, only death or a direct order can force them away."

"Idiots."

"Honorable idiots," Gentar corrected him.

The breaching torch on the front of the ship created a glow in the shape of a ring on the hull of their ship, sparks starting to fly out the weaker the hull got. With a bang and a scream the hull tore open, melting down, immediately giving way to an eruption of gunfire and smoke that filled the air, making it difficult to both see and breathe. Bec and Gentar fired back wildly, trying to see through the chaos.


Thirty-Two


The Dreamer.

Everything burned around them, the Dreamer walking through the flames, stepping through the rage with a placid demeanor. They stood, the three of them, on the carpet floating in the middle of the cosmos, both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The carpet stretched out infinitely, the Sentinel and Destroyer laying among the tattered rug. The flames dissipated at the flick of the Dreamer's wrist.

The Destroyer stumbled to his feet, green blood staining his shirt. The Sentinel still breathed, heart still beating, blood staining the surrounding carpet. The Dreamer reached out, grasping onto the Sentinel's wrist, a shining beacon through the uncertainty. The Sentinel was fading. Time was sealing in on itself.

"Y-you..." the Destroyer grunted. "You're mine now. This is all mine."

The Dreamer stared for a long moment at the Destroyer, head cocked.

"The both of you, this is mine! I will not be beaten! My forces have advanced, your friends are doomed."

The Dreamer pulled the Sentinel up, locking hands with her while propping her up. They maintained the illusion of their weights but remained weightless. No effort needed to hold her up. Her hand squeezed back, eyes glaring up at him with a warm smile breaking through.

"D-dray," she muttered. "Dray, I just..."

Although it felt alien, distant and hazy, the Dreamer returned the smile.

"Enough of this nonsense," the Destroyer barked, marching towards them.

The Destroyer swung at them; the Dreamer holding his palm out in placid defiance. The Destroyer's hand froze in space, struggling to free it, grunting and screaming to no avail. The Dreamer held his palm out, glancing back at the Sentinel and again smiling. She reached out with her hand and did the same. Together, in unison, they pooled their forces together, a blue and green convergence of energies against the destructive flames of the Destroyer.

Flames plumed above the Destroyer, his rage the engine of ruin aimed at everything and nothing at the same time. He breathed ashes and embers, spitting fire at them only to splash off the force of their wills. They pushed back against his force; the flames billowing up around him, encompassing all. The carpet burned beneath them, an ancient, foreign curiosity in the path of the Destroyer's rage. There was no time to admire the will of the universe when there were obstacles in your path.

The Dreamer continued to push, the Sentinel by his side, pushing the Destroyer back and back, his power raging but nothing in the wake of the Sentinel and the Dreamer's combined force. The Dreamer focused, concentrating on the force-field, relaxing and letting his hand ease through. The flames lashed out at him, burning his flesh and promising doom. Still, he persisted, outstretching his hand at the Destroyer, locked in his mortal struggle.

The Dreamer's hand reached the Destroyer's shoulder, finger tracing along the open wound that oozed green, the edges charred and blackened from the flames. The Dreamer's hand pressed against his body, streaking down his chest with a brilliant, glowing blue streak. The flames couldn't penetrate the blue, a crack in the facade of flame cascading outward from the streak. The blue consumed all, rippling out in force, extinguishing the flames and cutting off their fuel. The blue took on a green hue, the Destroyer screaming out.

"W-what are you doing to me?" he cried.

The field dropped, the Sentinel slumping back over next to him. The Dreamer placed his other hand on the Destroyer's shoulder, pushing forward, blue and green streaks forming on the Destroyer's chest, forcing him down to his knees. The Dreamer stared down at him, the Destroyer in agony and, for the first time, spoke through his own voice.

"Be at peace now," the Dreamer said, voice a chorus of echoes, a collection of voices.

The carpet tore underneath the Destroyer, giving way to his massive frame, instantly slipping from view before the carpet threads joined back together, sealing themselves up for good.

The Dreamer opened his eyes.


Thirty-Three


The Artist.

A fog lifted, followed by a crushing, pounding pain in his head. The air was acrid, embers glowing everywhere. Drake rolled over to find Valencia lying there next to him, her hands clutched over her midsection, stained with blood. She was breathing heavily, staring back at him and forcing a smile in the way she did when things were bad.

"Hey Dray," she said. "You doing okay?"

"W-what the... Valencia, you're bleeding."

"What? This? It'll be fine."

"Are you kidding me?" he asked, attempting to stand only to find himself light-headed.

"What was that before?" she asked.

"What do you mean?"

"That place... was that a dream?"

"I don't know how to explain it," he said. "There's so much about this I don't understand. What happened to Datar?"

"Who cares?" she laughed, the laugh mutating into a cough.

Drake pulled himself closer to her, pulling her hands away to see the gaping wound. His heart stopped for a moment. She needed help and fast. He scanned the area, looking for her ship through the smoke and remaining flames, the glimmer of organic steel catching his eye by a campfire. Grabbing a hold of her shoulders, he started to drag her towards the ship while she slipped in and out of consciousness.

"Graaaah!" a roar came from the trees.

His pulse quickened, trying to fully break free from the daze he had been stuck in while dragging what was dead weight in the captain. She groaned with each branch or rock he had to drag her over, there wasn't time to worry or attempt to shift her at all, they had to escape that moon and fast. Stomping into view came Datar, green blood mixed with blue and green streaks on his shirt. He tore it off, baring his scarred-up chest, with the fresh wounds still seeping blood.

"Where do you think you're going?" he asked, almost out of breath.

"It's over," Drake said.

"It's not over until I say it is," he said, stalking toward him.

"Stop!" Drake shouted, dropping Valencia and pushing his hands out. There was a tingle in his fingertips before the pain in his head surged again, pinpointed in the area where Datar had inserted the link device. He flinched at the pain, Datar charging forward.

Datar's head connected with Drake's chest, sending him flying backwards onto the ground in a heap. A buzzing overtook him, feeling the connection to Datar reforging itself after all the chaos. He screamed out, writhing in agony. Datar's thoughts flooded back to him, the pain, the seething rage and destruction that was Datar overtaking him again. Drake caught a glimpse of Valencia on the ground, trying to claw her way back to him, still a bloody mess.

Remember Bruce.

Remember his father.

Remember his crew, the family he never appreciated but was always there for him.

Datar clutched at Drake's shirt, lifting him up and hefting him up over his shoulder to carry him away, victorious again. Drake could sense Valencia's pain, the numbing and her fight to remain conscious, that same fight to not give in to the darkness. The power of the Sentinel was there, buried, flickering in the ether but unable to surface. He reached out, his own mind in chaos, the laughter growing louder and louder still. This torture was never going to end. The malevolence stirred inside him, power fluctuating between his mind and Datar's.

Valencia and Drake locked eyes. A sense of familiarity fought off the haze for just another brief moment, when things started turning black. An intensity bubbled up between them, green and blue dancing together, the air thick with a surge of energy. The pressure in his head only grew, the device in his head pulsing violently, Datar feeling the pain as well, dropping to his knees and sending Drake into a pile of soot. More and more pressure built up, the side of his head feeling like it was going to explode. Drake clutched at his head, clawing at the injection site with an inescapable sense of urgency.

Datar pounded his fist against the ground, grasping at his own head. He still clawed his way back to Drake, Drake reaching out and screaming, the force sending Datar staggering back, eyes open wide in awe. "What... was that?" he asked, trying to move forward again.

Drake pushed back again, Datar stumbling backwards, catching himself and continuing to stalk forward. Drake looked around, making eye contact with Valencia again, the power flow restored between them, the pressure inside his head mounting again. He screamed out, the pressure overwhelming until finally... snap. Something broke, a silence hung over the charred forest. Datar was frozen in place, staring back at Drake. Their thoughts were unlinked, Drake, for the first time in what felt like forever, couldn't sense Datar's rage.

"The link!" he cried out, clawing at the side of his head, smacking it a few times to no avail. "What have you done?"

Drake cherished the silence, ignoring Datar. The laugh began again in his mind, Drake closing his eyes and focusing, suppressing it back down into nothing. Silence again. He reached out for Valencia, tugging at the power of the Sentinel, massaging it back to the forefront of her mind, feeling its power spike, the proverbial flame reignited. Datar was shouting about something, Drake pulling at him, with each breath his cries growing hoarser until they disappeared into pained gurgles. Drake clutched at the abstraction that was Datar's voice, holding it in his hand, massaging it before throwing it back at him. Before Datar could speak again, Drake's eyes burst open, electric blue haze everywhere.

"The Dreamer has awakened."


Thirty-Four


The Pilot.

"Why did they stop?" Becca asked, clutching at the tear in her jumpsuit on her arm, blood staining the tear from where a blaster bolt grazed her.

"I don't know," Gentar said, still pressed flush up against the door. He turned around the corner and shouted at the Gra'al inside. "Do you surrender?"

"Y-yes," one said. "I don't even know how this happened."

"Drop your weapons," Becca called.

The clatter of rifles hitting the ground filled the otherwise silent gunner station, the smell of burnt flesh and fresh blaster fire filled the air. Gentar and Becca rounded the corner to see the destruction that lay before them. Bodies strewn about, a few alive, clutching at wounds. The battle hadn't lasted too long, but any battle between Gra'al resulted in destruction and death. Becca stepped over a fallen Gra'al, trying not to look out of both respect for the dead and her own sanity. She'd been in a few battles before but always on a ship, always from a distance, never this close.

A few Gra'al stood there, unarmed and dazed. Various injuries, scored with blood and scorch-marks, each one staring at the surrounding scene, no words exchanged. Gentar surveyed the scene, grunting before turning to one. "This madness needs to end. Datar's promises are hollow."

"I know," one said. "I'm not sure how to explain what happened, there was some surge of energy, some voice that compelled me that is no longer there."

"There's no glory in a war between our people again," Gentar said.

"I understand, we surrender."

"Fine," Gentar barked, glaring at them. "Collect your dead and wounded, head back to your ship and recover. Our people will not heal from taking prisoners."

"We should probably run this by the captain..." Becca said.

"You're my captain," Gentar said. "What do you say, Captain Johnson?"

"Go," she said. "Just go. This is over. Tell the rest of your people to do so as well."

They scrambled off, dragging the dead into the ship, followed by the few wounded, leaving just the handful of the Gra'al that had fought them in close quarters. Three lay unmoving, two wounded and only one appearing in good health. He glared up at them and laughed.

"What's so funny, soldier?" Gentar asked.

"Lowenth won't be happy with that."

"No one is happy here, soldier. No one is happy."

"C'mon, Gen," Becca said. "Lets let them deal with this and get back to the bridge. We should check in, at least."

They walked through the halls of the ship, the carnage from the battle evidence in some places more than others. The lower halls were pock-marked with blaster marks, bent steel, and the wounded. The organic halls still made little sense to Becca, not remembering how they got down there or if the hall they were walking through was the same as before. Gentar had explained the fluid nature of the ships, but it still hadn't quite sunk in, that was, until they reached a dead end. Gentar waved his hand, a portal carving itself out from the wall, him stepping through like it wasn't some insane, uncommon thing, Becca in awe.

"Is that... are all your ships like this?"

"Yes," he said.

"Whoa."

They sauntered into the bridge, where things had seemingly calmed down. Lowenth was huddled over a panel, distracted while the space that had just been a chaotic space battle instead was lumbering giants of ships suspended in space, debris and the dead floating listlessly in the abyss. The rest of the crew on the bridge remained silent as well, Lowenth not looking up to acknowledge Gentar or Becca. Gentar cleared his throat to no avail.

"Captain Lowenth," Becca said. "We... I made the call down there to let the breach crew return to their ship and collect their dead. I hope you don't mind, the internal comms seem to be down."

"That's fine, Captain Johnson," she said. "If you don't mind, I'm studying our damage reports and casualties right now. Go along on your little Terran business."

"And our ship?"

"I don't care," she said.

"O... kay, do we know what happened?"

"No, and I don't care. The fighting has stopped, and we're alive. That's what matters. We can't morally attack them now and finish them off, they can't attack us. So goes our rules of engagement. They surrendered. Now, if you don't mind..."

"Thanks for everything, Captain Lowenth," Becca said, doing her best to remain respectful.

Lowenth waved her away, Becca sighing, clutching at her arm while Gentar and she returned down to the hangar bay to check on the Trystero. Gentar led the way, guiding them through the twisting corridors of the ship, seemingly controlled by his whims and directions. She wanted to press further on the details of how that worked, but there were enough hanging mysteries still to fill an entire notebook. The battle was over as mysteriously as it started.

"None of this makes any sense to me, you know."

"You mean the ship?"

"Yeah, I mean, that, for sure, but the battle. It was just over and they... seemed confused? We're confused, they're confused. What happened?"

"I'm not sure."

"You said the Gra'al weren't susceptible to that thing's mind control, right? So was Datar controlling their minds? Is that possible?"

"Datar is a Gra'al first and foremost. We're able to control the walls of these ships with our thoughts, there is perhaps nothing that is impossible when it comes to this beast and its powers."

"Then why?"

"That's a question we'll be asking for a long time now, I fear."

There she stood, the Trystero in all of her battered up glory. The hull still looked rough, but there were signs that the ship had been worked on, or at least patched up. There wasn't fuel spewing everywhere, which was a good thing. Becca ran her fingers along the exterior of the ship, of her home, the warmth of the thought of her chair filling her up. She walked up the ramp, still clutching at the lingering stinging of her arm, opting to dash right up to the cockpit instead of the med bay, Gentar lagging behind her.

"Where the hell is Jimmy?" she asked.

"I... don't see him," Gentar said. "Here, let's call him over the comm. Jimmy, come in. Jimmy?"

"Err, hey," his voice crackled over the comm.

"Where are you?" Becca asked.

"I err... didn't make it back, I couldn't figure out how to get back there, then the battle started and I..."

"Are you hurt?" Gentar asked.

"No, not really," he said. "I uhh... found a closet, I think, I'm in there."

"You're hiding?" Becca asked.

"Yeah, sort of."

"For fuck's sake," she said. "Jimmy, what the hell?"

"Sorry," he said.

Gentar and Becca locked eyes, Becca erupting into laughter, Gentar following suit.

"I'll come and get you," Gentar said.

"He hid," she said. "Can you believe it? While we were out there fighting, Mr. Gung Ho firefight hid?"

"I can," Gentar said. "Foolish Terrans."

Shattered Lineage

Jimmy had a hard time making eye contact with either of them. A bandage wrapped around Becca's arm and a few shorts of painkillers made everything a lot more bearable. Gentar only had a few scrapes and bruises from the battle, while Jimmy was, of course, unscathed. Becca sunk down into the chair, triple checking the comms for an incoming message. Still nothing from the captain.

"Nothing yet?" Gentar asked.

"No," she said. "I don't know what to do."

"Return to Vetru," Gentar said. "When the captain returns, we'll be ready for her."

"If she returns," Becca said.

"I've never known you to be a fatalist," Gentar said.

"Yeah, well, the Trys'll fly, so I guess you're right. We should get out of here. Although I gotta admit, I'd love to see the look on Lowenth's face when Brial shows up."

"I'm sure there will be plenty of time for that later."

"Yeah, sure. You're right, though. We had a job to do, and we did it. We were successful, I guess. No need to stick around here."

"Lowenth is a loyal soldier, prideful? Yes, but she'll complete her mission as well. It'll be better to regroup."

"I know. I know. I just... feel like we should wait for them."

"The captain will be fine," Gentar said. "We need to have faith in them. Those soldiers stopped fighting for a reason. I have to believe it was their success."

"Sure, I guess. We got clearance yet?"

"That we do."

"Then we're outta here, I've had enough Endigo for a lifetime."

"Oh, I'm sure we'll be back."

"Enough, okay?"

She powered the engines up. The Trys wasn't 100% but the fuel leak had been rectified and there were only a few flashing lights that she could turn off. She'd get them where they needed to go, which was all that mattered. The ship gently lifted off, Jimmy sitting silently behind them, not wanting to talk about his closet incident, although Becca couldn't help but laugh whenever she thought about him cowering from the big, bad Gra'al soldiers while Gentar and herself had taken on a whole squad in close quarters.

Exiting the giant warship was a relief, Becca taking a breath of fresh air, the scents of being inside her ship again calming after so much insanity. She was programming in the course for Triinal when the comm board lit up. It'd happened enough times to know not to get her hopes up. Vetru and his people had been in constant contact, plus there was Brial or Lowenth and their complaints about the whole thing, even if she was leaving and washed her hands of it. She was still their contact, and neither one seemed to be happy.

"Umm," Gentar said.

"Yeah, I'll deal with it in a minute, let me have a break for a second, okay?"

"No, Becca..."

"What?"

"It's... it's a faint signal."

"What do you mean?" She jumped up, flicking the switch.

"Cre... Tryster..." the signal was a jumbled mess, although she could faintly make out the male voice in the distance.

"Is that... Dray?"

"I don't know, I'm trying to amplify the signal," he said, pounding away at the little keys on his pad. The signal came in stronger.

"I repeat... Crew of the Trystero," Drake's voice crackled through the comms. "Crew of the Trystero... This is Drake Rose. The Captain is hurt, I repeat..."

"Dray!?"


Thirty-Five


The Captain.

The sharp pain in her head caused Valencia to groan, trying to roll over only to feel something restraining her. Valencia's eyes shot open, the blinding white light of the med bay only intensifying the pain in her head. She tore at the oxygen tube and the IV line, unbuckling the restraints and sitting up. Her eyes adjusted to the room slowly, the door sliding open and Becca dashing in, wrapping her arms around her, almost taking the both of them down onto the floor. Valencia groaned at the pain in her side.

"Oh, shit, sorry, cap!"

"It's okay," she said. "I'm still here, huh?"

"Yeah, you're still with us," Becca said. "For now, at least."

"Wow, this pain in my head. How long have I...?"

"Um, about a week," she said. "We're heading back to Biztsoft. You know the drill, need to debrief with the suits."

"Ugh," she groaned. "You telling me he didn't help you?"

"Uh, no," she said. "The Terran gov sat this one out. Again. Also, he's maybe really mad at me."

"Don't tell me. I'm sure I'll hear enough about it soon."

"Right."

"So you didn't scrap my ship, that's good."

"I came pretty close..."

"Yeah? You'll have to tell me all about it. What about the war?"

"What war? Dray told me what happened back on that moon, something about defeating Datar and severing the link between the two of them. Seems like that coincided with House Gigar and House Bodun surrendering. I guess they just... woke up?"

"Woke up? Was he controlling them?"

"That's our theory, at least."

"Is Dray doing alright?"

"Oh yeah, he's fine. A bit weird, but... wasn't he always?"

"Pretty much, huh?" she laughed, reaching out for Becca. Becca took her hands and squeezed them.

"I was so scared, Valencia. Never do that again, okay?"

"Was being captain that bad?"

"Oh, shut up. You know what I mean."

"I do, yeah. I'm okay, I think. Can you send Dray in for a minute? I need to run over some things with him, you know, everything that happened back there."

"Yeah, sure," she said, looking down at the captain. "I'm so glad you're okay, Cap."

"Thanks, Bec."

The pilot left the room, leaving Valencia with her jumbled thoughts for only a few moments before Drake came in, closing the door behind him and sitting down on the other bed, staring at her. They sat in silence for a long moment, neither one wanting to break that silence, especially after the chaos they had endured.

"I'm sorry, Dray," she said, finally.

"For... what?"

"Everything. I don't know. I couldn't protect you. I tried, I just..." tears blurred everything around her, the emotions overwhelming.

"What? No. Oh Valencia, no," he said, grabbing her hand. "We did it together. Okay? We defeated him together."

"I don't remember it," she said. "Just the flames, then something weird and... what's happening to me? Is she gone?"

"No, I don't think so," he said. "You can feel it, can't you? The link between us?"

Drake looked her in the eyes and there it was, this feeling that she couldn't quite describe. There was a sense of familiarity, like they were occupying the same space and thoughts, even though they were two separate people living their own lives. A warmth ran through her like a sigh of relief.

"See?" he asked. "I just sensed her right there."

"How could you sense that, though?"

"She's a part of Him, remember?"

"But I thought Datar was done for?"

"No," he said. "Well, he's powerless. I couldn't bring myself to kill him, captain. I just couldn't... I... he was so powerful and we were just... I couldn't—"

"It's okay, Dray," she said, pulling him in by the back of his head and squeezing him. Her size ached, but she was able to phase it out, Drake returning the embrace. "We're okay now, we're here, although I don't really understand what's going on with us."

"She's still alive inside of you, Valencia."

"What about you? That beast?"

"His shard is still there... but I can't feel Him anymore. There's no control, it's just me."

"... do you have his powers, then?"

"I don't really know yet."

"How are we going to explain this to everyone?"

"We won't," he said. "They won't understand. For now, this is between us, until we understand it better ourselves."

"I can do that," she said. "I can still sense here, she's there, inside of me, but I can't help but feel like she's gone..."

"I'm sorry, Valencia. I'm so sorry."

"Yeah, it's okay," she said, pulling back wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "I can't explain how it all felt, it's just so... strange?"

"I know. Imagine how it felt to share a mind with Datar."

"I can't imagine. At least with Emma it was different. I wanted to be with her. I just feel like I lost my best friend."

"I'm sorry," he said.

He reached out with his mind to her, an acknowledgement of their shared struggle and newfound abilities. Her mind quieted, embracing Drake again. Things had changed, they had changed, and it wasn't clear what would become of their galaxy after Datar had rampaged through it.

"I'm proud of you, Drake," she said at last. "You know that?"

"Proud of what?"

"I'm proud of who you've become. I never thought when you came aboard my ship all those years ago this is where we'd be."

"Where is that?"

"Family," she said. "We're family."


Also by Dave Walsh

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About the Author

Dave Walsh was once the world's foremost kickboxing journalist, if that makes any sense. He's still trying to figure that one out.

The thing is, he always loved writing and fiction was always his first love. He wrote Godslayer in hopes of leaving the world of combat sports behind, which, as you can guess, did not exactly work. That's when a lifelong love of science fiction led him down a different path.

Now he writes science fiction novels about far-off worlds, weird technology and the same damned problems that humanity has always had, just with a different setting.

He does all of this while living in the high desert of Albuquerque and raising twin boys with his wife. He's still not sure which is harder: watching friends get knocked out or raising boys.

Shattered Lineage

Shattered Lineage

Shattered Lineage

Shattered Lineage

Shattered Lineage


Author’s Notes

To say that I've enjoyed my time with Drake, Valencia and the crew of the Trystero would be an understatement. I've been going through a lot of transitions while writing this series and, to top it all off, this book was written and edited during a global pandemic with COVID-19.

Crazy, right? Someday we're gonna be able to look back at this and have a lot more perspective on it than we do now. For now, I'm sitting here at my desk putting the finishing touches on this with a scratchy throat and every day there is a new announcement of a major city, metro region or state in the United States further shut down to prevent the spread of the virus.

Right now it's difficult to think about the future, especially the immediate future and what it'll hold but I do know that I plan on continuing the adventures of Drake, Valencia and the rest of the crew.

I'm not a fan of giving too much insight into what I was thinking or what my intent was of my own work, I leave that up to you, the reader. Hopefully, you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it and always, I appreciate you giving me your time, attention and patronage. Thank you.

Dave Walsh


Albuquerque, NM

3/20/2020


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