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Anstractor Vestalia

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Copyright © 2014

Thirsty Bird Productions

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in retrieval systems, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recorded or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.

 

Rewritten in 2016 | 2nd Edition eBook

 

For more books by the author

GregDragon.com

 

Table of Contents

Memory 01 | Prodigy

Memory 02 | Android Maiden

Memory 03 | One Shot

Memory 04 | First Grade

Memory 05 | Starfighter

Memory 06 | Aurora Rising

Memory 07 | First Mission

Memory 08 | Violent Vani

Memory 09 | Arisani

Memory 10 | Fall Out

Memory 11 | Camille YAN

Memory 12 | Dark Education

Memory 13 | Blackout

Memory 14 | Reset

Memory 15 | Riyah of Talula

Memory 16 | Broken Wings

Memory 17 | A New Cause

Memory 18 | Master Lucci

Memory 19 | Hatch Kitten

Memory 20 | Person

Memory 21 | Oaths Broken

Memory 22 | Guidance of Gods

Memory 23 | Homecoming

Memory 24 | Cammy’s Secret

Memory 25 | No Quarter

Memory 26 | Man of Vestalia

About The Author

 

 

Memory 01 | Prodigy

“Your parents gave up their lives in order to bring you to that planet.”

“I know!”

“They wasted their lives. You are nothing but stowaway trash.”

“SHUT UP! I don’t have to listen to you!”

“That is where you’re mistaken, boy.”

“And what do—”

The stick came down so fast that Rafian couldn’t even blink before he found himself on the cold, metal floor. His back was white fire from its impact, and his eyes produced tears that begged for moaning and crying to join in on its escape. But the crying was not coming; this was not the first time that ten-year-old Rafian had dealt with pain.

“You will learn your place, boy, even if I have to beat it into you,” Samoo LES said, his voice a quiet, cool tone despite the brutality that he was dishing out. The amount of discipline that it took to keep his emotions in check was something inhuman and frightening. Rafian had dealt with angry adults throughout his short life, but Samoo was unlike anyone he had met before.

What prompted the day’s insults and beatings was Rafian’s refusal to do his morning workout. Samoo was his temporary guardian, assigned to him by the ship’s captain, Abe RUS. They were stationed aboard the glorious starship, Helysian, one of several dangerous X-Class destroyers that trained and deployed marines for the Anstractor Alliance.

Helysian housed over 100 child cadets, sent to live and serve aboard the ship until their sixteenth year, when they would graduate and get drafted into the Marine Corps. Most of these cadets had military parents so their fate was sealed even before they drew their first breath. Rafian, however, was not one of them: he was an orphaned child from the planet Genese, who escaped a bombing to stow away on one of Helysian’s drop ships.

When he was discovered and taken before the ship’s captain, he was everything that you would expect a street kid to be: rude, defiant, and with a distrust for authority. Any other captain would have dropped him off at a hub, but Abe RUS saw potential, so he hired one of his best officers to turn the boy into a soldier.

This was the fifth week and Rafian’s body had the bruises to confirm it. Each morning he was roused by Samoo, made to jog out a three-mile trek, recite military doctrine, and eat a breakfast of laucks and mosh (which would be the equivalent of dry oatmeal and egg whites). The captain gave Samoo a year to make young Rafian great and Samoo was not going to fail, no matter how hard he had to push.

Rafian looked up from the floor and his eyes met Samoo’s. His trainer wasn’t tall but he was a giant in the boy’s eyes. He rose up into the pushup position and did the 50 reps that had been asked of him prior to his beating. He did 50 more to make up for his temper tantrum and then held his position, expecting the cane to come crashing down on his back once again.

“You’re learning. This makes me happy. Get your shower, read chapter five of Wings Above Traxis, and then you can go play with your little friends,” Samoo said.

Rafian got to his feet and took up his shirt. It was originally one of Samoo’s, so it engulfed his skinny frame. The children that knew of him had made it a sport to poke fun about his appearance. He was tall, dark, and awkward, and all of his clothes barely fit him, like that of a Vestalian scarecrow.

This was nothing new to the orphan, who had been the object of ridicule even when he was living on the streets of Genese. Samoo had told him that he could play with his friends, but his only friend was the imaginary one he had conjured up sometime in the past.

Rafian ran out of the tiny gym and into the main hallway that connected the recreation area to the officers’ quarters. There were a lot of soldiers but he slid through them easily, trying his best not to accidentally bump into any of them as he made his way to 43C. This was what they called the block where he and Samoo lived.

Samoo’s apartment was the same as the other 1,500 soldier-issued quarters aboard the ship. It was a ten-by-nine-foot space occupied by a bed, which flipped out from the port wall and could double as a table by selecting that option on the panel. There was a tiny metal sink that protruded from the wall along with a toilet, shower, and a tiny mirror.

Rafian showered but chose not to leave the apartment. Instead he sat in one of the corners and tried his best to remember his friend, Lendi’s, face.

Throughout his life, Rafian often wondered whether or not he was meant to be in the world. He had always known pain, loneliness, and disappointment, and it felt like for him, there was nothing else.

His mother was a seeker, one of the gifted mutants of Vestalia, their home world. She would dream things that existed beyond the limits of their world. She could predict things, and when she was drunk or high on Rascene, she could transmit thoughts into other people’s heads. This skill was not uncommon for Vestalian women. In fact, it was the main reason the Geralos had invaded the planet.

The reptilian race of Geralos found that by eating the brains of Vestalian women, it allowed them to steal their prescient power for a few months. When the invasions happened, Rafian’s father gave his life in order to get his wife and child safely onboard a produce ship. Rafian’s mother, heartbroken by the loss of her husband, would neither eat nor drink, and after a time, she became critically ill.

When the ship had finally landed on the planet Genese, five-year-old Rafian was introduced to a harsh new world. The Basce City streets were a cruel teacher and Rafian suffered things no child should ever suffer. By the time he was seven years of age, he had seen plenty of households, since people would take him in only to realize that an orphan born on a refugee vessel was not the easiest to deal with. He was too old and too wild for the average, well-meaning parent and before long he was forced to make his own way as a scavenger and thief.

In his early days, Rafian would sneak into the local primary school and talk to the children there. They thought he was cool because he had no parents and could come and go as he pleased. He would listen in on classes and mimic the assignments given to them, trying his best to fit in. He wanted to be a regular child, but with no parents, he was forced to steal his education along with everything else.

It was at school that he met Lendi, the only person that he would call friend. She was a caramel-colored girl with big brown eyes, curly hair, and a seemingly permanent grin. She came from a good home with parents who loved her. To him, she was perfect, even though she would always correct his speech.

Lendi tried to get her parents to take him in, but their kindness had limits that would not allow for it. Lendi was his guardian angel and his raison d’etre. She was always there to give him her lunch whenever he was starving. She would sneak him blankets from her home and talk with him even though his smell turned all the other children away.

He always wanted Lendi to be okay, and he was willing to do whatever it took to make sure of this. But when the bombs started dropping and the city burned, he had no way of knowing Lendi’s fate. He wanted to believe that she was safe onboard a ship like Helysian, but without proof he found himself worrying that she was gone.

~ * ~ * ~

“What are you doing there, boy? I thought I told you to go play with your friends,” Samoo LES said as he walked into the apartment and saw Rafian seated on the floor.

“I don’t have any friends, I only have you.”

Samoo sighed and removed his beret, placing it on the arm of the chair. He sat at the table and poured himself a drink, then ran his hand through the salt and pepper reeds that constituted his hair. “This is a military ship, Rafian. Do you know what that means?”

“I don’t think so,” Rafian said in a pitiful voice.

“It means that everything here is hard, son. The sooner you accept this fact, the better; do you hear me? We have good times periodically, especially after a victory, but we belong to a race that has no home. We are forced to live permanently on vessels of war.” He sighed, looking as if he were trying to conjure up a point to his words. “You don’t have to like the children, Rafian, but you cannot shun them forever. I know that they are cruel, but life is cruel!”

“You talk to me like a child but I am not a child,” Rafian said. “Not like the ones in the cadet academy.”

Samoo nodded as he sipped his drink, but kept his eyes staring forward, away from his ward. “I’ve seen your eyes. You haven’t been a child for a very long time, if at all. Still, your defiance to me and your refusal to get with the program is very childlike. This is why I beat you.”

Rafian remained quiet, thinking on what Samoo had said, and decided in his mind that he would do his best to do what the old man instructed him to.

“Did you know your parents?” Rafian asked and Samoo paused with the glass to his lips.

THYPE!” he exclaimed and Rafian wondered why his question had registered such an answer.

An alarm started blaring and Samoo jumped up and quickly dressed in his uniform. “Talk later, son. Buckle in!” he commanded, then exited the room and locked the door. Rafian rushed to his chair and pulled the strap across his lap. He closed his eyes and prepared himself for whatever was coming next.

A Geralos cruiser had come out of a Faster than Light (FTL) jump and the Helysian was now under attack. Explosions and alarms took over the airwaves and Rafian wondered if they would ever make it through the onslaught. He slouched forward and hugged his thighs, letting his head hang between his legs as he squeezed his eyes shut.

An explosion shook him violently and his head struck the table, and he lost consciousness for a time. When he opened his eyes the walls had become a vid screen, displaying the battle that was going on outside the ship. Rafian couldn’t believe that what he was seeing was actually happening in real life. It looked like an action movie, the kind that rich people on Genese would watch inside of their homes. He used to sneak up to their windows to catch a few scenes and what he was seeing now reminded him of them.

Fighters deployed from the Helysian’s dock ports, shooting out towards the Geralos ship to draw the fire from its batteries. But Helysian was no slouch in its own attack, firing rockets and laser traces back at the massive ship. Rafian realized it wasn’t doing much good. The Geralos deployed their own fighters to remove the distraction and it became quite the show seeing their aces go up against those of Helysian.

This went on for over an hour and then another alarm sounded. The vid grew dark and disappeared into the wall and Rafian felt that this was a bad omen. The tears he had saved from Samoo’s beating began to fall as he thought of his doom and the alarms screamed louder into his ears.

The ship lurched in a way that made his insides feel queasy, and then the explosions were gone as well as the alarms. Rafian stayed buckled in, wondering what the feeling was that almost made him vomit. He thought about dying and decided that if death really were coming, being strapped in at a dinner table was not the way he wanted to go. He unbuckled his seat and crept to the door, his hands trembling and his eyes wide with anticipation.

Suddenly the door slid open and a disheveled Samoo rushed in and locked it behind him. He hurried over and grasped Rafian by his shirt collar and stood him up against the wall. “I thought I thyping told you to buckle in?” he said, the trademark cool now gone from his voice. “We were in a fight, boy. Are you out of your mind? One direct hit to our port drive and you would have been hurled against the ceiling to break your thyping neck!”

“S-sorry sir, but that word, I don’t know what thyping is!” Rafian stammered.

Samoo’s anger broke and he chortled. “Eh? Don’t use that word; it’s an adult word. Just open your ears and stop going disobeying my orders.”

Rafian shut his mouth and listened to Samoo, whose emotions frightened him since he’d never shown them in the past. Whatever happened on the bridge had put him off and now he wanted to take it out on something or someone else. Samoo took a deep breath and recovered his drink, then sipped it slowly, which seemed to calm his nerves.

“Did the screens come on while we were out there?” he asked and Rafian nodded at him. “Were you able to understand what you were seeing?”

“Yes, sir, I saw the pilots going after the Geralos and I saw that big laser that shook the ship.”

“Well that big laser took out a dozen of our people. The lizards really hurt us with that surprise attack so the captain had us jump to a remote area outside of our normal course. We’re off the grid, kid. This means that you have no choice in the matter of getting trained. Either you tighten up or I will personally air-lock you. Failure is no longer an option!”

 

Memory 02 | Android Maiden

It was the same nightmare that kept coming back to haunt Rafian as he lay on the cot tossing and turning in his sleep. “Anne Marie?” he whispered, his voice desperate but small. A sleepless Samoo watched him in the darkness, trying to imagine what was going on inside of his head.

The nightmare always started with the bright light from the door when the Cel-toc first made her appearance. On Genese he had been kidnapped during one of his trips to rendezvous with Lendi. He had been hit with a stasis rod and rendered unconscious and woke up on the cold concrete floor of a 4×6 cell. The one that housed him was one of many, and none of the others were empty. He could see children, many he recognized, but none of them were moving.

The Cel-toc waltzed gracefully into the room, scanning the cells. When it would pass one with a dead inhabitant, it would touch a panel, and the cell box would descend into the ground. Rafian watched it go through its rounds, feeding the living and processing the dead.

She looked every bit like a human, but her arms were metallic with a gold tint to their smooth surface. Her face was sculpted from a plasteel substance, and her eyes had a look of intelligence.

On close observation, the Cel-toc did not seem the soulless machine that they were rumored to be. She fed him a mushy, white substance and then sped away, onto the next survivor. The pasty “food” tasted like a delicious blend of several dishes, but he could not decide whether it was hunger or fascination that made him think it was tasty.

The Cel-toc was almost through with her rounds, and he knew that once she was finished he would be in the darkness again. The light coming from the open doorway was very faint, but to Rafian, it may as well had been high noon with the sun beaming down in all its glory.

It was just then that he saw her. A little waif of a girl standing off to his right, staring intently at him through the dark. The cell that separated them was one of the ones that had descended, so now they could see each other for the first time.

“Hello?”

“H-hey,” she replied, her small but nasally voice piercing the thick, musky air.

“What’s your name?” he asked, and when she replied, “Anne Marie,” he realized that her voice sounded a lot like Lendi’s.

Anne Marie turned out to be a street scavenger like Rafian. She had been born and lived in the upper class areas of Basce City, but when the riots occurred, she lost her parents and became homeless as a result. The pair chatted unguardedly for hours into the night. Not knowing how many days they had ahead of them, they held nothing back in their conversation.

Anne Marie had a way of making hunger disappear for Rafian. In the still of the darkness, the anxiety-filled situation seemed to melt with the sound of her voice. He wished he could be closer to her. He really wanted to hold her hand.

Days turned into weeks, and before long, a month had passed for the prisoners of the Cel-toc maiden. Rafian, after realizing that he and Anne Marie were the last survivors of their unit, came to the conclusion that they were the only children immunized prior to capture. It was an eerie feeling in that cold, dark place that stank of death, and the Cel-toc’s food was obviously not enough to keep their bodies properly nourished.

The days went by slowly for the pair, and Rafian soon found it hard to focus. He began to ask Anne Marie a lot of the same questions over and over. It wasn’t much different for the girl, and they found that their conversation and connection was all that made their situation bearable.

When Rafian would wake up, the first question he would ask was, “Hey, Anne, are you awake?” And if she had beaten him to rise, then she would be the one asking the question, looking to start another day of games and trivia to pass the time.

The questions would be subjects they both knew and were interested in. These subjects ranged from street names to locations of buildings, and at times, stories that every child should have known. In between the questions, there was pain caused by their bodies looking for vitamin resources that were not being provided. The Cel-toc was slowly starving them, and the children knew it. The only thing they had was the other, and it was a small respite.

“Anne Marie … can you hear me?” Rafian asked her one day as he curled up in the corner of the cell, trying to wish away his abdominal pains. It was becoming more frequent, and he could feel his ribs even more than he could in the past. He had always been skinny, but the thought of bones poking out frightened him, and the pain made him feel as if his body was eating itself.

“Yes,” she replied, her voice so low that any noise would have—

“Wake up, Rafian!” a gruff voice shouted and the nightmare memory was pulled away just as quickly as it had come. Rafian sat up on the cot and peered over at the clock whose symbols indicated it was time for his laucks and mosh.

“Who is Anne Marie? Is that your mom?” Samoo asked as he placed the warm bowl in the boy’s lap.

“She was a friend of mine in Basce City,” Rafian replied. “I lost her in the fires when we were trying to escape.”

“You said that you were a prisoner. Was it the Geralos?”

“No, it was a Cel-toc but I don’t know who it belonged to.”

“That’s an old model of android; it could have been the lizards. I wonder what they aimed to gain out of kidnapping children.”

“We were there for a long time,” Rafian said before his voice cracked and he stopped to fight back against the lump that had lodged in his throat.

“Eat your food, it will make you strong. You’ve been through a lot, but you don’t want to waste away before you can take revenge on the lizards that did it to you.”

“Why do they hate us, sir? Why did they take our planet?”

Samoo shrugged and motioned for him to eat and Rafian slowly complied.

“They bite into our heads, right up here, you see? Their teeth are sharp and long enough to pierce our brains, and once they do, they can steal our prescient powers,” Samoo said.

Rafian looked horrified when he heard this detail and it took a much rougher nudging from Samoo to make him finish his meal. “So the Geralos set up Cel-tocs to kidnap us, too,” he said after swallowing the last of the bland, lumpy porridge.

“I wouldn’t put it past them but who really knows? They aren’t the only race in this galaxy that hates our guts. Look at the Louines, those worthless pieces of schtill. They ignored our pleas when the lizards came and even now they hide away on their planet. You should remember who your allies are, Rafian, just in case you become a powerful captain like Abe RUS. Remember your allies and remember your enemies, but most of all remember the ones who didn’t offer a hand.”

They got up, dressed, and Samoo led him out to the portside deck where they started their long walk towards the gym. This was the ritual, their walk and talk, and Samoo would recite stories of legendary Alliance soldiers, or the various wars that took place on Vestalia. Rafian found it amazing that the man knew so much, but the stories helped keep the bad memories at bay so he enjoyed the first hour of their mornings.

After the walk came the run, and Samoo set a timer to track his speed. He expected Rafian to beat his best time from the previous week. If he failed he would be on pushup duty, and when the pushups became too easy it would be pull-ups and burpees. Rafian pushed past his limit and set a new record even though he felt fatigued from the night before.

“That’s what I like to see, soldier, hell of a way,” Samoo said and clapped him on his back as he led him away from the deck. “That was some good running. How are you feeling?”

“Okay, I guess. My heart is beating fast but my arms have that tingly feeling that I like.”

“Do you want to look at some ships?”

Rafian’s eyes almost jumped out of his head and the rare smile that crossed his face was all the answer that Samoo needed. He took him home to get his shower and then surprised him with some new clothes that had been donated by a group of soldiers. What had started off as a terrible day had become one of the best ever for the young cadet in training. He found a uniform that fit and quickly dressed, then looked at himself in the mirror.

“One day you are going to have an official uniform like that to be proud of, Rafian. It suits you and after what you showed me this morning with that run, we both know that it’s meant to be.”

Rafian stood at attention in the mirror and slammed his right fist into his left pectoral in the Alliance salute that all soldiers knew. Samoo stood proudly behind him, watching intently and Rafian wondered if what he felt was what children with fathers felt every day.

~ * ~ * ~

A week later and the nightmare memory was back. It was after a day where Rafian was instructed to exercise by himself due to Samoo feeling ill. It had gone well until it was time to return to the apartment and with no supervision, the boy snuck off to the dock to watch the pilots.

One of the ships that had gone out on a routine surveillance mission had somehow malfunctioned and clipped the edge of the port wall when it tried to dock. Rafian watched in horror as the dockworkers ran for their lives. The ship crashed into another one and clipped a fuel line that caused a spark that resulted into an explosion. Luckily no one was hurt since the exploding canister was small. The maintenance robots scurried across the dock, isolated the fire, and snuffed out the oxygen around it, causing it to die immediately.

The explosion stayed with Rafian as he ran back to the apartment and when he went to sleep that night it was still there, bringing him back to Genese when he’d made his escape only to look into the sky to witness similar explosions occurring.

It was in the sixth week or so when the Cel-toc had finished her ritual that Rafian made an attempt to squeeze through the bars. He slipped through and crawled over to Anne Marie’s cell, motioning for her to squeeze out, too.

The weak girl nodded and made her way out towards Rafian, and the pair hugged each other tightly. The hug became an extended embrace, more for warmth than the union that they had so eagerly wanted in all those past days. They needed to find a way out, or the Cel-toc would not be pleased with their current position. So they broke away from each other and looked around for a chance at escape.

After a lot of searching, Rafian and Anne Marie found a hole connected to a sewage line, squeezed into it, and scurried through the vile liquid towards the outside of their cellblock. They could hear explosions in the sky, flying vessels, and people fighting. As they crawled, the most distinct sounds that came to their ears were the sounds of gunfire, screams, and most of all, death.

The sewer opened to the exterior of the cells, which was bordered by a chain link fence. It physically took everything for them to make it there, and they sat breathing heavily through their mouths. It was late evening, and the sky appeared to be on fire. Some sort of war was going on and the city looked to be under siege.

Rafian knew they had to get as far away from the Cel-toc as possible, but the fence seemed to go on forever. The only way through to the other side was to find a gate or cut through it. Exhausted and sleep deprived, he passed out, hitting his head on the asphalt and sending his mind into a vortex of blackness and dreams. When he awoke, it was due to a sudden sensation of burning. There was fire everywhere, and Anne Marie was gone.

“Anne!” he cried out, not caring anymore about discovery. “Anne Marie!”

He didn’t want to hide anymore or play it safe from the Cel-tocs. The only thing he wanted to do was to find his friend. The smoke was thick as the facilities burned all around him. He fell on all fours to crawl forward, and the bits of glass and stone on the asphalt cut into his knees.

Rafian was deep in his weeping when a powerful arm scooped him up and vaulted him aboard a vessel. He saw the details in blotches but couldn’t tell much of what was going on. The man who had grabbed him pushed him inside what seemed to be a hold for cargo, but as his savior tried to board, he was cut in half by a tracing laser beam.

Rafian thought about hopping off of the ship, finding Anne Marie, and letting her know that it would be okay, that he would protect her as best he could, but the thought only led to—

“Wake up, boy!” a familiar voice yelled and a sweaty Rafian rolled over violently and fell on the floor next to his cot. “Had a little adventure yesterday, eh, boy?” The words made Rafian’s heart sink. “Do not wander off again without my permission. Now get on the thyping floor and give me 150!”

 

 

Memory 03 | One Shot

Samoo LES kept on nodding as Rafian went through a series of attacks in the corner of the room. They had been together for ten months following the attack on Helysian and Rafian had grown into a prime candidate for the cadet program.

He was nicer to Rafian now, offering him real chow from the dining halls when he could and telling him war stories from the past whenever they had time together. Rafian had grown fond of the old man and had developed a real love for training and military logic.

Samoo had given him a tiny pistol a while back, a gift for being quiet and doing as he was told. The pistol had a fried ejection rod, so there was no way he could shoot himself. Without toys, vids, or any of the things that children his age played with, Rafian made the gun his favorite toy. At first he was content with playing “Starfighter and Aliens” by himself when things were quiet, but out of boredom one day, he dismantled the gun only to panic and scramble to rebuild it for fear of making Samoo upset.

As providence would prove, he was unable to fix it and was punished harshly by being hung with straps on his wrist. He was left to hang for a long time and then made to run more miles the next day. When his temper had cooled, Samoo took the opportunity to show Rafian how to reassemble his broken weapon. This was typical of their relationship: Samoo would dish out hard penalties but would turn it into a teaching moment afterwards.

When it was time for the captain’s test, the two were actually sad that they would be going their separate ways. The test was nothing special to Rafian. Six different officers took him on a series of physical courses with obstacles, all of which he passed with flying colors. He was given a verbal exam on military history, the Anstractor galaxy, and the history of the Geralos’ occupation of Vestalia. He impressed them all with his skill, knowledge, and intensity, so it was decided that he was worthy enough to join the Galactic Cadet Corps (GC2).

Rafian was given the rank of “twelfth grade,” the equivalent of where a nine-year-old would be in the standard system used for cadets. He was given a bed in the military bunk hall for the GC2 and was introduced to his commanding officer—a tall, skinny fourteen-year-old boy named Weine.

Once the adults had left and he was alone with Weine, the boy’s true colors came out.

“Come with me, char,” Weine commanded, using a derogatory slur.

It was a painful carryover from Vestalia’s past and not many people knew what it meant. Rafian, however, knew the word’s meaning, and he decided that Weine was going to be a problem. He nodded obediently, though his mind was sorting out how he would deal with the insult later.

Rafian had known he would be bullied, but if it was going to be at the hand of the top boy, it was not something he was willing to deal with.

The boys walked around to the sleeping area, and Weine showed him where the bathroom was. He then showed him the girls’ bathroom, reminding him that it was off limits. He took him by the gym, the mess hall, and finally, the flight-simulation deck.

Rafian’s first few days at the camp were rough, due to the various cliques and exclusionary attitudes of the children there. But he kept to himself, stayed out of trouble, and did what he could to fit in.

One little girl who caught his eye was a cadet named Vani. She was his age, eleven, only she was a fifth-grade cadet who excelled in the academic areas of their military life. It was rumored that her father was a colonel on another floating fortress, which made her practically military royalty. Even if this was untrue, she acted like a princess, so Rafian was one of the few cadets that actually liked her.

Weine, however, was exactly as Rafian assumed he would be: a bully in fancy clothes. The use of the racial slur and his inappropriate behavior with the girls was him at his nicest. He would routinely prank the younger boys and make their lives a living hell while showing a face of great potential to the adults who supervised them.

To Weine, Rafian was fair game because he had no parents. He anticipated making him his punching bag for as long as he could. The cadets looked down on Rafian, whom they saw as a tramp that got a lucky ticket into the academy. They made fun of him for having a low rank for his age and there was no end to their insults.

After a year had passed and Rafian proved himself worthy by acquiring a few more ranks, he decided he had had enough of Weine and his antics.

Now at twelve years old and as tall as his commanding officers, Rafian had become quite a soldier. With nothing else but the pride that Samoo had given him, he studied the books and principles of the standard space marine even more than was expected of a cadet his rank. His focus for the year was to get bigger, stronger, and smarter, and he accomplished this beyond his natural gifts.

Weine had this thing that he would do: he would grab a few other officers and kidnap a small boy to lock him away in a locker for the night. He knew that the trauma would make the kid struggle the next day with his exercises. Whenever Weine would nab a victim, he and the other officers would drill him extra hard the next day and then laugh when the child failed.

With one eye closed and the other intently watching as they targeted a quiet boy named Levi, Rafian snuck out of his bunk and silently followed the three bullies to the area with the lockers. Here Levi was gagged and trapped for the night.

Earlier in the day, Rafian snuck a metal pipe into his room and hid it under his bunk in anticipation of this very moment. He armed himself with it, holding it to his back as he pressed to the side of the door and peered inside. The boys had just imprisoned Levi despite his pleas and cries.

Rafian walked into the room, pressed the lock switch to freeze the door closed behind him, and forced the three boys to face him with no hope of reinforcement or escape.

“What are you doing here, char?” Weine asked with a look of worry in his eye.

The answer he received was a shot to the face from Samoo’s pistol that Rafian had rigged to shoot nonlethal rubber bullets. However, on the basis of the results, no one would know that the bullet was false. The boy’s face erupted into a bloody mess as he fell to the floor, screaming loudly from the pain.

“Stupid, thyping kid,” Rafian said, trying to sound as cool as Samoo despite his heart beating rapidly. “You cowards call us names and pick on those who can’t fight back.”

One of the other kids pleaded, “Come on, Raf, I didn’t do anything. It was Weine’s idea, I swear!”

Captain Samoo LES was a war hero on Vestalia. He was a war hero because he was captured by the Geralos for two years, tortured and beaten within an inch of his life, and managed to escape through hand-to-hand combat. Samoo knew how to destroy people with and without a weapon, and his compassion for young Rafian led him to teach the boy some of these very skills during their time together. Though Samoo would not be proud of what his student did to those three boys, he would have been proud to know that beyond the tears, the anger, and the misunderstanding, his lessons had stuck.

When it was time for exercise, breakfast, and the typical events of the morning, Weine and two other officers were in the infirmary getting treated for permanent injuries. Rafian was in front of the cadet commander, explaining his actions and why he had felt he had to intervene. It was a situation the cadet commander could not fathom how to fix because the wounded boys were in leadership positions.

A large-scale investigation that spanned the better part of six weeks was launched. Many outsiders, including parents and the new Alliance government, were involved. It was a messy ordeal, and while the marine vessel drifted in deep space, the brass worked out the cadet massacre (as it was playfully dubbed) and what to do with the boys who were involved.

In the end—thanks to Captain Abe RUS—the three bullies were given the harsh sentence of expulsion from the cadet academy. Rafian was imprisoned and given anger-management courses in addition to three weeks of community service. It was the best result he could have hoped for, but unbeknown to him, his status was elevated among many in command.

~ * ~ * ~

By the time he was fifteen, Rafian was the textbook cadet, all “yes sirs” and discipline in action. He was now a second-grade cadet major but disallowed from graduating to colonel due to the violent episode with Weine and the boys so many years ago. Still, the other children looked to him as a leader, and he carried himself as one—not an easy thing for the adults to miss.

In the life of a cadet, you are given military ranks along with your grades. At sixteen, a child would need to be a cadet colonel in order to graduate into the actual Marine Corps as a private. The grade numbers denote skills, with the lowest being the best. So a sixteen-year-old who managed to be a third or second grade along with the rank of colonel was normally considered so advanced that he or she could get a special assignment to attend a college of leadership aboard the ship. The advantage of all this was that after two years, one would emerge as an officer and leader of men.

Rafian didn’t care for any of the leadership ambitions of his less talented peers, but he desperately wanted to become a pilot. Life aboard the ship had become tolerable, but he would throw it all away just to have a chance at flying his own vessel into battle. Since making third grade, he practically lived in the flight simulation booth. He had won all the top awards for simulated flight so in his mind he was already an ace.

One day he was called into the office of the cadet commander to talk. It had been three years since he had spoken with her directly.

“You are a very special young man, Rafian,” she said to him after returning his salute. “Cadets with your talents are normally first-grade colonels. You do know this, right?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do.”

“But you do understand why you are where you are?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do.”

“Do you regret what you did to those young men and their careers, Major?”

He looked at her and replied, “No ma’am. But if you allow me to explain, I can and will.”

“Go ahead, Rafian,” she remarked and took a seat as if expecting a long, drawn-out answer.

But Rafian’s reply was not long, and he explained how his past had given him enough experience with people like Weine to know that he was not going to stop or change. The adults would never believe him, and something had to be done sooner or later.

By the time the meeting was over, Rafian was given the rank of colonel and clearance to take part in the planetary drop he needed to be considered first grade.

It was the rarest of honors. This drop was an insane test of resilience and knowledge for a young marine. The honors that came from doing it were so high that they had to be sure that the person getting it was much more than a well-trained bookworm.

To become first grade was to become a member of a fraternity of galactic elite who could easily become officers. It was a privilege one had to earn, and the final exam was extremely dangerous. For Rafian, a child rushed into adulthood by experiencing life’s worst circumstances, the first-grade test was a no-brainer.

 

Memory 04 | First Grade

The Teradac-11 cruised low and silent above the jungles of Qyeran, a small colony in the country of Flisx, Geral. This operation was an unusual one. Rafian was to be dropped into enemy territory and find a way out, then rendezvous with the drop ship, which would stay cloaked in orbit awaiting his return.

The mission was to be completed within a week, or he would be left behind. These were the parameters set for a cadet who wanted first class. Typically the location was a moon or a remote planet with less enemy presence, but Rafian’s trial was during a hot season of fighting and since Geral was close, Captain Abe RUS decided that they would risk dropping him there.

Rafian was more excited than afraid as he sat aboard the vessel, decked out in an all-black 3B suit with an Adaptus facemask firmly locked onto his face. He was armed with an assortment of weapons, liquid-form food, and fluids that would keep him nourished for up to a week. The atmosphere on Geral was poisonous so he was expected to stay in the suit until he was safely off the planet.

The ship drifted in silently to avoid detection and with Qyeran being a low-tech country, it was nothing for a skilled pilot to plant a young cadet onto her surface without any of the locals noticing.

Rafian nodded at the pilot and Samoo LES, who had come along to wish his boy an extra bit of luck. Though they couldn’t see each others’ faces through the masks, Rafian was appreciative of his teacher making the trip to see him off. The nod also told the pilot that he was ready to deploy as he folded his arms across his chest.

A hatch dropped from beneath him and in an instant, he was falling towards the lush, green expanse of the planet. Rafian hoped this would be the beginning of an eventless adventure. The pilots had told him at his briefing that the way to remain undetected was to delay releasing his wings until he was a few hundred feet above the trees.

According to Samoo, the Geralos considered Vestalians to be an extremely tasty meal, so on discovery, they would not hesitate to tear him apart to snack on his innards. Rafian also had the seeker blood of his mother, and upon that discovery, his remains would probably be shipped to the top authorities for consumption. After hearing all of this, Rafian had decided that he would eat his gun before risking capture by the Geralos. But until then, he would do what he was told to do and deploy his wings at the last possible second.

The wind must be hot, he thought as he fell, because his goggles became foggy and it took some time to adjust to the humidity. His computer was set to trigger an alarm when he was at the lowest altitude possible for safe deployment, so he relaxed and waited for its buzz.

The maroon sky reminded him of nights on Genese. It was dark, but light enough to see the tops of the trees along with millions of lights in the distance.

When the alarm sounded, he delayed for two seconds and then released his wings, which flipped out from his backpack and forced his fall into a glide. He flew in circles, spiraling down towards the trees, the process faster than he had expected. Before he knew it, he was on the ground with his vilo-sword drawn and wrist map out. He plotted a course to the nearest city, where he would have to find a way to return to the ship.

Being able to breathe in his flight suit was hard due to the time it took to turn the planet’s atmosphere into clean, breathable oxygen. It felt as if he was constantly out of breath and being forced to breathe from a straw. However, he couldn’t dwell on this discomfort, knowing the panic it could bring. So, putting breathing to the side, he focused and kept his mind on the task at hand.

As soon as he calmed himself and set out towards the city, a rustling in the bushes caused him to spin around. A herd of dhulon bulls had seen him land and sought after him out of curiosity. These animals had the heads of cows and humanoid bodies, but they walked on all fours and had eyes that seemed to flash red fire. The alpha of the bunch immediately charged, but Rafian jumped out of the way just in time to avoid being gored by the creature’s horns.

When he righted himself from the dive, Rafian let the blade of his vilo-sword arc towards the neck of the bull and took its head cleanly off. The heat of the blade cauterized the wound so the blood stayed in place on the two severed ends. The remainder of the dhulons retreated then, and Rafian took the opportunity to dash between the trees.

He was on foot for the better part of an hour before he decided to stop. He climbed a tree, secured himself tightly with straps, and activated his cloak to disappear from view. He was tired from the drop and slept for a few hours before waking up hungry, dehydrated, and disoriented.

Drawing a fluid-sustenance canister from his pack, he hooked it into place on his mask and sucked in the syrupy juices with much need and effort. It tasted like heaven, and he was good to go after a while. The skies had lightened, and the clouds lessened, which on Geral represented high noon.

Finding a better position at the top of a broad, massive branch, Rafian pulled out his binoculars to view the city in its entirety. From his observation, the lizard people seemed pretty civilized, and they dressed in very expensive-looking clothing.

Their faces were a flat mask of teeth, but their heads held rough, bumpy ridges. This particular race had webbed feet and scaly skin, which looked to be rough to the touch. Rafian had never imagined that he would ever see the Geralos up close. He was now looking at them as they lived out their lives very much like human beings. It dawned on him that the Geralos were people and not the monsters he’d always thought them to be.

His joints were on fire from the position in which he lay but there was not much he could do about it. He noticed that he had chosen a tree near a popular trail and many Geralos walked below him now. He was forced to stay up there for a couple more days until he learned their patterns well enough to know when it was safe to climb down.

In terms of waste, the suit was wonderful and efficient, as there was no cause to take it off. He needed only to urinate or defecate as usual, and the suit would filter the waste into a reservoir. As soon as things settled down, he could empty it at any time. The reservoir could hold five bowel movements and a gallon of urine, but he was hoping that he wouldn’t have to accumulate anywhere near that amount before he could leave.

One of the more exciting happenings of his day was when a hunter brought out the head of the dhulon for the other hunters to inspect. They stood around it for a long time, possibly wondering how it had been decapitated so cleanly. The head seemed to tell them a lot, as uniformed officers got involved and began making a lot of ruckus. Rafian realized that his time on Geral would end up being much less than a week because he would have to get out of there fast or be found and consumed.

When it got darker and the streets of the city thinned out, a team of Geralos assembled, seemingly with the intent to search the jungle from where the head had been discovered. One of them appeared to be a tracker. Rafian hoped he would not start tracking until they were much deeper in, since it would mean he would be discovered. He concentrated on the task at hand, which was to get into the city and commandeer a space ship fast. The other dilemma he faced was that the battery on his cloaking device was charging, and he was at the moment very much in the open and visible.

The hunting party was about two hundred yards from where he was perched, and if any of them thought to scan the trees, he would be discovered within the minute. There was a path that led from the forest into the city, and it cut through a large expanse of tall grass and flowers.

Rafian slid down the tree to the forest floor and then moved through the grass, angling away from the approaching hunting party. When he reached the city wall, he climbed it effortlessly using the suction technology of his suit’s gloves and boots.

Once atop the walls and crouched low, Rafian descended the other side into what appeared to be a market. He then thought about what his next move should be.

The city was a small one and appeared to be surrounded by a thick metal wall. A few sentries were patrolling the wall, and Rafian felt extremely lucky, since a more high-tech city would have had a flobot camera tracking every single thing that moved.

As he thought about his strategy, an older Geralos began shouting at him. He had discovered the stranger’s movement as he tore down his stall for the day.

The language was foreign, but Rafian didn’t need to understand. He hopped down and rushed the old man, and then bound and gagged him within minutes. Next he found the rooftops and began dashing along them recklessly in search of a ship or some sort of vessel to help him escape.

When he finally found what he was looking for, he realized that it was in the worst possible place—the center of a military barracks. This compound, as small as it seemed, was packed with angry lizards that were well trained, armed, and extremely dangerous. It was in the center of the city and had towers facing to the north, south, west, and east. The walls were mere chain link fences but they emitted a bluish glow that Rafian assumed would be death if he got anywhere near them.

The towers were laden with bricks and could be scaled easily with his suit, so he would only need to get to one of them to be inside within a matter of minutes. Rafian hopped down from the roof into an alley that ran perpendicular to the barracks. He made his way towards the nearest tower and used his knife to take out one of the guards who got too close.

He dragged the body to a pile of discarded boxes, hid it beneath them, and kicked dirt over the blood that stained the earth. He then climbed the tower and hung near the edge, waiting for a guard to get close. When a lizard was close enough, Rafian swung up behind him and shoved his blade into the base of his skull. The Geralos died silently, and Rafian pulled him into the tower’s station, stripped him of his clothes, and then placed them over his own.

When he was done with the disguise, Rafian placed an acid pill into the naked lizard’s mouth, and the body quickly dissolved into a liquid that flowed silently down the edges of the tower.

From his observations of the past days, Rafian knew that the Geralos kept a few guards on watch all night long, and they rarely used their ship to leave the surface. He hoped the ship could actually fly, because it would really be a bummer if he risked all this only to find out that his ship was inoperable.

He counted at least twenty guards walking the grounds and doing their duties. The only ones he had to worry about were the ones in the tower, who appeared to be armed with high-powered weapons. He thought about it for a minute and realized there was one small snag he hadn’t considered.

Robbing a craft, flying it out into space, and rendezvousing with the ship was the task, but the marine ship Helysian was cloaked. This meant that he could not have Geralese space vessels chasing him when he tried to dock. He was supposed to escape undetected, and it was starting to feel like an impossible mission.

The city of Qyeran was powered by Zynerian crystals, which were pushing out fuel from a plant built deep underground. Rafian knew this because it was how planets like Geral had unlimited light and power.

Shutting down the city’s power in order to escape was not a realistic plan. His other option was to kill them all, but how could one man take out twenty when they had the advantage of knowing their terrain and could call in backup on alarm? The solution came to him faster than he expected, and he was fine with trying it despite the odds.

Sneaking down to the ground level and into the parked vessel, Rafian found an area in the rear to hunker down and hide. Taking the opportunity to catch his breath, he ejected the refuse canister from his suit and sighed in relief at the knowledge that he wouldn’t have to sit in his own feces if his wait lasted a day.

He took in some fluid from his reserves and then closed his eyes to calm himself from the excitement of the past few hours. Much time passed, and the next day, the city came alive with panic when a tracker figured out they had been invaded. Even worse, the panicked old man had told the tracker about the shadow who bound and gagged him by his stall.

A soldier was found dead and another was missing, with traces of his DNA all over the tower. Rafian could imagine the Geralos thinking he was some hellish creature that had come up from the jungle to prey on them. Despite himself, he smiled at the chaos he had wrought in only a few hours. Everything was working according to plan, and he knew in time they would take the ship above the city to do a manhunt.

Rafian didn’t have much longer to wait, as two loud Geralos came onboard and the ship began to rise. He took out his sidearm that was rigged with a silencer and attached an elemental selector. He watched the pilot intently to see if he could figure out the controls and was relieved to see that it was not unlike the ones he had used on the simulation ships.

When they were airborne and circling the city, Rafian moved the elemental dial to ice and shot the co-pilot in the head. As his innards froze in a slow, painful death, he slipped behind the pilot, cut his throat in one motion, and pushed him out of his seat. He took over the controls and righted the stalling vessel, knowing it would look suspicious if he moved to escape too quickly.

So he continued to circle the city as the deceased pilots would have. While he did this he established some familiarity with the various switches of the HUD. After several cycles he pointed the nose of the ship upwards and jettisoned the engines to launch into space.

The whole process of killing the pilots, flying circles, and breaking into space took less than an hour since the time of his boarding. Yet for the tense teenager whose nerves were like icepicks, it seemed like an entire day.

Once in orbit and with no trace of anyone following him, Rafian signaled the Helysian drop ship. It materialized in front of him and he managed to dock the alien vessel.

They flew for hours before jumping to Helysian where he was rushed into the decontamination center to be scanned for parasites and biological weapons. While this was standard protocol for planet jumpers, the process was one that he would never get used to.

Rafian felt a twinge of relief as the boom of the engines let him know that they had jumped into deep space and out of range of the Geralos horde. He was made to sit in the chamber for a couple of hours as various scientists and doctors looked over his body to make sure he was not a danger to the crew.

Once cleared, he was given a new uniform and was met by Vani, who was tasked to escort him to the bridge. Rafian felt the entire situation was bizarre since Vani was being nice and actually talking to him. She had always been rude and cold before, but now she was talking to him excitedly as if they were old friends.

She was praising him, but the events of the past day were still so fresh in his mind that he just could not focus on her. She was saying things about how amazing he was and how they all felt he would not return. However, his thoughts were on how his racing heart had felt, as if it were bursting as he flew up and out of that city, knowing that a trace laser could tear his ship apart once the Geralos realized what was going on.

The couple emerged from the detox station through glass sliding doors and was met by five thousand people cheering and clapping for Rafian. Vani was pulled out of the way as photos were taken, holos recorded, and congratulations were issued to the ship’s outcast stowaway now turned recon graduate.

From the crowd emerged the cadet commander and Captain Abe RUS in full decoration. They stood in front of the tall, slightly embarrassed Rafian, who could do nothing but salute.

“Congratulations, Colonel,” the commanders said in concert, and Abe RUS pinned a badge to Rafian’s chest that had the symbol of a phoenix rising from an orb.

“Cadet Colonel Rafian has been awarded the topmost rank and designation of first grade!” the captain bellowed.

“Congratulations, Raf, you did it!” the cadet commander whispered and she threw formality to the wind and hugged him tightly.

 

Memory 05 | Starfighter

At sixteen years of age, Rafian was a man. As a first grade cadet colonel he was able to choose his own destiny, so he chose the one thing that he had been fighting for all along: the right to fly ships and rain death from the skies on the enemy. The one thing he didn’t account for, however, was the amount of book reading and writing that came with piloting.

To be able to fly expensive warships, you first had to become an engineer. Then you had to study the history and theory of flying. After you knew your history, you had to dabble in the sciences to learn about the properties of space. A pilot also had to know the galaxy, the location of the various planets, and how to plot a course to each. It was a grueling ritual, and Rafian felt as if his time on Geral had been a hundred times easier.

In the days that followed his promotion, he and Vani had gotten close. She was a very pretty girl, and many of the boys on the ship were trying their hand at getting with her. Vani had long, dark-brown hair and light-brown skin. She had large, curious brown eyes and a button nose that was trumped only by a mouth that always stayed slightly open, revealing a row of perfect white teeth behind a set of full, dark-red lips.

Vani paid more attention to her appearance than any of the other girls on the ship, and Rafian could tell that they hated her for it.

Though her beauty could not be questioned, Vani could be annoyingly critical at times, and it resulted in many arguments with Rafian over trivialities. Vani hated his clothes, his background, and his ways. But for Rafian, she was a godsend due to her relative ease with academics. He would often sit with her to do homework and then take her out for lunch or dinner so that she could maintain her status as the first class’s chosen love interest.

While Rafian was aware that he was being used for his status by this girl, he genuinely loved her big brown eyes and her beautiful crop of hair, which she always fashioned in the coolest way. This was the reminder he would recite to himself whenever she was at her most critical.

At age sixteen, the former cadets were given their own apartments, and Vani made sure hers was next door to Rafian’s. She did this so that she could always be with him whenever he wasn’t training or in class. But her antics wore on Rafian, and when their relationship would not get physical—oh, how he tried—he turned his attention to a fellow pilot by the name of Kim.

Kim had a reputation for being quite generous with the boys, and he got to know her in his off-hours—while ducking and dodging Vani. Things eventually took a sexual turn, and Kim became his first. This first time was awkward, disappointing, and nothing like he had imagined or had been told by his peers. When Kim learned that he didn’t like it, she made sure they did it every afternoon, and before long, he found himself unofficially living with her and telling the other boys that she was indeed his girlfriend. Vani did not take to this well and felt hurt and embarrassed.

“Vani, we were never actually going out. Why the sudden attitude over me and Kim?” Rafian asked when she finally confronted him.

Vani flinched visibly at the confrontation as she stood in her doorway, barring his entrance. She unloaded a reply to end all replies. “Don’t even pretend we weren’t together just because you dumped me for some whore who, by the way, has slept with every guy on the ship. Yup, uh huh, even some of the men! I bet you didn’t even know that!”

And with that, she pressed her lock switch and let the hard glass slide loudly in his face, almost taking a few of his fingers with it. Rafian felt a strange twinge of irony from being told off by a girl who only wanted him as an accessory. He felt he had closure and could pursue a real future with his beloved Kim.

He found her to be perfect in all of her scandalous glory, and she knew how to touch him in ways that made the pain retreat into the recesses of the night. Their love was wild, crazy, and uninhibited, as teens their age tend to be when unchecked.

The military only cared about young Rafian’s future as a pilot and young Kim’s future as an officer, so the two were left alone to be completely careless with their love life. They threw every care to the wind, including the need for birth control. They utilized sex as a means to everything, not limited to argument resolution, sleeping aid, and, of course, motivation.

It was three months into their relationship when Kim approached Rafian with some alarming news. He was with his friends when she told him quite loudly that she was with child. In his naiveté and love for Kim, Rafian was excited at the news and grinned ear to ear at the thought. But Kim didn’t seem as enthusiastic about the child. It was then that she stated the baby was not his, but was in fact his friend, Marce’s.

The embarrassment was too much for the young soldier to bear, and he beat a hasty retreat towards his room to be alone. As he neared his door, Vani was leaving her apartment. She was about to shoot him her customary look of disapproval but she was stopped short by the tears in his eyes as he ran inside his apartment and attempted to lock the door. But Vani was quick. She barred his door with her body and slid behind him, then locked it behind her and inquired as to what was going on.

“Kim’s pregnant, but it isn’t mine,” he admitted to her after her incessant pleading. He switched his disheveled bed into table mode, and Vani sat with him to discuss what had happened.

“You do know this is karma, right?” she asked in a very matter-of-fact way, and he nodded despite himself and apologized to her.

“You were using me, Vee…” he said as he picked up the old pistol Samoo had given him and took it apart as he always did whenever he felt alone.

The room went silent after he said that, and she sat there as still as a rock, staring at him quizzically.

“We could try again,” she said after what seemed like an hour. He snapped the barrel pieces of the gun in place, laid the completed pistol on the table, and muttered, “Why would you want to?”

Vani walked over to his refrigerator and helped herself to a vial of milk. She plopped down with it by the wall, staring at him as she batted her big brown eyes in a way she knew he would notice. She was in civilian clothing and had probably been on her way to the mess hall when he had come dashing in. Her beauty made him feel low for choosing Kim.

“I know that nobody likes me, Raf,” she finally admitted. “I know the boys only want one thing, and the girls want to string me up. I know, but YOU liked me, even when we were kids. It’s like our connection or whatever.”

She let her words sink in, and the room stayed silent with nothing but the clicking of the gun being disassembled again. She took a deep breath and then uttered, “Please.” She said the word so softly that had Rafian not been looking at her, he would have missed it.

“Yeah, Vee, of course,” he said.

“You will stay faithful to me, and you will never leave me unless it is mutual, OK?”

“Do you think I want to go through this again? I can’t even show my face out there after Kim announced to the world that I’m an idiot.”

“I don’t want to hear the name of that dirty girl anymore, either.”

“OK, Vani. I will forget her.”

“One last thing, and you won’t like it. We will wait until we are older for sex, and we will always take precautions.”

This last bit seemed a bit much for a boy whose last girlfriend did it every single day. But this was Vani, the girl of his dreams, and despite himself, Rafian finally promised.

Vani was quite different after their relationship vows. She was much more physical in her affection and very loving. Rafian’s hesitation to face his comrades died after they realized that he had “upgraded” his relationship status, but it was still something he refused to talk about with anyone.

He pretended that Kim did not exist and spoke very bluntly and directly with Marce whenever he was forced to speak to him. Marce felt terrible about the entire affair and tried no fewer than seven times to reconcile with Rafian, who had an eerie way of pretending he was over it while avoiding any gestures of friendship with the boy he had once called friend.

Although he knew the entire planet system and was doing very well in his studies, Rafian knew he would have to take an actual flight test before he was given his wings. This was tough for the teen as he desperately tried to fit the very needy Vani into his life.

“I hear that the final exam is extremely dangerous, Raf,” said Vani, whom he playfully called Vee. They were sitting at one of the circular tables in the mess hall near the food dispensers that lined the north wall. The selection of food was actually good, so it was the popular spot for cadets.

“I looked into it, Vee, and it is—which is why I’ve had to start doing some simulation time after classes. From what I understand about a pilot’s exam, they put a few of us into broken ships and force us to fix them and fly. The thing is, the ships are drifting in space when they place us in them, and the controls are normally alien. The danger comes with accidentally turning on a self-destruct switch or firing at another person. Any number of things can go wrong.”

Rafian was rambling, but Vani looked petrified. “All of you guys going out are friends. What if someone gets shot or blown up?”

“We’re at war, Vee. People are going to die. Look around. This is an alliance war machine; dying is what we signed up for.”

Vani wanted to say something, but she knew it wouldn’t make a difference.

“I will visit the temple for you,” she said quietly, and he smiled at her and squeezed the finger that held the ring he had given her a week ago.

~ * ~ * ~

When the boys and girls of the Helysian had donned their pressure suits and boots to fly, they were transported to an area nearby that held twenty-five discarded ships tethered to one another. The cadets were ejected into open space and had to use the boosters on their 3B suits to glide to a ship, open it, seal it, fix it, and bring it home.

3B suits were black and oily in appearance, and they clung tightly to the body so that they looked like a second skin. The masks were very tight fitting, and the goggles were large and bug-like in appearance. However, the pilots loved to wear them leisurely around the ship to show off their perfect bodies, which were the results of years of combat and training.

Now in space, the time for fashion and games was past, and the teens gained a new appreciation for their suits as they glided towards their destiny, propelled by their boots. This mission rang similar to the one Rafian had done in order to get to first grade status. He found out that as a first grade graduate, he was permitted to skip this exercise, but he wanted to participate in order to be sure that he was ready.

When the pilots neared the cluster of ships for the exercise, things took a turn for the worse when two people went for the same ship and decided to fight over it. One of the boys’ thrusters accidentally caught the other during their struggle, and a hole was burnt through the material, freezing and killing him instantly.

Another girl triggered the wrong switch, and her ship shot off into deep space on a predestined path back to its original owner. The problem was that its owner would more than likely be the enemy, and with no light-speed technology working in the vessel, there was no way she would make it out alive.

The rest fumbled along, fixing their individual ships, but a few misfired weapons caused five more future pilots to lose their lives. It was nerve-racking, but Rafian pulled his together in good time to fly out of their stalled circle of death.

Upon docking his ship (a Casanian model), he stood on the deck and waited to see who else would return from the exercise. Vani snuck in under his arm to hug him tearfully, and he kissed the top of her head as he squeezed her close. In the end, only five of the twenty-five cadets returned with their ships, and twelve had to be rescued before their oxygen depleted.

A ceremony was conducted to a crowd filled with tearful young faces and the stoic but proud stares of older space jocks who had been through the same thing in the past. Marce was one of the five pilots who made it, and he came over to shake Rafian’s hand and congratulate him. It was a grand ceremony, and of all the things that went on, the one thing that stuck with Rafian the most was the smile on Kim’s face. She was standing in the crowd, holding a cute newborn and looking proudly up at him.

He wondered at the smile but put it out of his mind just as quickly as it had come, realizing how lucky he was, because it could have gone very badly for him. Kim had missed her chance when she ended up pregnant, and at this moment, he would have felt tremendous guilt if the baby were his. He looked over at Marce, who wasn’t paying her any attention, and felt a twinge of regret for her situation.

Above all , of the other thoughts that ran through his head as he was congratulated, medaled, and promoted, was the fact that he had now realized his dream of becoming an actual Starfighter. He had not skipped the final test, and he had not panicked during the worst. It made him feel enormous and worthy.

As a reward for his service, Rafian was immediately given the rank of lieutenant and allowed to take leave for a week. Before he could leave to start his break, he was summoned to Captain Abe RUS’s office for a meeting.

“Rafian, take a seat, young man,” the commander offered. “Before we begin, I am going to have to ask you to select a legacy name, soldier. I have heard your history and witnessed your rise, and I don’t think it would be right for a man like you to go any further without a name to start your legacy.”

Rafian felt a strange heaviness come about him at the inference, because this was something that had bothered him since he was first allowed into the academy. He had no legacy name—none! His mother had only taught him his first name before she left him, and it was something that the other children never let him forget.

“Sir, my legacy name will be VCA,” Rafian said after some thought.

The captain regarded him and nodded in approval. “You honor our home world, I see. I was expecting you to name some powerful beast or god, but you again surprise me by going with military tradition. Three letters, the sign of service. What does VCA stand for, Rafian?” he asked, seeming to be genuinely interested.

“Well, sir, the V is for Vanguard because that is where I will be in all matters of service. And though I hate it, the cadets gave me the call sign Centuri, so I will own it. A is my commitment to fight for our galaxy, Anstractor. So it is VCA. That will be my name.”

Captain Abe RUS walked from behind his desk and shook Rafian’s hand firmly, grinning. He was an older man whose hair had gone completely white. His skin was as dark as Rafian’s, and his voice sounded like a ship’s engine. Everyone respected the captain because of his lengthy history of war and strategy, but as a man, he had a presence that stayed with you.

His large nose flared as he spoke during the handshake, and to Rafian, it felt as if he were saying good-bye. “We weren’t very nice to you when you came aboard, were we?” he stated with regret in his eyes. “I think these slights against you may have been something that stayed with you throughout these years, and has driven you like some sort of angry spirit. Hell, son, you probably hate my guts for the events of that day—though I suppose many people have let you down in your young life, haven’t they?

“You are our best young soldier, Rafian VCA, and I imagine it won’t be long before you’re commanding your own fleet. But for now, I am proud to have you as one of our weapons in this war, son.”

Pausing, the captain handed Rafian a glass of whiskey and nodded at him to knock it back. Then he walked him to the door with some final words. “I would like for you to take a short break.”

This was the most that Rafian had ever heard the big man say, and though it wasn’t an apology, he took it as one and left the office to see about his shrine to Samoo LES. His mentor had not returned after a mission, and Rafian had built a memorial to him. He could see Samoo’s dark pupils and silver-streaked hair in his mind’s eye, as if the man were in front of him issuing congratulations. Samoo was from a long line of warriors in a culture of immense discipline. He was nothing like the other soldiers, and that part of him had stayed with Rafian, his final student.

“Where do you want to go?” Vani asked, startling him as he knelt with eyes closed.

He turned quickly to see her standing there, eyes on fire the way they always were whenever she smelled opportunity. It took everything within him to keep his cool rather than lay into her for the interruption.

“You’re not going to like my answer,” he said quietly.

“Okay, so out with it then, Commander Rafian!” she teased.

“Cute … but it’s lieutenant, and before I take any sort of leave, I want to go look for the cadet whose ship went into autopilot. It has only been a day, and I think I can find her.”

 

Memory 06 | Aurora Rising

Rafian wondered how it felt to be drifting alone in the cold of space, knowing no one would be there to rescue him. He imagined that for the quiet girl who had gotten stuck with the ship that took off, the universe was beginning to feel like a flood of disappointment sweeping down upon her—a bug stuck on a twig, drifting down a stream, waiting for the flood to finish her off.

He had lied to the chief on the bridge, telling him that his goal for taking his ship out was to familiarize himself with the controls—so that he could utilize her properly in a real mission, of course. Since his graduation they had torn out the guts and replaced it with a regulation cockpit.

“Lieutenant VCA, you have flown beyond acceptable boundaries of the Helysian,” the ship’s controller warned.

“Windry, can you cover for me, please?” Rafian whispered back through his communications device. Windry had been one of the nicer girls in the academy when they were kids, and while she and Rafian were not necessarily friends, she respected him and liked him enough to comply.

“I can get into a lot of trouble for this, Raf,” she whispered. “Please don’t get yourself lost or killed.”

Rafian didn’t reply but turned off the radio and sent a message to her personal CODEV saying that he owed her one. He turned on the radar and wired an AMP to it that he had stolen from the Helysian’s reserves. The tiny radar on his panel normally displayed blips around the perimeter of the ship for up to a thousand thrusts, but the AMP transformed it into a unit that was more suited for large starships and extended its reach to cover a minor sound jump.

“Where are you, Cadet?” he asked out loud as he scanned the radar, but he could not make out anything that would have been her ship. Following the direction of her flight as he remembered it, he increased his thrusters and hoped she had not self-destructed from being panicked and pressing random buttons. He had enough fuel to last a few days, and he was hoping that the chief would forget about his departure and allow him the time it would take to rescue his classmate and bring her back home.

It was a few hours later when he found the ship, but it was abandoned and looked as if it had been torn apart by a trace laser. His ship was a traditional long-nose, similar to those from the Second War. It had wings that curved upwards, a feature that was built for aesthetics over function, and the cockpit had glass that allowed him to see 360 degrees. Rafian believed this feature to be ugly, but it was extremely useful for his search.

Shutting off the engine and using the side thrusters to float around the discarded ship, he tapped the boost lightly to rotate around the debris and wondered where the pilot could have gone. Her mangled body, even if vaporized, should have been drifting near the ship, but it looked as though she had managed to get out before the attack and had somehow vanished into thin air.

He was on his fifth rotation when a vessel materialized in front of him, large and imposing. He had never seen anything like her, not even in his textbooks, and his mouth fell open at the sheer size of her. It was as if a huge wall had appeared, blocking everything as far as he could see. It was good that he had let himself get distracted at the ship’s details because he instantly blacked out, never seeing the lizak ray as it shone into his cockpit and sucked out the air before pulling his craft into a cargo hold.

Rafian awoke with a start, and his eyes grew accustomed to his surroundings. He was quite surprised to be living, and even more so at the fact that the vessel was pumping out breathable oxygen. The temperature was warm, and he looked down to realize that he was lying in a vat of thick, pink liquid deep inside a pit of some sort, with a plantlike growth covering its metallic, cylindrical sides.

He thought of how silly he must look lying there in what appeared to be a giant’s serving cup filled with corroded old milk. He stood up and checked himself in case he was missing parts, but he was good. He looked around wildly for any trace of a door or window. The whole situation felt hopeless, and he wished he knew something of his captors so he could gauge his next move.

The walls were smooth to the touch, and Rafian checked the growth to see whether it could hold his weight—no such luck, and he wondered if this would be his end.

The water smelled like old shoes, and he scanned it intently to see if he could figure out what it was. There were lumpy objects beneath its surface, and Rafian reached in and pulled something out to see if he could make sense of it. He dropped the object with a start and gasped despite himself when he saw the eroded flesh falling off the skull he had pulled from the muck.

“This is some sort of slow acid!” he whispered as he looked around again to see if there was a way out. The cylinder was too wide to even consider triangle jumping, which was a technique the soldiers learned that involved springing onto one wall and then using it as leverage to rebound onto the other.

He decided he was not going to panic, no matter what. Even if the liquid began to eat at his feet, he would rely on his training. He kept repeating this to himself over and over again until he was more than certain that he was going to die honorably. He thought about the Virulian super spies who were each given a fake tooth to pop out and eat to commit suicide if caught.

He always loved watching the vids of the spies in training and wished he had one of those fake teeth to make his death quicker than the slow melt of the acid. It was then that he saw the girl; she was on the edge of the cylinder looking down at him—a half-naked, brown-skinned, slender creature with a frightened look in her eyes.

“Rafian?” she whispered and he nodded in response, realizing he didn’t know her name. “Hold on, I’m gonna get you out,” she said, but as soon as he nodded she disappeared again.

In about a half hour’s time, she was back with a rope fashioned from what he realized was her clothes. Hooking the rope to a fixture above the cylinder, the girl threw the free end down towards Rafian. He managed to reach it with a triangle jump and scramble up with much effort.

“Thank you!” he whispered and hugged her as if he knew her.

“I’m Aurora,” she said once they were settled, and Rafian offered her his slimy jacket to serve as a makeshift skirt. As they stood on an expanse of holes that resembled metallic Swiss cheese, he realized the top of the cylinder was one of a few thousand, stretching on as if there was no end.

From the low ceiling hung what appeared to be plant life, and the vines would periodically descend into the holes to feed on the pink fluid that lay within. Rafian looked about for an escape, but all he saw were holes, plants, and the dull, blue light that illuminated the area.

“Aurora, how long have you been here?” Rafian asked.

The girl looked at her feet as if thinking before shaking her head no.

“Aurora, you’ve been missing for half a week! Have you eaten?”

She again shook her head no, and Rafian thought about what he could do to help.

“We need to find my ship so I can get to my rations,” he said.

“Do you know how I got out of my hole?” she asked. “It was by chance, luck, something. One of the vines came down, and I grabbed it as it ascended. Scary stuff. They have teeth, y’know? I—I knew I was dead when I failed the exam, so I made a game of seeing if I could count the holes here. I think the highest I got was about 115…”

The girl trailed off, shivering and looking the worse for fear, so Rafian sat next to her and pulled her close to share his warmth.

“I’m not trying to get fresh with you, Aurora, though you certainly are attractive,” he said and smiled slyly. She unexpectedly smiled back at him. “You need to get some food and warmth. I expected to find you drifting in your ship, not in this place, whatever this place is.”

She had tears in her eyes on hearing this, and he held her close so she could cry. There has to be people controlling the ship, he thought, because someone uncloaked, captured my ship, and took the time to feed me to this greenhouse horror. He felt around in his pockets for some sort of weapon but found nothing.

“Get up, Aurora,” he commanded. “Let’s find a wall and follow it.”

They walked for two hours along numerous pits before reaching a wall, and Rafian realized that it could be several hours more before they might get lucky and find a door. He was wondering how long he had been knocked out after the ship had captured him. It didn’t feel as if much time had passed, and he was not the least bit hungry or thirsty.

He wondered about Aurora and whether or not his mind was playing tricks on him. Was he still drifting out in space? Was he aimlessly lost and without air? If they could survive a few more days, the Helysian would come looking for him, or at least go to the last known location of his ship, and—he immediately felt a panic! The Helysian would not stand a chance against this vessel, given its size, unless they were lucky and there were no weapons mounted on it.

“I just want to know who our captors are,” he said, not so much to himself or to Aurora, but more like an announcement. “If I can find that out, I could know what we need to do to get out of here.”

The pair walked for a few more hours, and before long, Rafian had to carry Aurora on his back. When she became too heavy, he would cradle her in his arms and then switch her again to his back when his arms would tire. After a while, the two became so exhausted that they lay next to one another, hugging for warmth and eventually finding a couple hours of uncomfortable sleep. Near the end of what would be the second day of walking, Rafian observed a light breaking through the blue mist from what he hoped was a doorway left ajar.

Aurora was beginning to look pale. Her almond-shaped eyes were barely slits now as she struggled to be strong and make her own way as much as possible. As fatigue settled in, Rafian felt as if their long trek along the ship’s wall was much like running a marathon. Crouching in the shadows near the door, he waited to see what would emerge from the light.

His wait was soon rewarded when a figure floated through the doorway. It looked like a Vestalian octopus with twelve tentacles that appeared to be holding it aloft. Its movements were slow and rhythmic, as if it were dancing whenever it moved. Eyes ran along its body like metallic windows, and it seemed to be surveying the pits.

The movement and iridescent color of the creature were so foreign to Rafian that it sent shivers down his spine just looking at it. He glanced over at Aurora and realized that she was dying; he had to make a move, and it had better be the right one if he was going to save her.

He wanted to be on his ship and off this alien craft. He didn’t know what this creature was or what it was capable of, and most importantly, how many of them were waiting for him through the lit doorway. Rafian waited for the floating creature to move away from the door, and then he swiftly picked up Aurora and bolted into the doorway, ready to take on whatever might come at him.

Luckily for them, there were no more creatures in sight as he ran, but there was not much else, either. The hallway was a massively tall, narrow, lit alley of strange hieroglyphs. It seemed to go on endlessly and defied Rafian’s heart’s capacity with every stride. Before long, Rafian was beyond fatigued, and the hallway dead-ended into what appeared to be a computer room with a curious set of controls.

“This is an algae food and fuel factory vessel, Aurora!”

“Hush, Rafian! He may be coming back!” Aurora gasped, weakly.

“No worries, Aurora. That was no alien. That was actually a machine, a harvest droid, to be exact, and it will be making its rounds for a while to make sure the plant is fertilizing properly.”

Aurora seemed relieved as Rafian set her down on the chair, and she cupped her chin in one hand. “How do you know all of this stuff?”

“Well, I have been doing my fair share of reading in the archives, and when I learned about our fuel, I learned that we buy algae and curlar from the Vinnevux Corporation. This is one of their ships. I can tell by this logo right here!” he explained excitedly.

“So they use human remains to fuel our ships?” Aurora asked.

Rafian stared at her, unable to find an answer to a very perplexing question. The Vinnevux Corporation was a company in Searne, Casan that had figured out how to make fuel from the waste and debris that floated around in space. The thought that some of that fuel might actually be human remains made Rafian sick to his stomach, but he also was equally disturbed by the entire process, too.

“How about I get us off of here?” He smiled at her, and she looked up weakly at him and nodded.

“Yes, let’s quit this dump.”

Rafian poked around at the controls of the vessel, and after a few moments, he figured out how to activate the transmitter. Pulling up the star map, he sent a message to the Helysian and put in the verification codes that were asked of him the minute it went through. Almost instantly, the ship erupted into a screaming alarm, and Rafian steeled himself for combat as several of the octopi came into the room and paused to look at the couple.

Dvat…sel…un…Rafian…cuor Aurora,” Aurora offered up in her best Searnese.

Rafian understood enough to know she was trying to introduce them to the machines, but he didn’t know whether they would understand her. Before long, the alarms went silent, and even though the robots had seemed ready to vaporize them a second ago, they wheeled away to continue their work.

“To think our thoughtful leaders almost let a brilliant officer like you die in space, Aurora. What you did just now was nothing short of amazing.”

He was sweating like crazy, his fists still clenched but Aurora was not looking well.

“Can you hold on for another hour, Aurora—just one more hour?” he asked. “Can you do this for me, please?”

He was pleading with her as she fought to keep her eyes open and focused while he rubbed her hands to make them warm. As the minutes ticked by, Rafian tore the room apart, looking for something edible to feed Aurora. His search yielded nothing, but luckily for them, it didn’t take long for the rescue ship to appear.

“In a few minutes, you will be on a friendly ship with food, drink, and all of the things that you like, Aurora. What do you think about that, huh?”

Rafian made it a point to keep talking so that she would be forced to respond, and when they boarded the ship to be rescued, she made sure to stay awake in order to acknowledge that it wasn’t all a dream.

~ * ~ * ~

On Helysian, Aurora was fed, vaccinated, and taken to the infirmary, while Rafian was scolded and punished for his unsanctioned rescue mission. It was a complicated return and ceremony for Aurora, but she was granted her wings as a pilot for “making it back to the ship.”

About a week after they had returned, Rafian was in the simulation room gearing up for a mission when a beautiful, young woman in a pilot’s uniform sat down next to him and hugged him close.

“Erm, hello?” he said quietly as his eyes began scanning the room quickly for any sign of Vani.

“Rafian, do you not recognize me?” she exclaimed before punching him in the arm.

“Aurora?” he said as he stood up. “You look … you look like a model!”

Smiling, Aurora patted the seat next to her, motioning for him to sit. When he did, she poured her heart out, tearfully thanking him and letting him know she owed him her life. Rafian thought about it for a while, and then, after a hug that lasted an eternity, he said, “How about I call you sister?”

“What do you mean, Raf?” she asked, puzzled.

“Well, we’re both outsiders, Aurora, and it would be nice to have some sort of family here like everyone else. Someone who cares when I do good things or when I get in trouble. I’d like to call you sister.”

Aurora’s eyes were all fire and excitement at the prospect, and she kissed him on the cheek with glee.

“Yay, a brother!” she said with glee and they accepted their roles immediately.

 

Memory 07 | First Mission

The las-sword was one of the most specialized weapons that the Geralos used, and Rafian wanted to be comfortable fighting with and against it. For this he had rigged up a training module using some of the marines’ elite androids to spar against in order to improve. However, this particular android must have been fitted with a master AI, because Rafian could find no break in its moves or mistakes to exploit in order to get the better of it.

For two minutes (which seemed like a lifetime), the boy and the machine had clashed las-swords. The android parried his swing strongly to the side and swiped at Rafian’s exposed arm, slicing the skin into a burning gash—which would have taken his arm off if the las-sword had been powered up beyond training level. Without giving in to the pain or severity, Rafian had spun a back fist into the skull of the droid but lost his las-sword at the same time.

They had kept the fight going, with Rafian using unarmed martial arts to parry the machine’s swings and thrusts. After Rafian planted a side kick into its chest to knock it across the room, the android threw the sword. That was when Rafian pulled out a hidden pistol and angrily shot back to put it out of commission.

The fight had lasted all of five minutes before the gunshots went off, but by the time it was over, Rafian was sore, tired, and regretful of having to resort to cheating in order to take out the android that was meant to train him.

Perhaps setting it to kill mode was a bad idea, as the machine had fought him the way an angry, skilled Geralos would have if the situation were real. Even worse was the swipe that had nailed his now-numbed arm. Had that sword been powered up, he would now be without an arm—or worse.

The machine was rigged to finish the job, and if he had been a second too slow, he would have been hit by the thrown blade and killed.

Rafian was no stranger to life-and-death situations, as that had been the narrative of his life, but to lose in a training exercise was not the most glorious end to a soldier’s life. He opened the door to the training room as he wrapped his seared arm and slowly made his way back to his room.

He ran into Vani, who looked as if she had just seen a ghost when she saw the bandage on his arm. Almost instantly, she began shouting. “What the hell happened to your arm? OK, OK, infirmary, right now. We need to get this looked at before it’s too late!”

~ * ~ * ~

As Rafian sat in the ship’s infirmary clutching a badly burnt forearm, he tried his best to ignore the screaming boy who commanded an audience despite the objections of his young mother, who all but looked defeated. That young mother was none other than Kim, the girl he used to love, who had broken his heart with that same baby.

“Rafian?” she said when she finally saw him, and it felt as if the oxygen had left the ship.

He looked up to regard her but was cut off by Vani, who had removed her earpieces in order to confront Kim. “You don’t talk to him, cruta!” she said to Kim, while gripping Rafian as if to show ownership.

Cruta? I’m a cruta now, Vani? You don’t even know me, you spoiled little schtill.” Kim clutched her son close, eyes like hot coals searing into Vani’s as they squared off against each other. Vani made to get up, but Rafian held her down, reminding her quietly that Kim was a mother with a child.

“You don’t have to like me, Vani. You don’t matter to me. I was just concerned about Rafian,” she said.

“I got burned with a las-sword while I was jousting,” he said finally, then felt uncomfortable under her stare, which would not break no matter how much he tried to avoid it.

“I heard what you did for Aurora,” she said to him as he looked over at Vani. She sat with her hands crossed, fists balled up, and face cocked to the side, her eyes shut so tight it looked as if she were about to explode.

“You’re like the ship’s biggest hero next to the commander or something. That is so—”

She was cut off by the medic’s voice over the telecom calling her back to see the pediatrician. Vani was still coiled, ready to strike, but Rafian kissed her on one of her closed eyelids and it was enough to diffuse her fire and make her open her eyes.

She looked up at him as he placed one hand on her cheek and kissed her on the lips. Vani’s fists opened to find their way to Rafian’s back and she smiled despite herself, forgetting what it was she was upset about in the first place.

Rafian didn’t hate Kim as she assumed he did but he did hate what had happened between them. Kim was a reminder of the times when things were so unfairly negative for him. Now he stood as a marine, one of Vestalia’s hopefuls, and he could not stand to remember how much of a loser he had been to think this girl was going to be his forever.

“Get her out of your head,” Vani said as she brought him back from the abyss of his mind. She held him close until he was summoned by the doctors to have the skin on his arm replaced and the scars removed.

~ * ~ * ~

Although Rafian had been grounded for rescuing Aurora and disobeying orders, he was still responsible for gaining leadership knowledge. He was made to shadow different commanding officers on random days, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was responsible for staying sharp via the virtual machines and holographic study.

Vani’s duties were more mundane. Being primed for navigation, she often pored over galactic maps projected so large that it took up most of their tiny apartment. Vani had grown fond of Aurora, but her jealousy of her closeness to Rafian was hard to keep in check at times. The fights they would get into would range from her being upset about Aurora hanging out or his aloof attitude about everything that seemed to concern her.

For Rafian, Vani was a drama queen. But he saw her as his drama queen. He would often call her a “spoiled spacer brat,” better suited for some tucked-away planet like Louine, with maids and manservants who would cater to her every whim while she was oblivious to the galactic war. It was a nice insult to levy at Vani, but Rafian would say it only in those rare moments when he was angry.

She was so vocal and expressive that it made him love her when she was happy and hate her when she was upset. He never wanted to end up coddling her since he feared that she would get used to it. So he fought back when she was disagreeable and encouraged her when she was being cute. At the end of the day, he loved her immensely, but he was concerned about their future if she didn’t find a way to curb her rage.

It had been three months since he rescued Aurora, and he was told that he could finally fly his first mission whenever he was prepped and ready. But he was restless and mentally drained from fighting with Vani. So he decided to hop onto the next shuttle heading to the warship, Missio-tral. Since the Helysian was part academy and floating barracks, missions were not carried out directly from there. This prevented any retaliation from enemies tracking a pilot home or spies who managed to see where she was cloaked and orbiting.

Rafian stepped off the shuttle with a spring in his step, his 3B suit primed and his air supply full. He was armed to the teeth with the weapons he had chosen for this particular trip. On his person, as usual, was Samoo’s gun, a las-sword very much like the one that had almost taken his arm off, and a sniper rifle that he had taken from the special reserves.

“Rafian VCA,” a deep voice stated from somewhere in front of him. He recognized the voice as that of Vallen, an old friend from his days as a cadet. Val had grown to be very mature—in terms of looks and speech—unlike the other boys, who still maintained their boyish features and higher voices.

They grasped forearms in the customary greeting and moved to a corner to catch up on their individual happenings in life. After the first grade exercise that Rafian had undergone, Val was transferred to the Starship Alpha Terracydes, where he was deployed into fighting on a small moon by the name of Cairn. Many had died on the moon, but Val had proved himself an ace at survival. He told Rafian of his tour of duty, and Rafian in turn told him of the Aurora mission.

“So with a badass like Val Tracker down here, why would they need a half-witted scrub like me along?” Rafian jokingly asked.

But Val reassured him that the mission was indeed important and best suited for a soldier who could pull off a stunt like the one he had done on Geral as a cadet.

The friends spoke for an hour before they were summoned to be briefed on the mission. The man in charge was a short, bulldog of a colonel named Cilas MEC, who went by the nickname Rend. He had a raspy voice that sounded like an engine badly in need of oil and Rafian was in awe at being in his presence.

The fact that Rend was in charge of a mission meant that it was not only important but that it was also classified, high-level, and more than likely going to be something that he would never be able to discuss. Rend spoke and the entire room dared not breathe lest they miss an important detail about the mission at hand.

“Warriors, let me first congratulate you on being chosen for this mission. This duty that you are being asked to perform is one of great importance and one that will gain us much ground in retaking Vestalia and granting our people freedom.”

He continued to tell them of how honored they should feel for being selected and reminded them of their sworn secrecy in matters of military service. He then brought up an older woman to give the pertinent mission details. Her name was Helga ATE, which she combined to make her call sign, “Lady Hellgate.”

Hellgate, unlike Rend, was soft-spoken, but nobody dared mistake this for weakness. She was known for her ferocity and merciless attacks on enemy cities, leaving nothing in her wake but fire and death. Hellgate had leveled her share of civilizations, and Rafian imagined her kill count being in the tens of thousands.

He smiled slightly at the war heroine because she was one of the soldiers who had inspired him during his studies to become a pilot. She explained the mission details, and Rafian blinked away his admiration in order to truly listen to what she was saying.

“It has been 183 days now since the Geralos took over the moon of Meruda, whose rich resource of Io-89 they have coveted since they started aggressions with the Alliance. Rend and his troops have gained much ground in the last few months after the Geralos commander Baiken fell from tripping a mine outside Unik5.

“The lizards are in disarray. It’s what happens when they have no leadership. So far, we have been able to take advantage of this panic and destroy a number of their forward operations. We cannot afford to lose momentum now. You are all here to help us push into the capital of Arisani, jewel of Unik5.”

The hard woman paused to look across the room and her eyes focused on the area where Rafian was standing.

“You were all handpicked for this mission because of your military record. We aim to take that capital by any means necessary. Once we succeed, the lizard’s reinforcements, supplies, and ultimately their morale will deteriorate. We will turn the tides of this war, AWHOO?”

All of the soldiers present echoed the war cry, “AWHOO!” including Rafian, who screamed it out enthusiastically. Hellgate spoke more on the specifics of the mission and the divisions that would carry it out. Rafian hoped that he would be allowed to fly with Hellgate’s Nighthawks, but he was chosen for recon instead.

He, Val and several marines were hustled aboard a Shadow Raven en route to the moon of Meruda. They were to march under deadly fire upon the gates of Arisani and hold it for their comrades. He felt a knot in his stomach but he tried not to think about it. His eyes found those of another marine and he realized that they were all young soldiers, hungry to prove themselves.

He was made to don a full suit of armor with blast helmet and trek boots, and without thinking, he kept the 3B suit on and placed the armor over it. The company he was in was nicknamed the 12th, since eleven had gone before them on similar missions. He counted thirty soldiers in his unit, and they all seemed to know one another.

“Time to cash in that death sentence we all signed up for, eh, boys?” a freckled, red-headed marine shouted as the men and women strapped themselves into their cryogenic chambers in preparation for the FTL jump. He was met with laughter and a few similar jokes, but the mood was forlorn, and Rafian hated the way it all felt.

The glass doors shut around each one of them, encasing them within individual egg-shaped pods. A cold, thick, white mist coalesced about them, placing them into stasis, which would allow them to survive faster-than-light travel. The enormous Shadow Raven lifted up out of Missio-tral’s dock and flew for a time before jumping to Meruda.

When they were stabilized and close enough to the moon, the pods opened up and the soldiers were allowed to mobilize. Rafian realized that one of his hands had not been thawed and panicked at the sight of his paralyzed fingers and the grim claw they formed.

“One second, Lieutenant!” a pretty, young corporal announced as she rushed over. She shoved a six-inch needle into his arm and it began to thaw instantly. Rafian thanked her and got down on the deck to do his ritual of push-ups and sit-ups. All of the marines had their post-cryo rituals, and as the ship moved to break orbit, they all found the deployment bench behind the pilot’s cockpit and strapped themselves in.

The moon of Meruda had gravity close to what the soldiers would consider normal but it had an unfriendly atmosphere, making it a mandatory helmet-and-suit affair for oxygen breathers. Rafian thought it was pretty brazen of them to attempt a hostile takeover of a moon that circled the enemy’s planet, but he was excited for the mission and was convinced that there was no other place he’d rather be.

The ship flew near the surface, and then the countdown started. By the time it had reached thirty seconds, something crashed into the side of the ship, and the Night Raven no longer had the desire to stay airborne.

They were falling fast, and the pilot did his best to level her to the ground as Rafian and the others took emergency measures and waited for the collision. They came down hard and the impact killed the pilot instantly. There was gunfire everywhere as the sounds of the war became real to them, and as a unit, they exited the back hatch of the downed vessel and primed their weapons for attack.

“STAY LOW AND HUG THE CLIFFS!” a man with a captain’s shield on his lapel was yelling back at them as laser fire and kinetic bullets rained down on them from all angles. Rafian saw four soldiers go down from gunshots, and the rest of the company huddled close to one another and ran along the face of a raised crater that provided some cover from the onslaught of bullets.

Rafian thought the position they were in was simply stupid, but the brave marines pushed through it, returning fire as they could until there were only twenty left, hunkered down in a ravine that kept them safe from the fire and allowed them to catch their breath.

Meruda was a desert moon, and the sand ranged from white to a graphite gray. Above them, a blazing star kept the surface bright like a spotlight shining down through the inky expanse of space. The sky appeared nightmarish, all red clouds with black splotches, broken only by the bright orange star, which gave the planet a strange crimson tinge.

“VCA get to a vantage point!” the captain commanded as an out-of-breath Rafian looked over the other marines. It was his cue to take action, and as commanded, he scurried back along the ground on his elbows and knees until he could see a large hill behind the area where the ship had crashed.

Triggering the cloaking device on his arm, Rafian climbed out of the ravine, and the other marines began lobbing bombs in order to draw the Geralos’ attention off of the invisible sniper who was trying to flank them.

Rafian made it to the hill with a minute to spare on invisibility, but he could hear the sound of a gun above him at the apex of the dune and knew that a Geralos was already using it for cover. He pulled out his las-sword, happy to finally put it to good use, and began climbing the hill, angling in a way so he couldn’t be seen. He reached the gunman as soon as the cloak wore off and ignited the las-sword to maximum power as he swung it into the shoulder of the Geralos.

The cut made a sound like fruit hitting a wall. The creature’s torso split into a seared gash of spurting blood as it died silently and unaware. The soldiers below were still firing at the enemy, and Rafian dug himself into the sand beneath the bloody body and commandeered his rifle. His thought was to camouflage himself from the other Geralos soldiers who would look his way for retaliation. He spared no time in picking off the other snipers, dropping five before they realized what had happened.

The marines rallied, and before long, the ravine was secured. The Geralos who survived retreated to another point, but within two hours, the Vestalian military had set up an outpost at the crash site and were able to check in with their command.

Rafian wondered how Val had dealt with situations such as this one for as long as he did without dying. It made him respect the hardiness of his friend even more. He sighed in relief but stayed stationary in case any Geralos were dug in and waiting for him to slip. He slowly scanned the battlefield for signs, but nothing was moving. He wanted to get up and run to the rest of the troops but something in the back of his mind told him to stay put.

“What’s your situation, Lieutenant?” the captain asked, speaking through the comm, and Rafian whispered, “I.H.O.”. It was the code for Instinctual Hold-Out and a soldier’s way of saying, “Trust me, I think something’s up.”

Rafian did not want to say that he thought a sniper was playing possum because the captain would have answered by commanding his troops to level their perimeter with artillery. A smart sniper would survive the noisy onslaught, and a few more marines would end up dead within the hour. The only answer to a sniper was another sniper, and Rafian hoped he would see the enemy before the enemy spotted him.

The dead Geralos who lay on top of him was heavy and beginning to stink, and the sand was making an awful noise against his helmet as a steady wind blew from the east. Why was there wind? He began to wonder if something had happened off in the distance, but his concentration snapped back into focus when he saw a dark shape come into view and then duck behind a rock instantly.

The Geralos was waiting out his cloaking device very much as Rafian would, but had made the mistake of being seen before he reached that rock. Rafian spotted him about 150 yards from the camp and felt a sense of urgency come over him to stop the progress. He had to flush that Geralos out into the open to make his shot because the cloak would allow him to get close to their camp and deploy a bomb or carry out whatever assassination attempt he had been assigned.

Rafian’s mind was racing for an answer. It normally took five minutes for a cloaking device to recharge, and then it would keep you invisible for another five. He would have to make his kill shot before that Geralos could move, but the large rock he was hiding behind was enough to keep Rafian blind from getting the shot.

He thought about jumping down and killing him with his sword, but the distance was too great, and while he was pretty fast on his feet, he was not going to make it off of a hill and cover 150 yards in an instant.

There were two minutes left until the cloak would be active, so Rafian touched his comm and asked the captain for some fire to be leveled at the rock. The request was met almost instantly, and Val Tracker was the one to do it. Val walked out to the center of the camp with a heavy star gun strapped to his waist and planted himself into the ground. The loud rotary motor of the gun began to spin as he laid out kinetic gunfire in waves upon the area of the rock that Rafian had signaled.

The Geralos ran out from the rear to seek cover, and Rafian put a plasma round in his neck as soon as he popped out. Through the scope, Rafian could see the grenade on the ground where it fell and he shot it, leaving a massive crater in the sandy moon’s surface.

He hoped that the other Geralos would assume the mission was successful and grant them some respite for a time. Either way, the threat had been removed, and he could finally crawl from beneath the ripe body of the dead sniper to rejoin his fellow marines.

 

Memory 08 | Violent Vani

The fighting was intense on Meruda as the marines moved towards the capital as commissioned by Lady Hellgate. After the rough landing and a brilliant display of command by Captain Relled ZEK, the marines finally got a break. One of the brave men of the 18th had taken out the communications tower at the main forward outpost of Arisani, and that allowed Hellgate’s squadron of Nighthawks to bring air-to-surface warfare on the Geralos.

Rafian had lost track of time, but it had been three weeks of fighting for him. Fifty-three confirmed kills and one nagging injury from a kinetic shot that grazed his helmet when an enemy sniper found his position. The shot rattled his head a bit, and he found himself getting on-and-off headaches. The soldiers were all brave, and while a few of them could use a bit of charm school, he could not ask for a better team to watch his back in a time of aggression.

The squad had come up to a small lake on the outskirts of Copl, a city a few miles outside of Arisani. The Nighthawks had done a number on the buildings, but there were still snipers and hardcore infantrymen dug in deep.

The marines were asked to take the building and secure it for high command to use as a final stage for the takeover of the main city. The soldiers took to the water and began wading in on the city as the starry sky lent enough illumination to give the situation an eerie ambience. They had barely made it halfway across when gunfire started ripping into the water around them like raindrops.

A few men took shots, and the medics rushed them into stasis suits to pull them out of the water and onto the near shore. Rafian swam behind a rock and ducked for cover along with some of the other men. It was impossible to see where the shots were coming from, as the ruined building walls remained tall and mysterious in the distance, obscuring whatever and whoever was there firing on them.

Val Tracker took to an area behind what seemed like a downed vessel and began spraying the buildings with his star gun. His return fire slowed the enemy’s barrage enough for his fellow marines to keep pushing forward, and Rafian swam over to his friend and initiated his invisible cloak so that he could observe the enemy without any distractions.

His night vision revealed numerous shapes moving within the buildings, and he realized that there would be quite a fight if ever they made it to the shore and engaged the attackers. Relled ZEK kept his men moving forward, an energy shield protecting him as he huddled them close and advanced on the shore. Val’s gun barked like a large dog, hitting anyone careless enough to be in its crosshairs, and Rafian stood at his hip, picking off the clueless Geralos who were not under cover.

The soldiers stormed the beach, and the fight became extra violent. Two men were disintegrated by scrape bombs, and a Nighthawk was shot from midair as it lagged behind its commander on a flyby called in by ZEK.

When Val and Rafian made it up to where the others were, the wild gunfire from the Geralos had gone silent, and the only shots were some unfortunate marines being picked off by their snipers. The open gunfire barrage to keep them from crossing had now become guerilla warfare. The moon’s rotation was relatively fast and gave them eight-hour days of scorching, hot light. But it was dusk when they were commanded to take the shore, and they all knew it was to give command the luxury of arriving during the day to take the reins and move on Arisani.

“Raf, come with me,” Val whispered, and he retracted and shouldered his heavy weapon before pulling out his sidearm.

“Just us?”

“Just us. Captain wants us to play recon.”

Rafian shouldered his sniper rifle and then moved the las-sword to position it on his hip. They stayed low and moved silently around to the side of the city in hopes of gaining entrance to the west. Captain ZEK had a few mechanical cannons assembled and fitted near the entrance to provide covering fire as the pair of soldiers moved to get around the wall.

Val was not as fast as Rafian, but he stayed at his back with his eyes aware. When they arrived at a busted-out hole in the wall at the west of the city, a Geralos soldier popped out with his gun drawn, only to have his hands cut off and then his head by the rhythmic humming of Rafian’s las-sword moving like lightning in the night.

“Nice weapon you got there!” Val whispered with a smile.

Rafian replied, “This is their technology. If we come across another one, it’s yours.”

Val nodded in approval.

They took out three more men before making the ascent to the mayoral building and Rafian radioed Captain ZEK to begin the approach. Val and Rafian reached the balcony of the large mayoral building, which was a mixture of Vestalian and Geralese architecture.

Val sat with his back to the south-facing wall, pistol drawn and eyes and ears ready. Rafian was cloaked and had his rifle on a tripod as he lay prone on the thin wall of the balcony, looking south towards his incoming squad. Every Geralos who tried to engage ZEK and company was shot from the rear by Rafian and Val.

“These guys must really be in a panic,” he whispered to Val. “This is basic-level stuff, bro. You gotta watch your flank.”

He was wondering at the general ease with which they had taken the city, but he was right about the panic, as the lizards mostly retreated to the main city to make their last stand against the invaders. Along with Rafian’s crew and the pilots of the Nighthawk, Colonel Rend had coordinated eight drops around the city at various positions. His thought was to move the eight squadrons into the center simultaneously and disallow the Geralos any chance of reinforcements or escape.

Rellos ZEK took to the stairs and walked up with two other marines, Connor YEM and Vestalia LAU. The soldiers greeted Rafian and Val and then focused on the door to what would’ve been the mayor’s room. ZEK used hand gestures to let them know that the other soldiers were scraping the city and that he intended to take the room cautiously. The five marines pulled out their handguns and then stood to either side of the door as Connor rigged a short to its mechanical faceplate and waited for ZEK’s signal.

The captain nodded once, and the door flew open, then Val threw in a flash grenade and Rafian and Vestalia rushed in with pistols at the ready.

There were four occupants in the room reeling back from the grenade’s light. Rafian shot one in the face and slid to the ground as another began firing recklessly in their direction. Vestalia caught the worst of it as three bullets hit her in the torso, and she screamed in pain, trying desperately to cover the holes in her suit.

ZEK was inside as soon as Vestalia went down, and his shotgun plastered the remaining three Geralos against the wall in an instant. Connor mounted Vestalia to tape her suit where she had been shot; the atmosphere of the moon was full of things that didn’t do well with human flesh, and while the bullets were doing enough damage to her body, the parasites and toxins would kill her if they were permitted too much time with exposure.

Connor and Val hoisted the girl up on the table and brought out a stasis suit to freeze her vitals until they were able to bring her home and patch her up properly. Rafian held her hand as they did their work, and through her mask he could see the strength in her eyes as she squeezed his hand tight until the stasis had frozen her solid.

“Tough bird, that one,” Connor said to no one in particular. “In a way, her name fits her perfectly.”

Connor was always poetic, and Rafian nodded at ZEK, who looked as if he was shouldering the guilt for what had just happened to Vestalia. Rafian placed his hand on his captain’s shoulders to reassure him and spoke freely, disregarding protocol.

“First-rate shooting there, Cap,” he said to the man whom he had grown to respect over the course of their stay on Meruda.

“Right back at you, son. Hell of a head shot on that entrance.”

“Best place to put it, sir,” Rafian replied, and they both nodded in unison, allowing the credit to settle in to calm the adrenaline that had reached a boiling point during the firefight.

The star’s light was beginning to come up over the city of Copl, and the soldiers secured its perimeter and set up camp. The lucky ones who were allowed to sleep bunked themselves into old Geralese homes and slept.

Rafian thought of Vestalia’s pretty face looking up at him with so much courage after she had been wounded, and his mind drifted to Vani and how he would feel if that were to ever happen to her. It bothered him that he felt nothing, but he blamed this on his training. He loved Vani and planned to marry her as soon as they were given the go-ahead by command, but he wondered if he still loved her the way he did when they were kids.

Just another stupid city and a couple of smart moves before I can go home to those lips, he thought, and then he smiled at the thought despite himself. He allowed his mind to wander off into the pleasures of actually bathing and eating solid foods. He had been living like a dirty worm since they dropped on Meruda, and there had been no pause to allow them to set up a proper camp that would let them remove their suits and clean their unmentionables.

Just one more mission, he thought. One more mission, and I can go home to her.

Val came over to where Rafian sat deep in thought and plopped down across from him. “Let me guess, marine. You’re probably thinking of that pretty girlfriend of yours.”

Rafian had to smile at the accusation. “Is it that obvious?” he asked, but Val didn’t return the smile as Rafian assumed he would.

“Well, I know you weren’t thinking of her while fighting these things, but check your thoughts when you do. The lizards have consumed enough pureblood Vestalian women that some have the ability to read us and put thoughts into our heads. It happened to me once when I sat on my gun thinking of Chelle, and some recon spucha bastard gave me visions of her being tortured and killed. I wondered where the hell that level of thought came from. I thought it was the war, y’know, screwing with me.”

Rafian was intrigued and horrified at the same time. “So these guys have us outmanned and outgunned, and they can put thoughts into our heads now?” he asked Val, but not in a way that Val could answer. “How exactly are we even winning on this moon with those odds?” Rafian mused.

Val gave a mocking laugh, injected a ration supplement into his mask, and then sat back chewing for a while, as if the question was worth considering.

“Who knows, Raf. Maybe they’re letting us win for some greater strategy. But remember what I told you, in case you’re ever alone with one of them. You should keep Vani and her memory off of the battlefield.”

Rafian nodded and thanked his friend. Val then went on to make fun of him for having a thing for bad girls, a joke that apparently had made its rounds to Missio-tral from all the friends who knew him.

“Vani’s not a bad girl, Val. What has she done to anyone besides be annoying?”

Val looked genuinely surprised. “What? Do you not know why they made her a button-pushing navigator instead of leaving her on the admiral path she was pursuing?”

Rafian shook his head, sadly awaiting what he assumed would be disappointing news.

“Well, your woman punched out the cadet commander after they had words one night, and the woman was carted out to receive multiple zaps to her face to keep her pretty. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about this. Look at you, thinking that you had a gentle wildflower all this time. It got bad, man. You must’ve been on a mission or something, but princess had to call mommy and daddy to bail her out, as the commander was a step away from shooting her out of an airlock for assaulting an officer. Her parents are powerful people so she got away with it, but you need to watch your back with Vani Narcila. That girl has a temper on her!”

Rafian chuckled. “She didn’t tell me about any of this when I came back with Aurora.”

“See? You and bad girls, man! First with Kim, and now with Violent Vani. Hell, if you and Vani don’t work out, you can holler at Rueche SYN, the girl who tried to blow up the ship after she failed out of Special Operations.”

Rafian looked at Val and smiled. “What about Vestalia? Is she a bad girl?” he asked, still thinking of her pretty face grimacing from the stasis.

Val got serious and made to get to his feet as he answered. “You’re not her type, Raf, trust me. Vani would get her before you would. Either way, I’m gonna go take advantage of this chance to sleep, buddy. If I were you, I would do the same.”

 

Memory 09 | Arisani

The hot steam of the pressurized cleaning chamber felt good on Rafian’s skin as he scrubbed the grime that had accumulated on his body all those days he was in uniform. He had forgotten to remove the skin-tight 3B suit when they had forced him to put on his armor, and it was actually painful to remove.

Something had changed with his body, and he couldn’t tell if he had been shot unknowingly or if it was purely mental trauma from everything that had occurred up until now. He couldn’t tell how long he had been in thought when he collapsed, but the people who were waiting in line to use the chamber saw it happen, and he was rushed to a building that the field medics had converted into something of a makeshift hospital to treat all of the wounded marines.

When Rafian opened his eyes, he was strapped to a desk with wires running from nodes attached to areas of his naked body. He felt vulnerable and wondered why they hadn’t bothered to give him some underwear before tying him down to the cold, hard desk to work on him.

“Am I all right?” he asked the doctor, who was an older man he had never seen before. Rafian thought he was odd looking, because the military ships had nobody that looked like him. He was neither muscular nor military looking in the least, and his pallid face had the scars of someone who had come face to face with a grenade.

“How long have I been in stasis?” Rafian asked, but the man was ignoring him, typing away at a panel and looking over notes the entire time.

“You’ve been here a week,” he finally replied, and then shifted his attention to another machine. “How long were you in that 3B suit?” the doctor asked Rafian as he checked the computer rapidly, paging through the vitals on the screen.

“A little over a month, I think.” He felt as if he had run a marathon, because his breathing seemed to get increasingly harder.

“Son, have they sat you soldiers down and explained to you what the 3B suit is and why you should use it sparingly?”

“Sure they have, doc, but that was a long time ago for me. We have always worn these suits—hell, for a time, they were a fashion statement on the base.” He smiled at the memory.

“Lieutenant, the 3B suit is a deep-space Zyrotech experiment that got pushed ahead way before it should have. It was due to the war that we went ahead and bypassed protocol to allow it, but this was contingent on the user knowing and understanding the risks. When you put on your marine armor, the suit should have been removed first.

“The suit is an alien technology that adapts to your environment and to the needs of the life-form wearing it. What has happened to you is, your body has adapted to the suit and vice versa. So when you took it off, your vitals panicked, and they are now trying to fix whatever it is that they assume is missing, even though you technically are healthy.”

The doctor’s lecture was the last thing Rafian wanted to hear, as he had welcomed the thought of finishing the entire mission whole. He asked if he could just wear the suit temporarily to rejoin his comrades, but the doctor wasn’t hearing it. He sedated Rafian in order to prevent him from leaving and then began working on fixing the damage the 3B suit had done.

It took another week before Rafian was released and able to move around on his own without issues. He found out that the legendary Lady Hellgate had gotten killed and this made him sink into depression. He asked if she was flying when it happened but was told that it was at her camp that the war maiden had met her demise.

Of all the bad news throughout the war, this was the one that finally got to Rafian. Colonel Rend was now using “Lady Hellgate” as the mission codename for taking Arisani, and he came to the camp to give Relled ZEK the objectives before leaving with three of his soldiers.

“I should have been there,” Rafian muttered under his breath as a young girl by the name of Levoria DRE told him everything he had missed while in recovery.

“So how do you feel, Lieutenant?” Levoria asked. She was only fifteen and was on the mission because her teacher, Wei Venthai, died from a bullet upon deployment. Levoria was very knowledgeable about the geography of Meruda, so they’d sent for her immediately to aid in the affairs of the takeover.

“Remember, you’re to stay here until you’re summoned,” she reminded him, as if to squelch any hope he may have had of being allowed to grab his gear and run after the troops. It wasn’t as if he could, since his 3B suit was now worthless and had been sent back to Missio-tral for salvage.

He remained quiet, thinking of Lady Hellgate and how he had been robbed of the chance to meet her personally. They were so close to finishing their mission and he had planned to see her when it was time to return to Missio-Tral.

Levoria, taking his silence for arrogance, shook her head and retrieved a scan pad. “We’re due for a storm any day now,” she said quietly, sitting with her legs crossed, her fingers poking and sliding rapidly on the surface of the pad.

“Sounds about right,” Rafian responded, sounding defeated. “I’m gonna take a jog and do some exercise if I may have my leave?”

“You can go, Raf, but I need your word as a Starfighter that you will not do something stupid like travel to Arisani city.”

“Don’t worry about that, I’m not going anywhere,” Rafian said as he saluted and exited the building.

There were many injured warriors in the city and Rafian saw this as he jogged between the buildings, trying to shake the sadness of Lady Hellgate. He saw many other restless marines playing games, priming weapons, and wrestling one another.

He even came across a couple of older women pretending to tan themselves under the Merudian star. Of course it was a joke, being that a skin-colored texture on a 3B suit fitted with a mask was truly nothing like the half-naked women on Vestalian beaches. The whole spectacle reminded him of the pathetic facade that was a soldier’s vacation. He recalled how they denied him leave after rescuing Aurora and how cynical it had made him.

After eight miles of rotations around the hospital-city-camp and a few brief moments when he ran into familiar faces, Rafian retired to a house that had been gutted and took a much-needed nap.

A day later, Rafian got the news that Colonel Rend had taken the city. He also heard that Val Tracker was with him, and that made him proud and happy for his friend. It was all bittersweet because he wanted to be there. But he was happy for the memories that stayed with him of picking off all the Geralos with his rifle.

What he wouldn’t have done to see the look on those lizards’ faces when Vestalian black uniforms emerged from every point on the compass, laying down deadly fire in their direction. He imagined it was glorious, and Rend had undoubtedly delivered one of his famous speeches. But Val had experienced it and that was good enough for him.

He was sitting at a table eating by himself with his mask off. The disappointment he felt over the suit situation was slowly eating him alive. This tour was his opportunity to finally take it to the Geralos after years of training. It was his first real mission, and what was he doing? Rotting away at a table, eating hard rations mask-less, a luxury afforded only to those lucky enough to be in their camp, with the Phalene pipes providing a safe atmosphere.

“You’re lucky to be alive!” Levoria had reminded him. She watched over him like his personal guard, and he was trying to figure out whether she had been hired for this duty or as an excuse to get her out of the fighting. Levoria DRE was more civilian than soldier, as her primary study had been maps, civilizations, and weather since her tenth birthday. Though she was very introverted and odd at times, he appreciated her company and the fact that she meant him well.

Vani, on the other hand, was extremely worried about Rafian, and he was only allowed to speak to her once every other day for a short period of time. Their communication was normally short but he knew he was lucky to be allowed even that. For all the disappointment he felt about missing the final phase of the war, he was extremely lonely and wanted to see her soon.

A few days after the taking of Arisani, vessels began landing on the moon to replace troops. A Veralyn medical cruiser was also there to take the wounded back to their respective ships for treatment. Rafian was taken to the Helysian, where he was presented with a Platina panther’s skull for bravery in reconnaissance affairs.

It was an extremely high honor, and it was accompanied by a letter written by Lady Hellgate herself. She had learned of his suit incident and hurriedly typed and sent in recommendations for him to receive the skull. The letter was on rare Louinian clover paper and the ink was laced with stardust—very expensive. It was the written words, however, that held the true value of the award for Rafian, because it was a personal letter to him from his hero. The letter read:

 

Lieutenant Rafian VCA, though we never met formally, I have followed your rise on the vessel Helysian and want to say that I admire your spirit. It is men like you who will win this war for us, and if the fates allow you to live past this night, I hope to fly wing to wing with you on the take back of Vestalia. Get well, soldier, and keep your head above water and your finger firmly ready to squeeze. For we are going to free Vestalia, or we will die trying.

— Lt. Col. Helga ATE

 

The letter forced tears from Rafian’s painfully dry eyes, but he was still in his mask and suit, so he let them flow freely in the Vestalian custom of opening one’s heart to the dead. “I will always fly wing to wing with you, Hellgate,” he muttered quietly under his breath, and removed his helmet so that he could wipe his tears.

Vani was in their apartment waiting for him when he finally arrived. She ran to the door, and as she embraced him tightly, her chin dug painfully into his shoulder. The mission had taken a toll on him and he was beyond fatigued.

After a while, Aurora SYN came by and he didn’t mind telling her the story of his week of boredom in the city of Copl—since everything else about his adventure was classified.

“I can’t believe we took Arisani!” Aurora exclaimed after he had finished talking.

Vani was next to her, beaming with a similar excitement. “Do you know what this means, Rafi?” Vani asked as she clasped his hand inside hers. The trio was on the bed, and Rafian was reclined, looking up at the ceiling as they spoke. Vani had her legs across his torso with her back against the wall, and Aurora lay next to him with her right hand serving as a brace for her head.

“Well, I assume it means that sooner rather than later, General ARA will be making a push for Vestalia,” he said. “Does it matter? All we did was take a tiny moon. The Geralos are everywhere and we’re so small; if they can kill Hellgate, they can kill anybody.”

“Why must you be so negative about it?” Vani pouted, and Aurora laughed at her the way she always did whenever she would make a funny face.

“I swear, Vani, you could be a holo-actress. You’re as pretty as those girls, and you have loads more personality!” Aurora declared.

Vani, who always liked to be reminded of how beautiful and talented she was, ate it up with a smile. A friendship seemed to have developed between the two girls in his absence, and he noticed it almost instantly when Aurora came in and Vani regarded her in a familial way.

Rafian was right about the command to take Vestalia, but that effort would come along only after the planet of Geral was given the same treatment that their home world had suffered. General ARA was a man with a hardwired code for revenge against those who had slighted him. As such, it would only be a short time before the war on Geral was underway.

That night Rafian slept like a rock. It was the first real sleep he’d had in months, and he dreamed of Vestalia the way it had been described to him before the Geralese invasion. He dreamed of walking her busy streets hand in hand with Vani, breathing air that was natural to their planet and not manufactured from a machine made to sustain human life.

He wasn’t sure how long he was out, but it didn’t matter with a dream like this occupying his time. When he awoke, he was no longer in a Vestalian city but in a tiny military apartment, on a lumpy, metal-based bed with a beautiful young woman nestled in his arms, sleeping soundly, as if there were not a worry in the universe as long as he was there.

“We are going to free Vestalia, or we are going to die trying,” he muttered, and as he watched Vani sleep, he realized that for the first time, he actually believed it.

 

Memory 10 | Fall Out

At eighteen years of age, Rafian VCA had twenty-three missions under his belt, over 240 certified kills via dogfights, and his face on a plaque in the Hall of Honor aboard the Helysian. He had done drops on Geral, recon in the seventh quadrant of Finian space, and helped retake Arisani when she was assaulted by Geralese Special Forces.

He had a sixth sense for danger and an eye for strategy that went beyond his years. Many officers from other ships began to seek him out for counsel, and his name had become somewhat of a legend within the ranks of the Vestalian military.

Vani, who had taken Aurora’s praise seriously, began acting in small holo movies during her off-hours. It made her stressed out and tired all of the time, and she and Rafian would argue constantly because of it. Eventually, Rafian grew tired of the torrid situation between them, and when clearance came down from the commander for him to marry, he locked it away in his bunk safe and never told her he had received it.

After a while, he began sleeping in his ship or in the bunk beds of the barracks just to stay away from her. Vani was one of the sweetest girls he knew when she was happy, but it was her bad times that became unbearable, and he came to the silent conclusion that they had gone as far on their journey as they could.

To clear his mind—and also as therapy after missions—Rafian began a routine of scouring, shining, and running maintenance on his ship, the H1G8. It was a ritual that would take literally hours, and once it was completed he would go home to Vani, kiss her goodnight, and crash on the floor from exhaustion.

The tension between them was going on the second month, and she was beginning to realize that he wasn’t going to be the one to apologize and make up this time. One day after he had spent time on his ship, she confronted him, but he coolly told her that she no longer made him happy.

“Am I that terrible that you can’t come home?” she asked with as much effort as she could to mask the hurt and anger in her voice. But he was not swayed by it in the least and stated most affirmatively, “Yes, Vee, it’s bad. All you ever want to do is complain and make me feel bad for my career.”

Vani kept her mouth shut and nodded in agreement, then began to cry loudly. Unable to help himself, Rafian embraced her, and she sobbed into his shoulder for what felt like days. “I think we need to take some time off from each other, Vee. Just for a while, till the air clears a bit.”

Vani loosened her grip a bit on him but kept her face on his chest when she agreed to their separation. She hadn’t said anything to him, but she had become extremely edgy after hearing the way the other women were talking about him. He had grown to be a handsome, muscular young man, and his name carried more weight than he could have ever imagined.

Vani was even more beautiful, enhanced by the pressure of the holo-vid industry. However, being beautiful was not enough to slow her jealousy, and her spicy tongue was no longer considered cute by her peers. She had become angry and nasty in their eyes, and Rafian received the worst of it as she punished him verbally for every pretty eye that batted itself at him from a distance.

But women were the last thing on Rafian’s mind as he became more and more obsessed with Vestalia and the opportunity to one day bring the war to the Geralese invaders. Women were looking, but the young captain was always busy, poring over info pads and holo recordings or seeking the counsel of older men.

Once in a while he would run into Kim, but after largely forgiving her for the past, he paid even less attention to her than before. For a time it was like this, and the lack of Vani on his arm made its rounds, and soon it was assumed that the young captain was single. Unfortunately for Rafian, the news of his temporary split with Vani reached the ears of those who had a personal interest in seeing them married, and he was summoned before the Minister of Military Affairs.

“Take a seat, young Rafian,” the minister commanded as soon as Rafian entered her office. It was a very interesting layout, this office of hers, as there were no angles like the apartments and offices of all the other military personnel onboard.

Rafian felt as though he had walked into a room that wasn’t onboard the ship. Even the minister was very different from the other crewmembers on the Helysian. She wore flowing robes with little lights sparkling along its length, and a matching headdress that held a half-circle symbol at the top.

Rafian sat in the chair that faced the desk and crossed his legs in anticipation of trouble. The minister walked past him, and her hand caressed his shoulder ever so gently, so as to let him know that she was friendly. She was a Meluvian woman, and her smooth olive complexion was broken only by the trademark freckles that Meluvians had around their eyes and nose area.

She had straight white teeth, light-gray pupils (another Meluvian trait), and dark-green hair. By human standards, she was beautiful, and it made Rafian a bit uncomfortable knowing that his answers would probably be influenced by the fact that he wanted this woman as much as he did.

Meluvians were always used for interrogation and positions of judgment, due to the effect their aura had on others. A Meluvian prostitute would always be the busiest and best paid, and a Meluvian lawyer would be the one at trial to fear.

“Do you love Vani Narcila, Captain?” the minister asked as she walked to the front of her desk and leaned back against it.

The first thought in Rafian’s mind was that she was standing a bit too close to him for comfort, as he noticed that he could almost see past her robes. He snapped to attention, not allowing his eyes to wander, knowing she would notice immediately. He concentrated his gaze at a painting of the Meluvian landscape that rested above her desk in an alcove of the smooth, rounded wall.

“Yes, ma’am, I do,” he said.

“You can call me Suwle,” she said softly. “Your commander is worried about your relationship. You were given clearance to marry and he likes for his officers to be married. Many are saying—”

“I am not planning on marrying Vani Narcila anytime soon, Suwle, or anyone else, for that matter. I have found that love creates more stress than it relieves.”

“Young girls can be a handful when you are with the wrong one,” Suwle said after a short pause. “I urge you to figure it out, make it work. I’ll put a note to the commander that you’re testing the buffet. He was a young man once; he should understand. I do warn you that this will give you a bit of a reputation, but it will keep him out of your business when it comes to relationships.”

Rafian thanked her several times, and then stood up to kiss her ring, which she graciously allowed as she stared at him curiously. “Someone knows how to flatter a Meluvian. Who taught you that?”

“I met a few women of Meluvia when I fought for the bridge of Traxis.”

“So, do you know of any other customs that we Meluvians have?” Suwle probed.

“I do know quite a few,” Rafian said as he looked up from the kiss, completely unguarded of his intent.

~ * ~ * ~

The next week Rafian had his belongings moved out of the apartment. He used some of the credits in his account to purchase an officer’s quarters away from where Vani lived.

At first the breakup with Vani and his tryst with the minister weighed hard on his sense of loyalty. He spent longer hours cleaning his ship and hanging out in the café. As time went on, he began to formally spend time with Suwle until he received a note that she was leaving the ship for good. A couple of weeks later, he invited Aurora over to see his new place and to pick her brain on what was going on with Vani.

“Vani is taking this pretty hard,” Aurora said to him as she sat on his couch.

“Is she?” he said as he finished mixing her favorite drink. He handed it to her. “I don’t get why she would be so upset. It was because of her attitude that we broke up in the first place. She killed our relationship with her incessant whining and bullying.”

Aurora shrugged, sipped her drink, and then scanned the apartment. “Soooo, this is nice!” she said. “When I came in here, it was if I was no longer on the ship.” She brushed her hand over his center table and pointed at the staircase in the rear of the apartment. “You even have a glass bed; nobody I know has a glass bed. How much do they pay you Special, whatever’s?”

“I have been getting paid a few extra credits ever since making First Grade. We get bonuses for missions, and I have been in action for, what, five to six years? I haven’t spent it on anything outside of a few gifts for Vani. So, last month I looked at the apartment and was quite surprised that I could afford it.”

Aurora gulped down her drink and then cocked her head to the side. “You’re overcompensating to mend your broken heart. I get it. Vani’s your love and that isn’t something you get over easily. I’m worried about you, Rafian; you don’t have to play tough with me.”

“Yeah, it sucks and it hurts, but I figured you knew that already,” he said. “I refuse to feel guilty for her,” he finally said, and then made himself another drink.

 

Memory 11 | Camille YAN

Tall and slender, with hair like golden rays of sunlight, Camille YAN was a fighter pilot who had made a name for herself on Star Base Alpha during the often-forgotten Twilight Wars. Like Rafian, she had gone the classical route of star cadet turned ace, but the two had never met until one day, when he walked onto the deck to start his custom of cleaning his ship.

“Nice ship,” Rafian remarked as he regarded her smooth-nosed Vestalian Classic with the triple-winged design. It had been ages since he had seen that model, but Camille’s was in good shape due to her meticulous maintenance, which mirrored his own. She was buffing the surface when he walked onto the deck and didn’t stop as she casually nodded to him.

“I’m Rafian VCA,” he said and walked over to shake her hand.

“Everyone knows who you are, Rafian. I’m Camille.”

“YAN,” he finished, to make sure she knew that he knew of her, too. “Is this the ship you burned through the warship Relethan with last year?”

“Same one,” she replied, and her demeanor softened. The two aces began to speak of missions, ranks, and the love they shared for space-to-space combat. Camille YAN turned out to be the sort of military brat Rafian used to make fun of back when he was a cadet. Children of her background were often teased for having never stepped foot on a planet, and Rafian would call them “spacers.”

Camille YAN was a different spacer, having huge ambitions that went beyond flying and military service. They were both First Grade and they spoke about their respective missions to attain it, and Rafian grew to respect her even more when she told him how she had managed to get off of Geral without any casualties.

She had rigged up a broken-down alliance vessel that was in the forest and flew it off the planet without encountering a single lizard. His story also impressed her, and he could sense the admiration: he had faced the enemy and survived to be standing in front of her talking about it. He found out that she had been personally trained by Lady Hellgate and had been sent on another mission when the assault on Meruda had occurred.

Camille was a mirror version of him in terms of military accomplishments, and the two spoke at length about their lives. After a couple hours of talking while cleaning their ships, the pair said their good-byes, but Rafian didn’t want this to be the last time he saw her.

“Camille, before you go, I didn’t ask. Are you stationed here now, on Helysian, I mean?”

“Actually, I am. You don’t mind the competition ,do you?”

“Not at all, Captain. It’ll be an honor. I look forward to seeing you dogfight in person.”

“Somehow I feel that it is going to be me looking at you, Captain. After all, you’re Helysian’s favorite son,” she said as she bounced away for the exit.

~ * ~ * ~

Something had happened to Rafian when he met Camille, and she would not leave his mind for many days. It was something beyond her looks—even though she had the most exotic light-gray eyes he had ever seen—and her lips had a shape that looked as if she smirked at the world, unimpressed. She was nothing like the girls he had grown up with on the Helysian. Her face would not leave his mind, and he found himself finding every excuse to talk with her beside her ship.

The pair developed a friendship and a kinship they couldn’t understand, and the days of talking turned into weeks before Rafian admitted to himself that he was in love with her. The ship’s deck was the ultimate spot for them to talk and hang out, since they were both introverts and the only two pilots who loved to clean their own ships.

Rafian found himself looking forward to it from the time he awoke till the time he was landing his vessel after his recon rounds. Camille was always there, waiting for him in the same location. On the days she wasn’t, he found himself becoming anxious, worried she had left for another ship.

On one of his rounds Rafian saw a blip in the distance as he flew his H1G8 away from Helysian. The spark was so tiny that he almost wrote it off as nothing, but his intuition would not let it be. He looked at his radar for any changes but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Still, his mind wouldn’t rest so he flew out past his typical boundary and kept on scanning for anything strange.

The only thing that registered on the radar was Helysian, and a few pieces of debris from a Geralos zip ship that had been destroyed when they found it spying. Rafian had seen the blip with his eyes and not with the equipment so he hoped that whatever it was would make the same mistake again.

There it was, that same tiny flash, and this time he was sure that he had seen it. He pushed the ship forward about two waves, then stopped to scan his radar again. There was nothing but he could feel the hair on the back of his neck rise. There was something going on and he was in trouble.

“Helysian, this is Centuri, do you copy? I’m on recon and I think we have something incoming,” he said into the ship’s comm.

“Rafian, this is Admiral Abe RUS. Where are you located? We can’t pick you up on our immediate radar.”

“That’s the problem, Admiral, switch to the star map. I think they are drifting it at about fifteen waves. They came out of FTL when I spotted them visually and they’re drifting in cloaked, somewhere near my location.”

The comm grew quiet and Rafian looked around, but all he could see was the impenetrable darkness with the occasional speck of color to indicate a star. If what he said was true then he was relatively safe, if they were being pursued by a Geralos stealth ship, the captain would not risk shooting him down because the Helysian would pick up on him missing.

“Good work, Captain, but you need to jump. We’re sending a smart bomb to your location and I don’t want you to be near its trajectory when I give the order. Cloak and head back, but do it fast. I want to hit them when they think that we’re sleeping.”

Rafian plotted a course near Helysian and then cloaked his ship; he then put the nose where he needed in order to fly a straight course and pushed the ship forward at fifteen waves. He blinked out of sight and appeared about a mile away from Helysian, a bit too close for comfort but safe nonetheless from Abe RUS’s smart bomb.

As he made to fly towards the dock he saw a white ray shoot past him, and then his radar lit up with a Geralos destroyer. The bomb had been fired exactly ten seconds after he had been commanded to jump and it struck the hull of the invisible behemoth and brought it into view as it bore down on top of them.

Rafian whipped the H1G8 around and flew into action, dropping one zip ship after another as they flew patterns around him, trying to bring him down. The two warships began trading blows and the Helysian pilots, including Camille, joined him in the middle, where they tested their mettle against the Geralos elite.

There was no time to admire the irony of being in a star fight similar to the one that had romanticized the notion to him as a child. Rafian was all focus as he called out formations to his men. His only thought—if there was anything outside of strategy—was that the lizards were intent on hurting his people, and Aurora’s face kept him on the razor’s edge.

He hoped they would not be forced into a retreat that would take them into deep space; the last time it had kept them there for over five years. Deep space meant that he would be away from Missio-tral, there would be no opportunities to visit Meluvia, and no more missions with his friend Val Tracker.

They lost a number of fighters but the Geralos got the worst of it, and their ship’s depleted shields began to fail under the heavy fire. In a last ditch move to get the Helysian to ease up, the destroyer shot a trace laser that took out over thirty ships. Some of them were Geralos but most belonged to Helysian. Camille and Rafian almost collided as they pulled off the same maneuver, a roll and a twist to get to the far side of Helysian in order to get away from the Geralos death ray.

It hurt them badly, but the Helysian took the blow and countered with its own tracer that cut off a significant portion of the Geralos ship. Once that happened its FTL drives came to life, and though Abe RUS ordered the gun batteries to focus on the source, the wounded ship was able to jump away to safety. Rafian and company were able to pick off the stragglers and before long they were all docking while counting their blessings.

Rafian landed in his spot on the dock but didn’t get out. His heart was racing and his body was soaked, and he was feeling sick to his stomach. What if I hadn’t seen that blip, he thought, and shook his head at how careless they had been. He loved Abe RUS, admired him as a leader, but he blamed the death of his numerous friends on the lack of foresight by their admiral.

A knock on his glass brought him around angrily and he saw that Camille had climbed up to check on him. He retracted the glass and feigned a look of happiness, but he saw understanding in her silvery eyes and she nodded at him as if to say, “I know.”

He exited his vehicle and joined her on the ground and his anger passed as he regarded her. She was sweaty like he was, and seemed to be waiting for something, and everything within him wanted to pull her in and taste the kiss that he would hold until she broke away. He looked away quickly and made to leave. If she had seen the intent in his eyes then she would probably start avoiding him. He didn’t want that, so he tried to remain professional.

“Ace flying out there, YAN, ace flying,” he said.

“It’s Cammy, Raf, all my friends call me Cammy. You saved our butt by going off course today. Wow, I had no idea those things could cloak!”

Rafian shook his head at her to show his disbelief. “They had us, Cammy. That was gonna be it, we weren’t even shielded when it pulled up.” He sat under the H1G8’s wing and held his head, hoping that Abe RUS would realize the mistake in their lax behavior.

Camille sat next to him and then lay back on the floor. Her hair was everywhere but she didn’t seem to care. “The ship that I was on before I got here was the Aqnaqak, and there was never a time when we didn’t have probers out at least a jump away. It’s too hot right now for us to be this lax, Raf. What in the hell is the—”

“Don’t say it, Cammy. There are ears everywhere, and despite our standing we can’t talk like that about leadership. I lost a couple friends out there; one has a little baby boy. That trace got him, and he has been in over a hundred fights. It drives home the point that our lives aren’t schtill. I’m thyping shaking right now.” He laughed. “I never get the shakes.”

Camille’s hand found his and their fingers interlocked. He wanted to take it as an invitation to everything that he wanted, but he knew that it was merely support from one survivor to another. His rage became a burning sensation in his chest, and he let it burn while he kept his mouth shut and cherished the feeling of Camille’s damp palm.

~ * ~ * ~

Abe RUS must have read Rafian’s mind because a lot of changes were made to security following the events of the cloaked ship. The pilots who died were given a memorial, and a large panel of black glass was flown in from Louine with all of their names engraved. There were no dry faces as the Admiral expressed his sorrow for their loss, and Rafian and Camille was satisfied with his apology.

They continued to grow close as the days went on, and one day Rafian asked her to accompany him on a personal mission. He had always wanted to go to the place where Samoo disappeared in hopes of feeling something of his old teacher being there. This was a personal quest that he would happily do by himself, but he needed an excuse to get her alone where the other nosy pilots wouldn’t be watching them.

He had found out through Aurora that the pilots were exchanging bets on when the two Captains would cross the line. Their friendliness had been noted and it seemed as if everyone was watching, including Vani, who reported it to the admiral. Abe RUS had told Rafian in so many words that their fraternizing was against the rules but on Helysian he didn’t care. “Soldiers need to blow off steam,” was what he said, but Rafian appreciated him letting him know that sneaking around was unnecessary.

He thought that Camille liked him; there was no other reason why she would be talking to him day after day. There had been plenty of suitors she’d told him about, but she didn’t seem interested in any of them. Taking her to Samoo’s resting place would accomplish two important things in his life. He could see if the love he felt for her was mutual, and he could see his teacher off properly.

When they finally got onboard the Reaper transport vessel, Camille immediately took the controls and began pressing buttons and sliding diagrams. “I love flying these things,” she said.

“I can tell; you’re like a kid with a new toy. You’re so cute,” Rafian said before catching himself and Camille glanced at him with a look of surprise.

She slid a lock of her golden hair behind her ear and tried to hide her embarrassment. “So you don’t mind me driving, Captain?” she asked after an uncomfortable silence had gone on for several forevers.

“Not at all,” Rafian said, appreciating her attempt to break the awkward air. He fidgeted with the controls even though he mentally kicked himself for the awkward faux pas. Now he felt like keeping his mouth shut for the entire trip. He didn’t want to ruin their time together, and he didn’t want her to be uncomfortable.

The engines of the Reaper screamed loud and fearsome as Camille pulled it out of the dock and into open space. She pushed the speed dangerously past five waves, which made the vessel feel as though it was going to tear itself apart.

“Sorry to scare you, Raf, but at this speed, we can make it to the Elegance sector in about three Vestalian days.”

“I’m not scared, Cammy. I’m in good hands. I’m with the best pilot on Helysian.”

“Flattery from Rafian VCA; now that’s one for the records. I appreciate the trust, so sit back and enjoy the ride.”

The first day of the trip gave them time to talk even further and without the chance of someone walking in to eavesdrop. They touched on more personal details of each other’s lives. Camille was divorced. Her husband had married her illegally, and the wedding was annulled when she found out that he was using her to smuggle a bomb aboard her starship. She laughed at the stories Rafian told of Vani and seemed genuinely concerned when he spoke of Kim and the baby incident with his friend.

On the second day, they studied the star map together, speaking about places they would investigate as a team when they were back on Helysian.

As Camille was intently talking about the Feoton star cluster, Rafian snuck his hand on top of hers, and she didn’t pull it away even though she knew he had done it on purpose. The sexual tension between the two aces was as thick as swamp air, but neither of them dared push the issue out of fear of hurting the magical chemistry they had as friends.

In the late hours of the day, they sat together in the kitchen and watched an old vid to try to make themselves tired enough to sleep.

“This was a very productive day, wasn’t it?” Camille said as she let her hair down and kicked off her boots to relax. When Rafian didn’t reply, she looked over to see if he was asleep and then jumped back, startled to find him moving towards her slowly, like a man possessed or crazed.

“Raf, what are you doing?” Camille whispered as if they could be heard by anyone outside of the walls enclosing them.

“Something I should have done a long time ago, Cammy,” he said to her softly, his eyes locked on her silver orbs as the surprise slowly crept away from them. She had put her hand up to cover his mouth, but he noticed that her other hand had taken hold of his belt as if she wanted to pull him closer.

“Are you married, Rafian? Is there anything you haven’t told me in our talks?”

He could barely breathe as he struggled for the words, but managed to say no as he regained his composure.

“Okay, well, is there a woman?” She kept pressing, but by the time she finished, he had pushed past her hand to take her bottom lip into his mouth and sucked it gently before moving into a passionate kiss with their tongues finally touching. It was as if lightning went up and down her spine as Rafian kissed her, and she surrendered to his touch, letting herself melt into his arms.

As the suits, pants, and boots fell to the floor, Camille took matters into her own hands and straddled him on the bench. They made love for what seemed like forever, and when they both had had their fill, she pushed him to the floor, undid the remainder of her hair, and started up again.

When they were both exhausted, Camille lay on top of Rafian, whose massive arms enclosed her slender body. He breathed in deeply, trying to slow down his pounding heart. But their connection had been like a super nova and he felt as if he would die.

“I feel silly,” she managed to say as Rafian pulled his cloak from off the bench to cover them.

“Why?” he asked.

“Well,” she managed before she started to giggle. “I can’t feel my feet!” She laughed.

~ * ~ * ~

When they reached the area where Samoo’s ship was lost, Rafian donned a spacesuit with magnetic boots and walked outside and onto the wing. He looked around and stretched out his arms and then closed his eyes to feel his teacher. The seeker blood that was his mother’s had given him gifts he couldn’t control. He hoped to feel something while he was out there and he stood in that position for a very long time.

“We have always watched you, Rafian,” a voice whispered into his ear and he opened his eyes, looking around for its source.

“Who is that? Camille, is that you?” he asked, touching his comm so she could hear him.

“Hmm? I didn’t say anything, Raf. I’m just in here wondering what it is you expect to happen out there.”

“I’ll be back inside in a bit, Cammy. I’ll explain everything.”

He shut off the comm and looked around. Something had whispered a question to him and it wasn’t Camille playing around.

“Samoo,” he whispered, but deep down he knew it wasn’t his teacher. He waited another hour for another whisper but when none came he walked back along the wing to the airlock where he removed the suit and rejoined Camille inside.

They were on their fourth day and needed to start back, so she turned on the engines and plotted a course back to Helysian. The trip back was full of conversation just like it had been when they started. Rafian found that he loved everything about her and was dreading their return, so he probed his mind for a plan for them to be together officially.

“Can I admit something to you, Cammy?” he said as she decreased their speed a bit and looked over at him in the other pilot’s seat.

“I like you, no, Maker I hate how awkward this is,” he said, but she lifted her eyebrows and slatted her eyes as if she was expecting negativity. “Oh, that sounds like I’m, ugh, no. Thype, I am terrible at this sort of thing, but I’m in love with you. There, it’s out, I’m in love with you, and I cannot thyping function without you around.” He exhaled steadily, as if he had just removed a tremendous weight off his chest.

Camille met his words with a mysterious gaze, and when it got to be too much, Rafian tried to fix the odd air by continuing. “It’s just that I think about you all the time. Help me out here.”

Camille kept staring, and it made him uncomfortable until eventually she spoke. “Me, too,” she said meekly. “I mean that I love you too. Always have – kind of.” She said it in her standard, neutral but nasally cute way, but the way it came off gave him pause.

“You know, you don’t have to agree with me, Cammy. I just wanted to let you know,” he said, suddenly embarrassed at how vulnerable he felt.

“What are you talking about? Do you think I would wait on the docks day after day after day for just anybody?” she chuckled, “Maker, I held your hand after that frightening ambush because I needed to feel you. I thought I was going to die without telling you how I felt. Every day, I’ve looked forward to hearing your voice, and to see the way you look at me. So shut up and accept my love,” she joked and Rafian sighed with relief.

 

Memory 12 | Dark Education

It was now a year since Rafian and Camille had sworn love to each other and about six months since they decided to push ahead with a move instead of the constant visits they made to each other’s apartments. Rafian’s influence had grown and he began receiving invitations to the spy network in Virulia. Camille was given the post that the legendary Helga ATE had held as commander of air to ground assaults (CAGA), and she, too, was being wooed to become a Virulian spy.

The invitations were a tremendous honor for the couple, but even though they were the best in their respective Special Forces divisions, they didn’t think they would ever be recruited. Nobody on the ship knew people who became spies, and when they had encountered them in the past, it was always such a brief and hurried introduction that it was difficult to form a real opinion of them.

Rafian had fought alongside one before, and the man had moved and fought like something beyond human. He had always wondered whether spies were outfitted with cybernetics or were made to be on a drug of some sort. To fight like that man would be a dream come true for him. However, with the mystery of the Virulian spy network and rumors about their order, he hesitated in accepting the invitation for fear of the worst.

“You know if we do this, it may not be the same between us, right?” Rafian said to Camille on one of their many evenings together. The pair could normally be found embracing and talking on the wing of Rafian’s Alpha X Pterodactyl whenever they were both on leave. These moments were rare, private, and precious for them, since they barely got to see each other during the week.

“Being spies would take us off of the front lines, Raf,” Camille replied, her golden hair gleaming under the lights of the dock, making her seem strangely elfish. Her hair had been cut when she became CAGA, and she styled it into a tiny Mohawk, which Rafian found to be very cute.

“Don’t look at it. You know I thypin’ hate it!” she declared as he looked over her hair with a smile on his face.

“I don’t care what you think about it. I like it, and I think it makes you look like a badass.”

Scoffing at him while rolling her eyes, Camille wouldn’t admit that she appreciated his words, but she shoved him in the arm to remind him to stay on topic. “When are we going to decide on these invitations? You know that people who turn them down normally disappear.”

She was right, of course. The invitation was more of a summons. They had done something in the past to attract the network and now they were being summoned for training.

“Any marine would jump at the chance, so why are we so hesitant?” Rafian asked. “The spies I have met are like gods, but from what I know, to get there, they have to give up a part of their souls.”

Camille sat up and then got to her feet to stand next to him. She walked over to one of the thrusters and began playing with its surface, her mind working rapidly as she went over the decision and what it could mean to them.

“I know this isn’t very soldierly of me, Rafian, but I just don’t want to lose you. I can deal with death, but spies are rumored to always be alone. I’m afraid they will separate us and I can’t let that happen.”

“I’d love to see them try to take you away from me,” Rafian said. “What can they do to me to force me to stop loving you?”

It was a question he should never have challenged the fates to answer. When the pair sent back word of acceptance to Virulia, two agents in black 3B suits immediately came to visit them at their apartment. The odd thing about the arrival of the spies was that they didn’t come from a ship, seeing that none had docked on Helysian for weeks, and they had never seen them onboard.

The man was a big guy, but he moved like a cat. The woman was slight, but her eyes indicated she, too, was very much a predator. The man stepped forward and introduced himself as Michyl, a midlevel agent in the organization, and the woman was Ren, a recruit who had just gotten her clearance and held the rank of “person,” which seemed an odd rank to have.

The introductions were brief but turned awkward when Camille asked about packing a few things. Michyl stopped her short, shook his head, and produced a device that resembled a very tiny silver capsule. “A spy owns nothing” was all the couple heard before the light consumed them, and they were unconscious.

When he awoke, Rafian found himself standing in front of a graying old man in a stark white room with padded floors and walls. The room was large, and the ceilings seemed taller than the Vestalian standard. He also noticed that the gravity level was lower than it should be for humans, and it made him wonder if his eyes and mind were deceiving him.

“Am I dead?” Rafian asked, half-joking due to the irony of the bright, white room and the old man—also dressed in white—who looked at him as if he could read him.

“Do you know how you got here, boy?” the old man asked suddenly, his voice as deep as an earthquake, with confidence as sharp as a knife.

“First of all, you will not address me as boy; I am Captain Rafian VCA of the Helysian. Do not make that mistake with me again.”

This brought a smile to the old man’s face, and he shook his head with amusement. “You see this?” he asked, indicating nothing in particular. “This right here never gets old to me, and I have been doing this for an extremely long time, boy. You recruits come in, you spout out all of the honors that weaker men and women have afforded you, and you expect to get respect.”

As soon as he said “respect,” he made a fist, and Rafian felt a crushing pain inside his chest that caused him to cry out. He then noticed that he was in the air, floating, as the old man’s magic hurled him across the room into one of the padded walls.

The old man seemed annoyed. “Let’s get to it, shall we? That move I hit you with just now is a skill that I picked up from Jenua when I jumped in as a defender of the Skale Republic. They faced genocide so we went in to help. That was maybe about 150 years ago.”

“Jenua. What system is that?” Rafian managed to ask as he climbed to his feet and wiped the blood from his mouth. “Is that a city in Geral? You learn your tricks from the Geralos lizards?”

The old man got up from his seat. His flowing white robes sparkled with silver gems and was awesomely accented by black-and-red trimming. Despite the torture and pain he had felt in his chest, Rafian thought the man looked beyond impressive. He thought about the meeting he’d had with the spies and wondered if he was now in the spy recruitment center.

“The Geralos lizards are the least of your concern, young Rafian.” The elder said his name this time with a respectful tone and seemed to admire Rafian’s bravado, despite the blood and the obvious pain the young man was feeling.

“So you aim to torture and kill me, then?” Rafian asked, misunderstanding the intent of his words.

“How boring a thought, boy. Pay attention. The Geralos are a plague in THIS galaxy, Anstractor, but there are many galaxies and many planes of existence that need our help.”

“Planes of existence? Is this a joke? I thought the spies were a military organization. This is beginning to sound like a cult.” Rafian became visibly angry, fearing that he was being indoctrinated into a religion and the worship of some ideology that would yield little results and keep him from his goals.

“As usual, the disbelief,” the old man said passively. “The countries I mentioned, the war, the skill I demonstrated are all from another plane, you see. We jumpers—or as you call us, spies—have the means to jump to the various galaxies and on rare occasions jump to other planes of existence.”

Rafian stared at the old man intently, waiting for him to burst out laughing at the joke, but what he read in his face was that he spoke the truth. It made him feel like a tiny, irrelevant gnat on the surface of a world too big to appreciate his existence.

“For all your rank and respect, Captain, you are a mere toy soldier in a very real war to protect humanity. I guess you realize now why your titles, your accolades, and your petty revenge do nothing to impress me.”

Rafian ignored the slight to ask, “So what’s on the other side?”

“Things that I cannot begin to explain to you. But the catch with jumping planes is that we cannot control it. We can only stay for a time or come back at will using warp crystals, but we cannot open a new tear on our own. The openings to other planes are controlled by a higher power; we take advantage whenever the opportunity is presented to us.”

“So, what is a tear, and when and where do they open?”

“About five hundred years ago, during the first conflict, there was a Meluvian scientist by the name of Genda who found a large crystal on a dead planet near the third meridian. The crystal was a curious thing, as it produced a tiny ripple, and when Genda tried to touch it, he noticed that his hand would go through it. Genda took the crystal to a secret base on Vestalia, and he and a number of other important people would go through that first tear and make contact with the people of the planet on that other plane.”

The old man went back to his chair and sat down, rubbing his bald scalp as he continued his tale of the warp crystal phenomenon.

“That other plane had a world that was ancient, but the people could do miraculous, magical things. Their technology was very different from ours. While the professor could take things into the tear with him, he noticed that it would only allow small things to be taken out. Carrying a tiny bit of the crystal itself inside the tear allowed him to warp back to this side just by exposing it to the right amount of light. Don’t ask me to explain much of how this all works.

“That was our first contact with one of the other planes before extreme experimentation and study allowed us to learn of its miraculous properties, giving us faster-than-light travel, spirit jumping, and so much more. To say it in words that you will understand: with the crystals we can jump to galaxies, resurrect ourselves through cloning, and explore other planets throughout the known universe.”

The education on the warp crystals was intriguing, and as Rafian listened he understood why the jumpers seemed so cold, distant, and elitist. Knowledge of things they were unable to explain to the standard galaxy would make the common soldier appear insignificant to the powers that be and largely irrelevant to the bigger picture.

The jumpers had learned how to expand their survivability through cloning, and had learned to manipulate powers that were beyond human thought. The biggest eye-opener to Rafian, ever the martial student, was that knowledge gained through missions within a tear was forever grafted into one’s DNA.

Jumpers were not limited to the tiny brain capacity that a standard human being was—that part he didn’t want the details on, as it was all too much to process already. Rafian wondered how Camille was taking all of this and whether there was a white-haired, old woman in her padded room running down the crazy powers that she was about to be given.

The tutelage went on for hours, and then he was escorted from the room to a facility that housed a number of men and women who looked wide-eyed and stunned from the “education,” as they called it. The room was all white and had tall walls, as if it were built to house giants or starships.

There were tall, cathedral-styled windows that depicted jumpers in various poses, and Rafian could not shake how religious the whole place felt. Light spilled into these windows, illuminating the hall in an ethereal way, and each space between windows was a circular column that had a patchwork of digital lights that danced upon its surface.

Along the walls were seasoned jumpers, all dressed in white 3B suits that left no part of their perfectly sculpted bodies to the imagination. The ceiling was painted with a diagram of what he assumed to be the universe. He tried to find Anstractor and realized that it was the smallest of all the galaxies.

When they got all the recruits together (there were twenty of them), he saw his beloved Camille, but as they were hustled along through the hallway, she would not look up to make eye contact. They were taken to the cloning lab, where a specialist downloaded their data. As if to answer the question that was on all of their minds, they were given a demonstration via vid on how cloning worked.

Next, they were given a live demonstration by the old man who had spoken to Rafian. He squared off against a younger jumper, and while it was an impressive display of skill, Rafian wondered how it would end. After minutes of fighting, the elder produced a knife from his robes and stabbed his opponent in the throat, causing him to fall and thrash about in pain.

It had to be one of the cruelest kills Rafian had ever seen. Gasps and horror covered the faces of everyone watching, but within minutes, the man’s death throes had ceased and he emerged from one of the clone stations, happy, unscathed, and very much alive.

The dead body took on a grayish hue as the blood continued to pour from the neck. Rafian stared at the clone, trying to see if the man was merely a twin, and this a trick of some sort.

“I don’t want this,” said one of the female members to nobody in particular, and the old man spun and threw the knife into her head, causing her to instantly drop dead! Again, there were gasps and expressions of shock until she cloned and popped up out of the machine looking scared, angry, and red-faced.

“YOU HAD NO RIGHT!” she was shouting, tears streaming down her face. She was all fire and unaware of her nakedness as she ran out to face down the old man while giving the recruits a full-on display of her goods. When she realized her nakedness, she froze and panicked. One of the aides brought her a robe to cover up, and she quickly hustled away.

“Very appropriate,” the old man began as he paced the metal floor, looking at each of the recruits who now stood at attention.

“Appropriate because jumpers are to be removed from the shackles that are sexual commitment, personal possessions, and, as much as humanly possible, matters of the heart. Your bodies belong to the organization now. I own you all.”

That statement elicited a reaction from Camille, who had found herself next to Rafian, both of them observing the horror of the membership they had signed up for. The couple was holding hands, and the old man glanced at them as he spoke. Rafian balked at the thought that they would be punished somehow for revealing their togetherness, so he unhooked Camille’s hand and made a mental note to stay away from her to avoid further suspicion.

The recruits were then made to partner up with each other, preferably with members of the opposite sex. The general idea was that partners were to have sexual relations at some time every week and were not to develop any attachments from it. Refusal meant expulsion, which in reality meant permanent death. As jumpers, they were to do as commanded until they prove themselves worthy to be given the rank of person.

They were next given number designations as names, which were to be used on missions and in espionage operations. Names were only given to jumpers who had proved themselves worthy of being regarded as persons. Rafian became number three and Camille was number eleven. He saw her get paired with a large, redheaded man who was number thirteen, and it crushed him to think about what would be happening to her moving forward. The thought of Camille in another man’s arms made him truly feel the horrors of his new position. For the first time in years, he felt completely helpless to play the part of savior.

The girl he was partnered with was the spitfire who had gotten herself cloned. They were escorted to their room, which seemed very mundane compared to the stark white aesthetic of the rest of the building. It was a metal-walled cell with full-sized plasteel beds that took up the majority of the space.

Based on the size of the room, Rafian realized how close they would be forced to be. He tried to figure in his mind how he could make things less awkward between himself and his new partner.

“I could just die,” the girl said. She was pale, with dark brown eyes and long, shiny black hair. Her name was Tayden Lark, and she was given the number five by the supreme leader who had killed her. They found out that his name was Arn Stryker. He seemed to be more feared than respected by the veteran jumpers, and in his presence, nobody talked without permission.

The girl was a first grade starfighter on her own ship, and leader to a squadron of rangers known as the Screaming Ayries. Rafian had fought alongside them in the past, but the situation had been so intense that there was no way Tayden would remember him.

“Tayden, you are a leader of men, you have to come to terms with this,” Rafian finally said after listening to her complain for what seemed like hours.

Thype this schtill. What if I don’t want to come to terms with this lunacy? Cloning, teleporting, and forcing rape on us weekly?”

“Whoa, who said anything about rape?”

“It’s sex that we don’t want, right? That’s the definition of rape, oh great ‘leader of men!’” She stared at him angrily, as if he were the dumbest man alive. “Do you or your girlfriend want to be made to cheat on each other every single night? Or are you a creep happy for the opportunity to nail every girl in here? If it’s the latter, then cheers to you, mate. This is a rapist’s paradise.”

Rafian shook his head and retreated to his bunk to process everything that had happened since they were taken. First of all, if Tayden noticed that he and Camille were together, then everyone else would have noticed, too. He thought of everything the old man had told him and tried to see the good in being a jumper. There were some serious perks to this new job, but the killing to prove cloning and the forced sex were not what he imagined the “good guys” would be doing.

“How can they know if we are having sex, Tayden? Do they have capture vids in here or cameras?”

“I guess they didn’t catch you boys up, eh?” She hopped off of her bunk and gestured in front of him as she explained.

“We have been sterilized. You may want to check yourself to see if you feel odd because I’m quite sure they’ve taken away your reproduction capabilities. A jump’ah does not procreate without permission, apparently a little item they forgot to add to the recruitment paper we signed. Oh, and in terms of sex? We women will be checked for evidence of intercourse every week, and upon failing said test, will be summarily punished for noncompliance.”

“Drop the attitude. I’m not the one forcing you to do this schtill. My ignorance is not due to me ignoring the signs. Like many of the other people out there, I wasn’t told. Do you think I’m enjoying this any more than you?”

With that he moved over to the refrigerator, where he found a bottle of chilled Virulian rum and a flask of purple berry juice. He poured the liquids together into a couple of glasses and shoved one into the hands of the exasperated Tayden.

“How about we drink to you being the first badass woman to be cloned in our company?”

Tayden accepted the drink and gulped it down desperately and after two more glasses she was completely calm and relaxed. Before long, the two recruits were chatting, and then they were joking, and the joking turned into friendly touches, which became a wrestling match.

Giggling carelessly, and with too much to drink, they began kissing each other in the fiercest way. When Rafian gained consciousness in the middle of the night, he found a naked Tayden sleeping soundly on his chest. Realizing what had happened, his heart skipped a beat as his mind went to Camille and number thirteen.

“What have we done, Cammy, what have we signed up for?” he whispered and placed his hand on Tayden’s back. She stirred in her sleep and tightened her embrace and he reached up and stroked her hair affectionately, disgusted at what he had become.

 

Memory 13 | Blackout

One of the lowest days Rafian had ever experienced occurred a week later, when he got a chance to sneak off to meet Camille. The shame and guilt that they both felt was overpowering, and it was as if they were strangers talking for the first time, with long pauses and silence as they held hands and stared at each other, trying in vain to cope. It was Rafian who decided to clear the air and address the giant elephant in the room.

“Let’s just be honest about—”

“How many times have you guys done it?” Camille cut him off to ask the question that had been irritating her all along. Most of the women had chosen to go against the promiscuity and had suffered the penalty—which they learned later on wasn’t death—while the ones that did it were very open about discussing their partners. Tayden had admitted to doing it but refused to give any details. This had made things worse for Camille and she found herself needing to know.

“Only a couple times, Camille,” he lied, hoping that she would let it drop. Her face immediately became pallid, and she balled her fists and stared at the ground.

“How about you, Cam? How many times?” he countered realizing that he wasn’t ready for the answer.

She took a deep breath and surrendered a “two” before staring at him intently. He reached out to hug her, and she stepped into his arms and he held her there for a long time.

“This sucks,” she whispered, and Rafian agreed but he didn’t reply immediately.

When he finally spoke, his voice was angry and full of regret. “This test they have us doing here. These sex games. The goal is for us to give up our bodies. When we came here, you worried that things would change between us due to the conditioning, and it’s happening, isn’t it? They’re making it hard for us to look at one another.”

Camille adjusted her face so that she could look at him, and he kissed her lips longingly. His heart was thumping since they were meeting in secrecy, and it only increased when the familiarity of her touch became reality. He threw all care to the wind and pulled her in, desperately needing to get them out of the temple. “I’ve been thinking about breaking us out,” he whispered, “stealing a ship and—”

“Stop it, Raf, don’t be foolish. You know they have ears everywhere. We committed to coming, so let’s slow down a bit. We’re strong enough to get through it. We’ll be okay, I just know we will.”

Speak for yourself, Rafian thought as his conflicted mind worked to keep his feelings at bay. “I don’t owe these crutas my allegiance, Cammy. All I care about is you. They cloned us, beat us, and will kill us without a moment’s hesitation. Right now the only thing we own is our minds. I haven’t stopped thinking about you since I got here, and they took you away from me—”

“No!” She cut him off with a hammering punch to his shoulder. “They haven’t taken me away from you. Schtill, Raf, I haven’t seen you in a week, so kiss me and shut up about this horrible place.”

“One day,” Rafian whispered with his lips pressed against Camille’s neck, so that only she would hear it. “One day I am going to gut that old bastard. Mark my words, for all this schtill, I will spill his blood upon my blade.”

Camille was suddenly afraid. The implications of the treason he whispered would see him skinned if ever the jumpers were to know his intentions. But she, too, was fed up, and after listening to Rafian she felt a sense of peace that made the idea of martyrdom seem like the most beautiful thing a human being could do in his or her lifetime.

“Good,” she replied, “we’ll bathe in his blood.” They held each other in the tiny corner of the library for a few more minutes. They spoke of happier times and then they separated and snuck back into their rooms.

Rafian felt a twinge of satisfaction, having rendezvoused with his girlfriend right under the noses of his masters. He slid through the circular window of his cell and replaced the glass before bolting it. He locked the grate and finally took a breath.

“So how did she take it?” Tayden asked. She was awake and sitting up in his bunk.

“She was upset, of course, but it was good seeing her. Now my mind is all over the place.”

“This is confusing for all of us, but we will get through it,” Tayden said and she shifted the covers to invite him in.

~ * ~ * ~

On the third month of training, the twenty recruits were down to thirteen. Cloning was a privilege afforded only to persons and above—the demonstration with Tayden being an exception. When they squared off in teams to play war games against each other, seven recruits had managed to lose their lives.

Arn had been missing for a little over a month, and new jumper trainers were flown in weekly to train them in various skills. The sex ritual was finished after month number two, and each jumper recruit was instructed to avoid sexual relations for the remainder of the year. Rafian found ways to sneak around with Camille and Tayden, but he soon began to add others into the mix.

The days and nights ran together and the exercises were the only thing that the recruits looked forward to. They would wake up early in the morning and do a run of about eight miles, then have a liquid breakfast and a few minutes for a bathroom break. They would then do simulations that placed them in the middle of wars, natural disasters, and sometimes worse.

At one time, Rafian was made to survive space after being ejected from his ship with limited air and no real way of getting back home. There was never any indication what a simulation would be; they had to be ready for any situation at any given time.

Once the recruits managed to finish a simulation, they were given three hours of personal time. It was during these times that Rafian would sneak away with Camille or he’d find a quiet corner of the base to meditate and practice some of the things he was learning.

Once the three hours were up, the recruits would reconvene, spar one another inside the arena, and try to improve their fighting skills with unarmed combat. The next couple of hours were dynamic, as it depended on who was leading the course. Whatever the exercise was, it normally took them into the evening, when they were sent home to shower and return to study warp crystal technology before dinner.

As the year trickled on, Rafian and the others began to notice a change in their form, shape, and abilities. It went beyond the training and conditioning, and it was assumed that a sort of hormone or steroid was being fed to them to make them physically impressive.

There were no complaints about this, of course, but Rafian wondered if there was a reason for it beyond the needs of combat. It was not a big enough concern to raise an issue, so he kept it to himself and kept on training.

On the eleventh month of training, Rafian was summoned to Arn’s office, which was the large, padded, white room he had first visited. The place still had nothing but a chair, some holo-desks, and furniture that would materialize on command whenever they were needed.

The old man got up from behind the desk, and it vanished into the floor as he did so. He walked over and inspected Rafian from head to toe before nodding in approval and sending away the aides who had brought him in.

“We’ve been grooming you, number three,” he said slowly. “You and your beloved number eleven, Camille YAN.” He said her name in a mocking way, which made Rafian a little bit worried.

“Grooming us for what, sir?” he asked humbly, a respect that had been learned through months of pain and conditioning.

“I know about you two, y’know,” he said as he bit into a cherry . He stared at Rafian intently while nodding his head in amusement at the shock that was echoed on his face.

“The sneaking about, the nastiness, and most of all, the plotting. We know it all. You plan to cut me up and bathe in my blood.”

He let the silence get uncomfortable and cautioned Rafian to remain quiet.

“We expect recruits to be strong, number three, not broken supplicants to their masters. You have feigned compliance; you, that girlfriend of yours, and number five have all played the part of liars and conspirators within this temple. Though you think it your free will expressing itself, I assure you that this was all a part of your conditioning. You all can move on now to become persons. You have the hearts to be deemed worthy.”

He kept on watching Rafian, whose rapid eye movement seemed erratic as he puzzled over what was going to happen to them.

“What’s to happen to us?” he finally asked, resolved that he would finally meet his fate through pain and death, the way he had always imagined it would end within this hell of white walls and mystery.

The old man kept pacing and a number of men and women walked in, dressed in silver armor and brandishing black staves. When they surrounded him—there were six in number—he dropped to one knee in anticipation of lashing out and forcing them to kill him as a fighter instead of a prisoner. When he fell to his knee, one of the armored women touched him with her staff, and he felt his body go still and then topple.

The six jumpers interlocked the staves in a way that hoisted him above their heads and took him to the library, where they moved a panel on a shelf. It opened up to reveal a circular room where a bright crystal stood floating within a column of light. There was nothing else in the room except for a stone chair decorated with symbols that looked like nothing a human could have made.

Rafian wondered what had happened to the other recruits. He would normally see some milling around during that time of day, but the temple seemed to be vacant as his captors strapped him to the chair facing the crystal. He began to feel a numbing pain behind his eyeballs.

“Welcome to your first jump, young Rafian,” Arn said, but it appeared as if he was doing so telepathically.

“In a few minutes, you will cease to be who you are and will forget everything you think you know about your life, your history, and even your beloved Camille YAN. You will be making your first jump, recruit, and when—or should I say if—you complete the mission, you will come back to us a person.”

As soon as he said the word “person,” Rafian lost consciousness, and the bright light was the only thing he would remember for a very long time.

 

Memory 14 | Reset

Aurora SYN played with her bracelet, not daring to look at her commander in case he saw the fury reflected in her eyes. It had been over a year since she’d seen Rafian, and she was convinced that Abe RUS was in on his disappearance.

“We’re a military ship, Aurora, and some information is classified. A bright officer like yourself shouldn’t need me to tell you this. Look, the situation is delicate and I know it is, but this is a really trying time for all of us. I lost two of my best leads without any warning and there is nothing that I can say or do about it!” Abe RUS squeezed his eyes tightly when he realized what he said and sat in anticipation of Aurora’s press.

“What do you mean lost, sir? Please, what do you mean lost? If my brother is dead, I need to—”

“NO, no he’s not dead. Maker, woman can you trust your commander? You’ve been in my office every week and I can only say classified so many times.”

“Classified, yes, I know, but Raf would not just leave without saying goodbye,” Aurora said.

She got up and saluted with much frustration and got into the transport to go home. She thought about it for a few minutes and then decided to change course, choosing instead to go by Rafian’s and Camille’s apartment.

Camille had programmed Aurora’s palm signature into the security panel so she touched and stepped inside. Things were in place though it felt cold and empty, so she walked around looking for clues.

A repeat vid of Raf and Camille kissing had been positioned in the corner of a table. It caught Aurora by surprise and she turned around quickly as the tears began to fall from her eyes.

She moved to the bedroom and stopped in her tracks when she saw the half-packed suitcase and the unmade bed. They must’ve left in a hurry, she thought and began to look around for any clue as to what had happened.

The mystery of Rafian and Camille disappearing was a ship-wide concern and the popular rumor was that they eloped. Aurora, who was always involved with Rafian’s life, knew that this was unlikely. Eloping was one thing, but to be gone a year would mean that the couple had deserted.

She would sooner believe that Rafian was secretly a Geralos than believe that he would desert his post in order to hide away with the woman he loved. That woman was a warrior as much as he was, and he had the advantage of sharing the war with her. What she believed was that they were on a secret mission and had gotten in over their heads somehow. She exhausted her search and then lay on the bed, frustrated and exhausted.

You can survive anything, Raf, I know you can, so please come back to me, she thought. She rolled over on her side and her eye caught Camille’s tablet that was left blinking rhythmically to indicate that it was low on power. Aurora reached for the device and then touched the glass and the jumper’s letter of recruitment came into view.

~ * ~ * ~

The term jump was what Arn and his jumpers had given to the teleportation that the crystals produced. There were many forms of jumping but without proper training and knowledge of the crystals’ properties, the jumper would lose consciousness and develop amnesia upon awaking on the other side.

Graduation to become a person depended on performing such a jump. You were expected to survive wherever you ended up and upon recovering your memory, jump back to the Virulian temple where you would be welcomed as an official member of the spy organization.

When Rafian jumped he ended up in the galaxy of Luca, on a small moon called Talula, with his only memory being his name.

It was midnight, and the clean night smell was welcoming to his nostrils, especially after a long day of running madly through the wilderness where he had appeared after the jump. He had awoken in a wilderness lush with olive-colored foliage, blue flowers, and streams of pinkish water that reflected the tiny sun that illuminated the moon.

Looming like a giant eye above him was a beautiful blue-and-green planet, and though he knew enough to realize that he was an educated man, Rafian was still unsure as to what may have caused such deep memory loss. He walked for a number of days before he saw the lights of a city and made his way towards it.

On his journey out of the wilderness, he found an abandoned camp with some leftover food inside a tent. About a mile or so later, he came across the bodies of the campers, who seemed to have been mauled by a large animal. He rummaged through their clothing and collected the coins and items that they had on their persons.

While he had no memory, he felt as if he knew everything about the people of the city. His deep thoughts were soon interrupted by gunfire, and he dashed to the sidewalk to avoid being hit. Some men were pursuing a darkly-clad man, exchanging shots midstride and endangering anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way.

Ducking behind a bench, Rafian watched the fight continue until the man killed the two pursuers with expert aim and precision. With his heart pounding, Rafian snuck behind the closest building and dashed towards the next intersection. Looking around for any more trouble, he spotted a lively saloon and made his way into its doorway.

The saloon was bustling with activity. It seemed as if the entire city were there. Rafian walked in and checked his pockets as if more credits—other than the two hundred he had already taken—would magically appear. To his dismay, there was no such magic, so he tried to find a private area where he wouldn’t be tempted to spend the few that he had.

He looked around for some time and eventually spotted an empty booth towards the back of the saloon. He started making his way towards it—

“Wa’rcuka su sra koruum, romdkuka!” a short humanoid female said as she stepped in front of him to bar his way.

“Hello,” Rafian said, astonished by how bold this woman was. She wore a very short skirt and a golden top that left nothing to the imagination. Her hair was cropped short and accented by azure fanlike frills. Her skin was a light tan and was complemented by lovely, full lips, tinted blue to complete the ensemble.

Rafian didn’t know what she was as yet another thread of familiarity broke through his amnesia. Apparently, she was a prostitute who smelled the off-worlder on him and had moved to meet him as soon as he came in.

Seeing the surprise in his eyes, the girl introduced herself as Riyah Mist and took his arm as he walked to his table. The fur couch felt like heaven as he sat across from her and he relaxed for the first time in two days. Scanning the saloon, he noticed the walls were made of stone. The bar itself was also made from a rocklike substance, and the glasses all had a dark transparency that made it difficult to tell what fluid was being poured into them.

The clientele was a mix of alien races, and very few resembled him and Riyah. People were staring, but most were caught up in their own conversations and drinking without a care in the world.

“Su, vrara ora aeui kruk?” Riyah asked as she seductively ran her right leg up Rafian’s left. She was smiling with her tongue between her teeth and wiggling to let him know that she was hot.

Rafian shrugged at her. “I have no idea what you’re saying to me, lady.” He stared helplessly at her. Riyah recognized what was happening and then excused herself and left the table. Rafian watched her walk away, thinking he had annoyed her, but she returned and clipped something on his ear and then sat back down and smiled.

He reached up and touched the device, which was clipped in securely, making it hard for him to remove it. When he tried to tear it off she slapped his hand, and then pointed to her mouth, which he found odd. She held his face steady, then the earpiece sent a shock into his head that caused him to jump up out of the seat.

“The hell is going on?” he said to her, wondering if she had drugged him.

“That’s much better. Now we can communicate. You must not travel a lot.”

Rafian reached up and touched his ear, which was now tender to the touch. Whatever had been done to him had allowed him to speak and hear her language, and he found that he could understand the other patrons that were inside the busy saloon, as well. He took his hand from his ear and retook his seat, then stared at the beauty in front of him.

He felt as if he had to keep his cool, as this woman seemed like she was after the few credits he had and nothing else. With much effort, he concentrated on this fact. She wasn’t his friend; she didn’t care about where he was from, and she would gladly rob him and leave him as dead as the men he had witnessed getting shot earlier.

Riyah flashed a toothy smile and asked, “What do you do? Are you an officer or merchant? I can’t imagine anyone else outside of that hopping around the galaxy.”

Looking up at the dance floor with a distance in his eyes, Rafian replied, “I don’t know.”

In a strange, awkward moment, Riyah Mist stared at Rafian as if trying to read the thoughts in his head.

“You do understand what this is, right? Why I’m giving you so much of my time?”

Rafian brushed it off and scanned the room. He was not sure what he was doing or why the words flowed from his mouth so effortlessly, but he kept his mouth shut, partly hoping that the prostitute could read more into who he was and tell him.

“You’re a prostitute, right? You want me to pay you for sex.”

As she answered, Rafian missed it as he spotted what he was looking for. A large brute—who seemed out of place in the saloon—kept glancing in his direction as he and Riyah spoke. Either the brute wanted Riyah badly or he was her “manager.” Rafian suspected the latter, and, turning back to the beauty, he thought about what his next move should be.

“Price sounds fine, where should we go? Do you have a place nearby with a bed?”

Smiling that toothy smile of hers, Riyah replied, “I want to see what YOU have to offer, outsider. I will be right back,; don’t you go anywhere. We can head out once I return.”

She swayed her hips off towards the saloon’s hole and Rafian crossed the room behind her, trying to mask his intentions as best he could. As they stepped into the bathroom lobby area, the brute pursued so Rafian slid a knife into the palm of his hand and held it close to his body. Time crawled by, seeming like eons as he let the calm settle within as he neared the women’s bathroom door.

Why am I doing this, why do I know to do this? He thought. Why don’t I just leave this place and let the prostitutes and pimps get on with their lives?

The lobby emptied conveniently, and he paused outside the bathroom door as the brute approached for the usual robbing and easy money. Rafian drove the knife under his exposed chin, withdrew his blade, and in a matter of seconds slit his throat and buried the knife hilt deep into his solar plexus. The dead man collapsed into him, and Rafian grabbed him and shoved his body into a nearby closet.

Things were really bumping in the saloon, and the band’s loud melody and the fortunate timing made killing the pimp almost symphonic. Rafian’s original plan had been to possibly scare the man, but he knew the empty lobby was a sign. At least he thought it was a sign.

He checked for blood on his person and secured his mood. Then he stepped into the women’s bathroom where Riyah was waiting, smoking a cigarette and looking at herself in the mirror. Apparently this was the usual activity for beauty and the beast. The lobby had not cleared by accident, since she was waiting for the murdering brute to come in and deliver money from Rafian’s corpse.

She played it cool as he entered, but her puzzled expression was an open book.

“What’s the matter? I would think you didn’t expect me,” Rafian mocked, smiling widely as if he were being genuine.

“So, should we go find a room?” she asked coolly and he couldn’t help but respect how quick she was. He knew that she wouldn’t make noise about the pimp and assumed that he’d done her a favor. He took her up on her offer and the pair left the saloon through the back with the brute’s corpse bleeding out inside of the closet.

 

Memory 15 | Riyah of Talula

The instinct to know a prostitute and her predatory boss, and the ease in which he dispatched him consumed Rafian VCA. These skills bothered him as he lay next to the prostitute, trying to figure out who he was and why he had done those things. It had come so easily to him, those killer moves, and while they made love, Riyah couldn’t stop remarking on how sculpted his body was.

Maybe I’m a soldier who lost his memory, he thought, or some sort of criminal assassin. He hated the darkness that was his memory and hoped that he wasn’t on the run from someone dangerous.

“Okay big guy, let’s have a talk,” Riyah said as she came from the bathroom fully dressed. “Where exactly are you from, and why is it that I have never seen anyone like you before?”

Rafian shrugged and dismissed the question, then stood up in front of her. He tapped his head. “I have no memory—”

“Uh huh, but you had enough memory to wipe the floor with Burdok, as if he was a fifty-pound child. You kill my guy and then lie next to me and sleep without a care in the world. Who does that? I ask myself and I think, a crazy person, but you don’t act crazy and you make no sense to me.”

“No memory,” Rafian repeated, “except my name. It’s Rafian VCA. You don’t have to believe me but what would be the point of everything I did yesterday?”

Riyah seemed to think about it and it made her more confused so she grunted with frustration and sat on the bed. “Well, you killed my bodyguard, so you’re going to have to replace him. Consider it repayment for that translator I clipped you with.”

“I need to remember who I really am. No part of that includes me playing bodyguard to a prostitute. I don’t know what I have to do to regain my memory, but I know I can’t do it by myself. How much do you make a day, doing what you do? I can find a way to pay you for your time, and you can help me get my memory back.”

Riyah almost laughed when he said this, but Rafian was seriously determined. “I make 500 credits a day,” she lied, “but unless you remember that you’re a rich noble from Veece, you won’t be able to afford my rate.”

“So, basically you don’t want to help me,” Rafian quipped.

“You killed my bodyguard!”

“Oh, come on, if that was a bodyguard then I’m a galactic god or something. That thing was an abusive pimp and you have bruises all over your body to prove it.”

Riyah got quiet and collected her clothes, then picked up her bag and walked to the door. “There are 100 credits missing from your pants. I’m letting you know since that’s my rate and I don’t want you coming after me to kill me, too. You’re scary and I’m in over my head, but let me tell you how life works. My ‘pimp’ as you called it was a necessary part of the job; without him I wouldn’t last long in that saloon as a freelancer. So think about it and if you’re really what you say, you’ll come back in to keep an eye on me.”

She left the hotel room and closed the door and Rafian stared after her, wondering what to do.

~ * ~ * ~

“Rafian and Camille have gone to spy training. This is what you wouldn’t tell me,” Aurora said. She had found Abe RUS at his table in the Jabyb Café, where he liked to unwind at the end of his shift. They were off the record since he entertained her questions and then she dropped that bombshell on him.

The admiral laughed, a loud booming sound, and then his face got serious as he regarded her. “You’re persistent, Aurora. You are something else, but I cannot confirm that they are with the spies. What makes you think they would leave us to go there? Isn’t it you who said that Rafian wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye?”

Aurora wanted to tell him that she found the tablet, but going into an officer’s quarters when they were away would not be the smart thing to admit to the top man. She shrugged at the commander and then finished her drink before telling him instead that someone had suggested it to her. “It’s common knowledge that the spies recruit the best of the best, commander, and Rafian and Camille were the best on this ship.”

Abe RUS shrugged as if he was bored with the conversation and his eyes took on a look of dangerous intent. “Aurora, stop. This is as far as it goes. Do not let me hear any more of this spy business and I will tell you one last time to be patient and wait. Your brother and Camille YAN could be on a mission, and some of them do take a long time to finish. They could be on Meluvia, defending our allies, or pressing an attack to retake Vestalia. The bottom line is that it is classified and you’re beginning to wear on my nerves.”

“Fine!” Aurora sighed and put down her empty glass. She made a weak salute, then spun on her heels and stormed out of the bar. She had read about the spies and asked around and what she heard was frightening. Recruits were made to abandon their old lives and were brainwashed into their doctrine. When a soldier became a spy, their friends and family considered them dead, but she didn’t want to give up on Rafian.

She also read about their powers and why the military gave them carte blanche on recruits. Spies were sent in to kill untouchable targets and no less than ten Geralos leaders had been put to the las-sword thanks to the efforts of the Virulian spies. They were aces in dogfighting and masters of weapons, and some people believed they could disappear into thin air. Aurora thought this was ridiculous, but not as much as the rumor that spies neither aged nor died.

That’s so stupid, she thought. If they were that powerful we’d all be spies. It would only take a hundred Immortals to drop on Vestalia and take our planet back, if that were the case. She rolled her eyes at the memory of the soldier who had whispered this to her. But she felt helpless; her brother was gone and there was a chance she’d never hear from him again.

~ * ~ * ~

For a couple of weeks Rafian shadowed Riyah, hanging out at the saloon while she worked. He made up a past to satisfy the questions and when they asked him his race he told them he was part Tyheran—which was the planet that Talula orbited. Tyherans looked like Vestalian with the exception of their pupils, which held tiny stars that twinkled on and off. “Part Tyheran and what else?” would be the follow-up question and he would tell them that he didn’t know his father.

Pretty soon they accepted him and they knew why he was there: to keep Ryah Mist safe. He and the woman grew closer and closer and a relationship developed between them. At first she tried to pay him for keeping her watch, but Rafian would refuse and tell her that the hotel where they stayed was quite enough. His main concern was regaining his memory so he didn’t mind the saloon, since it allowed him to sit for long periods of time and mull over the blank picture inside of his head.

Rafian and Riyah shared a bed and he listened to her stories every night. He had no tales of his own to share, but he enjoyed her company and cherished the time that they had together.

As they spent more time in the saloon, Rafian made friends with a man by the name of Corren Fox. Corren had a slight build and a crop of orange hair, which seemed to be the fashion on Talula. Rafian recognized him as the same man who had shot the two pursuers when he first came into town, and they became quick friends after some conversation.

Corren’s specialty was armed robbery, and he lived very well due to his success. He was a master of flying under the radar and his skills with a pistol helped him to stay anonymous. After warming up to Rafian enough to trust him, Corren asked if they could speak business one night in the hotel.

When he arrived, Riyah answered the door to let him in, and he sat across from Rafian, staring at her hungrily, as if he couldn’t help himself. Who could blame him? While at home, Riyah always wore transparent, silken, body-length robes that showed off her shapely body.

“You want Riyah, don’t you, Corren?” Rafian asked with a sly glint in his eye, and Riyah shot him a glance that could level buildings.

Laughing out loud, Corren shook off the question and without breaking a sweat, started talking to Rafian. “Hey, I heard about how you fileted her pimp. You’re a pretty big guy and you know your way around a fight. Do you want to use some of that to help me rob these trade union folks? If we score, you could be on a ship off of this moon in less than a month.”

“Why would I want to leave the moon?” Rafian asked, glancing at Riyah.

“To go to the floating, fat tick; that is, that big blue planet up there, that’s why. Nothing but nobles with jewels on their pudgy fingers, waiting for guys like us to pop them off.” He made a gesture to indicate what he meant. “Look, I know you take care of your girl, that’s what you do, but you could put one of those rings on her pretty little finger. Eh?”

Rafian became a little annoyed when Riyah plopped down next to him. Numbing the urge to shoo her away, he looked into Corren’s blue eyes and answered, “I’ll need a weapon of some sort if I’m going to help. I have no weapons here, and we don’t have that kind of money.”

As if to answer, Corren slid a pistol across the table. Rafian picked it up, measuring the heft and studying it carefully. “You seem to know guns,” Corren said, seeming surprised. He looked at Riyah, who simply shrugged.

After a time of some drinking, laughing, and discussion, Riyah went off to bed, and the real business was discussed. The plan was to rob one of Corren’s gangster contacts when he was on his route the next day. The plans were laid out over three hours, and Corren took off while Rafian headed into the room to join Riyah.

She was waiting in bed with her back to the door, lying on her side and feigning sleep. When Rafian settled down beside her, she sat up and powered on the lamp sitting on the bedside table next to her. “What the hell was that?” she asked, her sparkling pupils going dull in what he assumed was a sign of rage.

“Are you upset with me about something?” Rafian asked, confused, and she began to curse at him in a language he was unfamiliar with. The earpiece had made it quick to pick up the language of the patrons that frequented the saloon, but Luca had twelve planets and Riyah was educated, so she cursed him out with words he had never heard before. When she realized that he did not understand, she switched back to the common tongue. She let him know that she was hurt at his attempt to play pimp when he first introduced Corren to her.

“Are you not a prostitute?” Rafian asked, his face a mask of concern. “I was just trying to help you score another customer.” When the words fell out of his mouth, he instantly regretted them as he watched Riyah turn away from him and switched off the lamp. “Rhiya …” he started.

“No,” she said quietly and took a trembling, deep breath. “I guess I misunderstood what this was.”

 

Memory 16 | Broken Wings

With blood running down his arm, Rafian VCA ducked behind the mining facility in hopes of seeing his friend Corren emerge. His brain was throbbing as the blood rushed through his veins from the excitement of the previous hour.

The heist had gone down flawlessly, but the two men had not accounted for their victim’s history. When the trap was sprung, they realized all too late that he was a high-ranking Felitian official. Not only was the man an official, but he was also one hell of a martyr. He had tripped a homing signal as he fell to his death, which sent the authorities in the direction of Corren and Rafian.

When the troopers came in firing, Corren was killed and Rafian hit the fields and escaped into the wilderness. He felt lonely and stupid as he ran through the bush. What were we thinking? he thought. Soon there would be vids displaying info about them. Every starport would bear his likeness on their screens, and then the bounty hunters would come.

His mind turned to Riyah as he ran towards a spent reactor bin outside the saloon, and by coincidence, he spotted her walking up to begin her work. “Psst! Riyah! Over here!” Rafian motioned to the beauty, and she rolled her eyes and walked over to him.

“We have to get out of here tonight, Riyah. Corren is dead, and I am in a lot of trouble. We crossed the Felitians, and I was caught on vid. Everyone knows who I am around here, and they know that you’re with me!”

Riyah suddenly looked lost and confused. Her eyes glazed over as she slumped down by the alley wall as if depressed.

“No one makes it out of here if they’re wanted, Rafian,” she said and looked up at him with a look of disappointment. “Maybe we can lie low for a while, you know, till they assume you’re dead or just forgotten. I can make us enough money to live on, and—”

Her words made Rafian more desperate. “Riyah, you are always with me. What part of this are you not understanding? They will turn you in and force you to talk, and then you will lose your freedom because of me!”

~ * ~ * ~

Tayden Lark emerged from a portal inside of the crystal room and fell to the floor. She had been gone a long time and she was confused as to why the room looked no different than when she had been strapped down and forced to jump. She looked around frantically and then down at her body to see if anything was different.

She smiled when she saw that she was still in the colorful uniform of the Imperial guard of Leir. She had recovered her memory during a brutal battle but had retained her composure and survived it to the end. Once they were moving around giving deathblows to the wounded, she held the crystal to the sky and it pulled her back to the world she knew.

A number of footsteps could be heard outside the door and she steeled herself for what was to come. She had jumped back with the weapon she’d fought with, so she hoisted the spear and took a step back, ready to kill anyone who didn’t look familiar.

Arn Stryker stepped inside and she lowered the tip of the spear. He was smiling, a feat she would have assumed impossible, and he stepped forward and embraced her warmly. “I never would have guessed that you would be the first,” he said to her, and the other jumpers fell to a knee in front of her. “Number five, you have earned your name and can walk amongst us as a person.”

“Thank you, director,” Tayden said dryly and stepped past him to see if anything was different.

The first thing she noticed were the familiar faces of some of the recruits that trained with them. They were still in the same uniform and were busy moving about, cleaning the temple and seeing to the jumpers that wore the colors of persons. The sight of this saddened her when she realized that they had not earned the right to the final test. Who would’ve thought that going against the rules was the secret to ascending in their organization?

“How long?” she said, and Arn looked at her quizzically. “How long have I been gone?”

“It’s been a year, Virulian time, which would be fifteen months on Vestalia.”

Tayden nodded and thought about her jump. On Leir she had been without memory for what seemed like a long time. She had seen children become adults while she was there, and she wondered about the difference in their time.

She still had her wounds and she did feel older, so her assumption that it was all a simulation didn’t hold. She had been to another system, she had learned their culture, and she had given up two years of her life to become a “person.” The thought of this made her angry and she started to march towards a door.

Arn called after her and she turned to him slowly, and his face took on a look of disappointment. “You hate me for our methods and the things that you were made to do. I hope in time you will learn to forgive us,” he said. “You will find your new uniform, weapons, and belongings in the room you once shared with number three.”

Tayden nodded and walked to her room and locked herself inside. The uniform was beautiful, a shimmering white 3B suit with a pearl colored sheath for the accompanying las-sword. Inside a chest she found weapons of every variety, and a pin with her name that would stick to the suit. She snatched up the uniform and went to the bathroom and took the longest bath of her entire life. When she was finished she dressed herself carefully; she had earned her graduation so she was going to enjoy it.

When the ceremony for her ascension had come and gone, she went to the cafeteria to eat with the others. They all seemed tired and welcomed her back, but none were as friendly as when she last left.

“Has Rafian or Camille come back from their missions?” she asked a woman named Willen FAY.

“No, agent Lark, we haven’t seen three or eleven. We hope they’ll return to us very soon.”

Tayden noted the robotic way in which she spoke and saw that the fire had gone out of her eyes. This was a woman who was the pride of her fleet, just like every recruit that had come to become spies. It was a sad thing to see a warrior broken like she was, so Tayden grabbed her lapel and stared into her eyes. “Are you a coward?” she asked the woman, who looked around frantically. “I’m not asking them, Willen, I am asking you if you’re a thyping coward.”

Willen seemed confused and pulled away from Tayden, but when the little woman wouldn’t let her go she grabbed her wrist and twisted it. Tayden, who had spent the last year fighting off strangers, countered the twist by rolling across the table, taking the woman with her.

The other recruits jumped back as food tumbled from the table, and the two women tussled on the glasslike floor. Willen’s docile act gave way to survival and she screamed with fury and clawed at Tayden’s face. The women rolled around until Tayden pulled free, and then ran forward to deliver a kick to Willen’s abdomen. She screamed but got to her feet and came at her again, but this time Tayden caught her by her throat and choked her until she tired of fighting.

When Willen was about to pass out, she sat her down on the bench and brushed the food that had gotten tangled in her hair. “I love you, sister. This is why I had to wake you up. We didn’t come her to play servant. Take a chance and stand up for yourself.”

The other recruits looked on with awe as Tayden walked past them to exit the kitchen. To them she seemed to have come back from her jump as a wild animal, ready to pounce on anyone who crossed her. From that day on they kept their distance, but Willen started to speak up for herself and went as far as slapping the director in his face.

This last act earned her a terrible beating, but she was taken to the crystal the very next week. Arn saw what Tayden had done for the girl and was not happy about it. He sent for her to have a talk and she appeared in front of him wearing similar robes to the ones he wore.

“Where did you get that robe?” he asked her as soon as she entered the room.

“A person likes clothes so this one went into your closet and picked a robe. I’ve taken it in, since I’m a lot smaller than you, but you would be lying if you said I don’t look good in it.”

“You’re taunting me, Tayden, and I don’t know why. Are you intent on provoking a fight to take out your anger on me?”

“Why would I bother? You would just teleport away. A warrior does not concern herself with weak, old bullies that hide behind gadgets and an army of brainless fools.” She rocked back on her right leg and rested her hand on the hilt of her las-sword and stared him down as if she dared him to make a move. “Do you think after all you put me through that I care about death? I’m a person now, right? So I’ll just clone and keep fighting you until you turn it off. What sort of precedence will that set for your organization? You’re a thyping fool to think that we could be broken.”

Arn looked tired and he shook his head, then turned his back to her and commanded a chair to appear so that he could sit. “I’m an old man, Tayden. I’ve been director for over 200 years, and I was old when I first got the dark education. This is why we recruit young people, no older than 25. We want the clones to be young and strong, not feeble old men like me.”

“What is the point?” Tayden asked, reaching into his fruit bowl and grabbing an apple. “You’re old, so what? Why should I care? You sent three officers to worlds where they had no memory, and no cloning facilities to keep them around. We became soldiers to win back our home and you are out here hazing us to join your fraternity. Where does the Geralos fit into what you’re doing?”

“The Geralos are a microcosm in the world of a jumper. Our responsibility is to a much higher power.”

“Some sort of god? Is that where this is going?”

“No, foolish girl, the higher power is life itself! Did you hear nothing when I gave you the education? Did you not listen when I spoke of the universe? We are given great power to protect the worlds, Tayden, to snuff out the wicked who threaten the innocent.”

“Wicked? Like taking away a woman’s ability to become a mother, and forcing her to have sex with strangers? I think that you’re full of schtill. People can do everything you’ve said without going through what we went through. You’re just a sadistic old man with no respect for life.”

“That’s enough, Tayden Lark, I’ve heard enough. Get out of my temple and go for a walk. You can hate me all you want, but you will respect me, and you will prepare yourself for the work you came here to do!”

Tayden took a last bite of the apple and dropped it on the floor. Then she did as she was instructed and left the temple. She donned a breathing mask and pulled the hood up on her cloak, and began to walk a straight line away from the building. She had wanted Arn to come at her when she spoke; he would have won their fight but she wanted the chance to cut his face. She put one foot in front of the other and scanned the orange sky. It was dry and dusty, but it felt good to be outside.

Her mind ran to Camille, who had been the second to jump and she wondered why she hadn’t returned as of yet. Rafian had been first and he was still missing, and she wondered what was different; why she had come back and they were still gone. Had Rafian and Camille ended up in the same world, remembered one another and decided to stay? It would be an odd coincidence that was ultimately romantic, but she knew it was very unlikely.

“Hurry up and come back,” she whispered into the wind. “I don’t know how long I can stand that old man.”

~ * ~ * ~

Rafian and Riyah boarded a run-down Tyheran supply ship under the guise of Mr. and Mrs. Mancozulu. They exchanged formalities with its pilot and settled in among some smelly boxes in the back. Trying to make the best of the situation, Riyah smiled at Rafian and took his hand, but he had the same distant look in his eyes that he always did.

“Where are you, Rafian? You aren’t here with me.”

Finally, his eyes focused on her, and he returned the smile. “I’m here,” he said, “with the best girl ever. I owe you more than I can ever hope to repay.”

Lifting his palms to kiss them, Riyah looked into his eyes for a long time before speaking. “It was only money, plus I was saving to leave. We just moved the date up a bit to escape the Felitians. Plus you killed Burdok, and I owed you for that, so let’s call it even, okay?”

Rafian nodded and they talked and learned more about one another. Throughout the night, he held her close as he mentally drifted back to his place of peace. He felt guilty for his crimes on Talula, and he made an oath to become a good person whenever they reached Tyhera.

“Good-bye, beautiful Talula,” he whispered and reached up to touch the glass. He looked at his palm against the shrinking moon and wondered who he was before he woke up in the wilderness.

The smile that Riyah displayed as the ship broke Tyhera’s atmosphere was bright enough to light the entire planet. Like two pups in a storefront, the couple watched as the lush planet came ever closer with the ship’s descent. It was very blue, a pretty azure field with clouds that masked beautiful green landscapes and occasional brown swampland. They were so enthralled, they did not notice the three vessels bearing down on them.

Suddenly, a loud voice came over the speakers. “This is the Felitian Air Patrol. Slow your descent to a halt and prepare to be boarded!”

Nervously, Riyah looked over at Rafian. Their trip to paradise had hit a brick wall. In response, he smiled and squeezed her hand. “Positive thoughts,” he whispered.

“Hold on back there!” It was the pilot’s voice on the announcer, and before Rafian and Riyah could react, they were slammed into the wall as the ship bolted away from its pursuers. Shot after shot rained down on them as the pilot did his best to outrun the authorities. But there was only so much maneuvering one could do with a freight vessel. The ship was being torn apart, and it was not going very well.

“Oh, man, Gorda will be most unhappy!” the pilot uttered as a huge explosion rocked the side nearest Riyah. Rafian desperately tried to grab her falling body, but the ship was hit again, this time propelling him into a far wall. When the pain had subsided enough for him to open his eyes, he thought he saw Riyah reaching for him before he fell unconscious.

Rafian opened his eyes to find himself on the banks of a swampy pool. The remains of the craft were strewn all about, and refuse seemed to be everywhere. He took in the situation soberly. They had been attacked, he had passed out, and now he was on Tyhera.

After checking for any visible wounds, he began to search for Riyah. The fragments of the ship were everywhere, and for hours he rifled through them, searching unsuccessfully for his mate. He managed to find evidence of the pilot’s demise, but it seemed as though Riyah had vanished into the atmosphere. Where was she? After a few more hours, Rafian came to terms with reality.

The skies of Tyhera were all that Riyah would experience of her homeland.

 

Memory 17 | A New Cause

The minute Rafian set forth into them, the swamps of Tyhera seemed endless. He had no idea where he was going but knew if he kept walking, he would eventually run into something or someone. Three hours passed, and the heat and his exhaustion began to play tricks on his mind.

Stopping to catch his breath after a time, Rafian looked about at the vast swampland and considered his situation. Dark thoughts began to cloud his mind as he headed for a nearby rock to sit. He had not eaten for days, and he felt an interior ache throughout his entire body.

Suddenly a memory pushed itself from out of the dark cloud of his delusion. He recalled himself as a starving boy lying on a cold, concrete floor. He was in a sort of cell, and he was alone, with no hope of escape. Was this memory real, or was it just another illusion? With much effort, he forced himself to stand up and pushed forward through the trees.

It began to rain and the sky grew dark but Rafian pushed on through it all. He plodded through the rain and found a wet road that seemed to have had a lot of traffic. By fate, he stumbled upon an abandoned bike whose saddlebags were laden with credits. Lying nearby was a cloak and a gun and he grabbed them, hoping they were real.

When his fingers found the handle of the tiny gun, he knew it was real. He tried the bike but it had burned to a husk, and the cloak was stiff and dirty. When he reached in its pockets he found a Tyheran crown, which was worth a lot of money on Talula. He closed his fist on the coin and threw on the cloak and hurried away from the area. He followed the road and kept his head down and used the gun to ward off a pack of hum hounds that tried to make a meal of him.

After several miles, the trees broke away and the road cut down through a series of rocks. Rafian could see a city several miles beyond them. His legs were fatigued and his joints were aching but he wanted to drown his sorrows inside a bottle of brandy. If the city didn’t have any drinks he recognized, he was hoping that, at the very least, he could buy a cheap mug of ale.

As he approached the city, the odd makeshift uniform of a soldier caught his eye. She gave him a warm smile and tipped her hat, and he bowed slightly as he walked past her station. She looked no older than eighteen, and her uniform looked to be secondhand rags. It was an olive color, covered in various places with armor, which on close inspection favored that of the Felitian National Guard.

Riyah used to speak of the resistance to him; she had been passionate about their fight and wanted to join when they reached Tyhera. She had dreams of infiltrating Felitian bases as a spy and would make up long scenarios and relay them to him. He would always blow it off as political nonsense, since he saw the Felitian rule as absolute. The only “resistance” in his mind was men like him who “defied” them by breaking the law for a fist full of coins.

But in front of him was a member of the infamous resistance and she was smiling at him. She was out in the open in Felitian-occupied Apun, and this impressed him immensely. It was three Felitians who had killed Riyah, and he liked the idea of hurting them for it.

“You a recruiter?” he asked as he stepped out of the rain.

The woman nodded and pointed at her badge. “You wanna join up?” she asked with a wink. “Help us win this planet back for the Tyheran people?”

Rafian didn’t know much about the politics of Tyhera, but he knew that the Felitians had the power in their galaxy, and the capital of their empire was in Veece, Tyhera. He considered his life and couldn’t fathom any other direction that would make sense for him. He wanted revenge for Riyah, and another reason to live, so why not lend the resistance his mysterious fighting skills?

“I want to be recruited into the resistance army,” he said. “Where do I sign or whatever?”

“What is your name?” she asked and pulled out a tiny data pad.

“Rafian VCA,” he replied and she looked at him to see if he was joking.

“What kind of name is that, with the last one being letters?”

“It’s a name. Put it down; I want to get this over with.”

“You will be a hunted man, VCA, do you understand? The Felitians are always looking for resistance members. If I record your name, you will be marked.”

“Mark the name, already. I said I’m in.”

That first mission was a rescue one and it led to many more for Rafian. Void of his memory and having no one, he made the resistance his life. The skills he possessed helped him to develop a reputation, and before long he was known by all of the resistance leaders.

~ * ~ * ~

Cally, Apun, was barely on the thoughts of the Felitian Empire. Its population consisted mostly of resistance fighters, rebels, and outlaws that were not welcome anywhere else. Cally was not as advanced in its architecture as Dearin was on Talula. It did not have the metal work and masonry that blended to form graceful shapes on the horizon, or the advanced solar technology to keep it lit at all times of day.

Cally was a slum in comparison to Talula’s cities, and the outskirts held savage, doglike animals that would devour those who dared leave with their guard down. Within its streets, the people were mostly outlaws and some of them were scavengers. It would be rare to find Felitian troopers there, and the resistance had gotten so comfortable with their haven that an open recruiter would patrol the streets, looking to grow their ranks.

Whenever the Felitians would show up, the city was relatively peaceful and quiet. The magistrates knew that Cally was a nest of traitors to the empire but left it alone to use for information gathering and for the occasional raid. The city had its good parts, too. The saloon was reputed to have the most exotic dancers in the entire Lucan galaxy, and it was where Rafian VCA sat at his usual table.

His favorite dancer, Dawna, was not there, and due to the early hour, neither were his friends, Orion and Corgan. Looking about at the saloon’s patrons, he tried hard not to let his thoughts roam to Riyah. He badly needed a distraction, and it took all his nerves to avoid approaching the vine-peddling smuggler named Vinny. He missed Dawna; she was always good for a conversation. The other girls were either looking for money or pleasuring themselves in mind games with grunts like him.

With much effort, Rafian reflected on his resistance career to keep his mind occupied. Just recently, the leadership had sent him a letter of appreciation. He and Corgan had raided the capital of Veece, Apun, to rescue fellow freedom fighters, and then there was his hugely successful solo effort that destroyed multiple Felitian satellite camps.

It was freedom fighters like him who kept Cally invisible to the Felitians. He had every right to be proud, but it was never enough to take away the melancholy mood that haunted his every moment. As he reflected on all of this, he heard a familiar voice. “Hey, baby.”

Rafian smiled without even looking up because he knew the honey-sweet voice to be that of Dawna. “Dawna! I was just thinking about you.”

“Oh, really?” she teased as she began her dance routine in front of his chair.

“Well, it’s either you or the war. I think I’d rather think about you,” Rafian said, smiling at her.

Dawna was a tall amazon of a woman. She was the first dancer he had met, and they had become quick friends. Since the death of Riyah, the thought of intimacy with anyone else would reopen old scars for him, so he saw Dawna as a friend and nothing more—at least this is what he had convinced himself of.

Dawna was also a fellow resistance soldier. He was surprised by this revelation one night when he attended one of Corgan’s raid meetings, and there was Dawna decked out in full armor, semiautomatic gun inside her belt, and war paint smeared all over her face. He had never looked at her quite the same ever since. This indeed was the people’s rebellion, and the way she hid her identity during her daily work hours was something he admired.

Orion, ever the enigma, came in after another hour looking cleaner than normal. He was wearing a purple smock and carried a spice pipe horn instead of his rifle, and he joined the band onstage to begin droning on his instrument. Looking on, Rafian smiled in spite of himself. War or no war, everyone had a special something about them, and he loved how they were able to turn it off to enjoy their lives beyond the fighting.

He got up and walked outside quietly, shaking hands with his Daltak friend, Makk, on the way out. With ill intent to keep his mind clear, Rafian headed towards the rear of the saloon and injected a shot of the vine that he had bought from Dawna’s friend, Losa.

The brand was called Mystic Ginger, and it burnt him when he injected it. These days, it seemed as if he was always on the vine. He felt he had to use it as a crutch for the depression he suffered consistently. Riyah haunted his mind nonstop, and he had never forgiven himself for dragging her into his mess and causing her to die in the skies above her home planet.

The vine was an escape from it all. That sensation of fire was now in his brain, and he felt less like the perpetuator of Riyah’s death and more like a god of war.

Sitting down with his back to the saloon wall, Rafian withdrew the needle slowly and relaxed. He was feeling calm, and the grin would not leave his face. This was a side effect of the drug and one of the reasons he hid when he took it. Vine heads were not looked upon favorably, and for Rafian VCA to be seen grinning like a fool would cause him to lose every ounce of respect the rebels had for him.

Rafian passed out on the ground. It was the oh-so-familiar crash from injecting illegal vines. For two hours he lay brain-dead and fried from the vine injection, and then he awoke vomiting all over himself—he had taken this a bit too far. Embarrassed and now sober, Rafian took the back route home to clean up. Once he had showered and changed his clothing, he returned to the saloon as if nothing had occurred for the three hours he was gone.

It was dawn, and the band was still in full swing. The Primian and human women were spinning onstage in a sort of dervish brought on by the melody of the horns. The place was packed and Rafian’s favorite seat was taken, forcing him to stand as he clapped along to a freedom fighter song led by Orion.

“Hey, Rafian!” a familiar voice yelled, and he smiled at his good friend Saiko, a fellow freedom fighter with a spotty background just like his own. According to his story, Saiko was the victim of a mind-wash and was at one time a hired gun for the Felitians. As a result of the payment for his services, he was made filthy rich. But his mind was also wiped, and his memories of the event were removed along with any recollection of family, friends, and skills.

Rafian wondered sometimes if he had once been a great bounty hunter like Saiko, wiped of his memory to protect a client. Saiko’s story had always interested him—being that he also suffered from a similar affliction.

“What’s up, Sai? How’s the training?”

Saiko nodded and replied, “Good, I’m getting it back little by little every day.”

They found a place on the stairs to watch the girls while knocking back a few beers and sharing battle stories. Rafian could count over fifty freedom fighters in attendance, including himself and Saiko. This was always a bad omen because Felitian spies had breached the small town.

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind that an alarm went off to warn of an incoming attack. Rafian tossed his mug down and pulled a five-foot-long sword from a sheath on his back. The sounds of gunshots and explosions could be heard from over the central bridge in Cally, and the sky was flashing red as the Felitian ships rained deadly fire down on the saloon entrance, killing a few unlucky souls who came out at the wrong time.

Looking on, Rafian could see his Deijen friend, Barri, amid the fray, ducking and dodging gunfire while tossing grenade after grenade at the Fels. The fight was intense and it made Rafian’s blood boil, so he started up the bridge in full stride, swinging at any Fel who dared cross his path.

Running into two Felitians, Rafian slid left, then right, allowing his blade to cut a horizontal V path in front of him. Dodging the deadly slash, one of the Fels ignited a rocket-pack and flew backwards while covering Rafian with flames. He dove over the edge of the bridge to douse the flames in the water below. He barely made it, and then he swam to the bank to take the hill and rejoin the fight.

Rafian was wet and scarred from the scorching, but he was not slowed, as his anger carried him forward. Swinging the blade like a scythe, he managed to bring one assailant down before taking a gunshot to the arm. Dropping the blade, Rafian rolled towards his shooter and knocked him down with a sweep. He then mounted the Daltak marksman and choked him to death with his bare hands before recovering his blade and rushing back into the fray.

The small band of fighters was getting desperate. Never before had there been this many Felitians in Cally. Rafian continued his berserker run amid the Fels until he was floored by a martial arts practitioner, who happened to be a Ranalos. The Felitian commenced to stomp on Rafian’s chest with blow after blow until a gunshot to the head dropped him. Rafian felt the giant arms of Barri pulling him into a nearby building, and he silently thanked the giant for saving his life.

Cally had become a battlefield, and Rafian knew things were going badly when not only Barri but Vinny, Orion, and Corgan were wheeled in to be looked at by the doctors in their makeshift clinic. His own wounds were too great for him to be allowed back into the battle, but Rafian couldn’t allow himself to watch as his friends were patched up and released back into the hell outside. Impatiently, he got up from the bed and with sword aloft joined them in regrouping.

“It’s the one from before!” he heard the rocket-wearing Fel announce, and then, suddenly, all eyes were on him.

Rafian did not hesitate to rush the Felitian who had burned him. Two freedom fighter shots had split his armor in two, leaving the Fel vulnerable in multiple places. Felitians wore darsteel armor. It was a flexible material that reflected kinetic weapons and could be destroyed only with laser technology.

Ignoring imminent death, Rafian slid himself to the left of the rocket man and buried the blade deep into his stomach beneath his armor. The Felitian screamed like a stuck pig as Rafian kicked him into the water.

All attacks turned on him, so he dove once again to avoid the lasers. And again the water saved him, but he became disoriented and unaware of his surroundings. An enslaved Deijen picked up the broken body of Rafian and lifted him up as he was jeered and mocked by the now-winning Felitians. Looking around as the life escaped his body, Rafian realized he was alone.

On the ground, about ten Fels were left to do with him what they wished. Slamming him to the ground, the Deijen roared as they handed him a flamethrower. Desperately, Rafian pulled out the last of his Mystic Ginger supply and jammed the needle into his hip. New life erupted in his eyes, and with renewed effort, he recovered the blade, grinning, and took the Deijen’s arm off while running towards the saloon.

A low-flying X-11 Zenu appeared and scattered the Felitians as it landed resistance reinforcements from Hammerhead, Jaloos, the other moon that orbited Tyhera. Cally had once again been held, and the shouts of celebration were almost deafening as Rafian, the indomitable fighter, smiled from between his charred lips in recognition of his survival.

 

Memory 18 | Master Lucci

Blu the Deijen was an incredible doctor. His techniques were unparalleled by any within the city, and with the help of fellow physicians, he patched up every single resistance fighter who had fallen in the fray that fateful day.

The Deijen race was from a swamp planet like Geral, but where the lizards were rough and smaller in stature, the Deijen were more like humans. While their features were flat and plain, they were intelligent and resilient beings who stood as giants. The average Deijen was over seven feet tall, and their muscular bodies were equally intimidating.

From what Rafian had learned, the largely human-run Felitian Empire had joined forces with the Ranalos and conquered Deijo just as they did Tyhera. So it was no surprise to anyone that most of the Deijens were hard-core members of the resistance.

While Rafian lay in his hospital bed awaiting treatment, he thought of the martial arts masters who could simply will away their wounds to make themselves heal. He had witnessed it once when a couple of masters were in a duel, and the loser—who should have died—simply meditated before getting up to collect his things and leave.

He thought about how easily he had been disarmed with the sword by a better martial artist when the Fels raided Cally. It had made him feel inadequate, and he knew he needed to train in order to compete. He had begun the training to become a Mera Ku monk when he learned that they were weapon masters. However, he still needed the advanced lessons where this meditation skill would be studied.

The raid by the Fels had come when he was new to the Mera Ku way of the sword, which was a drastically different style from the one he knew. Though he foolishly ran into the battle, he was proud for doing as well as he had done under deadly fire. He smiled as his friend Blu came over to him to dress his wounds and check his status.

“You fought like a demon out there, Rafian,” the Deijen said, smiling.

“Thanks, Blu, but that was all vine and wine. I hope to be that great sober one day.”

Blu chuckled and started treatment on the wounded rebel. Rafian had always impressed the doc since coming from out of nowhere to command the position he held with their resistance. He himself had taken out three Fels that day. Everyone had done his or her part, but they knew this would not keep up for long. The Felitian Empire was getting too curious about Cally and its citizens, and before long, they would bring their Special Forces to completely wipe them out.

The long night passed in celebration as a wounded Rafian VCA and his fellow resistance fighters drank in victory to another successful defense of Cally. Rafian lay in bed later that night, his head throbbing, but it felt good to be alive.

~ * ~ * ~

In a room high above the streets, Rafian VCA sat with Lucci Vadosh—a Ranalos war hero and fellow Mera Ku martial arts master—and a host of other resistance fighters. Lucci was a legendary leader in the underground movement and was responsible for their success on old Talula. He had met Rafian one day while selling rare cyber-knives, and when Rafian met him with their fellowship’s bow, he gave him his deadliest knife for free.

Lucci took Rafian in as an apprentice in the Mera Ku arts and became his comrade in military affairs. They had become quick friends and fought alongside each other in many skirmishes across the city of Veece. The Ranalos master was invincible in Rafian’s eyes, and Rafian yearned to have the skill and cunning to match his friend.

The discussion in progress was on the affairs of Talula. It seemed that Lucci needed help on the old moon. The plan was for a small mobile unit to move upon one of the Felitians’ primary training camps. They would kill stray units while moving slowly on the camp.

Looking over at Rafian, Lucci pointed at him and said, “This will be our leader for the expedition.”

Not knowing why he was selected for the job, Rafian reluctantly accepted but quickly explained his “wanted” status on Talula.

“That’s quite fine, my friend,” the Ranalos said. “You are on the list now, brother. You are an enemy of the Felitians, and it is very well known. We will hit Dearin, Talula, covertly and then run the lands towards the Fel camp. The only thing you need to worry about is bringing us victory.”

Ranalos eyes always glossed over with an odd light, and that was how they blinked, due to having no eyelids on their large, orb-like eyes. Rafian was still not used to seeing it, but he watched it flicker several times on Lucci’s face before nodding.

Leaning back in his chair, Rafian looked off into the distance and sighed. He had not been back to Talula since his escape with Riyah. It brought up painful memories, and he wished he could completely forget about her. Maybe this was fated, he thought.

The next day, Lucci provided him with a false ID card, and they boarded a shuttle that was heading towards Talula. It was a small shuttle, and thanks to Lucci’s well-planned disguises, they sat next to a couple of Felitian troopers, who were unaware of them as resistance members. For Rafian, it was odd being so close to the enemy without fighting them, and the trip seemed to last forever. When they finally touched down, he was all too eager to be away from the starport and away from the soldiers he had grown to hate.

The two monks checked out of the large lobby and were met by a shady fellow who was heavily armed under a closed trench coat. Glancing for a second at Rafian, the fellow greeted Lucci warmly and motioned them to enter a car.

Lucci’s friend seemed very dangerous and was dressed as if he meant to take on the Fels by himself. Every item on his person was black, even the five or six guns he had strapped to his body, and he bore the tattoo of the Bounty Hunter Guild—a mark to be feared by anyone who knew about them. He mostly spoke in a whisper and was so quiet that Rafian wondered if Lucci was hearing everything he was saying to him as they drove.

“Rafian, this is Eagle,” Lucci finally said. “He’s my best friend and probably the galaxy’s most dangerous bounty hunter. He says we are going to rendezvous with a man named Kael for the raid.”

Rafian took in the lush Talulan landscape at a glance and thought deeply as he nodded. It was a sunny day, and the wind smelled of Vendris, the native blue flowers that Riyah used to love. Eagle was extremely unfriendly, but that was always the nature of bounty hunters, at least in Rafian’s experience. This made sense to him, as they regarded everyone as a couple hundred credits away from being a potential mark.

They made it to the landing zone where they were supposed to meet Kael, and it turned out to be a bushy expanse of field that was bordered on three sides by dense forest. Kael DAL was a dark-skinned man like Rafian, but he had long, gray hair that flowed down his back, and the spikey bones that jutted from his jaw revealed that he was part Daltak.

He was a noble-looking resistance fighter, but this wasn’t reflected in his speech as he stumbled over the plans for the night to follow. Rafian listened and relayed his own thoughts, instructing Kael’s group of six to scout the main Felitian headquarters inside the town. They would rendezvous later, communicating by old radio, a technique the resistance used to stay off the airwaves of the Felitian spies.

Shunning all covert tricks while in the bush, Rafian quickly dressed himself partly in darsteel armor—stolen from the Felitian museum—and partly in a Mera Ku robe. He had grown more serious about the training and was slowly converting to the spiritual side of things. The armor and robes had become his trademark look, with the mustard-colored breastplate, white shoulder pads, matching bracers, Mera Ku Hakama, and metallic, resistance-issue steel-toed boots to complete the ensemble.

His weapon for today was his newly acquired war staff. As part of a swordsman’s training, this was a weapon of choice due to its enormous heft and the incredible discipline required to master it. It was also devastating in close combat, especially towards blast-resistant machine-types.

Lucci and Eagle seemed to be at home in the bush, floating through the tall grass and trees like panthers. Rafian stuck close to them as they crawled, and after two hours of tracking, they made motion to camp and take a break. Pointing east, Lucci spoke. “The Fels are just over that hill about a mile away. We’ll camp here until night, and then we’ll make our move.”

Calming his nerves to slow his heart, Rafian carefully stared east as if to visualize the upcoming battle. This was very different from the raids he had become accustomed to. “Look alive, all, we have company,” he announced, and the others filed forward to see for themselves.

“Yup, that’s a troop coming,” Lucci said. He motioned for his two trained Ro-cats to come over. The cats were part of Lucci’s legend because they loved Felitian flesh as much as their master did. They were huge feline droids formed from scrap metal, and their demeanor made Rafian uncomfortable. The cats were always quiet, and they had cloaking technology, which made them the ultimate predators.

“That thicket of aplopes over yonder can conceal us,” Rafian said, suggesting the old resistance trick of hiding among aplope bushes to avoid body-heat detection by Felitian scanners. The smell was never pleasant, but the reward of stealth was always worth it. The trio of men scurried over to the bushes, and while it was hot to the touch, they hunkered down and waited while Lucci petted the wiry manes of the two killer cats.

The troop neared their position, and they could make out three cadets and an instructor.

Sha!” Lucci whispered to the cats, and instantly they broke from the aplope bush, sprinting towards the troop. The poor fools could not react fast enough, and one fell from having his throat torn out.

In the confusion, they barely noticed the three rebels approaching them, but when they did, they began firing, some to hold back the cats, while others aimed at the fighters. Gunshots flew past Rafian as the troop leader suddenly caught fire and went down screaming. Eagle had sealed his fate and the man’s face melted as if it were plastic.

Finishing off the others in a barrage of kicks and staff blows, the small party proceeded to the north and pounced on another unexpected troop. The ambush games went on like this until they heard an alarm. Worried about his reconnaissance people, Rafian radioed Kael to get an update.

“Hey, Kael, what’s going on?” he whispered into the radio.

It was quite evident that Kael was out of breath, as he could barely speak. “I’m so sorry, sir. We’ve been detected. I couldn’t control the men! One guy ran in recklessly, and now we have Fel troopers combing the area.”

Frustrated, Rafian relayed the message to Lucci. “We need to leave fast!” he said, and then the ground began shaking.

“What the hell is that?” Rafian asked, and then he saw it. An air-to-ground mechanized drone was coming towards them. It was one of the large floating tanks that the Felitians used for mass destruction. As a single unit, they began running as laser fire peppered the ground around them. They outran the machine and gained the clearing, but before they could make it to the car, Lucci stopped Rafian short.

“Rafian, Eagle and I are going to go back.” This didn’t make sense to Rafian, and he inquired why.

“This is what Eagle and I do all the time. Trust me. Get off of Talula, and I’ll radio you the details later.”

Nodding in spite of himself, Rafian wished his friend good luck and started back on the long drive to Dearin and then home to Tyhera. He had never flown a flying car before, but somehow, the controls came naturally to him. He was at the starport in a matter of hours and then on Tyhera by the following afternoon.

Hours later, over a large bowl of soup, Rafian received a call. “Hello, brother, its Lucci Vadosh. I see you made it back in one piece.”

“Hey, old man, I see you made it. What’s the body count for the Fels?”

There was a bit of a pause before Lucci continued. It sounded as if he was at a camp, eating. “Let’s just say we killed every last cadet in that facility, my friend. The Felitians will not be having a fresh batch of troopers coming from our moon anytime soon.”

This was major, and Rafian could not believe his ears. “You men are unbelievable. Well done, Lucci!” he exclaimed.

Excited about the huge success of Lucci’s revenge run, Rafian eagerly summoned his friends to share the news with them. They celebrated with a round of beers at the saloon and tipped the dancers heavily that night. When he had sobered after the celebration, an empty feeling came over Rafian about the mission. The tactics and bravery of Lucci and Eagle had brought success, but in the grand scheme of things, they were detected and routed, so in fact, the operation was a failure.

Talula would now be under the microscope of the Felitians just as Cally was, and for what? He thought they were capable of much more than that. The ideal operations would be the covert ones in which the Felitians would lose a lot, but the resistance would not have to atone for much more than they already did. He pondered this for an extremely long time and then got up to return home.

~ * ~ * ~

It was another five months into Rafian’s dealings with Lucci and Eagle when they decided it was time to make their own organization. The old master was sick of the infighting among leaders in the resistance and wanted Rafian to help him build a smaller sect that would stay out of politics and concentrate more on results. With that, they decided to get their most trusted partners together and have a meeting.

Lucci’s meeting was convened at a large camp outside of Dearin, and the people gathered to form an alliance known as the Aygis. The name was chosen by Rafian, who had extensive knowledge of the war. Aygis was the name of an attack ship that had carried out an impossible mission on Primia, the planet home of those voluptuous women most Tyheran males lusted after.

Primia was taken by the Volf Alliance for their rare ore, which was called dyuirt. The amazons of Primia fought back but were outgunned and outmatched until the Aygis showed up to claim over one hundred thousand Volf raider lives. The Aygis won Primia her independence, but the atmosphere was not friendly for the Volf, and most of the men and women on that mission died saving the Primians.

Lucci’s Aygis was to be a small, tight-knit group that specialized in strikes such as the training camp mission, and he surprised Rafian by naming him one of the leaders. The eight members of the newly formed Aygis did a traditional ritual of cutting the palm and holding it above a fire to take their oaths of commitment.

The Aygis leadership numbered five, with Lucci as the spiritual leader, Rafian as war commander, Sa-Lin—a cute Primian tailor—as espionage lead, Tyren the escape artist, and Eagle the assassin masquerading as a bounty hunter. The sixth officer was a funny-looking Deijen who called himself Bigun (pronounced “big gun”). He was probably the biggest Deijen that Rafian had ever seen, but he was extremely fast and an ace at using ranged weapons.

Within the walls of the alliance were other resistance fighters whom Lucci had invited, and he was happy to move among them in hopes of great things to come. The Felitians had taken Talula like a storm, and Lucci and Eagle did a lot of missions by themselves.

As a unit, the Aygis aided in many military skirmishes and developed a reputation for being the Special Forces you would call whenever a situation seemed hopeless. Rafian found himself fighting on Tyhera, Talula, Deijo, and even Rofe. His bravery was a thing of legend, and he rallied many hopeless fights into victories, always on the front lines.

Under Master Lucci, Rafian the man of no memory became a master of the Mera Ku arts. He gave up vines and whoring for meditation, and mastered the unarmed combat arts in their entirety.

The Aygis organization was turning out to be a dream come true. That is, until the day Lucci Vadosh disappeared. For months, no one heard from him, and after a while, he was presumed dead. Rafian believed that his friend and master had gone too far in his meditation and had fallen into the abyss—a place they all feared in their particular religion. Everyone else assumed the old Ranalos to have been captured or killed by Felitian Special Forces. Whatever the case, it appeared that Lucci was gone from them forever, and Rafian was saddened by the loss.

In an effort to keep Lucci’s dream of the Aygis alive, Rafian tried in vain to keep the meetings and operations going, but soon the other members began disappearing, too. Lucci had been the glue that kept their motley crew together, and with him gone, they had no loyalty to Rafian.

Out of frustration and disappointment, Rafian returned to Tyhera and to the resistance fighting. He was one of the last remaining Aygis members after Bigun was arrested and Sa-Lin and Tyren were killed in action. Eagle vanished like Lucci before him but resurfaced to let Rafian know he would always be there in the shadows. Many members broke their oath and went into hiding after Bigun’s arrest, but Rafian and Eagle sought them out and killed them one by one in honor of the blood pact that they had broken.

A year later, in one of the bravest coups in the history of the resistance, Rafian and a fellow Mera Ku master named Ill Switch executed a plan of tactical genius. The results of their months of organizing and training led to the pair slaughtering a prison full of Felitian troopers to rescue their brother Bigun from its walls.

It was a glorious reunion and Felitians began to fear the Mera Ku robes that men such as Ill and Rafian wore into fights, because the men moved like ghosts and struck with deadly precision. It didn’t matter whether it was with gun or knife; a Mera Ku master was a one-man army on the battlefield. With the help of Ill, the Aygis was reformed on Tyhera behind a bunker owned by Rafian.

It was a well-hidden base within the northern mountains of Apun, and it sat upon the ruins of an old Mera Ku temple. It always felt as if the spirit of Lucci was watching over them. Rafian was named supreme leader, with Ill and Bigun as his lieutenants, devoted warriors sworn by blood and oath to do as they were charged in taking the hell back to the Felitians.

One late night Rafian was thinking about Lucci as he walked through the main halls of the temple. Unsheathing a sword that hung on the metallic wall, he examined it and smiled to himself. He had used this sword when he fought alongside his friend a year ago.

“Which will be your focus, Rafian? Unarmed fighting or the sword?” Lucci had asked him one day as they sat discussing philosophy on the steps of the Aygis.

“To tell you the truth, Lucci, I favor both.”

“I think you should lean towards sword and master it. The way of the sword is an old discipline that even the Mera Ku has neglected for many years. Everyone is able to use a fist and a gun, but you can be one better. I bet if you stick with your sword and your lessons, no one will be able to touch you.”

He was right, of course, and the memory saddened Rafian. “Rest in peace, my Ranalos friend,” he muttered to himself as he replaced the sword in its sheath.

 

Memory 19 | Hatch Kitten

If life as a leader was stressful, then one would assume that Rafian VCA had a masochist yearning for trouble. The war had grown intense, and while he had a personal love for the cause, he often worried if there would be any end to the fighting that turned their tiny side of Tyhera black with the char of burnt barracks, bases, and cities.

For two years of fighting, the only “love” Rafian knew was through the prostitutes of the saloons and the faster women of the resistance. Many women assumed the resistance leader to be eternally a bachelor and were happy for a night or two with him whenever his busy schedule would allow it.

On the inside he had made himself hard as steel, refusing to allow the depression he once felt over Riyah to return. Passing on any relationships with women for fear of losing them to his enemies was not what he wanted to continue doing. This wasn’t to say Rafian didn’t get close, but the women of the resistance were too convenient, and unless he could find a way to stop the fighting, he continued to be a bachelor very devoted to their fight.

It was the supple lips and rhythmic hips of a Felitian baroness that finally caught his eye. Though Fels were eternally his enemy, this beautiful woman was enough to bring thoughts that should not have been in the mind of a commander.

Her name was Rienne, and she was a Felitian lady of Veece. It was during an escape from freshly rallied Felitian troopers that Rafian happened upon her large apartment and dashed in blindly with hopes of finding it empty.

The woman screamed as he gained her doorway, but her objections were cut short by his strong hands as he clasped her mouth shut and held her slight body firmly against his. “Silence, you little snake, I’m not here to hurt you.”

Rienne continued to struggle under his grasp, regardless of his threats, and it made Rafian frustrated.

“Look, either you play nice, or I’m gonna have to cut you,” he said as he brought up his sword to her face in warning.

The threat still did not seem to have any effect on her, and in one clean motion, she spun from his arms and landed a slap soundly on his jaw. She was free now and staring intensely, and then she began to walk in a crouched circle. Her hands were clenched into tight, pale, knuckled fists, and her eyes were all fire.

“You need to calm down,” Rafian said, turning as she circled, keeping his eyes on her the entire time. Experience in multiple situations had taught him to assume the worst at moments like this. Even though his sword was drawn and he was intent on killing, this woman was not backing down.

The other thing that kept him wary was the look in her eyes. Her body and facial expression remained calm, but her eyes read intense rage, which made him feel that she was a killer. It was too much for Rafian, so he took the initiative. Tripping her with his left leg, he swung the hilt of his blade down in an arch towards her head.

But Rienne was too quick, and upon being tripped, she forced herself to fall flat and fast, rolling away from the intended blow. Within seconds, she was back on her feet, drawing a hidden dagger, which she held in front of her face menacingly. The troops had passed, and it was quiet outside. Rafian let himself go calm and feinted in and out with her, trying as best as he could to identify the dagger.

It was not a cyber-knife, and it wasn’t even metal. It looked like stone, the same type that the cavemen of Toone had used. The same stone daggers that usually came doused and finished in deadly spider poison.

Rafian could tell by her parries and feints that she was a fencer of sorts. He knew that he had to radio in soon, or his men would worry about him, so with a desperate lunge, he allowed himself to swing the sword wildly, hoping that she would fall for his trap. She took the bait and came in quick for the intended killing strike.

Releasing the blade as he swung, Rafian used the ridge of his left hand to knock her strike away while simultaneously hooking his right fist squarely into her jaw. Rienne crumbled instantly, the impact of her fall snapping the legs of her coffee table and breaking the glass. Reaching down to take the knife, Rafian realized that his hunch was correct—a nick from its blade would have been instant death.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked the unconscious woman. Then, breathing a sigh of relief, he exited her house to head after his men.

After that day, Rafian hoped he would never see her again. It was a short-lived dream at best, as destiny is cruel that way. A few weeks later on a trip back to Talula, he found himself seated across from a beautiful woman who had a strange familiarity. It bothered him the entire flight until he noticed she was staring at him.

The air became uncomfortable, so he spoke first. “Excuse me, do I know you?”

Smiling widely, the mysterious woman motioned to a mark on her cheek. She was a creature of natural beauty, dark with ebony hair spiraled in the style of the day with golden clips as décor. She was tall with a slight build, and at a glance she could easily be mistaken for a dancer instead of the viper she really was.

“You left an impression on me that day,” she said to Rafian, her lips curving into a warm smile.

“I’m glad I made an impression on you,” he said. “Forgive me for scarring that pretty Fel face.”

“Save that Buraa shite for the saloon trash, outlaw.” She leaned in with a coy expression and then whispered, as if embarrassed that anyone else could hear, “My life has not been easy since I let you slip. The Felitian command was not very happy.”

With interest, Rafian stared at her anew. “You underestimate me, you know that? This is why you have the scar and not me.”

Rienne was flustered and spat back, “Only a scar for me, you coward. Were the tables turned, you’d be dead!”

Looking around at the startled passengers who now regarded them with interest, Rafian smiled as if they were old lovers quarreling in order to take the attention down a notch. Speaking to Rienne under his breath, he made it clear that he was serious.

“Look at you, playing the part of their pretty attack dog. You escaped with your life that day; you should be on your knees thanking me.”

Rienne kept her eyes locked on him. “You dare talk to me like that? Outlaw. I allow you to fly on this aircraft without revealing you to the Felitian authority, and you dare to show me arrogance?”

She was visibly upset now, and Rafian looked back at her calmly. “You’re too uptight, you know that? Call your dogs, and you can watch me slice them into mincemeat. I’ll tell you what I know, though, my pretty little snake. You won’t call the Fels because of your code. You’re a killer like me. You would not let me go so easily without sinking a blade into me first.”

~ * ~ * ~

The sun shone brightly through the window slit of the apartment as Rafian opened his eyes. Using his right hand, he began to stroke the long strands of hair flowing from Rienne’s sleeping head as she purred warmly into his chest. She was in a deep sleep and her arms clutched his body tightly, as if allowing him no chance of escape.

He could not explain how they had come here or why they had made love as opposed to dueling, but he knew that for the first time in years, he felt at peace. Rienne was an amazing woman who made love as passionately as she fought. She was so good, in fact, that those little pictures of “happily ever after” danced around in his mind as he caressed her hair, ignoring everything else in the world.

Her large brown eyes opened, and she was awake. Lying still for a few moments as if to gather her thoughts, she sighed, smiling, and said, “Good morning.”

Still caressing the mane of his lioness, Rafian replied, “That it is, indeed. Did you sleep well?”

Rienne thought for a second or two and then said, “The best sleep I’ve had in a very long time.”

She then sat up, the sheets falling away, which made Rafian wonder how they had managed to go from trying to kill each other to waking up relaxed, as if they had each other’s backs.

“What time is it?” she asked suddenly, turning towards him.

“Too early for you to leave,” he replied and pulled her back down onto the bed.

The time ticked away as the lovers explored each others’ bodies as well as minds. Rafian learned that he had somehow found himself in the arms of a high-ranking baroness of Veece, and Rienne realized that her lover was the most notorious leader of the resistance movement. They laughed at this interesting turn of affairs, but it was Rafian who suggested a proposition.

“Why don’t we let them think we are dead and run away together?” he asked as he examined the scar on her cheek that he had dealt her so long ago.

Holding his hands and staring into his eyes, Rienne replied, “This is crazy, but do you think it would work? People in OUR positions? There would be investigations, and if discovered, I fear the worst punishment for us both.”

She paused before finishing in a hushed voice, “Not to mention, disgrace.”

It was true, of course, especially the latter half. The last thing Rafian wanted to do was bring shame on himself or his cause. The resistance would be scarred by a scandal such as this. But for all that he had given up for them, he laughed at the thought.

“We belong together, we both know it. I’ve been without direction and knowledge of who I am for a very long time, Rienne. Being here with you is the first time I have slowed down in over two years.” He looked away from her and then continued. “We don’t have much time; I cannot sit here and play the game of courtship with you. Given the circumstances, I think you know what I am saying.”

Rienne was smiling. Her eyes, once locked into Rafian’s, seemed bashful suddenly, and she began to blush. “This is so crazy. How do you propose we do this?”

Squeezing her palms, Rafian replied, “You just stay beautiful and attend to your duties. I will find a way to come to you.”

~ * ~ * ~

The resistance began to see a change in their leader, Rafian VCA. There was a spring to his step unlike before; he was very accommodating, talkative at times, and actually friendly. His habit of disappearing for long periods of time increased, but instead of returning with dust and mud caked to his body, he would return clean, freshly dressed, and beaming.

It was rumored that the young commander had found love somewhere. Most of his fellows believed her to live in Divina to the north. This was the ploy Rafian made them believe; instead, he would fly from Aygis to Divina and then bounce from Divina to a private shuttle within the walls of Vyre.

From Vyre he would fly off to Cally and ride a Buraa mount northwest to the hidden cottage that he and Rienne had set up as their home of escape. With the danger of discovery looming, the two would do this ritual only twice a month but would stay together for three to five days before painfully separating again. This continued for a long time during the war.

Sometimes they would do foolish things in desperation of finding each other—or out of love. For instance, when three lone Felitian soldiers in a starport of Veece discovered Rafian’s identity, Rienne, who happened to be passing by, watched her lover take them down, but he was injured in the process. With little heed to herself, she ran to his aid in plain view. He scolded her, since it jeopardized her life for them to be seen together, but she promptly explained that she couldn’t help it.

Rafian himself had foolishly stormed a trooper garrison and destroyed it based on his discovery that a superior officer had slapped Rienne in the face. As their relationship deepened, the foolish mistakes increased, and they both knew they would eventually get caught. There were also bright times, when they would retreat for a week to a remote location. They would disguise themselves as Lord and Lady VCA and fly off to Vare XV, Chebe, and sometimes Lochte.

As dangerous as their relationship was, Rafian VCA was a happy man. To him, he was not in love with a Felitian woman; he was in love with Rienne, a lost soul stuck in the Felitian’s world.

One day Rienne received a strange vid-message asking her to fly immediately to a waterfall in the country of Vyre. Not knowing what to expect, she made herself battle-ready and headed out to meet her fate, fearing that her sleeping with the enemy had finally been realized. On arrival, an official in full regalia was waiting there with Rafian. He was handsomely dressed in his military uniform and he looked at her as if she were New Year’s Day.

“Will you?” he asked and extended his gloved hand.

Fully understanding, Rienne replied, “Yes.”

Rafian VCA, freedom fighter and leader of the covert rebel group known as the Aygis, was married to Rienne Laren, Felitian baroness and lady of the house of Laren, Tyhera. They both took a month’s personal leave and escaped to Lochte for their honeymoon. Lochte was run by the infamous pirate Samael, who owed Rafian a favor from a long time ago.

For the honeymoon, Rafian had contacted him, and he set up accommodations for the commander and his new wife. They were promised no outside interference, and with the pleasure of peace for at least a month’s time, they left behind all communication devices and settled down.

“So here we are,” Rafian said finally when they were settled in.

The accommodations were exquisite. Samael lent him an outlying palace of sorts with everything provided, fully maintained by an android staff with no questions asked.

The palace was shaped like a disc, with the walls transparent and the furniture made of Zeynic glass and painted in off-white, yellows, and earth tones. The color matched the hot desert landscape that was the planet Lochte, and its planes of Yuir held up the massive twenty-story spike on which the palace balanced as it slowly spun through technological magic that only Samael could explain.

The entire interior was a lounge lizard’s dream, and the bar had enough liquor to host a year-long party with a thousand guests. Rienne made herself comfortable and plopped down on a dais, staring at her newly acquired ring.

“Rafian, I can’t keep this hidden. I can’t see myself taking it off. There will be questions. I will have to tell them that a rebel stole my heart!”

Rafian placed his wine glass on the counter and walked over to his wife. Kneeling in front of her, he took her ring finger, slipped it into his mouth, and slid it out slowly. Rienne began to giggle uncontrollably. “Stop, I’m being serious. How are we going to do this?”

Rafian got up from his knees, sat beside her, and examined the ring himself. “It is beautiful,” he said matter-of-factly. “I had it crafted by a close friend. The ring itself is made from Ranalese Drake tissue, and those are bits of death crystal around it.”

Rienne looked as if she couldn’t draw breath. “This must have cost a fortune!” she yelled, and Rafian laughed.

“It did, but you’re worth it. Look, we can keep hiding as long as you wish, but there are other alternatives—”

Before Rafian could continue, Rienne kissed him to silence whatever he was going to say. “I know the alternative, Raf, but they would never let me go. For you, I know switching sides is not an option, so it remains a choice I would have to make. This secrecy we have—it’s getting old.”

Standing up and walking away deep in thought, Rafian pondered. “I don’t want you to sacrifice your livelihood, Rhee, and if the Felitians lay one finger on you…” He closed his eyes and sighed. “I’d blow up the planet. Let’s drop it for now and enjoy our time together. The future will play itself out as it wishes.”

~ * ~ * ~

The month-long honeymoon seemed to fly by at light speed, and before long, the couple found themselves out of time. On the shuttle back to the Lochte Starport, Rienne looked at Rafian.

“Guess what?” she asked, and he suddenly looked concerned.

“Oh no. Are you with child?”

Her expression changed to one of annoyance and she punched him in the arm.

“Maker’s sake, woman, you hit pretty hard!” he exclaimed, holding the arm and observing the black-and-blue area where her wedding ring had left its bruise.

“No, wrong, try again.” She was giggling now, and Rafian was getting annoyed. Snatching a chunk of her flesh underneath her arm, he pinched her and she squealed and jerked her arm away.

“Come on Rienne, out with it—” He couldn’t finish his sentence because of a pain in his groin. Looking down, he realized that she literally had him by the balls! He raised his hands up in surrender, which prompted a bigger smile on her face.

“See? Aren’t you glad I am on your side?” she asked.

“I know you’re a fierce hatch kitten who doesn’t give up. That I do know,” he said, shaking his head.

Then, upon releasing him, Rienne melted into his arms and whispered, “Well, that’s OK, because I am now your kitten forever. I was just going to tell you that I will be leaving my post to take my place by your side. Do you think they would accept me in Aygis?”

Rafian squeezed her tight and kissed the top of her head. “Accept you? My dear, you will be their first lady!”

Rafian and Rienne hastily gathered her belongings and depressed them into a moving capsule—a phenomenal invention that defied all logic. The capsule could contract to the size of a fist, shrinking anything within it to allow for easy storage.

In secrecy, the couple flew into Cally and then shipped off to Vyre, Tyhera, where they spent the night. The plan was to sneak her out of her Felitian command station without anyone knowing. The Fels would assume she was dead or kidnapped, and in time, she would be in his arms, happily married and protected by his resistance fighters.

“Rafian, I was thinking of changing my name,” she said when they were finally settled in.

Holding her hands as they sat on the edge of the bed, he began talking to her quietly. “I didn’t intend on this being so hard or painful for you, Rienne, but I promise you this: from the day we eloped, you were and will always be my queen. You are what I hold dearest to my heart, and I will never do anything to hurt you in any way. My fight for freedom can finally mean something—it will mean a life of peace where we can be a family. Please don’t ever forget that I love you, and that I always will.”

Rienne edged in even closer and whispered in his ear. “I understood all of that the day we exchanged vows.” The sound of a trooper patrol was outside their hotel, so the lovers kept quiet and waited until they passed. “What am I to you, Rafian?”

It was an unexpected question, but rather than answer with deep thought, he just spoke candidly. “You are my Rienne.”

Suddenly Rienne hopped up excitedly, clapping and dancing around, looking as much the fencer as she had on that day they first met. “Yes I am and I love it!” she exclaimed.

Rafian was confused. “What are you going on about, Rhee?”

“Don’t you see? That will be my name, you said my Rienne! Well, that is what I am, I am your Rienne! So you see, Myrienne will be my name!”

Barely understanding, Rafian thought it through. His odd accent with the Tyheran dialect had made him pronounce it like a name.

“So your name will be Marian, then?” he asked.

“Yes!” she screamed. “Marian VCA!”

She was more excited than he had ever seen, and it made him energized to witness it. As he watched his nubile and extremely happy wife play around with her name he felt complete—and it was not a feeling he was used to.

 

Memory 20 | Person

It was the fifth month of the push on Veece when Rafian woke up confused and aware for the first time in years as to who he truly was. He had had a dream the night before in which he was visited by a woman. She had long dark hair and clothing that resembled nothing he had seen before on Tyhera. He knew that her name was Tayden, but he couldn’t understand why he knew her.

She was repeating something to him, and it took a while to figure out what it was she was saying. “You must come back to us. You are taking too long to return.”

She was dressed in a skintight white outfit, and her hair flowed wildly over her shoulders—she certainly was not a woman of Tyhera, because hair let loose was seen as the fashion of immoral women. It did not seem strange to him, however, and the more he walked towards her, the more she seemed familiar.

When he woke up, the memories flooded into his brain like a broken dam. The reality of his situation began to make sense to him, and his world and everything he thought he was came crumbling down in an instant. “Where am I?”

Marian was awake now and caressing him worriedly while telling him that he was in Veece with his wife. Of course he remembered. The resistance had taken the capital city, and after a grand celebration, he had taken Marian back to her house, where they slept after emptying her cupboards of wine.

“Are you okay, husband?” she asked finally, and he stared at her, wondering how he would reveal his identity and the happenings that had allowed him to make it to her galaxy.

He sat up, looked at her, and then began talking, despite the numerous attempts she made to stop him. “You have to hear this in its entirety, Rhee. If you don’t, it won’t make any sense to you. I am Rafian VCA, a jumper, Starfighter, and marine for the Fourth Lance squadron of the Helysian, a military starship. My galaxy is Anstractor, and I am twenty-five years old, I think. The memory loss I had all this time was chemically induced by my masters so that I could come here empty. I am apparently out of time here, and I am being summoned to return.”

Marian was staring at him, wide-eyed and wondering if there was a punch line coming at the end of his story. She first asked him if he was sure about the memory being real, and then she asked him how he felt about what the jumpers had done to him. He let his anger show and explained to her that he meant to exact revenge upon them.

He told her about Camille, the sexual conditioning, and the way they had forced him into the chair and wiped his memories. Shame came over him upon realizing that he was now married to Marian, and Camille would again be left out in the cold. If he jumped back, he would break her heart and leave a woman he loved to pick up the pieces of a life he had helped to shatter. Death would have been an easier prospect.

“Marian, I need you to come back with me to Anstractor,” he said.

Marian looked away quickly, being that she could never look into his eyes whenever he was upset. She feared the unknown and was not sure whether her husband was being logical or having issues with his sanity. Jumping galaxies? Was that sort of thing even possible? She knew he had suffered traumatic memory loss, but waking up to this was just too much. She wanted to fall back asleep and return to the world where they were victorious, and she was in her own bed with the man that she loved.

Rafian’s mind was moving a mile a minute, and he wanted Marian to say yes so that he could get back as soon as possible. How will I explain all of this when we are reunited? he thought. He didn’t want to hurt either of them, and he began rationalizing how he would keep Marian in his life while making things right with Camille YAN.

“If I’m to believe what you’re saying and join you in Anstractor, what is to happen to our friends and the fight for Tyhera, Rafian?” Marian asked.

He kissed her in hopes of giving her some reassurance. “I believe that when we jump out, there will be a major shift in the movement and the Fels will finally retreat. The war has been going on for decades now, Rhee; it will continue to go on even in our absence.”

Marian nodded to show him that she understood, and to also let him know that she trusted him. They got up, showered, and grabbed the things that meant the most to her. “Should we say good-bye to our friends?” Marian asked. Her eyes looked as if everything she loved had been wiped out in a flood.

“They would never understand,” Rafian said and tightened his lips at the overwhelming sadness he felt.

Marian looked around the room as if saying a mental good-bye, and Rafian reached back to his third molar, squeezed it hard, and pulled out the tiny crystal shard that was embedded within it. A jumper needed the crystal to return, and it would be his ticket back to the reality he had always known.

He instructed Marian to hold him tight, and with that, he held the tiny piece aloft and thought of the light from within the crystal room. It took less than a minute for the couple to feel the power of the warp crystal. The room was suddenly consumed with a milky-white light, and before they knew it, they were in front of the stone chair and floating crystal at the jumper temple.

~ * ~ * ~

Rafian had expected Arn Stryker to be there with his white hair and his host of staff-wielding lackeys, but what he found was Tayden dressed in all white, a bloody blade at her side, and a couple of the other students, including Camille, staring at Marian with their mouths agape.

“How long was I gone for?” Rafian asked as he scanned the room. He noticed it was not as pristine as it was when he had last seen it.

“We were all under for about three years, Raf,” Tayden said as she glanced at Marian, who held on to Rafian for dear life as the women and men watched her in bewilderment.

“Rafian, who is your friend? And, are you guys married?” This was Camille, who stepped forward to confront Marian. If his wife had been an innocent saloon girl, she would have feared for her life at the woman’s approach. But Marian steeled herself, stepped out from behind Rafian and spoke for the first time since they had arrived.

“How about you ask me, Camille?” she said through the vocal translator that Rafian had provided her with. He had kept it with him since landing on Talula, even though he had mastered the language there after so many months in the conflict. The language she used was Vestalian, but when Camille did not respond, she turned to Rafian and spoke to him in the language and dialect of Tyhera. “Can she understand me? I am speaking your language, right?”

Rafian nodded at her and then turned to Camille, but before he could say a word, Marian was talking again. “Back down right now before I jab her with my fire-knife.”

She had brought along the deadly stone knife, and though he worried a bit for her safety, he wasn’t sure if his fierce Vestalian girlfriend was a match for his Tyheran wife. He reasoned with them both and asked them to cool off, so as to prevent any bloodshed or loss of life.

Tayden muttered something under her breath, and then she stuck her head outside the door to look for anyone approaching.

“How is it that you two were able to bring me back?” Rafian finally asked.

“It was all Tayden,” Camille said. “She managed to figure out the warp crystals and summoned me back from the Karel prison center on Deval, Yce—I think it was the Flavin Galaxy.” She had a sad look on her face as she said the prison’s name and grabbed her left arm in the way she always did.

“Cammy and I were sent to the same galaxy, the tiny one known as Flavin. While my mind was wiped, it was a bit different from what I am hearing from everyone else. I started to get my memory back within a few months. That was how I knew what I needed to do to escape. Arn was happy that I had pulled off my assigned spy detail, and along with Willen and Cathe, I graduated to person.

“When you and Cam were still not back after a long time had passed, I began to worry, so I did some research on my own. I think Arn was trying to sabotage you both on purpose, since everyone else got over the memory loss fast.”

Rafian was visibly upset as Tayden told him this. She continued to tell him how she stayed silent for roughly a year before making a move to save them.

“I pretended to be his loyal little person for a time. That old man sent me off to several places—even Vestalia to pull off missions—and he began to trust me enough to tell me how the warp crystals worked. This was how I knew I could invade your dreams to bring you back. I tried it with Cammy first, and when she came back, I did it with you.”

Rafian looked around at all the faces of the jumpers who were with Tayden. “So, where is Arn, Tayden? Is he good with you doing this?”

It was Valk, the Arisinian, who spoke up. “This morning, Tayden and I dropped a poisonous gas in the meeting hall and took him out along with the guards.” Touching his heart and bowing his head in the galactic salute of respect, Rafian walked over towards Tayden and touched her gently on her cheek.

“He had it coming. I hope the poison was slow and painful. I owe you my life, Tay,” he said with much humility. “I could have burned over ten plus years on this mission without any memories of who I truly was,” Rafian said.

Marian had gone into the next room to change into a white 3B suit that Tayden handed her while the other jumpers began to recite their own mission details. But Rafian wasn’t listening, as his brain was processing the situation. They would have to act fast or risk their lives being forfeited as a result of Tayden’s treason, and he needed to know whether or not Arn was truly dead.

As if she knew what he was going to do, Camille handed him his las-sword and smiled. “You’re going to need your fishing rod if you plan to get dinner, dear.” She said this in an eerily cute way, and he reached up to touch her cheek in the gentle way he always did.

Rafian knew that poison was not enough to subdue a master like Arn, and he was going to be in for the fight of his life. Tayden moved to be by his side as they walked past the jumpers, some wounded from trying to stop Tayden’s rebellion, and others looking on in awe as the nine figures marched with Rafian VCA at the front.

Arn would be angry but he would underestimate him. He had fought daily for the last three years and had been in the thickest of wars. He had seen friends burned, cut down, and executed by a capable enemy, and he had learned how to make them pay for it. He was a Mera Ku monk of the highest level, and his skill with a sword had been legendary on the planet of Tyhera. Arn would be dangerous but so would he, and one of them would die while the other stood victorious.

The group stopped outside the large, metallic doors ordained with the strange glyphs of the temple and the dancing lights that were on the walls. Tayden motioned for everyone to put up their masks, but Rafian waved her off and centered himself.

Looking at him as if he were crazy, Tayden shook her head and opened the doors to reveal several long tables in a beautiful red room. The jumpers who occupied the tables were all dead from the gas, except for Arn, who sat at the head, meditating.

Rafian stopped his friends short and asked them to stay as he approached the old man. He noticed the pictures on the wall—images of planets he was not familiar with—and it made him anxious to remove this tyrant so that he could freely study all the knowledge archived within the temple.

“You didn’t expect to come in and find me an easy kill, did you, number three?”

“I’m back from your mission. Shouldn’t you address by my name?”

Arn looked up at Rafian with the same cold, judgmental eyes he had grown to hate.

“You took longer than you were supposed to, number three. Your mission was to unify the rebels, which you did, but you were supposed to return once that happened. Instead, you joined another organization and became intoxicated with power—oh, I know everything.” He began laughing hysterically at Rafian’s stoic face and then continued to tell him about himself.

“You let the meditation practice of that mystic world interfere with your brain, boy. This is why the memory that should have triggered your return did not come back to you. Then you got married—which is a violation of our rules. Congratulations, by the way.”

Rafian felt a sharp pain in his back as he fell forward from the sudden elbow that Arn hit him with after teleporting behind him. The elbow was meant to hit his spinal column, but reflexes had caused Rafian to move, and it caught him on the side of his spine. Using his training to ignore the pain, Rafian stood up and turned to face the old man.

He brought the las-sword to life till its edge grew hot and the blade glowed bright-white with intent. He was after Arn like a rabid dog, feinting slices to hide intended cuts, which followed after every step. Arn was deflecting the sword using only his palms, and Rafian searched his thoughts in wonderment of how he was able to teleport and move things around with telekinesis.

He wondered about the environment, being that he had never seen Arn leave the building. He wondered if he used gravitational tricks that were manipulated by his clothing and jewelry. Perhaps that was the source of this magic that only he of all the jumpers knew how to use.

Arn caught his sword swipe one last time and shattered the blade into a thousand pieces. Marian gasped as the old man countered with a palm-heel thrust to his chest, but Rafian had centered his thoughts on the fight, and it was as if Arn moved in slow motion to him.

Deflecting the thrust with a palm-heel of his own, Rafian kicked Arn in the testicles and followed it up with an uppercut to his chin. When the uppercut connected, he twisted on the balls of his feet to hook a punch into Arn’s ribs and let his built-up energy explode into a shoulder thrust that knocked the old man into the tables, causing a crunching sound to come from his broken body.

“Wait!” Arn managed to say as the young man approached him with deadly intent, and he rolled to the ground with his hand over his face as if to plead for his life. “You have exceeded everything that they told me you would.” The blood ran fresh from his mouth and nostrils.

“What are you talking about?” Rafian asked as he kept his distance.

“We have always watched you, Rafian VCA. We have watched you from your days as a mangy dog in the slums of Basce City to your ascension to lieutenant on the starship Helysian. You are meant to lead us.”

Rafian looked confused. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. We have always watched you, Rafian. These were the same words he heard when he went to the place where Samoo had disappeared. When he went in for training, he felt that the jumper temple had been a bit too mysterious and odd.

In the back of his mind, he knew there was something bigger. But he still didn’t understand the hell they put the recruits through. Not to mention the casual behavior with letting him—their supposed “chosen one”—sit on a planet risking his life for years. No, he thought, Arn was buying time—but for what? He didn’t know, but this was nonsense, and on Tyhera, this delaying tactic normally meant that a detonator was about to go off.

He looked over at Marian, who nodded at him with a familiar fire in her twinkling eyes. “Tayden, how much were you able to learn about this place and its history in the year that you were free?” he suddenly asked.

“I learned enough to get you out, didn’t I?” she replied evenly. “The rest are in deep archives stored in the seventh room.”

“Sounds like I have enough to start this leadership you have been meaning for me to have then, Arn.” And with that, he knelt next to the old man and held his throat until his body stopped moving.

 

Memory 21 | Oaths Broken

We have always watched you, Rafian. The eerie words of Arn stayed with Rafian through the long months after Tayden’s coup dethroned the old man and his followers. When Rafian won the fight and took Arn’s life, the old man cloned—as was expected—and was held captive until the other leaders of the alliance could be summoned to chat.

The leadership would not comply with the requests for a meeting, and Rafian, Camille, and Tayden learned that Arn’s temple had gone rogue a long time ago. This resulted in his organization being removed from the regular order of spies, so they were not considered official. This meant that the murders and treason committed by Rafian and his cohort would be their own secret, but they would have no support from their foreign guild members.

Rafian was primed to take over the organization—a motion set forth by Tayden—so he spent most of his days interrogating Arn and reading numerous files in order to better understand the crystals and their powers. Strangely enough, Marian and Camille found a way to work out their differences. Camille began training the ex-baroness in the ways of the jumper so that she could assist them in any future movements.

The student body was reorganized and made to keep training, and Rafian applied military protocol to their rank, status, and promotions. Tayden became his sub-commander, and she took lead while he pulled what he could from Arn.

His words, “we have always watched you” frightened Rafian. There might be bigger players in the game, and he might just be a pawn, moving only as he was instructed. He began to hate the temple, which had always felt like a prison to him, but he did not dare speak a word of it to anyone, as they could lose faith in his ability to lead them.

“Commander Rafian,” they would say before making any requests, even one as trivial as permission to leave. Former rivals now regarded him with respect, and he was back to people walking on eggshells around him as they had on Helysian. Although he accepted it, he was not comfortable with it, as he felt that he didn’t know enough to lead them.

For days he would drill Arn, but the old man would only provide hints and riddles, still hiding the secrets of what the jumpers’ true calling was. It was an exercise in patience, but he stayed with it as long as he needed to. Though Arn felt like he was leading him in circles, Rafian was slowly pulling the knowledge the old man had held for over 100 years.

~ * ~ * ~

“It’s been several months, Rafian. Can we finally have that talk?”

It was Camille who entered his office wearing a beautiful white frock. Her hair was pulled back tight into a bun adorned with sparkling crystals that was set off by the tiny necklace he had given her back when they were on Helysian. It seemed that she had learned a thing or two from Marian about Tyheran fashion. Her entire outfit rang familiar and this was not lost on him.

She had been trying to have this chat with him for many weeks, and he had managed to slip away from her every time. Now she had him cornered and alone and she was absolutely beautiful.

“Maker, Cammy, what are you trying to do to me?” he said under his breath. He rubbed his forehead desperately, as if doing so could reverse the fateful trip to Tyhera that had made him swear himself to another woman.

His mind was tortured with guilt, and he hadn’t found a way to deal with it. On one hand, he felt as if the fault was not his own, but another part of him scolded himself for not finding some way to remember.

Rising to his feet, he crossed the stark white room and held her. She put her head on his shoulder, and her slender figure made him excited.

“OVO, activate locks,” he announced into the air. “Ambient lights, lounge motif, and status lockdown.” The room dimmed, and the desk descended into the floor. The lights flickered as images of a couch, ottoman, holo-projector, and plants materialized and then became solid. The white room had become crimson, and Camille watched it happen over Rafian’s shoulder and could not hide the astonishment in her voice.

“I didn’t know that rooms could do this!” she said incredulously. Rafian didn’t seem to hear her as he walked her to the couch and began to kiss her longingly.

“Marian does not yet know our way with this, Rafian,” she said as she held him away from her, staring into his eyes.

What he read in those eyes spoke differently, however, and he slipped between her arms and laid her down as he continued to work on her dress, jewelry, and Jalakian-styled boots. It was a lengthy session, that afternoon in his office, tender and passionate to make up for the years that they had been apart.

As they lay on the couch they spoke of the past but when they spoke of the future, they were at a loss. “I cannot go back on my vows and leave Marian, Cammy. It will be my lifelong struggle, but a man who breaks vows is not the kind of man I want to be.”

“What do you think we just did, Rafian? Was that staying loyal to the woman you love?”

Rafian couldn’t answer since he was already burning up inside. The thought of the disappointment inside of Marian’s eyes put a knot in his stomach that burned like fire.

“She will kill me when she finds out,” he said finally, and Camille sat up and nudged him aggressively.

“What do you mean, when she finds out? She isn’t a thyping jumper. She’s a sweet girl but she’s really into all of that Tyheran warrior stuff, Rafian. She would kill you and then she’d probably kill herself.”

Rafian knew that Camille was right but the guilt was already making him sick. “You don’t understand, Cammy. I cannot lie to my wife.”

Camille YAN lay back on the soft couch, playing with her necklace a bit. Her hair was all over the place, and the crystals that had decorated it were all over the floor.

“Marian and I had a long talk, Rafian. We both love you immensely. She even attempted to back down so that you could divorce and I could be yours again.”

Rafian sat up, interested and a bit frightened as to the resolution that both women had come to regarding him. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt or upset Marian, because his feelings for her were still fresh—though his love for Camille was no different.

“I told her that I am a jumper and that we weren’t allowed to have the type of love that she has with you.” She trailed off a bit, as if she didn’t like to hear what her lips were now saying. “I told her that jumpers do not belong to anybody, Raf. You don’t belong to her, and I don’t belong to you. We have no connections, which of course we actually do—I can’t just very well stop loving you, can I? But formal relationships? None of it is for us to have. You made THAT oath before you made the one to her. Remember? Sure, it’s all a big pile of schtill, but that’s our reality in this place.”

Rafian tried to imagine what would have gone through Marian’s head upon hearing it. On Tyhera, the way of their world was for one man to have one partner. Any change to this rule was seen as perversion, and people would look down on couples who condoned cheating.

“Would it be so selfish if I took you to the crystal room and jumped away to one of the remote moons of Oclus? Because the world is such a confusing mess right now that I would really do it if you told me that I should. I will always love you, Cammy.”

He said it in a way that people say before taking poison or jumping off of a structure to their death. His voice had a frightening finality to it that set Camille back in wonderment at his intent, but he wasn’t doing anything but sitting up with a hand caressing her upper thigh.

Camille YAN stood up, straightened her dress, and dusted herself off. She tried her best to reset her hair, and walked out of the office without saying anything more.

Rafian was in hell. The sex had awakened feelings for Camille within him that he had long suppressed. That night, he entered the apartment he shared with his wife to find her sitting on their bed next to the fireplace waiting for him. She wore green, a color that looked so good on her brown skin that it made her even more beautiful—as if that were possible.

“I slept with Camille today, Rhee. I went against my promise to never hurt you and I—” He shut his mouth and stared at her, ready to accept the punishment that he felt he deserved.

The Tyheran beauty kept staring without blinking, so Rafian kept talking.

“We have different relationships here. It’s this place; it—” He sighed audibly. “We are not supposed to have attachments, and I slipped up. I went right back to—”

Marian tore off the ring and threw it so hard at him he could barely afford the time to step out of the way and catch it midflight. His training would not allow his reflexes to lie dormant when a precious object like Marian’s wedding band was flying towards a wall.

“I’m sorry, Rhee.” He tried to reason with her, but her blood was boiling and she seethed. Marian’s temper was never something easily cooled, and Rafian knew it was about to get ugly. She powered on the las-sword that lay near the bed and rose to her knees, the blade humming to life in front of her.

Rafian knelt on the floor and exposed his neck, then spoke slowly under his breath. “Mera ku gol, senus amu showel Rafian.” It was the final words that Mera Ku monks would utter if they were lucky enough to see death face to face. Its meaning was simple: “Take your son Rafian into your arms with honor.”

It seemed like an hour had passed while Marian struggled with herself over whether to kill him. She could lop off her husband’s head or accept his perverse jumper organization with their casual sex and brainwashing.

Her head cooled as she decided, and she suddenly felt sorry for him. In the months that had passed with them as husband and wife, he had told her about his history and his wonderful career that had ended up here. He was a man who knew only tragedy, and even now, she knew that taking his head would grant him a peace that he had never known throughout his life.

She turned off his sword and relaxed her shoulders, then placed it back into the scabbard that leaned against their bed.

“What sort of wife threatens to kill her husband?” she asked as she joined him on the floor. Rafian got up off his knees to hold her and stroke her hair, and they cried together for a very long time that night.

 

Memory 22 | Guidance of Gods

Many things crossed Rafian’s mind as he watched the large ship descend upon the temple. It was all black against the beautiful orange sky of Virulia, the planet that was home to their jumper temple.

It was on an inquiry from Tayden that he had thought to look outside. Apparently, the ship had always been in orbit, but due to their limited training on the outside world and the fact that they were never allowed out at night, he had not seen the blinking lights and energy that radiated off of the vessel.

The air was breathable but thick, so they wore their 3B masks and stayed together, remarking on who their watchers were and why they were descending to greet them. Rafian thought the old master Arn had found a way to signal for help, so he placed fifty jumpers on the exterior to fire on their guests if things got out of hand.

He closed his eyes and tried to feel out the ship, but he could not feel anything but the warm air against his face and the hilt of Marian’s sword brushing against his hand. The ship landed in front of the castle-like temple, and a doorway materialized, as if drawn by an invisible hand.

From the doorway floated three beings whose alien race was not one that Rafian or his comrades had seen before. Their eyes were large but they had no other facial features. Their skin was a royal blue color, and a large cyan stripe ran down the center of their faces.

They were dressed in long robes that stayed rigid even in the wind. The trio floated close to the group of jumpers, and lights began to dance across their foreheads as they clasped their hands in what appeared to be telekinetic communication.

“OK, everyone, please go inside and wait,” Rafian said softly as he sensed that the beings were there to see him. Marian began to argue, but he spoke to her in Tyheran, asking her to be a soldier in this instance instead of his wife. Once he was alone, the alien triad motioned towards their ship. Rafian accepted and began his descent towards them.

The jumper temple sat on top of a rugged cliff, but the planet’s gravity was extremely limited, and it allowed for large jumps, falls from tall heights, and stunts that couldn’t be done on planets like Vestalia.

Rafian jumped from the craggy cliff and glided towards the ship’s entrance, ignoring all the chatter that came at him through his helmet from the people who loved him. Once he made it to the floor of the valley he spoke into his communication device.

“Can’t really tell you why I know this, but this meeting is important,” he said. “If I do not exit this ship in three hours, I want you all to jump home to your ships and tell the commanders there what occurred. We are all brothers and sisters in this organization, and I need you to trust me and obey my instructions. Commander Tayden Lark will be the new leader if I happen to die. She will know what to do to keep us going, to make the jumpers great again.”

He silenced his comm and walked towards the ship, trying to decipher how he would open its invisible door. The trio that had summoned him had come to his side, and he saw for the first time just how tall they were. Each of them stood eight feet tall, and they made a strange, harmonious melody when they got close to him.

He felt himself smiling; the melody was so soothing, and it was unlike any music he had ever heard before. His mind began to drift and his body felt limp, and he involuntarily walked forward and opened the ship’s door.

When his thoughts had been silenced and his body made ready for the ship’s interior, Rafian awoke to find himself seated in an egg-shaped seat. The room around him was a dome with pearly white walls that appeared similar to the ones he had seen the first time he met Arn.

Almost instantly, a pretty blue Cel-toc appeared next to him and began checking his vitals to make sure he had adjusted well. Seeing the Cel-toc brought up emotions he had never experienced before. He was frightened of it, angry, and heartbroken. It was a wash of emotions that drained him physically and made him want to destroy it.

Try as he might, however, Rafian was unable to move or control his body. That in itself was frightening, as his mask and gloves had been removed.

The Cel-toc stood in front of him after completing her checkup, and her visage changed to one that was very much like the aliens that had invited him there.

“Rafian VCA!” The voice was synthesized, which made sense if the aliens were unable to speak. It seemed that they used Cel-tocs to communicate with humans, which made him think that revealing their true appearance to him would have been a sign of great respect.

“We have watched your career and ascent with admiration. We are Neeraki Sentients, and we travel from a faraway place. Four hundred years have passed as we watched your race teeter on the precipice of extinction. You are one of many hopefuls for your race, Rafian, but we choose you to be the guardian of the crystals that we have allowed Anstractor to possess.”

The Cel-toc grew silent, and Rafian found that he could once again control his mouth. He tested this by moving his tongue to lick his lips and mouth silent words into the air.

“Are you gods?” he managed to ask. “Are you beings that are bigger than this galaxy—the universe even? And is this all a game to you?”

Why would I be chosen? he wondered. His career was commendable, yes, but so were the careers of people like Tayden, Vallen, Camille, and even the Helysian’s own commander. Why him, and why now? If his introduction to warp crystals and the jumper fellowship was the extra to put him over, then why not choose Camille or Tayden to be this guardian of the crystals?

The Cel-toc came to life again, this time with a smile on her face. Rafian knew it was an attempt to relax him but before she could speak, he started in again.

“Those of you who watch, do you not realize that this is one of the disgusting androids that killed my friends on Genese and tortured me as a boy? Did you pick this thing as your avatar to torment me, or is it mere ignorance that you put a former prisoner in front of his captor?”

The Cel-toc put a finger to her lips and began talking as if nothing he said had gotten through to the aliens. “Our plan is above you; too large for you to fathom and too complex for your organic brain to comprehend. We are above games, but Anstractor and specifically Vestalia is important to us.

“We chose you to be the one to represent our philosophy to the human race. The Geralos are not to take Anstractor, and they are not to get a hold of the warp crystals or anything related to them in any form. You are to move your people, destroy this temple, and secure the knowledge so that the crystals are never compromised.”

“What if I were to refuse you?” Rafian asked.

“You are not permitted to refuse us. If you let your hubris allow you to make a series of decisions that compromises us, then we would be forced to destroy the crystals and the planets that are a threat to our race. This would mean that Anstractor would be removed. It is here that the taint resides. It is here that the crystals were lent to humans in order to right the genetic mistake that is the Geralos.”

Rafian was going over it in his head, and he finally understood. The planet Geral had once been an abandoned husk of nothing for millions of years, but it had developed life after a time, and that life became the vicious lizards that had taken their aggressive conquering to the other planets.

He had read about the Makers when he was a cadet. They were mythic beings that came from a distant galaxy that held a million suns and a solitary planet. The Makers were the ones who gave technology, rewards, and charity to ancient civilizations when they risked genocide or irrecoverable collapse. Their primary goal was balance, though their strange laws disallowed them from directly assisting anyone.

He couldn’t believe that he was meeting them, let alone talking to them. They were gods, as much as gods are described, and they had chosen him to do the very thing he had always aimed to do in the first place.

“What would you have me do outside of what has been asked of me already?”

“We have given you what you need, young Rafian. The gift we give you is an understanding of the crystals and the power that they hold. You do not have to take them with you when you jump—this is one of many misunderstandings. You simply have to know when it is time to return and will yourself back with all of your heart. The technology is beyond your understanding, and it isn’t covered in any of your recorded archives or people.

“Arn Stryker was charged with this same task that we are giving you, but he let the power consume him into worthlessness. You killed him once. When you return, you are to remove the gift of resurrection from him and end his life permanently. We will not meet you again in this lifetime, Rafian, just as we did not seek out Arn for the many years that he has led this order.

“You asked about the android that imprisoned you as a boy, but we bring her here to clear the distractions and remind you of your history. Everything you love has been taken by the Geralos, and your home planet along with your race is almost lost to them. What will you do, Rafian? What will you do in this last hour of your galaxy?”

Rafian thought about the question, and it made him sick that he had allowed Tyhera’s situation to distract him from his goals. “I’ll tell you what I will do. I will lead my people to the destruction of the Geralese horde.”

They kept him there for a span of a month after allowing him to radio the temple to let them know that he would be fine. When Rafian VCA emerged again, it was on a dead, cloudless night. He was the same man who had entered a month past, but he was a man who could now see the entire forest of life beyond the large trees that stood in his way.

When he had walked a few yards from the ship, it began to rise quickly into the sky. He watched it go for a long time before setting foot towards the temple to carry out the instructions he had for his lieutenants. It would be a different set of missions for his jumpers, and he would have to retrain them properly. No matter how long this all would take, he was happy that for the first time in his life, fate was on his side.

 

 

Memory 23 | Homecoming

The tiny ship approached the Helysian at a rate that could be easily mistaken as hostile. Abe RUS scrambled the gunners to man their stations as they tried their best to communicate with the pilot. The Helysian was in a panic. Never before had the Geralos done something so bold as to attempt a kamikaze run on their FTL drive. It was one of the surest ways to disable the ship, and they wondered what sort of explosives were onboard and whether the ship was truly alone.

The soldiers on the Helysian were on edge, but Aurora SYN pleaded with the commander to hold fire. Something told her that the ship was friendly and that it belonged to Rafian VCA.

She could hardly contain her excitement and the commander looked at her intently, wondering if there was any chance that she could be right. When the first gunner opened fire, the comm finally came to life. “This is Supreme Leader Rafian VCA of the Phaser agency, a son of Helysian and Vestalia. Commander RUS, don’t you recognize my flying? Which Geralos would be crazy enough to approach from this angle?”

The ship breathed a collective sigh of relief, and it was as if every marine onboard found his or her way to the dock. When the vessel landed, it was of an alien design that none of the pilots had ever seen before.

The back hatch opened with a mist of detox steam pouring out, and several dangerous-looking men and women hopped out and formed a path as Rafian emerged with Marian in tow. Aurora clasped a hand over her mouth. He was bigger than she last remembered and seemed a lot older. She looked at his entourage and at their uniform: white with blue highlights, decorated with badges, medals, and what seemed to be las-sword burns.

He removed his helmet to reveal his bald head and thick, unruly beard. His near-ebony skin glistened with sweat and his boots were spiked and cruel.

The woman next to him looked like nobody she had ever seen before. She was human, but her thick crop of ebony hair—plaited into a long ponytail—revealed a face that was strikingly beautiful and alien.

Rafian walked past his men and approached Aurora. He had missed her a lot during his days at the jumper temple. He looked over at the commander, saluted him and the crew, then pointed at the gunners and winked. He found his way to his sister and lifted her up, then hugged her long and hard.

“Is it really you, Rafian?” she whispered through her gasps. “Please don’t let this be a dream because my heart can’t take it!”

She was crying loudly and clung to him for dear life as Rafian fought back his own tears. He took her hand and walked her over to Marian, where he introduced her and did the same with the commander and the friends who had come out to see him.

Surprisingly, Vani was also there. She had the stripes of a Marine Colonel, and he felt a strange wave of pride for her accomplishment. The old scars and anger had been removed and he hugged her the way he had hugged Aurora.

This ritual went on for a time as everyone who knew Rafian rushed out to meet him. Some inquired about Camille and were elated to hear that she was fine. Others, such as Kim, kept their distance and watched with admiration from afar.

The jumpers had been restructured under the leadership of Rafian and Tayden. They changed their name to the Phaser agency and made themselves known by destroying a major Geralese starship by the name of the Vestal.

Rafian needed Helysian as a temporary base of operations for a future mission on Vestalia. His return was more than a homecoming, however, as he knew that his face would inspire the men and women, along with putting the necessary fire in their belly for the violence and destruction to come.

He had also come back to get Aurora. She was his sister, and he didn’t like to have her so far away from him, where his influence couldn’t keep her safe. He took Marian on a grand tour and spoke of his troubled youth, his ascent to first grade, and his rocky relationships with women.

“Though you had no memory of your past, Rafian. I could sense a deep sadness within you when we first met. Well, the meeting that occurred after our fight, of course.” She could not resist a little smile at the thought of them fighting when they first met.

After the tour, Rafian took Marian to his old apartment, opened a bottle of brandy, and reminisced on their union and everything that had transpired since then. Camille wanted some time before returning to Helysian, so the temple’s destruction was left up to her. Tayden had reformed her rangers within the agency’s ranks, and started reconnaissance runs on the area of Vestalia that they had picked out to become their headquarters.

Marian put her feet up on the arm of the couch and leaned against her husband. She sipped the drink and made a face, then put it down on the table. “If you could do it over again, Rafian, would you still join the jumpers?”

Rafian ran his finger over a scar near his right eye as he thought deeply about Marian’s question. Ironically, Marian cherished the scar he had given her on their first meeting, but it had been repaired when she took a bullet through her cheek during one of her training exercises.

The Kelpor healing system had the ability to remove wounds and scars, and unless you had someone manually operating it, you were not able to pick and choose what it mended. Marian’s face was now flawless, but Rafian kept the slice Arn had given him when he delivered the true death, as was promised to the Makers so many months back.

“I went through so much to meet you, Rhee. How could this not be destiny?” He seemed suddenly lost in thought, and he shook his head slowly.

“Destiny, I like that,” Marian replied in Tyheran, the way she always did whenever she spoke lightly from the heart. “You know, I never asked if you wanted me to become a jumper here, or if it would bother you that I want to fight,” she said as she crawled over his legs and adjusted herself to straddle him.

“When I met you, you were a soldier, babe. When I brought you back, I expected that you would continue to be one. You didn’t have to ask; I knew that you would join. I don’t expect you to ever wait on me.”

The brandy bottle was empty, and Marian’s thick, dark curls tickled tickling Rafian’s nose as she leaned in. “You forgot one other thing that we warriors are meant to do, husband.”

Rafian kissed her lips hard and let his arms envelop her naked waist as she dropped the last of her armor on the floor. “Thype!” she said with a devilish grin on her face.

~ * ~ * ~

The knock on the door was light and barely audible. Marian was fast asleep, so Rafian donned a robe and answered the door.

It was Vani, and when he opened the door her big brown eyes were staring at him and full of mischief. Rafian wondered what it was she wanted at this late hour. He pulled her inside, then motioned to the upstairs room to let her know Marian was sleeping.

He walked her to the kitchen, where his and Marian’s armor was everywhere. Vani was absolutely stunning, wearing a red 3B suit and silken flats with the letter H for Helysian woven in gold on the tops of them. He showed her the couch and offered her a drink, which she promptly took and gulped it down quickly.

“What’s on your mind, Vee?” he asked as he sat down next to her.

“When we last left off, it was horrible, Raf, absolutely horrible. You were my first love. I cried over you for a month after we split, and I was too upset and angry to even talk to you about it. So, I avoided you. Do you know how it feels to harbor those feelings and then, when you get over them and want to go make up with your friend, you learn that he’s disappeared and may have even been killed?”

Her admission took him a moment to absorb. He got up to get a napkin for her to dry her tears, but she kept on talking as she fanned herself rapidly to try to calm down. “I shouldn’t be here. I know that it’s late, and it’s extremely inappropriate considering the circumstances. But it’s me, Raf, and it’s you, so it should be okay, right? Oh, Raf, I’m so sorry!”

She hugged him as she had done at the dock, as if she would never let go. “I don’t even know what we were fighting over, Vee. I just know that you were my girl and I loved you more than the world. You were a good, loyal girlfriend. But you had a temper, I had a lot going on at the time.”

Vani blushed and held his hand in hers as she breathed in deeply. It was beginning to get uncomfortable, so Rafian quickly complimented her and snatched his hand back from her soft palms.

“So, congratulations on your rank, Vee. You were always a brilliant strategist, and I am glad they finally gave you some of the props you deserve.”

Vani took on a different expression, one of anger and hurt. There was a silence that followed before she replied, and when she did, her voice trembled.

“Hell yeah, Rafian. They finally gave me my damn stripes, after I got us out of a Geralos ambush near the Merudian moon. It took that sort of craziness for them to finally acknowledge me.” Her voice trailed off, and she slumped into the couch and took another drink.

“So, any kids? Husband?” Rafian asked, changing the subject quickly to avert the awkward air.

Vani shook her head as if the thought were absurd. “You were probably the only guy I would have considered the family thing with, Rafian. It hasn’t been easy on the ship. To be quite honest, I am thinking about transferring somewhere else.”

“How about you come join us on Vestalia?” Rafian offered and she looked at him as if he had lost his mind.

“Join you where?”

She was doing one of her funny faces, and Rafian laughed despite himself. It was such a real laugh that it got back to her, and she too began laughing. He explained to her that he led a new order of fighters and that she was welcome to join them when they raided Vestalia.

She was very much onboard with the idea of touching a planet after spending a lifetime onboard the ship. He walked her to the door and told her to be prepared, because their departure would be sudden and she would need to be ready to go with them when it happened.

As she neared the door, she turned around and placed her back against it. She scanned the upstairs bedroom door to see if it was still closed, and looked at Rafian with a familiar glint in her eye. “Come here,” she said, and Rafian was puzzled at her intent. Without much thought, he came closer to her, and she threw her arms around his neck, stuck her tongue in his mouth, and kissed him longingly.

“Tell Marian I’m sorry, Rafian, but I have been waiting three years to tell you how sorry I am. She’s very lucky to have you, but I was the original. Now go and get some sleep, and don’t forget me when you leave. I love you.”

And with that, she was out the door and gone with Rafian looking after her for a very long time afterwards. To think, with patience, he could have married her as planned. Perhaps her temper would have gotten better, and they would have been together now for over ten years. The thought of it was intriguing, another fork in life’s past that he missed. He still tasted her sweet lips and—

“Is that going to be a problem?” a voice said and Rafian spun around to see Marian materialize at the edge of the balcony. Her silken robes were blowing gently from the vent’s cool air, giving her the appearance of a powerful witch who had come to wreak havoc on anyone below her.

It made him suddenly embarrassed to know that she had been watching them the whole time and probably wondering why he had allowed Vani to kiss him the way she did. She didn’t appear angry, but her voice had an edge to it that let him know she was not amused with Vani’s actions or words.

“Let me try this again, in Tyheran. Is she going to be a problem, or will I have to cut out that little tongue of hers?” Marian continued as she began to gracefully descend the stairs.

“It has been a long time, Marian. I don’t think she meant anything by it. Just emotions and being caught up in the moment. She’s ancient history. I’m looking at the future, whose legs have no match in either of our galaxies.”

“Just the legs?” she asked and pushed her body up against his.

“N-no, every part of you,” he whispered and she pushed him away from her.

“Your heart belongs to me,” she announced, her face a mask of grim intent. “I don’t care who the original was, who your childhood sweetheart was, or who thinks they know you better than I do. You are mine, and if she so much as asserts anything different again—”

“OKAY, stow the bloodlust; none of that is going on. Maker, it’s late, Rhee. Can we just go back to bed?”

“These women of yours, Rafian—they pop up all over the damn place. I knew when we got together that it was going to be a challenge, but this is annoying. I do not want to—”

Rafian put his finger to her lips and silenced her. “They will know their place where you are concerned, Marian. Let us drop it, OK?”

 

Memory 24 | Cammy’s Secret

When Camille finally reached Helysian she brought with her a prisoner to turn over to the marines. She had run into pirates who had come aboard to take her ship, but she took them out one by one and captured one of their leaders.

Camille was met with thunderous applause and numerous accolades for what she had done. Had the pirates taken the ship, they would have been able to use its signature to dock at military posts, rob them, and much worse. It would have meant heavy losses in supplies to the ships like Helysian that were on the frontlines.

She appreciated the honors, and it took her back to her early years as a pilot, when praise such as this was a common occurrence whenever she would land her fighter after a good mission. Rafian was nowhere to be seen, and she wondered if he had heard about what she had done.

While docking, she had steeled herself to deal with him and Marian looking at her, smiling, as they tended to do. She imagined Marian with those dark, sparkly, untrusting eyes of hers and Rafian by her side like some lost, lovesick puppy.

Now she felt a bit cheated, since they hadn’t bothered to show up at all. She gave up the prisoner, whose name turned out to be Rhet LeFau. She was wanted on several systems for war crimes that were as scary as they were brutal. The way the intelligence read, it sounded as if Camille had stopped a crew of some of the most wanted criminals in the galaxy. She accepted the honor medal but turned down the invitation to party with the Helysian marines.

All she wanted was a long mineral bath, one of those ice-cold ones that made pain a distant memory, and then she would retire to a couch with a tall bottle of port and the pleasant company of herself.

When she arrived at the executive room that was given to her, Camille turned off all the lights, set the bath going, lit several aroma candles, and removed her clothes to submerse herself in the olive liquid. After she had soaked for ten minutes or so, a shadowy figure stepped out of the corner.

“Hello, love of my life,” Camille said calmly. She didn’t need to look at Rafian to know it was he. She could always feel him.

“Is this going to be a problem, Cammy?” Rafian asked as he sat on the edge of her bath, looking at her.

“What problem?” Camille asked nonchalantly, her tone hinting she didn’t care for an answer because she knew what it would be.

When he replied with “Us,” she couldn’t help but laugh out loud. But it came out as a small “hmph,” and she was forced to clear her throat.

“I hurt you, Cammy. I can keep on saying that it was due to my amnesia, but I brought back Rhee. I get that you’re upset with me, and I am truly sorry.”

He lifted one of her shapely legs out of the bath water and washed it gently with the sponge, admiring how perfectly shaped her tiny feet were. She watched him as he did it and would have been lying to herself if she had said that she didn’t like it.

“I never told you my heritage, Rafian, but I am an old race, just like you.” She was beginning to feel sorry for him, as he seemed genuinely tortured, and she wanted him to know the reason behind her obsession.

“So, you’re a Seeker, too?”

“No. Look at me. Like, really look at me, Raf. I have blond hair, dancing crystal eyes, and fair, slightly golden skin. How many girls around here do you see who look anything like me?”

Rafian took a look at Camille, this time observing her racial uniqueness. Then it dawned on him that she was indeed a one-of-a-kind on the ship. Sure, there were many blondes and dark and pale skin types, but Camille had a complexion that stuck out from all of them, and her eyes were also freaky. They looked as if she had no pupils in certain lights. It was due to the color, a gray that was so light it appeared to be silver.

Camille was also one of the only soldiers who could detect him even when cloaked. She triggered uncontrollable urges within him whenever she was close, and she felt like his, no matter how much he shielded his feelings with the thought of his love for Marian.

“Camille, are you a Filan?” He knew the answer as he asked, and the thought of it frightened him. “So how in the hell did you get through the jumper class? Sex outside of your chosen mate is supposed to be like torture to—”

He stopped himself as he put it all together, his inability to not be inappropriate with her and her refusal to let him drift away. He realized that the night he made love to her on the mercenary ship so many years ago had fulfilled the Filan bonding ritual of matrimony.

“Why in the hell did you not warn me back then, Cammy?”

“I didn’t think we would go that far, Rafian. I was stupid and lonely—and there we were, two fighter jocks with no one in our lives but each other. You were everything to me, do you not understand? We lived together, we made love every night. It was perfect before all of this jumper schtill.”

Rafian knew that she was right, and he looked at the Executive Room’s wall as he pondered this. He had been fully committed to Camille all the way up to his first jump and the chemical memory loss that made him find Marian. He still had strong feelings for her and knew it went beyond the draw that her Filan blood had on him. There would be no “moving on” for them, and the only way they would be rid of each other would be through death.

“Do you love me, Rafian?” She broke his thoughts with the question. It was asked so quietly that he wondered if she really wanted to hear his answer.

The Supreme Leader stood up and began pacing the room in thought. “I can’t stop thinking about you, Cammy,” he admitted and inhaled angrily as he let it sink in that the admission made him a terrible husband to Marian.

“I love you to death, baby, but I will not divorce my wife. Should I kill myself to release you, or should I return to Tyhera with Marian so as to spare you the connection?”

Camille motioned Rafian over and emerged from the mineral bath to stand in front of him naked with the water pooling around her feet on the shiny black floor.

“Look, it would be easy to choose either, but that is not our way, is it, Commander? I think you should find a way for Marian to accept that I am in your life, forever. Accept that I had you first, and accept that if I want you, then I am going to have you.”

She had a serious and dangerous look in her eye that reflected a person who was settled on a direction. She touched the sides of his face with her wet hands and kissed him gently on his lips. She smelled and tasted like heaven and it made Rafian lose focus.

“I’ve experienced and survived some really traumatic things for you, Rafian. I know that you know this. I am sick of crying and curling up in pain trying to get past what I cannot physically get past. So tell that to the woman you married, or don’t tell her. But accept that you cannot be rid of me. I think you owe me that at least.”

Rafian nodded in agreement and then slipped off his 3B suit.

 

Memory 25 | No Quarter

Rafian sat in his favorite café on Helysian, slowly sipping the tea he had ordered. He sat in his regular seat, which was in the back, behind one of the large columns that held a mock Vestalian ceiling in place.

The café was supposed to help patrons immerse themselves in the music and forget for a few minutes that they were on a military ship. Everyone in the café knew Commander VCA, but more importantly, they knew not to bother him or alert other patrons that he was in attendance.

Most days he was there, he would be calming his nerves or seeking escape from the political arguing that men of his position seemed to gravitate towards. Rafian was still very much a soldier, and he felt more comfortable going into action than filling his stomach with exotic liquors and bartering for the planetary scraps that fell from the Geralese table of galactic domination.

Today, he had come to the café to escape the sarcastic wrath of his beloved wife, Marian. He didn’t know why he thought that the conversation about Camille would be easy. For Marian, the old Tyheran ways were hard to break, and even though she herself was part of their new order, she could not find it in herself to allow her husband to have an open relationship or to accommodate another woman outside of herself.

After a heated argument, Rafian removed himself from Marian’s wrath when he realized how bad an idea it had been to ask her about it. The entire thing made him sigh with a heavy chest. Life had always been an adventure for him, so he didn’t know why he invited drama into his life with this new issue.

Better had he left his new wife on Tyhera and jumped to her every weekend or so, but that was unrealistic. After what he had done to her life, her becoming a traitor and starting a fire under the resistance, it would have made more sense for him to live there with her and jump back to Camille whenever he could.

There was no easy way to avoid this, and it led him to even more irrational thoughts, such as, what if he could just leave them both for a new start somewhere else?

“So am I to be replaced by food and drink now, Rafian?” The question came from an unexpected Marian, who sat down next to him with a concerned look on her face. “Did you really think it would be easy with me?”

She was obviously trying to continue the earlier discussion that he was trying so desperately to get away from. His immediate urge was to get up and leave, but this was his wife, a woman whom he had vowed to stay with for life. Vows were to be taken seriously, and although he hated verbal arguments, he owed Marian the conversation.

“There isn’t much to talk about, Marian. The reality of the matter is that for Camille, our bond is chemical. If I push her away, it could get dangerous. Filans aren’t like you and me.”

Marian punched in the code for her standard order of coffee with milk and let it materialize fully before picking it up and sipping away at it. Rafian was fully aware of her tactic of letting him simmer before she answered, so he focused his attention on the holographic dancer who shook her body in front of the kitchen.

The silence was nerve wracking, but he set his mind elsewhere, not expecting an answer. He missed Aurora. She was so easy to talk to during situations like this.

“You know what, Marian? You don’t deserve any of this. Let me figure out this thing with Camille. You don’t have to worry about it.” He stared at her to read how she had taken what he said.

She looked up from her coffee absentmindedly, and then said to him, “Thank you, husband.”

The pair continued their time together with happier topics, and after another thirty minutes of talking, she got up, kissed him on top of his head, and left. Rafian sat there in a daze afterwards, not allowing himself to think about Camille. Just then his comm flared alive with an incoming call. The face of Tayden Lark hovered above it and she began to speak.

“Hey, Commander, our scouts on Vestalia have found vulnerability at a massive Geralese compound known as Zynec Prime. The marine command would like for our Phasers to investigate this place. It looks good, and it’s remote and in a valley. We can occupy it and use it as our alpha headquarters.”

Rafian sighed with relief at the chance to do something else. He quickly thanked Tayden for the update and resisted the urge to leap to his feet and yell with excitement. Instead, he stood up, took a deep breath, and swallowed the last of his tea.

Rafian made his way out of the café and towards his rented office. He called Camille to let her know the news, but the call wasn’t answered. This made him stop in his tracks. What sort of Phaser did not answer a direct call from their supreme leader? He looked at the comm as if it had the answer and then took a detour to the Helysian command in order to investigate.

~ * ~ * ~

Camille YAN was not a woman who was used to being on the wrong side of military command. She was the Girl Scout who could only do right and an enforcer of the rules. After her chat with Rafian about her feelings and his surprising acceptance of both his guilt and his unwillingness to let her go, she decided that a few drinks were in order.

However, the celebration went a bit too far when she took too many shots of Cenelagine, and before she knew it, she was waking up in a puddle of her own vomit. A flirty crewman who had tried to get too close to her was lying on the floor with a smoking hole in his chest from her side arm. Camille was arrested and taken to the brig, but after some evaluation, she was immediately released to a psych ship in order to be treated for her mental condition.

Upon learning all of this, Rafian felt as if he had been punched in the stomach. He had so many questions about the process. Why hadn’t he or Tayden been alerted? What sort of treatments was she to receive, and was she going to get prison time?

He didn’t know what to do, especially after learning that she was not allowed to have visitors. He stood at attention in front of the brig warden, his only show of emotion his knitted brows from being upset and confused.

He knew she had not been herself since the jumper situation, but he assumed that with time and healing, the old Camille would be back to defeat her demons and rejoin the world. He was wrong, of course, and he knew that the doctors could help her. But the question about the shooting still remained, and he had to have an answer.

Wheeling around to march out of the jail, Rafian noticed a young cadet running his direction. Upon catching up with him, the boy bowed deeply and took a knee, and Rafian swallowed some saliva to wet his dry throat before addressing him. “What is it, Cadet?”

“Sir, first let me say it is an honor to speak directly to the commander, sir! I apologize for disturbing the commander’s stroll but wanted to let him know that Captain Camille YAN will be scheduled for release after getting an all clear from the psych ship, Lauren. The unfortunate death of crewman Sole Sirn is ruled a result of the Captain’s poor medical condition, and he will be air locked with high military honors as a soldier of war.”

Rafian regarded the young man closely and then looked around to see who might have sent him.

“Thanks, Cadet,” he managed to say, but as he nodded at the boy he realized that it was the brig warden who had saved Camille, shipped her off, and then sent the messenger to him.

He made an oath to reward the man for looking out for her, but first he needed to take care of much more pressing matters. Rafian summoned the twenty Phasers onboard and they assembled on the dock. He told them of the situation with Zynec Prime and then lied about Camille, telling them that she had been shipped off on a private mission.

His command was simple. They were to send one solitary ship into the hell zone and have it infiltrate Zynec Prime to decimate her defenses. Once the defenses were down within the war zone, the pilot would drop a crystal for the other Phasers to teleport onto the ground and commandeer the area from within. They would quickly set up a base city and then silently operate from behind enemy lines.

Upon hearing this, the Phasers were excited. They could finally test their mettle at home instead of jumping off to other planets. High spirits were all around until they learned that the pilot volunteering for the drop was none other than their commander, Rafian VCA.

Marian looked ready to object when he announced it, but she saw the look in his eye and knew that he was committed to it. She was uncomfortable with it, but if her assumptions were right, confronting him would be the worst thing she could do. She let it play out and prepped herself to be one of the Phasers deployed whenever the crystal beckoned.

When Rafian dismissed his men and women, he avoided Marian and chose instead to do the one activity he always did to clear his head. It was late in the hour when she found him atop his Zero fighter, polishing it as if he were going to be presenting it in an aerial show.

“I brought you some Vlorian ice cake,” she said, smiling at him through the side of her mouth, the way she always did, hoping a friendly demeanor, a tasty dessert—which he always seemed to order—and some civil conversation would walk him back from the dark precipice she assumed he was teetering upon.

“You’re a sweetheart,” he said in a dry, aloof manner.

“Look, Rafian, this mission,” she began, and she could see him preparing to dismiss her as if he did not want to hear anything she had to say.

“Why you?” she whispered. “You’re the supreme leader. The only time people do things like this is when they feel no confidence in their people to get a job done successfully, or when they want to go out in a blaze of glory. Is the Camille thing really that serious? For you to consider suicide?”

Rafian hopped down from his ship, threw the dirty cloth under its wing, and walked towards Marian.

“Suicidal? How many of these Phasers do you know to be trained as ace pilots? Outside of Camille YAN and Tayden Lark? How many other war-proven ace pilots do we have in our number, Rhee? How many?”

Marian knew the answer but pretended to think about it at length. She got the point. There was no other pilot like Rafian VCA to make the crystal drop. They had pilots who were good enough to be drafted in as Phasers, but none as good as the man and woman who commanded them.

Tayden was in decompression after commanding her rangers to find Zynec Prime, and Camille was missing in action. Rafian had to be the one to do it, and though it hurt her to see the man she loved attempt a mission so dangerous, she knew that as a soldier and a wife, she had a duty to support him.

“I don’t mean to upset you, husband, but we’re mere hours away from your lethal mission, and me wishing upon every god’s name that you will make it through. We have a few more hours together and I could lose you forever—” She bit her lip and looked distracted as she focused her eyes on the discarded rag.

“Rafian, it’s your hatch kitten,” she said and she stood staring at him, trembling, ready to fight as the anger and hurt came to the surface.

Rafian’s mouth fell open as he processed everything she said, and his heart melted from the realization of how selfish he had been. Camille’s arrest had soured his mood, and while he felt no different towards Marian than the day he had proposed to her on Tyhera, he had allowed his temper to punish her for something that she had no knowledge of.

“I am such a thyping fool,” he said under his breath, and then scooped her up into his powerful arms and took her home.

 

Memory 26 | Man of Vestalia

When Rafian awoke to the alarm, he could see the dried tears on Marian’s face as she slept soundly on his chest. For some strange reason, it strengthened his resolve as he arose, prepped his uniform and mission details, and then stopped by the same cafeteria for a shot of espresso and some friendly conversation.

An hour later, he walked out to his ship and was very surprised to find all of the Phasers there. They were assembled in two long lines leading to the stairs that ran up to the cockpit of his fighter. The soldiers were standing at attention, saluting, and a few had faces filled with emotion. It felt as if time had slowed down for him as he walked towards his ship, and the flashbacks of that first mission to Geral came to him.

Back in those days, he was unknown, unproven, and largely disrespected. Now he was a commander, and as he glanced around at all of the men and women he had trained, he felt a certain accomplishment that made him know that if death was his fate, he would be ready for it.

Marian swung down from his cockpit in a red 3B suit, his las-sword strapped to her back and war paint streaked across her features, trying hard but failing to mask her beautiful face. She ran into his arms and kissed him before giving him a long hug. The Phasers all looked away in respect and allowed him time to say good-bye to his wife.

Marian leaned into Rafian’s ear and whispered, “Come back to me.” It was a Tyheran custom that the wives of the enlisted would do on the day that they feared their husbands would die. What it meant was that in the afterlife, the husband was to still come back so that they could truly be together forever. It was a morbid farewell but very Tyheran and Rafian nodded at her with the promise in his eyes.

He then swung up into the seat of his ship with one arm, a trick he and Camille had mastered back when they spent all of their time on that very dock.

The engines of the Zero-Tolerance phantom came to life, and Rafian’s vessel rose above the cheering Phasers before shooting out of the port towards his mission and what would be the beginning of the first assault on the planet.

~ * ~ * ~

The phantom shuddered as Rafian broke the atmosphere of Vestalia and triggered the cooling mechanisms to keep the ship online. Almost immediately, the Geralese defense drones were on him. They did not ask him to identify himself, and they did not fire any warning shots. They came at him by the dozens, machine gun fire tearing the sky apart, but Rafian VCA was too focused, too ready to die, and too aware of their reaction.

He cut through the defenses easily. His entry cleared once again, and he was able to pull up the navigation and find the country of Cerium and what was identified as the Zynec compound. The phantom was outfitted with advanced cloaking mechanisms, and he made sure to go off the grid as soon as the last of the defenders were downed.

Zynec would take some time to reach, as he had chosen to drop onto the planet in a different area from the one previously selected for the mission. Geralese planes were beginning to lift into the sky, desperately trying to find him and put an end to what they probably assumed was an invasion.

Rafian wondered to what length they would go to stop him after realizing there was no host ship that was launching fighters, no wingmen to his phantom, and no real sign of anything that would be considered an invasion force.

They kept launching ships, however, and his initial attack, as precise and deadly as it was, was being taken very seriously. Still, no matter how many defense drones they sent looking for him, they posed no problem for the invisible ship that was zipping along at low altitude over the beautiful azure waters of Vestalia.

“To think that we all used to live here in relative peace,” Rafian uttered to himself as he cruised along.

He thought about the Helysian, and he felt disappointed in himself for not finding Aurora to tell her good-bye. His sister had found herself a beau and was usually occupied with him whenever Rafian was trying to grab her to talk. When he had sought her out to tell her of the mission, he learned she was on Meruda with her lover, taking a short vacation.

He had managed to say good-bye to Vani. It was an emotionally draining departure, as she was the queen of melodrama. But he felt himself missing her antics more than he felt comfortable to admit. Vani had taken a holo-shot of him to keep on her mantle in case things went south on the mission. She also told him that she would write his biography and asked permission to edit her parts to make her seem more loving to him back when they were kids.

It was amusing, but Vani was a character. Her crazy requests and antics were the medicine he needed to laugh off the serious nature of his departure. Now he flew through the mountains of south Cerium and could see the Geralese base that he was directed to destroy.

Coming out of cloak to arm his guns, Rafian entered Zynec Prime like a bat out of hell. Barracks, buildings, and bases were lased and burned under his deadly fire, and though the Geralos launched ships and surface-to-air attacks at him, the phantom was too fast, too seasoned, and always a step ahead.

Rafian’s mind was working overtime. He knew that by now, the Geralos would have called in reinforcements to stop his onslaught. But he wanted to be done and at the drop zone a lot quicker than any incoming rescue.

The wing of the phantom got nicked about thirty minutes into his raid, and he felt as though that would end his flight. He took emergency measures to make sure the ship would stay deadly, and he was happy to see that the damage was nothing major.

He set the phantom right and continued to rain fire upon any structure that came across his path. One of the biggest obstacles he faced up to this point was literally a flying fortress. The behemoth delivered so many angles of attack that he found himself actually sweating as he dodged and darted, having the ship’s AI assist and adapt to the patterns.

It was a frightening experience to have what appeared like a large flying city drifting to intercept your course, shooting everything that it had at you. The way Rafian flew that morning was nothing short of legendary, even among aces, and though the fortress slowed his progress and forced him to fight, it was soon rocked from a well-timed series of shots into each of its air vents. Before long, the Zynec landscape erupted into flames as it crashed into the ground.

On Helysian, the group of Phasers watched the glitchy holo-update of Rafian’s ship as he made his way through the bombing run. Marian was having a hard time watching, so she let the feedback of the others cue her in on when to look up from the floor at the action that was unfolding.

Phasers had begun to use micro-recorders on missions that were high level enough to warrant rescues. A micro-recorder was no bigger than a mosquito and had a built-in cloaking device so it stayed out of sight as it followed the Phaser around. It transmitted the recording back to the command center, where an officer would watch closely, ready to send in the troops as it became necessary.

With the uproar on Cerium, the only way the Phasers would be able to help their commander now was through the crystal. As he neared the drop point, they witnessed another fortress appear before him, and they knew the Geralos were getting desperate. One of the men, Frank OTA, whom Tayden had personally recruited and trained to become a Phaser, had assumed command. He stepped in front of the holo-video, straightened his jacket, and addressed the group.

“Our commander was not given enough time to plan this drop, and he is relying on his talents to get it done. Instead of sitting here admiring his skills, why don’t we send another ship in to distract the incoming Geralese force? For all they know, there is only one desperate, rogue ship doing immense damage on their base. Now, if they see two, they will likely overthink this whole thing and start slipping.”

A Lyrian ace who was listening countered Frank. He wanted to make sure nothing was going to be done outside the commander’s orders. “Frank, the crystal and our drop will be confusing enough for our enemies. The main reason we sent in a sole bird was to minimize their panic, so that we can come out of the backdoor firing and take that city silently. Drop in another bird now, and they will assume it’s an invasion. This would ruin everything our commander is fighting for.”

Frank sat back down and cursed. Of course the man was right in what he said, and though he wanted to help his commander, he didn’t want to jeopardize the plan and be the cause of a failed mission.

Marian, who had been listening silently to the conversation, stepped up to the spot where Frank had stood and asked the men and women to ready their battle gear. She also asked the pilots to hop into their cockpits and await the signal of the crystal that Rafian would be dropping soon.

Surprisingly, the Phasers did not object and scattered to their respective corners to ready their equipment. Marian, who was already dressed and ready, stared at the holo-vid as the second fortress went down in a ball of flames and Rafian shot through the debris like a bullet.

Finally, when Rafian shot down a would-be ace Geralos pilot and cruised into the valley that sat behind the Zynec structure, the assault ceased, as if his attackers were giving up. Slowing the Zero-Tolerance to a hover, he opened up the cockpit and threw the baseball-sized crystal into the sandy earth. As soon as he did this, a column of light erupted from it skyward, and six heavy fighters roared from the light towards the area he had just entered.

In a matter of minutes, Marian and the other thirteen Phasers were through the light as well, armed and ready to fight. Rafian felt his heart swell with happiness to see his wife, and it was the first time he had allowed himself to accept the weight of the situation. Knowing that the mission was not yet completed, he landed, ran to her, and touched his helmet to hers.

She was happy to see him make it and impressed at his skill, since she had never seen him fly. With the Phasers all around him, Rafian pulled out his rifle and led them back into the compound to clean up any survivors.

~ * ~ * ~

The shift from aerial warfare to ground was one that took some getting used to for Rafian VCA, as he lay prone on top of a hollowed-out building that used to be a radio tower.

On the roof of the ruins, he could see the Phasers carrying out the operation. It wasn’t fair for the Geralos, fighting Phasers instead of marines. His men and women had tools that they were clueless about, and Phasers were trained to carry out one-man operations that could easily see death tolls in the hundreds.

Having over ten Phasers in one area working in concert was akin to magma pouring into a city after a volcanic explosion. There was no way to halt it, and if you were not evacuating when it came, the only certainty left for you was death.

Rafian fired a few head shots at some Geralos soldiers, more to see if he still had a deadeye aim than to actually help anyone. It wasn’t as if the soldiers on the ground needed him. When the entire city was cleared of Geralese occupation, the Phaser agents scanned the air and moved to escort in a host of marines from the Helysian.

They were deployed to execute search-and-destroy missions on the rest of the area. With agreement that this was now a Phaser operation, the marines would do what they needed to do and then join with Rafian’s people in order to build a proper military base outside of what would be a sizable civilian city.

This had been Rafian’s dream—for Vestalia to start over. After planning the invasion and eliminating and occupying the Geralos with aid from the top brass of the Alliance, he had finally been granted his wish. Now that he had flown this dangerous mission to clear the vermin, he could move on to the next phase, which would rely on the architects and engineers being flown in.

He helped the aces bring the marines down to land, and he provided personal cover for them as they scraped the landscape for any remaining Geralos. The entire operation had taken the better half of a day, and its success was due to the amazing intelligence that had been gathered in the country of Cerium, in coordination with the superior technology of the Phasers.

The country had been taken so fast the marines had time to erect a shield above the area that would be the city and barracks. The entire compound sat on 1,600 acres of land, and the first of the military structures, the Phaser agency, was ported in using the warp crystals.

A week later, the Phaser base of operations and training facility were erected, and a small ceremony was held to commemorate the new start. New uniforms were issued to the men and women who had aided in taking Zynec Prime. The Phaser colors were red and black, with the insignia being a shattered white crystal on top of a black planet, cracked to display its imperfection and resting on a crimson field.

Rafian again walked through a line of saluting Phasers, now decked out in their colors. He climbed the tall steps leading up to the entrance, approached the podium, and looked down upon the expanse of people cheering for him as if Vestalia had already been conquered.

The view from the podium—his podium—was breathtaking, and he could imagine that after the city was built, he would be able to look out over it from where he stood. It was a good idea to put Phaser Base Alpha on the highest hill in the country, but he did not realize the strategic advantage it would serve if anyone were to infiltrate their ranks.

The sky was a clear cyan, giving the illusion of purity and new beginnings, but it was nature’s irony at work, showing a clear day of life as if the last week hadn’t been filled with blood and death.

Rafian’s observation lasted at most two seconds as he regarded his soldiers and moved on to speak. “This is only the beginning,” he said in a firm and direct manner. The crowd erupted in chants of something unintelligible, but it sounded affirming, so Rafian continued.

“This has been a long, painful road for many of us. Hell, the training almost destroyed a dear friend of mine who even now is locked in battle with the demons in her head. Many of you are strong, but you are battling the same demons that I myself fight mentally.

“We were made immoral, inhumane, and calloused because of a few old fools who thought that was the only way members of this galaxy could adequately guard our home. We, the few who liberated the free thinkers from the atrocity that was once known as the jumpers, have torn out the beating heart of those same old fools and reinvented ourselves as Phaser agents!”

The crowd went ballistic, and Rafian felt a painful lump in his throat as he thought of Camille and how much she needed to be there. To his right stood Tayden. She looked impressive, decorated with every medal that she had ever been granted and wearing a personally designed beret that matched her suit and jacket.

She did not move the entire time while he made his speech, and he felt an enormous amount of respect for everything she had done leading up to this, including rescuing him from that first jump.

“I will be Supreme Leader of this organization until you vote me incapable or I retire to live on a freed Vestalia. I reserve the right to identify a country of my own to settle down on.” He paused to let the laughter build up from his ridiculous joke and winked at Marian.

“Your base commander and my fellow lead will be Colonel Tayden Lark. I expect that I will be absent often in the field. She will command this structure, oversee the training of our recruits, and be first contact whenever defense of this city is needed, or when backup is required on any mission. It is an honor to be your leader, my fellow marines, Starfighters, and Phasers. Let us not forget that each one of us was deemed special within our respective military ranks, so do not let that fade from your minds as you go forth on your missions.”

With that, Rafian turned the announcement chip over to Tayden and stood where she was standing as she delivered a powerful speech of her own. The speech would be remembered as the Phoenix Eye Address due to being borrowed by the military for repeating to soldiers who were about to embark on a dangerous mission.

Tayden was a short woman, but when she took the podium and spoke, she seemed very much the giant that her heart demanded the world see her as. Rafian looked at her with admiration, having seen her grow from the angry young woman who lashed out at Arn to a composed and dangerous professional who had not only saved his life but expanded their organization with over a hundred new recruits.

Thirteen fully graduated Phasers stood at the front of the crowd to hear the address, their white coats contrasted against the sea of black, red, and blue that was the recruits and the attending marines from the Helysian. Tayden tapped the floating mic droid as it centered itself in front of her, and without any hesitation, she began her legendary speech.

“Warriors, conquerors, defenders, and lovers. We all have our own selfish motivations for why we fight. Many of us don’t know said motivation as of yet because we have buried it deep as we mask it with words such as, ‘I fight for Vestalia my home.’

“Rafian and I couldn’t care less why you fight, ladies and gentlemen. What we do care about is that in any skirmish that you are involved in—be it a bar fight or a single-pilot drop into a war zone—you fight as if it were your last chance to show your supreme quality.

“Fight as if all the holo-vids of the known galaxies were keyed in on you and you only had one chance to get it right.

“Fight as if your family, your friends, and your lovers all depended on it to continue to live out their lives.

“As Phasers, you are branded as the best chance for humanity. This is a heavy charge, I know. But the training you have endured, the loss of what could be deemed as a happy, regular, human existence, and lastly, the fate of the galaxy demand that you represent us in the way that you are expected to.

“Phasers don’t fail. We do the mission. When we fall, we get up, dust ourselves off, and finish the mission. When we have doubt, we steel ourselves, remember the details, and finish the mission. When we die, we clone and return, like a ghost that was wronged in its mortal life, or like a phoenix whose fire refuses to be tamed, and we finish the mission.

“We finish the mission, Phasers, and we do it with class. Please join me in giving ourselves the first of many cheers for a mission well done, and to the letter.”

With that, the crowd erupted. One hundred and twenty warriors were present from all corners of the galaxy, having come in to see their new command. They were excited, and for good reason. They were finally on Vestalia with a solid base of operations, no longer hiding in the clouds of a planet that nobody wanted.

 

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About The Author

GREG DRAGON brings a fresh perspective to fiction by telling human stories of life, love and relationships in a science fiction setting. This unconventional author spins his celestial scenes from an imagination nurtured from being an avid reader himself. His exposure to multiple cultures, multiple religions, martial arts, and travel lends a unique dynamic to his stories.

 

See Greg’s author page at gregdragon.com or keep up with his latest books and appearances through email.

 


Anstractor Vestalia

Remember when? Commander Rafian VCA the most gifted Space Marine in the Anstractor Alliance remembers nothing. Waking up with no recollection of his life before becoming a Jumper recruit, he falls in love, joins a rebellion, and focuses his efforts on overthrowing a government. But as his memory slowly returns, he recalls his original mission. Rafian now has a new goal: find his way home, make things right with the love of his life, and avenge the aliens who invaded his planet. But first, the Jumpers must pay, pay for ruining his life.

  • ISBN: 9781370400355
  • Author: Greg Dragon
  • Published: 2017-06-29 07:05:17
  • Words: 69362
Anstractor Vestalia Anstractor Vestalia