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 All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Star Soldier

Episode One

Copyright © 2017 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos: licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com



STAR SOLDIER

EPISODE ONE


Her world is dying, and only she can help.

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

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

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



Chapter 1

Ami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are coming.

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

The enemy.

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

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

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

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

Just thinking about them makes my head spin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do I call it?

The beyond.

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

One second, then another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact,” the lieutenant spits.

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

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

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

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

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

Keep a completely cold, unreadable expression.

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

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

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

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

Contact,” the lieutenant suddenly roars.

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

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

Move,” the lieutenant says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no point.

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

I’ve seen it too many times now.

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

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

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

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

This battle is too frantic, too goddamn messy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hear the flapping of wings.

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

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

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

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

I fall down.

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

… The ground.

As I jerk my head down, I see it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hear what sounds like hell above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… Nothing.

Good God… they’re all dead.

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

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

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

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

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

… The point.

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

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

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

I banish the last of my bitter tears.

I lock my gaze on that black point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I concentrate.

Until finally, finally I reach it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I jump down, boots thumping against the resonating concrete.

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

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

I turn hard on my boot and run.

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

I don’t hesitate this time.

I press it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guy takes a threatening step toward me.

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

So that’s how I know it’s him.

My ex.

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

So I frown as I turn.

And there he is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I clench a hand into a fist.

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

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

Wasn’t it protected by a green wall?”

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

I nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get to it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can do nothing but watch him.

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

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

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

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

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

I turn.

And I face a light sentinel.

It’s right in front of me.

Massive. Amazing.

A being made out of light.

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

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

I can’t.

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

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

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

I jerk my head around to see Jason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s just something—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I… just can’t describe this feeling.

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

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

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

We found the point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now… I’m not so sure.

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

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

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

Instead I turn and start walking away.

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

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

But I don’t look back. Not once.

Not for him. Not ever.

Chapter 2

Ami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It had been my dream to travel the heavens.

A dream that will now never happen.

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

My life had been….

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

I don’t get long to enjoy my breakfast.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Jason.

I watch his expression start out as even but defensive.

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

I clear my throat.

He straightens up.

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

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

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

Suffice to say, it’s satisfying.

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

He clears his throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because of what you did yesterday.”

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

An uneasy feeling picks through my stomach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He opens the door and walks out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, sorry – I’m not following.”

Ask me what’s interesting,” Melody demands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

Commander Jason Everett

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

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

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

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


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