Book: The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.



The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.




The Last Aris


The Human Chronicles Saga #29


T.R. Harris

An Adam Cain Adventure




Copyright 2019 by Tom Harris Creations, LLC

All rights reserved, without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanically, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. **


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Contents


Adam Cain is an alien with an attitude.

1. Aboard the Behemoth

2. Aboard the Arya

3. Aboard the Formilian starship with Lila, Riyad and Sherri

4. On the prison planet

5. In the Sol-Kor Universe

6. In the Temple of Light on the planet Formil

7. With Te’moc at Formil

8. With Arieel on Formil

9. With TeraDon on the Colony Ship

10. Lila, Riyad and Sherri returning to the Behemoth

11. With Arieel in the city of Vull

12. Sherri and Riyad assaulting the beam platform

13. Arieel in Vull

14. Sherri and Riyad on the platform

15. Te’moc on the Colony Ship

16. Arieel at the Defense Ministry

17. Te’moc’s escape from the Colony Ship

18. Riyad … adrift in space

19. On Formil

20. Adam/Panur on the way to Terminus Base

21. Te’moc’s plan

22. At Terminus Base

23. Te’moc at Terminus Base

24. Kracion at Terminus Base

25. Te’moc’s attack

26. Aboard the Sol-Kor beamship, thirty minutes later

27. In the O’lac Government Building on Formil

28. On Formil, three days later

Epilogue

The End

Author Notes

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Novels by T.R. Harris


Adam Cain is an alien with an attitude.


His story continues…

In this, the final edition of The Human Chronicles Saga (to be followed immediately by The Adam Cain Chronicles), Adam and his team are on a desperate mission to stop universes from merging, bringing an end to existence as we know it in a slow-motion Big Bang event.

However, complicating matters is the fact that the mutant Panur—the genius behind the plan to save … everything—is now trapped inside Adam’s body, causing problems for both entities. It becomes a priority to get him out of Adam. But then an old enemy shows up that complicates matters even more. Plans are disrupted and tragedy results, placing the fate of the universe in jeopardy.

But all is not as it seems. It never is.

The Human Chronicles Saga concludes with The Last Aris. But be assured, the story of Adam Cain, Riyad Tarazi and Sherri Valentine continues in The Adam Cain Chronicles.

The story of the Humans of Earth isn’t over. Not when there’s a whole planet of aliens with attitude mucking things up for the galaxy. Just remember: You don’t mess with the Humans. Or they’ll mess with you!


1

Aboard the Behemoth

Adam’s left leg went in one direction, while his right, another. It was the same with his arms, flailing about like a drunken sailor staggering back to the ship after an overnight liberty.

“What the hell are you doing?” Adam called out.

“I need to go to the repair hangar,” said another voice through his mouth; the voice of Panur. Neither Adam nor the mutant had the internal dialog thing down completely, choosing instead to vocalize every conversation.

“Well, I need something to eat,” Adam rejoined. “I’m sorry if our body still needs food to survive. Deal with it.”

“You can last a while longer; I know you can.”

“I don’t care what you think. I’m hungry, and I’m going to the galley.”

“But there’s work to be done, and I’m going to the hangar bay.”

This set off another set of wild gyrations at crossroads in the corridors within the huge Klin Colony Ship, Behemoth, with one passageway leading to the galley, the other to the construction bay.

“Hey!”

Adam/Panur turned to the voice coming from behind.

It was Riyad Tarazi, approaching from up the corridor with a dark and angry look on his bearded face. Adam didn’t get a chance to respond before Riyad laid a balled-up fist into Adam’s jaw.

Adam staggered back, surprised, but unhurt.

“Why the hell did you—”

He caught another fist in the same spot.

Adam raised his hands in defense.

“Knock it off, asshole! Why are you hitting me?”

Riyad glared at his friend. “The first time was because you and Panur are acting like a couple of childish asses. The second time … because it felt good. I’ve wanted to do that for a very long time.” The statement wasn’t accompanied by one of Riyad’s trademark white smiles.

“Don’t blame me!” Adam said in his defense. “Panur is being a jerk. He acts like this is his body, and he can do anything he wants with it.”

“We share the body equally,” Panur said in Adam’s voice a split-second later. “However, you believe you have seniority simply because you’ve occupied it longer.”

“And I don’t? Remember, you’re just visiting. So act like it.”

“My work is more important than your primitive hunger needs. It has been so long since I had to depend on food to survive that I’d forgotten what an incredible time-wasting habit it is.”

“Hey!”

Adam/Panur spun around toward the new voice … and just in time to catch a solid right cross to the jaw from Sherri Valentine.

Adam shied away. “Stop it—both of you!” he cried out, the voice warbling strangely as both he and Panur spoke at the same time. Adam shook his head. “Why?”

She smiled. “I saw Riyad do it … and it looked like fun. I’ve wanted to do that for a while myself.” The smiled vanished, replaced by an all-too-familiar scowl. “Now, the two of you need to work things out. Panur’s right; there’s a lot of work to be done if we want to prevent the destruction of the universe. As crazy as that sounds, it’s real. So how about a little cooperation? Panur, Adam gets cranky when he hasn’t had enough to eat, and it looks like he’s burning through more calories with you inside him. Cut him some slack. And Adam, Panur is the key to this whole saving the universe thing. Maybe you should let him be in control—”

“Hell, no! This is my body.”

“I don’t give a damn whose body it is,” Sherri snapped. “Unless you—Adam Cain—can personally stop the universes from merging, then Panur needs to be in charge.”

“I wish it were that easy,” Adam said. Sherri frowned, confused as to who was speaking. “Unlike with J’nae and Summer, we cannot simply surrender control of the body to either entity.” It was Panur speaking. “We are equally dominant. Therefore, we must cooperate in everything we do. Our lack of coordination may appear to be the result of a conflict from within, but it’s more the result of a learning process as we must both make the same movements simultaneously. It won’t be an easy transition, but having said that,” the voice turned stern, “we can at least decide on where to go without an argument erupting, can’t we?”

Riyad stepped up; Adam flinched, expecting another hit. “My friend, it would be wise for you to listen to the immortal mutant genius residing within you. He might know better.”

Exasperated, Adam pouted. “I just want him out of me.”

“All in good time. He will surely find a way, but for now, there are more pressing matters.”

“Like my stomach!”

Riyad shook his head. “Panur, please let the man eat,” he pleaded. “After that, he will be at your beck and call. I promise.”

The next words out of Adam’s mouth were an unintelligible jumble as both he and Panur tried to speak at the same time.

“And learn to communicate internally—please! We don’t need to hear your constant bickering. It’s getting old.”

Adam’s mouth slammed shut while his lips continued to make a series of wavy contortions. One of the entities was trying to speak, while the other was holding the mouth shut. If it wasn’t so critical that the entities work together, the scene might have been comical.

After a pair of matching disgusted sighs, Sherri and Riyad turned away and walked down the corridor together. After a few steps, they fist-bumped.

Adam smirked. Now look who’s being childish?

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Panur had a team of skilled Formilian technicians working on a retrofit of a Formilian Bokiss-class starship, converting it to TD operation. After the destruction of the Sansa, building another trans-dimensional vessel was the team’s only chance of returning to the Aris universe with the necessary equipment to stop the pending catastrophe.

And how does this work exactly? Adam asked in his mind. He was making an effort not to vocally blurt out his every thought; he didn’t want to get hit again. Besides, it confused the construction crew, as they had trouble telling who was speaking at the time.

I need control of at least one hand, Panur answered mentally. For that to happen, you will need to be distracted with the other. I’ve programmed in several crossword puzzles on the datapad. Not only will it occupy your right hand but your mind as well. Just concentrate on the puzzle, and you won’t notice what I’m doing with the left hand.

And what will you be doing with my left hand?

Unspeakable things, nasty things.

I’m glad you still have your sense of humor. I bet you’re enjoying this.

Adam felt a mental snort. Enjoying? I have spent five thousand years in total control of my last host body. Now, I not only have to share a body with another, but I have to share it with you. Do you have any idea how screwed up you are?

I have some idea. What’s your point?

It’s that I like doing things my way and when I want to.

Me, too. Please tell me you have a plan for getting you out of me.

Of course I do. It’s just that there are priorities.

Wouldn’t you work faster if you did it now?

And go where? I don’t see an appropriate host body lying around, one with no consciousness.

You mean a corpse? You can survive in a corpse?

If it is not too degraded. Of course, at that point, it would no longer be a corpse. I would give it life.

Well, hell, if that’s all you need I’m sure I can find a body somewhere. Just drop me off on any alien hellhole, and you’ll have your choice of hundreds of candidates.

I see the humor in your remarks, but there is still the issue of extraction. At the moment, the only means of doing that is through Te’moc. It’s what he does. But we both know that if he ever assimilated me, he would never give me up. He believes he would have unlimited power and control at that point.

Would he?

Well, yes, but that’s another story. At the moment we’re stuck with each other. Oh, and by the way, you’re welcome.

For what?

For thanking me for saving your life. If I hadn’t transferred my essence into your body, you would still be a frozen slab of dead meat in a locker somewhere.

Adam felt like shit at that moment. It was true, and no matter how inconvenient it was having Panur in him, it would be a lot more inconvenient to be dead.

Well, there is that. Thanks. So, what, I just work on these crossword puzzles while you build some kind of super-advanced, one-of-a-kind gizmo to stop the merging of universes? By the way, I hate crossword puzzles.

I’ll trade you if you wish—

Both entities noticed Lila enter the construction bay, each with drastically different emotional reactions.

Dammit, Panur. That’s my daughter!

And a very lovely daughter she is.

The rest of the team was in the bay as well, doing what they could to help with the construction, which as it turned out, wasn’t much. Most of the work required was above their paygrade.

“I must go retrieve Kracion,” Lila began. “The location Nunki gave us before he died is one thousand, six hundred light-years from the Behemoth. It would be best if I take the lightship.”

Adam/Panur climbed out of the portside gravity nodule with one hand holding a datapad and the other an electronic welder. He stumbled, attempting to gain his balance, as Adam’s part of the body did its best to keep up with Panur’s. Their coordination was getting better, but they were still several days away from having it down.

“That will not be possible,” Panur said through Adam. “I have decided that the most expedient way to build the TD vessel is to incorporate the lightship into the superstructure and make it the primary engine. I should be able to complete the preliminary construction in less than thirty days with this modification.”

“But without Kracion, all this work is for naught.”

“I have to assume you will be successful in retrieving him. As we have discussed, you are to bring him here regardless of whether he agrees to help or not. The Aris service modules guarding him have control. They will make him come, even if he doesn’t want to. Also, I have designed various configurations for the repair module, depending on whether Kracion is a willing participant or not. There will be time enough for you to take a conventional ship and return before we complete all the manufacturing aspects of the mission.”

“I want to come along,” Sherri Valentine said anxiously, having overheard the conversation. “I’m not doing much around here. Besides, I have a relationship with the service modules, Will and Grace. I like them, and they like me.”

“It may not be safe,” Adam spoke up. “After all, this is Kracion we’re talking about. He’s unpredictable.”

“I’ll be with Lila; she’ll protect me.”

“Then take me, too,” Riyad said. “It wouldn’t hurt to have another weapon-hand on the team.”

“Me, too! I want to go,” said Copernicus Smith. He had just crawled out of an opening in the side of the ship’s hull, covered in oil and black tar. “I can’t let you go off without knowing what you’re getting into.”

Adam studied the dynamic. Although the relationship between Sherri and Copernicus was officially over, he got the feeling Coop wasn’t comfortable with his ex and her ex-husband spending several weeks together in a cramped starship with only Lila as a chaperone.

Sherri smirked at the two men. “Well, aren’t the two of you being chivalrous. My heroes, making sure the fair damsel is safe from all the nasties in the galaxy.” Sherri’s expression turned to acid. “If you hadn’t noticed, assholes, I can take care of myself.”

“As long as you have Lila at your side,” said Riyad snidely.

“Can you think of a better escort? And don’t include yourself. You’re as mortal as I am.”

“I can spare Sherri and Riyad,” Adam/Panur interjected. “However, Mister Smith must remain here. I need his expertise on the ship build.”

“Then it’s settled,” Sherri pronounced before anyone could protest. “Are you okay with this, Lila?”

Lila nodded. “Of course, and I would welcome the company. The journey there and back will take forty days. We will leave the Behemoth as soon as a ship is provisioned—for the Human passengers, that is. I travel light.”


2

Aboard the Arya

Te’moc had been in a shitty mood and deep in thought the past few days, contemplating his next move now that his attempt to assimilate Panur had failed. Because of this, TeraDon Fief did his best to avoid the alien, preferring to stay aboard the Cartel warship rather than on the trans-dimensional starship. But when Te’moc called him to a meeting aboard the Arya, TeraDon firmed his will and climbed through the umbilical corridor between the vessels. Te’moc was on the bridge.

“I must get proactive,” he announced without preamble. “The Klin Colony Ship must be assaulted before Panur completes his work and returns to the other universe. You said he mentioned having to build another TD starship for the journey. That will take time, but for the mutant, not as much as one would think.”

“There are five thousand Formilians onboard,” TeraDon reported. “Plus Lila Bol and several Humans. I do not see how an assault would be possible.”

“Even so, can I count on the Gradis Cartel to assist?”

TeraDon shook his head. “In an assault? I do not see that as a possibility. Besides the station’s crew complement, it orbits around Formil, the second-most-powerful planet in the Expansion. It would be a suicide mission. And as you have noticed, the Cartel fights for credits, not causes. I doubt there are enough credits to entice them to fight on your behalf, even if you promise entire galaxies in other universes in return for their allegiance. They would want something more … tangible.”

“Do I sense trepidation on your part regarding our affiliation, TeraDon? Do you see my offer for your assistance as having little substance?”

TeraDon shook his head. “Unlike the Cartel, I have little choice. Even if we believe the Cartel would be a viable ally, I doubt I would be the one to convey your message to them. I am an outcast with no home and no prospects. Therefore I see your promises—although vague and unreal in a sense—as my only option. As a result, I will remain at your side. However, the Cartel is not your answer.”

Te’moc smiled; TeraDon found it disconcerting when the alien smiled.

“Then gather your belongings, TeraDon Fief. You have vocalized my thoughts precisely. Therefore, we are going on a journey.”

“To where?”

“To my home universe. I need an army, and I know where I can get one.”

“The Sol-Kor?” TeraDon blurted. “Are you certain? How could they be of assistance? I understand they cannot move ships between universes, only individual beings through their personal portals.”

“They will assist me willingly, for I will come bearing two valuable gifts: the secret to trans-dimensional starship design, as well as a plan to return their precious Queen to the Colony.” He then narrowed his eyes at TeraDon. “To this end, I will require you to remain my loyal surrogate. There shall be no mention of my attempted assimilation of Panur nor of the impending merging of universes. Is that understood?”

“Perfectly,” said TeraDon without hesitation. “But are you sure they will help? It would involve another invasion of the galaxy?”

“They will, and they must. I will leave them no option. Now go. You will not be returning to your Cartel ship. Set it for destruction as you leave. We depart for the Sol-Kor universe in thirty standard minutes.”

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Using the advanced sensors aboard the Arya, Te’moc searched for the distinctive markers of the Sol-Kor universe within the fabric of space/time membranes. Once identified, he began a quest for the damage caused by TD portals. Since the Sol-Kor used only the large land-based arrays, the pockmarks stood out prominently. Although distinctive, these major anomalies had far less effect on the membrane than did the smaller—yet more frequent—perforations made by TD-starship drives. Te’moc set a course to a location deep within Sol-Kor territory, for a homecoming a year in the making.

Since the beginning of the war with the Hal’ic and their allies, the empire of the Sol-Kor had shrunk considerably; even their homeworld of Kor was behind enemy lines. However, when the Sol-Kor turned proactive in their efforts to return Queen J’nae to the Colony, they sent a covert squad to Kor and the obscure M-34 pyramid to recover Te’moc. They read in Panur’s journals how he had a psychic link to J’nae and reasoned he was their best chance for locating their missing queen.

The pyramid’s remote location and unofficial nature spared it from major damage during the attack on the homeworld, and it was in the depths of the underground laboratories that they discovered Te’moc’s segmented body. They brought the pieces back to the planet Silana—the provisional capital of the Colony—and reassembled the parts as best they could, using artificial joints and a mechanical exo-skeleton. Afterward, the Sol-Kor sent him through one of the few remaining personal transit portals to the Milky Way Galaxy where he joined with the Gradis Cartel to assist in the search. It had been over a year since he began his mission, and during that time, no progress reports had come in from their agent. Now he was returning to Silana and with knowledge and hardware that would revolutionize the Colony, at least for the time it had left.

Once back in the Sol-Kor galaxy, Te’moc zeroed in on Silana and set a course. As the Arya approached the system, a hundred beamships bolted out to intercept the strange intruder, fearing it to be a secret weapon sent by the Hal’ic. Te’moc waited at a non-threatening distance while he sought contact with the Applying Council, the governing body of the Colony in the absence of a Queen. Since the death of the Eternal Queen—and the abduction of J’nae—the Council had gained elevated status within the Colony. It had been by their order that Te’moc embarked on his original mission.

Te’moc’s identity was a well-guarded secret within the Colony, but those on the Council knew who he was. Permission was granted to land at the M-2 pyramid, while a hasty full-quorum meeting convened within the huge stacked pyramid.

Long before Te’moc and TeraDon arrived at the Council chambers, the members knew that only two beings disembarked from the ship, and neither of them was their missing queen. The mood was grim as the pair took positions before the arched stone table, where seventeen equally-grim Sol-Kor leaders sat on the other side.

Grinus Lis was the High Chancellor of the Council; in effect the acting King of the Sol-Kor. He didn’t have a pleasant expression on his scaly face as he studied first Te’moc, then the nervous-looking alien next to him. Grinus was an elder in the Colony, as had once been a long-standing tradition within the Applying Council. But Te’moc now noticed several younger faces staring back at him. In light of the crisis facing the Colony, this was expected. Without a Queen to replenish the population, the oldest members of the Colony were dying off, leaving the future of the Sol-Kor to the young, even if that future had a time limit. The lifespan of the Colony was now linked explicitly to the age of the youngest of the Sol-Kor alive at that moment. Without a Queen, there would be nothing beyond that. As a consequence, the young were being preserved; even in battles with the Hal’ic it was mainly the elder Sol-Kor manning the battlements.

“We have been anxiously awaiting a progress report, Te’moc,” Grinus rebuked. His tone was anything but welcoming. “However, we have received nothing until today. And now you return to the Colony in an alien spacecraft and without our queen. Am I to assume from these facts that your mission has met with failure?”

“Not failure, High Chancellor, simply a delay,” Te’moc answered.

“Do not be cryptic with me, Te’moc. You will find the Council has no patience for game playing.”

“Forgive me. What I mean is that I know where to find J’nae, although I currently do not have the means of recovering her. However, I have brought with me a magnificent technological wonder which will provide the Sol-Kor not only the means of retrieving J’nae but also a way to defeat all enemies, while securing unlimited food crops into the future.”

“A grandiose litany,” said a younger member of the Council Te’moc did not recognize.

“But true. I have brought with me a trans-dimensional starship, the latest design built by your nemesis, Panur.”

“You have encountered Panur?” Grinus demanded. More than the younger members, the elders were very much aware of the mutant and his legacy with the Sol-Kor—along with his ultimate betrayal. “Is he within the Human galaxy?”

“He is in the Milky Way—as they call it. At least he is for the moment. And that is why I have returned with my prize. Until recently, Panur has been hiding in an alternate universe … and he is currently preparing to return.”

“Is Queen J’nae with him? Finding and securing her was your primary mission,” Grinus asked anxiously.

Te’moc nodded. “She is with him, in a way.”

“Again, with the cryptic response. Is she with him, or is she not?”

Te’moc fought for patience. “It is not that simple of an answer. What I am about to relate to you will not be welcome, but it is a reality you must face. Her living essence has been distilled from her host body, and after which divided into separate portions. The single entity you once knew as J’nae no longer exists.”

Te’moc found satisfaction in the eruptions of anger, depression and frustration that spread around the table. This was horrible news for the Council, catastrophic, in fact. It meant that no matter what the Sol-Kor achieved—either militarily or technically—the Colony was destined for extinction. Even the acquisition of a trans-dimensional starship meant nothing in the face of such a grim reality.

The reaction from the Council was just what Te’moc needed.

“So, our Queen is gone,” Grinus mumbled.

Te’moc would now bring them back, providing hope—but for a price.

“No, she is not,” he replied. “There are several vials of pure essence available, of which any can reconstitute a living queen.”

More eruptions of questions. “Did you bring any of these vials with you?” one of the younger council members yelled above the din.

“I did not; however, I know who has them.”

The room quieted down. It was Grinus who spoke into the hush. “Panur. Panur has them.”

Te’moc nodded. “Correct.”

“And you say he is preparing to transit to another universe. Will you be able to follow him in your trans-dimensional starship?”

“That will be difficult. The better solution would be to stop him before he can make the transition. And to do that, I will need your help.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“Yes, I do. And I can detect the essence of J’nae there, as well.”

“Tell us,” demanded the young council member. “What is it you want?” The way the others let him speak meant he had power on the Council. And as a younger member, he would consolidate that power for years to come, possibly to the end of the Colony.

“The mutant is in a well-guarded former Klin Colony Ship, presently in orbit around the planet Formil.”

“Do these names have significance to the Council?” asked the younger member. “Colony Ship; Formil? As in a population Colony?”

“The references are familiar to the elders of the Council,” Grinus Lis said impatiently. “Once you have time for research, records will reveal more.” The High Chancellor’s eyes bore into Te’moc. “How much time before Panur slips away again?”

“Unknown, but every moment spent not working toward a solution will place him closer to disappearing once again.”

“What are you asking of the Applying Council, Te’moc?” Grinus asked.

This is the moment, Te’moc thought. He had dashed their hopes and now he would restore them. They would not let this opportunity pass. “I am aware that for some time the Sol-Kor have been working on a trans-dimensional space drive, since the time such technology became known as Panur absconded with J’nae. To date, your attempts have been unsuccessful. I now offer you a working model to learn from.”

The young council member let out a grunt. “Although we welcome your contribution to the effort, are you proposing we learn this technology and essentially build a fleet of trans-dimensional starships overnight? You cannot be serious.”

Again, Te’moc sensed an obvious powerplay taking place on the Council, between the young and the old. Even though much had changed recently within the Colony, this was not like the Sol-Kor. They seldom bickered or played political games, instead consumed by a single overriding purpose, that being the survival of the Colony. Te’moc was offering them that chance. They just hadn’t realized it yet.

“The technology you have been working on is already well-advanced,” he explained, addressing the young council member. “I am saying that with a working model, the technicians will be able to identify the missing elements within their current work in a very short time. After that, working engines can be built and placed into existing hulls. With the industrial capability of the Colony, it should not take long.”



“And you are saying that if we can build enough ships in the prescribed time, we can assault this Colony Ship you mentioned and secure our Queen, or the ingredients to form another?” asked an older council member. “We already face a grave crisis in this galaxy, both in terms of military viability, as well as population attrition—”

Grinus waved his hand, taking over the conversation. “I understand Te’moc’s meaning, Member Coreis. The potential rewards for such an effort would be … revolutionary. With advanced trans-dimensional technology, we would not only have the ability to recover the essence of our missing Queen from the Human universe, but we would also have the means of defeating our enemy within our home galaxy.” He turned his full attention to Te’moc. “As I recall, this planet Formil is a major center of technological innovation within the foreign galaxy. So besides recovering J’nae, the food stock we could harvest would be of exceptional quality and much needed within the Colony. However, I suspect we would not be able to stand against the entire galaxy for any prolonged harvest. From our last adventure, they have the means to counter our pulse beams.”

“That may be true, High Chancellor, however, with TD space drives, the Sol-Kor can come and go as you please, now and into the future. Nothing can protect against targeted raids on hundreds of worlds within the richest food-source galaxy we have ever found. And when J’nae is reformed, the Colony can sustain itself—”

“In a blasphemous manner,” said another of the older council members.

Grinus shot his compatriot a stern look. “We may not agree with Panur’s methods, but his instincts have been accurate.”

“Accurate?” questioned the elder. “More like self-fulfilling. It was Panur who led the Humans to M-1, resulting in the death of the Eternal Queen. He may have planned such an event from the beginning, as a way to impress upon us the need for his abomination. With this J’nae creature, he proposes to alter the very nature of Sol-Kor reproduction. In Panur’s new reality, the Queen will be nothing more than a birthing machine, designed to infect our population with fertile females. That may be the way of other species, but it is not the way of the Sol-Kor.”

“I do not forgive Panur for what he has done,” Grinus countered. “However, looking at the situation dispassionately, the long-term survivability of the Colony depends on our use of his creation to perpetuate the species. It is our only option. We have discussed this very topic at length, Council member Baxin, and as the High Chancellor, I will not allow another debate on this issue. Not now; there is no time. We must focus instead on the task at hand. Te’moc has brought us the means of solving two of our most pressing issues: a resolution to the Hal’ic war, and a way to both feed and perpetuate our species.”

If we can build an army to send into the Human universe, and do it under an unreasonable timetable,” said the young firebrand.

“That is true, and the more time we spend debating, the less time we will have to put Te’moc’s plan into action. I vote for an all-out effort to discover the secrets of this new TD technology, followed immediately by an expedition to the Human galaxy to recover the essence of our Queen J’nae. We should spare no resources. Place a million workers on the project if need be. And even if Panur manages to escape before we launch the assault, Te’moc will then have the means to pursue him through multiple universes and with a strength of arms to back up his will. In the meantime, the Colony will have the means to defeat our enemy at home and to harvest the Milky Way galaxy of its rich food stock. According to Te’moc, Queen J’nae exists, if now in an altered state. But she is alive. She must be recovered and brought back to the Colony. Time is running out; we must make every passing unit count.”


3

Aboard the Formilian starship with Lila, Riyad and Sherri

The Formilian Dandiss-class starship was modern, fast and well-armed, although half the size of the Bokiss-class Panur was in the process of converting. During the trip to the unnamed prison planet where Kracion was held, the three passengers had ample room to spread out, and Sherri and Riyad did just that. They spent most of their time sleeping, lounging and watching old videos stored on their datapads. It had been a while since either of them had so much free time, even if the most-dangerous creature in the galaxy awaited them at the end of their journey. Losing themselves in memories of a pre-alien Earth was cathartic, if not depressing. It reminded them of how it had been before … before all this.

Also weighing on their minds was the stark reality that if their mission failed, there would be nothing beyond the next few years, not for them, not for anyone. The Seinfeld reruns they watched were a needed distraction for this reality.

Even then, Sherri found herself constantly shaking her head at the absolute absurdity of the situation. How could an entire universe be in jeopardy? And how could a small group of individuals be so vital to its survival? As she absentmindedly watched the old videos, she couldn’t imagine Hollywood screenwriters coming up with a more implausible scenario. On the face of it, the concept was ridiculous. But throughout the past twenty years, Sherri had seen so many wild and ridiculous things that she often thought she was in someone else’s crazy nightmare and not one of her own. If she survived this latest crisis, it would be time for some drastic changes, that was for sure. She couldn’t continue like this. She’d pushed her luck entirely too far, and sooner or later it was bound to run out.

It took twenty days to reach the obscure star system where Kracion was being held prisoner by a pair of Aris service modules. She had no idea how the orbs found the planet in the first place, which was before they were given the task of guarding the mad Aris. But it served their purpose perfectly. It was off the beaten path of the galaxy, primitive in nature, with no life form more advanced than a variety of dinosaur-like creatures.

Sherri could vividly remember her last conversation with the ancient Aris service modules, the pair she called Will and Grace. They had been honest with her at the time regarding Kracion and his campaign of death and destruction. They were Aris service modules, and with the absence of the Privileged Aris, they were loyalty-bound to any Aris of which they had contact. If Kracion learned they were aboard the Klin Colony Ship, they would be obligated to obey his commands. As teleporting objects with incredible power, they would be a deadly threat to the team and the Colony Ship, as well as the galaxy’s efforts to stop Kracion. It had been their suggestion, that to keep the Humans safe, they would find an out-of-the-way hiding place until the crisis passed.

As it turned out, Nunki and the other Privileged Aris had a way to contact the service modules when needed. And when learning of their location in the Milky Way, they decided to place Kracion in their care until an appropriate punishment for his deeds was rendered.

Now Lila and the two Humans were in the system and fast approaching the tiny world. It was then that Sherri had a terrible thought.

“What are Will and Grace going to do when they learn the other Aris are dead, and that Kracion is the only one left?” The three crew members were on the bridge, with Riyad at the controls and Lila working the sensors, attempting to locate the Aris and the modules. “Won’t they have to obey him at that point?”

Lila looked up from the scope, her pretty alien face emotionless even in light of the serious question. Sherri looked at Riyad. His dark skin had turned a shade lighter as the blood drained from his head. It was obvious neither one of them had thought of this before.

“That is a consideration,” Lila said evenly. “It would seem that revealing to the service modules the demise of the Aris is something we should avoid at all costs.”

“Ya think?” Riyad said. “And how the hell are we going to do that? Even if we keep the secret hidden until we reached the Behemoth, they’ll find out eventually.”

“It’s obvious we can’t bring Will and Grace with us,” Sherri stated flatly. “It’s the only way.”

Riyad shook his head. “I repeat my last question: how the hell are we going to do that? And without them along to keep an eye on Kracion, that would leave only Lila to do the job. We’ll have to freeze him.”

“Fortunately, I have brought some precautions, so freezing will not be necessary,” Lila said. “I have with me a portable interphase field modulator. It should be effective against Kracion; however, I cannot imagine it affecting the service modules. They have interphase capabilities themselves, and the fields would counteract one another.”

“So how do we separate Will and Grace from Kracion?” Sherri asked.

“We must state we require only Kracion’s assistance, and not the orbs, telling them they are to remain in place until contacted by the Privileged,” Lila offered.

“They won’t buy it,” Riyad said. “They’re under instructions to guard Kracion. They’ll insist on coming along.”

“Then they will have to be distracted long enough for us to leave the area,” Lila said. “Their teleportation distance has limits, although unknown. We must send them on a mission to another part of the planet. Once we are far enough away, we will depart with Kracion in the Formilian ship.”

“It’s going to be risky,” Riyad continued. “What kind of mission?”

“Unknown. Unfortunately, we have no other choice. We need Kracion.”

Sherri shrugged. “Perhaps honesty would be better. We just let Will and Grace know what’s at stake. They’re reasonable beings.”

“That is an option we will keep in reserve,” Lila said. “First, let us survey their intentions and reactions. And Sherri, it was good that you brought up the subject. We now have a chance to head off a potential catastrophe.”

Sherri beamed. The immortal mutant genius was giving her credit for being insightful. She looked at a still-troubled Riyad Tarazi. Take that, you bastard.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

It turned into a frustrating effort trying to locate the last Aris on the planet below. Neither he nor the orbs needed food or shelter to survive, so there were no settlements they could detect. It was just another complication in what had begun as a simple recovery mission and was now devolving into a major clusterfuck.

Lila adjusted the sensors, attempting to isolate the tell-tale signs of dark energy on the surface below. She learned the process from Panur, as she had so many other things. In many ways, Lila was still a child—a genius child, of course, but a child, nonetheless. She remembered all she came in contact with, but unless there was experience or study, the knowledge didn’t come to her naturally. However, the more she learned, the better her mind was able to extrapolate, formulating solutions to problems she’d never faced before. Even then, it took her two days before the first signals were received. It had to be Kracion and the orbs. There were no other energy signals of the sort on the planet.

Sherri was as nervous as a cat as the ship began its descent from orbit. The moment of truth was at hand.

Riyad brought the ship down in a leisurely fashion, giving those on the ground plenty of time to assess the threat level of the approaching spacecraft. There was a small rocky plateau at the base of a perfectly-formed cone volcano topped with a frosting of snow. The signal was coming from the rock face of the mountain, within a series of ancient lava tubes. Although Kracion was immortal, and the orbs were impervious to environmental conditions, it appeared none of them liked to get wet from the near-constant rainfall at these latitudes.

The sensors weren’t sensitive enough to pinpoint the exact location of the orbs, so the crew waited on the bridge, survey cameras locked on the half a dozen dark openings in the cliff face. A moment later, a solitary figure appeared in one of the lower entrances. Sherri focused the camera on a smiling Kracion. Will and Grace were not visible.

For a moment, Sherri and Riyad feared the worst, that somehow Kracion had managed to disable or destroy the service modules and was free, trapped on the planet only for lack of a way off. But then a strange hum sounded from behind them.

Lila had already turned toward the hovering four-and-a-half-inch diameter globe, its green-tinted metal surface now blackened with mildew from the humid conditions on the planet. From a sensation she never fully understood, Sherri knew this was the orb she called Will, the module with the male persona. Since she and Riyad had ATDs—and Lila was capable of true telepathic communications—the orb was able to communicate with them without having to route the speech through the ship’s intercom system.

I am surprised by your arrival, Will said. Are you the vanguard of others to come?

No, it is only us, Lila said. We have come seeking Kracion.

I will take you to him. You have his location on your monitor. Follow me to a path you may take.

Five minutes later, the team was standing in the entrance to the lava cave. Kracion had gone back inside, and two glowing balls of light lit the interior.

We have provided illumination for the Humans, said the other orb, the female known as Grace. Welcome, Sherri Valentine. We were not expecting your arrival. She sounded almost embarrassed.

Sherri looked around the cave. There was nothing inside, no bed, no remains of food, no evidence of occupation except for the compacted dirt floor from Kracion’s footsteps. She smiled.

“No worries,” she said aloud, simply out of habit. “The place looks fine. You keep a very tidy residence.”

We appreciate your sense of humor. You know this is not a residence but simply a dry cave.

Kracion stepped up to the Humans. Sherri and Riyad tensed, staring down at the much shorter alien with contempt. “Sherri Valentine and Riyad Tarazi. As the villain in your story, I am supposed to say, ‘So we meet again.’ I must admit, I am surprised to find you survived my escapades, along with your fearless leader, Adam Cain. Why is he not with you?”

“You weren’t important enough for him to waste his time,” Riyad growled.

“But your time is not as valuable, being a character of secondary importance.”

Sherri saw Riyad’s jaw tighten. She could tell he was frustrated that his insult didn’t go over as well in person as it sounded in his head.

“Why are you here?” Kracion asked. “Has Nunki decided on my punishment, and he has sent you to fetch me? Why did he not come himself?”

“Because you are not that important,” Sherri said before Riyad could respond. He shot her an angry look for stealing his comeback line.

Is this true? asked Grace. Have you come to take us away?

Lila stepped up to the orb, which hovered at eye level a few feet away. We have been instructed to collect Kracion and only Kracion.

That would be a mistake, said Will. We guard him, keeping the Humans safe.

Will knew Lila was immune to Kracion’s powers, but not so Sherri and Riyad.

“I have brought with me an interphase modulator. I will place him within a field. We will be safe,” Lila said, switching to natural speech.

And at your destination? Can you say the same?

“Precautions are being taken. Now, if we may have him, we will leave.”

Why are you taking him? Is it as he says, to exact punishment for his crimes? And if so, we are curious as to what the punishment may be. The Aris have ways other than casting him into a star.

“Something is not right,” Kracion said. His beady eyes studied Sherri and Riyad, their emotions more transparent than Lila’s. “They are hiding something.”

Is this true, Sherri Valentine? I only ask because of the damage Kracion did before. We must assess the danger before we can release him. We sense … deception in your mind.

Sherri grimaced. She was afraid of this. Telepathy was a deeper form of communication, revealing nuances of the mind not found in normal speech. To Sherri, it was like talking to a lie detector.

“I will admit, we didn’t come here to bring harm to Kracion,” she said, figuring a portion of the truth might be enough to deceive the service modules. “You may not be aware, but the Aris are trying to prevent a crisis from happening, and Nunki needs all the Aris, even Kracion. We’ve come to ask for Kracion’s help.”

“My help? In what manner?”

“I don’t know. It’s Aris business, and I’m just a lowly Human. I wouldn’t understand even if they told me.”

Kracion looked at Lila. “But you would. What is this crisis that would require my assistance? And for this assistance, am I offered leniency?”

“It is a tear in the fabric of space between universes. It is threatening to destroy this one and another. The Aris have a project underway which can prevent this catastrophe and in which the Aris themselves play a vital role. As far as leniency goes, that will be between you and the other Aris.”

And that is why Nunki did not come himself? Will asked. His presence is too crucial to the effort?

“That is a reasonable conclusion,” Lila said.

Sherri had to admire the subtle way Lila phrased her answer. She lied, without lying.

However, you say our presence is not required. Grace said. You may have a means of restraining Kracion, but our assistance could be valuable with regards to the Aris project. We are quite capable.

“That may be so, but we were not instructed to bring you,” Lila said. “We are only following orders.”

So what will become of us?

Sherri stepped closer to the orb known as Grace. “After Kracion is taken care of, I’ll come back for you.”

There is room for us now.

“I’m sorry, Grace. You will have to be patient.”

Sensing her answer wouldn’t placate the orbs, Sherri looked out the entrance to the cave. “I must compliment you on the planet you chose,” she said, hoping to change the subject. “It’s really beautiful. I noticed a lake not too far from here when we were coming in. Could the two of you show it to me? It reminds me of Earth, and after twenty days cooped up in the spaceship, I’d like to stretch my legs and get some fresh air before we leave.”

We cannot stray too far from Kracion. That would be against our charter.

Lila removed a small black box from a pouch on her waist. She pointed it at Kracion and pressed a button. The Mad Aris became encased in a shimmering blue bubble that reflected the light coming into the cave from outside, sending sparkles dancing on the walls.

“Kracion is safe,” she said. “I have assumed your charter. I will guarantee he will not escape. Now please go, fulfill Sherri’s wish. We have a long journey ahead, and a walk to the lake will make her happy.”

Sherri could sense the vibrations of the orbs in her mind. At one time, she considered them friends, and although they were one hundred percent machine, they did possess an advanced form of artificial intelligence greater than anything ever created, except by the Aris. They had feelings and personalities, and Sherri now sensed the connection returning between her and the modules.

Very well. Please follow us, Sherri. The path can be dangerous for mortals. During Kracion’s foyers to the lake, we did not worry about his welfare. With you, we will.

Sherri caught Riyad’s eye as she turned to leave the cave. He was near panic, not knowing if she intended to stay on the planet with the orbs while he and Lila blasted off with Kracion. He couldn’t protest; she was getting the orbs away from Kracion. And getting Kracion was their primary mission. He was still in agony when Sherri quickly walked from the cave.


4

On the prison planet

Sherri tried her best to keep up the façade of enjoying the jungle scenery as she skirted the side of the volcano, along a barely-worn path of loose rock. It was stifling hot and humid, and after only a few minutes, she was drenched in sweat. She kept saying how beautiful everything was, and how green was the jungle below, even though she was near collapse by the time they rounded a prominence to gaze down at the azure lake a thousand feet below.

She took the opportunity to catch her breath while admitting the damn lake was awesome looking. She just wished she was close enough to take a dip in what had to be cooler water than the oppressive air.

She had a fleeting—and depressing—thought. This planet could be her home for the foreseeable future, although she was confident Riyad wouldn’t leave her here for long. But even if he took Kracion to the Behemoth and turned right around to come back, she was looking at a forty-day vacation in the equatorial regions of this no-name planet. And she had to think about food. Surely, the orbs would help, once she came clean with them about the true mission. Or would they be so pissed off that they would turn on her? That was the problem of dealing with creatures with emotions, even if they were machines with feelings. One could never know for sure how they’d react.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Lila guided the interphase field down the short slope and across the plateau to the Formilian ship. Kracion came along, refusing to walk while letting the field carry him. Riyad trailed behind, looking over his shoulder every few steps in the direction Sherri had taken out of the cave. He wanted to reach out with his ATD and say something to Sherri, but the Aris were natural telepaths, and he had no idea as to the range of the service modules. It would be best if he and Lila just buttoned up the ship and took off without hesitation. Sherri would be fine. The orbs would take care of her. He hoped.

As they entered the ship and Riyad pressed past the interphase field headed for the bridge, Kracion read his emotions. Something wasn’t right, and the Aris knew it.

“You are preparing to leave,” he said, “and without your companion. I find that odd. Why are you afraid? I am secure in the field.” Then Kracion’s eyes grew wide with recognition. “It is not me you fear. You fear the service modules! But why?”

“Prepare the launch sequence immediately,” Lila ordered.

“Already on it. We need two minutes for generator charge.”

“Why should you fear the modules?” Kracion continued. “They are under orders from Nunki to guard me, not to harm you. The only reason you would fear them is if they have become a threat, and the only way for that to happen is if they are under my control. And the only way for that to happen is if … Nunki is dead! But more than that, all the Privileged are dead. That is the only case in which control of the service modules would resort to me.”

Kracion leaned back in his shimmering blue prison cell and crossed his arms. “Very interesting. I am anxious to learn how fifteen immortal beings could die. I am sure we will have much time to discuss the matter, once I assume control of this ship … with the help of my service modules.”

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Riyad tried to contact Sherri through her ATD, but she was too far away. That was encouraging news. The range was always lower on the surface of a planet, and especially with a mountain blocking the signal. If she was too far away for his ATD, then hopefully the same was true for the teleport distance of the orbs or Kracion’s telepathic ability. He focused his attention on the charge meter. The sooner they lifted off, the sooner they would be safe. But time was crawling by at an excruciatingly slow pace. He reached forward to the gravity-well controls. Screw this, he thought. I’m using a well to get us out of here.

He engaged the gravity-drive, knowing Sherri was out of harm’s way of the destructive effects of the singularity forming in the sky above. But then the field evaporated. He leaned forward, working the controls at a fever pace, trying to reestablish the grav-well. It was dead. The system was offline.

But by now, the charge was sufficient in the chemical-drive. Riyad punched the button. As with the gravity system, nothing happened.

Riyad pursed his lips and let out a deep sigh. It didn’t take an immortal mutant genius to know what was happening. He leaned back in the pilot seat and spun it around. Lila had her back to him, staring now at the tiny, mold-covered globe floating in the air at the back of the compartment.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Sherri reacted the moment Will disappeared. There was only one reason the orb would teleport; they’d been found out. She raced down the pathway away from Grace. The rock-strewn trail had a decent decline to it, and she picked up incredible speed in the light gravity of the smallish world, her stride working overtime to keep up with her forward momentum. Out the corner of her eye, she noticed Grace paralleling the path with her. The globe said nothing in her mind, which was disconcerting. Sherri got the impression Grace was looking at her with contempt.

Sherri tripped and tumbled head over heels down fifty feet of the rocky path. At the bottom, she staggered to her feet, cut and bruised, her pants ripped halfway up a bloody thigh. A moment later she rounded a bend close to the cave entrance. She hadn’t heard a liftoff, so she wasn’t surprised to see the starship still resting on the ground of the small clearing. Still aching and bloody, she scampered down the rocks and across the plateau. Using her ATD, she opened the side hatch and sprinted into the airlock. She unlatched the interior door and burst through. Grace was already inside, again staring at her with accusatory silence. Sherri raced to the bridge.

To her relief, Kracion was still in his interphase bubble, but now both of the service modules hovered at the opposite side of the room. Riyad ran to her arms, and they embraced. She moaned from pain as he squeezed. She suspected she’d dislocated her left shoulder.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah, just bruised. What happened?”

Is it true what Kracion says? Will asked. The question appeared in Sherri’s mind, so she answered.

“Why are you asking me? I wasn’t here. What did he say?”

He said all the Aris are dead, all except for him.

Sherri looked at Kracion. He was grinning, a smug look on his thin, aged face.

Lila stepped toward the orbs. “It’s true. All the Privileged Aris are dead,” she stated.

How is that possible? They are immortal.

“As they operated stations designed to prevent the merging of dimensions, they were attacked by a being with the ability to take away their immortality by removing the essence of J’nae from their bodies. Even in light of this tragedy, Panur and I have a way of repairing the rip in the fabric of space, but we need the last Aris to make it succeed.”

This last Aris … it is Kracion?

“That is correct.”

“You know what this means?” Kracion said as he confidently stood up. “As the last Aris, control of all the service modules defaults to me. I now order you to remove the interphase field and free me.”

“Wait, let us explain!” Sherri shouted. “Did you not hear what Lila said? The universe is about to be destroyed, and that includes the Milky Way, the galaxy the Aris helped seed with intelligent life billions of years ago.” She glared at Kracion. “It’s true; you’re the last Aris, the last of your kind. Can you let the galaxy that your people help build get destroyed? There’s a way to stop that from happening. There’s a way you can stop it.”

Kracion smiled, unmoved by Sherri’s impassioned speech. “Before the galaxy dies, I will develop a trans-dimensional starship of my own and escape to another universe. I care not for this galaxy or any other. There are countless galaxies in countless dimensions. The seeding effort was a project proposed and designed by the Privileged. I simply did my part. I have no vested interest in what happens here, or anywhere. I will go, and with my service modules, there is nothing you can do to stop me.” He turned again to the hovering globes. “Now do as I command: Release me.”

But nothing happened.

“What are you waiting for?”

We are analyzing the situation, seeking truth from the information presented to us.

“What truth?” Kracion screamed. “The truth is I am the last Aris, and as our creations, you were built to obey and to serve the Aris. With the others gone, you must obey me.”

However, there is another who may have a claim to the title of Aris.

Kracion staggered back as far as he could in his bubble. “Who? There is no other!”

There is Lila Bol, the Apex Being.

All eyes turned to Lila.

“That is absurd! She is not an Aris! She is the product of a Human and Formilian genetic pairing, nothing more. She has not a trace of Aris blood within her. She came about from a pairing I helped foster, through specific DNA manipulation over billions of years. I even went against the wishes of Nunki and the Privileged to speed up the process they initiated by giving secret technology to the Klin which enabled them to begin their empire and initiate the intermixing of races required to create the Apex Being. It was I who created the chemical attraction that made the pairing possible. Do not try to twist the truth. I know the history of Lila Bol. I know her heritage, and it does not include being an Aris.”

However, by your admission, you are responsible for her birth, knowing the serious nature of the Aris’ quest for immortality. For the past three billion years, it has been the singular goal of all Aris activity: the creation of an immortal being. And once created, what were the Aris to do with their ultimate creation? They were to merge with it, to acquire its powers, its immortality; to become one with the Apex Being. As you say, the Privileged Aris created the experiment, and the Technicians carried it out. All the Aris worked toward the same goal, the goal of creating Lila Bol. And if successful in their endeavors, she was not to be separate from the Aris, but rather to join them. Indeed, the Apex Being was to become the ultimate Aris, that which the race aspired to become.



“Your logic is flawed. The Apex Being was simply a tool, just as the creature J’nae would later become. And as you see, the Apex Being still exists. In the end, she was expendable, unnecessary to the Aris and our ambitions.”

That does not diminish the intentions of the Aris through all this time. If not for a strange twist of events, Lila Bol would now be a part of every Privileged Aris.

“You mean the dead Privileged Aris? And where would that have left me? The Technicians were never part of the immortality class. It is only by this strange twist of events, as you call it, that I am even alive to become part of the Aris’ wild plan to save the universe. The destruction of universes goes on continuously; it is the way of nature. We cannot stop destiny.”

“We helped create the conditions for this event with the use of trans-dimensional star drives,” Lila explained, “of which the Aris have been using for billions of years. If anyone is responsible for the impending catastrophe, it is the Aris. That is why Nunki and the others took personal responsibility for the anomaly and set about trying to prevent the catastrophe from happening. It is your duty as an Aris to continue with their efforts.”

“I have no such responsibility! That was a choice Nunki and the others made. But all this discussion is academic. Lila Bol is not the last Aris. I am.”

We have considered all sides of the debate and have rendered a verdict.

The interphase field around Kracion faded.

Sherri noticed that Kracion was as surprised as anyone when it happened. He stood a little straighter, his eyes wide with pleasure, a sinister smile painting his face.

“You have made the right—”

Your field will no longer be necessary, said the internal voice of the service module known as Grace. We have our own field to control Kracion.

A moment later, a much fainter, but tighter, blue film surrounded the Aris.

Kracion began to struggle against the field. “What are you doing? You are making a tragic mistake! This is not right. I am the last Aris!”

One of the orbs floated closer to Lila.

Lila Bol, Will said in the minds of everyone on the bridge, you may not be the last Aris, but to us, you are the Ultimate Aris. Therefore, we pledge our service to you. What is your command?


5

In the Sol-Kor Universe

The Sol-Kor Colony can best be described as a hive, which at one time numbered over a trillion individuals. Since the loss of their Queen—coupled with the war with the Hal’ic—that number was down to around six hundred billion. Even with the reduced population, the Sol-Kor still had an incredible industrial machine operating on a dozen worlds around Silana, building beamships, harvesters and beam platforms.

At one time, the Colony also had fourteen thousand food processing centers in operation. Now a third stood idle for lack of supply. With the destruction of the master TD portal several years before, the Sol-Kor lost contact with many of their linked universes, along with the food supply they provided. Now they scoured the secondary worlds of their home galaxy, accepting substandard stock to keep the population fed. It was ironic, but the heavy attrition from old age, as well as with the casualties of war, had kept the Colony from starving to death. But even that wouldn’t last. Eventually, there would be no worlds left to harvest, at least none within the territory controlled by the Sol-Kor. And the realm of the Sol-Kor was shrinking. The Hal’ic were aware of the Colony’s queen situation, and recently began a campaign of simply blockading the Sol-Kor rather than engaging them in overt military action, content to let nature take its course. The Hal’ic had waited five thousand years to seek revenge against the Sol-Kor. They could wait a while longer for total victory.

The last batch of Sol-Kor was born twelve years before, with none since. The normal lifespan of the Sol-Kor was just over one hundred years, meaning that in a perfect scenario, the race had about eighty-eight years left before extinction. However, with a dwindling food supply and crumbling infrastructure, that number could easily be cut in half. And then add in an aggressive escalation of the war as the Colony’s defenses collapsed, and a more realistic estimate was around thirty years.

Te’moc knew these estimates, so when the Applying Council decided to give his plan the highest priority, he wasn’t surprised at the efficiency and scale of the operation. The race was desperate for any salvation. Grinus once quipped that a million Sol-Kor could work on the project. He figured low. Three million technicians now set to work retooling the factories, while allocating raw material to the processing plants, in anticipation of the coming breakthrough in trans-dimensional technology.

Even so, he grimaced as the researchers descended on the Arya. He had no false illusions; the ship would be destroyed in the process of learning its secrets. He understood the risk. If the combined intelligence of the Sol-Kor couldn’t find the answers to the TD engine Panur had built, he would be trapped in the dying Sol-Kor Colony until the bitter end.

Fortunately, the Sol-Kor scientists didn’t disappoint. Six days after his arrival, the techs had a working theory for the engine and were already constructing ships to test their design.

They expedited the operation by retrofitting vessels that had been part of the unsuccessful attempts to build a TD starship. Four days later, the first test vessel set to space.

The first ship to make a jump to another universe didn’t return at the expected time, raising concerns. It was to make the jump and then come right back. That didn’t happen.

Four more days were lost as the navigation system aboard the Arya was analyzed, after which the technicians realized TD travel without the benefit of a stationary array facility was a more sophisticated operation than first anticipated. The second ship jumped and returned a few minutes later.

The Sol-Kor had their TD engine, along with a working navigation system.

At that point, the real miracle took place. With the Council aware of the urgency, factories began producing first three, then seven, and finally ten beamships per day, while other facilities built the first two beam platforms capable of independent TD travel, along with four huge harvesters to gather the crop.

Te’moc had trouble hiding his impatience. He was ready to go; his objective was not the salvation of the Sol-Kor race, but something more personal. However, the Applying Council insisted on waiting until they had the means of harvesting the planet Formil before making the jump. Almost as much as the necessity of having their Queen back, the Colony was in desperate need of quality food stock. Formil would go a long way to staving off the shortage.

But now the time to launch the assault had finally arrived. Te’moc and TeraDon Fief boarded a beamship that was assigned to them and took up positions on the bridge, looking out through the viewport at the assembled vessels ready for the jump. Before boarding, Te’moc had the surviving nav files from the Arya transferred to the ship’s main computer. If Panur had already left the Colony Ship, he would undoubtedly head for the Terminus Base. The files contained the location. The mutant wouldn’t get away that easy.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

If Te’moc was nervous, he didn’t show it. TeraDon, on the other hand, was sick to his stomach from anticipation. Although he marveled at the size and efficiency of the Sol-Kor effort, he knew an invasion of the Formilian system was not without risk. This was Formil they would attacking, the largest industrial center in the galaxy. The race built ninety percent of all the electronics in use throughout the Expansion and beyond. Also, they operated and maintained the galactic Library, and at one time, Formil had been the capital of the Expansion, when the Formilian mutant Lila Bol was in command. The conquest and harvesting of the population would not be easy.

Fortunately, the Sol-Kor realized this, as well. As TeraDon sat in on strategy meetings with Te’moc, he learned that the aliens were planning a quick insertion, one lasting not more than two days. Even with their suppressor beam technology, they couldn’t stand against the combined might of the Expansion, and especially not after the enemy had previously learned the secret of their stupor beams and built means of counteracting them. That was the reason the TD space engine technology was so revolutionary. The Sol-Kor could now attack by surprise, catching worlds unprepared. Then by the time reinforcements arrived, the Sol-Kor would be gone with their harvest. TeraDon knew the fate of thousands of worlds within the Milky Way galaxy were soon to be in jeopardy.

TeraDon felt ambivalence knowing that his home galaxy was once again about to face an unstoppable and savage threat. He was also aware that the Aris effort to stop the merging of dimensions had been disrupted, possibly for good. As it was, his precious galaxy may not have much of a future, even without the threat posed by the Sol-Kor.

That was only part of what worried him. TeraDon was about to join in a major military invasion taking place across dimensions. Although he wasn’t a coward, he also wasn’t a true warrior. He preferred manipulation to mayhem, diplomacy to destruction. Now he would be in the thick of things and at the mercy of destiny.

“Scanner units have jumped,” said someone on the bridge, shaking TeraDon from his thoughts and back to reality.

Six small survey ships would go in first and rotate back to the Sol-Kor universe continuously, providing updates to the Council regarding the operation. The Councilmembers were not about to send a harvesting fleet to another universe and not be aware of the results until the conclusion of the operation. Also, these small units carried equipment designed to disrupt CW communications in and out of the system. It would only be a stopgap measure since starships out of range of the suppressor beams could still report on the events taking place within the system. But the planet itself would go dark.

Five minutes later, the first of the survey ships returned.

The bridge erupted with activity, as data files were uploaded and integrated into the battle computer. TeraDon watched the screens.

The military planners had studied old records from their last incursion into the Milky Way to learn more about the planet Formil, and from their calculations, had estimated where the planet should be in its orbit, designing their assault based on these projections. TeraDon was amazed at how accurate the estimates had been. Real-time data placed the planet within a million miles of its projected location. The scans also showed the location of the orbiting Colony Ship, appearing as a shiny dot above the northern hemisphere.

Te’moc looked at TeraDon.

“Our target,” he said softly.

TeraDon knew what he meant. Contrary to Te’moc’s proclamations, he was not interested in preserving the viability of the Colony. He had other goals and was using the Sol-Kor for his own ends. So far, his plan had worked perfectly. TeraDon hoped the rest of his plans turned out as well. If so, then TeraDon would soon be a very wealthy and powerful Bazusean, lord of an entire galaxy, albeit in another universe.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

With the battlefield verified by the survey units, the assault ships began their jump to the Milky Way.

TeraDon watched through the forward viewport as the closest of the beamships disappeared, along with one of the huge multi-turreted beam platforms visible within his field of view. A pair of platforms would take up positions on opposite sides of the planet, which would be enough to subdue ninety percent of the surface, but not all. From what TeraDon learned, this was half the normal complement of beam platforms required for a full planetary harvest. But the Sol-Kor weren’t interested in a full harvest, just what they could collect within the time allotted. Also, the four harvesters that would land on the surface of Formil were woefully inadequate to process an entire world of its population. But it would be enough to prove the viability of the TD engines for future raids. Thirty beamships made up the remainder of the strike force and would form a defensive buffer around the planet.

The Colony Ship would be caught in the influence from one of the beam platforms, rendering the five-thousand-strong Formilian crew defenseless. Te’moc told TeraDon he was under no illusion that Panur and Lila Bol would be affected by the suppressor beams; their mental systems were much too sophisticated. Besides, Panur invented the pulse beam. He would have made sure he wasn’t susceptible to its effects. Te’moc also assumed the Human/J’nae entity would also be immune, along with The Mad Aris Kracion, if they’d recovered him by now. That left a lot of powerful beings unaffected by the Sol-Kor beam. It was a risk Te’moc accepted. If he could find and assimilate Panur first, then the others would be of no concern.

If he could assimilate Panur. TeraDon was about to reenter the site of his greatest betrayal, and if Te’moc failed against the superbeings, that would not bode well for TeraDon. And that was another reason he was about to vomit.

A Sol-Kor First-Noslead named Javon Adns turned to Te’moc. “Initial reports show a successful deployment of the beam platforms. By your command, we are ready to jump.”

“Proceed.”

The alien turned back to his controls. “Opening the transit portal, engaging engine. Jump in three, two, one….”


6

In the Temple of Light on the planet Formil

Arieel Bol buckled over from excruciating pain in both her head and her side. The site where her Gift from the Gods was embedded in her body burned with such intensity that it felt as if her skin was boiling. She pulled back the fabric of her robe and surveyed the area under her right armpit. It was red, but not the blackened and smoking mess she was expecting.

The sensation began to recede as the brain interface device manipulated nerve endings in her mind to mediate the pain. She took several deep breaths as relief came. The pain was now replaced by a panicked need to know what was happening to her.

She was in the Temple, in one of the study chambers, surveying a handful of datapads containing the daily reports which she, as the leader of the planet, was required to study. The sudden pain broke her concentration to the point that she had no idea what she had been reading the moment before. She struggled to her feet, heading for the door and medical attention. What she found outside the room was terrifying.

Several of her attendants, along with a few priests, were in the foyer. Arieel approached them before she pulled away in horror after seeing their faces. They were standing idly in place, mouths slack and eyes open, staring yet unseeing. Although she’d never seen the phenomena in person, she knew what it was.

They were under the influence of the Sol-Kor suppressor beam.

The realization caused her to stagger, her legs turning to rubber. But it also answered the question about the pain she’d felt. Adam Cain had told her how the Gift—something he called an Artificial Telepathy Device—protected the holder from the effects of the beam. She shuddered, knowing she was the only person on the planet possessing a Gift, her link with the Formilian dual gods of Mislin and Sufor. Everyone else on Formil would be in the same condition as her attendants and priests. It also meant the Sol-Kor were back to harvest her people for food.

This can’t be happening, Arieel thought. “The Sol-Kor were locked away in their home universe, fighting a continuous war against the remnants of their genocide, and slowly dying off from lack of a queen to birth new members of their evil Colony. How was it possible they had returned and without notice?

She rushed to the nearest communication facility in the vast Temple complex, frantically opening the link to the orbiting Klin Colony Ship. Adam was aboard, now possessed by the genius presence of the mutant Panur. There were others aboard with ATDs. Her daughter Lila was there as well. Between her and Panur, they would find a solution.

A moment later, the frazzled image of the Belsonian Kaylor Linn Todd appeared. His face was contorted, showing signs of the same pain Arieel had just suffered. Kaylor, along with his life-long friend and compatriot Jym, also possessed ATDs. They had survived the initial effects, if not unscathed, but enough to still function.

“What is happening?” Arieel yelled at the light-blue-skin alien. “Is it the Sol-Kor?”

Kaylor wobbled his head. “Yes,” he moaned. Jym was in the background, just now picking himself up off the deck. Even with the dampening effect of the ATD, each individual tolerated the beam differently. Kaylor scanned his instruments. “Two beam platforms have taken up orbital positions above the planet. The Behemoth is caught in the influence.”

“Where is Lila?”

“She is not here.”

Arieel panicked even more. “Where is she?”

“She is on a mission to retrieve Kracion. Sherri and Riyad are with her.”

“And Adam … I mean Panur, you know what I mean.”

“They—he—is here.” Kaylor looked away from the camera. “He has, in fact, just entered the bridge. It is Arieel.”

The tormented face of Adam Cain swept into view. “Are you okay?” The pleading concern in the voice told Arieel it was Adam speaking. It was not always easy to tell which of the entities occupying the body was dominant from moment to moment.

“I am well, although I fear for my people. The Sol-Kor … this is devastating.”

“May I speak with her?” said Adam’s voice. He nodded. “It is Panur—”

“Kaylor said Lila is not there. Keep her away.”

“She should be safe. Although CW comms are blocked off the planet and the station, she will be aware of the situation before she arrives. I am preparing my new TD starship for launch. Once I gather the team, we will come down to pick you up.”

“I am not leaving!”

Adam/Panur leaned in closer to the screen. “You must. The Sol-Kor are landing harvesters, including one outside the Temple Complex. They will begin momentarily. There is nothing I—or you—can do to prevent it.”

“I will not abandon my people.”

“There is nothing you can do. If you stay in the complex, they will find you.”

“They will not. The Sol-Kor will expect everyone to be under the beam’s influence. I am not. I can hide. But more than that, I can activate the planetary defense system. They will not be expecting that.”

Adam/Panur hesitated a moment before responding. “Forgive me, Arieel, but do you know how to do that? I understand you are the Speaker of the Formilian People, but you are not a technician.”

“I … I will learn. The control facility is near the O’lac Building. I will make my way there and access the operational files.”

“Again, forgive me. You may be able to launch a few cannon bolts, but all that would do is identify the source. There are beamships in the area. They will destroy the facility from orbit without you causing any damage to their efforts. Please, come with us. I’ve analyzed the attack. They will not be able to harvest the entire population before the Expansion responds. Many of your people will survive.”

“How many?”

“I can’t tell for sure, but several million.”

“While billions die? I cannot accept that. You may go, but I am staying. There is nothing you can do to make me leave.”

“Arieel, please!” This time it was Adam’s voice.

“No, Adam. My decision is final.”

Adam’s body jerked to one side. “Come, Adam,” his voice said. “You know Te’moc is behind this. He will be coming for J’nae and me. We must leave. He cannot find me here.”

“We can’t leave her!”

“She has made up her mind. There is a good chance she will survive. Formil will need her once the Sol-Kor leave. Let her be.”

“Adam, go!” Arieel shouted. “Do not delay. Panur is right. There are more pressing matters to consider than my welfare or even that of Formil.” She cut the link from her end.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Kaylor had Jym by the arm and was helping him toward the exit from the bridge. Adam/Panur was beside them a moment later.

Will she survive? Adam asked within his mind.

Possibly, if she remains on the move. Arieel knows the Temple Complex better than the Sol-Kor. They will not be looking for those hiding; there should be none capable of doing so.

But the TD ship’s not ready.

The ship is ready. It’s the insertion module that isn’t. We will have to build it at the Terminus Base—

Summer Rains came up the corridor from the nearest express elevator. Her face was anguished.

“J’nae says this is the Sol-Kor. Is she right?”

“She is,” said Panur through Adam. “I’m glad her presence is protecting you from the beam. Hurry; we are leaving.”

“Not without Monty and Tidus! Do you know where they are?”

Adam/Panur looked to Kaylor. He had Jym at the elevator, about to enter.

“I believe Tidus is on N Deck, not far from here. Monty might be in his quarters, in the Human section, but I do not know for sure. They will both be under the influence since they do not have ATDs.”

“I don’t care! We need to get them.”

Adam/Panur didn’t hesitate. “She’s right. Kaylor, get Tidus, and bring him to the construction bay. Summer, you get Monty. I have something to attend to, and then I will meet you at the ship. Hurry everyone. The Sol-Kor used the technology from the Arya to build their ships. Te’moc will not be far behind. He could be here at any time and with a force of Sol-Kor soldiers.”

The team separated. Summer and Kaylor commandeered a pair of golf-cart-like transports after first shoving their comatose Formilian drivers from the seats. Kaylor took his cart down the wide corridor toward the lighter gravity N Deck to recover an idled Tidus Fe Nolan. Summer drove hers into the elevator, taking it down and toward the central part of the station, where the gravity was stronger. This was Human Country, a place where the various alien races onboard seldom ventured.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Even with the speed of the elevator, it took five minutes to reach the sector. As Summer steered the vehicle out of the elevator, she encountered several Humans wobbling in the corridor, blocking her way. She attempted to thread her way through, but it was difficult without hitting someone. A voice sounded in her mind.

Force your way through. You do not have time, said Summer’s phantom presence, J’nae.

I don’t want to hurt them.

You will have to. They will not move on their own. If you wish, I could do it for you. Besides, I will be able to maneuver more quickly through the narrow passageways. There is not much time, and Monty may not even be in his quarters.

Summer grimaced. J’nae was right. This was no time to be polite.

Go ahead, she said, surrendering control of her body to the alien entity. By now, she knew how to reign in J’nae if need be. She had much more confidence in relinquishing control.

The cart surged forward, crashing obliquely into the passive Humans, knocking them aside without a grunt, groan or other signs of pain. In their present condition, they felt none.

But J’nae was right about her driving skills. With better spatial awareness and quicker reactions, she pushed the cart to its maximum speed and raced along a mile of the corridor on the way to Monty’s cabin. Even then, the slick floors provided little traction for sharp turns, causing the tiny vehicle to squeal around corners and slam into metal walls.

When she approached the door to his quarters, J’nae slammed on the brakes, laying down a ten-meter long pair of parallel black skid marks on the grey deck. Summer/J’nae jumped out and entered the room.

Monty was there, on his bed with his eyes wide open, showing no reaction to Summer entering the room. Using J’nae’s enhanced strength, the diminutive blonde hoisted the two-hundred forty-two-pound man off the bed and tossed his inert form over her shoulder, his huge body nearly swallowing her whole as she did. Effortlessly, she left the room and tossed the bare-chested man across the bed of the cart. Then, with another echoing squeal, the cart spun around and headed back toward the main elevator.

Once Summer/J’nae drove the cart from the elevator at the hanger level, they encountered even more of the zombie-like crew, Formilians this time. Without a second thought, J’nae barreled through them on the way to the construction hangar.

Copernicus Smith was at the side entrance, looking anxiously at the airlock. Kaylor and Jym were already aboard the converted Formilian Bokiss-class starship, along with the idled Juirean, Tidus. J’nae lifted Monty from the bed of the cart and carried him onto the ship. Coop raised his eyebrows in admiration. He knew what was happening, but still, it was impressive.

He continued to stand at the hatchway.

“What are we waiting for?” J’nae asked. She still had control of Summer’s body.

“Panur isn’t back yet—wait, there he is.”

Adam/Panur shot through the airlock, allowing the outer door to close and seal. He was carrying a small box about eight inches square. Summer/J’nae watched as he entered the starship.

“Is that what I think it is?” J’nae asked.

“It is,” Panur answered.

“So you did not destroy me.”

“Your remaining essence might come in handy. We’ll see. Everyone, get to your stations. We’re leaving.”

Using Adam’s ATD, Panur did an emergency dump of the atmosphere and opened the bay doors the second the safety measures gave him control. Kaylor was at the controls; he was a better pilot than even Copernicus, who now sat at one of the weapons stations. Unfortunately, much of the ship’s armament had been stripped away to make room for other equipment and modules, leaving only a solitary flash cannon battery, the array on the lower part of the hull below the bridge. It wasn’t much, but it did have a full 360-degree range of motion. The diffusion shields were intact, but they wouldn’t do much against a concerted attack by a squadron of Sol-Kor beamships. And that was just what was closing on the Behemoth.

Kaylor sent the starship bolting through the bay opening, angling it immediately to port and whipping around the huge 20-mile-in-diameter sphere. The approaching Sol-Kor vessels were coming from starboard, and there was a chance the Behemoth’s bulk would block their departure from the approaching spaceships. Adam/Panur slid into the co-pilot seat and began working the controls for the trans-dimensional drive. He wasted no time. The portal opened, and the modified starship disappeared from the universe.


7

With Te’moc at Formil

“Did a ship just exit the Colony Ship?” Te’moc asked. He’d sensed something; the presence of J’nae. But now it was gone. If she were still aboard, he would know. He began to make alternative plans.

“Uncertain, my Lord,” said First-Noslead Javon, the captain of the ship. “I will send units to encircle the station and search for gravity trails.”

Te’moc already knew the search would be fruitless. Panur was gone, and with him, J’nae.

The small squadron of six beamships spread out, wrapping around the Colony Ship, while Te’moc’s vessel headed for the gaping bay entrance visible along the equator of the giant station. Sol-Kor sensors could detect heat signatures, and they showed something had left the bay recently under chemical drive. He’d just missed Panur, verifying his belief that the mutants were immune to the effects of the pulse beam.

He let out a sigh.

“First-Noslead, recall your ships. Prepare for a new course. I will provide the details.”

“We are going aboard the Colony Ship,” came the unexpectedly blunt statement from the ship’s captain.

“Our prey has left. I know where Panur is going. We will find no evidence aboard the station.”

“Even so, I have orders to secure this vessel for the Applying Council.”

“The Applying Council? But you are under my direct authority.”

“I am unless I have overriding orders from the Council. They are very specific. If we can gain entry to the Colony Ship, I am to engage the engines and move the vessel out of the Formilian system and to a safe area where technicians can have access.”

“Access? What for?”

“This vessel was Panur’s primary workstation. It could hold plans for not only more sophisticated TD drive technology, but weapons and defensive systems, as well. I am told there are other innovations within the ship you brought to us—a ship built by Panur. By accessing these records, the process will be greatly accelerated. Technicians will come from Silana to extract this data, as well as others who will attempt to modify the engines for trans-dimensional travel if there is time. It is the ultimate goal of the Council to have this vessel in our universe.”

“The ultimate goal of the Colony is not to die,” Te’moc countered. “I am on a mission to recover your Queen. If I fail in my mission, no amount of innovation or technology will save the Sol-Kor. I must follow Panur to his destination.”

“You know this destination; is it not in another universe?”

“It is.”

“Then I am told you can access that universe from any dimension. You will continue with your mission once I have completed mine. I understand your slave has spent time aboard the station. I will require his assistance in guiding my engineers to the engine compartment.”

“Slave!” TeraDon remarked.

Te’moc raised his hand to silence him. “We are losing precious time.”

“Address your concerns to the Applying Council. Now prepare for boarding. The other beamships will serve as harvesters for the native crew. We cannot leave until the crew is processed. Otherwise, we will lose the subduing effects of the beam. However,” the First-Noslead turned to his bridge crew and smiled, “tonight we feast on fresh Formilian flesh!”

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

All the Sol-Kor in the assault force wore black battle armor spacesuits, including headgear that shielded them against the influences of the suppression beam. Te’moc and TeraDon wore only the headgear aboard the beamship; however, without a way to externally operate the bay doors once the Sol-Kor ship entered the construction bay, the pair now donned environment suits for the short journey to the airlock and the interior of the vast space station. Despite his frustrations, Te’moc was anxious to look inside the Klin Colony Ship. They were impressive constructions and larger than anything ever built by the Sol-Kor. Besides, he might find a clue as to Panur’s plans, and what part the Mad Aris Kracion would play in the salvation of multiple dimensions. Before Te’moc’s intervention, it took eight immortal Aris to prevent a blowout between universes. Panur was now saying only one was required. What new method had he developed as a result of Te’moc’s disruption of the prior experiment? Considering all the death and destruction the last Aris had exacted on the galaxy, Kracion had to be of critical importance for Panur to enlist his help. However, with the fate of two universes at stake, what choice did the mutant have?

Another two beamships entered the bay, while the other three remained on sentry duty outside. Beamships weren’t true harvesters, and the facilities they had aboard for food crops were limited both in capacity and storage. Once these two were full, the others would rotate in. The Colony was in desperate need of quality food stock. Every amount would help. Even so, it was doubtful they could carry even a tenth of the crew of the Colony Ship. The rest of the Formilians would be dumped into space before the ship was moved.

TeraDon went off with the First-Noslead and his engineers. He’d told them he had limited experience with the station, but that he had some idea where to find the main gravity engines. The Colony Ship had several engine compartments, used primarily for steering the huge vessel. But the main gravity-well was created by the generators located several stories below the bridge. TeraDon was cooperative. The Sol-Kor had already proven to be unpredictable and did not appear to respect Te’moc’s status. This placed TeraDon in a more precarious position. To the Sol-Kor, he had no value, unless he could create value with his supposed knowledge of the station. He would do their bidding without question.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

In the meantime, Te’moc lingered in the oversized bay once the doors closed and the chamber pressurized. There was an assortment of heavy construction items—some equipment, some modules—but all appearing to be nearing completion, but not quite. Te’moc smiled. Whatever the intended purpose of these items had been, Panur never got the chance to complete their construction. Te’moc had scared away the powerful and immortal mutant genius Panur. Now his plans for the last Aris would have to be modified—or construction done at another site. And Te’moc knew where. Terminus Base—as the Aris called it—had an extensive construction facility manned by hundreds of robots. Panur would complete his project, and only after a brief delay. Unless Te’moc stopped him.

What was frustrating was the possibility Panur could complete his work before Te’moc could continue his pursuit. The shortsightedness of the Applying Council could cost Te’moc the opportunity to descend on the mutant before he could set up his defenses. Panur would know he was on his way; Te’moc had been to Terminus before. But one does not simply walk into Terminus, not after Panur completes his preparations. Te’moc would have to be exceedingly cautious.

As he surveyed the mysterious equipment, whose purpose was unknown, Te’moc had an epiphany. Perhaps the delay would play to his advantage. Panur would be expecting him to follow immediately, only hours behind at the most. But when he didn’t show, Panur might lower his guard. Perhaps. In any case, Te’moc’s absence would give him concern.


8

With Arieel on Formil

Arieel felt the rumble in her teeth. Walls rattled, and dust fell within the Grand Temple. She knew what it was and rushed from the comm center into the hallway outside. Mind-idled priests and Demi-Receptives stood swaying in the corridor, eyes open and slack-jawed. Arieel ran past them and to the nearest staircase.

The Grand Reception Hall was at the base of a towering dome that reached a dozen levels above the marble floor, ringed with balconies overlooking the vast chamber. As she climbed, Arieel recognized a hundred people she knew, including close friends and associates, along with a few political enemies. It didn’t matter; they were all Formilians. And they were all under the influence of the Sol-Kor suppression beam.

Near the top of the balconies, she spotted Conon Fornic, the current High Corusant of the Order of Light. The old Formilian was ostensibly her husband, as was prescribed by the Temple Code. She and Conon had even consummated the official union on a few occasions throughout the years, although it made them no closer than any other pair of Formilians. Even so, Arieel couldn’t let him die at the hands of the savage Sol-Kor.

She rushed to Conon and took him by the arm. He provided no resistance; neither did he acknowledge her presence. She led him to a nearby confessional, placing him inside and near the back. Hopefully, the Sol-Kor would be more interested in the readily-available members of the priesthood within the structure, and not look into every side room they passed. Arieel left Conon and continued her climb to the top.

At the end of the stairway was an exit that opened to a small observation deck encircling the golden ball at the top of the Temple Dome, affording a spectacular view of the Complex, the city of Vull to the north and the Temple Spaceport to the west. Beyond the spaceport was a large open buffer zone, kept clear of development out of respect for the Holy Grounds nearby.

At the moment, however, that respect was being violated, as a monstrous machine that dwarfed the Complex was landing in the open plain, stirring up a tidal wave of dust that billowed against the walls of the Complex, rolling over the barrier like a cresting ocean wave. The choking cloud washed through the streets and walkways between a dozen buildings, consuming hundreds of idled people in its wake. Everyone remained in place and oblivious to the danger. Many would suffocate in the thick, unbreathable mass, but that wouldn’t matter to the Sol-Kor invaders. Their bodies would be processed in the normal fashion, as would millions more.

Arieel watched in horror as wide panels opened on the sides of the Harvester spacecraft and scores of huge transports rumbled out, some turning toward the Complex while others moved to the city. Aerial units also shot skyward, fanning out to seek compliant crops within the surrounding community. For the Sol-Kor, this was a routine perfected on thousands of worlds across multiple universes. And from what Panur had told her, there were three other Harvesters just like this one landing at major population centers around the planet. They would remain at one location until the bulk of the crop was harvested, and then move on to other cities. Arieel gagged, holding back the bile, realizing that millions—if not billions—of her people were about to die. She had to do something to stop it.

She looked aghast as the first of the huge open-bed trucks broke through the gates of the Temple Complex far below, shattering not only the ornate carved double wood panels but a fair amount of the walls to either side. The vehicles were that wide, and when it became evident they couldn’t pass through the narrow roads and passageways of the Complex, smaller carts spilled out the back and raced off in all directions. Sol-Kor drivers aimed for clusters of people, lifting them in bladed scoops at the front of the vehicles before unceremoniously dumping them into large storage bays in the back. Once full, these vehicles cycled back to the larger trucks to deposit their loads before returning for more.

But it didn’t end there. Even smaller carts now crashed into the Grand Temple itself. Arieel leaned over the railing but couldn’t see over the curve of the dome. She ran back into the building, looking down from the top balcony as Sol-Kor soldiers flooded into the Reception Hall, again grabbing anyone they could see and throwing them into the holding bins. Then to her heart-stopping horror, individual soldiers began climbing the stairs.

Any Formilians the Sol-Kor found along the balconies were simply tossed over the railing, their bodies falling to growing piles of bloody refuse on the floor below. More vehicles swept in and picked up the bodies. Arieel gasped when she noticed the aliens on the balconies below opening doors and checking side rooms, taking quick looks inside before occasionally pulling another victim from inside and tossing them over the balcony.

Arieel raced down a few flights to where she’d left Conon. She went inside the confessional and huddled near the door. She couldn’t let the aliens kill him, not in such a disrespectful manner.

She heard running outside the room; not the feet of the Formilians, but those of the evil Sol-Kor. Suddenly, the door opened. A black-suited creature locked his gaze on Conon and took a step inside. Arieel reacted. She jumped out of her hiding place, and with desperate hands on the chest of the alien, she pushed with all her strength. Caught off guard, the Sol-Kor soldier stumbled backward, until he arched over the railing and tumbled head over heels to the marble surface below.

Fearing her handiwork would be discovered, Arieel peered over the railing to see where the body had landed. It was resting atop a pile of Formilians in the process of being scooped into a carrier. A moment later, the body of the Sol-Kor became buried among the others in the holding bin.

She returned to the confessional and crouched near the feet of the First Corusant. She grasped his legs and held on, seeking comfort in the feel of another living being, even if he wasn’t aware of her presence.

Arieel stayed in the room for several minutes more, until the noise in the Temple subsided. There was no screaming of the wounded, no desperate cries for help—just a tomb-like silence.

She ventured out and looked over the railing to the vast hall below. Everyone was gone, Sol-Kor and Formilians alike. No one remained within sight. Arieel staggered back and fell against the cold stone wall of the inner balcony, overcome by the nightmarish reality. She slid down until her elbows rested on her knees, her sobbing head in her hands.

She found no consolation in the fact that a few within the Temple Complex would survive; those deep in the underground chambers or in the back of larger rooms which the Sol-Kor didn’t bother to search completely. In the end, the aliens were after the most bodies they could salvage in the least amount of time. Then they moved on.

After a few moments, Arieel took a deep breath and stood, beginning the tiresome journey down to the main floor. Her legs were like rubber, her head afire from the residual effects of the suppressor beam and her vision clouded by tears.

Even so, she knew she had to carry on. The Sol-Kor must be stopped, and at the moment, she was the only one on the planet with enough awareness to try.


9

With TeraDon on the Colony Ship

During the time TeraDon had spent on the Colony Ship, he’d learned the Formilian contingent numbered five thousand. Even then, the station appeared near-empty. The vessel had been designed to house twenty-thousand Klin comfortably for generations. Five thousand Formilians barely registered. Even still, aliens lingered in the corridors and compartments, many with puddles at their feet and smelling of feces. It had been four hours since the launch of the operation, and bodily functions continued, even under the influence of the suppression beams. TeraDon found it disgusting, but the Sol-Kor did not react. They simply loaded the bodies onto the electric carts and shuttled them to the huge hangar bay before returning for more.

TeraDon was relieved when the engine room was where he thought it was. Sol-Kor techs now swarmed throughout the multiple-room complex. Others occupied the bridge, several stories above. The Colony Ship used conventional gravity drive, so the engine functions and controls were of little mystery. Within minutes, the ship was ready for departure.

But it was the harvest that caused the delay. The process was much slower than anticipated because of the size of the station and the distribution of the crew. In the interim, TeraDon returned to the hangar bay in search of Te’moc. And that’s when he saw one of the most horrific scenes he would ever see in his life.

Hundreds of dead Formilian hung from the bulkheads, their bodies sliced open and being bled out. The rivers of red drained through the grated deck and filled the small void below. The internal gravity was slightly higher near the inner bulkheads, and blood was already pooling near the walls. And that’s when TeraDon got his next shock.

First-Noslead Javon stormed onto the deck and approached the harvest crew. “This is unacceptable! The full bodies are taking too much space. Take only the heads. Brains are the delicacy, and we can hold so many more. Now hurry.”

The harvesters obeyed, moving along the line of flayed bodies on the walls, slicing off heads with single swipes of their laserblades. The decapitated bodies were then tossed into ever-growing piles along the outer bulkhead.

TeraDon fought hard not to vomit, becuase he didn’t want to appear weak in front of the savage aliens. The Sol-Kor were going about their sickening chores without hesitation or emotion. It was mechanical for them.

After a few minutes of holding his stomach, TeraDon returned to the beamship. Most of the crew were gone, tending to other tasks aboard the Colony Ship. He found a quiet corner and sat down, cradling his head in his hands. It was becoming obvious he’d made an awful mistake siding with Te’moc and the Sol-Kor. This was not going to work out well for him. Not in the least.


10


Lila, Riyad and Sherri returning to the Behemoth

“It’s the Sol-Kor,” said Sherri. “It has to be.”

“I agree,” confirmed Lila.

“Comms are down,” Riyad announced. “They’re blocking the signals, but there’s a lot of chatter from the ships farther out in the system. Why didn’t anyone see them coming?”

“Because they have learned the secret of trans-dimensional travel by spaceship,” Lila stated. “Te’moc must have given them the Arya.”

“They did all this in, what, forty days?”

“There’s something like a trillion of the little fuckers,” Sherri said. “But it doesn’t matter now how they did it, just that they have. The Expansion has ways to counteract the pulse beams. They need to get their asses in gear and get over here.”

“It will not be in time,” Lila said. If she had feelings about the population of her homeworld harvested for food, she didn’t let on. “Long-range scanners show two beam platforms in geo-synchronous orbit around the planet. The normal complement for a planetary harvest is four to six. It would appear the Sol-Kor are here for a quick hit and then they will leave. In the meantime, billions of Formilians will die.”

“Along with those on the Behemoth,” Riyad pointed out.

“Panur and the others with ATDs will survive. They will leave and return to the Aris universe.”

“But we have Kracion,” Sherri said. “What can Panur do without him?”

Lila shook her head. “I do not know. He will undoubtedly come back for us, knowing we will avoid the Sol-Kor raid on Formil. The question now becomes: What can we do to stop the Sol-Kor?”

“We’re immune to the beam,” Sherri said.

“But there’s only three of us,” Riyad pointed out. He could tell where this line of thinking was leading.

Lila was studying a scope displaying long-range scans of the system. She stood back decisively. “We must take out the beam platforms. Only twenty beamships are protecting the planet, which is not a lot. The suppression beams aboard the individual ships are limited in range and scope. They will not pose a problem to the population once we destroy the platforms. Also, at that point, those on the surface will be able to take defensive actions.”

Riyad shook his head. “You’re serious, aren’t you? How do we take out the beam platforms? They’re huge suckers and behind a line of enemy warships.”

“The platforms are sparingly manned and lightly armored. Their powerful beams are both their defense and their offense. All we need to do is reach them. To do that, we will need to commandeer a beamship.”

Sherri laughed. “Oh, of course. And here I thought it was going to be hard.”

Perhaps we can be of assistance, said a voice is Sherri’s head. She looked around the bridge until she spotted the pale green orb resting on the nav console.

“That would be a possibility,” said Lila to the Aris service module known as Will.

“Wait. What?” Sherri stammered. “How can you help; you need to watch Kracion.”

Only one of us is required for that task. If you can maneuver to within a thousand miles of a Sol-Kor vessel, I can teleport aboard and shut down their systems. As you have discovered, your ATDs do not work on Sol-Kor vessels, and neither do any of my long-range influences. I will have to be on board the vessel to affect its operation.

“The other Sol-Kor ships cannot know of your actions,” Lila said. “Not if we expect to fly the stolen vessel deeper into the system and to the beam platforms.”

Understood.

“You can teleport a thousand miles?” Sherri asked incredulously. “So we never had a chance to get off the prison planet without you being able to reach us?”

We never said otherwise. That was your plan, not ours.

Sherri pursed her lips and turned back to her weapons station.

Lila took a moment more to study the positions of the ships around Formil.

“There were hundreds of vessels transiting to Formil when the Sol-Kor attacked. Those on automatic pilot have proceeded, even without conscious crews. At the point where ground control would take over and guide them into orbit, the ships have powered down, awaiting further instructions. The Sol-Kor are letting these vessels through. However, others en route under manual control are now pilotless and essentially deadly missiles. The Sol-Kor are watching these units more closely and taking action when necessary. I propose we simulate the actions of an auto-guided starship and move closer in-system, deliberately coming close to a beamship, but not on a collision course. A thousand miles is fair leeway. As we pass by the Sol-Kor vessel, the service module will teleport over.”

Riyad nodded, but his face was still painted with worry. “That sounds great, as long as the Sol-Kor don’t decide to use us for target practice as we get close.”

“It is a risk we must take,” Lila said.

Sherri could see concern was beginning to seep through Lila stoic exterior. Her people—the Formilians—were dying by the millions. She had to do something to stop it.

“I’m with you, Lila,” Sherri said. “Let’s get this thing going. No time to waste.”

“Yes, no time. I will take the controls, Riyad. Please take a weapons station. If this does not work, we may have to fight our way in.”

And there it is, Sherri thought: Fight their way in. Lila is willing to risk all their lives—and Kracion—to help her people. At some point, it may become necessary to point out the obvious to her, that the fate of the universe was more important than that of a single planet. But Sherri would do the same thing if it were the population of Earth being harvested. She took a seat next to Riyad. They shared a look.

Nothing’s easy, is it? Sherri asked him through her ATD.

Never is, sweetie.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Lila selected a beamship along the security line that was essentially out on its own, which turned out to be just about any of them. The space around a planet was a lot larger than could be effectively covered by only twenty starships. Along the way, Lila made purposeful course corrections, indicating to any observer that the ship was approaching under intelligent control. They were already within the outer reaches of the beam’s influence, and Lila continued to make periodic and logical course corrections without pause. Supposedly, the crew was incapacitated, but not the ship’s computer system.

Sherri and Riyad watched nervously for any sign of charging energy weapons aboard the beamship. Traditionally—just as with the beam platforms—this class of warship was lightly armed and armored, relying more on the effectiveness of the stupor beam to win battles. Even so, the closer they got to the target vessel, the Humans noticed the weapons on the ship were already charged and ready. This could just be an operational precaution, but it still raised the possibility that the Sol-Kor might light off a few bolts at the approaching spaceship just to keep their gunners loose. They were getting close. If something were going to happen, it would happen soon.

At a thousand miles of separation, the beamship was still invisible to the naked eye, but the sensors had it lit up like a Christmas tree. The seconds passed until the Formilian ship zipped by without being fired upon. No one on the bridge noticed the moment Will disappeared.

“What now?” Sherri asked. The ship was continuing along its course toward Formil.

“We are now beyond the teleport and communication range of the service module,” Lila noted. “At some point, we will have to assume he was successful and come about. We will know if he was successful when we are not fired upon. Prepare. I am changing course.”

They closed on the stationery beamship. It made no hostile moves, although the weapons remained charged.

The ship is ours, said the voice of Will in their minds once they were back in range. Proceed to the aft docking bay. It will accommodate your vessel.

What did you do with the crew? Sherri asked through her ATD.

They were wearing battlesuits with independent air supply, so I routed a strong electrical charge through the deck. Most are dead, while a few are alive but unconscious. It is safe to come aboard.

Great job, Will, Riyad said. You earned your pay today.

Yes, I did. Now I will ask for a raise.

Riyad laughed. The damn thing has a sense of humor.

Yes, I do, Will replied. If checking databases for an appropriate response would count as humor.

Riyad recoiled. He hadn’t shut down his ATD before thinking. It certainly does count, my friend, he quickly complimented. That’s all we Humans ever do; we check our databases for the appropriate response. It’s just that more often than not, we screw it up. You, however, did just fine.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Five minutes later, the Formilian ship was in the landing bay with the crew rushing to the bridge. Will and Grace stayed with Kracion aboard the Formilian ship. He’d remained locked in his stateroom and interphase bubble throughout the boarding.

Sherri was suffering from an incredible headache, the residual effects of the stupor beam, even through the filter of the ATD. She removed one of the helmets from a dead Sol-Kor crewmember and slipped it over her head. The pain went away.

“Hell yeah! I’m keeping this thing!” she proclaimed. Riyad followed suit. Lila was suffering no ill effects.

“There will be a challenge as the ship approaches the beam platforms,” Lila said. “I will modulate the voice synthesizers to simulate a male voice since there are no females in the Sol-Kor Colony..”

“You can speak Sol-Kor?” Riyad asked.

“Not at the moment, but I will learn. Give me a minute.”

Riyad and Sherri looked at each other with slack jaws as Lila scanned the computer files and began listening to audio tracks at extremely high speed. Even then, the mutant genius was wrong. It took her seventy-four seconds before she shut down the audio and resumed piloting the vessel toward Formil, having absorbed enough of the alien language to get by.

“So how are we going to do this?” Riyad asked. “There are two platforms, and they need to be taken out simultaneously.”

“You and Sherri will take one, I the other. There are six turrets on each platform. You will place charges at critical junctures. The damage doesn’t have to be catastrophic, just enough to cripple the beams, allowing those on the surface to launch countermeasures.”

“Sounds good,” Riyad said. “Except I see a whole array of problems. First, we have no explosives. Second, if we’re still on the platforms when the ground batteries open up, we’re toast. And even before that, how do we get onto the platforms? I’m sure the Sol-Kor aren’t going to let us land and drop off a couple of Human commandoes.”

“The last item first,” Lila began. “You will be in spacesuits with jet packs. I saw them in the landing bay: next issue, explosives. There is chemical propellent aboard. I will construct several bombs that should suffice. Again, the damage does not have to be extensive. I will highlight critical areas once I study the turrets, either through the computer or through scans. And lastly, you must use the jet packs to return to space. Since I will be on one of the platforms, the service modules will control the ship and pick us up after the attacks. And Riyad, as you mentioned earlier, the explosions will have to happen simultaneously for the surface to be free of all influence. Now, please take the helm. Follow my prescribed approach vector. I will now go and make the bombs.”

Lila always spoke in such a calm, almost nonchalant tone, that there was seldom serious doubt that her plans would work. Unfortunately, for this mission to succeed, she had to rely on Humans doing their part, and that was not always a given.


11


With Arieel in the city of Vull

Arieel had to get to the Defense Ministry in Vull. Although she seldom bothered with such details of governance, she knew a planetary defense system had been put in place after the last Sol-Kor invasion of the galaxy, defenses designed to activate automatically should the planet be attacked. Why they hadn’t activated was something Arieel was anxious to learn. The designers knew the weapons would be unmanned at the time. They should have blasted the alien platforms from the sky the moment the first beams were detected.

But to find the answers to her questions, she would have to move beyond the Temple Complex and into Vull. The city had a population of nine million and would be rich hunting grounds for the Sol-Kor. They would be everywhere and would remain as long as they could. Arieel would have to be careful. Fortunately, the aliens wouldn’t be expecting any of the native population to be moving about; their suppressor beams were that effective.

Arieel’s expression turned to stone. They weren’t the Sol-Kor’s beams. They were Panur’s. He invented them and encouraged their deployment to assist in the deadly genocide of countless worlds. It was a sickening legacy. And her daughter liked the mutant. That was something she would never understand—and after today—she would never forgive.

The streets of the Temple Complex were deserted. The dust cloud had settled, coating everything in grey shadows, the color of death. Her footprints were masked by tracks of the Sol-Kor and their vehicles. Even so, there was no one to see them—no one but her.

The North Wall had been broken through at several points as the harvesting vehicles smashed through to enter the city from this side. As it was in the Complex, the streets were empty of people. Transports sat idle, their doors open from when the occupants were pulled from inside and placed in the haulers. She could hear the rumbling vehicles as they moved throughout the city, methodically, efficiently.

Arieel hugged the sides of the buildings, occasionally having to duck inside as a hauler sped past on the way to the main Harvester ship. Thousands of bodies were piled high in these vehicles, with most of the limbs and heads she could see still moving slightly. They weren’t dead yet, but they soon would be. The bodies would be fed into huge conveyors, where they would be slaughtered, cut into pieces and then frozen for the journey back to the Sol-Kor Colony. Arieel had no idea how many of the dead a Harvester could process, but it had to be many millions. If she didn’t do something to stop the slaughter, this Harvester would fill its quota.


12


Sherri and Riyad assaulting the beam platform

“Hand me that strap,” Sherri said to Riyad. “I’m getting lost in this suit. I need to tie off the waist to keep me from slipping out of the helmet.”

The two Humans were putting on baggy Sol-Kor spacesuits and finding that their much smaller bodies were not compatible with the alien outfits. They were tying bands around sections to keep the garments in place, making them look more like the Michelin Tire man than deadly commandoes. They had better-fitting suits aboard the Formilian ship in the hold, but they didn’t have jet packs with dedicated controls like the Sol-Kor suits. Sherri, in particular, was having trouble making it so that she could see through the helmet faceplate while keeping her feet in the size twenty boots at the bottom of the suit. Riyad helped by placing a strap around her neck and cinching it tight.

“Not that tight—or was that intentional, your true feelings coming out?”

“I thought that was obvious. Everyone dreams of strangling their ex.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

Riyad looked into the cavernous helmet cavity to see if Sherri was smiling. She wasn’t.

Once they had the suits situated the best they could, they tested their range of motion and dexterity. It wasn’t bad, and in zero-g, it would be better. They were ready and let Lila know through their ATDs.

I have been contacted, and we have been cleared to the region of the first platform. I have chosen a time for the explosion. We will be out of range of one another, so it will be crucial that all charges are set by then and you are clear. You should have plenty of time, perhaps too much.

What do you mean? Sherri asked.

I have set it for two hours and six minutes from now. You will be on your platform much longer than I, so you will have to remain and make sure the charges are not discovered, yet still have time to get away before the explosions. I have surveyed the platforms, having found files on the computer. I will send you mental diagrams of the locations for the bombs.

You can do that?

Yes. Now pay attention. Only fourteen Sol-Kor man the platforms, yet there are robots that do most of the maintenance. They have cameras, so consider each a threat. I have also calculated your best approach path to remain unseen. Go in slowly; you have time. Now prepare. You will be moving at a much greater velocity in relation to the platform, so perform several short retro burns to slow down. Remember, short. You do not want to exhaust your tanks nor leave a large residual gas presence that can be detected. Enter the airlock and open the outer door. I will give you the signal in approximately one minute.

Sherri and Riyad hoisted their sacks of bombs and lumbered to the airlock. Once inside, Riyad attached a cable connecting the suits and then opened the outer hatch. As it was with most space travel, there was no sensation of movement as they stood looking into the vast emptiness beyond the ship. The internal gravity would be cut at the moment they jumped, allowing for a clean departure without being affected by the internals. After that, they would line up on the approach vector to the platform and burn their jets.

Sherri was stunned when suddenly images began to form in her head. They were extremely vivid and detailed and appeared instantly etched in her memory. She looked at Riyad. He was just as shocked.

That was pretty cool, she said through her ATD. Why haven’t we used this form of instant learning before? It would have made getting through school a lot easier.

Probably because when we were in school, we didn’t know anything about aliens and mutants and carnivorous invaders from other universes.

It was rhetorical, asshole.

Go in five seconds, Lila's voice said in their minds. Three, two, one … jump.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

They didn’t actually jump, but more like they fell out of the opening. Instead, they hung in space just outside the starship until Lila gave it a little more acceleration and it quickly sped away, disappearing into the void a few seconds later. Sherri took a deep breath and looked around.

The bright globe of Formil was above her in her present orientation, taking up most of the sky and looking almost like a mirror of Earth, but with subtle differences in the positions of the landmasses. They were about six hundred miles above the surface with a clear view of the entire globe.

Sherri shifted her orientation, using the recently embedded memory to locate the beam platform. She could see it as a bright smudge in the distance. But as she watched, the dot could be seen growing in size, as they were already on a course toward the station. Soon, it became a rectangle in space, with six stubby arms jutting out from the lower surface.

We’re closing pretty damn fast, she communicated to Riyad.

Line up, he said. Prepare for the first burn. Five seconds only. On my mark.

They executed the first burn—which wasn’t exactly a burn since they were using compressed gas. A gauge inside the helmet was now reading the distance to the nearest target, that being the platform. The numbers were in Sol-Kor, but they were descending, which gave them a good idea how far they had to go and how fast they were approaching. Another three burns and the relative distance was closing at a crawl. Sherri turned and noticed that the platform now loomed before her, a huge structure easily a mile square.

After one more burn, the pair of Humans were within a thousand feet. The internal gravity of the platform now had them firmly in its grasp. That meant they were falling toward the surface, based on Sol-Kor standard. They rotated around again and fired their jets just in time to avoid a major collision.

They hit the platform on their backs, pressing the hard metal of the jet packs painfully into their spines. They coughed in unison as the air was knocked from their lungs. Sherri was momentarily stunned and lost the grip on her bomb pack. It drifted away, tumbling on the hull before coming to a rest at the end of the attached safety cord. Even so, she gasped. It was a sack of bombs, for god sake, and it had taken quite a hit. She rolled over, and on her hands and knees, crawled to the satchel, thankful to be alive.

Another cord still connected her to Riyad, and a moment later the pair stood on the surface of the beam platform, bomb bags in hand, looking out at what looked to be an enormous sheet of silver metal floating in the darkness of space.


13


Arieel in Vull

As long as she went slowly, she could stay behind the Sol-Kor lines. That meant by the time she reached the Defense Ministry, the building will have already been processed. But she knew that applied to the main levels only. There were a dozen additional floors underground, and all locked behind security doors. Unless the Sol-Kor chose to breach them with explosives, the Formilians in the lower chambers would be alive, even if useless to her.

She entered the building and ran past the now-deserted security stations to the elevators leading below. Activation codes were required to open the doors, and they were changed frequently. During her official visits to the facility, she was always escorted by others with the codes. Using her Gift to probe the circuits, she didn’t need the escorts for this visit, and soon the silver metal doors slid open.

She probed again, this time for the controls to the car. A moment later, she was descending into the depths of the primary defense complex on the planet.

She’d been here a hundred times before during her tenure as Speaker of the Formilian People, but she’d never come here to operate any of the systems. This time would be different.

At the ninth lower level, she exited the elevator and rushed down the corridor to the end. More time was lost as she had to bypass even more security features before entering the main operations center for the facility.

It was a huge room, with rows of command consoles and a series of large monitors on the far wall. There were fifty or more Formilians in the room, both males and females, dressed in the smart, dark blue uniforms of the Defense Corps. At the moment, they were like living statues, some standing, some sitting.

Arieel racked her brain to remember where the planetary defense section was located within the room. She was mad at herself for not paying more attention, but she had people who were responsible for the military operations of the planet, while she had other duties to perform. She couldn’t pay attention to every detail.

Then she remembered and rushed to a section to the left and along the wall. It was cordoned off by lines on the floor and appeared to be a seldom-used part of the room. These stations were to be used in a last-ditch effort when all other efforts failed. And since the system was automated, it didn’t require a lot of staff, if any.

But now all the screens sat idle. They hadn’t activated when needed.


14


Sherri and Riyad on the platform

So, where are the damn turrets? Sherri asked.

On the other side, where else?

Sherri looked around. Riyad was right. Flying backward toward the platform caused them to land on the wrong side. All they could see here was a pair of huge mounds jutting out of the smooth metal surface a fair distance away. Sherri reasoned these were the gravity generators for the platform. A forest of stubby nodules interrupted the hull between them and the generators. But no turrets.

Of course, she communicated. And now we’re going to have to walk. Luckily, we have time.

More time to get our asses noticed, Riyad pointed out. And we did make a heluva racket when we landed. Hopefully, the sound of internal machinery masked the sound. So, which way do we go?

They were about a third of the way along this plane of the platform. Sherri pointed. The edge looks closest over here. She checked her timer. One hour, four minutes. Not as much time as they were led to believe they would have, but it should be enough. Let’s move out.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Sherri led the way, keeping a close vigil on the horizon while looking for any random service robots moving about. Riyad watched their six.

They came to the edge without incident, taking fifteen minutes to do so. Sherri was getting nervous. That was another fifteen minutes lost.

They looked over the edge. It was about four hundred feet thick. The next step was nerve-racking.

Reaching a leg over the side and planting her foot on the surface, Sherri propelled herself forward, keeping her head down and focused on the hull. A moment later, her perception changed, and now she was looking over another cliff at a mile-long stretch of silver metal falling away below her. The shorter side was now her new floor, and her mind accepted it without question. They set off to the next edge.

More precious minutes were lost until they stood looking across the new plane of the platform at the huge black turrets rising from the hull. They were still a quarter-mile away, and with less than an hour to go.

They quickened their pace, winding their way past more nodes and other obstacles rising from the surface. There were conduit lines, coils and metal boxes of unknown purpose dotting the hull leading to the beam turrets. As they got closer, they could see that the tips of the huge weapons were glowing a brilliant blue. In certain conditions, suppressor beams appeared blue. Now they knew why.

It was Riyad who spotted the first robot. It was moving through the nodes heading in their direction.

Hold, Riyad said through his ATD. Don’t move.

Keeping their suits still and only shifting their heads as much as they could within the helmets, they watched the boxy machine roll along the surface, a unit on top with what looked to be a wide-angle lens in the center. There were no arms visible, but they might be contained within the large central box. The robot spun around and moved to a coil structure rising fifty feet above the surface. An arm extended from an opening in the torso and connected with a module at the base of the coil.

Sherri and Riyad moved out, rushing for the cover of a shorter node about four feet high, the only one in the area.

Then the head of the robot suddenly spun in their direction.

To Sherri’s surprise, Riyad took her by the hands and pulled her to the closest node. But rather than ducking behind it, he draped their bodies over it, Sherri on one side, Riyad on the other, with their arms across the top. The bags of bombs hung at their sides.

What are you doing?

Making us look like a part of the equipment. With the color of our suits, we blend in quite well.

I think the robot will know if we’re a piece of equipment.

I’m hoping the goatfuckers watching the monitors won’t.

Goatfuckers? That’s a new one.

Not where I come from.

They remained hunched over the node for several minutes as the robot made its rounds. When it was clear, Sherri checked her watch.

Thirty-eight minutes! C’mon.

She rushed to the first turret. It jutted out of a large box on the hull and was made of black, non-reflective metal. The barrel was twenty feet in diameter, sixty feet long and aimed at the planet below. There was a pronounced vibration all around the turret array.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Thanks to Lila’s now-embedded diagram, Sherri knew instinctively where to place the charges. It wasn’t on the barrel itself, but a secondary node in the support base. As she pulled the small box containing the charge from her satchel, Riyad was already at work setting the next charge.

The work wasn’t hard; it was just that the turret array covered an area about a quarter-mile square. It would take time to move between barrels and place the charges.

Sherri finished with the first one and checked the timer.

Twenty-nine minutes.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Arieel slid into a seat and turned on one of the computers. More security codes, and six minutes later, she was scanning the files regarding the ADS-C system—the Automated Defense System-C.

On the computer screen, there was a notice at the beginning of the data screen, a letter written under the combined signature of the Governing Council, dated three years before. Confused, Arieel began to read. After she finished, she leaned back in the chair and began to cry.

The automated defense system was indeed developed and tested. But then the Council got involved, succumbing to fears that an automatic system would activate prematurely or in error, destroying innocent vessels in orbit before the abort signal could be sent. A failsafe was added, requiring two people to activate the system. Arieel scowled. How could people activate a system designed to be used when the population is subdued by the suppressor beam? Reading further, it only got worse. With the overconfidence of bureaucrats, they believed the hardened structure of the underground levels would insulate the operators from the effects of the beam. A glance around the room was proof the assumption was wrong.

The report also acknowledged that the allied forces had found countermeasures to the suppression beam, making the likelihood of another Sol-Kor invasion highly unlikely. Besides, the Sol-Kor were locked in a deadly struggle in their universe and rapidly dying off from lack of a Queen. In light of all this, the Council didn’t feel the automated system was necessary, and once the first aspects of it were in place, they never took the next steps to make it fully operational.

Arieel looked out across the vast room, wishing at least one of the operators would help her. The computers hooked into the flash cannon batteries, and she knew there was a way to manually initiate the system, using the fail-safe, two-person process—

Arieel then sat up straight, staring at the screen. There was a way to activate the system, using her and her Gift.

She went to the first station and probed the circuits for the firing controls. Although she’d received her Gift at five years of age and grown up with its constant presence, it still took her five minutes to work out the controls of the trigger system. Then she went to the second station and did the same thing. She could now fire the weapons, using her hands at one station and her mind at the other. But now she had to target the platforms.

She scanned through the computer files until she found what she was looking for. As it was with most military instructions, it was straightforward. Do this, then that and eventually one would have a target locked.

Next, she tapped into the planetary monitoring system, searching the space above the planet for an object not currently listed in the database. It wasn’t hard to find. As with all planetary harvesting equipment, the beam platforms were huge and could be seen easily from the surface. She could target only one at a time, so she chose the one hovering above this half of Formil. If it could be disabled, then the operators in the room would be freed to help with the other. But first, she had to work out the idiosyncrasies of the targeting controls.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Te’moc entered the bridge in search of Noslead Javon. The Sol-Kor had been aboard the Colony Ship for over seven hours, and still, the station had not been moved. Two of the beamships in the hangar bay had been loaded with the harvest and two more rotated in and filled. Now his ship and another were loaded with the last of the Formilian heads they could carry. But still, orders had not been issued to activate the gravity-drive.

Te’moc knew the reason, although the delay still frustrated him. Hundreds of Formilians were now being herded into smaller loading docks before the doors would be opened with the atmosphere still inside, ejecting the bodies into the cold of space. The process would continue until all the Formilians were cast from the vessel. Once the Colony Ship left the vicinity of Formil, the effects of the beam would vanish, and Javon did not want any conscious aliens left aboard who could cause trouble. But the process of gathering up the remaining Formilians was taking much longer than anticipated.

Te’moc had already toured the engine room and then scanned the computer files for any datapacks associated with Panur. He found none. Perhaps the technicians would be more successful; after all, he barely scratched the surface of the vast store of knowledge in the Klin computers. Still, he needed a timetable for departure.

Javon knew what Te’moc wanted even before he asked. “This is a huge station,” he said. “Time is required to transport the bodies to the bays.”

“Then kill them in place,” Te’moc barked.

“That is an option, however, that many dead would be a health risk. The processing of planet Formil is scheduled to last two days. We are still within the first. There is no rush.”

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Arieel had to rush. The invasion of Formil had been going on for eight hours, and by now, millions of her people would have been rounded up and sent through the Harvesters. Out of frustration, Arieel chose a general spread of cannon fire to send against the platform, rather than a more refined and tactical targeting. She could fire twenty cannon in a single barrage. Surely one bolt out of twenty would hit the platform. All she needed was a brief break in the beam, just enough to get her people on station.

With the target semi-locked, she returned to one of the two control seats. Then reaching out with her Gift, she took command of the circuit. After a deep breath to steady her nerves, she activated both controls. Energy flowed, and a heartbeat later, she triggered the firing buttons.

The flash cannon batteries were located hundreds of miles from Vull and separated from each other. But still, the moment they fired, beamships locked onto their stationery locations and sent bolts rushing toward the surface. The ground weapons only fired one bolt each before being destroyed. But by then, a blindingly bright mass of roiling plasma was rising from multiple launch points through the atmosphere and into the cold of space.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

How you doing? Sherri asked Riyad.

Just finished my first one. Moving to the—

Sherri blinked, taking a moment before she grasped the meaning of the sharp shadow of her figure on the metal surface of the platform. A brilliant light shone down on her from above. Sherri looked up, lifting her arm to block the blinding source of the light coming from the direction of the planet Formil.

What the hell is that? Riyad asked through his ATD.

I … I don’t know, she answered. But it’s growing.

I don’t think so. I think it’s just getting closer.

That almost looks like—

A flash cannon bolt … a whole shitload of them!

Who fired them?

Who cares? We have to leave … now!

They had unfastened their safety cord earlier as they separated to place the bombs. Now they dropped the satchels with the remaining bombs and activated their gas jets, shooting away from the platform in different directions.

It only took a second for Sherri to lose track of Riyad. The jet packs fired compressed gas, so there was no flare to help pinpoint his position. She was now racing away from the platform, trying to steady her path while spinning. It took her longer to correct her spin before she lined up and flew off into space.

Where are you? she called out to Riyad through her ATD.

Space, Riyad answered. How about you?

I’m glad you haven’t lost your sense of humor.

I’m serious. I’m shooting away from the platform, but I seem to be heading for Formil. I still have a ways to go. My gas is really low. Rescue would be nice. I wouldn’t want to turn into an insignificant fireball as I enter the atmosphere. Where are you?

I somehow ended up heading deeper into space, away from the planet. And speaking of leftover gas….

What’s wrong?

I did a dumb thing. I seem to have burned through all my gas.

That’s fine. As long as you get far enough away from the platform, the service modules will be able to locate you.

Yeah, about that.

What?

I seem to have ended up in a direct line with the platform and the planet. Any of the bolts that miss the platform are coming my way.

Please tell me you’re joking, Riyad said.

Jokes are your department. I’m deadly serious.

Hopefully, they’ll miss you. I can see the incoming bolts; they’re just now reaching the platform—

Another flash filled the void of space, as at least two of the powerful land-based cannon bolts struck the beam platform, blasting it into millions of scattered fragments. That left a lot more continuing to speed away from the planet … and toward Sherri.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Arieel watched the monitors for any sign of an explosion. She was rewarded a few seconds later when a flare grew at a distant point before quickly fading. She flashed a beautiful smile, the first of the day. She’d destroyed the Sol-Kor beam platform. There was hope after all.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

A flash caught the eyes of both Te’moc and Javon. They turned to the enormous viewscreen at the far end of the bridge where the glowing crescent of Formil dominated. But it wasn’t a flash they saw, but rather the light from a steady stream of energy bolts racing up from the surface. The effect was to leave bright tails behind the heads of each bolt like comets journeying through space. The pair stood mesmerized as the streams stretched above the planet. Then there came a flare above the atmosphere, at a point Te’moc discerned a moment before as a shiny dot in space. The flash grew larger at that point, while a number of the streams continued into space.

The effect was immediate and noticeable. Although both Te’moc and Javon wore shielding helmets, and when the beam vanished, it was as if a cloud lifted from their minds. The dozen or so Sol-Kor on the bridge were also watching the streams of light. Now they stood rigid and in a state of shock.

The beam was off.

Javon turned to his crew. “Status on the Formilians!” he ordered. The Sol-Kor took up their comm units.

“A thousand or more remain, First-Noslead. They are becoming aware.”

Te’moc knew the Sol-Kor contingent wasn’t much more than a hundred, and against a thousand of the enemy, it would be no contest.

“We must leave—now!” he cried out.

Javon did not argue this time. He gave the order, sending all the Sol-Kor working in the engine room below into the express elevators leading to the bridge area. If they were to survive the trek to the launch bay and the beamships, they would have to move in clusters to protect against the coming attack by the Formilians.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

I count eighteen bolts coming your way, Riyad reported. But remember, you’re a tiny target; you’ll be okay.

And here I am, having not updated my Will.

Don’t worry, Riyad said. Sherri could almost hear his brilliant white smile through the ATD link. You’re like me. You ain’t got nothing anyone would want.

That’s what you think—

A moment later, Sherri was blinded by the brightest light she’d ever seen. There was also heat, radiating from the huge roiling fireball passing no further than five hundred feet away. She didn’t understand the mechanics of how heat could carry through the vacuum of space, but it did. She felt as if she was being baked alive inside the bulky Sol-Kor spacesuit.

The bolt was traveling at several thousands of miles per hour, so its presence only lasted a split second. But once it was gone, and the suit began to cool, Sherri still couldn’t see, her vision now just one giant swath of white.

Are you okay? Riyad was shouting in her mind.

At first, she didn’t understand the words, overcome by the reality of her condition. Eventually, she managed to stammer, I … I can’t see. The flash …..

It’s only temporary. Hold on—

Sherri felt the connection go dead in her mind. Either something had happened to Riyad, or he’d moved out of range. Considering how much she’d gunned the jets leaving the platform, the latter was the most probable cause. They must be several hundred miles apart by now, and still gaining separation. ATD signals carried farther in the vacuum of space, but even they had limits.

Sherri closed her eyes, feeling moisture accumulate on the lids. Without gravity, her tears didn’t fall; instead, they clung to her skin. She let out a deep breath.

“Well, this sucks,” she said aloud. “Blind, lost in space and rapidly running out of air.” She smiled. “Considering how shitty things are going, this is good news. They can only get better from here, right?”

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Much to her relief, Arieel’s headache disappeared. She looked around the room and saw the operators blinking and shaking their heads. Those standing staggered as awareness returned. The effects of the suppression beam vanished quickly and soon puzzled looks began to focus on Arieel, seated at the far end of the room.

“My Speaker,” the senior officer said, both surprised and confused. To him, it was as if she miraculously materialized in the room.

“The Sol-Kor attacked,” Arieel blurted. “You’ve been under the influence of the beams. Please help me.”

The officer rushed to her, followed by a dozen others. “I managed to destroy one of the beam platforms, but there’s another on the other side of the planet.”

“Pardon, My Speaker,” said a technician. “May I have the seat?”

Arieel stepped aside as everyone in the room sprang into action, the commander barking orders. She was relieved beyond words at the quick and efficient movements of the professionals.

But then came something completely unexpected.

“Commander!” shouted one of the defense operatives. “The second beam platform just exploded!”


15


Te’moc on the Colony Ship

Nearly all the Sol-Kor were armed with both suppressor beam handguns and flash weapons, although the beam pistols were useless in this situation. They were used primarily to suppress individuals for processing and not as a way of killing an opponent. The flash weapons would have to do. But even then, each crewmember carried a limited supply of battery packs. It wouldn’t be enough to hold off a thousand rampaging Formilians.

Te’moc and the First-Noslead joined a group of Sol-Kor racing down the corridor to a bank of elevators. Flashes were seen farther up the passageway being both sent and received. Knowing where the armories were aboard the station, the Formilians had armed themselves and were now pressing the assault.

The elevator ended at the hangar level, and the moment the doors opened, flash bolts streaked by, striking the first Sol-Kor to step out. Te’moc held back; he was unarmed. Javon looked out before lighting off a couple of bolts. He then raced from the elevator without warning to the airlock door on the other side of the thirty-foot wide corridor. There was a group of Sol-Kor there guarding the entrance. Te’moc was the only one left in the car, and with a river of white-hot plasma bolts to cross to get to safety.

He took a quick peek outside. There was a firefight taking place not more than twenty feet away as fierce-faced Formilians rushed the Sol-Kor lines. At this point, they were a wild horde of mindless animals, seeking vengeance for their fallen comrades. No sacrifice was too great. The Sol-Kor were falling back, guarding the airlock to the launch bay as best they could. They couldn’t stand much longer.

Te’moc took a deep breath and sprinted across the corridor, miraculously dodging streaking flash bolts before plowing into the bodies of the remaining Sol-Kor soldiers. Desperate arms pushed him through their mass and into the bay. Without hesitation, he ran to his beamship. Javon was already aboard and barking orders. The outer hatch to the ship was sealed, despite the banging of the Sol-Kor left outside.

“Blast open the bay doors!” he ordered.

The crew obeyed, and the effect was immediate.

Atmosphere rushed from the chamber at hurricane speed, taking with it everything smaller than a starship, including any Sol-Kor soldiers not inside the two beamships. Piles of decapitated Formilians also disappeared into the void of space, sucked through the jagged opening in the pressure doors. Javon ordered the beamship toward the yawning gap. A moment later, the sound of screeching hull metal scraping against the thick metal doors penetrated the interior of the ship as it squeezed through the narrow opening. A moment later, it tumbled into space, before righting itself and racing away on a flume of yellow chemical exhaust.

The second beamship in the bay didn’t line up as accurately on the opening as had Javon’s ship. Instead, it crashed into the solid part of the door and the starboard bulkhead, embedding the nose into the side of the Colony Ship. The bridge and main focusing ring compartments were crushed, followed by a series of popping flashes as a succession of explosions moved throughout the ship. A moment later, the beamship was a dead hulk.


16


Arieel at the Defense Ministry

All eyes turned to Arieel. Wide-eyed, she rolled her shoulders. “I did not do it.”

“It does not matter who destroyed the second beam platform, just that it is gone,” said the senior officer. “Bring up the defense grid.” He studied the images on the main screen for a moment. “There are still beamships in the area. Battery Green is out, but the others are active. Target enemy vessels. Fire when locked.”

Arieel faded into the background as the command center went to work.

“Alien ships on the surface, Commander. Reports are coming in of civilian action taken against individual Sol-Kor units.” The technician studied his screen. “Relatively few enemy units for the population they are facing. It has not taken our people long to realize what happened.” The Formilian was smiling as he transferred various scenes taken from monitoring cameras to the screens on the main wall.

Arieel moved a little closer, almost cheering at what she was seeing. The Sol-Kor harvesting soldiers became caught in the middle of massive mobs of angry Formilians. Many of the harvesters weren’t armed, but neither were most of the civilians. That didn’t matter. Arieel’s people took up whatever weapons they could find, from bricks to brooms, and began beating on the aliens. Even Formilians without weapons were using their fists and feet to hit and kick. The reality of the massive death was sweeping throughout the city, with the natives overcome by the scope of the disaster. Screams of pain and outraged could be heard through the speakers, as the survivors sought out the missing. A few of the recently-harvested natives began climbing out the back of the haulers, many injured from their rough treatment. Thousands more lay dead, with rivers of blood flowing from dozens of openings in the huge vehicles.

From inside the command center, a deep rumbling was felt, similar to what Arieel experienced hours earlier.

“The Harvester ship is lifting off!” she yelled into the room.

“My Speaker, we have overhead units to prevent that,” said the commander. “The ship is only flexing its muscles.”

Soon, a secondary rumble shook the room, followed by a shock strong enough to knock panels from the ceiling and cause some of the monitor screens to pop. The main screen remained active, showing the fiery mass of twisted metal that had once been the huge Harvester ship. It had lifted for a short distance before being shot from the air. It crashed west of the city, within a residential neighborhood. Arieel shuddered. More casualties to count. Too many to count.

“Comms are back up,” someone yelled. “Extensive chatter. My Speaker! I have someone claiming to be Lila Bol on a link. Should I—”

“Yes! Open a link.”

The technician didn’t bother to route the communication to a private line, sending it through the main speaker instead.

“This is Lila Bol,” the voice said. Arieel recognized it immediately. The commander nodded to her, indicating Arieel could talk and microphones would pick up her voice.

“Lila, it is me!”

“Mother? I am so glad to hear your voice.” Lila’s tone was even and modulated, unlike Arieel’s.

“Where are you?” Arieel cried.

“That is the reason I am calling. I am in a Sol-Kor beamship, and your forces are firing upon us. I am radiating the hull for you can see us. Please limit your attack to all Sol-Kor ships except this one.”

“Did you destroy the second platform?”

“Yes, I did.” This time her tone conveyed worry.

“What is wrong?” Arieel asked.

“Sherri and Riyad were on the first platform, the one that was fired upon from the surface. They were planting bombs on the turrets at the time of the attack.”

Arieel gasped and fell into an empty chair. “Are they all right?”

“Unknown. I have been pre-occupied avoiding your cannon fire to investigate.”

Arieel looked to the Commander. He nodded. “Your vessel will not be targeted,” he stated.

“You are free to search for them,” Arieel told her daughter. “I pray I did not kill them.”

You fired the barrage?” Lila asked.

“Yes.”

“Impressive, mother. I knew you would be immune to the effects of the beams, but I could not imagine you taking such decisive action. You are truly a hero this day.”

“I do not feel like a hero. Now, please, go find our friends.”

“Already on my way. I will report my progress—”

“Commander, another explosion!”

The officer and Arieel both rushed to the station where the report had originated.

The tech looked up at them. “The Colony Ship! It has exploded.”


17


Te’moc’s escape from the Colony Ship

Javon had his beamship rocketing away from the Colony Ship, gaining distance, more from adrenalin than necessity.

“The beam platform was destroyed! How?” he asked Te’moc rhetorically. “The Formilians could not have—”

Suddenly, the bridge was bathed in brilliant yellow light as alarms sounded throughout the ship. A moment later, the vessel heaved violently, sending all those not strapped in crashing into the rear bulkhead. A sustained vibration shook the vessel for several seconds until the light from outside faded, and the monitors flickered back to life. Te’moc lifted himself off the deck and stared in shock at what he saw on the screens.

The Colony Ship was breaking apart, with huge sections of superstructure billowing out and racing away. Fires flared briefly throughout the remains until a lack of oxygen stifled the flames. Deadly chunks of debris filled the space surrounding the station. First-Noslead Javon ordered his ship away at full chemical drive; engaging a gravity-well would have only drawn more of the debris to their path.

Once the ship was clear, Javon turned to Te’moc, his face red and swollen with anger.

“Why did you do that! With effort, we could have salvaged the vessel.”

“I did not do that! What makes you think I did?”

“Because I did not. Blasting the hangar doors did not cause such damage. The explosion came from deep within.”

“It was not I,” Te’moc repeated. “It was Panur.”

“Panur? He was not there—”

“He set a timer to destroy the Colony Ship.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Because he knew I would be aboard. And if the beam platform had not been destroyed, prompting our fortuitous retreat from the Formilians, I would have been. It was quite a clever plan on his part.”

“I am pleased you are pleased,” Javon said sarcastically. “But I am sure the Applying Council will not share your joy.”

“Ah, but they will,” Te’moc said, smiling.

Javon frowned, looking at Te’moc as if he were crazy.

“I am still alive … and Panur does not know it,” Te’moc explained. “Therefore, he will not be expecting me when I come to confront him.”

“In pursuit of our Queen J’nae, of course,” Javon stated pointedly.

“Of course, First-Noslead. For what other purpose would I seek him out other than the pursuit of our beloved Queen J’nae?”

“Yes, for what other reason…?”

It was at that point Te’moc realized First-Noslead Javon—along with his Sol-Kor crew—would only be a hindrance to his plans, not an asset. They would have to be dealt with before he began his move on Panur and the others at the Terminus Base.


18


Riyad … adrift in space

Well, this is going to be tight, Riyad thought as he watched the brilliant surface of Formil grow inexorably larger.

When his gas propellent ran out, he’d ended up facing the planet with a front-row seat to his flaming reentry. He wondered what was happening on the other side of the planet. Had Lila destroyed the other platform or was she also adrift in space just as he and Sherri? In that case, what would the Aris service modules do? They were flying the Sol-Kor beamship. Would they recover Lila first and then come looking for him and Sherri? Or would the Humans get priority because of their mortality?

Riyad checked the heads-up display. The answer to his questions had about six minutes to be resolved; otherwise, his air supply would run out, and everything after that wouldn’t matter. But to Riyad, the most sporting question at the moment was whether or not he would enter the atmosphere before or after he ran out of air? Right now the odds were running fifty-fifty.

Riyad, we have acquired your signal.

Lila’s voice in his head was like that of angels.

Glad to hear it. If you have me on your scopes, you probably realize your arrival was none too soon.

All I said was that we had acquired your signal. We are still quite a distance away.

Well, hell. That doesn’t sound very encouraging.

Maneuvering that close to the edge of the atmosphere is problematic, but we may have a solution … if we can get close enough before you disintegrate.

If you need my vote, I say do everything you can to keep me from burning up.

Understood; Lila out.

Out? Wait, don’t leave me hanging.

I am here, said another voice in his head. It was that of the service module Grace.

Here? Where?

In space next to you.

The orb appeared from behind him, moving by some mechanism Riyad didn’t understand.

What now?

Now I will push you.

The orb came closer until it made contact with his bulky Sol-Kor spacesuit. The globe disappeared into the fabric, but a moment later, Riyad felt the pressure on his rib cage. It was steadily applied and was something he could tolerate. He felt the sensation of movement backward, away from the planet.

If you could hurry it up, please. Sherri is a lot farther away, and she also has an oxygen problem. And Lila—if you’re listening—she was blinded by one of the cannon bolts passing by her. I don’t know if it’s permanent. We lost contact.

I am here. We also have Sherri on our screens. She is two thousand miles away.

Riyad was at a handicap; he couldn’t see where he was heading, so it came as a surprise when a huge shape moved up beside him—or more correctly, he moved up beside it. He felt a change in the direction of the pressure Grace was applying, and a moment later, she had him moving toward the open rear hangar bay. He was gently pushed inside, noticing that the internal gravity of the beamship had been turned off. Grace placed him on the deck next to the Formilian starship.

A moment later the gravity returned and the rear bay doors closed. The beamship was on the way to pick up Sherri even before the atmosphere was restored to the chamber.

Riyad tore off his spacesuit and rushed to the bridge. By the time he got there, the orb that had saved his life had already teleported into the room. Riyad figured the other one was watching Kracion. At least he hoped he was.

“Where is she?” he asked Lila.

“Closing on her now. Prepare again for loss of gravity.”

Riyad grabbed underneath a console and held on as his weight vanished, experiencing the brief sensation of falling he always did during the transition. He looked and saw that the tiny globe was gone.

I have her, said the voice in his head. She is unconscious.

Take her to the medical compartment when we get closer, Lila ordered.

“I’m on my way,” Riyad said, kicking off the deck before grasping rungs in the overhead and moving aft.

By the time the orb brought her into the room, Sherri’s helmet was off, her tiny head now lost in the huge circumference of the locking collar. Riyad was relieved to see she was breathing. He lowered Sherri to a bed, and a moment later, gravity returned. Lila appeared in the room a few seconds later.

Sherri’s eyes were closed, the lids swollen and red.

“May I take a look,” Lila said politely.

Riyad stepped aside.

Lila gingerly pulled back the eyelids, something that elicited a painful gasp from Sherri. Riyad could see the bloodshot and mucus-filled socket. The pupil—what he could see of it—was a pale grey.

Sherri took a deep breath.

“That hurts like hell,” she mumbled. “I take it I’ve been rescued?”

“You are correct,” Lila said.

“And Riyad?”

“I’m here.”

“Thank god.” The corners of Sherri’s lips stretched outward. “So, give it to me straight, doc. Will I ever walk again?”

Lila didn’t get the joke. “You can walk; your legs were not injured. However, your eyes are beyond saving.”

The sigh Sherri let out was like death itself. “Well, fuck.”

“It is not as bad as it sounds,” Lila said. “Formilian medical technology is quite advanced. They have prosthetic eyes which will allow you to see again.”

Riyad squeezed Sherri’s hand. “That’s good news, isn’t it?”

“Just as long as I can get them in blue. My eyes have always been one of my best features.”

“I thought it was your tits?” Riyad said.

“You would.” She smiled. “And they are pretty awesome if I do say so myself.”

“I will take us down to Formil. You will be well cared for.”

Sherri frowned, which caused her to wince in pain. “What the hell happened out there? Who took out the beam platform … and how?”

Riyad was curious to hear the answer, as well.

“It was my mother.”

“Arieel?” both Riyad and Sherri gasped.

“Yes. She managed to reach the Defense Ministry and activate the cannon batteries. Unfortunately, you were still onboard the platform at the time. I was more fortunate. I carried out my mission as planned.”

“Where’s Kracion?” Sherri asked.

“He is secure. Nothing has changed in that regard,” Lila answered.

“You have to get him to Panur. Just drop me off and then go.”

“That is the plan. I will leave the two of you alone so I can land the ship. I am glad you survived.”

“That makes three of us,” Riyad said.


19


On Formil

The area around the Temple Complex was a chaotic mess, but even before landing, Arieel and the senior defense department officer had to wave off several attempts by ground forces to shoot at the beamship approaching the spaceport. Even in light of all the need in the surrounding community, an ambulance was there waiting to take Sherri to the nearest hospital.

What Riyad and Lila saw as they made the trip was horrific. Transports clogged the roads as desperate Formilians flooded into the city of Vull looking for lost relatives. And once reaching the hospital, it only got worse. The Sol-Kor had not taken care with their captives—their crop, as they called it—scooping them up and depositing the live bodies into great heaps in their trucks with no regard to their frail bodies. Thousands were either crushed or suffocated in the piles, while the survivors suffered multiple bone fractures and other injuries. The hospital was overwhelmed with casualties.

Even then, when Arieel arrived with an entourage of armed Defense Corps soldiers, Sherri was wheeled into an exam room, and doctors came in to look at her.

Lila’s diagnosis was confirmed; the eyes were a total loss. But she had also been right about the prosthetics. Even so, Lila insisted on gaining access to medical computers, and within an hour had read all the data regarding ocular damage, eye surgery and the latest in prosthetic technology. After that, she marched into the assembly lab and insisted on getting workspace and all the materials she required.

Everyone on Formil knew Lila. They knew her heritage and of her abilities, and how for a year she’d made Formil the center of the galaxy as she assumed control of the Expansion, running it from the planet. Therefore, there was no question whether she’d get what she wanted or not. She set to work building a pair of the most-advanced artificial eyes in the galaxy, with abilities only Lila knew of at the time.

In her hospital room, Sherri expressed concern that her condition was taking precious time away from Lila’s mission to save the universe. Riyad understood but said Lila knew what she was doing, and once she finished with the eyes, she would go.

Riyad was amazed when six hours later the eyes were ready, and nurses came into the room to take Sherri into surgery.

It was at that point that Riyad, Arieel and Lila met in a small side room, the first moment they’d had to reflect on the day’s events.

Riyad collapsed into a chair. “A day? That’s all it’s been? Not even that; something like fourteen hours.”

“So much has happened that it will take generations for the planet to recover,” Arieel said. Riyad noticed how tired she looked. She was still wearing the dirty and torn robe of the priesthood, and her long black hair was a matted mess on her head. She hadn’t bothered to sleep, eat or wash her face in the past fourteen hours.

“So many dead, including nearly all the priesthood. How are we to survive?”

“You will, Arieel,” Riyad said. “Earth has been attacked twice in twenty years, with billions of dead, and we’re still alive and kicking.”

“I supposed that term is a positive one. Even so, I’m sure it took time for your people to overcome the incredible loss.”

“Of course. I’m just saying people are resilient. You and your people will get through this. Trust me.”

Then a terrible thought hit him: If there’s enough time left.

He looked at Lila.

“What about Kracion? You have to get him to Panur.”

“I will, as soon as I see that the surgery was successful. Remember, Panur will not know that I possess a trans-dimensional starship. Even now, Panur will be making plans to come looking for me.”

Riyad nodded. She was right. With Kracion so critical to Panur’s plans, he would show up.

“You know I’m not going with you,” Riyad said. “I’m staying here with Sherri.”

“I assumed as much.”

“I wasn’t doing anything for the mission anyway.”

“You never know your importance until the time you are needed. You have been a valuable addition to the affairs of the galaxy for many years. You will continue to be vital for many more to come.”

“By Allah, I hope not!”

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Two hours later, Sherri was out of surgery and in recovery. Riyad, Lila and Arieel went to see her, with the hope that she could see them.

Riyad was relieved to tears to see her sitting up in the bed with her eyes open. There was major bruising on her face, but the eyes were bright and clear, with beautiful blue orbs, just as before.

“You did a great job, Lila!” Riyad complimented. He went to Sherri, and they hugged.

“Yeah, it’s incredible,” Sherri said. “There’s no pain—not yet—and I can see perfectly, maybe a little too perfectly. What the hell did you do to me, Lila?”

“The technology was adequate, but I saw where certain improvements could be made with only minimal manipulation. Without going into too much detail, you will now have telescopic and microscopic abilities, also a crude form of subsurface vision—”

“X-ray vision?”

“I am familiar with the Human term,” Lila said. “Yes, something like that, but based more on heat than anything else. Also, your night vision will be greatly enhanced. These improvements were not overly complicated, just that they had yet to be incorporated into the standard replacement eyes. It will take time for you to learn how to use your new eyes, beyond normal operation. But with practice, you will master them.”

“Thank you, Lila. Thank you, everyone.” She looked at Arieel. “And you, Miss Badass. Single-handedly saving the planet.”

“I understand single-handedly, and I assume badass is good?”

“It sure is.”

“Then, I thank you. But my accomplishments were much too late to save millions and were done more out of desperation than any great skill or courage.”

“That’s what all heroes say,” Riyad said. He wanted to ask her about the casualties but thought it best to let the good feelings linger a while longer. Dwelling on the loss would be impossible to ignore in the days, months and years to come.

“You will be leaving to meet Panur now?” Arieel asked her daughter. Riyad picked up on the harsh way she pronounced Panur.

“Yes. Te’moc destroyed the Colony Ship, and now he will be taking the Sol-Kor to the other universe to find Panur and J’nae. He has been to Terminus Base before. It will be impossible to stop him from going there again. I must warn Panur and then assist him with our experiment.”

“Are you mad at Panur for some reason, Arieel?” Riyad asked.

Arieel looked at Lila. “It was Panur’s suppressor beams that allowed the Sol-Kor to kill so many of our people. And it was his trans-dimensional technology that opened our universe to the murdering horde. So, yes, I am mad at Panur. He may be attempting to save the universe at this time, but he has helped contribute to the unspeakable horror that has befallen my universe: the planet Formil.”

“Context is important, mother,” Lila said in Panur’s defense.

“I understand. But you must allow me my feelings. So much of the bad that has happened to Formil and the galaxy in recent years is a result of Panur’s so-called genius. I understand your feelings for him, but I cannot deny my own.”

Lila hugged Arieel, who returned the expression with overwhelming love and emotion. When they pulled away, Lila turned toward the door.

“No good-bye?” Arieel asked.

Lila shook her head. “Not at this time. My shame will not allow it.”


20


Adam/Panur on the way to Terminus Base

“What just happened back there?” Adam asked himself. “Those were Sol-Kor beamships that just appeared out of nowhere. They have TD tech for spaceships now; I’m assuming thanks to Te’moc. That’s some bullshit! And now Formil is being harvested. We have to go back and help.”

“And do what?” answered Panur a moment later through the same mouth. He/they were on the bridge of the converted Formilian Bokiss-class starship, in another universe and impossibly far from Formil. “This vessel has a single cannon battery, and in my present state, your mortal body holds me captive and susceptible to damage.”

“This isn’t about you, asshole! It’s about the Formilians and Arieel.”

“Arieel will more than likely survive. The Sol-Kor arrived with a limited number of beam platforms. They are not planning to stay long. And as I told Arieel, millions of her people will survive. The Expansion will send a response, forcing the Sol-Kor to retreat, if they haven’t left by then. Let them deal with the Formilian crisis.”

All the team members were on the bridge at that time, including Copernicus, Summer/J’nae, Monty, Tidus and the two aliens, Kaylor and Jym. It was Summer who spoke next.

“You sure are a cold-hearted bastard, aren’t you?”

“Just practical. We have a more important mission to perform, and if we fail, there will be no universe left for Formil to exist within. Or Earth, or Juir or anywhere else.”

“What about Kracion?” Kaylor asked from the pilot seat. “I thought he was crucial to your operation.”

“He is,” Panur/Adam answered. “But until I can rebuild the delivery equipment, he is not needed at this time. We will go to Terminus Base and set the robots to work, after which I will return to the Milky Way and retrieve Kracion and the others.”

“Aren’t you worried about Te’moc?” Monty asked. “He just chased us out of the Behemoth with a fleet of Sol-Kor trans-dimensional starships. As you’ve told us, he’s been to Terminus before. He could be only a few minutes behind us, him and the Sol-Kor.”

“But he is not, Chief Pitts.”

“How can you be so sure?” Coop asked.

“Because I set the Colony Ship to explode before I left, with him and the Sol-Kor aboard.”

“There were five thousand Formilians aboard the Behemoth,” Summer said, aghast. “And you just blew it up?”

“They were under the influence of the beam. The Sol-Kor would be set to harvest them. In fact, I’m counting on it. It is what will keep Te’moc at the Colony Ship, at least for the time being. In reality, the Formilian crew is already dead.”

It was strange watching Adam’s head shake oddly, and his eyes begin to blink. “Wait, you … you did what?” he asked the entity within his body. “How could you have set the Behemoth to explode and I not know about it?”

“Is that important at this time?”

“It is! If you’re doing things I don’t know about, shouldn’t I, eh, know about it?”

“Not necessarily,” Panur answered.

The others on the bridge stared open-mouthed as Adam carried on a heated argument—with himself. It was something to watch, as words flowed from his mouth one after another with no discernible break. It was hard at times to figure out who was speaking.

“I can block certain activities from your consciousness. You will still know what I am doing at the time; however, you won’t be able to recall it.”

“Well, that’s bullshit. I thought you said we had equal use of the body?”

“That was true … at the time. But did you really expect me to be content with that situation? I have been exploring, learning more about our unique arrangement. I think it is better this way.”

“You would! So I’m not in control of shit, am I?”

“You are certainly in charge of your anger,” Panur snapped.

“Can you blame me? I thought I could keep my identity and some semblance of independence. Now it sounds like I ain’t got neither?”

Summer/J’nae snorted. “And here you were so condescending about J’nae and me,” she said.

“That wasn’t me being condescending,” Adam shot back. “Me … Adam.”

“Yeah, I got that.”

“At least with J’nae, you do have control. Now I’m finding out Panur can do what he wants with my body, and not only that, but I won’t remember. That’s a little worse than what you’re going through.”

“And now look who’s being condescending?”

“Stop it!” Adam’s voice shouted. But it wasn’t Adam speaking. “Are you forgetting the big picture? Until we stop the blowout between universes, I will be in control. If anyone else is an immortal, mutant genius and would like to take over this responsibility, then I suggest you accept things as they are—all of you. We will continue to Terminus Base, task the robots with building what I need, and then I will return to get Lila and Kracion.”

“And Sherri and Riyad,” Copernicus added.

“If they want to come.”

“You better make sure they do—”

“Or what?”

“Please, let us all calm down,” Tidus said, as he moved between Copernicus and Adam.

“Oh, shut up!” everyone else in the room shouted.

Tidus stepped back, appearing much shorter than his seven-foot-tall stature.

“I was just trying to help.”


21


Te’moc’s plan

There were only nine Sol-Kor aboard Te’moc’s beamship. That was good. The ship normally carried a crew of fifty-two, but the rest had either been killed by the revived Formilians or left in the launch bay when First-Noslead Javon sealed the hatch and blasted his way out of the Colony Ship.

Te’moc had no need for the Sol-Kor any longer, not for what he had planned next. They would have to be eliminated, and nine would be a lot easier to handle than fifty-two.

To Te’moc’s surprise, TeraDon Fief was aboard the beamship when it sped away from the Colony Ship. That, too, was good. It gave Te’moc an ally in his coming mission.

After convincing the Sol-Kor captain that he was not responsible for the destruction of the Klin vessel, he further manipulated the officer into remaining in the system in dark status to monitor the situation. All the other beamships—those that survived the attack from surface batteries after the destruction of the beam platforms—had bolted away and returned to the Sol-Kor universe. Te’moc convinced Javon that an assessment of the aftermath to the attack would be valuable information for the Applying Council on Silana. Javon agreed but said he would only remain for three days maximum before returning to Silana. Any talk of pursuing Panur was off the table at that time. As Javon insisted, “Take that up with the Council. I am through following your orders.”

And yet the beamship was still in the Formilian system, now watching the Expansion fleet of seventy starships—including a Juirean Class Six—close on Formil. Although there was no way to test it, Te’moc was sure the fleet came equipped with beam-canceling defenses. The technology had been perfected toward the end of the last Sol-Kor incursion into the Milky Way galaxy. It didn’t matter. Te’moc wouldn’t be in the system much longer.

He was almost giddy with emotion, thinking how Panur must think he is dead by now. The mutant would have analyzed any number of scenarios before deciding to destroy the Colony Ship. The vessel was such an incredible prize that the Sol-Kor would not have passed it up, along with the rich crop it contained in the form of the Formilian crew. He would have figured the Sol-Kor would not let him follow immediately into a foreign universe, not without taking the time to salvage the Colony Ship. What he didn’t figure on was the revival of the crew, the result of the destruction of the beam platforms. Even now, Te’moc couldn’t explain how that happened. It didn’t matter. It had saved his life. It was also an event Panur could not have foreseen. As it was, Te’moc barely escaped; the timing extremely fortuitous.

And it changed everything. Before this event, Panur would be expecting him. And the mutant had made a habit of outthinking his opponents. Even a fleet of Sol-Kor warships would not have been enough to capture Panur in the alien universe. He would have figured a way to either elude capture or to destroy the fleet. That was what he did.

But now there would be no need for special precautions. Te’moc was dead, and with him went the location of Terminus and the ability for the Sol-Kor to recover the essence of J’nae, which would be the only reason the Colony would continue with the mission. If Te’moc was correct, then he could easily sneak into Terminus Base and take the mutant by surprise.

But first, he had to dispose of the beamship crew. He couldn’t let the Sol-Kor learn of his true mission—that of assimilating Panur, and not J’nae. Removing J’nae from her Human host would be a secondary benefit; that or discovering Panur’s secret cache of J’nae essence. The mutant would undoubtedly have it with him. That would be a bonus and something that would help Te’moc fulfill his dream of ruling the Sol-Kor Colony by pulling the strings of a reconstituted Queen J’nae.

At the moment, Te’moc was in no hurry. It was best to let Panur believe his plan had succeeded. And to do that, the longer he stayed away from Terminus Base, the better. Let him relax, gain confidence. Overconfidence. An overconfident enemy is easier to defeat than one on guard. But he couldn’t wait forever. Eventually, Panur would put his universe-saving plan into motion, and that could involve him moving throughout the second universe and even to neighboring dimensions, making him virtually impossible to track.

And now the time had come to dispose of the Sol-Kor crew. He had TeraDon station himself in the TD engine room armed with a pair of energy weapons. Te’moc would start his campaign with First-Noslead Javon. He never liked the creature and was deriving great pleasure from what was about to transpire.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Te’moc asked permission to enter Javon’s cabin. He came unarmed and unimposing. That still didn’t change the alien’s attitude toward him.

“This is a waste of time,” the officer barked the moment Te’moc entered. “The Expansion is here, which was expected, and we have seen no demonstration of their weapons advancement since our last encounter with them. I will be ordering a return to Silana momentarily. What is it you wish? Why are you here?”

“I simply wish to compliment you on your command ability during this operation,” Te’moc began. “I know we have had our differences, but you have often been proved right.”

“It does not matter; the Applying Council will not be happy. We have failed to secure the Queen, the majority of the crop from Formil was lost, and the Klin Colony Ship destroyed. Overall, the mission was a failure. You may feel satisfied, but your opinion carries no weight with me.”

Te’moc paused, a thin smile on his face. “Then I suppose there is no longer a need to delay.”

“Delay? I do not—”

Javon stopped speaking as he noticed Te’moc’s skin begin to vibrate. He had never seen Te’moc’s conversion before so he had no idea what it meant, not enough to realize the danger he was facing. That was time enough for Te’moc to finish the preparation of his body before he surged forward and began to merge with that of the Sol-Kor.

Javon had only normal living essence within him, nothing Te’moc could absorb and remove. His body would first have to be distilled to create the necessary form of liquid essence for later infusion into a host. But that didn’t matter to Te’moc. Once he had fused with Javon, he was free to wander about, killing cells, cutting nerve endings, and so much more. He made sure to keep many of the pain receptors active for as long as he could so Javon would suffer. But in the end, the death of the Sol-Kor Noslead took only thirty seconds to achieve. Then Te’moc withdrew, leaving something that vaguely resembled a corpse on the deck.

Te’moc walked his now-naked body to the pile of clothing that had fallen from his form moments before. He leisurely dressed before moving to the comm station in the captain’s cabin. He opened a direct link to the engine room.

“TeraDon … proceed,” he said, knowing that the cryptic message would be heard in the compartment.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

TeraDon Fief heard the announcement through the speakers and tensed. The two Sol-Kor technicians were seated at a control console with their backs to him. They looked first to themselves and then turned to their guest.

He smiled. “Do not worry,” he said to the aliens. “I will make it as painless as possible.” He removed the energy pistol from his pocket. Sol-Kor flash weapons didn’t rely on targeting computers, so they were ready to serve their deadly purpose the moment TeraDon aimed them at the techs and pressed the trigger.

With his task completed, TeraDon walked calmly to the comm station. “Done.”

Te’moc came on the line, a secure link between the captain’s cabin and the engine room. “Six remain; four are on the bridge, the other two are in cabin B-2 and the galley. I will go to the bridge; you take the others.”

“Understood.”

Fourteen minutes later, Te’moc had control of the beamship and was engaging the trans-dimensional drive. After a brief green glow, the ship arrived in another universe, forty-eight light-years from Terminus Base, and preparing for a stealthy approach to the planet.


22


At Terminus Base

Lila was already at the planet by the time Te’moc made his jump. She signaled the base and was rewarded with surprised from Panur.

“You commandeered a Sol-Kor TD beamship? That is wonderful. I would be curious to see how they modified the old engines. Knowing both systems, I can already imagine the process.”

Lila was still reeling from her mother's condemnation of her relationship with the mutant, conflicted now in her feelings. She cared for Panur, but only because they were two of a kind and the only members of what was a unique species. There was a bond of intelligence and longevity, and being of Formilian and Human ancestry, Lila still had normal sexual desires. Panur was the same. He was of Hal’ic decent, not Sol-Kor. Although his desires lay dormant for thousands of years, once he met Lila, the feelings were resurrected. The pair had at one time speculated on creating a new race of immortal superbeings, but so far the mechanics of such a project was still in the talking stage. Panur’s host body would need modification. And now he occupied her father’s body. That was a situation that raised a whole other series of issues. Eventually, Panur would need to be extracted, and at that point, choosing another host body would become important.

The team met the ship on the landing field outside the control building. The robots were at work in the adjacent construction yard with welding sparks already shooting into the air like fireworks.

“Where’s Sherri?” Copernicus asked once Lila, Kracion and the Aris service orbs exited the ship.

“She and Riyad have stayed behind on Formil.”

“How is the planet?” Adam/Panur asked. It was Adam speaking.

“Better than you were expecting.” She went on to explain about the premature revival of the Formilians and their subsequent annihilation of the Sol-Kor troops.

“Why did they stay behind?” Coop pressed, ignoring the other’s concern for the planet’s welfare.

“Sherri met with an accident while attempting to disable one of the beam platforms. She was blinded—”

“Blinded?” The chorus came from everyone on the team except Panur.

“She is better now, having received replacement eyes of advance Formilian design. I helped with the upgrades.”

“Upgrades?” Adam asked.

“Certain enhancements which will challenge even yours,” Lila said with a sly smile.

“And Riyad’s there with her?” Coop asked.

Although Copernicus and Sherri were no longer an item, it was obvious he was jealous of her ex-husband, Riyad.

“Yes. He was concerned about her well-being. And without a designated role in the coming project, he felt his presence was needed more at Sherri’s side than with us here.”

Sour best described Coop’s expression.

Panur now walked up to Kracion. Lila did not miss the dynamic. Adam towered over the emaciated creature, yet it was his confidence at approaching The Mad Aris that was strange. But this wasn’t Adam Cain—the Human—speaking with Kracion. Rather, it was Panur. Lila wondered if Kracion realized Panur was vulnerable while in Adam’s body? Panur’s essence wouldn’t be destroyed if Adam were to die, but it would be left without form or function until a new host could be found. It was a form of immortal death, at least immortality based on lifeform essence.

“I understand you need my help,” Kracion said through the blue shimmer of his interphase cell. Will it hurt?” The smirk on the face of the last Aris was irritating.

“Only if I can make it so,” Panur answered. He looked to either side of the Aris, spotting the two hovering service modules. “I am particularly glad to see you. I wondered if you would come. I understand that it was not always a given.”

That was not a choice given at the time, Will said through Adam’s ATD. However, the issue was cleared up, and now we are here, although curious as to how Kracion could be of assistance to you? From what we have learned from Lila, the Aris used many more of their kind and within elaborate constructs to prevent the merging of universes. That does not seem to be the case with Kracion.

“I will be glad to brief you in private,” said Panur aloud.

He then looked into Kracion’s eyes. “You do understand the seriousness of this project. You are also in an alien universe with two immortal beings who have interphase capabilities, plus your two service modules as guards? If I release you to your recognizance, do you promise to behave?”

“I was allowed freedom of motion on the prison planet. I would welcome the opportunity to do so here.”

“You’re kidding?” Adam immediately protested, again that strange dynamic where Adam would say one thing and then immediately question what he just said.

“He will behave,” Adam said … to himself. “He understands the situation. Besides, he is curious about how he can be of use to me. Once he learns the truth, he will be even more cooperative.”

“I don’t like it. This is the fucking Mad Aris. He’s slaughtered countless billions without the slightest concern. He’s crazy.”

“Everyone should be given a second chance—”

“Not Kracion,” Copernicus countered.

“Trust me, Coop, everything will be fine,” Panur said, using Adam’s nickname for his friend.

“Adam?”

“No, that was just Panur being cute. As far as you go, Kracion, I’ll trust you, for now. But I’ll be watching you.”

Kracion looked with humor at the tall Human. “I am sure you will. At least one of you. The other is simply a passenger with no say in what happens. How does that make you feel, Adam Cain?”

Adam felt his body suddenly turn away, heading for the control building, the service orbs floating nearby. His temper flared. This is some shit, Panur. You’re not giving me control over anything, are you?

I will give you as much as you need. Now relax. Everything is proceeding as I have planned.


23


Te’moc at Terminus Base

Without satellites in orbit, it was possible to approach the planet without being seen if one came at it from the exact opposite side from the Terminus Base. Once through the atmosphere and skirting along the varied landscape, Te’moc worked the beamship ever closer, taking almost a full day doing so. He could not risk discovery. He had no false illusions about his chances against the immortals, Panur and Lila Bol. And there was a possibility the Mad Aris Kracion was here as well. His only chance would come from surprise.

Using a mountain range as a shield, he moved the ship ever closer until he was only about fifty miles away. He set it down and prepared to make the rest of the trek overland.

“That is quite a distance,” TeraDon pointed out. “You have the stamina for such a trip, but I may not, especially across unknown terrain.”

“I am not risking moving any closer in the beamship,” Te’moc stated firmly. “Take what you can carry; you are going with me.”

“At least consider my condition. I am not used to such physical exertion. I will be of no use to you if I am hurt, famished and thirsty by the time we arrive.”

They set out across a savannah region covered in yellow stalks over five feet tall. The going was slow, with the sharp reeds cutting into TeraDon’s exposed forearms. Various forms of wildlife took notice of their passage, with some trailing behind before building up the courage to come closer to these strange invaders to their domain. A particularly savage looking beast with a set of three horns and a carapace of scaly armor came to block their path at one point. TeraDon scampered backward until Te’moc took him by the fabric of his shirt and made him remain still. After eyeing the lead intruder for several tense seconds, the beast sensed that this was not an animal to challenge. It snorted and stomped its hoofed front legs in defiance before reluctantly stepping aside.

An hour later, the pair began the climb into the mountains, aiming for a canyon placed between modest-height peaks.

TeraDon was huffing and puffing, but not from the effects of altitude but the stress on his leg muscles. He was a product of spaceships, which didn’t afford much room for exercise. And not being a fighter per se, he never had to go through even the little physical training the Cartel imposed on their foot soldiers. As he struggled to place one foot after the other, climbing over loose stone and crumbling dirt, he was near the end of his limit when Te’moc finally called for a rest period.

TeraDon pulled the canteen from his pack and gulped down as much of the liquid as fast as he could. Then he threw up.

Once he’d recovered, he saw Te’moc glaring at him. “I could have done better bringing one of the Sol-Kor with me.”

“Why did you not? You knew I was not suited for such activity.”

Te’moc checked his datapad. He’d sent a pair of small drones ahead to scan the terrain and give distance estimates. “We are an hour away. From here the land descends. Can you last that long?”

“What choice do I have?”

“None. You will either make it, or I will kill you. Does that provide you with the incentive you need to continue?”

TeraDon was too tired to care about the threat. Death would come as a relief. But instead, he replied. “I will make it, but you will have to slow the pace.”

Te’moc looked into the sky. “We should arrive just before dark. If we linger much longer, then all the dangers of the night will be set upon us. Is that what you prefer? Now move.”

The going was much easier downhill, and TeraDon found his energy returning as he gathered his second wind. The landscape now changed to more of a forest/jungle mix, and from their high vantage point, they could see the grounds of the Aris work facility already under lights. There was activity taking place, with more lights on at the control building, where Te’moc had assimilated four of the Aris only a short while ago.

There was a second batch of light to the west of the Aris facility, but these lights flickered while the others were steady. It was a native settlement. Te’moc had noticed a few of the primitive bipeds when he was last on the planet. They were low-slung and muscular, with thick brows and prodigious body hair. They appeared peaceful, and a few moved among the lights of the construction yard, carrying heavy metal tubing with little effort.

Two spaceships sat in the landing field next to the control building, a Formilian warship and a Sol-Kor beamship. This surprised Te’moc, while it panicked TeraDon.

“What are the Sol-Kor doing here? I thought they did not have the location. Did they take it from Panur’s trans-dimensional ship on Silana? They must have.”

“Silence!” Te’moc growled. “I do not have the answers. But I also do not see any Sol-Kor. A ship like that, with a full crew of over fifty crew, would have sentries posted and others outside. And with the work continuing in the yard, there does not appear to have been any conflict between the crew and Panur. Perhaps it is a salvaged ship from the Formil invasion.”

“If so, then how did it get here? How would they have known the coordinates in an alien universe?”

Te’moc shot TeraDon a nasty look. “This is why we must use stealth. There are unknowns here which could prove fatal. And I have not come this far to lose Panur again.”

They moved closer, slipping between thick tree trunks and under cover of the gathering darkness. As they neared the border to the construction field, a female figure stepped from the beamship.

“That is Lila Bol,” TeraDon said.

“That would explain the ship.”

“How?”

“Never mind, but it means Kracion is here.”

TeraDon gulped. He couldn’t believe where he was. There were not only incredibly powerful immortal beings at the base, as well as the deadliest creature to ever threaten the galaxy. Te’moc may have certain powers and immunities, but not TeraDon. Compared to even the Humans with Panur, he was far down the scale of superbeings.

Then Te’moc was moving, passing through the shadows cast by the construction equipment in the yard. TeraDon rushed to catch up. Although he was completely outclassed against their opponents, the last thing he wanted to do was get left behind.

But Te’moc had spotted something, and he was rushing forward without regard to TeraDon.

He then spotted Te’moc’s target. He was a small figure, slight and aged. He wore a short cape over a one-piece outfit and appeared to be simply strolling in the early evening light. There was a prominent yellow stripe in the sky far above, and occasionally the creature would stop and gaze up at the object. TeraDon didn’t know what it was, but it was pretty.

“Give me your cloak,” Te’moc whispered.

TeraDon was beyond asking why. He removed the garment and handed it to Te’moc.

“Remain here.”

Then Te’moc was gone, moving again among the shadows, getting ever closer to the distracted alien.


24


Kracion at Terminus Base

So that’s the reason for all this activity, Kracion thought as he looked up at the Terminus Anomaly. It didn’t look like much from here, and hardly worth all the concern. How could an entire universe—two, in fact—pass through such a small rip in the fabric of space and bring an end to everything?

After Panur/Adam Cain left with his service modules, Lila Bol explained more about the anomaly. The one above the planet was just a small section of the light-year-long tear. But even that seemed insignificant considering the size of a universe. But everyone was serious about their efforts; as had his fellow Aris, the immortal Privileged. After finally realizing the Aris racial goal of immortality, Nunki and the others chose to spend their time—and use their bodies—attempting to seal this breach between universes. They believed in their cause, enough for several of them to sacrifice their immortality to keep existence from ending.

The threat was real, yet even with the cursory explanation of the anomaly and the Aris efforts, neither Lila nor Panur explained what his role would be in the coming operation. Having heard how the majority of the Privileged had been locked away in the center of massive energy channels, using their regenerative body to redirect the dark energy from one universe back to its origin, he could not imagine his own body being used to such effect. He was the last Aris—contrary to what some believed. What could he do alone that eight others could not?

He tried not to dwell on the unknown. He looked out at the construction field, with its small army of robots working on the mysterious device Panur was building, assisted by a few of the burly natives. He would know soon enough. There seemed to be a rush in everything. Time was running out.

Kracion paid no attention to the tall, cloaked creature coming down the path in his direction. He appeared to be another of the anonymous workers within the Terminus complex, possibly a recruit from the native population. The Aris’ immortality imbued him with an almost cavalier attitude toward other living beings; however, the momentary encounter distracted him as he analyzed the ambivalence of the term: other living beings. Could he be considered a living creature if he could never die? The question was not as ridiculous as it first appeared. And since he did not require external energy to survive, nor the proper conditions of heat or air, was he not beyond living? The term living was conditional and limited, presupposing an end. Kracion did not feel that way. In a flash of inspiration, he decided he could not be considered among the living. He was eternal, so life no longer had meaning to him. He was more than alive.

The creature coming near him had a long metal rod in its arms, carrying it effortlessly. Its head was down with a cloth shawl over it. Kracion figured it had to be male; it was so big. But then most creatures were bigger than the Aris.

The native worker slipped to one side, surrendering the path to Kracion. It grunted while passing. But then Kracion felt a touch on his right shoulder. He looked over, shocked to see an appendage jutting from his shoulder and connected to the alien. He gasped when he looked closer and saw that the native’s arm had melted into his body.

Kracion pulled away, but all that did was drag the creature with him. The beast dropped the long metal rod and moved in closer, a second arm now reaching out to touch him. Kracion held up his palms to his attacker, energizing his embedded energy weapons. But they did not activate. By then, a second arm had fused with Kracion’s body. He stumbled backward, not understanding what was happening and why he felt … afraid. He was Kracion, the last of the immortal Aris. He feared no creature ….

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Te’moc fell upon the Aris, his trembling body melting into the struggling creature. As with all the other Aris he’d assimilated, it only took a moment before he was inside and in complete control. The creature had tried to activate his hand weapons, but it was easy to intercept the brain signals and shut them down. But unlike with the others, Te’moc felt an even greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. This was Kracion, the Mad Aris. The beast who had ravaged a hundred worlds, killing trillions, and who had been within reach of bringing an entire galaxy under his complete control. One being with so much power.

And now he was part of Te’moc.

He spent a few moments scanning the memory, but like the others, it was billions of years old with unfathomable depth. He cared not for the past, only the future. Te’moc also sensed the essence of J’nae within the body, the ingredient which gave Kracion his immortality. It, too, was contaminated and of no real use to Te’moc. But it was of incredible importance to Kracion. Without it, he was just another ancient alien with only minutes to live.

Te’moc began to withdraw. A moment later, his body took form above the shaking and withered Aris.

TeraDon ran up to Te’moc, staring down at the emaciated creature trembling on the ground.

“That … that was Kracion.”

“That is true,” Te’moc confirmed. “He is not as imposing as you once believed, is he?”

“No.”

“I know you have had your doubts about my mission, TeraDon. You should see now that I am more powerful than all of them. I am the being immortals fear. I am the being who will prevail in the clash of titans. Now, let us finish this.”

“What is it you wish of me?”

“I can sense the J’nae creature, the one within the Human. She is aboard the Sol-Kor ship. We are going there. If Panur is not already there, he will appear soon. I will be there waiting when he does.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to kill anyone who gets in my way.”


25


Te’moc’s attack

Te’moc and TeraDon approached the beamship with caution, sliding along the hull and under the generator nodes before coming up on the open rear hangar door. To TeraDon’s surprise, there was another ship in the hold, a Formilian vessel half the size of the vessel Panur had used to escape the Colony Ship.

They moved to the spine corridor, careful to listen for any signs of life inside the ship. They passed several staterooms and crew compartments, along with the medical bay, workshop and three storage holds. Beamships were practical vessels; the Sol-Kor did not need luxuries or even superfluous items such as entertainment monitors. The race was not like that. They worked, slept, trained and ate. Nothing more.

At the portside galley, they heard a noise. The voice was familiar, but it was not that of Panur. Te’moc smiled when a name came to him.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

“What are we doing here?” Adam Cain asked. “Are we going to have another fight about my need for food. The others are in the main building chowing down. And you have me hauling equipment that we don’t need.”

“Please use your internal thoughts, Adam,” said the same voice a moment later.

“Why, it’s not like there’s anyone around to hear us.”

TeraDon stepped out of the shadows, a Human-style ballistic rifle aimed at Adam’s midsection.

“I stand corrected,” Adam Cain said.

Te’moc appeared next, allowing TeraDon to move around Adam and take a position off to his left.

“If I recall, you have a device which can disable energy weapons,” Te’moc said. “That is why we have brought one which I know will kill the host. I know it will not kill you, Panur, but it would make my job easier to simply extract your essence from a corpse. But I relish the opportunity to probe inside the mind of Adam Cain and experience the fear at the moment of your death.”

“Do not do this,” said a voice from off to Te’moc’s right. He turned to see the smallish figure of Summer Rains standing at one of the three access doors to the dining area.

“Is that my J’nae speaking, or the Human host?”

“It is J’nae.”

Te’moc frowned. “And why do you not want me to assimilate Panur? Once I do, I will free you from your prison. Aboard my ship, I have brought a J’nae master recovered from Panur’s lost laboratory on Kor. I can give you what you want.”

“I know your true ambitions, Te’moc, and that is not to give me freedom, but rather to give yourself power. You want Panur, not me. And if you place my essence in the new host you speak of, you will hold me prisoner, threatening me with extraction unless I do your bidding. And once you have access to Panur’s memory, you will know the location of my pure essence vials. That will give you a choice as to which of them you bring to life. You abandoned me once before; even worse than that, you were ready to condemn me to a life of non-substance. I cannot trust you, nor can I forgive you.”

Adam was watching TeraDon Fief out the corner of his eye. The Cartel capo was distracted by the argument between Te’moc and J’nae, and when he was within a couple of feet, Adam made his move. With his enhanced reactions, Adam was on the alien in a heartbeat, slapping the weapon toward the ceiling. It fired, sending a line of bullet holes into the overhead. Adam continued to move into the alien, shoving his shoulder against TeraDon while ripping the rifle from his hands. He spun the barrel around, aiming it at TeraDon’s shocked and confused face.

“Not the head!” Panur yelled through Adam’s mouth.

“What?”

The aim was pulled down—by Panur—and then Adam opened up, cutting a line across TeraDon’s chest. Blood sprayed as the alien fell backward, through one of the access doors to the dining area and out of sight.

Adam brought the weapon around to line up on Te’moc. But when he turned, Te’moc wasn’t there. He felt a sensation on his back, something both hot and cold at the same time. And then came the pain. A god awful, excruciating pain as if his bones were being pulled out of his still-conscious body.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Adam couldn’t tell if he lost consciousness or not. All he knew was that he was sitting on the metal deck, an arm propped on a couch, slouched over and feeling more tired than he’d ever felt in his life. He struggled for breath, fighting to keep his eyes open.

Then a movement to his right got his attention. With considerable effort, he looked up at the towering figure of Te’moc. He was aglow, his arms held out to his sides, fists clenched with his head thrown back.

“I have done it!” he screamed.

Adam felt someone at his side. It was Summer Rains, gripping him under his arms and attempting to lift him. The tiny woman was surprisingly strong and brought him to his feet a moment later. He knew it was J’nae providing the strength. Even still, his legs were like mush, and he sank back down to the deck on his knees.

“Get up, Adam! We have to go!”

“Go? I … I can’t make it.”

“You have to.”

“I have done it!” came the roar again, echoing off the metal walls with ear-piercing intensity. “Panur is no more.”

Adam now understood. He gazed up at the manic face of Te’moc, who was still consumed by his accomplishment. Adam struggled to his feet.

“You’re right; we have to go.”

Then Te’moc’s fiery eyes locked first on Adam, and then on Summer.

“J’nae, you were right. I care not for you, but only the cover you can give me with the Sol-Kor. But now, I doubt I even need that. I am immortal and all-powerful, as I was intended to be so long ago. And now I will take you from that frail body, killing it in the process, not to fulfill your destiny, but to fulfill mine.” Te’moc laughed. “And you, the great Adam Cain. How is it that you are still alive? The extraction should have killed you. It must be from Panur. It does not matter. I will end your life as surely as I am standing here—”

Adam wasn’t sure what he was seeing. It was as if Te’moc’s body became enshrouded in a shimmering blue film. He immediately recognized it as an interphase field. But from where had it come?

“You are desperate, Lila Bol. I assume it is you. You should know I can overcome your weak—”

But it wasn’t Lila operating the field. Adam noticed the twin Aris service modules, Will and Grace, hovering to each side of Te’moc’s head, another blue light linking the orbs with his flesh. Instantly, Te’moc went rigid, his arms straight at his side and his fingers extended as if he’d been suddenly shocked. But he didn’t fall, not at first. Instead, his body began to be racked by violent spasms.

Summer pulled on Adam’s arm. “Let’s go while we can,” she yelled.

“No, wait; this is something different.”

After another few seconds, Te’moc’s eyes rolled back in his head, and the body collapsed to the floor. The blue interphase field disappeared.

There was a long moment of silence as Adam and Summer stared at the fallen body. Te’moc didn’t move. Nor was he breathing. To Adam, he looked dead.

Lila now stepped into the room, coming through the same door as had Summer. She appeared calm and composed, even in light of what she saw in the dining area aboard the Sol-Kor beamship.

“I suppose you know what happened?” Adam asked his daughter.

“I believe you do, as well.”

Adam shook his head, the weariness he felt making him nauseous from the movement. “I don’t know what you mean. Te’moc extracted Panur from me; I know that much. After that … I don’t know what I just saw.”

That’s when Adam noticed the orbs were gone, having disappeared as silently as they appeared.

Then a voice came from Adam’s left. He and Summer twisted around, shocked by the sound. TeraDon Fief was standing in the doorway, his shirt ripped to shreds and soaked with blood. He had prominent holes in his chest, each now looking dark and ominous but no longer bleeding. And on TeraDon’s handsome alien face was a sly smile.

“I could not let you ruin such a pretty face,” TeraDon said. “It would have been harder to reassemble.”

“No fucking way!”

“Yes, Adam Cain. It is I, Panur.”


26


Aboard the Sol-Kor beamship, thirty minutes later

Everyone had gathered in the larger Sol-Kor ship, choosing the general conference area rather than the bloody dining area where the body of Te’moc still lay.

TeraDon/Panur had changed his shirt and pants, finding a uniform that fit from among the crew belongings.

Adam sat on a couch, drinking a special concoction of Lila’s that she said would restore most of his energy. He still felt like death warmed over, not sure how he survived the extraction process. Humans were not supposed to be able to endure the stress.

Monty and Tidus were there, as well. They’d arrived only moments before with an emaciated and near-death Kracion, having been sent out to recover him by Lila. She knew exactly where to find him.

Now Lila stood next to TeraDon/Panur, with a look of almost subdued lust on her face, taking every opportunity to glance up at the tall, handsome figure beside her.

“And this is the point where you tell us this was your plan from the beginning?” Adam muttered. The drink was helping with his energy and his mood. But knowing Panur was out of him was having the greatest effect.

TeraDon nodded. It would take some getting used to calling him Panur, although Adam thought that this was a radical improvement over the old host body.

“So where do I start?” Panur said. “First of all, my priority was to be extracted from Adam’s body … and without killing him. That was the trick. Although I could harden his body to a point, I still needed Te’moc’s finesse to make it happen. I knew I could fashion a crude extraction and infusion ability from the service modules, but it would be fatal to any mortal creature they acted upon. In the case of Te’moc, that was perfectly acceptable. But not for Adam. So I allowed myself to be assimilated by Te’moc first, knowing the orbs would then extract both my essence and Te’moc’s from his long-term host body.”

“Te’moc was made of essence, too?” Summer asked.

“Yes, he was. He was the first essence ever created and placed into the first host body.”

“Where is he now?” Monty asked.

“He is within me,” TeraDon/Panur said.

“And that’s not a problem?”

TeraDon smiled. “Not at all. My original plan was to remain in the orbs until a suitable host was found. When TeraDon presented himself, I took advantage of it. It’s possible—even preferred—to transfer to a body without a living soul, as long as the corpse has not aged for very long. TeraDon’s body was perfect, and according to the reactions I’ve witnessed from the female contingent of our little team, quite an improvement over my old host body, although I still miss it. Without another living entity to compete with, I control the body completely. Therefore I dominate the essence of Te’moc. I’ve even been able to assume his powers, such as for extractions and infusions. In other words, Te’moc is now my bitch.”

“You can do extractions?” Summer repeated excitedly.

Panur looked at her with sad eyes. “Unfortunately, the same conditions apply to extractions as before. Your body would not survive.”

“But Adam’s did.”

“That was because I gave him the temporary ability to withstand the process. As you can see, he barely survived as it was.” Panur looked at Adam. Perhaps because Panur was now in a body with a somewhat normal face, it was easier to read his body language. He looked embarrassed.

“What aren’t you telling me?” Adam asked.

“Well, there is one other thing I did, which you may not appreciate.”

In his weakened state, Adam just shrugged. “Lay it on me.”

“I have felt guilty for a long time about the various enhancements you’ve inherited from our various fusions. They have in one way made you superior and heroic; in others, you’ve become reckless, wading into dangers of which you are ill-suited. So as I was in your body, I reset much of the enhancements back to zero. The extra strength I gave you to survive the extraction is something you would not have needed before my adjustments, but even that will slowly fade as your body heals. I’m afraid that you, Adam Cain, are no longer a superman, but simply a man … again.”

Adam was too tired to get mad. That would come later. “You should have talked to me first,” Adam groaned. “I was getting used to those superpowers.”

“That was the problem. You were relying on them too much. You are mortal; you will always be mortal. Counting on unnatural abilities to salvage situations could prove deadly. And if that occurred, I would feel truly responsible.” Panur/TeraDon smiled. “Do not fret, Adam. If I recall you did quite well with just your basic Human abilities. Your race has achieved a lot in the galaxy by just being yourselves. You’ll do fine.”

“Well, damn. That’s it, then? It’s done?”

TeraDon/Panur nodded.

Adam sighed. “It was great while it lasted.” Then he shook his head. “Okay, now that you made me normal again, can we get back on topic? What about Te’moc coming to Terminus?” he asked. “You said you blew him up in the Colony Ship. But that didn’t happen.”

“That was what you were supposed to believe, and another reason why I have kept certain things from you, such as my conversion of the orbs to do extractions. Even in the brief period of the assimilation, Te’moc could have learned of my plans and managed to escape with me inside. If that were to happen, there would be no stopping him. He would become the superbeing he imagined he would become. And with regards to the Colony Ship, what I did was set up a facial recognition program in the station’s monitoring system to record when he arrived and when he left. The station exploded, but only after he left. He had to think I believed him dead and therefore would lower my guard. That would bring him to me.”

“That’s all pretty convenient,” Adam said. “Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate what you’ve done, I guess. It did get you out of me. But you had all this planned?”

Panur shrugged. “I knew I needed to maneuver Te’moc into doing the extraction. After that, the plan was a little vague. That’s when I decided to use the teleporting service modules to help me. Fortunately, they were part of the Kracion package. To be honest, most of the plan developed on the fly, once Te’moc showed up at Formil with a fleet of Sol-Kor TD ships. I wasn’t expecting that. But then things began to fall into place.”

Adam took a deep breath. He was feeling a little better, but still off. Perhaps this was how normal Humans felt. It had been a while since he was normal, so he wasn’t sure. It would take some getting used to.

“So now we’re back to your original mission.” He looked at the withered figure of Kracion sitting on the couch not far from him. “I suppose you can use some of that extra J’nae juice to make him immortal again. You can’t save the universe without an immortal Aris.”

Adam was surprised to see Panur grimace—again. “What now? You just said you could do extractions and infusions. Is it that the essence is already a liquid? Hell, it worked for Summer with her just drinking it.”

“It’s not the essence that’s the problem. It’s the whole concept of the merging universes.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Monty said, jumping to his feet. He was reaching the end of his patience. There were just too many revelations being thrown out. He was getting confused … and frustrated. And he wasn’t the only one who showed a strong reaction to Panur’s last statement. Everyone except the mutants and Kracion was trying to speak.

“I will explain,” said Lila, stepping into the fray. It seemed whenever a touchy explanation was needed, Panur deferred to her. She had a more calming effect on people. It would be needed.

“As you are concluding, we have not been completely honest with you. Yes, the universes are still in danger of merging prematurely. However, the efforts Panur and I took early on to relieve the pressure on the tear was sufficient to stop this anomaly from growing. It will heal on its own, although there will always be a weakness at this point. But there are many more such micro-tears that need attention. It will involve near-constant monitoring and then forays into neighboring universes to relieve the pressure around the weak points.”

“So the universe isn’t about to explode, implode or whatever it was supposed to do?” Summer asked. “So this was all bullshit so you could get the pieces of your puzzle into one place?”

Lila nodded. “That is one way to put it. But as I said, there is still a danger. Someone has to watch and react when the warning signals are detected.”

“And you need an immortal Aris for that?” Monty asked.

“Not necessarily an Aris; however, because of the long-term nature of the problem and the living conditions aboard the lightship, an immortal is needed. And before you ask, Panur and I are not interested in spending our eternity punching holes between universes. In our opinion, that is a task more suited as punishment.”

TeraDon—Panur—walked over to Kracion and stared down at the frail body. “I can make you immortal again,” he said, “but on the condition you monitor and repair the rips in the space/time continuum. To perform this task, you will need the lightship. It is that vessel which allows for pressure-relief punctures—”

“Wait, you’re going to let him go?” Adam said, rising unsteadily to his feet. “He’ll never do it. He’ll take your ship and be gone, off to conquer another galaxy in another universe.”

“But he will not, Adam,” Panur said. “Because accompanying him will be our friends, Will and Grace. Remember, they now can extract essence, yet in a rather crude and violent way.” He looked into the sad, red eyes of Kracion. “Te’moc’s extraction robbed you of your last remaining years. At this point, you have only hours to live. If I make you immortal again—and the essence is ever extracted again—the process with surely kill you. If you accept my offer, you will regain your life and vitality. If not, you will die.”

“Perhaps I am tired and wish to end it all here and now,” Kracion mumbled.

“That may be so. But I should tell you, the monitoring and repair of the tears is not a full-time job. There could be hundreds of years between events, during which time you will be free to pursue a normal life, of course, with the service modules as your constant shadows. But Kracion, if you decide to do this, you must not engage in any violent, deadly or nefarious activities. If you do, Will and Grace have instructions to extract the essence immediately.” Panur smiled. “This is more of a reprieve than you deserve. But the cause is just. This could be your way of making amends for all the pain and suffering you have caused. Is it too much to ask that you simply play nice with other living entities?”

Kracion coughed.

“You had better hurry with your decision. If not you, then I will create another immortal being to take your place. You know I can do it.”

“Of course, I accept. You have left me no option.”

“Don’t sound so overjoyed,” Adam snapped. “As Panur said, this is more than you deserve. I’d be for Panur creating another immortal and not even bothering with you.”

The smile on Kracion’s face was an ugly jagged line nearly hidden within the impossibly wrinkled face. “In that case, I wholeheartedly accept. I would not want to disappoint the esteemed Adam Cain. I am ready to begin my eternal redemption.”

Adam looked down at Kracion and shook his head. “This is going to be a mistake,” Adam muttered. “I can feel it.”


27


In the O’lac Government Building on Formil

After removing the lightship from the engine room of the Formilian starship and restoring Kracion’s immortality, it was thirty days before the team took the Sol-Kor beamship back to the Milky Way. At Lila’s insistence, they returned to Formil to see her mother, as well as Sherri and Riyad. They landed at the Temple spaceport and then took a small caravan of government vehicles to the O’lac Building, the seat of government for the planet.

Arieel Bol didn’t look her usual radiant self; rather, she was haggard and stressed. Although the Sol-Kor had only been on the planet for eight hours, they’d managed to herd millions of Formilians into their huge Harvester ships, where they were immediately put to death and fed into long processing conveyors. An official death count had yet to be established, but early estimates placed it around thirty-five million.

The Temple Complex and nearby government facilities had been especially hard hit, with a Harvester landing on the outskirts of the capital of the planet. Nearly all the priests and other religious figures were gone, along with a fair number of the civilian administrators. Arieel survived, and now she was doing her best, not only to reform the government and priesthood but to deal with the incredible loss on a personal level.

Arieel was in the huge operations center, conferring with a pair of civilians when they arrived. As Adam and the others entered, she looked up and caught his gaze from across the room. There was no joy in her troubled eyes.

Using his ATD, Adam made contact. Are you all right? You look tired.

A strange emptiness filled his mind as Arieel looked at him without responding. She excused herself from the officials and came to greet her daughter and the others.

After taking a moment to scrutinize the tall figure of TeraDon Fief standing next to Lila, she directed the team to a spacious reception room off the operations center. There were couches and chairs and a smattering of tables. Riyad and Sherri were in the room, and after a few hugs, the team sat down. Attendants came in with refreshments, but few took them. It was not a celebratory occasion.

“Welcome, my friends,” she said in greeting. “I am relieved beyond words that you have survived.” She cast an intense stare at TeraDon. “Am I to assume this is the new body of Panur?”

“It is,” Panur confirmed.

“And Lila has told me you also hold the essence of Te’moc inside you? Is that not a problem?”

“Not in the least. I control him completely and can even utilize his particular skills on demand. I’m quite content with the arrangement.”

“Then, so am I.”

Adam hugged Arieel, then pulled away and looked into her dark eyes. “There’s something else,” he said. “What’s happened?”

“You mean besides the death of thirty-five million of my citizens?”

Adam nodded.

“I will explain.” Arieel began. “As you know, the priesthood was essentially wiped out by the Sol-Kor. This has left civilians in total control of the reconstituted Governing Council. They are a secular group who see a different path for the Formilian people, especially with regards to leadership and religious traditions.”

“They’re not trying to kick you out from being Speaker again, are they?” Sherri asked.

“Fortunately, no. But they have instituted some radical changes. They see the presence of the Colony Ship as being the impetus for the Sol-Kor attack, brought on from my relationship with Adam, and Lila’s with Panur. Therefore, they have instituted a strict policy regarding nepotism, or perceived nepotism. As such, Adam, you and your friends are no longer welcome on Formil, at least in the foreseeable future. They have also pressured the Human government into joining their banishment.”

“What do you mean; we can’t go back to Earth?” Riyad gasped. “That doesn’t make sense. Earth hasn’t been harmed in any of this.”

“A lot has happened over the past thirty days. Knowledge of the recently-avoided disaster is now known, and the use of trans-dimensional space drives is soon to be banned within the galaxy. Also, both governments are holding all of you responsible for the Sol-Kor acquiring the technology, a tragic circumstance that has placed every advanced civilization in the galaxy at risk, according to their thinking.”

“Without a queen, the Sol-Kor will soon be dead,” Riyad countered.

“After a number of years,” Arieel pointed out. “In the meantime, they must still feed. It is believed they will continue to raid worlds within the Milky Way until the time comes when they can no longer function as a Colony.”

“Lila and I may have a solution to that,” Panur said.

Arieel dismissed the mutant with a shrug. “That may be true, but for now the fear is real, and governments are reacting.”

“What about the Juireans?” asked Tidus. “Are they joining with Earth and Formil?”

“They have not formally announced, but it is suspected they will. It is just a matter of time.”

“So the bottom line is we can’t go back to Earth,” Summer stated. “None of us? Monty and I had nothing to do with what’s happened. We fell into it.”

“That must be taken up with your government on an individual basis. All I am telling you is what I know at this moment.”

Copernicus sheepishly raised his hand.

“Yes, Coop?”

“I don’t mean to change the subject, but is there something wrong with the ATDs? All I seem to get is static when I try to access mine.”

Six people in the room had ATDs—not counting Arieel—and it was obvious from their reaction that each of them was having the same problem.

“That is another thing. With the new direction the Council is taking, along with losing the influence of the priesthood, all gifts—or ATDs—have been banned. Mine has already been deactivated.” She looked directly at Adam. “And as you entered the building, you walked through a field that melted the circuits of all your devices. I’m afraid the Council has seen fit to take back their gifts.”

Adam sat back on the couch. He’d already sensed something was wrong, and on top of everything that had happened to him recently, this was just one more letdown. He was still trying to cope with not having any residual superpowers. And now this. For the first time in fifteen years, Adam Cain was truly … normal.

Surprisingly, the others didn’t protest. There was nothing they could do about it even if they wanted to. Besides, few of them relied on the embedded device as much as Adam. Now, they each sat in silence, attempting to put into perspective what Arieel had told them, not only about the ATDs but also about not being able to return home.

Lila stood up.

“I do not have to accept this; none of this,” she stated firmly. “This is an overreaction to what has happened, with the blame placed in the wrong direction. I will go to the Council and impose my will.”

“Please do not, Lila,” Arieel said exhaustedly. “I have accepted this new reality. The position of Speaker of the Gods is built on a lie. You know this is true. There is no real mental connection with our Gods; only a device secreted away inside the bodies of the chosen. And with the proliferation of the devices within aliens, the mystique has vanished. There will still be a religion, but like so many others, it will be based on faith, and not overt acts designed to awe and deceive. I am okay with that. Since I learned the truth, I have felt like an imposter. I no longer want to live the deception.”

“And the rest of us?” Kaylor asked.

“You were never meant to have the gifts in the first place.”

“The technology of the ATDs is real and not based on religion or mysticism,” Copernicus said. “I’m sure someone can duplicate the technology.”

“God, I hope not,” Adam said. “Imagine if everyone had an ATD. That’s not really something I’d feel comfortable with.”

Lila nodded and then turned back to her mother. “I will respect your wishes, mother. What are you to do now?”

“The Council will govern the planet, while the Speaker position becomes more ceremonial. I still have a seat on the Council, but with only one vote. Again, I am okay with this. The pressure of responsibility has a price. Looking at the death toll of the Sol-Kor invasion, I do not want the responsibility any longer. I will welcome a simple, more peaceful life.”

“Amen to that,” Adam said. The Humans in the room understood his statement; for the others, it was lost in translation.

“I have made arrangements for you to stay on Formil for the next few days as you make other arrangements. After that, all who are not native Formilians will have to leave.”


28


On Formil, three days later

The team met back in the reception room a few days later. Most of them had spent the intervening time locked in their rooms, contemplating their unknown futures.

Summer Rains was especially depressed. Her father sat next to her, looking as if he wanted to hug her, but not daring to in her present state of mind.

“I’m particularly screwed,” she said forcefully. “I can’t go home, and I can’t get this damn phantom out of my body.”

“Can you not control her completely at this point?” Panur asked. His unfamiliar good-looks changed the dynamic in the room. He didn’t seem as alien to Adam anymore.

“What good does that do, she’s still inside me.”

“You have an incredibly powerful being completely at your mercy. I would think that would make you happy. As a result, you have talents you have not even begun to realize.”

“That’s right, sweetie,” Monty said. He smiled. “Just think, people would be crazy to mess with you now.”

Summer was not consoled. “Dad, we can’t go home,” she repeated. “Besides everything else, how are we going to make a living? Unless I can put J’nae to work in a circus somewhere, I don’t see how having this alien freak inside me will help.”

“If I may make a suggestion,” said the Juirean Tidus Fe Nolan. “I am in negotiations for my return to Priority Acquisitions. I imagine the two of you—Summer and Monty—could bring a lot to the table … as members of an elite team of recovery agents, with me as the leader, of course.”

“You want us to become bounty hunters?” Monty asked.

“Either that or personal protection, even possibly in the mercenary division. Summer’s diminutive size would mask perfectly the incredible power she can unleash on call. It would be quite amusing to watch, and the job would be quite lucrative. To answer your prior question, Summer, one can make a lot of credits working for PA.”

Summer looked at Monty. His eyes were wide with excitement. “I haven’t been back to Earth in twelve years,” he began. “I wouldn’t know what to do, even if I could go back. Tidus is offering a pretty neat option if you ask me.”

Summer pursed her lips as she looked at the Juirean. “Don’t take this wrong, Tidus, but ever since I came out here looking for my dad, all I’ve wanted to do is smash in the face of every alien I’ve met. Now you say I can get paid for doing that?” A rare smile crossed her lips. “That sounds like fun. Count me in.”

Tidus looked to Copernicus Smith. He was sitting a few feet away, a permanent scowl on his face these days.

“I realize you are going through a transition with regards to your relationship with Sherri, but you are welcome to join us if you wish.”

Adam grimaced. Leave it to an alien to cut right to the chase.

Copernicus sighed, looking uncomfortable. “Actually, I hadn’t quite figured out how to say this—but thanks to Tidus—I guess there’s no easy way.” He looked at Sherri. “I’ve been in touch with my handler back in the intel community on Earth. He’s offered to take me back doing my old job again.”

“As a spy, or a starship repairman?” Riyad asked.

“Actually, both. After what our buddy Kracion did, there’s been a massive flow of refugees to the other side of the galaxy from the Kidis. It’s a fucking mess out there, and the criminal element is having a field day. We feel I could slip right back into my undercover work in a part of the galaxy that doesn’t know me.” He smiled. “And let’s face it, I was never a major character anyway. This way, I may get my own spinoff series.”

“You and Summer both,” said Adam.

“Hopefully.”

“So, you’re leaving the team,” Sherri stated softly, her voice slightly a quiver.

“I’m afraid so. Hey, we had a good run. And I did last longer with you than these other two swinging dicks. But we also know how uncomfortable it would be if I stuck around.”

Sherri got up and went to his arms. They hugged passionately, leaving hardly a dry eye in the room, even among the aliens and mutants.

“Well, since we are all revealing own plans,” Panur began, “Lila and I have an announcement.”

“Lila’s pregnant?” Riyad asked, flashing his trademark white smile.

Panur smiled. “Not yet; however, with my new host body, she appears to be more willing to practice with enthusiasm.”

“I didn’t need to hear that,” Adam said. “That’s my daughter you’re talking about. So, what’s the announcement?”

“Lila will be accompanying me back to the Colony.”

“The Sol-Kor Colony!” Adam gasped. “Are you crazy?”

“To the contrary, I am quite sane. I have always believed in the long-term goals of the J’nae project. And since I have a cache of her essence available—along with a ready host body, thanks to Te’moc—I will be returning to impose my plan on the race. I lived with the Sol-Kor for five thousand years; that is a legacy I can’t ignore. I cannot let them die. I have the power to change the Sol-Kor and for the better. By transitioning to a traditional gender-based society, they will not be as single-minded and driven as they are now. And with the incredible population reduction I see coming, it will be easier for them to make the transition. Their beliefs and diet must change, and who better to force them to change then the triumvirate of me, Lila and J’nae. And since I can do extractions and infusions, should the new J’nae attempt to go rogue, I will simply replace her with another. As I said, I cannot let them die. None of what they have done was out of spite, anger or cruelty. They did as any race would do; they survived as best they could. Now there will be another way, a more peaceful path.”

Adam let out a deep sigh. “Damn, dude, it’s hard to argue with that.” He stood up and went to Lila, taking her hands in his. “So you’re leaving, too.”

She smiled a warm, laughing smile that melted Adam’s heart. “I will only be a TD jump away. Perhaps I will come home for the holidays.”

Adam laughed. She was half Human, with a Human’s sense of humor.

“That would be fine. I would love that; if I knew where home will be.”

“And since we’re going around the room, what are you going to do, Adam?” Copernicus asked.

“Me?” He bit his bottom lip and shrugged. “I’ll tell you what I would like to do. I’d like to find a quiet little tropical paradise somewhere and settle down. Maybe open a bar where we’ll serve umbrella drinks on the sand. I’m tired of having to save everything and holding the fate of everyone in my hands.” He held up a hand to stop the coming protest. “I know, I’ve had a lot of help along the way, and I appreciate it. I couldn’t have done it without you. But you know what I mean.”

Riyad stepped up and placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “And that I do, my friend. We have been through a lot together, although I’ve never really liked you. But as far as your dream retirement, you can count me in.”

Adam frowned and shook his head.

Kaylor was the next to speak. “And I, too, wish to join you. If you are to open a drinking establishment, I would like to submit that I have been in thousands of such places on a hundred worlds and can mix just about any concoction of intoxicant ever invented. And I know I speak for Jym, but he would come along, as well. You may not know this, but he is a musical prodigy. His entire race is like that. You will need entertainment in your new establishment. He can provide it.”

Adam held up his hands, shaking his head.

“Wait just a minute. I said that is what I would like to do, not that I’m going to do it. It’s just a fantasy. Besides, if you haven’t noticed, I have no money. None of us do. Everything we had was aboard the Behemoth when it blew up. I wouldn’t have a dime to invest in a bar.”

Sherri laughed, drawing everyone’s attention. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I can help out with that.”

“Help out? In what way?”

“With the money.”

Adam, Copernicus and Riyad all took note.

“What are you talking about?” Riyad asked.

Sherri turned sheepish. “As it turns out, I may have a little money socked away that no one knows about.”

“How much?” both Riyad and Copernicus asked in unison. One was her ex-husband, the other her recent ex-boyfriend.

“Let’s just say enough.”

“From where?” Adam asked.

“You remember the time of The Big Three, when you, me and Riyad were going around the Union making speeches and charging ungodly fees? Well, I managed to hide a nice chunk of it away, just in case.”

“Just in case of what?” Adam asked.

Sherri was shocked. “In case of this, dickhead!”

“Wait a minute,” Riyad said. “You had a shitload of money when we were married, and you never told me. We went through a divorce. You were supposed to disclose that.”

“Assets acquired before the marriage, sweetheart. So sue me.”

Adam waved his hand. “Let’s get back to the part of you helping out.”

“As I said, I might be willing to invest in your new venture, for a piece of the action, of course.”

“How big of a piece.”

“Well, since all of you are broke, I’m thinking fifty-one percent.”

“You want to be the boss?”

“You could do worse,” Sherri said, finding the direction of the conversation immensely satisfying. “After all, I’m the only one here who had the good sense to save her money.”

Adam paused, taking a moment to look around the room. Riyad, Kaylor and Jym were looking at him, anxious expressions on their assorted faces.

“Even if we had the money, I wouldn’t know the first place to start looking for a location.”

“I can make a suggestion,” said Copernicus. “The planet where my old repair facility is located: Liave-3. You and Riyad were there, and you seemed to like the alien Key West-like town not far from there. It’s called Balamar.”

“Could we make a go of it there? The place was pretty small.”

“Just so happens that since I left, I’ve kept an eye on what’s been happening there. It seems the planet Liave-3 is located right on the edge of what’s now called the Dead Zone, the swath of destruction Kracion made through the Kidis Frontier. A fairly good size boom town has sprung up a little further inland from Balamar. The place is called Kanac, and it’s full of scavengers and roughnecks heading into the Zone to salvage what they can from the ravaged worlds. Just the type of customer one would need to stock a frontier bar. I have the name of a good realty agent in Balamar if you’re interested. Just be sure to count your fingers after you shake his hand. He’s that type.”

Riyad nodded. “I remember the place; I liked it—until you pulled a gun on us.”

Copernicus shrugged.

And don’t they have dinosaurs there?” Adam asked.

“Dinosaurs?” Sherri said.

“Most of them are domesticated, at least in the cities,” Copernicus explained. “I had a T-Rex type named Ginger. She was the sweetest thing and very loyal.”

“That’s right. She came to our rescue if I’m not mistaken,” Adam said.

There was a pregnant pause in the room, as everyone waited for Adam’s decision. He scanned the faces of his remaining team. There wasn’t a sign of doubt on any of them.

“Okay, Coop, set up a meeting with your Realtor friend. It sounds like we have a plan.”

“I’ll make the call, but I really wouldn’t call Lion/El a friend, but he does have skills that might come in handy.”

Sherri came up between Adam and Riyad and put her arms around their shoulders. “Just like old times, you scurvy-riddled scoundrels. No superpowers, no ravenous invaders, no universes to save. Just three ordinary Humans and their two alien sidekicks, trying to make a living in this wild and crazy galaxy.”

“Sidekicks?” Kaylor questioned.

“Aliens?” Jym added. “You seem to forget, but to Kaylor and me, Humans are the aliens.”

Kaylor patted his little friend on the top of his head. “An aliens with an attitude, at that.”

Adam smiled. “Admit it, Kaylor, you wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.” He looked around the room. “So this is it? We’re all going our separate ways, most of us, anyway. I, for one, am looking forward to this new chapter in my life, with some peace for a change. After all, how much trouble can three Humans—and their two alien sidekicks—get into?”

Riyad snorted. “Are you serious? Have you not read the series?”


Epilogue In the town of Balamar on the planet Liave-3

“A decision have you made, Cain-mis?”

Adam Cain looked at the fat, four-armed alien dressed in the lime green shirt, soaked in pungent sweat. His name was Hew Sans, and he was the owner of the building Adam, Sherri and Riyad were inspecting. Adam couldn’t get within five feet of the alien without his eyes watering; the smell was that bad. How someone like him could exist in the tropical climate of Balamar was anyone’s guess. Another alien stood a short distance away; the infamous Lion/El, Coop’s semi-friend. Even with his brief experience with the alien so far, Adam understood Coop’s warning. Lion/El was much more than a realty agent. He was also a gunrunner, smuggler, fence and loan shark—as well as the mayor of Balamar. Bottom line: An all-around good guy to have on your side.

Sherri and Riyad came from the back of the old restaurant, with Sherri tapping furiously on a datapad. Adam cocked a thumb in her direction. “You’ll have to ask her if she’s made a decision.”

The alien scrunched his yellow eyes. “I had the impression you were the leader of this partnership organization, Cain-mis.”

Adam shrugged. “So did I.”

Reluctantly, Hew Sans turned to Sherri. “Has a decision been made, Valentine-lis?”

Sherri was shaking her head. She pointed at the screen of the datapad. “I’m sure you know this structure is eaten up with dry rot. Being right on the water, weren’t you aware of the damaging effects of moisture? And there are colonies of creepy-crawly things doing even more damage. I’m surprised the whole place hasn’t collapsed on our heads.” Adam smiled, knowing it was with Sherri’s bionic eyes that she’d detected the infestation. She was still learning how to use the super lenses, but at the moment, she was the only one of the Humans with anything that qualified as a superpower. She was continuing with her critique. “And besides the structure, the food processors have to be twenty years old or more, and it doesn’t look like they’ve been serviced in half that time. And the blood samplers, damn. They’re only ten years old, but their files haven’t been updated—ever. There are hundreds of beings you don’t even have listed in the database. You realize what liability we would have if a customer got sick because of faulty testing equipment?” Again, she shook her head. “I see us having to put half-a-million credits or more just to bring the building and equipment up to code. And that’s before we even open our doors.” She looked at Adam. “You liked the property on the canal, didn’t you? Sure, it wasn’t right on the beach, but it was larger and in much better condition.”

“Yeah, it was nice.”

“Maybe we should go back for a second look?” She looked at Lion/El. He nodded anxiously.

“No, wait! We are in negotiations,” said Hew Sans. He turned desperately toward Lion/El. “Shall we open with an offer?”

Sherri grimaced. “An offer? I don’t know.”

“It is custom,” Lion/El said. “It is disrespectful not to make an offer when in the presence of the seller.”

“Please, your opening amount?” Hew Sans coaxed.

Sherri sighed while looking again at the datapad. “Let’s see; you’re asking three-point-two-five million. With how much work this place needs, I can’t see offering you more than two-point-five—if even that much—and that would have to include the warehouse and the apartment complex on each side of the restaurant.”

Sans stepped back, his yellow eyes flaring and all four of his arms flailing wildly. “That … that is unreasonable! For all three structures? Impossible. Simply impossible.”

Sherri shrugged. She looked at Adam. “Okay; that settles it then. We go back to the canal property.” She shut off the datapad and placed it in her satchel.

Riyad stepped forward. “One moment, Sherri. Allow me a moment to talk to our friend before we leave.”

Riyad placed his arm around the shoulders of the smelly alien. Adam had no idea how he could stand to be that close, but Riyad didn’t seem to mind.

“My friend, Hew Sans, you have owned these three properties for some time, and they have made you decent credits … in the past. But recently, they have sat vacant and are producing no income. And to bring them back into working condition would require a lot of credits and for an uncertain return. Now take a moment to consider what’s happening on Liave-3 at this time. There is an economic boom occurring, with the town of Kanac forming almost overnight. As the staging area for hundreds of salvage operations heading into the Dead Zone, incredible fortunes are being made by these business ventures. As one of the planet’s foremost business-beings, you must be aware of the fantastic opportunity we are presenting to you through this offer.”

“What opportunity?”

“The opportunity to reap your own rewards from this new activity. Your future lies not in old eateries or land ownership, but in salvage rights and property claims. There are a hundred worlds lying just beyond Liave within the Kidis Frontier, worlds just waiting for their abandoned wealth to be picked up off the ground by enterprising, forward-looking individuals. There is opportunity in clean-up services; removing the radiation from irradiated items. And then the resale of these items, along with their transportation. Also, there is a mad rush to stake claim to vast tracks of landscape, many measuring in the thousands of square miles.”

“What is a mile; it is not translating.”

“It is a measure of distance, but that is not the point I’m trying to make.”

“What is the point you are trying to make?”

“It is that you can be part of this boom. With the money we’re offering, you can buy starships and salvage equipment, along with having the credits for property claims on a hundred worlds. That is quick and easy money, not like running a decrepit feeding and drinking establishment, along with the incredible costs involved. Look at the money we’re offering not as a return on this investment, but as a means of starting a whole new venture with unlimited potential.”

Hew Sans looked at the three Humans, his yellow eyes once again narrowed, and his purple lips pursed and wrinkled. Adam had never dealt with this particular species before, so he had no idea what the body language meant.

But then Sans bobbed his head—another indecipherable gesture. “It … it is agreed. Two and one half million Juirean credits.”

“For all three properties,” Sherri reiterated.

Sans hesitated before bobbing his head again. “Yes, for all three.”

Sherri nodded and grinned, making sure to keep her teeth from showing. “Very good. I will have my people contact your people. Once the transfer documents are prepared, Lion/El-mis will arrange for the closing. It shouldn’t take more than four days.”

“Credits, no loan,” Sans emphasized.

“That’s right. All cash, meaning Juirean credits. Once we sign, the credits will be transferred into your account that day.”

“Then we are agreed.” Hew Sans did not appear happy. But on Liave-3, verbal acceptance was legally binding.

Riyad patted the fat alien on the back as he walked him out the front of the building, followed by the salesbeing, Lion/El. “You have made a very wise decision, Hew Sans. These old buildings are your past. You can now look to your future, and a very prosperous future it will be.”

Sans waddled away in one direction while the excited realty agent scampered off in the other, anxious to get the paperwork going.

Sherri and Riyad each wore Cheshire-cat grins. Adam nodded his approval. “I must say, that was pretty damn impressive. And Riyad, you almost had me convinced that it would be better to go into the salvage business rather than start a bar and grill.”

“But you have, my friend.”

Adam frowned. “Have what?”

“Gone into the salvage business, or at least on the periphery, with the outfitting business Sherri and I will run from the warehouse next door. From it, we are sure to get a fair amount of business from this alien gold rush. It’s common knowledge that during your Gold Rush in America, it was the merchants selling the pick and shovels to the 49’ers who made all the money, not the miners.”

“The two of you are starting your own business?” Adam looked hurt.

Sherri placed a reassuring hand on his arm. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s all part of B3 Partnership, Conglomerate, LLC, Inc., whatever you want to call it.”

“B3 what?”

“That’s what I’m calling our holding company, like back when we used to be the Big Three Humans, famous for saving the Earth and conquering the Expansion.”

“And just think,” Riyad added, “Hew Sans will probably come to us for his salvage tools and equipment, so we’ll recycle some of Sherri’s money back into our pockets. It’s a win-win, at least for us.”

The B3 Partners now looked at the front of the building. It did need work. The purple paint was peeling, and the interior was dirty and the equipment old. But Adam knew a lot of the complaints Sherri voiced earlier were just part of the game. And to get a huge warehouse and a sixteen-unit apartment complex in the package was a definite coup.

Adam could see through the interior of the building to the azure sea beyond, with the wide expanse of white sand beach out the back. He could envision dozens of canopied tables sitting out there, with an open-air grill cooking real meat for the customers, and not just that processed crap made from food paste. Of course, it would probably be dinosaur meat, but it would be red meat just the same.

“I feel really good about this,” he said. “You know, I think we’re making the right decision. Sure beats what we’ve been doing for the past twenty years. Thanks for helping make it possible.”

“No problem,” Sherri said. “Just remember who’s the majority owner.”

“I’m sure you won’t let me forget. But seriously, it’ll be good to settle down and relax for a change, without the fate of planets and galaxies resting on our shoulders.”

“And don’t forget about universes,” Riyad pointed out.

“Oh, yeah, that, too. I’m just tired of all the intrigue, all the fighting. Now I want to sit on a beach and sip umbrella drinks all day.”

“Sounds like paradise, my friend,” Riyad said, his trademark white smile glowing even brighter in the warm tropical sun of Liave-3.

They looked up at the bare expanse of purple wood above the front entrance.

“So, what do we call it?” Riyad asked. “I was thinking about Tarazi’s Tavern.”

Sherri snorted. “Or Sherri’s Golden Slipper? After all, this is kind of an old Wild West town. That sounds like the name of a saloon.”

Adam shook his head. “It sounds more like a brothel.”

“Well, there is the apartment complex next door,” Riyad suggested.

Adam laughed. “Seriously, I’m leaning more toward a Key West kind of theme; that’s always been my dream. Maybe something like Capt. Cain’s Bar and Grill, after Capt. Tony’s, the place where Hemingway used to hang out.”

Riyad nodded. He framed the area above the door with his thumbs and index fingers. “Capt. Cain’s Bar and Grill. Carnivores Welcome.”

“I like that!” Sherri said. “I’m a carnivore. I might like me some meat! Besides, we need the branding, especially with the alien clientele around here and their finicky diets.”

“Sounds perfect, my friends, it really does,” Adam said … just as three rowdy aliens crossed the muddy street and walked past the Humans. One of them stepped in a puddle and splashed a generous amount of brown guck onto Adam’s pastel white pants. They continued down the road, looking back occasionally while pointing and grunting in some form of alien laughter.

The Last Aris: A desperate race to save the universe ... or not.

Sherri saw Adam’s jaw go tense as his fierce blue eyes focused on the trio of aliens.

“Here, hold this,” he said, handing his datapad to Riyad. “I just bought these pants.”

Adam Cain stepped off the sidewalk and strode off in the direction of the still-grunting aliens.

Sherri and Riyad watched him walk away.

“Well, that didn’t last long,” Riyad commented with a sigh.

Sherri shook her head. “No, it didn’t. It looks like the alien with an attitude is still alive and kicking.”

Riyad flashed his trademark white smile. “Trust me, sweetheart. The readers wouldn’t want it any other way.”


The End of


The Human Chronicles Saga

…and the beginning of

The Adam Cain Chronicles


Author Notes

In this very special Author Notes, reporter Sherry Dixon takes you behind the scenes at the exclusive Human Chronicles Saga Wrap Party, as she mingles with the cast—both current and former—and provides insights into The Adam Cain Chronicles series coming up next.

Sherry Dixon:

I’m here for the final chapter of The Last Aris, where Adam, Riyad and Sherri have just purchased a broken-down bar in the city of Balamar on the planet Liave-3. It’s quite the scene, as cast and crew hug and high-five, with plenty of tears and champagne flowing. The party was planned in advance, so both past and present cast members are in attendance. We take our cameras inside for this series of exclusive interviews.

The first celebrity we approach is none other than Adam Cain himself, the famous alien with an attitude. He’s holding a bottle of champagne in his hand and his shirt is soaked from the alcohol shower he received earlier. It’s obvious not all the champagne was poured over his head. He obviously started the celebration early.

“Now that The Human Chronicles is over, what’s next for Adam Cain?”

He leans in and wraps a soggy arm around me. “I’m going to Disneyland!” He takes another big gulp of bubbly. “But after that, it’s right back to work on The Adam Cain Chronicles. That’s the continuation series.” He pulls me in close and whispers in my ear. “The Human Chronicles isn’t really ending. We’re just dialing back some of the superpower stuff.” He turns to those around us and bellows. “The Adam Cain Chronicles! What do you think? It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”

“So what’s the different between the Adam Cain series and the Human Chronicles?”

“I’m glad you asked. It’s going to be more of a basic, in-your-face, alien kick-ass adventure. The premise is I’ve lost all my superpowers, and now it’s just me, Riyad and Sherri dealing with a whole parade of alien nasties on a wild frontier world. It’s kind of a cross between Casablanca and Deadwood.” He smiles broadly. “And I get to play both the Rick and Seth Bullock characters all at once. It’s really cool.”

“So the brooding, reluctant hero?”

“Yeah, whatever. It’s going to be epic. Be sure to check it out. Hey! There’s someone I haven’t seen in a while. We’ll talk later.”

I watch as Adam hops on the back of a huge, ginger-haired man. It’s Nigel McCarthy, the villain from the beginning of the series.

“Hey you big, ugly Brit! I’m glad you could come. What have you been up to?”

“You mean since you killed me? I’ve stayed busy, doing a lot of narration and voice-over work for the BBC. I even voiced a few video games. It’s easy work and the pay is decent. And, Adam, how many times do I have to tell you? I’m Australian, not British. I only played an Englishman in your series.”

“Well, forgive me! Whether an Aussie or a Limey, you’re still an asshole.”

“As are you, mate.”

I look around and spot Arieel Bol speaking with J’nae. I hadn’t seen the full J’nae character in a while, not since she was distilled and absorbed by the Aris. I walk up to them.

“Arieel, I notice you’ve been getting a lot of recognition recently. Want to tell us about it?”

“Well, let’s see. I’ve been spending a lot time modeling and working on my new fashion line. Oh, and I have a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot scheduled. They’ve promised me the cover.”

“That’s great. I’m sure your fans would love to see that. And J’nae, I hear you have some exciting news of your own.”

J’nae reaches into her purse and pulls out a sensually-shaped bottle of green liquid.

“My new perfume line will be out by Christmas.” She holds the bottle up to her face and smiles seductively. “Essence of J’nae. It will make you immortal.”

“I love the slogan. It fits.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Good luck with that.”

I step over to Summer Rains, who’s looking as cute and innocent as ever.

“Are you enjoying the party?”

She nods. “Yeah, it’s fun, and there’s lot of people here that I’ve only read about in the books.”

“Any news on your spin-off series? It’s sounds like it could be fun. You, Monty and Tidus out chasing down bad guys across the galaxy as agents for Priority Acquisitions.”

“I’m excited about it. We’re in final discussions with T.R. Harris. I hope we get the greenlight soon.”

Copernicus Smith walks up to us. He also has a bottle of champagne in his hand and isn’t too steady on his feet.

“Talking about your spin-off?” he asks Summer. “Well, don’t hold your breath. They brought be into the series just to set up a spin-off, and I’m still waiting. And now I’ve been written out of The Adam Cain Chronicles. Sure, they say I’ll have some cameos, but that’s not the same as having my own series.”

Adam Cain bumps into us.

“Bitching about your series again, eh Coop? Give it a rest.”

“I just think people would like reading about the adventures of a grungy starship repairman who’s actually a deep cover spy infiltrating the criminal element of the galaxy. There are so many situations I could get into.”

Adam Cain shrugs. “Yeah, maybe. But just be glad we kept around The Human Chronicles for fifteen books..”

“Fifteen? I didn’t realize it was that many.”

“Don’t worry. No one else did, either.” Adam Cain was belly laughing when he staggered off.

We follow Adam for a while as he greats current and former cast members, high-fiving the men and bending the women over to give them sloppy kisses. They don’t seem to mind.

I see the gray Panur speaking with the new TeraDon Fief/Panur. I’ve heard little Panur has a Disney movie lined up, a parody of ET: The Extraterrestrial. That should be interesting. He would be a natural for the role.

Lila passed by here a moment before, but I don’t see her now.

But I do get an odd feeling when I see Kracion and Te’moc come up to Adam and the three of them man-hug. Te’moc notices me watching.

“We’re actually close friends off-set. We only play enemies in the books.”

Adam jabs Te’moc in the ribs. “In your case … not anymore! You’re dead, dude!”

“And a glorious death it was!” Kracion adds.

Adam Cain looks at me. “Hey, did I mention the first book in The Adam Cain Chronicles will be out sometime in September or October?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, it will be. Exclusively on Amazon. And it’ll be in Kindle Unlimited, too.”

“That’s good to know. I’m sure it will be a hit.”

I spot the debonair Riyad Tarazi surrounded by a bevy of female admirers. He smiles at me as I walk over. Ladies, if you have never experienced Riyad’s trademark white smile in person, it’s something to behold. I suddenly find myself growing weak in the knees.

“Are you excited about The Adam Cain Chronicles?” I stammer. (What the hell is happening to me?)

“About as excited as I can be for something that isn’t called The Riyad Tarazi Chronicles. But seriously, I am. I have a major role running the outfitting business next door to Capt. Cain’s Bar and Grill. It will get me off the planet more often and into The Dead Zone for a whole slew exciting adventures. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s our version of Magnum, P.I. in space.”

“Hey, stud,” a voice says from behind me. I turn to see Sherri Valentine approaching. She’s bathed in champagne, as well, with her silk blouse leaving very little to the imagination. Riyad gives her a lecherous smile.

“Hey, I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,” Sherri says. “You said my tits are my best assets.”

“Along with your beautiful baby blue—and now bionic—eyes.”

I turn to Sherri. “That’s right. You’re the only one of the three with a superpower, if you can call it that. How does that make you feel?”

“We’ll see. Not quite sure how it’s going to work, but I’m sure T.R. will come up with some creative ways for me to use my super-sight. What I’m more excited about is being the HBIC.”

“HBIC?

“The Head-Bitch-In-Charge … of everything; Capt. Cain’s, the outfitting business and the hotel. I’m going to enjoy bossing the men around for a change.”

“For a change?” Riyad chokes. “You’ve been bossing us around since Alien Assassin.”

I follow up with Sherri.

“I understand the new series will also give the five of you—including Kaylor and Jym—more chance to interact, trading barbs and all that.”

Sherri nods. “That’s right. A lot of the feedback we’ve gotten throughout the years talks about how much the fans like that, the interaction between characters. And if there’s one thing T.R. Harris does right; he listens to his fans.”

Riyad bumps shoulders with her. “Relax, Sherri, you already have the job. No need to butter up the boss. And speaking of the boss, there’s that old bastard now.”

I notice a buzz filter throughout the room. The man of the hour is here, the creator of The Human Chronicles himself, T.R. Harris. I work my way over to him. He’s surrounded by a rowdy group, one of which who pulls off his white Human Chronicles Saga baseball cap and replaces it with one that says The Adam Cain Chronicles. I notice during the brief changeover that he actually has hair. I’ve always suspected he wears the cap to hide his baldness. But I was wrong. He does have hair; he just doesn’t wash it very often. Just the life of a writer, I suppose. No one around the office to impress.

A path is cleared for me and I begin my interview.

“Kind of a solemn occasion, isn’t it? Twenty-nine books is a long series. And now it’s over.”

“In a way it is, and in another the series is returning to its roots. The Human Chronicles grew to epic proportions over the years, and now it’s time to return to the Human part of the Human Chronicles. The Adam Cain Chronicles is just a reset of the series. Sure, we’ll number the books differently, and each story may be a stand alone, rather than part of a sequential series. But that will allow new fans to come in without having to read twenty-nine books just to catch up. But for any of them who want more story, there’s certainly a huge backstory they can read in The Human Chronicles. I’m excited about the new direction we’re taking.”

“I seems like the cast is, too. And you’re setting right to work on The Adam Cain Chronicles? No break?”

“I have the fifth REV Warriors book—REV: Retribution—to do, then it’s back to Adam Cain. REV is such a cool story, and that series is just getting ready to explode, with some exciting and unexpected adventures. I hope you stick around for it.”

“And Jason King, the galactic Realtor series? I hear that series is dear to your heart.”

“It is. I spent twenty-five years selling real estate before I found fame and fortune in writing novels. Jason King is my alter ego. It’s also the only first-person point-of-view series I’ve written, which gives me a chance to reveal a lot of Jason’s inner thoughts. And it’s funny. If you haven’t noticed, I like writing humor. I would do that exclusively if I thought I could make a living at it. The Adam Cain Chronicles will have a lot of humor in it, even more than The Human Chronicles.”

“And the spin-offs? Looks like there’s potential for more adventures within The Human Chronicles universe.”

T.R. Harris sighs. “Yeah, the spin-offs. I would love to do them, but since I write my own books, it’s hard to find the time, what with all the other projects I have going. If I do the spin-offs, I will bring in some high-quality collaborators to help me write them. But the stories are too good not to see the light of day. Keep an ear out. I should have some news about the spin-offs coming by the end of the year.”

I have to wrap it up; things are getting a little rowdy and it’s time to let everyone enjoy their party.

“Thank you very much for giving us the time on this very special evening. Congratulations on The Human Chronicles Saga, and good luck with The Adam Cain Chronicles.”

“Thank you. And remember: As long as my fans keep reading, I’ll keep writing.”

And other news … from T.R. Harris

If you don’t know already, I have a new Facebook Fan Page, appropriately titled:

Fans of T.R. Harris and The Human Chronicles Saga.

(FYI: I was the first person to sign up. After all, I’m a big fan of, well…me.)

In all seriousness, I invite all my readers to join (it’s a private group). I try to post there every day (when I’m not under a deadline). It’s a fun group where my fans and I can interact more frequently. I try to give insights into my books, the characters and the process, as well as the writing business as a whole. We have some real characters over there, and I’m proud to call many of the members friends, as well as fans.

You should check the group. And by the way…it’s FREE!

EMAIL SIGN-UP

I also want to remind you to sign up for my email list, if you haven’t already. It’s free, and just for signing up, I’m giving away three of my books…

The THREE FREE BOOKS are the first two in my Jason King: Agent to the Stars series, as well as Captains Malicious, a novel co-authored with my friend George Wier.

These aren’t in either The Human Chronicles or REV Warriors series, but I’m sure you’re enjoy the stories, the humor and action that come with all my novels.

Just click on the sign-up form in either the front or back of all my novels.

T.R. Harris

July 2019


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See the Author Notes with details to my FREE BOOK OFFER, as well as news about the Human Chronicles short story I’m working on, soon to be released exclusively to those on my email list.


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