On the planet Iziom 2, in the Gorren Planetary System, the other side of the Realm to the Earth Planetary System, Commander Outden was ushered by a security officer down the magnificent garden of General Olensi’s home, where the General was waiting patiently at a garden table by the pond. ‘Please take a seat,’ said the General, handing the Commander a large whiskey with crushed ice. ‘I thought it better we speak here. Our meetings at the command base on Gorren are attracting unwanted attention. According to my security officer, Dr Lindel is meeting in secret with four members of the Supreme Council. Every move you and I make is being closely watched. And I’ll not have our plans for Sunterria derailed.’ ‘What will we do?’ said the Commander, worry in his voice. ‘Operation Sunterria is in motion. As we speak, our three war fleets are prepared for combat. I’ll have Colonel Zinci announce that we’re conducting a major combat exercise, so not to spook anyone concerned about our intentions, especially Dr Lindel.’ ‘What about Officer Neda? He still has six weeks to finish his report on who protects Sunterria.’ ‘I’ll meet with him on Tuesday and order him to hand in his report to Colonel Zinci by Friday.’ ‘Neda will be outraged at the changed deadline. He could ask for an emergency Supreme Council meeting.’ ‘If he foolishly tries, I’ll have him detained. Too long have we waited for this day. Even my son wants us to make peace with the Covenant, can you believe it? The only peace I’ll give the Covenant is when I present Sunterria to them in pieces, after my warships have destroyed it.’ He raised his glass in a toast. ‘The attack will take place on the following Monday, nice and early.’ He smiled gleefully. At the command base on the planet Gorren, Neda was nervously waiting for his meeting with Colonel Zinci. A knock on his door made him jump. ‘Come in,’ he called. The Colonel walked in and took a seat opposite Neda. ‘You wanted to see me urgently, Officer Neda?’ ‘I can’t believe the meeting I just had with Commander Outden,’ blurted Neda. ‘He’s given me until Friday to hand in my report. How the hell am I to confirm the Covenant communication post is on Orlzeno in just three days?’ Colonel Zinci sighed. ‘He’s already given you four months! He’s grown tired of this report and wants closure. The authorities on Sunterria refuse to submit to our control; this is unacceptable for our Commander. Sunterria is too important to be outside our control. The fuel they produce there is priceless!’ ‘We already impose fees on cargo ships entering Sunterria against their will … We’re pushing them to retaliate. If you believe Sunterria is unprotected, you’re a fool. According to Dr Lindel, the Covenant protects Sunterria. Once our warships invade, the Covenant will send a starship.’ ‘Damnit, how many times do I have to say it?’ The Colonel’s face started turning red. ‘Our warships will simply take over their command base and mining station. No harm will come to Freesun or Sunterria.’ ‘Ever since the day Commander Outden took office, he’s been after Sunterria like a crazed fanatic. He’s going to get us all killed! Doesn’t this bother you?’ ‘You need to be careful – that’s our Commander you’re talking about. If Sunterria is in danger, why hasn’t Freesun called a starship already? We’ve been threatening them for months. Do you see a starship over Sunterria? I don’t! You and Dr Lindel are overplaying the risks.’ Neda couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was wilful ignorance. He took a deep breath, steadying himself for the threat. ‘I’ll go to the Supreme Council to demand Commander Outden is removed from power. He’s a danger to us all. You’re my friend and I trust your judgement, but on this issue, you’re wrong.’ ‘And you think I’m the fool. It’s General Olensi and the Supreme Council who are pushing this agenda. Haven’t you noticed General Olensi and our Commander visiting week in, week out? The Supreme Council has had their eyes on Sunterria for quite some time and now they have a Commander under their control who can get them what they’ve always wanted.’ ‘If we mean Sunterria no harm, why do we have our three war fleets, armed to the teeth, in full combat readiness?’ ‘In the event, a Covenant starship does show up. We need to be able to defend ourselves, should the need arise. Operations that you’re not involved in are ongoing; I imagine how frustrating this is for you. In time, all will be revealed. Trust me.’ Colonel Zinci’s office, Friday morning. ‘I don’t know why I’m turning this in.’ Neda flung the Sunterria report onto the desk. ‘The Covenant communication post is on Orlzeno, for a fact. Does that change anything?’ Before the Colonel could get a word in, Neda continued, ‘I thought not. What now? Do we sit back and watch our military land on Sunterria? I can’t be part of that genocide, Colonel. I resign.’ The Colonel looked grim. ‘Your resignation is accepted. For your safety, I suggest you take your family on a break, as far from Gorren as you can. Once our operations on Sunterria are completed, you can safely return.’ ‘Does the Supreme Council know what it’s getting itself into, my friend?’ ‘Oh, they know. Let me assure you: Freesun will be looked after. It’s in all our interests.’ ‘Are you sure Commander Outden believes this? I trust you … It’s his motives I fear. If he harms Sunterria, a Covenant starship will kill every last one of us.’ ‘A starship may never show up,’ said Colonel Zinci, while pouring two whiskeys. He handed one to Neda. You might see it sooner than you think, thought Neda. He feared to tell his friend what Dr Lindel had told him on Wednesday night. Cadet Jayden told Arron, that once Gorren warships land on Sunterria, a starship will be called from their communication post on Orlzeno. The Colonel finished his drink. With nothing more to say, Neda got up to leave. ‘Get your family off Gorren before General Olensi has you all detained.’ ‘When do we take Sunterria?’ ‘It will happen within days.’ Sunterria, planet of immense beauty, inhabited by the Covenant, an ancient civilisation. A chief cadet made his way to level ten of their base, while cadets around him hurriedly packed their equipment in preparation for their move to the mining station. In appearance, the cadets looked no different to young humans. Most were about five-foot-five tall and tanned. They were dressed in a light silk uniform, with ruby jewels as buttons. They also possessed super-intelligence. Upon entering the park garden, the cadet saw Freesun peering out the observation windows. ‘Starship Eirden has abandoned us,’ said Freesun. ‘I’m being forced from my command base by that tyrant Commander Outden. I fear him; he knows of the Covenant and its power, yet he threatens us. I dread to think of what will become of my Sunterria.’ He glanced out at the nearby forest. Like the cadets, Freesun had human characteristics. Though he stood six-foot-five, he looked a little like a teenage human boy. He had fluorescent blue eyes and blond hair grown long down his back; he wore a golden uniform, the edges of his jacket lined with ruby and aquamarine gemstones. ‘Please, Freesun, we must leave. It’s not safe here. Once the starship arrives, we can return to our beloved base.’ As the cadet ushered Freesun to the elevator, Freesun turned to look at his base for one last time, afraid he’d never see it again. Starship Eirden, how am I ever to forgive you? These were the thoughts that raced through his head as they travelled to the mining station. The following morning Freesun had just arrived at the nearest beach from the mining station for his daily Sunrise Ceremony, which a Freesun conducts on its planet at sunrise, every morning. Freesun usually enjoyed his morning walk, but not today. Fear gripped his body. Every step taken gave him an eerie feeling. The beach was busy as usual – even at this early hour sunrise on Sunterria – since it was a big attraction for tourists. Of course, the beaches were not like those on other planets. Sunterria’s beaches had golden sand, with ridges of ruby and aquamarine gemstone rocks that run up and down the beaches. People came to enjoy the lakes and rivers, plus the local food – sun juice was regarded as heavenly by those visiting. As Freesun looked towards the mainland, large cargo ships could be seen coming and going, packed full of the valuable fuel Zetemil. He stared at a family of two adults and two children near the landing pad that had just arrived, seeing them gaze at their surroundings. Freesun was accustomed to that look. He’d seen it in the expressions of humans for two thousand years. Still, it never failed to grab his attention. He continued his walk, followed closely by his two guard cadets. The day was hot and humid, as were most days. It usually rained at night, providing the necessary water to irrigate the massive forests, plants and flowers. In the distance, Gorren warships tore through the sky, the noise deafening. The ground trembled, and through the haze, Freesun saw a streak of laser fire headed straight for him. He quickly took evasive action. Seconds later, an almighty explosion. He was lifted like a leaf through the air and flung into the nearby water. Gasping for breath, he glanced at where he was previously standing. To his horror, the ground had been turned into a five-metre crater with bodies strewn around. His guard cadets were nowhere to be seen. He swam to shore. Around him, humans ran for their lives; but they couldn’t outrun the constant laser fire. Bodies were strewn on the beach, discarded like confetti after a wedding. Freesun desperately tried to keep calm as sweat ran down his face. Must find an escape pod, he thought. The explosions and relentless screams and cries for help echoed all around. The stench of burnt flesh was stomachchurning, heat burning like a furnace. I must get out of here or I’ll die. His golden bracelet thankfully informed him of the location of the escape pods. Taking a chance, he ran for the nearest cruiser, a mere twenty metres away. He scrambled aboard and sped towards the room that housed the pods. The bombardment continued, as building after building was smashed to smithereens all around him. Multiple laser blasts headed right for him. His bracelet, sensing imminent danger, created a force-field around him, but the bracelet took the full impact of the third strike and a piece exploded, sending tiny golden shrapnel into Freesun’s right arm. He screamed in pain as he was propelled forward. The bracelet had saved his life, but in doing so massively damaged its internal circuits. Freesun examined his bracelet. A piece was missing, and it had several cracks running through it. He feared it would no longer work. After taking a moment to catch his breath, he boarded the first pod he came across, blood dripping from his right arm. He quickly launched. As the pod gained height, the full extent of the damage could be seen. Sunterria in flames, rubble, smoke and the haunting screams of innocents. My golden beaches, no more. My planet, destroyed. This is the end. As Freesun left the orbit of Sunterria, he tried to send a message to his chief cadet, but to his horror, the system didn’t respond. Verging on panic, he screamed in disbelief, ‘I can’t communicate with my fellow Covenant!’ Though as concerned as he was, he saw the danger ahead. Gorren laser fire targeted his pod. Being a highly skilled pilot, Freesun swiftly navigated his pod out of the laser’s path. However, other pods in the distance were not so lucky. Why are they doing this? I thought they wanted control of Sunterria. Why destroy it? The Gorrens have been in this system for over a hundred years … As the orbit of Sunterria faded into oblivion, Freesun, tired and delirious, started to relax; but the feeling was short-lived. Remembering his broken bracelet, his heart sank into despair. How will I contact a starship? First, I must get out of this system. He quickly programmed the onboard computer to take him to the first planet beyond the Realm that sustained life. Ionion 4 popped up on his screen. Two days to get there. I hope my pod isn’t damaged. Exhausted, he left the flight control desk and went to the supply area. Thankfully, it was standard practice to have a supply of food on the pod, as they were the emergency mode of transport. He didn’t have the energy to eat but understood his survival depended on doing so. Normally, he would’ve found the Sunterrian chicken delicious, but his taste buds were numb. For the first time in his life, he found himself lost and scared as the enormity of not having a functioning golden bracelet began to sink in, and the impact this would have on his future survival. 2 COVENANT STARSHIP EIRDEN It was one day after the Gorren attack on Sunterria, and on the flight-deck Cadet Aeria was reading his messages on his private console. In appearance, he looked like a freshfaced human teenager dressed in a pure silk uniform, the edges of which were lined with tiny ruby gemstones. As chief cadet aboard the starship, his duties were to ensure his fellow cadets did their jobs in an orderly fashion. An alert sounded. This was followed immediately by an incoming video call. Aware of who was calling, he pressed play. ‘This is Supreme Leader Sizion of the Imperial Golden Table. We have received a report from our Covenant communication post on Orlzeno, in the Gorren Planetary System. Our Sunterria planet there has been attacked by Gorren military. This system is under your Commander’s control. I’ve scheduled a meeting aboard your starship in twenty minutes. All members of the Imperial Golden Table will be present. Inform your Commander immediately.’ ‘By your command, Supreme Leader.’ Cadet Aeria looked around at his fellow cadets as the screen in front of him went blank. What will become of us? One of our God Planets, destroyed … thought Aeria. Still in shock, he got up and walked to the elevator. His fellow cadets stood paralysed as the realisation of the horror of what they had heard began to sink in. The cadets stood apprehensively, knowing Cadet Aeria had to convey this horrid news to their Commander. Aeria stepped onto the elevator. Blue encased him, and a second later he was on the Imperial Commander’s deck. He strode to the Commander’s quarters and marched over to the desk. The Commander raised his emerald eyes to look at the intruder. The rubies and golden buttons of his long golden coat glittered in the light. ‘Why is your head bowed?’ ‘I bring you terrible news,’ whispered Aeria, keeping his head down. Swallowing hard, he forced the words out. ‘Supreme Leader Sizion has informed us that one of the Sunterria planets under our protection was attacked. An Imperial Golden Table meeting is scheduled aboard our starship in less than twenty minutes.’ Commander Eirden rose slowly from his chair, his emerald eyes lighting up like furnaces in meltdown. ‘Who dares to attack one of our Sunterria planets?’ he roared, making the glasses on the nearby table shake. He raised his arms over his head and brought them crashing down onto his golden table, sending it into hundreds of pieces, all over the room. ‘The Gorrens. We have video footage of the damage, sir, but I advise you not to view it.’ ‘That’s very considerate of you, Aeria, but don’t pity me; I’ve disgraced the Council of the Golden Table. I’ve allowed an attack on a God Planet under my protection. Show the footage.’ Aeria tapped on his device and the footage loaded on the screen. Gorren warships could be seen raining down laser fire on Sunterria, black toxic smoke billowing everywhere, bodies were strewn all over the golden beaches, the ruby and aquamarine building turned to rubble. Tears welled up in Commander Eirden’s eyes. ‘Despicable creatures, firing on defenceless life forms …’ He had been summoned to an Imperial Golden Table meeting; he knew what that implied. Having failed in his duty, he would be removed from the Council of the Golden Table. His only saving grace would be if Freesun were still alive. He had to believe it … It was all he could hang onto. Were Freesun dead, he would forever live in shame. Commander Eirden nodded to Aeria, left his office without a word and made his way to the Golden Table room, which was already full. He took his seat, probably for the last time. Supreme Leader Sizion got to his feet. ‘Commander Eirden, explain to this council how you allowed Sunterria to be attacked. According to our records, the Gorren Planetary System hasn’t been checked for over a hundred years. This is unacceptable. Humans come and go. I agree most are peaceful. However, some humans are hell-bent on conquering other planets. Our planets must be protected from these threats.’ ‘I understand the council’s anger. My starship received several alerts regarding threats made by the Gorren military. I failed in my duty to understand the gravity of the danger. I interpreted the risks to Sunterria as minor; this catastrophic error resulted in Sunterria being destroyed.’ ‘You interpreted the risks as minor?’ Supreme Leader Sizion’s face turned red as he tried to hold his temper. ‘Your reckless decision-making will not be tolerated. Alerts sent to our starships by our Freesun’s bracelets are not minor matters. I’ve always trusted your judgement. How could you have made such a blunder?’ ‘I apologise to the Council. I’ve lost the right to wear my Golden Table bracelet.’ A tear fell from his left eye. Eirden removed his bracelet and laid it on the table. ‘Right. This is what we know so far,’ said Sizion. ‘The Gorrens have destroyed Sunterria, ninety per cent mortality or higher.’ The Commanders around the table gasped with horror. ‘Starship Tizen is presently guarding Sunterria – or what’s left of it.’ He gives Commander Eirden a menacing look. ‘We’ve scanned the planet and have found no traces of Freesun’s bracelet. We, therefore, conclude he’s escaped in one of the emergency pods. For your sake, Commander Eirden, Freesun had better be in one of these pods. As for the Gorren military, we leave you to deal with them. By the authority of the Imperial Golden Table, I hereby remove you from this Council. You may go.’ Commander Eirden got up and with two heavy hearts left the room, knowing he’d never again enter, and made his way to his quarters, where his top cadets waited for his instructions. His cadets couldn’t help but notice he was no longer wearing his Golden Table bracelet. ‘They’ve removed him from the Imperial Golden Table,’ a cadet whispered into Aeria’s ear. One of the cadets had replaced the smashed table. Commander Eirden opened the top drawer of the new table, not noticing the replacement. Locating his Imperial bracelet, he placed it on his right wrist. To command a starship, a bracelet was still required, though this one was nothing compared to his Golden Table bracelet. ‘Commander, your orders?’ asked Cadet Aeria. ‘Begin departure for Gorren. And I want all the information on the pods that escaped from Sunterria.’ Aeria worked efficiently and quickly collated all the data and loaded it onto screen. However, the news was disappointing. ‘No pods have been recovered so far, but it’s early days. A dozen starships are searching for them. It’s only a matter of time before we find them all.’ 3 IONION 4 As Freesun approached Ionion 4 in the Oiron 5 Planetary System, he could see five other Covenants pods in orbit. He felt relieved that others had managed to escape. Now all I’ve to do is wait until a starship gets here. The pods were designed to provide maximum life support for one week. However, if needed, landing on the planet was an option.