In the depths of outer space, there was a flash of light as hundreds of ships appeared out of nowhere. Day by day, hour by hour, thousands of people and goods traveled across the galaxy using the Terminal. As the ships exited the ring-shaped artifact, new ones quickly took their place, huddling together in a ball like a school of fish. Once full, the ring glowed an ominous blue, and a thick black mist enveloped each ship. A mote of perfect black formed in the center of the Terminal; it expanded in an instant, swallowing the ships, and for a moment nothing existed inside the ring, not even light.
There was another flash, and a new school of ships filled the ring. Among these new ships was one that bristled with antennas. It broadcasted the galactic daily news to the Lan System while simultaneously accepting new information. Among those receiving their dose of gossip and entertainment were over a hundred thousand citizens living aboard the space station that orbited Lan Terminal. The station was composed of a primary and secondary ring, plus 240 pods mounted on spokes.
A thin man named Hocco glanced nervously at the Terminal through the skylight in pod L-137. He sat on a couch in a large common room. Almost two dozen armed members of the rebel group Unity milled about the open space. Some wore old fatigues and sat cleaning their rifles and counting their ammunition. Others were eating breakfast. A pile of pans and dishes sat unwashed on the kitchen counter. At the far end of the common room, others whooped and cheered as they watched spaceship racing on the vidscreen. They were all here for a common purpose, to protect Hocco—or, more accurately, the secret he carried.
“You look nervous, Hocco,” said a man with a thick black beard and long gray hair that hung in front of his creased face. “You’re starting to make me nervous, and when I’m nervous, I lose my appetite,” he said before taking another bite of synthetic meat covered in gravy.
“Sorry, Boros,” Hocco said as he tore his gaze away from the Terminal and wrung his hands. “I’ve got a bad feeling today.”
“Have something to eat.” Boros pushed a plate across the table toward him. “You’ll feel better, and you need it.”
Hocco was whip-thin. A result of genetics and a constant state of nervousness due to living in fear over the last few months. His guts clenched at the sight of the synthetic meat. Stop it, Hocco thought. We’ve been here for weeks. If Tyr knew where we were, then they’d have attacked by now. He pulled the plate closer.
“You know,” Boros said as he sipped from a yellow mug, “you do make a damn fine cup of coffee.”
When you lived on a space station millions of kilometers from the nearest plantation, your coffee-brewing technique was invaluable. Hocco was the best brewer on Lan station, and had often been called an artisan of the craft.
“I know how good my coffee is.” Hocco didn’t mean to sound flippant, but his nerves didn’t allow for a sweeter tone. He brushed his long black hair behind one ear and took a sip from his own mug. The warmth settled his stomach but failed to calm him down.
Boros laughed. “I suppose you do.” He nudged the plate closer. “Eat.”
Hocco didn’t move.
A boy who was no more than twenty spoke up. “Is it true what they say about him? About the admiral?”
“Vae Victus?” Boros chewed the simulated meat. “Depends. What did you hear?”
“That he has an eye as black as space. That he can take over your body with just a look—”
Boros interrupted. “That he’s assassinated world leaders by possessing their bodyguards, closest friends, and even their lovers.” He waved his fork at the boy. “I don’t think any of it is true. It’s all a bunch of propaganda meant to keep us in line. All I know for sure is that we’re safe here, and my breakfast is getting cold.”
At the thought of Admiral Victus, Hocco’s stomach twisted, and he pushed his food away.
* * *
The warship Tamarack arrived at Lan Station in a flash of light. It was a huge ship that stretched across the entire two-kilometer diameter of the Terminal. Accompanying it was a strike group—mostly corvettes and cruisers—that immediately joined in the organized chaos around the station’s docks.
With so much traffic, no one noticed a single transport launching from one of the Tamarack’s many hangars. Admiral Vae Victus sat in the copilot’s seat of the transport. They drifted silently, with the power off, in the shadow of a cruiser.
A direct message arrived from the Tamarack: “Sir, we’ve located the rebel’s vessel. It is docked outside pod L-145.”
At once, the transport peeled off from its host and approached the ring-shaped Lan Station. After matching the space station’s orbit, the transport docked at a maintenance airlock near pod L-145.
Victus rose from the copilot’s seat. The confined space forced him to bend his two-meter frame in half. He patted the pilot on the back. “Good flying.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Victus brushed his white-blond hair back and pulled on his helmet, trading the recycled air of the ship for the stale air of his suit. He drifted back toward the crew compartment. The ship bucked as docking clamps fastened to the transport, and Victus bumped against the hull. Inside his armored black suit, he barely noticed, and his magnetic boots held him to the ship’s floor in the absence of gravity.
Four armored marines occupied the crew compartment. They stood nearly three meters tall in their hypersuits. Red skulls adorned their black face masks and grinned evilly down at Victus.
One of the marines stepped forward. “Admiral Victus,” a woman’s voice broadcasted into his helmet. “Sergeant Alberta of Fireteam Draco.”
“Sergeant.” Victus stood before the fireteam. “We have located the terrorist group. They call themselves Unity,” he said, growling the word. “It is Tyr who put an end to the First Galactic War. We secured peace, and now the galaxy puts its faith in us to keep it.”
The marines raised their right fists.
“These terrorists want to undermine that trust and unseat us from our rightful place as Terminal defenders. Will we let them?”
“No, sir!” The four marines spoke in unison.
“What are your orders?” Alberta asked.
“Set your guns to stun. You must capture the rebels alive for me to interrogate. We must discover the location of the escaped Selkans.”
Alberta turned to her marines. “Draco!”
“Oorah!” they responded as one and slammed their heavy fists against their broad, armored chests.
“Lead the way, Sergeant,” Victus said.
“Yes, sir.” Alberta turned and led them into the airlock.
Victus shut the airlock door and stood face-to-face with the marines. After the airlock’s red light switched to green, Alberta pressed a button, and the hatch opened with a hiss. The marines rushed out and took up defensive positions in the hallway. Red lights in the ceiling illuminated the metallic alloy of the walls. The system’s star, Lan, was visible as a large, bright dot through a bank of windows. The corridor, which ran the circumference of the station, provided access to the 120 pods on this side. An identical passage on the opposite side of the station connected another 120 pods.
“Remain on alert,” Alberta said. “With the arrival of the Tamarack, the rebels will be prepared for us.” She pointed to the door on her right. Stenciled numbers indicated pods 140 through 149. “This way.”
The marines followed the sergeant.
“Wait.” Victus closed his eyes and held his hand up to his face mask. “We go this way.” He pointed left to pods 130 through 139.
“Sir, the rebels docked their ship at L-145,” Alberta said.
“That is a diversion.”
“How do you know?”
“I can feel it,” Victus said.
“Based on your Æon senses?”
“Yes, sergeant.” Victus turned and walked down the left corridor toward pods 130 through 139.
Alberta paused for a beat before turning to the left. “You heard the admiral. This way,” she commanded.
The marines followed her without question. Inside their enormous suit, they were forced to duck through the hatch leading to the interior corridor.
Victus stopped outside pod L-137. “Here.”
Alberta raised a fist and the team halted. “Sir, if you’re wrong…” she started.
“I am not wrong.”
Alberta pointed at one of the marines and gave a hand signal. The marine withdrew a canister from a satchel and traced the seams of the heavy pod door with gel. Within moments, the gel spread into the seams, eating away the hinges and locks that kept it secure. Victus was thankful for his helmet as a heavy cloud of caustic smoke billowed into the hallway.
Next, Alberta approached the door and dug her fingers into the seams. With a whir of her suit’s motors, she ripped the door off the pod. All at once, the squad activated their shields and formed a wall in front of Victus. One of the marines made a throwing motion, and a flash grenade exploded inside the pod. Then, the marines moved like a serpent through the door, with Alberta as the head.
Victus watched the chaos from the doorway. The infrared sensors in his face mask marked cool objects in blue, and warm objects—like people—in red. Guns flashed and shields pulsed, all highlighted by the smoke of the grenade. Men and women screamed as suppression rounds shocked their nervous systems. Victus tilted his head to the side, and a ceramic bullet screamed past his helmet and shattered against the wall.
A thin man with an angular face and long black hair fled from the pod. Victus grabbed him by the neck and held him off the ground with one hand. A handgun clattered to the floor. The man tried to insert something into his mouth. A pill. Victus grabbed his arm and shook the pill loose. He carried the man over the broken door and into the pod.
The station’s air scrubbers were already dissipating the smoke, revealing a communal living area with two tipped-over couches and a table covered in half-eaten meals. The marines confiscated all the weapons and then lined the men and women against a wall. A score of bodies lay immobile throughout the room.
Victus ground his teeth. “What happened? Why are there only five left?” Victus stared up at the nearest marine. “I said stun only.”
“We did, sir, but they took suicide pills before we could stop them.”
Victus thought about the pill he’d shaken from the man’s hand, then shoved the rebel against the wall with the others. The man dropped to the ground, gasping for air. Victus stepped backward until all the prisoners were visible. Three wore the uniforms of the Balt System; the others were in civilian clothing. Their faces showed fear and panic. Some sobbed, while others bared their teeth.
Victus needed answers. One by one, he approached each prisoner and asked for the location of the escaped Selkans. Of course, they would all deny knowing the Selkans’ location, but Victus could tell when people were lying.
As Victus interrogated the prisoners he thought, What if I’m wrong? What if nobody here knows where the Selkans are? He leaned in close to the thin man. Like the others, he’d denied knowing where the escaped aliens were, but when he asked the question, the man’s aura flickered.
Victus fought against smiling while a thrill shivered through his gut. He pulled the man away from the wall.
“You are all enemies of Tyr,” he said to the rest of them. “Your cause is not just.” He looked at Alberta. “For the sake of the galaxy, we must protect the secret. Kill them.”
“No,” the man gasped.
With a nod, Alberta and the other marines aimed their arm cannons at the prisoners. The pod exploded with gunfire.
The man shuddered as his comrades were torn to shreds. Tears traced paths down his dusty face. “We will never surrender.” He spat, and a streak of saliva slithered across Victus’s face mask.
Alberta stepped forward and pressed her arm against the man’s head. A thin line of smoke still trailed from the cannon.
Trembling, the man dropped to his knees, and wetness spread down his leg. “I will not talk.”
Victus chuckled, a sound void of amusement. “There is no need.” He nodded to Alberta, who lowered her arm. Victus crouched in front of the prisoner. “You won’t need to tell me anything…Hocco.”
“How?” Hocco recoiled. “How do you know my name?” He tried to stand up, but Alberta held him in place, like a cat with a mouse under its paw.
Victus removed his helmet. The acrid smoke of the flash grenade joined with the smell of blood and human waste, and stung his nostrils.
“It’s true,” Hocco looked up and shuddered. “What they say about you is true.”
“Excellent, then you know that it is useless to resist me. Tell me where the Selkans are.”
“Kill me, please.” He grabbed Alberta’s arm and aimed the barrel of her cannon at his head.
Victus pinched the bridge of his nose. “You helped the Selkans escape, and now I’m going to find out where they are.” He sat down cross-legged in front of the rebel.
With a deep breath, Victus closed his eyes, and his consciousness manifested into an ethereal form. Strange creatures of shadow teased the edge of his supernal vision. His spirit was as beautiful as the archetypal angel, but invisible to the ordinary human. His power radiated in waves of rainbow light as he walked through the pool of blood that crept across the floor.
Then, Victus was staring at his own face from Hocco’s eyes. He saw his own high cheekbones and aquiline nose that emphasized his angular features. Thick, dark eyebrows framed his strange eyes—one crystalline blue on white. The other black on black.
Victus almost laughed aloud as Hocco’s consciousness attempted to fight back. When Hocco’s struggling grew tiresome, Victus squashed it like a piece of ripe fruit.
Hocco’s spirit appeared in the room as a dim specter, barely holding human form. Confusion and fear warped his spirit’s face. Without a bond, there was nothing to protect him, and the dark shapes pounced, pulling him into their horde. One day, Victus thought, I, too, will sink into that darkness. Then my payment will come due. For now, I have a galaxy to protect. Victus pulled the urine damped cloth away from his leg. Right after I get a clean pair of pants.
“What’s going on?” Alberta whispered as she looked down at Victus’s unresponsive body.
In Hocco’s body, Victus felt the Sergeant’s restraining arm, like a docking clamp holding him in place. “You can let go now, Alberta.”
“How—how do you know my name?”
Victus felt a slight tremble as the sergeant released her grip and stepped back.
“It’s true,” she said. “You really can possess people.”
Victus ignored the Sergeant and browsed through Hocco’s memories as if he were reading the morning news. After a minute, he stood up and pulled his wet pants away from his leg. “The Selkans have fled to Sol.”
“The closed system?”
“The same.” Victus followed trails of thoughts until he found what he wanted. “They plan to unlock the Terminal,” he whispered. A thrill of excitement ran through his mind. A closed system. A locked Terminal. He smiled. They must have a Riftkey.
As he tore open mental doors and gleaned the contents within, a name surfaced from Hocco’s memories. Jack Spriggan. Ex-military pilot and former smuggler. He’d be willing to help, for the right price.
Victus/Hocco turned to face the sergeant and her marines. Though he looked like the thin man, he still carried the authority of an admiral. “Return to the Tamarack and inform Captain Hoff that he is to remain near Lan Terminal.”
“Yes, sir,” Alberta replied.
She motioned to Victus’s body, which still sat motionless on the floor of the pod. “Sir?”
Victus looked at his unconscious self. “Take my body to the sick bay. I plan on keeping this one for a while.”