Nova: Genesis

Chapter 2: The Awakening

Solar System: Avorsus V

Planet: Fortuna

Region: Penthose Ocean

11 Quintilo, 2351

Forty one kilometers beneath the ocean’s surface, the three bioshells surveyed the eighth birthplace of their kind: the newest aurora chamber. Here, they were always undisturbed; not even the most advanced human technology could survive the pressure of Fortuna’s deepest region.

The bioshell mother Zena was beheld by her children Marthyx and Lithian. They joined her to witness the birth of her third child. He was to be named Zoza, Arannah had told her.

The only visible light was provided by brilliant clouds of basalt particles, emitted periodically from the many surrounding chimneys. They glowed blue from the electric bolts that swarmed inside the clouds. With each puff, the bioshells were delighted by the electricity that tickled their exoskeleton.

Mounted on the central platform was a humanoid circulatory system. The stalwart calcium veins held the blood within, composed of cells protected by a durable cytoplasmic wall—an enhanced cellular structure evolved from human DNA. The veins were held up by two metallic spheres that rotated within, suspended over the stone floor. One held the brain, the other the heart. Over the past month, Zena had grown her son’s two organs in her body, their tissue stemming from hers. Now the life-form was ready to be animated. All that was needed was the capsule for its soul.

The biorobotic race were composed of a rare and mysterious metal, coined mollaeris by the Britanian scientists who had discovered it in 2234. The substance could be telekinetically manipulated by the bioshells, liquified and solidified at their will. This phenomenon had baffled humans, who attributed the power to their superior brain, advanced beyond human understanding.

Only the bioshells were privy to the truth. Running through their veins, intermingled with their humanistic blood was an ineffably powerful fluid. They called it nova. Its origin was unknown. Each of the eight mothers claimed it a gift from Arannah. The nova allowed them to harness the power of the red onyx ore—and the power to shape their mollaeris skeleton.

A pool of the sacred metal surrounded the platform. Zena closed her eyes, and it began to heat. Soon it was molten. An eruption of bubbles rose from the mollaeris ring. As she lifted her arms, the metal rose with them. It surrounded her child’s circulatory system in a sphere. From the walls of the sphere, she drew the mollaeris inward, solidifying it into tubular muscles that wrapped around the veins.

Her second-born Lithian was more fascinated then ever, witnessing the way in which she was made. Her mother’s fingers curled with the deft skill of a virtuoso, manipulating the ethereal metal at ten different loci. The sphere diminished, expiring as Zena plated on the smooth outer shell.

Zoza’s body was complete. She went to her son and reached out lovingly, her hand resting on his heart.

By the authority vested in me by our Goddess,she announced, I now grant you life, Zoza of Rosidian, son of Arannah.

Blue sparks traveled along her arm, from her heart to his.Then Zoza’s eyes were opened.

The newborn bioshell knelt before the colossal sculpture of the winged goddess. His kin had brought him to their home, Veyron 8, a pyramidal island that hovered above the sea. They had traveled to Fortuna’s north pole—the site of their temple, the Saber.

A granite obelisk, the Saber stretched high for 20 kilometers, reaching the stratosphere. Roaring plasma thrusters had lifted Veyron 8 well above the clouds. They were now level with the feet of Arannah—a faceless, angelic statue, arms low and stretched out to receive her followers.

Zoza’s mother approached him. Lift your eyes.

He obeyed. For the second time, she reached for his heart. Her fingers grew, tubes entering his body. To you, Zoza, my third-born child, I impart the gift of Arannah. Receive her blood.

When she injected him with the nova, he felt as if lightning had struck his heart. After she withdrew her hand, he could still feel the power rushing through his veins. His siblings alternated his oaths.

Use the nova to carry out Arannah’s will,Marthyx began.

I will use the nova to carry out Arannah’s will,he repeated.

To preserve the life of every sentient being,Lithian recited.

I will preserve the life of every sentient being.

To never take the life of a sentient being.

I will never take the life of a sentient being.

To maintain order in the universe.

I will maintain order in the universe.

The three bioshells looked to their mother to finish the rite. She was distracted, eyes fixed on the statue’s barren face.

A vision,Marthyx nodded knowingly.

What does your prescience reveal, Mother?Asked Lithian.

Owing to Zena’s widened eyes and quivering body, they knew it was not an auspicious vision. But her trembling ceased, the fear in her eyes replaced by joy.

I see. . Arannah’s return. The end of mortal days. A red stairway from heaven, lowered down to me. The sky is filled with the glorious light! And she descends — our goddess — offering me her hand. How fortunate I am, to be the one to greet her at the end of days!

Marthyx and Lithian offered her their congratulations, hiding their skepticism. Though they would speculate amongst themselves in the days to come, they never let their mother know how they questioned the accuracy of her interpretation. Nor would Zena ever confess her doubt—never revealing how the heavenly light scorched the earth around her—how her goddess had vanished, turning to dust when she had reached for her.

The following was recorded by Mathew Reneigh, captain of Avon 7, in his logbook at 16:34 (from Cora Rune’s 38 hour day) on 24 July (from Fortuna’s calendar), 2572:

7 hours have passed since we crash landed on the moon. Avon 7 has sustained severe damage. Of the 86 souls that departed from Fortuna, only 11 are now gathered at the crash site. 8 Britanians — 5 of my crew, 2 Politian scientists, and the Phenesian Lord Bradley Varvatta — were killed in the crash. The rest had fled the ship mid-flight. God willing, they will soon return from the expansive forest.

During our initial orbit, we descried a large, metallic mechanism hovering above the moon’s south pole — undoubtedly a remnant of the Dia civilization. Evidently, any metallic object that comes within ~2 thousand kilometers of this Diatroph is warped by an ungodly force. The bioshells Zenkai and Vinsai are currently repairing our damaged instruments. They have succeeded in restoring the ether shield generator — a small comfort. Our comms tower was greatly damaged in our descent, but Zenkai assures me the antenna will soon be functional. And Vinsai, who is currently repairing a transport wing, is confident it will soon be flight-worthy. Never have I felt so indebted to our brethren race.

I fear we should never have come to Cora Rune. I’ve become certain that this place was once the world of the gods. We traverse holy ground — or so the bioshells tell me. The moon has a pulse, and red onyx flows in its veins. In one square kilometer, they detect more red onyx than has ever been known to exist — more than can be found at all 17 Diatrophic sites.

What troubles me greatly is the fate of the Lenux. Even with their incredible telepathic range, neither Zenkai or Vinsai has been able to detect the presence of the three bioshells that had crewed the first apollo. To think that they could have been slain. . . a terrifying prospect. I pray for the swift arrival of Queen Melfini’s flagship. For my crew, I am outwardly hopeful. But at heart, I doubt we will survive these next six months. Of one thing I am certain: there is intelligent life on this moon. Yet I dread its discovery.

Isaac gritted his teeth with every agonizing breath that escaped from his enemy’s gills. The predator was slumped against the skeleton. Earlier, its claw had reached through the ribcage, then had withdrawn when the boy lashed out with a sharpened bone. His enemy had lost interest in procuring one final meal. It lay defeated, dark blue blood seeping around the six spikes protruding from its scales.

Whether hours or days had passed, Isaac could only guess. He had remained conscious, tormented by this creature’s pitiful wheezing. With loathing eyes, he had watched its squirming body, afflicted by the knowledge that Gina’s corpse rested within. Such passionate hatred—this, he had known since his mother’s abduction. But before, he had never met his enemy. All his anger was gathered, projected onto this hideous lifeform. So great was his fury that he had forgotten to contemplate his impending death. His body was broken, and his transmitter had been rendered useless by Cora Rune’s magnetic field. He knew there was no escaping this cave. All he lived for now was to see his enemy killed.

The eye had been shut for some time now. Quietly, he crawled to the sleeping predator, ignoring the pain. He held the pointed bone high, then came down with all his strength. His weapon punctured the beast’s eye. It roared in anguish, its many appendages flailing frantically. Isaac too cried out as its claws carved furrows along his back. He pushed down with his weight, driving the stake deeper until its arms went limp.

Finally, its contemptible breathing ceased. The boy collapsed on his defeated enemy, red blood mixing with the blue. He felt faint. His mind clouded over. Just as he was letting sleep take him, he felt the heartbeat behind him.

His eyes were drawn to the skeleton that had protected him, to a cluster of bones that formed a perfect sphere amidst the mangled heap. Somehow, he could sense a faint heartbeat inside this orb—not hear, but feel it beating, its rhythm akin to his heart.

Despite his mortal wounds, an unexplainable hope drew the boy to the fossilized alien. He found enough strength to crawl back inside the ribcage. The pulse strengthened as he neared. He reached for the pearly white orb, staining it blue with the blood of his vanquished foe.

The cage stirred, responding to his touch. Each curved bone peeled back and straightened. The source of the heartbeat was unveiled—a red, sinewy pouch of living tissue.

It was an egg—or so it appeared; he could feel the life thriving inside it. Suddenly, a talon emerged and tore across the membrane. Six appendages shot through. They folded with a tentacular flexibility and peeled back the tissue.

When Isaac first looked into the eyes of the creature, they comforted him, more familiar to him than any human’s. It crawled from the bile and mounted the bones that had held it, looking down at the human that lay dying. The boy was reaching up to the alien. But his hand fell, and darkness overcame him.

Then he was pulled back, woken by a sting in his chest. He sat up with an intense inhalation and sent his hands to his heart. The creature’s angular head was before him, two eyes peering deep into his. Its six appendages were dug into his heart. They were injecting him with something. He could feel it, pervading the inside of his body, setting his blood afire. The pain was excruciating. He felt as if his muscles were being torn apart, his bones split open.

When the creature withdrew its talons, he fell back on his side. He lay there trembling, too unsure of his spasmodic muscles to use them. He could still feel it flowing inside him, the fluid it had mixed with his blood.

An inverted face swung down before him. Arms wrapped around the rib ceiling, the creature hung there, watching him quizzically. It growled softly, its voice a low rumble.

“What the hell did you do to me?” he coughed.

When the boy rose, he almost leaped; the motion required such little effort. He felt a new balance in his step and new flexibility in his muscles. And he had been healed. Whoa, he thought, inspecting the arm that had been broken moments earlier. What the hell did you do to me?

A day had passed uneventfully. The Teklans sat in the fresh morning, yawning with impatience. Locked within the distant forest of vines, the parasitic organisms paced the border of ash. Across the barren circle was a red jungle. Snake-like creatures, large and menacing, patrolled the perimeter. They were inspecting the intruders. They too did not advance.

“You s’pose they’re afraid of us?” Navan asked Marko.

The ranger pondered this. “Not afraid, they’re cautious. We don’t look threatening to them, but they saw what we’re capable of. They’re smart enough not to attack us– yet. They’re assessing us.”

Overhearing each conversation, Zoza was thrilled to hear the humans taking pride in their bioshell companions. Even Terran, the foolish brute who loved to blame the bioshells for the 10 Day Rebellion whenever he drank, was proud to call him one of their own. “Ya know, I always said they had their uses. Not a damn alien in this galaxy can stop us.” Zoza had been amused by his audacity.

But not everyone was celebrating. Head bowed between folded legs, Skylin Keller had isolated herself from the party. She had not slept. Her brother Zeyto sat behind her, shaking with distress, his eyes mobile and erratic. They moved about as if he were searching for something. Neither had spoken—not since the sun had risen, when Zeyto, desperate for consolation, had remarked, “I wish Reiner could share this beautiful view with us. He’d love it.” But he said no more after she had snapped, “Reiner wouldn’t give two shits about the sunrise. He was never up that early, and he never thought anything was beautiful.”

At midday, the rumble of an engine brought relief to everyone. A transport wing came swooping over the trees, the red, blue, and white Britanian emblem glimmering. Once they were brought back to Avon 7, the Teklans went to work. They set up their encampment, piecing together metal sheets and wheeling out furniture—portable homes that they had brought, not wanting to share living quarters with the Phenesians aboard Avon 7. The settlers went about cheerfully and asserted their dominance over this mysterious world, oblivious to the powerful sentient lifeform that watched them from afar, studying them with malice.

When the boy woke, he was greeted by a face of blue feathers and emerald eyes. He was glad to see the alien, having feared that she might leave him while he slept. Rising, he stretched out his new, unfamiliar body.

Time to find my dad, he thought worriedly. The alien seemed to understand him, trotting at his side. When he ascended the cave wall, he had difficulty finding grip—though he was amazed by how easily his arms were able to hoist his body up.

Next to him, his companion darted up with ease. Her two taloned feet latched onto the rock face, her six appendages finding roots and grooves for support. Moving with dexterity, she reached the moonlit hole and let down a tentacle to Isaac. It felt thick with fur, soft when he grabbed it. Then when she lifted him, the fibers seemed to harden, her arm becoming tense and firm.

The red jungle was blue in the moonlight. As they hiked, he studied the creature. Whenever she looked up at him, he knew there was a soul behind those eyes. A realization came over him. I’ve found it. An intelligent lifeform. They’re here. We’ve looked for hundreds of years. No one’s ever seen any. Except me.

He hoped that the creature would always be his. “What am I gonna call you?” At this, she stopped walking and stretched her neck up to him eagerly. He felt his breast, where she had injected his heart. The holes had closed, but six scars remained. He remembered the sharp pain, but grinned. “How ’bout . . Knives. I think I’ll call you Knives.” This seemed agreeable to the alien, who gave an enthusiastic hop.

Later, he stopped walking, noticing that his friend had paused. She stood rigid, alert. “What’s wrong?”

Suddenly, a large mass from above crashed down. The predator had landed on Knives. Pinned to the ground, she screeched when it sunk its claw into her flesh, her voice a vehement roar.

“No!” Isaac immediately responded. Without deliberation, he drew the bone dagger he had slew Gina’s murderer with. He would not let another friend fall to this odious species. He sunk the bone into his enemy’s tail. It howled and whipped him against a tree.

Seeing the human in peril gave Knives a boost of vigor. She freed herself from its claws, then leaped high, latching onto its back.

Frozen by shock, the boy watched the carnage fly. Knives was ripping the predator apart. It thrashed about, smashing against trees, grabbing at her with its claws. She evaded them, hopping down its snakelike body. She was latching onto its scales and ripping off flesh with her jaws. Soon it grew weak and collapsed, writhing in a pool of its blood.

The alien went to the human with a piece of its flesh held in her mouth. She dropped it at his feet, waiting. The boy lifted it, cringing at its stench. “Thanks, but I’m, uh . . I’m not hungry.”

Knives looked at him with disapproval, but then let off a happy growl.

When the sun rose, Isaac noticed many more of the predators. They did not hide from him. Keeping their distance, the serpents were watching him intently. Whenever one would draw too near, Knives would send it back with a warning growl. Their proximity terrified the boy. Seemingly greater, though, was their fear of Knives. Even he feared his protector. He had never seen any creature display such vicious strength. Her ferocious roar alone could command the respect of any creature.

At sundown, the Teklans gathered in the Black Cradle tavern. As any opportunistic bartender would have, Luther Cane had garnered popularity among the Teklans during the six month apollo journey. The plump Politian had thoroughly researched Teklar, and he had carefully led his patrons to believe that he was from their nation. He did not favor deception; but Teklans were not an inclusive sort, being quick to spite outsiders.

The makeshift tavern did not look as Luther had hoped it would. A wooden veneer of rich red and brown had been drilled onto the interior side of each panel. The metal sheets had been warped and were now curled slightly. The mahogany had splintered, and wind whistled through the gaps in the wall. He felt discouraged, surveying his disheveled establishment. But his customers did not seem to mind, preoccupied with their raucous reveling.

Terran was ranting in a drunken red furry, cursing Pheneyzha as he did most nights. They were celebrating—and still his flame of hatred blazed, incorrigible. “We come with 52, we only lose 3. They come with 34, now they down ta 11. Ha!”

“14, now,” Greylark corrected with a wide grin. “Wing found that Malacan doctor and his two brats hidin’ up in a tree.”

“Haha! Goddamn monkeys, the lot of ’em! So the kravers lost. . .” he struggled to count his thick fingers. “Ah, hell! Did a whole lot worse than us! We only lost 3! How them apples taste, Queen whore-thorn!”

“You should shut your idiot mouth, Terran,” Marco snapped, spittle escaping from his beard.

Terran either did not hear or was ignoring him. Beer spilled from his mug as he pounded the table with it. “A toast! Toast! Drink ta Teklar! Here’s to only three dead! Haha! Ye hear that, Mel-fuckin’ whore-thorn! Ye only got three of—”

Broken glass exploded in a spray of beer and blood as Terran was sent flying from his chair. Skylin stood over him, grasping the handle of her broken mug. In her other hand was a revolver. She squatted next to him, menacing the archaic firearm inches from his bleeding nose.

“Only lost 3? ‘s that all?” she spat with slurred words. “How ’bout we make it four?”

The large man was shaking with fear, speechless—too frightened to notice the puddle of urine spreading around him.

A boisterous Teklan broke the tense silence. “Shoot ‘im! ‘s not gonna work anyway.”

“Maybe. Should we find out?” Her finger was quivering on the trigger. “I’d drink to this mother fucker’s death—”

BANG!

Smoke escaped from the barrel, a steaming bullet lodged in the wooden floor, four centimeters from Terran’s head. Zoza had pulled Skylin’s arm away.

Her eyes, wide with surprise, squinted with hatred when she noticed him. “What the hell you think you’re doin’, robot? Get yer goddamn claws offa me!”

“As soon as you calm yourself, Skylin,” he replied quietly.

“I am calm!”

The boishell cautiously released his tight grip. She swung her arm up and pushed the revolver against his metal shell, right over his heart. “You gotta lotta nerve, subhuman! Showin’ yer face ’round me, a day after you let my brother die!”

He was caught off guard. So she blames me. He had never considered this possibility. “I apologize for your loss, Skylin. As you say, it was my negligence that—”

“Fuck your apology!” she spat on him. The dripping saliva sullied his gleaming metal. “You’re not sorry for shit! Lyin’ mother fucker, you let him die! You could’ve saved him, but you were too busy studyin’ those monsters. Reiner’s life wasn’t worth a shit to you! You just wanted to see what those aliens could do, so you let him die! Didn’t you?”

He had difficulty finding a response. Perhaps there was truth in her accusation.

Didn’t you!”

“Please, Skylin. Reiner was my friend—”

BANG!

“You don’t get to say his name!” she screamed as she unloaded the remaining bullets.

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!

Instinctively, Zoza shaped his arm into the canon. It surged bright with red onyx.

He paused, noticing the five bullet holes in his chest. She had shot in a circle—around his heart.

The bar was silent, save for the humming of the ether. Every Teklan was frozen with shock. Never had any of them seen a bioshell raise arms against a human—never had they known one to commit any aggressive act. Zoza recovered and transmogrified his arm back into its human shape.

Skylin laughed in cynical triumph. “You gonna kill me too, freak? Haha! I bet ye wanna, don’t you? I saw that look in yer eyes yesterday. You get off to destroyin’ real living things.”

“Please forgive me,” he mumbled, horrified by his actions. He quickly backed out of the Black Cradle.

What is wrong Zoza? he heard Mervai’s voice in his head.

Detect gunshots from 21st century model, then Vinsai’s voice.

Why vital signs heightened?now Zenkai’s.

Provoked to draw ether cannon.

Aggression against human exhibited.

Is forbidden.

Of course it’s forbidden!he snapped back.

Detect irrational emotions.

Affimative. Displayed anger and mortal fear of woman.

Rashness and human error.

Use of contraction. Language emotionalized.

Enough! Zoza wished he could shield his mind like a human covers his ears. It is of no consequence. Let me be.

He was grateful for the silence that followed.

Isaac’s body was changing. When beginning his ascent of the tree, he had found difficulty gripping the smooth bark. His hands had then adjusted, his fingers elongating. Sharp gray nails that looked like bones had extended from his fingertips. These short claws sunk into the bark, allowing him to climb the colossal red tree.

Hanging from the steep trunk, he looked down with widened eyes. The predators returned his gaze. They sat in the jungle’s canopy, fifty meters below, now appearing small as worms. The boy felt terrified; but he was sure of himself, more exhilarated than worried.

Again, two furry tentacles were lowered next to him. Knives peered down from the tree’s third segmented level, perched on the globular bulge.

“I’m fine,” he rejected her help for the third time.

She barked disagreement, keeping her arms near him as he crawled up the rounded trunk.

When he reached her, an immense smile was plastered to his face. “See, told ya. That was a cinch.”

He took in the breathtaking sight, then found a red glow to the west. “There! That’s the ether dome. My dad’s over there.”

But Knives’ attention was directed southwest. He met her gaze, surprised by how far he could see; he could clearly make out the moving trees. Something enormous was approaching Avon 7.

Without warning, the alien wrapped two arms around his waste and leaped from the tree. As they fell, she continuously latched onto the trunk with a tentacle, swinging around the tree in a spiral.

Isaac would have screamed if he had not been gasping for air. Her tentacles were constrictive, steel rivets that dug into his stomach. When they reached the bottom, he crashed down on the roots and tumbled for several meters. He expected to break several bones. Instead, he felt no pain after the initial impact. His body had been not harmed but invigorated by the fall.

His companion looked at him, growled violently, then motioned in the direction of the settlement. The boy nodded. They darted through the forest, Knives leading the way.

He wondered how fast he was running—surely faster than any twelve year-old human had ever run before.

Lord Grantham rushed into the Avon’s sickbay. “James, the bioshells say a large object’s approaching us—at least 100 meters in height!”

James Havoc cursed, yanking the IV from his arm. He stabbed a numbing agent into his broken leg, then rose on his crutch.

Grantham briefed him while he struggled to follow down the hall. “It’s moving at 30 kilometers per hour, two minutes out. And General— Zoza says this thing’s filled with red onyx. He predicts it might have omnipotent weaponry.”

Gods. Soon we’ll know the fate of the Lenux, the old man said to himself.

Outside, everyone was looking south. Their eyes were cast high to the summit of the mountains before them. The earth trembled, and shale began to roll down the hills.

“30 seconds until object is visible,” Zoza announced.

“If it is hostile, 82 percent probability that it will destroy the settlement,” Mervai estimated.

Not so probable, her elder brother thought, the nova boiling his blood.

The humans drew back when the mechanical giant rose above the mountains. It was a metallic quadruped that moved like a spider. Its four slender legs folded at sharp angles, bending at several different segments—and these segments were not designated; the seemingly rigid metal could somehow bend at any point. Its hands grasped the mountain crests. Four large claws extended from its arm, and four smaller fingers extended from each claw, sinking into the rock.

At the end of its long, slim neck was a cubic head. A diamond shaped ruby was imbedded in the brown metal. It glowed a brilliant red but was tarnished by swirls of black ink. When it inspected the humans, the black clouds within its eye thrashed about angrily.

It scurried down the mountains, each step a low-magnitude earthquake. Then it pressed against the ether sphere with its two front claws. Ripples tore across the shield while its red stone intensified in brilliance. The humans had to turn their faces from the red beam that shot from its eye. Blinding light flooded the dome, emanating from the laser’s point of impact with the scorching shield.

“Shield at 91 percent power!” Zenkei roared above the clamor.
“2 and a half minutes until its depletion,” Vinsei added.

“Zoza!” Grantham pulled the bioshell down to where his head was bowed. “Command your brethren to charge their ether cannons! I authorize maximum use of Cora Rune’s red onyx!”

“You do not have the authority to exhaust the sacred ore,” Mervei argued.

“Like hell I don’t! Our colony is at stake, empty shell! Now comply!”

“Not necessary, Charles,” Zoza tried to placate the noble. “I alone should be responsible. Additional involvement would be wasteful.”

“Shield at 64 percent power!”

Prepare to open three meter diameter hole at coordinates 12.36 and 37.43, he ordered, charging his cannon.

Affirmative, responded Vinsei, who was connected with the shield generator.

When the opening was made, Zoza hesitated.

“What’re you waiting for?” Grantham yelled. “Fire your weapon!”

“Shield at 47 percent power!”

“Destroy it, bioshell!” Havoc snapped.

Destroy a sentient lifeform? he deliberated. Must we destroy what we have searched for? Perhaps the humans could not recognize it as such. But Zoza could plainly detect the soul behind its eye—a soul that he had once pledged to preserve.

Movement to his left caught his eyes. A small, agile creature had leaped from the trees. When it roared, it captured everyone’s attention—even the giant’s. The humans were perturbed by its thunderous bellowing—the baritone voice that rattled their ear drums and vibrated their bones, immobilizing them.

The mechanical giant’s assault on the dome had been interrupted. The creature’s ruby eye was now turned to the mysterious beast.

Hiding behind the foliage, Isaac was pinned to the ground by awe and disbelief. Knives stood erect, growling viciously at the monster that loomed over her. It was hundreds of times her size—yet she tamed it with her vociferous voice, sending it shrinking back with each aggressive snarl.

The giant’s head was bowed, leveled with the beast, each creature inspecting the other with intense interest.

Grantham’s voice was a harsh whisper. “Shoot the blasted thing, Zoza! Take it out while it’s distracted!”

Havoc placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder, hoping to calm him. The situation had taken an inexplicable and bizarre turn; it did not call for rash action.

But the noble was less prudent. “In the name of Queen Melfini Hawthorne of Britania, I command you to fire upon that monster!”

“Command me in whichever name you choose,” Zoza replied absentmindedly, barely paying him any mind. “I will determine my course of destruction.”

“You insolent ro—”

“Quiet, Charles!” Havoc snapped. One sharp command from his mentor was all it took to subdue Grantham’s zeal.

It seemed the beast had placated the giant. The black swirls were fading from its eye, the cloud nearly dissipated. The small creature then released a climactic bellow, turning the ruby eye away from the humans. Without a backward glance, the mechanical monster retreated up the mountain. It disappeared from sight, its footsteps fading until the earth ceased to quake.

With timid steps, Isaac rejoined his alien companion. He saw the shock in every eye that watched him. He might have felt boastful pride were it not for his anxiety. His eyes darted over the face of every settler, searching desperately.

“Isaac!”

His heart leaped when he heard his father call his name. Nicolas was pressed against the shield. He had not allowed his father to embrace him for four years—not since he had let them take his mother away. The boy told himself that he would not grant him the satisfaction now. But when the shield parted, and he saw Nicolas rush to him, he felt his legs carry him forward.

Father and son embraced, and Isaac wept openly for the friend they had lost.

“Gina’s dead, Dad. . They killed her. I – I couldn’t protect her. I’m so sorry. . .”

Nicolas hushed him. “You’re alive, my son. That’s all that matters. Thank the gods, you’re alive.”

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