Arrow of Time Chronicles, Book 2: Inevitable Kindle cover

Arrow of Time Chronicles, Book 2: Inevitable by Karen Wiesner

When mankind realized Earth would become uninhabitable, Humans built space habitations. Their first allies arrived in 2073 and shared their technology to power ships through space corridors that fold space and time. Only 58 years into their struggle for survival, an enemy emerges. In the wake of this threat an organic menace is only beginning to be recognized, ensuring the annihilation of every living thing if, together, they can’t find a way to stop it.

 

Arrow of Time Chronicles, Book 2: Inevitable Kindle coverTori Bertoletti, librarian and planet cataloger, and Raze Salen, mankind’s emissary, aboard the Human spacefaring liveship the Aero have convinced their government of the dire need to negotiate formal alliances with the other cultures in the galaxy. The monumental task they’re undertaking and the consequences of failure are mind-rattlingly clear.  Complications muddle the mission in the form of uneasy truces and frustrating stalemates, long-held enigmatical cosmologies suddenly called into life-altering question, along with immediate and imminent threats that could tear apart the fabric of the entire universe and everything living in it.

Buy Ebook from Amazon thin vertical line Author Page

GENRE: Science Fiction     ISBN: 978-1-925574-68-5      ASIN: B08531SQWN     Word Count: 105, 514

 

Blue Bar

Chapter One

Halon

 

Supreme Monarch Halon simply looked at the lead science engineer until Dagita lowered his eyes and head submissively. Only then did Halon speak, softly, clearly: “Not seven spins ago, you stood before me in this very room. Do you remember what you told me, Dr. Dagita?”

“Supreme Monarch, I assure you–”

“I recall your every word, Dr. Dagita. I’ve since seen the reports of how hard your team is working on the Project, spin after spin, tide cycle after tide cycle. But what is it that you accomplish for all the labor you put in? 79 revolutions ago, I personally handed my senior science engineering staff the means to create a weapon of unparalleled power in the universe.”

“Monarch, that technology was intended to heal on a planetary scale, not–”

“–destroy. Yes, I’m fully aware. I’m also aware that my senior science engineering team has at least managed to reverse-engineer that technology in the revolutions since. Yet countless lead science engineers such as yourself have stood before me with little more than excuses and empty promises about when my weapon can be brought online.”

“Doing so is a delicate, exacting process, Your Grace, as you surely must realize. Any attempt could end in reaching our goal successfully or destroying all of Neth-beo, including its orbital research stations and military facilities.”

Again, Halon leveled the science engineer with a look that quickly forced the man’s eyes and head down. He could clearly see with distaste that the man hadn’t slept in many a spin and he had the appearance of hasty order. No doubt, when Halon had called for a report without warning–as he always did–he’d quickly brought himself up to code, knowing his overlord wouldn’t appreciate being approached in a state of disarray which so vividly betrayed the state of mind behind the appearance.

Only when the science leader was sufficiently cowed did Halon speak once more and then to repeat himself with marked emphasis: “Not seven spins ago, you stood before me in this very place, Dr. Dagita. I recall your every word as if not a single spin has gone by. I will not hear your excuses or your empty promises again. I want that weapon brought online without delay. When next I summon you, I anticipate results rather than pathetic exculpating for why you and the senior science team has thus far wasted the technology and abundant resources I’ve placed freely at your disposal. Should you come with anything other than something new to report, I will not be forgiving.”

“Yes. Without delay, Supreme Monarch.”

“Dismissed.”

The science engineer bowed low before he was escorted by herd soldiers from Central Command in the largest orbital station above the planet Neth-beo.

More than 100 revolutions before, Halon’s people, the Shojani, had built spaceships while under the rule of his father, Hilongko (then Supreme Monarch) on their home planet Shojan. They’d left orbit with those ships with a highly ineffective faster-than-light engine.

Meeting the Vreah–an alien species with an open-handed policy in sharing with all–had given them the technology and resources to begin claiming the universe as their own.

They’d eventually happened upon the Neth-beo system in an area of space unknown to the other alien cultures. Here they were alone, and they’d quickly set about paraterraforming the planet below for habitation while constructing research stations and military posts both on the planet and in orbit of it.

They’d built a fleet of ships, though none more powerful than Paladin, Halon’s own ship. Each dreadnought was capable of holding a thousand FuRod purebloods, numerous seed-mothers propagating the next generation, along with countless Seph-controlled herd soldiers. Each ship allowed for unprecedented stealth and speed and was fully armed. Few could stand against the might of their warbirds.

The Sinshe had learned to detect and stabilize likely wormholes for faster-than-light travel and communication, providing interstellar shortcuts for themselves.

Galactic war–what purebloods have looked forward to for untold ages–will soon be upon us once the weapon is functional. But my best team of science engineers refuse to risk a trial of its power, given that even a small experiment could end in the annihilation of everything we’ve built here at Neth-beo. Our entire future is hinged on the flip of a switch.

Dagita is right to be wary of throwing it prematurely or recklessly. But I can’t publically applaud him for his need to rigorously prepare until conditions for the test run are optimal.

Halon couldn’t do that because, hovering just beyond his right shoulder always, was his second-in-command Carron. Hovering, never relaxing, ever vigilant and scrutinizing each move I make, every word I utter–including the ones I don’t undertake to speak out loud. Forever questioning, doubting, undermining, searching for the slightest vulnerability, ready to swoop in and usurp at a moment’s notice.

Though Halon’s display of irritability with the science team’s reluctance to move forward warred with Carron’s annoying, vulturistic qualities, he couldn’t relax his rigid control. “What of the new prisoners?” he asked calmly, without looking to the right or the left. With his gaze straight forward, he could oversee his vast domain on the viewscreens of the planetary system all around them, the planet below crawling with hundreds of thousands of new herd workers. Prisoners of war. He kept his hands behind his back in a militant stance of command, his feet slightly apart.

“They’ve been put to work, mining the planet or asteroid belt and moons for resources,” Carron responded. “The Seph dosage our medical staff has deemed suitable for their species has kept them sufficiently docile.”

“And the squatter’s leader? Has he been broken?”

“No. But I’m told he won’t survive another interrogation. What point is there in keeping him alive, Monarch? We know these Human encroachers built habitations in orbit of our planet Shojan. They stole resources from our moon and the asteroid belt nearby for ages.”

The FuRod Prophet had foreseen ages ago that his descendant would one day stand beside the Mighty Ruro and make the universe his footstool. Halon’s father had believed himself to be the Chosen One. Before his death, he’d commanded his ascendant son Halon to return to Shojan at the chosen time to take back what belonged to the Sinshe and to begin preparations for conquering all, as pureblood FuRod’s were meant to.

Since time immemorial. Sinshe-Shojani warriors of the FuRod clan had risen as supreme rulers, strong and chosen by the Creator. They’d fought Hiiwa-Shojani, the peaceful and weak, destined only for destruction, in an endless civil war that had (seemingly) resolved once and for all only after Halon himself had commanded the nuclear strike on the planet from orbit 79 revolutions past.

Once the appointed time had come for Halon to return to retake the home planet for FuRod pureblood’s, they’d anticipated finding Shojan in a nuclear winter, all life obliterated by the fallout and subsequent radiation, and still uninhabitable. Though it would take incalculable revolutions, they would heal the mass destruction visited upon their beloved home in order to take back what had belonged to them in the first place. Only then would they rebuild–unopposed by the weak Hiiwa.

Instead of just the fallout of nuclear winter on the planet they’d expected to find when Paladin and two other ships had recently returned to Shojan space, they’d gotten a shock. Looming near the far side of Shojan’s gargantuan moon had been a structure similar to a colossal spaceship that’d been converted into an even more massive orbital habitation complete with shipyards constructed in the asteroid belt in the distance. Another similar structure had been found in the other stable orbiting point on the opposite side of the planet.

Halon had ordered a stealth scan that revealed advanced defensive, technological and scientific systems in place at the habitations. A subsequent download of the squatters’ database had revealed the owners to be an alien species hailing from a planet named Earth, in another quadrant of the galaxy they called Valkyrie Sector, far from Shojan.

The Sinshe had never been to that region of space. Clearly, these aliens knew of the wormholes the Vreah had been the first to detect and stabilize for traversing. The Humans had apparently also benefited from Vreah generosity that was ever eager to enlighten new cultures in the joys of space travel and trade.

And we intercepted a distress call originating from the planet Shojan, proving that there were survivors on the planet after the nuclear war we rained down from orbit 79 revolutions ago. We weren’t the only ones who heard that call. The Humans had as well…and ignored it.

Halon’s own grandmother, Arie, could have intercepted the communication in which her son Hilongko ordered his son Halon to return to their homeworld and deal the final blow on the planet.

Women and inferiors meant nothing to FuRod purebloods. They communicated freely without acknowledging their slaves and inferiors working silently all around them. It was more than conceivable that, before the Sinshe-Shojani left the planet, Arie had overheard the rulers speak openly of the vast underground bunkers built deep beneath Phares, a city occupying more than a third of the interior of the planet. Sinshe had spent centuries building and stockpiling those bunkers with every conceivable necessity to house and protect the warriors and a contingent of serving Hiiwa.

If she’d been the rebel leader…

Arie had obviously overheard the destruct command from the Monarch, long knew of the bunkers, and gotten as many as she could into them before the damning command to end all life on the planet was given. The Hiiwa had no way to leave the planet after the Sinshe took the spaceships they’d built and, when even that wasn’t enough to get them to kowtow to their superiority, Halon had followed the orders given to him by the Supreme Monarch in nuking them from orbit.

But I didn’t do it easily. Didn’t do it without price or fury. The Prophet’s doctrine by all rights should have prevented the feelings I’d retained for Mare Arie, who raised me, from surfacing. But it didn’t. And I knew I couldn’t forget, let alone forgive…

The question whether those survivors had constructed a space habitation in orbit of Shojan in the revolutions since had been answered when Paladin’s stealth scans revealed a block against the distress call coming from the planet. The Human squatters had heard the distress call and not only ignored it but circumvented it to prevent anyone else from hearing it. While their intentions in doing so were unclear, given that this species didn’t appear to be overtly or even innately hostile (according to the tactical appraisal from Halon’s best military minds), the fact was this area of space was Sinshe-Shojani territory. Halon refused to be conquered by these usurpers.

Determining that the aliens would serve them and the Project, he’d given the order to awaken the herd soldiers. Once they were sufficiently motivated to obey, they were commanded to take cloaked shuttles and dock with the habitations, take captive all the beings they encountered. Resistance was met with death.

All had been done quickly and quietly in an attempt not to give the alien encroachers time or the means to alert their home planet until Paladin and her flanking warships were long gone.

Halon intended to utilize the orbital habitations in the future while Shojan was cleansed, so refused to allow them to be destroyed. He’d also deigned not to leave behind a contingent of FuRod warriors and herd soldiers to occupy the habitations.

The aliens were presumably numerous and would come in force. The Sinshe weren’t prepared for outright war, nor could they return to the surface of the planet and round up surviving Hiiwa. The origination of the distress call was in a protected valley where the communication tower could safely send the looping distress call. That particular section was near a bunker entrance–and the bunkers had been built to be impenetrable, capable of being opened only from the inside once occupied. The Sinshe-Shojani wouldn’t get inside them by force without another nuclear war. Even then, the shelters had held up the first time and would no doubt stand strong against further attempts as well. The survivors weren’t going anywhere and could be dealt with later.

They’d also determined that there were other Human habitations like the two occupying Shojan’s sector of space not far from them. To each in turn, they’d sent herd soldiers to dock and take captive as many as possible before blowing massive breaches in the habitats’ defense and communication systems–but otherwise kept them intact.

Without communicating verbally at all, the Sinshe had proved to the Humans that they knew of their encroachment; they were lucky in this first encounter…but next time they wouldn’t be. Next time, the Sinshe would come in force to conquer them.

The only ill-fated blip in the plan had been when they’d found the third dual habitation occupants apparently lying in wait for them. After the herd soldiers had docked, the Humans had defended themselves en masse. Realizing their game of cat-and-mouse was up, Halon had ordered the herd soldiers back to the shuttles. Some had been taken captive or killed. Once the shuttles returned, shots had been fired but escape had been the priority.

Carron had been disapproving of the passivity to a clear threat. But Halon’s Second had never been suited for command. He lacked the patience and mastery to think a dozen moves ahead of his opponent. In Halon’s mind, they’d done what they’d come to do: Threatened the Humans, given their culpability in invading their space, and proved that punishment was inevitable. The ball was firmly in the Sinshe-Shojani’s court.

Unfortunately, the tracking devices planted by the Humans hadn’t been detected on the shuttle hulls that had docked with the habitations until later, much later, after they’d returned to the Neth-beo planetary system. The stalking technology utilized was clever–something that only Sinshe’s powerful orbital scanners could detect in dry space-dock.

Carron had filled his ears about how the Humans and other aliens might be led directly to Neth-beo because of those trackers. They weren’t ready for war–and wouldn’t be until the weapon could be tested and brought online.

The trackers had been rendered useless, though their experts had discovered in the process of studying the devices that Sinshe warships had a previously unknown fallibility. While decloaking to utilize their weapons array, initially a small window was opened in which they were vulnerable to scanning. It was conceivable that the Humans may have recorded their acoustic, optical and energy signatures during that window and could potentially identify any of their ships in the future.

Halon was assured by their experts that the signal the tracking device continuously and automatically sent back to the aliens had been lost when they left the area of the orbital habitation, their radiation trail ending when they entered the first space corridor to return to Neth-beo. The vulnerability would be corrected. It was good that they’d learned of this weakness early. Conceivably, they could gain a tactical advantage in the future as a result.

Carron, however, wasn’t easily pacified with any of this information. He wanted war and he’d wanted it the second they laid eyes on the first Human habitation in orbit of Shojan.

“Dagita is sabotaging the Project. He should have been removed from the senior science team in charge of building the weapon long ago.”

“Dr. Dagita has brought us closer to perfecting the weapon than any other before him. And you would have him removed?”

“Immediately, Rida.”

Halon felt the hostility in calling him “Captain” or “Leader” when they’d been sitting–unresisting and spineless in Carron’s opinion–in their cozy, well-armed orbital stations for the past few weeks, not venturing out of their space to confront the enemies.

Very carefully, with utmost control, Halon turned to his Second. “Let me guess, Carron, because we’ve been over this same ground so many times of late: You’re also wondering which of my many sons will be my successor?”

He gave in to an easy, mild grin. “Just as I told Dr. Dagita, I remember every word we’ve spoken. Each time you report for duty on a new spin, you spout the same fears to me. I don’t possess your weakness in these regards. The Project will proceed with Dr. Dagita in charge until such a time as I’m prepared to remove him. As for which of my sons will become Ascendant Monarch in my stead, I won’t be easily removed from my place as the strongest, second only to the Mighty Ruro. You would do well to remember that.”

Though Carron didn’t lower his head or his eyes in deference, he offered, “As you command, Overlord.”

Halon turned slowly back to the viewscreens. The tension emanating from the crew all around them was palpable. He doubted a single person remained oblivious to their conflicts as they busied themselves at their personal stations. But he betrayed not a nuance of his own turmoil.

As if nothing had happened, Halon asked calmly, “Have any new reports come in from the recon teams?”

When they’d downloaded and translated the Human’s database, they’d learned much about all the other cultures the Vreah had discovered in the galaxy. While the Sinshe had known of Vreah and Usragos in what the Humans had dubbed the Rhinegold Sector, the Strigoni on their water world Strigon and the Drario inhabiting their desert planet Drar in the Twilight Sector, they now knew about Humans and their dying Earth, the ultra-peace-loving Quing and their Utopian planet Qu in the Valkyrie Sector.

They’d run into the aloof, clan-centric Gurgh when they’d first entered the Siegfried Sector, though they’d yet to discover their home planet. Presumably, it was in the same sector as Neth-beo, potentially in the farthest reaches of the northern realm, which the Sinshe had been unable to explore due to phantom energy damage. Another culture, the Osing, also hailed from the Twilight Sector. Halon’s experts had dubbed that particular species worthy adversaries–one that had seen much civil war on their population-congested planet Sing before becoming space-capable once the Vreah had enlightened them.

“No new reports, Rida.”

The only recon team that had returned had reported on the Quing. The planet was all but defenseless, the gentle culture filled with nature lovers. As soon as the team returned, Carron had advised a decisive and ruthless attack. In his impulsivity, once the entire population of Quing were enslaved and working on the Project on Neth-beo, their planet would be fortified with warriors and soldiers.

Halon glanced over his shoulder at his Second, clearly forestalling the unnecessary repetition of what Carron wanted to do with his so-called precision strike.

Halon realized what his second-in-command could never understand. Acting hastily would serve one purpose: To put all the cultures on the defensive, banding together to stand as one. Instead of winning the war by sweeping through them like dominoes ready to fall, Sinshe would face their enemies mobilized and fully prepared.

No, when the Sinshe were ready, they would strike hard and fast and without hesitation until, one after the other, their enemies were prostrated before them. Halon wouldn’t give that command until their victory was assured.

The crew around them was abruptly abuzz, and Halon turned back to the viewscreens, demanding, “Report.”

“For an instant–”

“–could have been equipment malfunction–”

“Report,” he repeated in no uncertain terms.

“Supreme Monarch, for a few seconds, we thought we saw something on long-range sensors. But it’s gone now. There’s nothing. Not a trace. It must have been an anomaly.”

“What did you think you saw?”

“It’s impossible to speculate. It was there and gone so fast. It may have been nothing. A solar flare. We’ve observed them in the region lately.”

“Scan.”

But minutes passed and there was nothing to report.

“Rida,” Carron started, “we know nothing about any of the aliens’ stealth capabilities. That may have been a ship, scanning us.”

“You’re assuming they found us way out here in this desolate, unexplored region of space. They don’t know of the corridors we’ve stabilized, circumventing the worst of the phantom energy damage that’s prevalent in this sector of space. They’ll be unable to traverse this region easily without them. The Vreah were the most advanced species in the galaxy until we took that honor from them. But they were incapable of stealth on their spaceships. We don’t share that flaw.”

“79 revolutions ago.”

Halon shook his head. “The Vreah’s motto was: ‘Learning. Curiosity. Shared dissemination of knowledge. Always. Ultimately, nothing else matters.’ No one has our stealth capabilities. The Human’s tracking devices couldn’t have led them here.” Sinshe orbital stations and planet were always on high alert, always ready for anything. There was no need to fear they would be taken unawares.

“You underestimated the Humans before,” Carron reminded. “At that last habitat we discovered. They were waiting for us.”

Halon shrugged. “They took a few herd soldiers prisoner. Their tracking devices gave them almost nothing, no means to follow or find us. They’re not going anywhere. They’ll be waiting right where we left them when we’re ready to strike. Right now, the Project is all that matters. Once the weapon is online, we’ll begin preparations. We will win. Until then, logic and mastery will prevail.”

“We should have destroyed the habitations in orbit of Shojan, even if it meant destroying the planet. They shouldn’t be allowed to believe we’ll allow them to take what belongs to us–”

Halon turned on his heel so sharply, whatever Carron had been about to say–and Halon could easily guess–halted in mid-sentence. “Let them stew, living in fear while they waste time in trying to prepare their inadequate defenses. Nothing will stand against the weapon once it’s brought online.”

He moved to his Second’s side, his body turned slightly toward Carron’s smaller one. His eyes drilling into his subordinate’s barely an inch away, he said in a soft jibe, “Besides, a worthy opponent is always preferable to a coward. I refuse to live in fear. Allow yourself that and you’ve already lost.”

Halon logged verbally his intention to retreat to his state room on the station. “Continue monitoring of the anomaly in my absence.” With the briefest of glances, he gave his Second the conn. In that short interval, he saw the fury in Carron’s eyes, the straight line of his lips.

After ensuring his state room blocked all surveillance, Halon went to his computer and did a final sweep of his private retreat to verify no one and nothing could intrude on him here. Only then did he relax, feeling his body ease as if it wasn’t his own normally rigidly-controlled one.

At the sink in the bathroom, he turned on the water, letting the flow get cold. In the mirror above, his reflection stared back at him. At just over 100, he was at the height of his prowess, barely middle-age for a Sinshe. Lean, muscular, his thin face was both impassive and strong. Analysis of what they’d stolen from the Human’s database told him that Shojani longevity was equaled only by the Vreah. None of the other alien cultures in the galaxy came close.

Yet Carron seeks to supplant me at every turn as if I’ve become old and feeble-minded. Whether he secretly intends to do that with one of my legitimate sons or by his own hand matters not. He doesn’t trust me. He’s never been loyal, not since I became Supreme Monarch after my father.

The reason for his Second’s suspicions hadn’t been ascertained in all the revolutions they’d served together. Carron couldn’t know of his upbringing. No pureblood spoke of such a thing. While being raised by the seed-mothers was necessary to produce strong warriors, that “soft” time in their lives was also something the pureblood warriors attempted to blot out in their relentless indoctrination.

Mare Arie warned me about the training I would receive as a pureblood FuRod.

His grandmother had also told him before he was taken from her that, ages and ages ago, a FuRod set himself up as superior to all others. He was called the Prophet. He was persuasive, had followers–legions of them. He believed in ensuring that his descendants were kept pure and of the same mind he was. The brainwashing began then.

The Prophet had recorded his own wisdom, which became known as the FuRod Pureblood Code. As a vital part of every male’s training, descendants listened to the Prophet’s wisdom every single spin–using the indoctrination machine. Small amounts of a modified form of the drug Seph were injected into the subject while hooked up to the machine, where the Code was fed into the mind. With the Prophet’s words absorbed every spin, sometimes repeatedly if one’s will asserted itself too forcefully, they were enslaved to it for the rest of their lives.

The modified Seph had been tailored to keep purebloods from succumbing completely to the drug, though addiction was certain. Mare Arie had claimed that the drug made indoctrination of the Code accepted, easier to implant and take hold. The subject would initially struggle against the brainwashing, but sooner or later they would have no resistance at all to it because fighting brought about unimaginable physical and mental pain. Each warrior would have to be broken countless times throughout a lifetime in order to live by the Code.

Prior to turning ten, I believed in freedom, in equality. I was convinced I alone could resist the indoctrination. That I would stand up for the Truth, regardless of what was done to me. Mare believed I could as well. She said she’d seen and birthed generations of pureblood males, and I wasn’t like any of the sons that came before. I was stronger. She believed I was the prophesied Savior who would redeem Hiiwa-Shojani and unite them with their warrior brothers into a new people.

Halon had promised her before he was taken that he would stand for the truth…but not mere truth: Truth of a higher form.

Halon glanced at the machine nearby. Feeding on a steady stream of the pureblood Prophet’s legacy, passed down through countless generations, would reinforce his role as the chosen of the Almighty: The rigid doctrine, the purity beliefs, ruthless tactics, the religion and goal of dominating the entire cosmos with Ruro guiding and welcoming each subsequent Monarch into His kingdom. That was the inheritance of the strong. It was the better way.

But Halon had already found himself resisting, though he gave himself over to the machine every new spin. The agony would tear his mind apart if he didn’t put himself under the influence of the Seph at least once in two tide cycles. Lately, that was his only submission.

But his Second knew he was going through something. It was the reason for his relentless undermining. In the back of my mind, I can’t deny that I deserve to be usurped. I can’t do what needs to be done anymore…

A strangling emotion so much like fear filled his throat, for a long moment he was paralyzed by it. He needed to escape. Get away from here. His doubts had left him so weak, he could barely get out of bed every morning.

If I truly serve the Code, I would let myself be imprisoned, executed.

If I truly served the Code, it wouldn’t matter who Carron is. Was. I would execute him for his disloyalty, his constant questioning of my actions in front of my staff.

Ducking away decisively from his reflection, he bathed his face in the cold water that jarred him yet somehow also grounded him for what he had to do. His cheeks were white and hollow from the chill, eyes dull and weary when he rose and viewed himself once more.

A moment later, he carefully returned the cloth to the bar and moved over to his computer. Ever since the discovery of the habitations in orbit of Shojan and the distress call coming from the planet, he’d been quietly scanning alternate band communications emanating from that region in the Valkyrie Sector.

While there were tactical ramifications in actually receiving a signal–ones he could easily justify if Carron learned what he was doing–the bottom line was that he was looking for a sub rosa communication from Mare Arie. What he didn’t want to admit to himself was she wasn’t the only one who might try to contact him covertly…now that the aliens knew about the Sinshe-Shojani and their intentions. Would the encroachers suggest a truce instead of war? Peace? The thought was unacceptable. But it wasn’t nameless, faceless aliens that gave him pause.

A scent he would have given the last breath in his body to forget stole through his senses. Halon couldn’t recall that particular perfume without being reminded of exquisite velvet skin the color of pure gold, skin he’d never wanted to stop caressing. Chemically-induced reactions? Surely they had to be. He’d always wondered, doubted the authenticity of the wearer’s feelings for him…

But never my own for her.

Halon shook his head as if to disperse an actual scent that still had the potential to wreak havoc with his mind. The rejection that had led to the break with the Vreah culture was something he’d chalked up to the stupidity of youth, the heightened virility in a pureblood male with more testosterone running through his body than a herd soldier had the equally potent Seph drug once called to duty.

Ultimately, she–he’d vowed his lips would never again utter her name–had given him what he’d wanted. He hadn’t intended to fall for her irresistible seductions yet, when she’d betrayed him by trying to slip a spy tracker into his pocket before he returned to his ship, he’d realized she and their intense, forbidden relationship was of no consequence in the long run. She’d willingly given him the research and technology he sought that could potentially be used for so many alternate applications. Never once had she suspected his ultimate goal, not until it was too late, the goods already his to hand over to his science team for weaponizing.

Across his computer monitor, the words No communication detected flashed.

Halon swallowed bitterness that felt too expansive in his throat, resembling the hope he’d stopped longing for ages ago, much as a child outgrew a silly toy.

His gaze was drawn to the brainwashing machine.

I believe in the Code. I don’t need it. Whether or not I enter the machine and feed myself on the Pureblood Doctrine of the Prophet, I believe in the Code. I believe–

Once again, he resisted at the cost of abject mental agony…