Movie Review: Mythica: The Necromancer

Yes, I am (finally) back! It’s been far, far too long since I’ve posted anything up here, but I at least have some good reasons, namely completing my 45,000 word Master’s Thesis, as well as working to get things in order for an intercontinental move coming up in August–more on that at a later date. I’ve also completed my third book, and have gotten it all through my small writing group, so it is now in the revision process while my second completed book is done enough that I’ve felt comfortable querying it, though I’m also looking into other publishing avenues at this stage. But I’ll post about that stuff another time; I need to stop procrastinating and get to reason you’re probably reading this post, my thoughts on Mythica: The Necromancer, the third film in Arrowstorm Entertainment‘s independent Mythica film series. Full disclosure before beginning, I did back this film’s Kickstarter campaign, as well as the campaigns for every film in the series, of which the fifth and final campaign is nearly over with as I write this.

As with my review of the second movie in the series, Mythica: The Darkspore, I will not waste time here with background information. For more information on the Mythica series and on Arrowstorm Entertainment itself, check out my reviews of the previous two films in the series: Mythica 1, Mythica 2.

Now, to Mythica: The Necromancer itself. This is easily the best film in the series thus far, and might even be the best including Mythica 4, which I have watched by this point. (Yes, I realize this is a delayed review.) This film takes place sometime after the second one, and we start off seeing that our group of heroes, the mage Marek (Melanie Stone), warrior Thane (Adam Johnson), rogue Dagen (Jake Stormoen), and priestess Teela (Nicola Posener) have been seeing some success in their adventuring, as we see them early on celebrating in the local tavern and buying drinks for everyone. Marek, also has progressed in her magical ability, training regularly with her mentor Gojun Pye (Kevin Sorbo). But all is not sunshine and gold. The evil necromancer Szorlok (Matthew Mercer) is still after the remaining pieces of the Darkspore, and early on nearly succeeds in killing Gojun Pye. Additionally, an old enemy of Marek and friends, Peregus Mallister (Robert Jayne) has not gotten over his humiliation back in the first film, and kidnaps Thane, using his now powerful position to compel Marek and the others to perform a mission for him, which forces Marek to not remain safe nearby, as Gojun had recommended–with her friend’s life on the line, Marek has no choice. Accompanying them is one of Mallister’s enforcers, Betylla (Philip Brodie),  who, to me, was the standout character of the film. He is intimidating, cool, and clearly not a “good” character, but he cannot truly be called a villain either, as we find out later. His presence as a tough, experience, but still flawed, adventurer was welcome among the younger (excepting Dagen’s likely older age as a half elf) and more idealistic heroes. Things, of course, do not play out as simply as everyone would like, and before long our heroes find themselves confronting Szorlok again.

Without repeating too much I’ve written in the previous reviews, the acting, particularly that of the main cast was excellent, and they played off each other well, as in the past. In particular, Marek and Teela get some good scenes together, and their differing struggles as well as their conflicts are very well portrayed. Dagen has what to work with as well, particularly near the end of the film, and is helpful in lightening the mood of an otherwise quite dark film. Thane has not too much to do this time around, and I actually wonder if his limited screen time was a result of actor Adam Johnson not having time to shoot more scenes. If that was the case, then the film did well to work around that obstacle. Szorlok is a very menacing figure, and is portrayed with proper gravitas, though his dialogue does feel a bit melodramatic at times. The stand out character, however, was Philip Brodie’s Betylla. He owned all the scenes he was in (and not just because of his great theme music.) I touched a bit on the character already, but I’ll commend Brodie for the character’s demeanor and expressions, which really made him feel alive, and interesting, the only truly morally gray character thus far in a series full of clear heroes and clear villains. Of course, I’d be remiss if I forgot about Kevin Sorbo; he gets more time in this film than in its predecessors (his screen-time seems to increase slightly with every movie in the series). I don’t have too much to say; I really liked his extended scene training with Marek, as we finally got to really see him as a teacher in addition to a mentor and guide.

As before, the visual effects are fine, bearing in mind the budgetary limitations, and it’s nice seeing practical effects and real extras as bad guy henchmen. Also the direction, particularly of the scene on the battlefield, was excellent, with that scene in particular having a lot of moving parts without a huge amount of cuts.

While the main plot of the film, until near the end, is technically what a game would likely label a side-quest, I really enjoyed the darker tone both that plot and the conflict with Szorlok and his forces at the end. While there have been deaths in this series before, it still felt fairly lighthearted, and you were reasonably certain that the main cast was going to emerge unscathed. Without spoiling anything, this film went to a much darker place, as befits the middle of the series, which served to impart on viewers that there is indeed a serious threat to the world that our heroes must face, and that victory is not assured.

That’s it for now, and I hope to get a review of the next film in the series out in the near future. These films are definitely worth checking out, bearing in mind that they are fairly low budget, and restricted by that. But the creators clearly love the fantasy genre, and put good effort into this series. And, of course, the only way to ensure even higher quality independent fantasy films in the future is to support films like this enough that such advancements can be afforded. As of this writing, the Kickstarter for the final film in the series is still underway, but ending very soon, so if you want to get in on it, don’t delay!

My review of the next film should follow soon, and then I hope to finally get back to posting here regularly again. For real this time, and with posts beyond book and movie reviews. Until then, keep on reading and writing, and feel free to follow me on Twitter @YakovMerkin , where I more regularly post about various things, including writing and other genre stuff.

 

My Comic-Con Experience–New York Comic-Con 2015

So, it’s been a while again. I had hoped to be more regular with posts here, but between the Jewish holiday season, finishing my third book (and revising another), as well as finally starting work on my graduate thesis, time has been tight.  I do have several planned posts lined up (a couple of book reviews, movie reviews, and another writing process related post or two), but seeing as this place is a bit starved for content, I should get something shorter (and simpler) up when the chance arose.

As such, I’m here today to talk about my experience attending New York Comic Con for the first time this year, on the Thursday of the con. In classic me fashion, I had hoped to get this up much sooner than I am in the end, but life is busy, and I am not the best at organizing my time.

First, a little background. As I said above, this was my first time attending the Comic-Con (yes, San Diego is bigger, but NYCC is among this biggest, so it deserves recognition), and it is by far the largest convention I’ve ever gone to. Up to this point, I’ve only ever been to one of the smaller Wizard World comic cons, World Fantasy Convention, and, of course, JordanCon. so it was like going straight into the deep end of the pool after having never gone out past where I could still stand.

It was definitely a little overwhelming, at least at first. None of the other conventions I’ve been to had anywhere this many people, nor filled such a huge space. I’ve lived in New York City my entire life (yes, I know, I fail for not having gone to NYCC before, but during high school I had zero free time, and it always fell smack in the middle of midterm season in college) and I had never been to the Javits Center. Holy crap is that place huge. I could walk for over twenty minutes non-stop and still be in the same room and have not seen everything. And that’s not even considering walking between areas for things like panels. I must’ve walked a good few miles today; at least it feels that way. The crowds also took some getting used to; navigating around, especially through the show floor, was kind of like driving in Manhattan. So much traffic, and so much to potentially get distracted by, it was so busy. To describe the show floor, all I need to say is that every stream of nerd was very well represented. From sci-fi/fantasy book publishers, to comic book companies, to gaming companies, to general nerdy merchandise retailers, to costuming supply shops, it’s a veritable marketplace, and it’s oh so easy to stay there all day and spend all your money. So unless you have a lot of spare cash, don’t linger too long–it’s less painful. On the other hand, many of the exhibitors do have some freebies to give away, as well as larger giveaways that take place through the day. I myself took part in one, but that’s a story I’ll tell as I go through my day.

The other main area worth describing in some detail is the Artist Alley, though it should more accurately be called Artist Market, as it’s also freaking huge. There had to have been well over a hundred artists displaying work there, and to check out each stand took about a half an hour of walking. Have I emphasized enough just how big this thing is?

That said and done, on to my day there. I arrived about when I’d hoped to, and got a chance to see the new 7 train station that lets out right near the Javits center–it looked almost out of place, as a clean subway station.

Finding the convention was extremely easy; even if there hadn’t been Comic Con employees with arrow signs pointing the way, all I had to do was follow the other people obviously going to the same place. As I already described, Comic Con was almost overwhelmingly big and crowded, and just so spread out that to get anywhere requires at least a few minutes of walking.

As I had time till the first panel I wanted to attend, I spent some time walking around the enormous show floor. Despite spending a decent amount of time there during the day, I doubt I saw everything, but I saw enough to know that if I had a lot of disposable cash, I could’ve spent it all. Fortunately, it soon neared time for my first planned panel of the day, which featured YouTuber Comicbookgirl19, who produces great content on topics ranging from X-Men to Game of Thrones to The Hunger Games. It was an excellent panel, mostly focused on how she and her director/show co-creator Tyson Wheeler, came up with the idea for what has become her successful YouTube channel, and the challenges along the way. Near the end of the panel, however, we all got a bonus surprise, as the panel was crashed by two of the stars of the HBO show Silicon Valley (along with a huge retinue of security, giant TV cameras, and I suspect some people just following the madness), as part of a Smirnoff ad campaign of some sort. Shenanigans ensued, and as we left the panel room there were Smirnoff people waiting for us, as they needed us to sign forms letting them know whether or not we were okay with our face possibly showing up in the footage filmed in the panel room (I didn’t care, so I said it was fine. Now to wait and see whenever the footage comes out, if I show up.)

There was a signing following the panel in the large autographing area, but I chose to instead run to the next panel I wanted to see, which was a panel of several new authors from sci-fi/fantasy publisher (an imprint of Macmillan) Tor. The panel featured authors Ilana C. Myer, Seth Dickinson, Lawrence M. Schoen, and Fran Wilde, and was moderated/run by John Scalzi. The panel it self was almost purely ‘for fun’, and each new author got some time to talk about themselves and their new book, after which Scalzi asked them all a series of sci-fi/fantasy themed ‘would you rather’ question (and we the audience got to weigh in once the authors all gave their answers. Long story short, most of us would choose to be artistically honest dictators.

There was a signing after this panel as well, and I went this time, as I decided to purchase a couple of books anyway, and the signing was in the ‘bookstore’ area, which was run by Word bookstore. One of the books I bought was one of the new ones, and I got it signed before I headed back to the show floor to wander and stare at things a bit more. In addition to the stalls selling everything, there were some other things in this area, such as an ‘Avatar’ (James Cameron’s Avatar) themed little area, spots where one could try out soon to be released video games, a Star Trek captain’s chair made entirely out of MegaBlocks bricks (basically Lego not made by Lego), along with an awesome Weta Workshop area which featured a number of their creations on display, including models and props from the upcoming Warcraft movie, and I think they had some makeup demonstrations there during the day as well. Another fun little area was Jurassic World themed, and they had an actor in a full on raptor costume, along with a raptor ‘trainer’. The best part was when the little ‘show’ was over, and the ‘raptor’ got out of the little enclosed space and walked among us bystanders (snapping at us as it did so) before it was called off.

By that point it was (finally) time for me to go to another panel, another purely ‘fun’ one, titled ‘Fantasy Draft League’, which is what it sounds like; four authors ‘drafted’ a fantasy questing party made up of pre-existing fantasy novel characters. The authors involved were Eleanor Herman, Zac Brewer, Sarah Beth Durst and Bradley Beaulieu, and was moderated/judged by Sam Sykes and Naomi Novik. I know I’ve told you in the past to follow Sam Sykes on Twitter because he’s simply hilarious, and he is just as funny live. Just go ask him which fantasy team he thinks would be able to kill more ten year olds. Nope, I’m not going to give more of an explanation of what went on at that panel.

Following that, I decided that to get the full Comic Con experience I really should go to one of the giant panels. As I’d already missed the Game of Thrones panel, I decided to go the Star Wars: Rebels season 2 sneak preview, where I and hundreds of others got to see two not-yet-aired episodes (short story, they’re great, and this season looks to be off to a good start). Not much else to say about it really, other than that we all got some free swag afterward.

That was the last panel I had planned on attending, but things were going to be going on for a while longer yet. As such, I decided to go back to the show floor one more time before it closed in about ten minutes. This is where my day took an unexpected, and interesting turn. My walk this time took me to the publishing companies’ area, which I had passed by several times earlier but had never stopped at. I soon found myself near the HarperCollins booth area (quite a large space, actually), and noticed an interesting giveaway they were running (which I think was thematically linked to a new book they were promoting, but I can’t recall the name of). They had this locked chest, and on top of it was a jar filled with dozens of identical looking keys. Basically, you got to choose a key from the jar and try it on the lock. If it worked, you would get whatever was in the box (it seemed that tried keys were taken from the pool, and that there were to be up to 2 or 3 winners per day. So I decided what the heck, no harm in trying, especially as the show floor was due to close in about 3 minutes. As I got to the front of the relatively short line, one of the HarperCollins people remarked that she didn’t recognize me from earlier in the day, and that this must be my first attempt (so people could make at least a few tries throughout the day), and made a beginner’s luck joke.

Expecting nothing, I reached into the jar, pulled out a key, and tried it in the lock. The lock opened. Needless to say, the HarperCollins people freaked out a little at the seeming predicted success, and I got to see what was in the box, a $100 American Express gift card. As I recall, it took a little while to fully process what had happened–I never win anything. But now  I can claim the distinction of having gone to NYCC and come back with more money than I got there with.

There really was no way to top that moment, but there was still stuff going on, and as I only had the one day pass, there was no good reason to leave just yet. So I decided to check out the Artist Alley, as it was an area of the con that I’d heard about, but hadn’t visited yet. Like pretty much everything else, it was crazy huge, and I spent a good half an hour plus just walking around, looking at art and stuff. A lot of very impressive art, and it was shockingly busy considering the hour, though there may have been many people who, like me, headed over there after the show floor closed.

The last panel/event I went to was a panel on the TV show Legends, which stars Sean Bean (who apparently lived through the entire first season), and he was the main attraction at this panel, which also featured a new episode (or clips of one; I got there late). I can confirm that despite all his onscreen deaths, Sean Bean is doing just fine in real life, and I may check out this show now, which I had not even heard of until I saw the panel info. As most panels seem to, it concluded with a Q&A, and I prepared to head back home.

There was just one problem; my phone was literally on 1% battery, and I really did not want to travel for over half an hour with a phone that’d certainly be dead by the time I got back to my neighborhood. The good news: I’d brought my charger. The bad: I couldn’t find a damn outlet anywhere in the Javits center. I don’t know if I was just looking in the wrong places, but I spend at least 10-15 minutes searching wherever I could think (panel rooms & the show floor were closed, so they weren’t options at this point. Eventually, I was forced to give up, and resigned myself to not having a working phone for a while. As I was walking out, however, I noticed something on the floor between the two sets of doors–outlets! So I plugged in my phone, took out a book, and hoped that I didn’t look too sketchy while I waited it to charge enough to make it home.

Funnily enough, my being there actually helped someone else who was in the same predicament, as he noticed me charging my phone as he was heading out as well. He was able to use the other outlet there while I continued to charge, so I feel I ended my Comic Con day with a good deed.

So that’s all of my ramble about my first ever time at New York Comic Con. I would definitely go again, though I’m not sure when that next time will be, as I’m planning to move far enough from New York where it’ll be a major trip and project to come in, and I wouldn’t just for Comic Con. But I will go again at some point in the future, as soon as the opportunity arises.

If you live in the New York area, or close enough that you can relatively easily get there, I highly recommend it, just prepare in advance for a slightly overwhelming and crowded experience (especially if you go on the Saturday or Sunday.)

So until next time (which hopefully won’t be too long from now, keep on doing the geeky things!

Movie Review: Mythica: The Darkspore

As promised, here is my review of Mythica: The Darkspore, the second movie in Arrowstorm Entertainment’s Mythica series. Full disclosure, I did back Mythica 2 on Kickstarter, as I did the first movie in the series. As I mentioned in my previous review, I don’t intend to make straight-up movie reviews a regular thing here, but I find it appropriate and worthwhile to review movies I contributed to (though I may also review a couple of Arrowstorm’s movies which I purchased after I was impressed by Mythica: A Quest For Heroes.

I won’t go into too much background detail here, as this is a review of a sequel and I covered all the basics in my previous review, but I’ll touch on some here. Mythica: The Darkspore, is the second of 5 planned movies in Arrowstorm’s Mythica series, and at least 3 of them have already been filmed. The films are all low budget projects, as Arrostorm is an independent film company, and the Kickstarters they run are to raise additional money with which to finish the projects that are already started, and it goes to things like visual effects. But that’s enough of that; for more background detail see my review of the first Mythica.

Now, on to the movie at hand. To put it very briefly, I am pleased to say that it is definitely superior to the first Mythica. Now, I do take some issue in general with calling a sequel an ‘improvement’ over the original, or ‘superior’, as that would imply that the prior film was subpar. As my review of the first Mythica makes clear, I did not find it subpar at all.  Not perfect, but a very solid movie. Its sequel, however, was an improvement in the area where I felt the first film was a little bit weaker.

So, in Mythica: The Darkspore, we continue almost immediately after the conclusion of the first film. With tragedy. At the end of the first movie, the magical object our group of heroes recovered was given to the sister of the priestess Teela (Nicola Posener) to carry to where it could be safely contained and protected. Unfortunately, the forces of darkness were faster, and she was killed, the relic taken. And while the group does soon find leads by which they can race the evil shaman Kishkumen, who was the one who killed Teela’s sister, to the titular Darkspore, they also have to work at staying united as a group. In fact, in the beginning of the movie they practically have to reform the group, or rather Marek (Melanie Stone) does, as with the shock Teela’s sister’s death, the other members of the party started to regress to past ways. Teela secluded herself to conduct an elaborate mourning ritual for her sister, the warrior Thane (Adam Johnson), depressed at Teela’s sadness, has returned to his drinking ways and almost drives Marek away in a drunken rant, and the half-elf rogue Dagen (Jake Stormoen) returns to his whoring ways, and becomes more fixated on monetary gain (though I suppose that he never really lost that particular drive.)

From there, the driving force of the movie is the group’s attempt to reach the darkspore before their enemies, and along the way the encounter a number of obstacles, gain a new ally, and work through their issues with each other. I don’t want to get into too much detail, as I don’t like spoiling movies, so I’m going to be intentionally vague in referring to anything spoilery. Suffice to say, I thought the story was a definite step up from that of the first Mythica, which was very simple (by design, as it is in essence the origin story). There’s a lot more depth here, as we get some backstory and the larger plot of the series gets rolling. We also get more character development and depth, which is welcome; if everyone had sorted through all their problems, etc. last movie then they’d all be pretty stagnant for the rest of the series.

Once again, the acting was excellent. Everyone really seems to have a good sense of their character, and they all treat the material seriously, with no one ‘phoning in’ performances, and the dramatic scenes & arguments never seem forced or melodramatic. In particular, Melanie Stone as Marek stands out, and handles the character’s development very well, and newcomer Rocky Myers as the mysterious dark elf Qole. The character could easily have felt mysterious and enigmatic for the sake of being mysterious, but he manages to take the character beyond the simple character traits and handles the dramatic turns that involve his character very well. I’ll also mention that we get a bit more of Kevin Sorbo as the wizard Gojun Pye this time around than we did in Mythica: A Quest For Heroes. He is still only in the film for a short period (I suppose his being a main character would make things a bit too easy for our heroes), but in addition to his small scene in the present we get a nice flashback to his past, and a little action. (Thanks to the first Mythica, I decided to start watching the tv show Andromeda, which starred Sorbo, and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s also striking that he doesn’t seem to have changed at all in the 10 years since then. Looking forward to seeing more of him as the Mythica series progresses.

As before, the visual effects are as good as you can reasonably expect from a low budget film. The sets and the backgrounds, the vast majority of which were not green-screened in, are great. Once again, the varied, beautiful Utah landscapes are used well, and I expect we’ll see more of the state as the series continues.

Beyond that, I actually don’t have too much more to say. My main (really only) critique of the first film in this series was that the story was edging on being overly simplistic and formulaic. That’s much less of an issue for me in this film, though the Mythica world is understandably not as complex as those in epic fantasy novels. The story, having gotten past the necessary origins and getting the team (or party, to borrow an RPG term), has moved onto the more complex, larger plot, and while only time will tell how much it stands out from other fantasy stories, so far it looks good, and I look forward to seeing where it goes. (Since watching the first film I’ve also had my first RPG experience, so I have more understanding of the Dungeons & Dragons background that the Mythica world and story grew out of.

That’s about it for now, I think. I definitely recommend checking out Mythica: The Darkspore, as well as its predecessor Mythica: A Quest For Heroes. Arrowstorm’s website, arrowstormentertainment.com has links through which you can rent or purchase their films. They don’t have any kickstarter campaigns going on right now to the best of my knowledge, but I imagine that the kickstarter for the third film in the series will go up in the coming months. I’m proud to have contributed to both Mythica films this far, and if this is the kind of thing you want to see more of, I’d recommend considering lending your support as well.

Coming up in the near future, I have one more book to review, as well as two more of Arrowstorm’s earlier films which I purchased, and I hope to get another writing-centric post up in the near future. So until next time, keep on reading and writing, and if you like the idea of quality independent fantasy films, consider supporting Arrowstorm Entertainment in the future. You can be sure that whenever the kickstarter for Mythica 3 begins, I’ll lend support and mention it on my Twitter, so if you happen to follow me there you’ll know when something’s going on.

Book Review: The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan (spoilers)

Well it’s about time I got to reviewing this book. I’ve actually read it twice now; the first was more than half a year ago, but I never got around to writing a review. As the time passed, and I picked up my copy of the third book in the Powder Mage Trilogy, The Autumn Republic, I realized that I still wanted to write up a review, but it had been so long. So I reread it a few weeks ago (and I am now speeding through The Autumn Republic.) I don’t tend to reread books that often, mainly because there’s always something new to read, but rereading can be fun in its own way, and I thoroughly enjoyed rereading The Crimson Campaign, and I can properly write up a review now, in my usual style, though as this is the second in a series, it’ll be a little different (as I will try to avoid repeating things said in the review of the first book.)

Setting: I said a lot about the setting of this series in my review of the first book, so I won’t repeat too much here. Suffice to say, I really enjoy this setting, both for the level of technology, as most epic fantasies (my own included, so far) tend to be set in a very low-tech world, while the Powder Mage Trilogy is set at a technological level I’d place as roughly analogous to Earth’s 1700s or 1800s (maybe a little earlier), and McClellan doesn’t just stop at the technology, but also brings with it a level of social change that changes the world in a different way, also mirroring shifts that happened in our world, while still remaining purely fictional with some other cultural aspects (such as men and women having pretty much equal standing in the military, something we do not see in our world to this day, with an increasing number of exceptions.)

I also very much liked the fact that McClellan seemed to draw both inspiration and character names from more of a central & eastern European base than most similar books, which generally draw on primarily western Europe.

As for The Crimson Campaign itself, while we don’t see a huge amount more of the world (though we do get to see a Deliv city, and delve deeper into Adopest, arguably the central location of the story, we do spend a lot of time with the Adran army, which itself is its own setting, complete with politics, personal agendas, and its own organization and culture. It’s also good to continue to see the aftereffects of Tamas’s revolution way back at the start of Promise of Blood.

Characters: In The Crimson Campaign, we have the same cast of viewpoint characters as before, but they fluctuate in importance/how much focus is placed on them this time as both their stories and the overall plot progresses.

As before, we’ll start of with Field Marshall Tamas, who was arguably the main character of the last book, but takes somewhat of a back seat as his plotline leads him away from all the other major characters. This time, after being betrayed by his own (unbeknownst to him at the time), is trapped behind enemy lines with only two brigades of his own men–a hopeless situation, it would seem, but Tamas is not a man who lets the odds get to him. Complicating matters, however, is his worry over the status of his son Taniel, who, last he heard, was in a coma after the climax of Promise of Blood, and Tamas also struggles to reconcile with Vlora, one of his best powder mages and Taniel’s ex-betrothed. While last book we saw Tamas in a position unfamiliar to him, leading a revolution and dealing with its aftermath, we now see him fully in his element, and it’s a pleasure to see him thrive in it even as other things weigh on his mind, particularly as things become more complicated near the end of the story.

Next we have Adamat, who, as with last time, has more of a mystery/thriller type plotline as opposed to the more ‘epic’ plots going on with some of the other viewpoints. But in exchange, we see how personal things have become for him, with his family having been threatened and kidnapped. Fortunately, we get a bit of a breather when most of his family is rescued early on, but Adamat’s wife and eldest son remain hostages of the mysterious and sinister Lord Vetas, who himself is merely a piece (if a major one) in a much bigger scheme. We’re kept quite on edge for much of this, and we get to see Adamat at his most desperate, and how far he is willing to go to save his family. It’s also thanks to this plotline that the very fun side character Privileged Borbador re-enters the story, which also later on connects to Taniel’s story.

Speaking of Taniel, he’s not exactly in the best place mentally at the start of this book, due to the traumatic events of the end of Promise of Blood. After he gets over his PTSD and an addiction to mala, an opium-like drug, he finds out that he is essentially the last powder mage in the country (and the army, the rest having gone with Tamas on his behind enemy lines mission and presumed dead along with him.) His return to the army along with his companion (and as time goes on his love interest) Ka-Poel, however, is not what he expected. With Tamas gone, things have begun to crumble, and Taniel’s issues with authority land both him and Ka-Poel in serious trouble with one of the officers in charge now, General Ket. His plotline, therefore, in some ways becomes the most frustrating as well as, in my opinion, the most compelling from a reader’s perspective, in large part because we are privy to more information than the characters, and thus can yell at them for being shortsighted. Eventually, Taniel finds himself essentially single-handedly keeping the army in the fight, while simultaneously fighting the top brass, who he begins ti suspect is not operating with Adro’s best interests in mind.

Our final viewpoint character, Nila, has a more significant part to play this time around. Now she finds herself in the employ/captured by the same Lord Vetas who Adamat is after, which puts her in close connection to Adamat’s wife as well as the young noble she has been keeping safe since last book. While her circumstances are far from ideal, and there is little active resistance she can mount, Nila gradually moves closer to that point, and by the end finally takes some action against Vetas. Her role here is still on the smaller side, but things point to her having a bigger role to come (and, as I’m over halfway through the third book in this series, I can safely say that she does.)

The side characters continue to shine through very strongly, and serve both to keep things fun and to deepen the world, from gods (Mihali), to the already mentioned Borbador, to people very much involved in day to day activities and the larger plots (Ricard, Olem, Vlora, and Fell), to those with major roles, such as Ka-Poel, who McClellan manages to make stand out despite the fact that she never speaks. None of these side characters feel tacked on or one-note, and it’s fun when they link multiple plotlines (such as Ricard with Taniel and Adamat).

Plot: I covered some of the plot already with the characters, and this is already running long, so I’ll try and keep this brief. Last time around I compared McClellan’s writing, and his plot unfolding/pacing to that of Brandon Sanderson, who he studied under, though McClellan definitely had his own unique voice. I would say that he differentiated himself further in Crimson Campaign, but without losing anything from the storytelling. The pacing remains superb, and McClellan consistently picks the best places to end a chapter and switch viewpoints. I think the best praise I can give, however, is to say that as much as I want to see what happens next in someone’s plotline, I’m just as happy to return to someone else’s. The middle book in trilogies notoriously lag a bit and often feel more like a bridge to the climax in book 3, but here I did not get that feeling. Even rereading it, when I remembered most of what was going to happen, I couldn’t put it down, and I very much enjoyed returning to these characters. And the way things end only serve to heighten the tension and stakes for the third installment. (As much as I warn my reviews contain spoilers, I really don’t want to give things away unless I feel it necessary.)

Magic: My traditional final category of analysis actually has a bit going on this time, where usually in series there is less to discuss in later books as we already know how things work, more or less, at least as far a the powder mages and privileged go (though they’re not as fully explained in detail as, for instance, Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems are (another difference between the two), though we understand both systems well enough for the magic to be used to get our heroes out of trouble without things being contrived.

In The Crimson Campaign, we also get to see more of the even less defined magic systems, such as that of the gods Kresimir and Adom, as well as Ka-Poel’s powerful and mysterious abilities, all of which fit nicely into the story and the world, thought I would hope to learn more about Ka-Poel’s magic in the future (and we do definitely get at least some more info in the following book.)

I suppose the last magical addition to this book are the black powder wardens. We saw wardens, the magically twisted and enhanced men in Promise of Blood, but now the antagonistic forces have started turning powder mages into warden, which makes them resistant to black powder attacks and general more difficult for powder mages to take down. It’s implied that this is tied somehow to Kresimir, but not fully explained. And of course, the Knacked, people who don’t have obvious magic but have some sort of enhanced skill, such as Olem not needing to sleep at all or Adamat having a perfect memory, are still present. All in all, a solid progression of the magic. While there aren’t really huge new revelations, there’s enough new and enough mystery left to keep it intriguing and still a viable way of solving problems.

I think that’s about it for now, and I should cut myself off before this review balloons further (and I really should start packing for my 12 hour flight back to New York). Suffice to say, I very much enjoyed this, both on first read and reread, and it’s a stellar middle book of the trilogy. I’d say I’m looking forward to the next one, but I’m already over halfway through it, so expect my thoughts on it soon (I hope.)

So until next time, keep on reading, and writing! I know I’ll be.

Book Review: The Providence of Fire by Brian Stavely (spoilers)

Time for another delayed review (though only slightly this time.) I’d actually put off reading this book until I got the other delayed reviews finished, but I still didn’t end up getting it done on time. Still, here we are. ( I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment, so please forgive any lack in detail–I’d prefer that to getting something wrong.)

First a little bit of background: Here is a link to my review of the first book in this series, The Emperor’s Blades. To make a long story (and review) short, I greatly enjoyed it, despite a couple of small gripes (see the previous review for those) I had no complaints at all. It hurt to not read this book as soon as my copy arrived. But here we are, and here we go.

Setting:

As opposed to the first book, where our three protagonists were for the most part stationary (in terms of location), there’s a lot more traveling around this time. At the start everyone is where they finished off last time; Kaden and Valyn are both in the mountains near the now gutted and destroyed (more or less) monastery, while Adare starts things off still in the capital city as she plots her next move. Soon enough, however, all three siblings are one the move, and all separate once again as Kaden and Vvalyn make their own journeys toward the capital that Adare is escaping from. Without getting into too much detail (I know I put a spoiler warning, but I still try to avoid spoilers unnecessary for the review itself), we get to see a bunch more of the of the world and as a result it, its history and the plot itself all benefit from the expansion. Of particular interest are the gateways (I’m probably forgetting the in-book term for them) that can be used to travel rapidly across the world, and the really creepy hidden monastery that Kaden and his group travel to. The latter in particular I did not see coming, but I’ll discuss it more later.

Characters:

We follow the same three protagonists as last time, and once again they all have very different but equally satisfying journeys that are intertwined in such a way that the plot flows well, but at times you’re raging at the characters and their lack of communication with each other (it’s not entirely their fault, however.)

We’ll start with Adare, as she got the short shrift in The Emperor’s Blades, with the least screentime and the least to do (and was 1 of my 2 complaints.) Fortunately, this book does not have that problem, as Adare is much more prominent, and actively taking a bigger role in things. We left off with her last time just after she’d discovered that her father’s murderer was in fact Ran Il Tornja, her chief adviser, military strategist, and lover. Recognizing the danger she’s in and the near impossibility of being able to safely expose him and seize control, she flees the palace to, almost ironically, reform the religious fighting force that she had dismantled in the previous book when she’d been led to believe its leader had been the assassin that had killed her father, as she conceals herself among religious pilgrims. Here she meets Nira and her brother (who’s name I can’t recall), two very old people that we later learn have played a major part in the history of the world and may well have a part to play in what is to come. Nira is also delightfully foul-mouthed, something that I don;t always like but it worked perfectly here. As things progress, and the larger plot unfolds, Adare surprisingly finds herself forced to work with Il Tornja as she learns more about her father’s assassination, and near the book’s end comes into conflict with her brother Valyn. We see her taken out of her element as she struggles to do what she can for her family and kingdom.

Valyn starts off where we left him, having finally met up with Kaden, only for the two brothers to separate again as Kaden takes his own path while Valyn sets off with his Kettral wing for the capital, still pursued by other Kettral wings as he technically did go AWOL and at least some of the Kettral was in league with the conspiracy. Suffice to say, their trip back home is far from simple, and as seems to be his lot, Valyn and his friends suffer the most, and find themselves and their allegiances constantly in flux as they’re pursued and captured by fellow Kettral and an invading barbarian army. Development-wise, he has a little bit less going on this time, but he does definitely grow as a leader and makes several tough decisions throughout the book. I am also happy that Ha Lin’s death back in book 1 hasn’t been forgotten by either the author or the characters. Valyn’s side character buddies continue to make his sections enjoyable, as his wingmates have great interactions and the mercenary Pyrre who is with them is so fun to read, and Valyn and his people have the best actions scenes.

Kaden’s plotline here is probably the most interesting as far as the overarching plot goes, and the most unpredictable. He chooses to travel with his mentor Rampuri Tan and his new companion/possible love interest Triste, who we soon learn is much more than the simple girl she seems to be at first glance. When they travel to the Ishien monks via the mystical gateways that he and Tan can use due to their training, and Triste can use for reasons she doesn’t understand. In most books, a trip to the mysterious, powerful and dangerous monks would have gone in a predictable fashion; the hero would learn from them, and maybe make new allies for the coming war. Not so here, as the Ishien themselves become villains in their own right, and hold our heroes hostage. Eventually they have to fight their way out, and take a Csestriim prisoner named Kiel with them, who is able to give yet more background into the mysterious Cestriim, the gods, and the greater plot–especially when we learn a key secret about Ran Il Tornja. KAden’s journey here is very much that of a person who’s had good but specialized training learning that as useful as it is, there is much that he doesn’t know, and that there is more at stake than he had realized.

Plot:

I realize that I sort of already covered the plot as I discussed the characters (think the same thing happened last time), but I can definitely say that things expand nicely, serving well as the middle book in the trilogy (at least I believe the series is planned as a trilogy), without noticeably suffering the drawbacks that often plague seconds books. Through the different viewpoints we learn more and more about both the geopolitical and mystical situations. And by the end of the book, the already established problems of lack of communication as Valyn and Adare find themselves at odds, and Kaden returns home to discover that the situation is more complex than he realized. The stakes are rising ever higher, and the heroes have some serious work ahead of them.

Magic:

This will be a short section as well, as there is only a little bit more we learn more about how leach magic works, and with our introduction to Nira we learn more about what this world’s magic is truly capable of, in addition to the background on the supernatural beings of this world. We also learn more about the Csestriim, magical creatures themselves, in addition to finally meeting one, and some more mysterious magic is introduced/elaborated on, specifically Valyn’s gifts from the slarn king and Triste’s unique nature.

 

Again, apologies for the late review and the lack of the book in front of me as I write this. (It’s currently in my room across the Atlantic Ocean, and I won’t be back in the States for over 2 more weeks, so I figured I’d get this done now.) This upciming year I should have a better handle on my time, and this won’t be a problem anymore.

 

But as for the book itself, it was a very fun and immersive read, and I highly recommend you check it out (and The Emperor’s Blades, if for some reason you’re reading this and haven’t already read the first book in this series.) As for me, I eagerly await book 3!

Until next time, keep on reading, and writing (which is what I’ve been doing quite a bit of lately)!

Original Fiction (Sci-Fi): On Angels’ Wings (Full Story)

Now that the whole story is up, I figure I should at least make the option of having the whole thing on 1 page available, if it’d be more convenient for some people. Again, hope you enjoy it, and if you like it, feel free to share it around!

 

On Angels’ Wings

By: Yakov Merkin

Aren walked through the sterile, gray hall of the command center, his only guide a series of soft blue lights embedded in the walls that flashed once per second. The question foremost on his mind was not where he was being led, but rather why he had been ordered there and now directed deeper within the compound. He was part of the Eidolon Initiative, yes, but there were over a hundred people in the program, and he was probably the least experienced; he’d been drafted only six months earlier, at the age of nineteen. Ancient, by eidolon standards. Recruits were normally drafted at age thirteen or fourteen, sometimes as early as ten. He knew of no one else brought into the program at any age older than fifteen.

Had he done something wrong? Surely if he had, he’d have been arrested, or something, not have been ordered here. All the same, however, a part of him worried.

The blinking lights turned a corner, and Aren followed. There was reason, of course, for him to be drafted. Like all of the other operatives in the, he had a special gift: He was capable of tapping into the Penumbra, “raw power” in the words of his instructors. By accessing the Penumbra, Aren could do several things, from mind reading to telekinetic manipulations, to creating invisible energy constructs such as shields, blades, and projectiles. His teachers had even told him that he was potentially one of the most powerful eidolons they’d even seen. But they also made sure he knew that without training, raw power was nothing. And they were right. Why, then, had he been ordered, with no warning, to pack his things and relocate here, to the central command center of the fleet?

The lights led him to a doorway. It was smooth metal, the same color as the walls. In its center was the emblem of the Eidolon Initiative; an ethereal, glowing-eyed figure superimposed over the standard emblem of the Confederation of Terran Worlds. Aren looked at the image for a moment, at the eidolon in particular. Eidolon had two meanings: The first was obvious; an apparition, untouchable by mortals. But the second was just as important: an ideal, or an idolized figure. Eidolons were said to be the future of humanity, something to strive toward. Aren didn’t feel like an ideal. He felt more like the ghosts he’d seen in children’s entertainment, ineffectual despite the power he possessed.

He placed his hand on a scanner next to the doorway and positioned his eye opposite another. A moment later, the scanners beeped to life, light passing over his eye and hand. After another long moment, the doors opened with a hiss, and Aren stepped through.

His silent, blinking guides reappeared as the door shut, and Aren continued. At least he didn’t feel too nervous. It helped that he had no idea what they wanted him for. Definitely more curiosity than worry.

The lights soon stopped at an unmarked door. This was it, then. Aren looked over his uniform, and made sure that it hadn’t shifted, that the pin was in the right spot on his chest, that the small, metallic components of the suit were in the right position, and that there wasn’t any dust—not that there was any chance of that, as he’d gone from one sterile environment to another. Still, it never hurt to check. He’d been chewed out more than once for not being properly presentable, and these men were the highest ranking in the entire military. Whatever they wanted him for, Aren wanted to make a good impression. He also ran a hand over his dark hair, to ensure that it was in place. While it was cut short, it was longer than that of normal soldiers; the military standards of hair length didn’t apply to eidolons in the same way.

Satisfied that he looked presentable, Aren took a deep breath, stood up straight, and stepped just in front of the door.

The door hissed open, and Aren stepped into a surprisingly bright room. Once his eyes adapted, he saw five men seated at a long table across the room, facing him and the door, wreathed by the blackness of space, visible through the window behind them.

“Trainee Aren Tovar, thank you for reporting on such short notice,” said the man at the center of the table, the fleet admiral, by the bars and stripes on his uniform. Aren felt like he should know the man’s name, but it escaped him at the moment. The others were the fleet’s four vice admirals. The five most important men in the entire military, gathered here to talk to him. It was crazy.

“Do you know why you’re here?” the fleet admiral continued.

“No. No, sir,” Aren replied, making sure his arms were stiff at his sides and his back straight. “I was given the order to relocate here, and I followed it. I have no idea at all why you would want me here.”

The fleet admiral smiled slightly. He was an older man, but any charm the wrinkles might’ve had was lost by the hardness in his face, and his bright, focused eyes which didn’t linger on Aren for long. “How much do you know about the state of the war?” he asked.

“To the best of my knowledge, there has been an undeclared cease-fire for almost two months now, sir. I presume because both we and the vellak needed to regroup and rebuild after we drove them back at the Battle of Traxis. And I assume there is no chance that this is the end of the war.”

“That is correct, trainee,” said the man to the right of the fleet admiral. “There will be no peace with them; those creatures cannot be reasoned with. And that is all you could possibly know now. There is other information, however, classified for reasons you will soon understand.” He nodded toward the admiral on the far left, the youngest of the group, who looked…nervous.

The image out of the window changed abruptly. Now Aren saw one of the vellak worlds, but more importantly, he saw warships. A lot of warships.

“The enemy is rearming at an alarming rate, far faster than we can. They do not yet know this, but we cannot keep that information hidden for long. When they discover this, they will attack, and we will lose. We are perilously close to losing this war, and with it our survival as a species. We must take drastic action if we are to survive.”

Aren felt a chill come over him. This was bad. Now his call-up began to make a little more sense. But this didn’t explain everything.

“If I may ask a question, sir, why me? I’ve barely completed basic training, let alone the advanced training necessary to truly be an eidolon at all. Surely there are others more qualified”

“Tell me, Mr. Tovar,” replied the fleet admiral, “do you know why we chose to recruit you despite your being well above the standard recruiting age for the Eidolon Initiative?”

“My abilities manifested late, sir. I assumed that, being at war, the fleet needed every one of us it could find.”

The fleet admiral nodded. “Partially correct. Yes, every eidolon we can find is vital. But there are reasons we recruit young, and not just because that is when the powers manifest. Generally even if we do come across someone who manifested late, they are not brought into the program, instead drafted into other areas of the military. So no, that is not the sole reason we took you. The reason you were drafted, and the reason you stand in this room today, is because you are, in terms of raw power, the second most powerful eidolon we have ever come across.”

Aren tried to not let his surprise show. Could that be true? “But sir, with all due respect,” he said after a moment of uncomfortable silence, “until I’m trained, the power means nothing…”

The fleet admiral nodded. “That may be so, but it is also a fact that certain things can only be done at all if you possess sufficient power.”

“You are wondering what it is that so few of you are capable of, yes?” said the man directly to the left of the fleet admiral, who pointedly avoided eye contact. “You are aware that the vellak are much more proficient in tapping into the Penumbra than we are, correct?”

Aren nodded.

“It runs deeper than that, however. Every vellak has at least some small ability to tap into the Penumbra. It is how they are able to navigate without eyes. But more importantly, it is how they link minds.”

All vellak were linked to another, sharing everything, able to act as one. Aren didn’t know much about the nature of the link, but he did know was that it made them very effective soldiers. Each fire team literally shared a mind, and could react faster than even the most attuned pair of humans. And if they did that through the Penumbra, then that meant…

“You need an eidolon pair that can mimic that mental bond,” he said aloud. “Sir,” he added belatedly.

The fleet admiral nodded. “Exactly. Most of our attempts at this have failed, and all but one of the few who could do so successfully were killed in action. You and your partner are our last shot at making this work.

“I assume you are familiar with the eidolon who goes by the callsign ‘Snap.’”

Aren felt his heart skip a beat. Snap was a legend among legends, the finest the Eidolon Initiative had ever produced. No one Aren had met had even seen him in person, and as a result the legends and tales only grew wilder. And now he, Aren Tovar, barely out of basic training, would work alongside the eidolon his instructors idolized!

“Of course, sir,” he finally said, unable to hide a slight smile.

“Good. Well then I suppose you two should meet and hear the mission parameters.”

Just as the fleet admiral stopped speaking, Aren felt something in his mind that could only be another eidolon, looking in. “Snap?” He thought toward the presence.

“Well hello there,” said a distinctly female voice. Aren was quite confused until he heard the door open.

He turned to look, and could not keep from staring. Striding into the room was one of the most attractive women he had ever seen. She had a slim build, stood about as tall as Aren, and had blond hair that hung just past her shoulders, most of it tied back in a ponytail. She wore a bodysuit similar to Aren’s, and she walked with more confidence than anyone he had ever seen. The only thing that didn’t match were her light brown eyes. Once, certainly, they had fit in with the rest of her beauty, but Aren saw the hardness in them, the eyes of a seasoned soldier. There was no doubt that this was the famous Snap, but part of his mind was still unable to grasp the fact that Snap was a woman; Snap had always been referred to as male. Then again, that was by people who’d never met her.

She was clearly looking him over as well from the moment she entered the room. “At least they found a good looking one this time,” she said loud enough for the admirals to hear as she stopped alongside him, and followed it up with a wink that made Aren’s face heat up.

“I think we bring the average age in here down to a respectable ninety, don’t you think.” she remarked immediately afterward.

Aren was frozen in shock. Did she have no respect for the command staff? “I, uh,” he stammered before being saved by the fleet admiral.

“Glad you decided to arrive in a timely manner, Elite Eidolon…Snap,” he said. He clearly did not like referring to her by callsign. There was definitely a look of fear in the admirals’ eyes.

Snap smiled, perhaps a bit too widely. “Finally got the memo, then. And really, disruptors again, Grandpa? What could the five of you possibly have to hide from me?”

Disruptors were devices that dampened an eidolon’s ability to access the Penumbra, like putting something between the hand and the water. It made sense for the admirals to use them—though these were probably just to shield their mind. Larger, more sophisticated disruptors could make an eidolon completely unable to reach the Penumbra while close to it.

“As you were, Eidolon,” the fleet admiral replied quickly, finally injecting some sense of authority into his voice. He cleared his throat, then continued. “This is Aren Tovar, the trainee eidolon who will be your partner for the mission we have planned for you.”

Snap laughed. “Wait, wait, wait. You’re setting me up on some mission so vital that all five of you came out here to personally talk to me, and you give me this as my only backup? No offense,” she added with a glance at Aren. “I nearly got killed last mission. Flare did get killed, and she’d been in the program for years!” She dissolved into a fit of laughter for a moment, and leaned against the wall. “You are joking, right?”

The fleet admiral’s expression didn’t change. “Have you ever heard me joke, Eidolon?”

“I believe I just did.” Snap stood up again, her expression incredulous. “Alright then, I’ll humor your little council of old men. Tell me all about your grand, brilliant plan,” she said, gesturing animatedly—mockingly. Aren still couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Thank you for the invitation, Eidolon Snap. Now if you’d just remain still and silent, we will tell you everything you need to know.”

Snap shrugged and rolled her eyes, but did as ordered—or rather, requested. “Go ahead,” she said with a mock bow.

“As I explained to Trainee Tovar,” the fleet admiral began, “we are in dire straits. The enemy is rearming far too quickly for us to keep up. If we are to win this war, we must launch a damaging strike, and soon.” He nodded to another one of the admirals, and the image behind them changed again.

“The reason only the two of you can complete this mission, eidolons, is because your target is on a vellak controlled planet. It will be impossible for you to make it there undetected, and as such you will have to mimic their mind link. Once there—”

“I’ve always known your heads weren’t on straight,” Snap interrupted loudly, “but I thought that you at least understood how the damn world works. It took me fucking ages to master the fine skill needed to pull that off. And the last time we tried to fool the vellak by doing that, they found us out real quick, and in case you forgot already, Flare died!”

“We know, Eidolon. We know we’re asking a lot. But the fact of the matter is, if we don’t take this chance, we doom ourselves to defeat.”

“Easy for you to say, old man. You’re not the ones who have to put your asses on the line!” Snap interjected, then took a step forward.

“Are you saying you can’t do it, Snap? Before even hearing exactly what you are being asked to do?” asked the youngest of the admirals.

Immediately, Aren knew they had gotten to Snap. He backed away slightly as Snap’s eyes narrowed and her face flushed. “Well, fine then! Tell us!.”

Aren tried to back further away, but all of a sudden he felt a hand on his shoulder, and found himself getting moved forward.

“Come on, tell us what the deal is,” Snap repeated as she pulled Aren back alongside her. “I’m sure the trainee here is eager to hear what he’ll be doing when he dies.” She turned to him and grinned. “It’s very easy, I assure you.”

Aren tried to remain focused on the admirals. What they said would be important. “Don’t count on it,” Snap commented in his mind. That could prove problematic. Aren decided to just remain quiet; Snap had probably gotten them in enough trouble already. He had been ready to accept many things when he’d entered the briefing, but getting partnered with someone who had no respect for the command structure was not one of them.

The display shifted, and it now showed a large structure on the planet’s surface. Aren had never seen a vellak structure so large. It reminded him of a termite mound; impressive in size and organization while still asymmetrical.

“This structure,” the admiral began, “houses the vellak military’s primary arms production facilities. It is also close to one of their primary staging areas. You get in and blow it up, we take out a huge chunk of their production and throw them into disarray while we launch an attack and try to put an end to this war before we fall irreversibly behind. We’ll provide you with our scans of the facility and information on its security. Any questions?”

Snap shrugged. “Pfft, no, of course not. Your plan makes perfect sense. Most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard. We’ll get right on it.” She clapped Aren on the back hard enough to make him stumble.

“Uh, actually,” Aren said with no small amount of trepidation, “I have one. Sir. If I may ask,” he continued, with a brief glance at Snap’s disapproving face, “when will this operation take place?”

The admiral smiled thinly. “Civility, imagine that? One week. Our last bit of subterfuge will have convinced the enemy that we will be at full strength in one week. We must attack before then. You will be given anything you require to complete the mission.”

Aren heard Snap barely holding back laughter, and a moment later she produced a small knife, which she began to rotate in the air.

“I’ll take you up on that last bit,” Snap said once she recovered. “Well, then, time’s not going to wait for us, and there’s lots to do. Now if you’ll excuse us, I’ve got to break in the colt if we’re to have any chance of living more than another week.” She sent the knife spinning toward the admirals, who recoiled, but it veered away and returned to Snap’s hand as she grinned and gave a tiny, mocking bow.

“Come on, Colt,” she said. “Let’s go. We’ve got a lot to do.”

Aren nodded, and after a last glance back at the admirals, followed Snap out of the room. What had he gotten himself into?

As the door hissed shut behind them, Aren turned to Snap, the fog of confusion in his mind slowly lifting. “Are you crazy? Those were the fleet’s most senior officers!”

Snap shrugged and turned to face him as well, so that they were uncomfortably close. “Come on, Colt, don’t be that way. You’re cute and all, but it’ll make our partnership more difficult if you act like that. They’re just men, and what’re they going to do, fire us? You saw how desperate they are. Hell, they brought you up here! If I’m going to make any progress with you at all before we go off on their suicide mission, you need to follow my lead.”

Aren felt himself flush again. Despite her attitude, Snap had a point. And besides, it was already hard for him to say no to her. He’d been preparing himself to deal with a superior similar to his instructors in basic training, but he had to throw that out the airlock with Snap as his only company. So instead of arguing, he smiled. “Colt? Really?” he asked.

Snap shrugged. “I always wanted to raise a horse when I was little, but then I was drafted. You’ll have to do. Now come on, we have to get started,” she replied, then snapped her fingers and started off down a hallway identical to all of the others Aren had seen in the base thus far.

“So where do we begin?” Aren asked as he tried to keep up. Was Snap intentionally walking fast or did it come naturally?

“Assessment. I need to figure out how little you know, and how much work it’ll take to whip you into shape.” She stopped in front of a featureless door, turned and flashed him a smile. “Can’t promise that there won’t be actual whips involved.”

The door slid open and Aren followed Snap inside, lights turning on as the door shut behind them. They were in a training room; the floor and walls were covered in blue-gray mats, and there was a wide variety of training equipment arrayed around the room.

Snap moved to a spot on the mats far from the walls or equipment. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” she said as she spread her arms wide. “Come on, try and take me down.” When Aren didn’t immediately move, she crossed her arms. “Well, come on! I don’t bite,” she added with a grin.

Aren stared at her for a long moment. He wasn’t sure whether he was more attracted to or afraid of her.

“You going to make me order you to attack me?” Snap asked.

Aren steadied his breath and approached Snap, assuming a fighting stance as he neared. When he was in range, he unleashed a series of rapid strikes designed to bring her down quickly.

He never got close. Faster than he could track, Snap somehow reversed everything, and Aren found himself flat on his back, with Snap practically on top of him, pinning him to the floor. “Well it seems you really are fresh out of basic,” she said, brining her face down close to his. “Try again.”

She got off of him, and Aren tried to calm himself as he tried to take her down again.

And once again, he was dropped hard onto the floor. “You fight like a girl,” she said. “Or maybe you just don’t want to hit one. Too bad. We’re going to keep doing this until you make progress.”

And they did, Aren ending up on the floor another half dozen times, to Snap’s vocal disappointment. He was at least able to track her motions by then, which was a plus, as she did the same thing each time.

The next time he tried, he was ready for her, and just managed to counter her attack. Finally, it was Snap on the floor. “And the colt stands,” she said even as she was pinned down. “How do you feel?” she asked.

Aren couldn’t help but smile. “A bit relieved, but still frustrated. I’ll take this small victory.”

“Good,” she replied before seemingly effortlessly getting free and turning the tables so she was on top once more. “Don’t expect too many of those. But at least you proved you can learn, young Colt,” she added, running a finger along Aren’s face before leaping off of him. She stood a short distance away as Aren stood up and caught his breath. “Now, we try something else.”

And on they went for hours, Aren being the one knocked around nearly every time. When Snap finally announced that they were done for the day, Aren found he lacked the strength to push himself up off the floor again. “I think I hate you,” he muttered as Snap looked down at him, expression incredulous. Then she offered him her hand.

Aren didn’t take it immediately, wary of a trap that would lead to more mocking and pain. After a bit of thought, however, he decided that it couldn’t be any worse than what she’d already done. He accepted her offer, and was pleasantly surprised when she simply helped him up.

“Don’t hate me yet, colt. We’ve got six more days of this. And if today was any example, well…”

“I actually have a question,” Aren said as he gingerly rotated the arm he’d most recently fallen on. “We’re going to be fighting vellak. What’s the point in spending precious time on techniques that work on humans?”

“Well look who’s so clever,” Snap replied. “It could be that I wanted to get a feel for you, gauge your mindset and skill set. Or maybe I just wanted to get my hands on you, and grappling was a convenient excuse to do so.” She had a wicked smile on her face. “And don’t give me that look, Colt!” she added a moment later as Aren started to shake his head. “You know you enjoyed it too, don’t lie to me.”

Aren chose the safest answer, silence.

“Well then,” Snap said, “go get some rest before you fall over. You’ll need it for tomorrow. I’ll assess your infiltration skills—without using the Penumbra. I hope they’re more impressive than your combat skills. To reach your quarters, continue down this hallway, then take your second left. You room is the first on the right. Rations will be delivered there; I’ll get you in the morning.”

Aren didn’t immediately move, unsure of what to say. A moment later, she slapped him on the rear. “I told you to go, Colt!”

Aren hurried out of the room, glad for some time to himself. He still wasn’t sure whether he was more attracted to, or scared of, Snap. She was quite unlike any of the girls he’d known back home, that was for certain. Hopefully, he’d figure her out before they went into the fire together.

 

Aren was awakened the next morning by Snap’s voice in his mind, saying “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.”

“Enough already!” Aren replied as he forced himself to get up and ignore his sore muscles.

“Be in the hall in ten minutes, Colt. Otherwise I’ll come in and drag you out.”

And she would do it too. Aren quickly dressed and wolfed down the packaged breakfast ration. It was tasteless, but he’d gotten used to it in basic. At least there was enough here. You’re important now, he reminded himself. The higher-ups had reason to make sure he was properly fed.

“Two minutes!” Snap sent, and Aren wished that he could wear a disruptor, if only to keep her from doing that. As he let his frustration steep a bit, he formulated a plan to surprise Snap, and maybe even gain back a point or two he’d lost the day before.

He stood just to the side of the door, counted down to her deadline, then waited. As the door hissed open, he dove across it, grabbed Snap by the waist and tried to pull her to the ground.

Instead, he felt a thump on his neck, and was on his back, Snap’s leg on his neck. She pressed hard enough for him to feel it, but that was it. “D for effort,” she said with her ubiquitous smile that could mean one of far too many things. “At least you tried,” she added as she got off of him, but did not offer a hand.

Aren stood up and almost immediately flinched as Snap ruffled his hair. “You’re cute when you’re angry,” she said. “I should keep you that way, Colt.” Abruptly, she spun on her heel and walked out of the room.

Aren followed a safe distance behind her as he moved his hair back into place.

“You know if I wanted to,” Snap said as they turned a corner, “I could infer from that that you really did enjoy our grappling yesterday. And who could blame you really? Unfortunately for you, everything happens on my terms.” She laughed. “You might as well just come out and say it, Colt. I don’t hide things from you.”

Yeah, because you apparently don’t have a filter on what you say out loud! She was really good at getting to him. And he’d been good at dealing with teasing back in basic.

“You haven’t told me your name,” he said as Snap entered a code into a panel next to a door.

“Yes I did,” she said without turning around. “I’m Snap, for snapping necks, other bones, and whatever else is in my way, very quickly. Though I’m sure some of my old team wanted to imply that I’m crazy, but I’m clearly not.”

Clearly. “That’s not your real name,” he said. “You know mine; it’s only fair I know yours.”

This time Snap turned around. Her eyes were narrowed. “I’ve decided that I like you, Colt. Don’t make me question my decision. My name is Snap.”

There was no getting anywhere with this now. Aren nodded. “Fine. Lead on, Snap.”

The panel beeped, the door slid open, and revealed a very different training room. It was big enough that Aren couldn’t tell exactly how large it was, and it looked like a mock military compound. It outclassed anything he’d seen in basic.

“Over here, Colt,” Snap called from a short distance away, near an equipment rack. Arranged on the wall was all of the gear an eidolon would take into the field; the armor parts that would go atop the bodysuit, the weapons, and infiltration gear. Light and efficient. “Suit up,” Snap ordered.

As Aren began to comply, she continued. “You have a target to kill. You are to make your way through the compound undetected, eliminating any obstacles you cannot avoid, kill the target, then get out. Enemy forces will be the usual humanlike androids. And before you ask, I need to get a sense of your skill, or lack thereof. Even though the vellak are blind, we will still have to sneak when we are impersonating one—it’ll just be different sneaking. Oh, use of the Penumbra is not allowed, not until I say so. Understood?”

Aren nodded as he prepared. He knew the drill. Infiltration had always been where his talent lay. He’d only had to take the final exam once.

“I’ll be in the compound, watching,” Snap said. “Don’t screw up.” Then she disappeared before Aren’s eyes, using the Penumbra to turn herself invisible.

Aren grabbed a rifle off its rack, lowered his helmet’s visor, and proceeded into the compound, guided by a map display. The room was, apparently, made up of many smaller ones.

His armor picked up motion nearby. From his position hidden behind a wall he spotted the very human looking android, armed with an assault rifle, patrolling the next corridor. He was tempted to shoot it, but remembered Snap’s orders.

Utilizing his map, he saw a large air vent nearby, which led deep into the compound. When the guard next left his line of sight, Aren moved, and made it into the vent just in time. After some uneventful crawling, he reached the end of the path, closer to the center, and his target. Unfortunately, there was a guard standing close to his exit. Aren quietly removed the grating, then dropped down behind the unsuspecting android, which he then grabbed by the neck like he would have a human, and a few moments later, it shut down. Bad combat skills you said? He wanted to say to Snap.

He silently sprinted forward and took out another guard with a shot to the head, then dragged it into an empty room before closing in on the room the target’s location. From a small nearby alcove, Aren scoped out the protection outside the room. Immediately, he knew something was wrong. There was only a single guard. There was no way it would be so easy. But all the same, he didn’t pick up anyone else, and after several tense minutes nothing changed. It seemed there was only one option.

He left his hiding spot and shot the guard in the head without breaking stride. A moment later, however, he heard another gun fire, and knew he’d made a mistake.

“And you’re dead,” Snap announced as she reappeared a few feet away, with a pistol aimed at Aren’s chest.

“But you said—”

“What, that I would be watching? I never said I wouldn’t be part of the exercise. Do you think every enemy will be easily spotted? Rookie mistake. We really are doomed.”

“But—”

“No buts, Colt,” Snap said, no hint of mockery or playfulness in her voice. “You screwed up. Bang, you’re dead. No chance to try again when it’s an enemy holding a gun to you. Fortunately, I’m nicer. A little nicer.” She pulled the trigger, and Aren grunted as he felt the rubber bullet hit him just below the ribs. “Again!” she ordered, then disappeared.

Aren trudged back out of the simulated compound, waited a few moments, then slowly made his way in again. Knowing the simulation, he made it through quicker, but again came to a halt near the final door. Snap wouldn’t be there again; with the rest of the test the same, she wouldn’t make it so easy.

His hunch proved correct when he saw two more guards begin to approach the door. Aren smiled. This scenario he knew how to deal with.

He pulled a small flash-bang grenade from a utility pouch, primed it, and rolled it toward the three guards.

A moment later it went off, his suit adjusting to shield him from its effects. Then he made his move, firing first at the guard on the right, then the center, then the left. At some point one of them took a shot at him, but it missed, and the door hiding his target was undefended. His hand was on the handle when an invisible weight forced him against it. Snap.

“Again, mistakes!” she shouted as she appeared.

“What? I took out the guards fine, and you weren’t there this time. I know you weren’t,” Aren objected as he strained against the invisible barrier, his heart racing.

“You let one of them get a shot off. And you didn’t check to be sure they were dead. Mistakes.”

Was she serious? “Tiny mistakes that didn’t affect the outcome! No operation goes exactly as planned.”

“Tiny mistakes?” she shouted, then turned away from him and tossed her weapon onto the floor. “You think you know what those are?” She began to remove her bodysuit until her back was bare.

“What are you—” Aren started to ask, then stopped as he saw the scars on her back. There were several, ranging from faint lines to uglier marks. So many.

“Take a good look, Colt! These are tiny mistakes when you’re lucky! Half of these would have killed me if it weren’t for other factors! I’m sure you’ve wondered why I stay here, given my opinions on the old men in charge. This is why. I can never go back to civilian life, not like this. Scars never fully heal. This is my only place, and it will be the same for you. If you live.” She began to pull the bodysuit back on. “Yes, things don’t go as planned. Those problems can be dealt with, if you don’t make other mistakes.”

She turned around and walked toward Aren until she was a hairsbreadth away. She pointed at her throat, at the long scar plainly visible with the bodysuit not fully zipped up. She pointed at it. “Take a good, close look. You know who I am. I am the best eidolon in the service. See what happened when I made mistakes? I want to live. I want you to live. This is why you will do whatever I say, trainee. Now, we go again!”

Aren, feeling numb, nodded silently, and returned to the start of the exercise.

The simulations continued for the rest of the day, though Snap’s demeanor was more subdued as Aren’s became more determined. Even more than doing it so he knew he was capable, he felt like he was practicing for her. He was the weakest link. If they failed and died, it would almost assuredly be his fault. Despite her harsh method and lack of care for what she said, she was trying to do her job as best she could, and get Aren as ready as possible for something out of his league.

At the end of the day, after successfully completing the final simulation, held in a different training room altogether, Aren couldn’t describe how good it felt to hear Snap say, “Good work, Colt. Tomorrow the real work begins.”

For the first time since learning of the mission, Aren felt that maybe—just maybe—they had a chance at success.

 

“Basic training teaches you next to nothing about the Penumbra,” Snap said the next morning as they sat in the mat-covered training room where they’d spent the first day. “Actually, you should probably forget everything they taught you. How do you draw the Penumbra to you?” she asked.

“I picture myself floating in a dark void, surrounded by the Penumbra. To call it, I visualize an image of an angel crossed with the Eidolon Initiative eidolon, which merges with me, bringing the power with it.” He hadn’t told anyone about his method before, worried that they might think it silly, but he’d decided to do whatever he could to make his partnership with Snap work, and that required honesty.

“I’ve heard worse,” she replied as she shifted to a different position on the mat-covered floor. “Please tell me something though. When you picture yourself for this process, are you clothed?”

“What? Yes. Why would that make a difference?”

“In my experience the process is easier if one pictures oneself naked. You should try it.”

Aren had never heard of such a phenomenon. Snap certainly knew more than he did, but something felt off. “Are you making this up?” he asked.

“Of course I am, idiot. I wanted to see if you’d do it.” She laughed. “Still, feel free to try it when we’re mindlinked,” she added.

Aren sighed, but didn’t continue the argument. This was how Snap acted; arguing would just waste time.

“Alright then,” Snap said as she stood up. “Connect yourself to the Penumbra. We’ll run through all of the basic things I need you to know today, so we can focus on the mindlink and vellak emulation over the rest of our time together.”

Aren nodded, and stood up as well. He created the image in his mind, and quickly the angel’s wings had, metaphorically, lifted him out of the realm of the physical and connected him to the intangible power of the Penumbra, which flowed into him in a rush. It had been an intoxicating feeling, early on, but Aren had a handle on that, at least.

“Defend yourself,” Snap said simply.

Aren, who hadn’t been paying full attention to her as he drew on the Penumbra, barely saw her begin a punching motion, too fast and close to deflect normally. He pictured a barrier between him and the punch, and a split second later, Snap’s fist came up short.

“Not bad, Colt,” she said before she launched another series of strikes. Aren managed to stop nearly all of them, but near the end he lost focus and took a kick to the back of the knee that sent him to the floor.

“Up,” she ordered, and Aren did so despite the pain in the back of his leg. “What else did they try and teach you in basic?”

“The basics. Barriers, telekinetic actions, some mental interactions, and simple energy projections.” He already knew that Snap was not going to be pleased to hear it. The mental aspects of the Penumbra would be more important for their mission, and it was his weakest area.

“Lots to do, too little time,” Snap said as she tapped her finger on her belt. She walked around Aren once, then stopped where she’d begun. “I’m going to do something unusual, for me,” she announced. “Do to the lack of time, I am going to assume that you know what the hell you’re doing as far as basic telekinesis and energy projection are concerned.” She placed a hand on Aren’s shoulder and locked eyes with him. “You won’t let me down, will you?” she asked with an uncharacteristically pleasant smile.

Aren had to return the gesture. “Of course not. I want to live through this too, after all.”

“Excellent.” Snap replied as she flicked some stray hairs away from her face. “But before we get to the sneaky mind stuff, I’ve got a quick trick to teach you, since you’ve been so receptive thus far. I assume you’ve heard of physical projections? Weapons, specifically?”

“Of course I have. Never had a chance to try though; we were always told it was too advanced for us.”

“And they were right. I won’t bore you with the horror stories of past trainees stabbing themselves with invisible knives when they screwed up. Or maybe I could tell you some, if you’re into that sort of thing,” Snap said, her grin borderline maniacal again. “One second nothing, and then…” she snapped her fingers, “a knife in the gut.”

Aren felt a pit in his stomach. “You know, it might help if you didn’t try and scare me away from trying this.”

“I know, but it’s so much fun!” she messed with his hair. “But I guess it is just wasting time.” She looked down at the matted floor below them, bent her hand inward, and Aren saw a thin tear appear in the gray mat.

“See? Very simple. Once you get the hang of it, it takes barely a thought to create a weapon of any size or shape. Your last line of defense, one that can save your life. It’s saved mine dozens of times.”

“Alright, so how do I do it?” Aren asked, hoping he didn’t sound too eager.

Snap stepped behind him and held out his right arm with hers. “It’s very similar to marking barriers. The main difference is that instead of an indistinct wall or whatever, you need to make a very specific shape. I won’t even try and teach you how to alter already formed shapes; there’s no time for that.”

Aren nodded. “Let’s go then.”

He felt Snap’s wrist close around his, her thumb brush over the small metal piece on his bodysuit’s wrist. “What you weren’t told in basic was that these little things are focus points for the Penumbra’s energy. It helps make it easier to focus in general, but it’s especially so with making weapons.” She tapped on the metal piece again. “Use this as you focus for now. Picture the blade coming out from here, like it’s the handle of a knife. Just don’t make any sudden movements after you create the blade.”

Aren took a deep breath to calm himself and slow his heart rate, which had spiked when Snap took his arm. Fortunately, he was still connected to the Penumbra. Following Snap’s instructions, he imagined a straight, narrow blade about as long as his arm extending forward from the metal piece. After a moment of concentration, he felt it form, even though he couldn’t see it.

“Very good!” Snap exclaimed, as though surprised he’d done it on his first try. She slowly guided his arm down toward the floor, and his invisible blade cut through the mat as easily as hers had. “Now dissipate it. Your mind is holding the blade together, though you aren’t consciously aware. To dissipate it, just release the energy.”

Aren did as instructed, and a moment later he no longer felt the blade. “Consider me mildly impressed,” Snap said as she released his arm. Your abilities could rival mine in a decade or so. If you survive this mission, of course. That is unless you somehow survive while I don’t.” She laughed. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

Aren had to smile. “It’s in my best interests to do well, I think, for both our sakes. I wouldn’t want to let you down.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Now, we’ll run through everything else, get that out of the way. We’ll need the rest of our time for the really hard part. If you continue like this, maybe we’ll actually be ready. Then I’ll really be impressed.”

Aren decided to make that a goal. “Let’s get going then. We don’t have all day.”

 

By the time Snap let him go that evening, Aren felt completely exhausted again. The difference was that his body was not as tired, rather he just felt so mentally drained he doubted he could make a simple calculation. “I think you broke my brain,” he said as the door to his room slid open.

“Well you’d better fix it by tomorrow, Colt,” Snap replied from across the hall, outside her own room. “I’m not even close to done with you. Sleep well!” she winked at him, then vanished into her room.

Aren shook his head, then staggered inside and collapsed onto his bed. And people thought that the Penumbra made it so you wouldn’t get tired doing things. Almost immediately, he felt his eyes closing, and he lacked the will to fight them.

 

He awoke to loud banging on his door. “Up! Get the hell up!” Snap shouted through the door.

Aren groaned and turned toward the sound. “What, yelling at me inside my head is too subtle for you now?” He pushed himself into a sitting position.

“You made it clear that you didn’t like it,” Snap replied simply. “Don’t say I can’t be accommodating. Now get yourself out here before I come drag you, whether you’re dressed or not. I don’t mind.”

Aren shook his head. He was never going to understand her. Had he really slept all night? He didn’t feel rested. As he pushed himself up off the bed, he glanced at the open closet where a spare uniform hung. After a moment’s thought, however, he decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and staggered out of the room.

“Getting your first taste of Penumbra lag, I see,” Snap said. She looked perfectly fine, of course, despite having done at least as much as he had yesterday. Come to think of it, there had yet to be a moment where she hadn’t looked, well, perfect. It wasn’t fair.

“Penumbra lag?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s something that can happen when you have a day like yesterday. Symptoms include feeling like shit, as you seem to now. It’ll wear off shortly, hopefully before I have to go inside your head. Dammit!”

Despite the mental fog, Aren smiled. If he was going to feel miserable, it was only fair Snap felt the same way.

Snap led him back to the mat room, the only place that really felt familiar in the base. “Get comfortable,” she ordered, “we’re not going to be moving much today.”

Aren nodded, and settled down on the floor. He was just glad she’d chosen the only room with a moderately comfortable floor; he could just as easily have seen her choosing the room with the training course, simply to make his life harder. However, she had been less abrasive lately, he had to admit. Still just as unpredictable, but less frustrating.

Snap joined him on the floor after fiddling with the door control panel for a moment. “Ready?” she asked. She had a serious look on her face, and there was no hint of sarcasm in her voice. Well, she had legitimately earned a reputation as competent and focused, after all.

“Since I assume you’ll know soon anyway,” he replied, “not really.”

“Congratulations on not deluding yourself, Colt. Now, give me your hand. Touching the other person makes it easier for beginners.”

Aren had no problem with that, so he took her extended hand. Though he had held her hand before, he was still surprised when her skin felt warm and soft. He just hoped she didn’t notice his thinking during what felt like a long, quiet moment.

“Now, connect to the Penumbra,” Snap commanded.

Aren nodded, and a moment later the familiar connection to the intangible power appeared. “What now?”

“This is the tricky bit, but luckily I can more or less move us forward on my own. It’s much easier to teach than figure out from scratch,” Snap replied as she tightened her grip on his hand slightly. “What you need to do is open your mind to me. Let me in, do not resist. Once I establish the link, we can move forward, but I don’t want to spend hours getting in there.” A slight smile appeared on her face, as though she had recalled something funny. “Prepare yourself, get ready to divulge your deepest, darkest secrets.

Aren grimaced at the reminder, but he was given no opening to object. A moment later, he felt her presence, her consciousness, pressing against his own.

“You’re not cooperating,” Snap said inside his mind. “The mental link used to talk in your head is way too simple for what we have to do. Remember, to fool the vellak we have to be as closely linked as they are.”

“Sorry,” Aren replied as he tried to force himself to let her in. when nothing immediately changed, he visualized a door between his and Snap’s minds, then opened it.

Suddenly, a huge rush of information flooded into him. The first things he noticed were sensory, such as the fact that he could now see himself as Snap was, felt his own hand in addition to hers, as paradoxical as that sounded. Then everything else flooded in at once; thoughts, memories, feelings that were not his own, so quickly that he couldn’t focus on anything. Aren felt himself—at least he thought it was—begin to hyperventilate.

“Calm down, Colt,” Snap ordered, but not in a way that indicated annoyance. “Focus. Focus on one thing from your mind. Let there be nothing else.”

Aren, still completely overwhelmed, latched onto the first thing he knew couldn’t be from Snap’s mind: her face as she sat across from him. There was no glint of mockery in her eyes, no furrowed brow to indicate anger. All Aren could pick up was a hint of…concern. He focused on the image, let it fill his mind, even as he knew Snap was hearing every thought—which was just as well, as there was no reason to waste energy denying that he thought she was beautiful. Slowly, steadily, Aren felt himself relax.

“Good. Well at least we’ve established that that feeling is mutual,” she remarked.

Aren was about to ask what she meant when the answer suddenly came to him—well, it came from Snap’s mind, actually, freely shared. At least she was just as confused as he was.

“Maybe we should focus on something more important,” Snap said just as Aren saw the thought enter her mind, “getting you used to this. You should explore my mind while I do the same to yours. We have to become used to it so that we don’t see something surprising and lose focus and cohesion. You might as well enjoy the trip; I know I’ll have fun learning exactly what makes you tick.”

Aren felt himself flush, and when he instinctively tried to hide his reaction, he knew it would only compound his embarrassment, as she would see it, which would make him feel awkward again, which would…chain on potentially forever. “Just relax. It’s not every day you get to look into a girl’s mind.”

True enough. Aren made sure he left his own mind open, then ventured into Snap’s. There was a lot he didn’t know, but wanted to. As luck would have it, however, his first question led him to a dead end—several, actually. Everywhere, whatever Snap’s real name was had somehow been replaced with the name she had taken on.

“There are still ways to keep small secrets,” she mentioned. “I might have forgotten to tell you that. There’s no need to confuse you, and the name I was given at birth it not something that concerns you. I’m Snap, and that’s it.”

Aren didn’t respond, but made it clear what he felt about that as he sifted through Snap’s memories. He watched her progress through life through her eyes, as she left her home to join the military, her training, her combat experiences. The latter in particular were jarring, as he had never experienced combat himself. Now he had, sort of.

Snap had been generally truthful in leaving her mind open to his perusal, Aren decided, after glimpsing memories clearly private and personal, many of which he chose not to watch all the way through. Through the moments—or hours, there was no way for him to tell—that he spent inside Snap’s mind, he got a good sense of who she was, and he was surprised. From inside her mind, Snap seemed…normal, or at least as normal as anyone could be.

“What did you expect? Some tragic history, painful traumatic events? Someone that needed fixing?”

Aren decided it was best to let the topic rest. Snap spoke again just as he was about to ask what the next step was. She was looking forward to it.

“Next is the hard part,” she said. Aren found it strange, knowing what she was about to say a split second before she said it. “We need to merge our consciousnesses together like the vellak do. Once we can do it while sitting still we’ll move up to doing it while in action.”

Again, just as a question came to Aren’s mind, Snap replied. She clearly was experienced at this. “I’ll guide you; I’ll be controlling the link anyway. Just stay relaxed. You’ve already experienced the link in full, when we first joined minds. You couldn’t handle it then. Let me ease you into it now.”

Aren understood, and Snap of course knew that he did as well. Almost immediately, he felt something happening. He still saw through his eyes, but he also saw through hers, as he had briefly before. “Focus on us, Colt. The link,” Snap said. “We must be two bodies, two consciousnesses, one unified will.”

Yes, of course, Aren reiterated to himself. They key to tricking the vellak wouldn’t truly be making their connected mind seem like that of the vellak, but just nailing the two-as-one concept.

“Exactly,” Snap replied to his thought—or had he replied to himself? It all made perfect sense. Their minds, their thought processes, slowly merged. What one thought, the other thought, as though it had come from their mind. Colt was surprisingly adaptable to it as well, much more than Flare had been. She’d been less of a stick-in-the-mud though. But at least now—Aren stopped himself. Those were Snap’s thoughts. He’d never met Flare, the loud, opinionated girl who could shoot coins from a hundred meters away. But at the same time, he missed her. He could see her death again and again, and he—no, Snap, still wondered if she could have saved Flare.

Flare is dead. It’s not worth thinking about her with an inexperienced trainee to keep alive.”

            “I don’t think I ever met an eidolon with as much self doubt as you, Colt. The powers and the training generally get rid of that.”

            “They did, until I was called up here and given this impossible mission.”

            “You can’t deny that you’ve enjoyed this. Meanwhile I had to deal with a kid fresh out of basic. There were some perks though.”

Aren didn’t need Snap to vocalize what exactly she considered ‘perks’. Images did that well enough, to his embarrassment, as thoughts and memories began to flow together, one leading directly into the next. Each clearly came from a mind viewing itself as singular, but it came through both. Two distinct identities, intertwined, just like the vellak. He forced himself to not let his discomfort mess them up. They had to do this.

“Now we try and move, simultaneously,” Snap announced as Aren wondered what came next.

He—they—began to get up. Aren could feel her movements as well as he did his own. Then, suddenly, something went wrong and Aren collapsed back to the floor. It felt as if a massive elastic band had snapped back into him, and while he saw that Snap had fallen as well, he couldn’t feel the floor through her hands, couldn’t feel the frustration that was evident by her scowl.

What happened? He wondered before realizing that Snap wouldn’t immediately hear his thought. “What happened?” he asked again aloud.

“Connection broke. We’re just ourselves again.” She laid down on her back and massaged her temples.

“Why?” Aren asked as he rested his head on his hand.

“Moving. The melding of minds is easier because it’s not too far off from the mind reading and telepathic communication you’re more familiar with. Much easier to combine our consciousnesses than to move as a single unit while still controlling both bodies.”

“So how do we get past this?”

Snap sat up and moved opposite Aren again. “Practice.”

“I was afraid you’d say that,” he said as he accepted her extended hand.

“I know,” she said with a smile as her mind rushed to meet his.

 

And practice they did, for hours, apparently, though Aren’s sense of time was a complete mess by the time their minds separated for the final time. He didn’t want to count how many times the connection had broken as they tried more complex actions, but their perseverance and determination, mostly Snap’s, eventually saw them to success.

“I think I’ll just spend the night here,” he said from his position lying on his back. And he’d thought the previous day had been exhausting?

“Suit yourself.” Snap, of course, still had the energy to sit up, though even she had finally shown signs of exhaustion. Her replies didn’t have their usual edge to them, and near the end the tiredness Aren had felt was certainly not only his own “Just be ready in the morning, Colt.”

Aren realized that having seen Snap’s mind, he no longer minded the nickname. “It’s weird, not having questions to ask you. Well, not many, anyway.”

“Yes, it’s weird, sharing everything. It’ll be more interesting if you’re my first mind-partner to survive a mission. Good night!” Snap said before abruptly striding from the room.

 

Aren was awakened by Snap re-entering the training room. “Rise and shine, Colt! Graduation day! Sort of.”

Aren roused himself quickly, and pushed himself to his feet. He’d slept soundly, despite strange dreams probably caused by the previous day’s activities. As he followed the suspiciously energetic Snap to locations unknown, he reflected on their last conversation. Only two things remained in question: Snap’s real name, and the true nature of what he felt for her and she for him. Aren didn’t know what to think. He’d been attracted to her from the start, that much he knew. But the initial attraction had been purely superficial; the woman was gorgeous, after all. Since then, however, it had become something more. The mind sharing had only made things more confusing.

“In here,” Snap said as an unusually large door slowly opened in front of them.

As he stepped inside, Aren could only stare. The entire room, which was larger than any of the others he’d trained in, was one giant, elaborate obstacle course. “We have to run it while linked, don’t we?” he asked.

Snap flashed him her characteristic grin. “Of course. Haha. Of course we have to run the course!”

“If I hadn’t already been inside your head, I’d say you were definitely crazy. Actually, even then I’m not completely sure.”

“Well, you’ll get another look, Colt.” She laughed again, as if at a joke. For the first time though, Aren had an idea of what she found funny. “Let’s try it without touching this time.”

Aren nodded, and as he embraced the Penumbra realized that he was looking forward to sharing his mind with her. Perhaps because of that, or because of the practice, it went smoothly. As her mind became visible, Aren found himself wondering how they lived with only a single set of thoughts.

“Welcome back. Glad to be back.” Snap said once the link solidified. Aren quietly sent his agreement.

With Snap guiding them, the pair got suited up, and before Aren knew it, they were standing at the entrance to the obstacle course. “We have to make it through the course intact,” Snap said. “To ensure we’re properly in sync, there are several sections where we each must do an action at precisely the same time. I’ll take the lead, but we both have to get it right, move as one.”

“Got it, let’s go.”

“I like your attitude. Bet I beat you to the finish line!” Was that a bit of affection he—she—was feeling?

Before he could further dwell on it, they darted into the course as it came to life. There were no words Aren could think of that described the feeling of running at breakneck speed, intimately connected with Snap, taking down targets and avoiding obstacles using equipment, physical abilities, and the Penumbra. For the first time, he truly felt like an eidolon. And at the same time, it was like revisiting an old pastime. He—and Snap—almost starting giggling like children.

The only problem came near the end, where they—their bodies at least—had to completely split up while under fire and activate two complex locks at precisely the same time. They were off by milliseconds.

Immediately, the sharp feeling of frustration flooded in, and Aren was surprised when Snap didn’t berate him for messing up. “No need to be as harsh now, seeing as I know you’re competent. And besides, no new team has ever done it on the first try. I’d know; I’ve been half of all of them,” Snap stated, answering Aren’s unasked question.

“Again?” he asked.

“Again.” There was definitely some affection then.

“Don’t get sentimental on me, Colt. You won’t be getting any of this if we don’t make it back,” Snap said, including an image that made him feel quite uncomfortable and caused her—them—to find it all hilarious. “So easy. You have to stop getting embarrassed so easily. I don’t like the feeling.”

“I’m sure. Let’s do this already!”

They ran the course again and again, without pause, for hours. Like the previous day’s training, it felt like little time passed. Aren decided to blame Snap’s mind for that. At least he wasn’t blaming himself for it, he thought before becoming aware that it was not his thought. Were they reaching the coveted point where they couldn’t distinguish their thoughts from the other’s?

Well of course they would have eventually. But reaching that point so soon was a great accomplishment.

Suddenly, the course shut down and a monitor nearby began to beep. Important call incoming. Aren and Snap quickly made their way to it, arriving at precisely the same time, and activated it.

“Good afternoon, eidolons,” said the fleet admiral, who stood at the head of a group consisting numerous officer of varying ranks. “I trust your preparation has gone well.”

“Well enough,” they replied, though only Snap spoke. “By tomorrow, we’ll be more or less ready for your suicide mission. Maybe we’ll even make it back to tell you how the weather was down on there. Unless you’ve decided to come along for the ride.” The image of the older man fighting vellak suddenly appeared in their shared mind, and Aren found himself grinning too.

“Unfortunately,” the fleet admiral said, ignoring Snap’s inappropriate comment, “your task just got more difficult. Our scouts have just alerted us that the enemy discovered our ruse. Our attack is already in motion, but it is not a fight we can win. We must insert you immediately, while we can still give you enough cover to make it to the surface. There is no time for debate. Report to docking bay seventeen in ten minutes. Your ship will be ready.”

The monitor shut off, and emotions began to swirl around their consciousness; nervousness, anticipation, excitement, frustration. Of course the idiots would find some way to make their lives harder! Did they not understand what preparation meant? Did they want the mission to fail? They hadn’t even managed to properly complete the course!

But whatever the circumstances, they had to go, completely ready or not. “We have a decent shot at success, Colt,” Snap said as they jogged through the base. “Now that I think of it,” she continued, speaking so quickly after the thought came to mind that Aren didn’t have time to pick up on it, “you need a new callsign. Not smart to see you as a rookie while we’re in combat.” She stopped speaking for a moment as name ideas raced through her mind, which caused Aren to start thinking as well.

As they passed the guards that stood in front of the hangar, Aren saw Snap look at the small infiltration ship they’d be taking while his own eyes scanned the rest of the room. “You’ve earned your wings, Seraph. Now it’s time to take the leap out of the nest. Or Heaven. Or whatever high point you like.”

The name definitely fit better than Colt. It also cleverly referenced the visual image he used to connect to the Penumbra, and—he should probably stop before his name was changed to ‘Overthink’.

Point taken, they boarded the ship, double-checked their equipment, and prepared for departure, all without having to speak a word. What was the point, when they had a superior form of communication?

The ship was small, and consisted of two sections. The front contained the cockpit and their gear, and the rear contained the engines, boarding ramp, and escape pod.

Aren sat down first, in the copilot’s chair, and began running the pre-flight checks while Snap made sure their equipment was properly stowed. As the computer announced that all was in order, Snap leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek “I’ve heard it’s good for luck. We’re going to need it, Seraph.”

She sat down and began the takeoff sequence as Aren sat still, simultaneously shocked and amused. Having access to both sides of the exchange was really confusing.

Focus quickly returned to the mission, however, as their ship departed the hangar and soared out into space. Aren entered the jump coordinates, and space stretched as the ship went into hyperspace.

The journey was short and quiet, both of their minds focused on what was to come. Why couldn’t they have had more time? What if those few days would be all they had?

It was worth it, though, having those days. It wasn’t every day you met your idol and started falling for her. Aren glanced over at Snap for a moment, then back to observing both his and her displays. Thirty seconds to realspace, where they’d be flying into the middle of a battle.

As the ship began beeping to alert them, Snap did something unexpected. “It’s Eris, by the way. Just thought you should know, in case we don’t make it. The only other people who’d know me by that name are family.”

Eris. It suited her. And it didn’t suit her. She should still be referred to by her taken name, but Aren deserved to know her true name, the last major mystery, before their mental link would be put to the test. Whatever happened, in a way they were family now.

The ship shuddered as it exited hyperspace, and alarms immediately began blaring. They’d flown right into a warzone. The ship’s stealth properties would make it hard to spot, but they would have to fly through the crossfire to get to the vellak planet.      At least the fleet engaged them here.

Flying through a hail of fire. Should be fun. Would be terrifying. Would be done. Snap’s hands tightened on the controls, and the ship accelerated into the fray. Just a few minutes, and they’d be safely past everything.

Everything was fine at first, even fun, maneuvering the ship away from weapons fire and past debris, the feeling of control with the ship in his hands, Snap’s hands.

Then they took the first hits, minor ones, which pinged off their limited shielding. Nervousness finally reappeared, probably Aren’s fault. They were so vulnerable, though.

But the ship held together, and the vellak fleet drew nearer. They were going to make it!

Suddenly, the ship shook violently, and they lost control. The mental volume rose as they struggled to regain control of the craft. Then another explosion rocked the ship. It swerved completely out of control, then lost power as it continued to spin; only the seat restraints kept Aren and Snap in place.

“We have to regain control! Salvage the operation!”

            “If we can restore power—”

After what seemed like an eternity of frantic manipulations of the ship and the Penumbra, Aren finally felt the ship’s thrusters come to life. He and Snap, working together, carefully fired them to so that the spinning stopped and the ship became still.

Then they had to regain their bearings. Snap checked the monitors as Aren looked outside, and there was both good and bad news. The good was that their spin had taken them out of the direct line of fire. The bad was that they were no longer lined up with where they had to land, and much of the engine was gone.

They still had the escape pod. They could use it to get back on course and land. It would be louder, but there was no other option. Snap left the cockpit and to check on it while Aren tried to get a better view of the damage. Before long, he spotted a problem.

They couldn’t open the hatch to got to the back, because the ship had been nearly split in two. The half with the pod was floating outside, only still connected by a few cables. This was bad. Their hands—Snap’s hands—tightened on the door handles.

There was only one choice. They would have to go outside.

Immediately, Aren felt himself, both of them, seized by near panic. But he’d never been particularly scared of going out into space. But he had been, or rather Snap had been.

Space was nothingness. There was no control, no escape, no way to live.

But we can survive out there with our equipment, and we can use the Penumbra to maneuver.”

“No.” terrifying facts began to fill his mind as Snap spoke. “You don’t understand. Space is emptiness, nothingness. The Penumbra is not. Being out there drains it away quickly. There is no control there. I don’t want to go.”

            Aren didn’t either. In the blackness of space, eidolons became mere humans again. They should not. But the mission…there was no choice. He felt hands begin to hurt as they clamped down even harder on the door handles.

Aren moved himself back toward Snap. He gathered and secured all of his gear, then snapped on his helmet and connected the oxygen. “We have to do this. We are one unified will. We go together or not at all, and our only way out of here is that pod.” At least it was if it was still intact. It hadn’t looked damaged, but what if—no! It had to be.

“Please, Snap, Eris. You are the bravest person I’ve ever known. I need you with me.” Slowly, Aren felt their grip on the door loosen, and Snap prepared herself while Aren glanced through the equipment locker for anything else useful.

Thank God, he nearly exclaimed as he spotted a handheld propulsor meant for use in space. They would have control of their movement.

He felt the oxygen connect as Snap secured her helmet and tied herself tightly to him with a strong cord. Everything was ready. “Out into the void.”

He and Snap each grabbed one of the door handles, and pulled it open slowly. Air quickly rushed out, and they were in complete silence. Except they weren’t, because they had each other’s thoughts. Small comforts. They pulled it further open so they could get out, stubborn door vibrating with every inch. Then Aren floated outside, followed by Snap, who gripped his hand tightly, determination overpowering fear.

Once outside, she moved closer and held him by the waist, so she wouldn’t get flung around as they maneuvered. Then Aren fired the propulsor, and they shot toward the severed half of the ship, which was straining against the last connections it had to the front of the ship.

They moved faster than they would have liked, and it became clear that they’d have to grab the pod’s handle as they passed. Every moment was precious, so missing was not an option.

As the pod grew closer, Aren felt strange, as though he was losing focus. The link. They were losing it.

Then the pod was right in front of them. Aren grabbed for it, and missed. But moments later, he jerked to a stop. He…had it?

No, Snap had it. She pulled him to the hatch, opened it, and they made their way inside, hearts racing as it hummed to life and re-pressurized. It worked. Moments later, focus returned as the link strengthened. “We did it.” Snap clapped him on the back. “Thank you, Seraph.”

Now they just had to get to their target.

They separated from the remains of the ship, and Snap guided the craft back in line with their planned landing site. There was some advantage to having a smaller craft; they were harder to hit. Still, she and Aren were tense until they passed the vellak fleet and began their descent.

As the planet’s surface grew closer and the flames outside the pod grew brighter, they focused on the plan of attack, as prepared by Snap and innately understood by their shared mind. It should be simple; everything they’d need to blow up a weapons production facility was already there. All it needed was the spark.

The ship began to shake as it descended. They tried not to dwell on the fact that it wouldn’t get them back off the planet. Once down, they’d have to improvise.

Fortunately, they were good at that; every mission they—Snap—had been on had required it.

Two minds. One will.

Aren engaged the ship’s thrusters to slow their descent, then watched as the ground drew closer.

He had never visited a vellak world before. Snap had, but had never been here. It looked very arid, like a mountainous desert; there didn’t seem to be much flat, open ground. The buildings reflected the landscape, and if it weren’t for the marks of technology on the outside of the massive factory and other structures, they could have been mistaken for natural formations themselves.

With nothing else to do, they gripped the pod’s controls tightly as they came to a hard landing. The pod landed on a ridge that led to the factory and skidded dangerously close to the edge before stopping.

Time to go, before anyone came to investigate. Aren was tempted to use the Penumbra to cloak, but it was pointless, as the enemy would not find them visually anyway.

Two minds, one will, was the focus as they gathered their gear and readied themselves. This was it, the moment that Aren had been trained for, to help save their species from destruction.

He felt the hard metal panel as Snap slammed it to open the hatch, and a moment later, they were outside.

They came under fire almost immediately. How could they have been spotted so quickly? And had their ruse already failed?

Aren fired at the first vellak he saw, and while the hit wasn’t fatal, it took off one of the creature’s spiky legs, and it dropped its weapon. Another shot to the head finished it off. “Aim for the head,” Snap advised as she moved her aim from the now dead vellak to its nearby partner.

But there were simply too many, firing all around. Strangely, however, they didn’t immediately start to swarm around them and the ship, nor did they use the Penumbra to attack—apparently intelligence on the vellak had been accurate regarding their abilities. “We have to make a break for it.”

As he felt Snap’s agreement, the first vellak contact was made. They didn’t understand what the vellak were saying, however; all Snap could decipher was that it was a question, and they kept using the words old or new, or something like that. What should they reply?

New, Snap decided. Who’d want to be old, anyway?

Their answer didn’t change anything, however, and the firing continued. It was time to run. They created shields with the Penumbra, then ran out from their cover, Snap in the lead. She used the Penumbra to hurls bits of rock everywhere as she shot at anything in their path, covering one side while Aren took the other, though they both were truly watching both.

They were pursued by some, but, again surprisingly, not all of the vellak. As curious as that was, however, they couldn’t dwell on it; they had to get away.

More of the spindly, insect-like vellak began to crawl up the ridge and ask the same question. Snap and Aren responded by killing whatever blocked their way to the factory complex.

The entry would be complicated, they realized as the main entrance came into view. There were several vellak guarding the entrance, and there was no time to find another way. Fortunately, the door was open.

While they lacked any heavy weapons, Aren and Snap had something better. Working in concert, they blasted the guards out of the way with a concussive wave and sprinted inside, their path guided by their helmet displays. Without it, they would’ve quickly become lost in the winding hallways.

Unfortunately, their entrance had not been quiet, and the vellak were not deaf. Within moments, seven pairs began to quickly approach while another group came in the same entrance Aren and Snap had used.

Then the shooting began, sparks flying as weapons fire impacted around them. They were cut off from the hallway they needed—“Just run!”

Running blindly did create some space between them and their pursuers, but they were in an area they didn’t know. “Dammit! What a fucking mess!” Snap exclaimed as Aren barely held back voicing similar feelings, though she of course knew he felt the same way.

The skittering of their pursuers drew closer, and they had to make a snap judgment. They had to move.

“This way!” he shouted and led them around the next corner.

As they ran down the hallway, something sped past them, and a split second later the ceiling ahead of them exploded and large chunks of debris rained down, completely blocking their path.

“Not good.”

Aren and Snap spun around as their vellak pursuers, dozens of them, appeared opposite them. There would be only one way out of this now. They blocked the hallway with a shield and prepared to fight. But there were so many…

“We have to call for help. Something, anything!”

Snap agreed, recalling the evac from her last, failed mission. She activated their transmitter, which showed that their direct link to the Admiralty was still functional. Something was going right, at least.

Snap made the call as they felt the shield they’d used to block the hallway start to buckle.

There was no answer. Snap tried again. Still nothing. “The fucking link is good!” she exclaimed. She tried again. “Why is there no damn answer?”

            “We’ve got a more pressing problem,” Aren reminded her as their shield failed under heavy fire. There was a moment of quiet, then the vellak began to advance.

Before another shot was fired, however, they saw several vellak get thrown against a wall as a hail of weapons fire was unleashed. Within moments, they were all still, silenced by a weapon or something that could only be the Penumbra.

A few seconds later, fourteen vellak came into view, weapons ready in their clawed hands. Aren and Snap opened fire, but their weapons only impacted on Penumbra-created shields, and the vellak did not return fire.

Then they heard the voice in their mind. “Your leaders turned on you as well?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Snap asked. What were the vellak saying?

“We sensed your frustration, humans. We felt your call for help, which was unanswered. Please, cease fire so we may speak.”

Snap’s initial response could be best summed up as “screw that,” but Aren prevailed on her to do so. They had to hear what the vellak had to say. If they did open fire, there would still be a moment to react; the enemy’s shields showed no signs of weakening anyway. At worst, it bought them some time.

“You may wonder why vellak fought vellak here. We can explain, but there is little time. Our hold on this sector is limited.”

“And our patience is wearing thin,” Snap added. Were they really going to let the enemy talk to them? Yes, if it gave them a reprieve from the fighting.

“It is a great betrayal, that has turned vellak on vellak, and will turn human on human. “You, like us, are capable of accessing the full potential of the Shadowfield. Our governments have formed a secret pact to eliminate all of us; they fear our power. You were sent here to die, which would prompt our leaders to deploy us in retaliation, ultimately ending in all of our deaths. We discovered the plot, however, and rebelled. Now we warn you. Apart from our words, we can regrettably offer little evidence, but you will see it when you return to your people.”

            “Bullshit,” was their initial response. But after some thought, Aren and Snap could not easily discount the notion.

Snap tried the emergency transmitter again. Still the signal was strong, with no response. They were being ignored, left for dead. Aren recalled the heavy presence of disruptors back at the base, the fear in the admirals’ eyes, and he felt both his and Snap’s blood run cold. It added up. These vellak were clearly more powerful manipulators of the penumbra. They could’ve killed both Aren and Snap easily. But they hadn’t.

“Do we trust them?”

            “Can’t believe I’m saying this, but yes.”

“What do we do now?” they asked the vellak. What could they do?

“We will get you off world, give you a ship with which to return to your people. A plan is in motion for us to eliminate our leadership, which is sheltering in our flagship. Yours is doing the same in yours, observing this battle. We will not tell you to eliminate them, but if you believe us and wish to survive, you will.” They detected no deception in the vellak.

A decision had to be made, quickly. If the vellak were somehow lying, Aren and Snap would be traitors. But the alternative…

“And we do need a way out of here.” That was certainly true, and the mission to blow up the factory was clearly a failure.

“Very well. Thank you for helping us.”

            The vellak sent feelings of acknowledgement and comfort. “Follow us.”

They quickly followed their vellak escorts onto a ship that had just arrived, and were led to a shuttle hangar. “When we reach the fleet, you will depart and return to your people,” the lead vellak pair said. “Do what you must. If we succeed here, you will have friends among the vellak. We only hope that after this we can end this bloody conflict.”

            “Thank you,” Aren and Snap replied. There wasn’t much else they could think of to say; they’d had to take in so much in so short a time, and now they were going back to people that wanted them dead, to commit treason and kill them.

“I’m about ready to get this day over with,” Snap said as the vellak departed and they boarded the craft, which Aren noticed had been hurriedly outfitted so they would understand the controls.

They soon received clearance to depart, and steered the craft out in concert; the ship appeared to have been designed for only a linked pair to fly.

Then came the question of what to do next. There was no way of knowing how deep the conspiracy ran; they had to warn the other eidolons somehow. But long-range communications would be nonfunctional during battle, as both sides would be jamming the other’s transmissions.

Maybe a message beacon would work, as it would broadcast for hours. This battle couldn’t last much longer, especially considering that it was a front to begin with. More lives wasted just to kill the eidolons and the vellak equivalents.

Aren wondered what would happen after they killed the admirals, if that was indeed what they’d end up doing. What repercussions would that cause? What would keep the vellak from attacking human worlds, even if the new leadership was friendly toward the eidolons?

That didn’t matter, they—Snap—countered. With this betrayal, they only owed loyalty to themselves. They would survive, whatever it took. On that count at least, they were united.

Now they needed a plan. Once inside the ship, they’d have to get the beacon out while keeping the admirals from escaping. That would require splitting up. Aren in particular felt a chill at the thought. In truth, however, they would never be apart.

They prepared a message to upload into the beacon, then broadcast to the fleet that they were eidolon operatives returning from a mission on a stolen craft. It would be rather anticlimactic if they were shot down now.

They quickly received a response, ordering them to dock at some cruiser. Aren plotted a course for the flagship instead as Snap affirmed the directions. Now the fun began.

The requests for course correction came quickly. Snap smiled and ignored them. Aren located an open docking bay on the flagship and accelerated toward it. Then a call came over all channels, marking them rogue agents.

“They turned on us too soon,” Aren noted. This was proof of the command staff’s intentions, ordering their deaths so quickly. He raised the ship’s shields and readied weapons, just in case.

Thankfully, interceptors arrived too late. Aren fired at the closing hangar doors and the ship crashed through, reverse thrusters firing once they were already inside, and gouts of flame bloomed along both sides of the ship as it skidded to a stop. Fortunately, the hangar was large.

“Time to go, Seraph. Don’t take long. We both have to be there when we go after those idiots. They were scared of us? We’ll show them what fear truly is!”

Aren took her hand for a moment, felt her take hold of his in return. “I’ll see you soon.” She knew how he felt. They would both survive, or neither would.

They cloaked using the Penumbra and separated, darting past several disoriented crewmen as they left the hangar. They let them live; they’d have to kill too many before this was done.

They both knew where they needed to be; Aren at the emergency communications center, Snap in engineering. Fortunately, their helmet displays were able to bring up a map of the ship. His destination was nearby; Snap’s was anything but. She didn’t consider that a problem.

By the time Aren reached the communications center, however, the ship was on high alert. Sentries guarded the room, and more security guards were patrolling. He took aim at the sentries, but hesitated. He’d never killed another human.

“It’s us or them, Seraph. Don’t hesitate!”

With the extra dose of will, Aren opened fire, and the sentries dropped to the floor as security opened fire toward where he’d been standing a moment earlier. Aren smashed them into the wall with a concussive blast, forced the door open, and ran inside. He let Snap guide his actions as he methodically cleared the room while he guided her through the halls of the ship.

“Thank you.”

“Anytime, Seraph.”

Now alone in the communications center, Aren found a console and uploaded their message into the ship’s remaining emergency beacons. As he entered the launch commands, the ship shook, reminding him that the it was still in combat, and the crew could no longer solely focus on that.

His job done, Aren went back out and made his way to the only place the admirals would be able to run to assuming they couldn’t escape the ship: the emergency bridge, which was located securely in the center of the ship and heavily guarded—but fortunately near engineering.

Aren would go stake it out while Snap finished disabling the ship, a far more dangerous job at the moment.

As Aren saw Snap’s arrival at her destination through her eyes, however, he felt bad for the security staff. Without disruptors, they had no chance. No such pity came from Snap though, as those men had orders to shoot her on sight—that thought was foremost in their minds. But the funny thing was, they couldn’t see her because she was cloaked!

One down, two down, two more from an explosive, another’s heart stopped with the Penumbra. The sight was at once exhilarating and terrifying. The power they wielded…was it any surprise the admirals felt threatened?

They would’ve been loyal, though. It was the admirals who were the danger.

Things got more complicated once they—she—was inside the engineering section. She had to make sure the hangars wouldn’t let anything out, then disable all other systems that could allow for escape. Of course, a competent crew could repair enough damage to allow for escape fairly quickly. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be fast enough.

Snap threw herself from a balcony and fired at security forces as she used the Penumbra to soften her landing. From there the energy went to her shield while her hands accessed a console. Aren winced as he felt her shield take impact, though it held firm.

But he had his own problems. Dozens of security guards protected the path to the emergency bridge, and they were setting up a large disruptor. He had to engage.

It was very risky. He felt Snap’s concern; she was more worried about him despite the fact that she was actively taking fire. But they both knew the danger of disruptors.

Aren unleashed a blast of energy at the assembled soldiers and began shooting as he made his way to the disruptor, methodically taking down each one. Thankfully, their helmets hid their faces, which made shooting them easier—made it possible.

Aren had just reached the disruptor and was firing into it when he noticed movement in the corner of his eye. Seemingly of its own accord, his arm lashed out, and as Aren turned he saw a guard, rifle partially raised, impaled by seemingly nothing—an energy blade. But he hadn’t—Snap had.

“You missed one,” Snap replied. Then, she added, “Oops,” and Aren heard an explosion.

On the bright side, the job was done. On the dark side, there was a fire near the engine core. They should finish and get out as soon as possible.

Aren finished destroying the disruptor, reloaded his weapon, and waited outside the sealed door that led to the admirals. Wouldn’t be long now.

Soon enough, Snap arrived. It was time to move. She stood in front of the door for a moment, then let out a shout as she hammered at it with more raw power than Aren had ever seen used. Not even the reinforced door could stand before her, and she quickly made it inside. Aren cast a glance behind him, just in case, then followed.

The narrow hallway was surprisingly empty. Had all of the guards remained outside? Surely the admirals would have more protection. Unless they were as dumb as Snap thought they were.

At the end of the hallway was another locked door. Beyond it was the emergency bridge. “Together?”

“Together.” They each extended a hand, blasted the door into the room, and followed it inside.

Half the room was empty. In the other half, behind a portable shield generator which would prevent both normal and Penumbra attacks, huddled the admirals and a dozen elite soldiers.

“You made a big mistake, admirals,” Snap said, taking a step closer while Aren used the Penumbra to find a weak point in the field. “Plotting to kill all of us eidolons, then not even trying to convince us that we were making a mistake? I thought you clever enough for that, at least.”

Aren found a potential opening, and began trying to breach the shield.

“An…unfortunate mistake,” the fleet admiral replied. “One made in panic. But it doesn’t matter, Eris. We’ve already won. True humanity will prevail. Do you think only you thought of beacons? Before your grand entrance orders were dispatched to eliminate the rest of your traitorous kind. They will arrive before your warning. Our vellak allies will take care of the rest.”

“You had the possibility of ending this war,” Snap replied. “Instead, you prioritized plotting the extermination of people who your military pulled from their lives to fight for you! You have no right to call us a danger. Also,” she continued, and Aren could feel her smile grow over her anger, “we know something you don’t.”

Aren pressed harder against the weak point in the shield, and it began to give way.

“The vellak who are like us discovered their leaders’ plans, as you might have guessed. By now, they will have seized control of the vellak forces. You should’ve seen it, almost a full-blown civil war. We will have the allies over there. You’re finished.”

Aren finally breached the shield, and a quick strike destroyed the generator. They’d done it!

Before they could make another move, however, Aren and Snap heard a click, and they collapsed to the floor with pain surging through every cell in their bodies, doubled by their link. It was all they could do not to drop their shields, the only reason they were still alive.

“You aren’t the only ones capable of attacking the body with invisible force,” the fleet admiral said as Aren felt a disruptor come online and begin tearing at their link to the Penumbra. Once they lost it, their shields would be gone and they would die. Already he found it hard to focus on new actions with the Penumbra.

“Once again, human ingenuity triumphs,” the fleet admiral continued as Aren felt the soldiers get into position above to shoot once the shields dropped.

The pain intensified, and he and Snap both screamed in agony, drowning out whatever else the old man was saying.

It couldn’t end like this, he tried to say to Snap as he felt his grip on the Penumbra slipping further.

But what could they do? The pain was only growing worse, and it was all either of them could do to stay linked. Neither of them could do anything. For the first time, Aren’s anger matched Snap’s in ferocity.

They hadn’t made any mistakes, and still they’d failed. Aren remembered Snap’s outburst mere days ago, where she’d told him why they couldn’t afford mistakes: things went wrong anyway.

Somehow, Snap pushed herself up onto one knee, which gave Aren the will to do the same. At least they would die with dignity. They reached out and grabbed each other’s hand, each movement agony. It was starting to be hard to think at all, but at least they were together.

Together. One unified will. And still their control was failing, their shields growing unstable.

Then Snap’s mind, Eris’s mind, which had all but surrendered to pain, had an idea. “The shields, Aren.”

Suddenly, Aren’s mind felt clear, pain receding, as Eris’s screams grew louder. She had somehow taken his pain to her, to give him a chance to do something.

The shields. Suddenly it seemed so obvious. He grabbed at the Penumbra with all his will, pulled Eris close, and turned the shredding shields into blades, which he sent flying out away from them uncontrollably.

Then everything was still and quiet. Aren felt himself topple back onto the floor, his breathing heavy. All he knew was that he and Snap, Eris, were still alive.

She rose first, and he saw through her eyes what he’d done.

The room around them was shredded as if a steel rain had hit everything surrounding them; men, machines, everything. Only the link kept him from gagging.

“Two minds, one will.” He said aloud.

“Certainly earned your name, Seraph,” Eris said as she helped him up, “just replacing fire with invisible energy. Less flashy, more effective.” She kicked at the nearest body. “Serves them right.”

Then the ship shook violently. “Your fire, I think,” he said.

“Probably. Time to go.”

            “But where, Eris?” Aren asked as the walked quickly out of the destroyed room, and noted that she didn’t object to his using her real name.

That’s right, they’d made sure no one could escape the ship. That left only one, awful choice. An airlock. They tensed at the thought, but as the ship shook violently again they began to run.

As they reached an airlock, Aren could see small explosions down the hall and walls starting to collapse. They had to go, now.

Without time to properly seal and unseal the airlock, they checked their suits, hit the switches that activated their air supplies, and used the Penumbra to blast the outer door open just after Aren grabbed a propulsor from a rack on the wall. At the same time, a fiery explosion erupted just outside the airlock.

They were blown out into space far more violently than expected. Aren lost his grip on the propulsor after it clipped the doorway, and they tumbled out into empty space. Despite his attempts to remain calm, Aren found himself hyperventilating as they spun out of control, their arms wrapped tightly around each other to at least stay together.

The only upside to that their violent ejection from the ship was that they were far from it when it finally exploded in a spectacular fireball, which they watched as they used their dwindling connection to the Penumbra to stop their tumble.

As the void of space stripped their power from them, Eris gave them one last shove toward the vellak fleet, and Aren sent out a cry for help via the Penumbra.

Then it was gone, along with their mind link. It was an empty, isolating feeling, as if everyone around had suddenly vanished.

But Eris was still there, arms and legs wrapped around his. “Don’t you dare let go,” she said through their helmet’s communication system.

“I had no plans to.” Aren checked his air meter. “I only have an hour left. I wasted too much air breathing when we were flung out here. I’m sorry.”

“When you run out,” she replied, “I’m venting what I have left. Whatever happens, we go together, Aren. No arguing. I still sort of outrank you.”

Aren knew better than to argue. He realized a moment later that she couldn’t hear his thoughts anymore. “No arguing, got it.”

“I don’t quite know how to say this,” Eris said a few minutes later. “We’ve only known each other for a few days, but you’re the only person I’ve felt truly close to since I left home. I don’t know where that would’ve led, had we survived, but I wanted to be sure you knew that.” She laughed. “At least I saw you naked through your memories.”

Aren had to laugh, even as his face grew warm. “Whew. I was worried you became different person for a moment, all sentimental.”

“Hey! I’m allowed to have touching moments. Unless you’d rather I punch you instead.”

“No thanks.” He paused for a moment. “You already know how I feel, Eris,” he said. “but since we can’t share thoughts any more, I wanted to tell you again that I’m grateful for every moment we had together, and that I think I’m in love with you. I’d ask you not to vent your air when I run out, but I don’t fight losing battles.”

Eris tightened her grip on him. At least Aren thought she had. As they floated in silence, no rescue in sight, Aren closed his eyes and rested his helmeted head against hers. All he wanted was more time!

For what felt like ages, they floated alone in the blackness, but not really alone. Aren felt himself begin to grow light-headed, his breathing more difficult, as his body’s oxygen level dropped. At least it wouldn’t be painful; just like falling asleep, unless the peace he felt didn’t last and he panicked. I’m sorry, he wanted to say to Eris, sorry we didn’t make it.

Over the next few minutes, Aren drifted further away. As his eyes started closing, he saw a bright light wash over them and they began to move, like one of those mythical angels had found them and taken them on its wings, away from the dark void. Whatever this was, another adventure awaited, somewhere.

 

Original Fiction (Sci-Fi): On Angels’ Wings (Part 3)

And here is the third and final installment of “On Angels’ Wings”! It’s also the longest part. Hope you enjoy, and feel free to share this around if you like it! (I’ll also be posting a full version of the story in the coming days, for reading convenience.)

 

Aren was awakened by Snap re-entering the training room. “Rise and shine, Colt! Graduation day! Sort of.”

Aren roused himself quickly, and pushed himself to his feet. He’d slept soundly, despite strange dreams probably caused by the previous day’s activities. As he followed the suspiciously energetic Snap to locations unknown, he reflected on their last conversation. Only two things remained in question: Snap’s real name, and the true nature of what he felt for her and she for him. Aren didn’t know what to think. He’d been attracted to her from the start, that much he knew. But the initial attraction had been purely superficial; the woman was gorgeous, after all. Since then, however, it had become something more. The mind sharing had only made things more confusing.

“In here,” Snap said as an unusually large door slowly opened in front of them.

As he stepped inside, Aren could only stare. The entire room, which was larger than any of the others he’d trained in, was one giant, elaborate obstacle course. “We have to run it while linked, don’t we?” he asked.

Snap flashed him her characteristic grin. “Of course. Haha. Of course we have to run the course!”

“If I hadn’t already been inside your head, I’d say you were definitely crazy. Actually, even then I’m not completely sure.”

“Well, you’ll get another look, Colt.” She laughed again, as if at a joke. For the first time though, Aren had an idea of what she found funny. “Let’s try it without touching this time.”

Aren nodded, and as he embraced the Penumbra realized that he was looking forward to sharing his mind with her. Perhaps because of that, or because of the practice, it went smoothly. As her mind became visible, Aren found himself wondering how they lived with only a single set of thoughts.

“Welcome back. Glad to be back.” Snap said once the link solidified. Aren quietly sent his agreement.

With Snap guiding them, the pair got suited up, and before Aren knew it, they were standing at the entrance to the obstacle course. “We have to make it through the course intact,” Snap said. “To ensure we’re properly in sync, there are several sections where we each must do an action at precisely the same time. I’ll take the lead, but we both have to get it right, move as one.”

“Got it, let’s go.”

“I like your attitude. Bet I beat you to the finish line!” Was that a bit of affection he—she—was feeling?

Before he could further dwell on it, they darted into the course as it came to life. There were no words Aren could think of that described the feeling of running at breakneck speed, intimately connected with Snap, taking down targets and avoiding obstacles using equipment, physical abilities, and the Penumbra. For the first time, he truly felt like an eidolon. And at the same time, it was like revisiting an old pastime. He—and Snap—almost starting giggling like children.

The only problem came near the end, where they—their bodies at least—had to completely split up while under fire and activate two complex locks at precisely the same time. They were off by milliseconds.

Immediately, the sharp feeling of frustration flooded in, and Aren was surprised when Snap didn’t berate him for messing up. “No need to be as harsh now, seeing as I know you’re competent. And besides, no new team has ever done it on the first try. I’d know; I’ve been half of all of them,” Snap stated, answering Aren’s unasked question.

“Again?” he asked.

“Again.” There was definitely some affection then.

“Don’t get sentimental on me, Colt. You won’t be getting any of this if we don’t make it back,” Snap said, including an image that made him feel quite uncomfortable and caused her—them—to find it all hilarious. “So easy. You have to stop getting embarrassed so easily. I don’t like the feeling.”

“I’m sure. Let’s do this already!”

They ran the course again and again, without pause, for hours. Like the previous day’s training, it felt like little time passed. Aren decided to blame Snap’s mind for that. At least he wasn’t blaming himself for it, he thought before becoming aware that it was not his thought. Were they reaching the coveted point where they couldn’t distinguish their thoughts from the other’s?

Well of course they would have eventually. But reaching that point so soon was a great accomplishment.

Suddenly, the course shut down and a monitor nearby began to beep. Important call incoming. Aren and Snap quickly made their way to it, arriving at precisely the same time, and activated it.

“Good afternoon, eidolons,” said the fleet admiral, who stood at the head of a group consisting numerous officer of varying ranks. “I trust your preparation has gone well.”

“Well enough,” they replied, though only Snap spoke. “By tomorrow, we’ll be more or less ready for your suicide mission. Maybe we’ll even make it back to tell you how the weather was down on there. Unless you’ve decided to come along for the ride.” The image of the older man fighting vellak suddenly appeared in their shared mind, and Aren found himself grinning too.

“Unfortunately,” the fleet admiral said, ignoring Snap’s inappropriate comment, “your task just got more difficult. Our scouts have just alerted us that the enemy discovered our ruse. Our attack is already in motion, but it is not a fight we can win. We must insert you immediately, while we can still give you enough cover to make it to the surface. There is no time for debate. Report to docking bay seventeen in ten minutes. Your ship will be ready.”

The monitor shut off, and emotions began to swirl around their consciousness; nervousness, anticipation, excitement, frustration. Of course the idiots would find some way to make their lives harder! Did they not understand what preparation meant? Did they want the mission to fail? They hadn’t even managed to properly complete the course!

But whatever the circumstances, they had to go, completely ready or not. “We have a decent shot at success, Colt,” Snap said as they jogged through the base. “Now that I think of it,” she continued, speaking so quickly after the thought came to mind that Aren didn’t have time to pick up on it, “you need a new callsign. Not smart to see you as a rookie while we’re in combat.” She stopped speaking for a moment as name ideas raced through her mind, which caused Aren to start thinking as well.

As they passed the guards that stood in front of the hangar, Aren saw Snap look at the small infiltration ship they’d be taking while his own eyes scanned the rest of the room. “You’ve earned your wings, Seraph. Now it’s time to take the leap out of the nest. Or Heaven. Or whatever high point you like.”

The name definitely fit better than Colt. It also cleverly referenced the visual image he used to connect to the Penumbra, and—he should probably stop before his name was changed to ‘Overthink’.

Point taken, they boarded the ship, double-checked their equipment, and prepared for departure, all without having to speak a word. What was the point, when they had a superior form of communication?

The ship was small, and consisted of two sections. The front contained the cockpit and their gear, and the rear contained the engines, boarding ramp, and escape pod.

Aren sat down first, in the copilot’s chair, and began running the pre-flight checks while Snap made sure their equipment was properly stowed. As the computer announced that all was in order, Snap leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek “I’ve heard it’s good for luck. We’re going to need it, Seraph.”

She sat down and began the takeoff sequence as Aren sat still, simultaneously shocked and amused. Having access to both sides of the exchange was really confusing.

Focus quickly returned to the mission, however, as their ship departed the hangar and soared out into space. Aren entered the jump coordinates, and space stretched as the ship went into hyperspace.

The journey was short and quiet, both of their minds focused on what was to come. Why couldn’t they have had more time? What if those few days would be all they had?

It was worth it, though, having those days. It wasn’t every day you met your idol and started falling for her. Aren glanced over at Snap for a moment, then back to observing both his and her displays. Thirty seconds to realspace, where they’d be flying into the middle of a battle.

As the ship began beeping to alert them, Snap did something unexpected. “It’s Eris, by the way. Just thought you should know, in case we don’t make it. The only other people who’d know me by that name are family.”

Eris. It suited her. And it didn’t suit her. She should still be referred to by her taken name, but Aren deserved to know her true name, the last major mystery, before their mental link would be put to the test. Whatever happened, in a way they were family now.

The ship shuddered as it exited hyperspace, and alarms immediately began blaring. They’d flown right into a warzone. The ship’s stealth properties would make it hard to spot, but they would have to fly through the crossfire to get to the vellak planet.      At least the fleet engaged them here.

Flying through a hail of fire. Should be fun. Would be terrifying. Would be done. Snap’s hands tightened on the controls, and the ship accelerated into the fray. Just a few minutes, and they’d be safely past everything.

Everything was fine at first, even fun, maneuvering the ship away from weapons fire and past debris, the feeling of control with the ship in his hands, Snap’s hands.

Then they took the first hits, minor ones, which pinged off their limited shielding. Nervousness finally reappeared, probably Aren’s fault. They were so vulnerable, though.

But the ship held together, and the vellak fleet drew nearer. They were going to make it!

Suddenly, the ship shook violently, and they lost control. The mental volume rose as they struggled to regain control of the craft. Then another explosion rocked the ship. It swerved completely out of control, then lost power as it continued to spin; only the seat restraints kept Aren and Snap in place.

“We have to regain control! Salvage the operation!”

            “If we can restore power—”

After what seemed like an eternity of frantic manipulations of the ship and the Penumbra, Aren finally felt the ship’s thrusters come to life. He and Snap, working together, carefully fired them to so that the spinning stopped and the ship became still.

Then they had to regain their bearings. Snap checked the monitors as Aren looked outside, and there was both good and bad news. The good was that their spin had taken them out of the direct line of fire. The bad was that they were no longer lined up with where they had to land, and much of the engine was gone.

They still had the escape pod. They could use it to get back on course and land. It would be louder, but there was no other option. Snap left the cockpit and to check on it while Aren tried to get a better view of the damage. Before long, he spotted a problem.

They couldn’t open the hatch to got to the back, because the ship had been nearly split in two. The half with the pod was floating outside, only still connected by a few cables. This was bad. Their hands—Snap’s hands—tightened on the door handles.

There was only one choice. They would have to go outside.

Immediately, Aren felt himself, both of them, seized by near panic. But he’d never been particularly scared of going out into space. But he had been, or rather Snap had been.

Space was nothingness. There was no control, no escape, no way to live.

But we can survive out there with our equipment, and we can use the Penumbra to maneuver.”

“No.” terrifying facts began to fill his mind as Snap spoke. “You don’t understand. Space is emptiness, nothingness. The Penumbra is not. Being out there drains it away quickly. There is no control there. I don’t want to go.”

            Aren didn’t either. In the blackness of space, eidolons became mere humans again. They should not. But the mission…there was no choice. He felt hands begin to hurt as they clamped down even harder on the door handles.

Aren moved himself back toward Snap. He gathered and secured all of his gear, then snapped on his helmet and connected the oxygen. “We have to do this. We are one unified will. We go together or not at all, and our only way out of here is that pod.” At least it was if it was still intact. It hadn’t looked damaged, but what if—no! It had to be.

“Please, Snap, Eris. You are the bravest person I’ve ever known. I need you with me.” Slowly, Aren felt their grip on the door loosen, and Snap prepared herself while Aren glanced through the equipment locker for anything else useful.

Thank God, he nearly exclaimed as he spotted a handheld propulsor meant for use in space. They would have control of their movement.

He felt the oxygen connect as Snap secured her helmet and tied herself tightly to him with a strong cord. Everything was ready. “Out into the void.”

He and Snap each grabbed one of the door handles, and pulled it open slowly. Air quickly rushed out, and they were in complete silence. Except they weren’t, because they had each other’s thoughts. Small comforts. They pulled it further open so they could get out, stubborn door vibrating with every inch. Then Aren floated outside, followed by Snap, who gripped his hand tightly, determination overpowering fear.

Once outside, she moved closer and held him by the waist, so she wouldn’t get flung around as they maneuvered. Then Aren fired the propulsor, and they shot toward the severed half of the ship, which was straining against the last connections it had to the front of the ship.

They moved faster than they would have liked, and it became clear that they’d have to grab the pod’s handle as they passed. Every moment was precious, so missing was not an option.

As the pod grew closer, Aren felt strange, as though he was losing focus. The link. They were losing it.

Then the pod was right in front of them. Aren grabbed for it, and missed. But moments later, he jerked to a stop. He…had it?

No, Snap had it. She pulled him to the hatch, opened it, and they made their way inside, hearts racing as it hummed to life and re-pressurized. It worked. Moments later, focus returned as the link strengthened. “We did it.” Snap clapped him on the back. “Thank you, Seraph.”

Now they just had to get to their target.

They separated from the remains of the ship, and Snap guided the craft back in line with their planned landing site. There was some advantage to having a smaller craft; they were harder to hit. Still, she and Aren were tense until they passed the vellak fleet and began their descent.

As the planet’s surface grew closer and the flames outside the pod grew brighter, they focused on the plan of attack, as prepared by Snap and innately understood by their shared mind. It should be simple; everything they’d need to blow up a weapons production facility was already there. All it needed was the spark.

The ship began to shake as it descended. They tried not to dwell on the fact that it wouldn’t get them back off the planet. Once down, they’d have to improvise.

Fortunately, they were good at that; every mission they—Snap—had been on had required it.

Two minds. One will.

Aren engaged the ship’s thrusters to slow their descent, then watched as the ground drew closer.

He had never visited a vellak world before. Snap had, but had never been here. It looked very arid, like a mountainous desert; there didn’t seem to be much flat, open ground. The buildings reflected the landscape, and if it weren’t for the marks of technology on the outside of the massive factory and other structures, they could have been mistaken for natural formations themselves.

With nothing else to do, they gripped the pod’s controls tightly as they came to a hard landing. The pod landed on a ridge that led to the factory and skidded dangerously close to the edge before stopping.

Time to go, before anyone came to investigate. Aren was tempted to use the Penumbra to cloak, but it was pointless, as the enemy would not find them visually anyway.

Two minds, one will, was the focus as they gathered their gear and readied themselves. This was it, the moment that Aren had been trained for, to help save their species from destruction.

He felt the hard metal panel as Snap slammed it to open the hatch, and a moment later, they were outside.

They came under fire almost immediately. How could they have been spotted so quickly? And had their ruse already failed?

Aren fired at the first vellak he saw, and while the hit wasn’t fatal, it took off one of the creature’s spiky legs, and it dropped its weapon. Another shot to the head finished it off. “Aim for the head,” Snap advised as she moved her aim from the now dead vellak to its nearby partner.

But there were simply too many, firing all around. Strangely, however, they didn’t immediately start to swarm around them and the ship, nor did they use the Penumbra to attack—apparently intelligence on the vellak had been accurate regarding their abilities. “We have to make a break for it.”

As he felt Snap’s agreement, the first vellak contact was made. They didn’t understand what the vellak were saying, however; all Snap could decipher was that it was a question, and they kept using the words old or new, or something like that. What should they reply?

New, Snap decided. Who’d want to be old, anyway?

Their answer didn’t change anything, however, and the firing continued. It was time to run. They created shields with the Penumbra, then ran out from their cover, Snap in the lead. She used the Penumbra to hurls bits of rock everywhere as she shot at anything in their path, covering one side while Aren took the other, though they both were truly watching both.

They were pursued by some, but, again surprisingly, not all of the vellak. As curious as that was, however, they couldn’t dwell on it; they had to get away.

More of the spindly, insect-like vellak began to crawl up the ridge and ask the same question. Snap and Aren responded by killing whatever blocked their way to the factory complex.

The entry would be complicated, they realized as the main entrance came into view. There were several vellak guarding the entrance, and there was no time to find another way. Fortunately, the door was open.

While they lacked any heavy weapons, Aren and Snap had something better. Working in concert, they blasted the guards out of the way with a concussive wave and sprinted inside, their path guided by their helmet displays. Without it, they would’ve quickly become lost in the winding hallways.

Unfortunately, their entrance had not been quiet, and the vellak were not deaf. Within moments, seven pairs began to quickly approach while another group came in the same entrance Aren and Snap had used.

Then the shooting began, sparks flying as weapons fire impacted around them. They were cut off from the hallway they needed—“Just run!”

Running blindly did create some space between them and their pursuers, but they were in an area they didn’t know. “Dammit! What a fucking mess!” Snap exclaimed as Aren barely held back voicing similar feelings, though she of course knew he felt the same way.

The skittering of their pursuers drew closer, and they had to make a snap judgment. They had to move.

“This way!” he shouted and led them around the next corner.

As they ran down the hallway, something sped past them, and a split second later the ceiling ahead of them exploded and large chunks of debris rained down, completely blocking their path.

“Not good.”

Aren and Snap spun around as their vellak pursuers, dozens of them, appeared opposite them. There would be only one way out of this now. They blocked the hallway with a shield and prepared to fight. But there were so many…

“We have to call for help. Something, anything!”

Snap agreed, recalling the evac from her last, failed mission. She activated their transmitter, which showed that their direct link to the Admiralty was still functional. Something was going right, at least.

Snap made the call as they felt the shield they’d used to block the hallway start to buckle.

There was no answer. Snap tried again. Still nothing. “The fucking link is good!” she exclaimed. She tried again. “Why is there no damn answer?”

            “We’ve got a more pressing problem,” Aren reminded her as their shield failed under heavy fire. There was a moment of quiet, then the vellak began to advance.

Before another shot was fired, however, they saw several vellak get thrown against a wall as a hail of weapons fire was unleashed. Within moments, they were all still, silenced by a weapon or something that could only be the Penumbra.

A few seconds later, fourteen vellak came into view, weapons ready in their clawed hands. Aren and Snap opened fire, but their weapons only impacted on Penumbra-created shields, and the vellak did not return fire.

Then they heard the voice in their mind. “Your leaders turned on you as well?”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Snap asked. What were the vellak saying?

“We sensed your frustration, humans. We felt your call for help, which was unanswered. Please, cease fire so we may speak.”

Snap’s initial response could be best summed up as “screw that,” but Aren prevailed on her to do so. They had to hear what the vellak had to say. If they did open fire, there would still be a moment to react; the enemy’s shields showed no signs of weakening anyway. At worst, it bought them some time.

“You may wonder why vellak fought vellak here. We can explain, but there is little time. Our hold on this sector is limited.”

“And our patience is wearing thin,” Snap added. Were they really going to let the enemy talk to them? Yes, if it gave them a reprieve from the fighting.

“It is a great betrayal, that has turned vellak on vellak, and will turn human on human. “You, like us, are capable of accessing the full potential of the Shadowfield. Our governments have formed a secret pact to eliminate all of us; they fear our power. You were sent here to die, which would prompt our leaders to deploy us in retaliation, ultimately ending in all of our deaths. We discovered the plot, however, and rebelled. Now we warn you. Apart from our words, we can regrettably offer little evidence, but you will see it when you return to your people.”

            “Bullshit,” was their initial response. But after some thought, Aren and Snap could not easily discount the notion.

Snap tried the emergency transmitter again. Still the signal was strong, with no response. They were being ignored, left for dead. Aren recalled the heavy presence of disruptors back at the base, the fear in the admirals’ eyes, and he felt both his and Snap’s blood run cold. It added up. These vellak were clearly more powerful manipulators of the penumbra. They could’ve killed both Aren and Snap easily. But they hadn’t.

“Do we trust them?”

            “Can’t believe I’m saying this, but yes.”

“What do we do now?” they asked the vellak. What could they do?

“We will get you off world, give you a ship with which to return to your people. A plan is in motion for us to eliminate our leadership, which is sheltering in our flagship. Yours is doing the same in yours, observing this battle. We will not tell you to eliminate them, but if you believe us and wish to survive, you will.” They detected no deception in the vellak.

A decision had to be made, quickly. If the vellak were somehow lying, Aren and Snap would be traitors. But the alternative…

“And we do need a way out of here.” That was certainly true, and the mission to blow up the factory was clearly a failure.

“Very well. Thank you for helping us.”

            The vellak sent feelings of acknowledgement and comfort. “Follow us.”

They quickly followed their vellak escorts onto a ship that had just arrived, and were led to a shuttle hangar. “When we reach the fleet, you will depart and return to your people,” the lead vellak pair said. “Do what you must. If we succeed here, you will have friends among the vellak. We only hope that after this we can end this bloody conflict.”

            “Thank you,” Aren and Snap replied. There wasn’t much else they could think of to say; they’d had to take in so much in so short a time, and now they were going back to people that wanted them dead, to commit treason and kill them.

“I’m about ready to get this day over with,” Snap said as the vellak departed and they boarded the craft, which Aren noticed had been hurriedly outfitted so they would understand the controls.

They soon received clearance to depart, and steered the craft out in concert; the ship appeared to have been designed for only a linked pair to fly.

Then came the question of what to do next. There was no way of knowing how deep the conspiracy ran; they had to warn the other eidolons somehow. But long-range communications would be nonfunctional during battle, as both sides would be jamming the other’s transmissions.

Maybe a message beacon would work, as it would broadcast for hours. This battle couldn’t last much longer, especially considering that it was a front to begin with. More lives wasted just to kill the eidolons and the vellak equivalents.

Aren wondered what would happen after they killed the admirals, if that was indeed what they’d end up doing. What repercussions would that cause? What would keep the vellak from attacking human worlds, even if the new leadership was friendly toward the eidolons?

That didn’t matter, they—Snap—countered. With this betrayal, they only owed loyalty to themselves. They would survive, whatever it took. On that count at least, they were united.

Now they needed a plan. Once inside the ship, they’d have to get the beacon out while keeping the admirals from escaping. That would require splitting up. Aren in particular felt a chill at the thought. In truth, however, they would never be apart.

They prepared a message to upload into the beacon, then broadcast to the fleet that they were eidolon operatives returning from a mission on a stolen craft. It would be rather anticlimactic if they were shot down now.

They quickly received a response, ordering them to dock at some cruiser. Aren plotted a course for the flagship instead as Snap affirmed the directions. Now the fun began.

The requests for course correction came quickly. Snap smiled and ignored them. Aren located an open docking bay on the flagship and accelerated toward it. Then a call came over all channels, marking them rogue agents.

“They turned on us too soon,” Aren noted. This was proof of the command staff’s intentions, ordering their deaths so quickly. He raised the ship’s shields and readied weapons, just in case.

Thankfully, interceptors arrived too late. Aren fired at the closing hangar doors and the ship crashed through, reverse thrusters firing once they were already inside, and gouts of flame bloomed along both sides of the ship as it skidded to a stop. Fortunately, the hangar was large.

“Time to go, Seraph. Don’t take long. We both have to be there when we go after those idiots. They were scared of us? We’ll show them what fear truly is!”

Aren took her hand for a moment, felt her take hold of his in return. “I’ll see you soon.” She knew how he felt. They would both survive, or neither would.

They cloaked using the Penumbra and separated, darting past several disoriented crewmen as they left the hangar. They let them live; they’d have to kill too many before this was done.

They both knew where they needed to be; Aren at the emergency communications center, Snap in engineering. Fortunately, their helmet displays were able to bring up a map of the ship. His destination was nearby; Snap’s was anything but. She didn’t consider that a problem.

By the time Aren reached the communications center, however, the ship was on high alert. Sentries guarded the room, and more security guards were patrolling. He took aim at the sentries, but hesitated. He’d never killed another human.

“It’s us or them, Seraph. Don’t hesitate!”

With the extra dose of will, Aren opened fire, and the sentries dropped to the floor as security opened fire toward where he’d been standing a moment earlier. Aren smashed them into the wall with a concussive blast, forced the door open, and ran inside. He let Snap guide his actions as he methodically cleared the room while he guided her through the halls of the ship.

“Thank you.”

“Anytime, Seraph.”

Now alone in the communications center, Aren found a console and uploaded their message into the ship’s remaining emergency beacons. As he entered the launch commands, the ship shook, reminding him that the it was still in combat, and the crew could no longer solely focus on that.

His job done, Aren went back out and made his way to the only place the admirals would be able to run to assuming they couldn’t escape the ship: the emergency bridge, which was located securely in the center of the ship and heavily guarded—but fortunately near engineering.

Aren would go stake it out while Snap finished disabling the ship, a far more dangerous job at the moment.

As Aren saw Snap’s arrival at her destination through her eyes, however, he felt bad for the security staff. Without disruptors, they had no chance. No such pity came from Snap though, as those men had orders to shoot her on sight—that thought was foremost in their minds. But the funny thing was, they couldn’t see her because she was cloaked!

One down, two down, two more from an explosive, another’s heart stopped with the Penumbra. The sight was at once exhilarating and terrifying. The power they wielded…was it any surprise the admirals felt threatened?

They would’ve been loyal, though. It was the admirals who were the danger.

Things got more complicated once they—she—was inside the engineering section. She had to make sure the hangars wouldn’t let anything out, then disable all other systems that could allow for escape. Of course, a competent crew could repair enough damage to allow for escape fairly quickly. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be fast enough.

Snap threw herself from a balcony and fired at security forces as she used the Penumbra to soften her landing. From there the energy went to her shield while her hands accessed a console. Aren winced as he felt her shield take impact, though it held firm.

But he had his own problems. Dozens of security guards protected the path to the emergency bridge, and they were setting up a large disruptor. He had to engage.

It was very risky. He felt Snap’s concern; she was more worried about him despite the fact that she was actively taking fire. But they both knew the danger of disruptors.

Aren unleashed a blast of energy at the assembled soldiers and began shooting as he made his way to the disruptor, methodically taking down each one. Thankfully, their helmets hid their faces, which made shooting them easier—made it possible.

Aren had just reached the disruptor and was firing into it when he noticed movement in the corner of his eye. Seemingly of its own accord, his arm lashed out, and as Aren turned he saw a guard, rifle partially raised, impaled by seemingly nothing—an energy blade. But he hadn’t—Snap had.

“You missed one,” Snap replied. Then, she added, “Oops,” and Aren heard an explosion.

On the bright side, the job was done. On the dark side, there was a fire near the engine core. They should finish and get out as soon as possible.

Aren finished destroying the disruptor, reloaded his weapon, and waited outside the sealed door that led to the admirals. Wouldn’t be long now.

Soon enough, Snap arrived. It was time to move. She stood in front of the door for a moment, then let out a shout as she hammered at it with more raw power than Aren had ever seen used. Not even the reinforced door could stand before her, and she quickly made it inside. Aren cast a glance behind him, just in case, then followed.

The narrow hallway was surprisingly empty. Had all of the guards remained outside? Surely the admirals would have more protection. Unless they were as dumb as Snap thought they were.

At the end of the hallway was another locked door. Beyond it was the emergency bridge. “Together?”

“Together.” They each extended a hand, blasted the door into the room, and followed it inside.

Half the room was empty. In the other half, behind a portable shield generator which would prevent both normal and Penumbra attacks, huddled the admirals and a dozen elite soldiers.

“You made a big mistake, admirals,” Snap said, taking a step closer while Aren used the Penumbra to find a weak point in the field. “Plotting to kill all of us eidolons, then not even trying to convince us that we were making a mistake? I thought you clever enough for that, at least.”

Aren found a potential opening, and began trying to breach the shield.

“An…unfortunate mistake,” the fleet admiral replied. “One made in panic. But it doesn’t matter, Eris. We’ve already won. True humanity will prevail. Do you think only you thought of beacons? Before your grand entrance orders were dispatched to eliminate the rest of your traitorous kind. They will arrive before your warning. Our vellak allies will take care of the rest.”

“You had the possibility of ending this war,” Snap replied. “Instead, you prioritized plotting the extermination of people who your military pulled from their lives to fight for you! You have no right to call us a danger. Also,” she continued, and Aren could feel her smile grow over her anger, “we know something you don’t.”

Aren pressed harder against the weak point in the shield, and it began to give way.

“The vellak who are like us discovered their leaders’ plans, as you might have guessed. By now, they will have seized control of the vellak forces. You should’ve seen it, almost a full-blown civil war. We will have the allies over there. You’re finished.”

Aren finally breached the shield, and a quick strike destroyed the generator. They’d done it!

Before they could make another move, however, Aren and Snap heard a click, and they collapsed to the floor with pain surging through every cell in their bodies, doubled by their link. It was all they could do not to drop their shields, the only reason they were still alive.

“You aren’t the only ones capable of attacking the body with invisible force,” the fleet admiral said as Aren felt a disruptor come online and begin tearing at their link to the Penumbra. Once they lost it, their shields would be gone and they would die. Already he found it hard to focus on new actions with the Penumbra.

“Once again, human ingenuity triumphs,” the fleet admiral continued as Aren felt the soldiers get into position above to shoot once the shields dropped.

The pain intensified, and he and Snap both screamed in agony, drowning out whatever else the old man was saying.

It couldn’t end like this, he tried to say to Snap as he felt his grip on the Penumbra slipping further.

But what could they do? The pain was only growing worse, and it was all either of them could do to stay linked. Neither of them could do anything. For the first time, Aren’s anger matched Snap’s in ferocity.

They hadn’t made any mistakes, and still they’d failed. Aren remembered Snap’s outburst mere days ago, where she’d told him why they couldn’t afford mistakes: things went wrong anyway.

Somehow, Snap pushed herself up onto one knee, which gave Aren the will to do the same. At least they would die with dignity. They reached out and grabbed each other’s hand, each movement agony. It was starting to be hard to think at all, but at least they were together.

Together. One unified will. And still their control was failing, their shields growing unstable.

Then Snap’s mind, Eris’s mind, which had all but surrendered to pain, had an idea. “The shields, Aren.”

Suddenly, Aren’s mind felt clear, pain receding, as Eris’s screams grew louder. She had somehow taken his pain to her, to give him a chance to do something.

The shields. Suddenly it seemed so obvious. He grabbed at the Penumbra with all his will, pulled Eris close, and turned the shredding shields into blades, which he sent flying out away from them uncontrollably.

Then everything was still and quiet. Aren felt himself topple back onto the floor, his breathing heavy. All he knew was that he and Snap, Eris, were still alive.

She rose first, and he saw through her eyes what he’d done.

The room around them was shredded as if a steel rain had hit everything surrounding them; men, machines, everything. Only the link kept him from gagging.

“Two minds, one will.” He said aloud.

“Certainly earned your name, Seraph,” Eris said as she helped him up, “just replacing fire with invisible energy. Less flashy, more effective.” She kicked at the nearest body. “Serves them right.”

Then the ship shook violently. “Your fire, I think,” he said.

“Probably. Time to go.”

            “But where, Eris?” Aren asked as the walked quickly out of the destroyed room, and noted that she didn’t object to his using her real name.

That’s right, they’d made sure no one could escape the ship. That left only one, awful choice. An airlock. They tensed at the thought, but as the ship shook violently again they began to run.

As they reached an airlock, Aren could see small explosions down the hall and walls starting to collapse. They had to go, now.

Without time to properly seal and unseal the airlock, they checked their suits, hit the switches that activated their air supplies, and used the Penumbra to blast the outer door open just after Aren grabbed a propulsor from a rack on the wall. At the same time, a fiery explosion erupted just outside the airlock.

They were blown out into space far more violently than expected. Aren lost his grip on the propulsor after it clipped the doorway, and they tumbled out into empty space. Despite his attempts to remain calm, Aren found himself hyperventilating as they spun out of control, their arms wrapped tightly around each other to at least stay together.

The only upside to that their violent ejection from the ship was that they were far from it when it finally exploded in a spectacular fireball, which they watched as they used their dwindling connection to the Penumbra to stop their tumble.

As the void of space stripped their power from them, Eris gave them one last shove toward the vellak fleet, and Aren sent out a cry for help via the Penumbra.

Then it was gone, along with their mind link. It was an empty, isolating feeling, as if everyone around had suddenly vanished.

But Eris was still there, arms and legs wrapped around his. “Don’t you dare let go,” she said through their helmet’s communication system.

“I had no plans to.” Aren checked his air meter. “I only have an hour left. I wasted too much air breathing when we were flung out here. I’m sorry.”

“When you run out,” she replied, “I’m venting what I have left. Whatever happens, we go together, Aren. No arguing. I still sort of outrank you.”

Aren knew better than to argue. He realized a moment later that she couldn’t hear his thoughts anymore. “No arguing, got it.”

“I don’t quite know how to say this,” Eris said a few minutes later. “We’ve only known each other for a few days, but you’re the only person I’ve felt truly close to since I left home. I don’t know where that would’ve led, had we survived, but I wanted to be sure you knew that.” She laughed. “At least I saw you naked through your memories.”

Aren had to laugh, even as his face grew warm. “Whew. I was worried you became different person for a moment, all sentimental.”

“Hey! I’m allowed to have touching moments. Unless you’d rather I punch you instead.”

“No thanks.” He paused for a moment. “You already know how I feel, Eris,” he said. “but since we can’t share thoughts any more, I wanted to tell you again that I’m grateful for every moment we had together, and that I think I’m in love with you. I’d ask you not to vent your air when I run out, but I don’t fight losing battles.”

Eris tightened her grip on him. At least Aren thought she had. As they floated in silence, no rescue in sight, Aren closed his eyes and rested his helmeted head against hers. All he wanted was more time!

For what felt like ages, they floated alone in the blackness, but not really alone. Aren felt himself begin to grow light-headed, his breathing more difficult, as his body’s oxygen level dropped. At least it wouldn’t be painful; just like falling asleep, unless the peace he felt didn’t last and he panicked. I’m sorry, he wanted to say to Eris, sorry we didn’t make it.

Over the next few minutes, Aren drifted further away. As his eyes started closing, he saw a bright light wash over them and they began to move, like one of those mythical angels had found them and taken them on its wings, away from the dark void. Whatever this was, another adventure awaited, somewhere.