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Lightning and laser bolts arced through the sky. The air bellowed with rumbling cracks of energy. Another second, and my ship would be ripped apart by the Brotherhood’s volley of bullets.

My ears shot up as I took the ship into a steep dive. The rain was blasted off my window in the wind, and I pulled back on the controls, curving back upwards and away from the city, towards the ocean.

That’s right, I thought. Chase me over here!

I skimmed the choppy waves with the bottom of my spherical shuttle, leaving a wake of white foam. Water stretched onward before me, and the Brotherhood’s fleet closed in behind.

I pushed the throttle to the maximum speed my ship could handle in the atmosphere without exploding against the air resistance. At least I wasn’t piloting a cube, but nevertheless my ship wasn’t the most aerodynamic. First and foremost, it was a space vessel.

The water splashed around me with the impact of their weapons, and I wished I was back on the Firebrand with a cloaking device to mask my signal. But no. I was in a shining white orb, with no cloaking device, and no weapons. At least I had a shielding system to deflect energy weapons-

A direct hit. I shook in my seat. I checked the dashboard; my energy shields had just dropped to three percent integrity. One more hit would take me out, and then I would crash into the waves like a stone, sinking deeper, deeper, gasping for air as water poured into my damaged hull...

I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape them if I stayed in the atmosphere. I checked my scanners, and I could see the fighters closing in around me like a pack of wolves on the hunt. Only these wolves were brainwashed and made of steel, could fly, and could spit fire.

I had to get away from them.

Thunder rolled over the dark ocean waves, and I considered my chances at escape. I needed to get to the planet Viperion, and stop Ryner’s plan of galactic domination. I needed to destroy the loro cloning factory there. If I didn’t, then the Brotherhood would surely take control of the galaxy, one person at a time. Ryner would become like a twisted god.

My eyes narrowed and I seemed to swallow the energy of the storm. I couldn’t let that happen. But I realized, even if I was able to get out into space and make a slipspace jump to Viperion, the Brotherhood would be right on my tail. They would easily be able to track me there, and then I would be in the same situation, only I’d be fleeing from their attack ships over enemy territory. I wouldn’t survive...

I twisted to the side, narrowly avoiding a flock of purple sea birds that spiralled out of my way, squawking. When I levelled out, I heard something hard clatter against the wall, rolling along the floor. My eyes landed on it. The silver activation sphere...

That’s it, I thought with a rush of excitement. Then I bent over and scooped up the device, placing it on my lap. I pulled a hairpin turn and shot to the clouds. I would have to be fast.

If I slowed down then I might be hit by the lightning; everyone knew that flying through Astraloth’s storms could be deadly. On Earth, negative lightning was far more common, but most of the lightning strikes that happened on Astraloth were positively charged due to the makeup of the clouds, making them significantly stronger, farther reaching, and more unpredictable. Our ships were at risk because protection that could defend against negative lightning wouldn’t necessarily protect against positive lightning.

I reached the clouds, and the Titan-class cruisers struggled to turn and follow me, lightning dancing around them. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the cloud-covered cruisers get struck with a bolt of Astraloth’s fury. A second after the light faded it began to plummet, sickeningly. I looked forward at the whirling clouds between me and the stars, and the zapping forks of blue that lit my path, and I felt my heart skip a beat, my head spinning.

I couldn’t bear to look, so I shut my eyes, and accelerated into the storm.

My ship whined, and I held on tight. The storm sounded like cannons, firing on all sides. I couldn’t stop, couldn’t look back. I needed to get out of the storm before it decided to take me in its jaws.

Beyond that, I needed to clear the atmosphere before my pursuers could, for my plan to work.

I gasped. With a great amount of luck, I passed above the clouds and the rain, unscathed. I exhaled with relief, though I wasn’t quite out of it yet. Their ships would be right behind me.

Darkness surrounded me, and in the shadow of the planet my cockpit flickered with the glow of red sprites- fleeting crimson flares of lightning that stretched up from the tops of the clouds toward the edge of the atmosphere. I didn’t worry about them though, the sprites were hardly dangerous. Instead, I accelerated even more, soaring up and away from Astraloth.

I spun my ship around so I faced Astraloth while I sped away from it. The Brotherhood ships were still fighting with the storm. Now was my chance.

I took the silver activation device in my hands, and twisted it. The dark planet blinked away, and I jumped when I felt the device in my hands begin to disintegrate.

Heart pounding, I let myself relax back into the pilot’s seat. The silver orb faded into nothing and I knew the hidden time spheres below the planet’s surface would be spent now, too. I rested my now empty hands on my chest, ruffling my fur, still damp from the rain.

Then my chest constricted. A streak of blue lit my cockpit, and I saw that one of their fighters had made it out of the atmosphere before Astraloth disappeared, and it was showering my ship with lasers.

Without thinking, I leaned forward, shooting myself toward the grey starfighter. I knew I couldn’t run from the ship forever; sooner or later it would shoot me down unless I destroyed it first. The thing is I didn’t have any weapons, but I did have mass...

It tried to evade me, but my shuttle crashed into its underside. The Brotherhood starfighter burst into flames against my hull, and my ship vibrated. Then the shaking stopped.

I let out a sigh of relief. I was no longer being chased, and while my shields were gone and my white hull was now scorched black in places, I was alive.

★★★

I vaguely lamented that I had just altered the entire population of Astraloth’s off-world correspondence by two and a half days... With luck I’d be back safe and sound to take care of things by the time the planet reappeared. This is the last time, I promise, I thought to myself. Then I inhaled deeply. I probably wouldn’t make it back. The cockpit smelled like wet fur and plastic.

I opened up my ship’s map of the galaxy, and searched for the planet Viperion. There, on the far edge of the Milky Way, held to the galaxy’s core by a thread of gravity, the planet hid. It was a rogue planet; it had no star, instead orbiting the galaxy directly, on its own.

It had been named like countless other planets from a distant observatory, but never explored. The Brotherhood, with their research on Malum, must have discovered information about the loro cloning facility there.

But wouldn’t the valicorr have fought back against them? Unless that’s where they made first contact with Duhrnan and came to an alliance...

I grit my mandibles. This is exactly why our people had agreed that any knowledge of the loro needed to be shared publicly, why it was a crime to keep discoveries of the loro hidden.

The stars watched me, floating alone between Astraloth’s moons. The purple and red nebulas glowed fiercely in the dark of space. I flexed my fingers and toes, stretched my back, and without a second thought engaged the slipspace engine. Everything stretched, and pooled back behind my vessel as I shot towards the edge of the galaxy. I didn’t know how, but I was going to stop Ryner, once and for all. I had to.

But I wasn’t sure I could do it alone.

I glanced at the communications console in front of me. I could use the Code-Alpha signal and warn the galaxy of the Brotherhood’s threat. I could tell everyone what had happened, and ask the TAU and skythers to come to my aid at Viperion, and my message would be heard across the galaxy.

My hand froze above the console. No, I thought. If I use the Code-Alpha signal, the Brotherhood will know I’m coming. They will have time to escape. They’ll slink back into hiding, and I will have missed my chance to stop them.

I put my hands on my lap, and sat back into my chair, contemplating my options.

I nearly leapt from my seat when my holo-gauntlet began ringing. It was Fiona.

Instinctively I moved to answer her call, but I stopped myself. The device beeped while I hesitated. She was probably returning my call from the other day... but could I really trust her? I knew I could trust the real Fiona, and I wanted more than anything to call out for help right now. But for all I knew, she had already been replaced.

I shivered, and let the call go to the answering machine. I sat in the silence, gazing at the warping stars before my eyes. I could call Joëlle, but I couldn’t be sure that she was herself, either... And Omega wouldn’t exist again until Astraloth reappeared.

No. There was only one person I could trust, and though I didn’t know if they would answer, I knew I had to try calling.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

The device you are attempting to call is unavailable. Please leave a message.”

I exhaled into the receiver. “Jonathan,” I said. “It’s Osax.

“I know we haven’t talked in months, since I left Voren...” I shut my eyes, and swallowed hard. “I don’t know where you are. Maybe you won’t get this in time, or maybe you won’t want to risk helping me, but I need help. It’s about the Brotherhood...”

I continued talking for several minutes, explaining in my message everything that had just happened, that the Brotherhood had adapted Jonathan’s research into a new sinister project, and that they planned to replace me and countless others with sleeper agents.

“...They want galactic domination,” I said. “And I’m determined to do what I can to stop them. Which is why I’m on my way to Viperion right now.”

I closed my eyes, my head in my hands. “I know coming to help me is putting yourself at risk in more ways than one- The Brotherhood will want to kill you, the TAU will want you arrested... But you’re the only one I can trust.” I inhaled deeply. “Please, Jonathan.”

I shook my head. What am I doing? He wanted to get away from the troubles of the galaxy. He’s not going to respond.

I sat up. “You’re the only one who knows about this, except for Omega. And they’re still on Astraloth, surrounded by Brotherhood ships. Though, Astraloth won’t appear again for a few days...

“In any case... If you don’t hear anything from me in a week, and you don’t hear anything about the Brotherhood on the news, but people are still talking about me... then it means I’ve failed, and already been replaced.”

I felt my throat clench. “If that happens... Please, Jonathan. Do something... Anything... if you can. And if I never speak with you again... then good luck.”

Beep.

I stood up from my chair, and rummaged under the desk. In a hidden compartment, I retrieved a sleek E-pistol, and a curved molecular sword. I holstered each weapon to my belt, and tried to calm myself, adjusting the eyepiece I wore. Then I found the ship’s medical gel, and applied some to my shoulder.

When I was done, I returned to the cockpit, trying to ignore the sting of my wound. Thoughts orbited my mind like an asteroid belt. I stood next to my seat, watching the stretching stars. I knew in my heart that, at long last, this was the final destination. This would be the end of my journey. It would take several hours, and then I would reach Viperion. And whether I liked it or not, I was going alone.

I clenched my fists, and a fire burned in my eyes. I talked to the warping stars that seemed to stare my way telling them with more confidence than I felt, “I’m ready.”

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