English

Memories of a distant future: Rebellion, is the first book of the Ilstram's Empire trilogy, and the first book of the Memories of a distant future universe. The translation into English of the whole book is an ongoing process that will take some time, but which I plan to release episodically. The full book (in Spanish) is around 371 pages long in Kindle format.


Spanish cover of the book


Before moving on to the prologue, here you can find the synopsis of both the first book and Memories of a distant future itself:


Memories of a distant future
One hundred thousand years have passed since humanity abandoned Earth to colonize the Universe. They have crossed paths with many species over their countless millennia of travels: narzhams, olverians, lomarians...

Through the stories and experiences of its characters, Memories of a distant future narrates the constant battle to preserve the delicate balance of life in a universe on which its guardians have been reduced to mere legends by the very species they must watch over... known as Daeralman, some species considered them the parents of all living beings that populate the cosmos as well as the protectors of its balance.

Rebellion
The long reigning calm of Ilstram's Empire has come to an end. Thirty years after the attack over their capital, Antaria, the planet is immersed in chaos once more. The emperor Hans, accompanied by his wife empress Alha; Khanam - one of the most renowned scientists of the empire, and her daughter, Nahia, will soon discover that everything is part of a perfectly orchestrated plan to establish a new order in Ilstram... and the whole universe. And Humanity is at the center of that new order.

PLEASE READ: To facilitate reading the book, the prologue, and chapters 1 & 2 are now available in digital format. These can be used on most e-book devices. If you own a  Kindle, simply download the Mobi file to read the book.

Prologue, Chapters I and II of Memories of a Distant Future: Rebellion (only available in digital format)

Chapter III and onwards
Episode XXVII
Episode XXVIII
Episode XXIX
Episode XXX
Episode XXXI
Episode XXXII
Episode XXXIII
Episode XXXIV
Episode XXXV
Episode XXXVI
Episode XXXVII
Episode XXXVIII
Episode XXXIX
Episode XL
Episode XLI
Episode XLII
Episode XLIII
Episode XLIV
Episode XLV
Episode XLVI
Episode XLVII
Episode XLVIII
Episode XLIX
Episode L
Episode LI
Episode LII
Episode LIII
Episode LIV
Episode LV
Episode LVI
Episode LVII


Chapter III
Bombshell




Magdrot was on the marble balcony, in Antaria's palace. He looked towards the horizon, worried. It had been almost two months since Kharnassos' events. The emperor and the empress had gone missing, leaving no trace behind them. The marshal took advantage of the sudden power vacuum to take the reins of the empire, temporarily, until the election of the new rulers of Ilstram – who would also have to be approved by the army. Although he felt great sympathy towards the old man, he couldn't help but think there was something amiss in what had happened. On the other hand, there was Miyana. He had met the woman on his first visit to the palace, and was immediately captivated. She was an attractive lady, intelligent, and, although he was aware she was expecting a baby – that wouldn't be his – he didn't care. He understood he was falling in love, and he only wished she was going through that same process. It wasn't just that simple, of course. He was a colonel of Ilstram, and she was a civilian who had been widowed a few months before. Her pregnancy was also entering a delicate stage, and she would need male support by her side. Hopefully, she would feel the same, as they were spending more and more time together. The colonel thought that, for the first time in his life, he had understood the true meaning of giving his life for someone else. He was willing to die for that woman if necessary. His love was constantly growing, and he wasn't willing to let her suffer.
However, Magdrot, perhaps blinded by his feelings towards Miyana, had not noticed that it had been no other than the marshal himself who had orchestrated everything, allowing the couple to get closer. They were part of his master plan to put an emperor in Ilstram that would focus on pursuing the footsteps of Donan, Hans's father, who helped achieve some of the biggest upgrades in warfare, was widely admired amongst war veterans, such as marshal Ghrast. The old man was fully aware of that fact, and found little opposition when he assumed the reins of the empire. He had deployed fleets to explore the whole empire, following the instructions his adoptive father had given him, to better hide his involvement in the event. The rulers had been jailed, along with two humans, in a prison ship near the borders of the civilized universe.
The orders were clear, they were to be kept there for the next five years. Once that period had finished, and when, surely, no one would remember them anymore, the prisoners would be executed. Doing so earlier could be, in Gruschal's words, an invitation to revolution in Ilstram, and perhaps, a civil war. And even if that idea was intensely attractive for the old dictator, he decided to guide himself by his superior sense of logic. Furthermore, during that time, they could try to convince the scientist to join his research group. He wouldn't be able to leave Darnae, and he would certainly never see his daughter, again, but at least, he'd be alive. However, the obstinate human had refused the offer so far.
At some point, his spirit will crumble, and he'll become one of us.” Gruschal thought to himself.

Magdrot was contemplative. Winter was intensifying with every moment, and, even if that wasn't enough to stop the activities of the citizens of Antaria, it made standing still in the outside for any length of time something worthy of titans. He was slightly startled, as he noticed a pair of hands covering his eyes. He was on the verge of reacting violently, as instructed during his military training, which taught him how to break the arms of any opponent that would approach him as that person had decided to do.
However, Miyana's sweet voice made him react in a very different way.
Who am I?” she asked.
He caressed her soft hands, surprised by the nice welcome that the woman, that had caught his attention, gave him:
You are a present fallen from the sky...”
He turned around, smiling, wrapped his arms around her, and puled her towards him. He wasn't surprised at how receptive she was, as they had become increasingly intimate. Following his feelings, he pulled her gently towards his chest. She looked at him, smiling, and without giving him any time to react, she whispered:
You've finally found the guts to do it.”
Immediately, their lips melded in a long kiss. Every centimeter of their bodies shook, while they shared that magical moment. The first kiss, the first display of affection they were expressing to another person, after being accompanied, for a long time, by only their solitude. After several seconds, that neither of them seemed to want to end, they moved apart, and replied:
I wasn't sure you would feel the same towards me, Miyana.”
If you had hesitated any longer, I would have had to put an advertisement in the media so you would realize. I didn't know what else could I do... dear.” she said.
They looked at each other tenderly, he pulled her softly towards himself, and whispered into her ear:
I love you.”

In the distance, within the palace, casually, Dirhel – the loyal servant – had seen the scene. She smiled and walked towards the emperor's alcove. Although it had been empty for months, she never stopped going there to clean it, and to prevent dust covering everything. On her way to the room, she walked next to the decrepit marshal. He was now the de facto emperor of Ilstram. When he noticed she was smiling, he asked, politely:
Is there something that has pleased you, my dear?”
She had never felt aversion towards him, but she always opted to keep a certain distance with the man, as she knew that young Hans didn't really admire him, despite the fact that he was aware of the old man's abilities as a great military strategist:
I've seen the lord and the lady, on the balcony, sharing a very pretty moment.”
The lord and the lady?” he asked, curious.
Yes. The colonel and Miss Miyana.”
Oh, of course. How did I not realize.” he said, feigning incredulity. .
It was something he had expected to happen at any time, as he had talked to both of them, separately, on many occasions over two months, and he always ended up asking, one way or the other, about what they thought of the other person. He studied their reactions for some time, it was obvious they felt mutual attraction, and that allowed him to execute the next stage of his plan in a natural way:
Thank you, Dirhel, you have given this old man some of the most joyous news he has heard in recent times” he said to the servant.
It certainly is, marshal” she said, before resuming her tasks.
It's time to prepare everything for the ascension of the new governors of Ilstram” thought the ancient Ghrast, as he walked towards the marble balcony.
As Dirhel had said, the couple were there, they were still hugging, looking towards the horizon. Once he had arrived to the door, he attempted to greet them without startling them:
A magnificent afternoon to share with a loved one, isn't it?”
Ah, marshal, it's you” said Magdrot, slightly disconcerted.
Out of habit, the couple separated, as if they were two children that had been caught doing something they should not.
Oh. Come on, it was bound to happen sooner or later. Don't expect me to act as if I didn't know you were a perfect match for eachother.” the elder replied, smiling, in an attempt to make them feel more comfortable.
He walked towards them, and contemplated, for a second, that landscape that was so familiar to him.

During those two months, Antaria, and therefore the whole of Ilstram's Empire, had been expectant. The temporary emperor – marshal Ghrast – couldn't take any real decision, he was limited to announcing the new rulers. The old military felt incredibly stupid, as he had been working on a plan to imitate Hans's handwriting, unaware of the fact that Ilstram's laws indicated that the seat of power would be automatically transferred to the person of highest rank in the army, if the emperor was declared dead without any direct descendant. The deadline for the proclamation of the new governors was coming quickly, and even if his plan was going well, Ghrast felt it was still premature. But he couldn't really delay anything. Making Miyana and Magdrot notice each other had taken far longer than he had expected. Lucky for him, both of them appreciated him, and also appreciated all the work he had done in the shadows. After all, the colonel had never heard a bad word from the old man, and for Miyana, it had been a long time since last time they were upset with each other:
The day to announce the new emperor and empress will come soon” the marshal said, loudly. He wanted to engage in a conversation with the two persons that would be, by his decision, the new leaders of Ilstram.
Have you already chosen who will succeed Hans and Alha?” Miyana asked innocently.
Of course. I've known it for some time. But I fear the people I have chosen may not be ready to take the responsibility.”
I'm sure there are citizens in Ilstram with the studies, knowledge and experience to take the reins of our empire.”
In fact, there isn't” her partner replied. “There isn't anything like a school for emperors” Magdrot continued. “Those teachings have been transmitted, with every generation, through the succession line of the emperors. Brandhal was taught by his father, Emperor Borghent, and he was taught, back then, by emperor Darant, the grandfather of our current emperor. And so, we could keep going back until the origin of this empire.
This will be the second time in Ilstram's history, when a new emperor will be announced, who doesn't belong to the succession line of the preceding ruler” the marshal added. “It'll be a harsh period of time, until these two people get used to governing such a vast and complex empire.”
But they will certainly have all the support and help from the army, won't they?” Magdrot asked.
After taking a breath of air, Ghrast looked at them. Soon, the moment to test the waters would come, but he didn't want to make a mistake:
The new emperor and empress will have as much support as they need from the army. The population, however...” he said, looking to the city under his feet, “they'll have to earn their trust by themselves, I fear.”




********




Ahrz fell flat on his face against the ground. He had been severely knocked out by recruit Brians. He touched his lips, and felt the blood coming out from his mouth. He got distracted, and his opponent had shown no mercy. He reacted quickly, since his opponent was willing to take his advantage to the maximum, and avoided having his head crushed against the cold metallic ground of Ilstram's training center, located on the planet Modea. Everything in that place was conceived to push any modern human to the limit. Extreme cold was waiting those who would dare to venture into the outside without appropriate thermal protection  Due to the difficult conditions for civil life, the planet – twelfth and last of its solar system – had been set up for military training. The surface was covered in an almost perpetual snowstorm, and the ambiance in the inside of the military facilities wasn't much more comfortable. The temperature within the complex was intentionally high, over forty degrees. The asphyxiating heat forced the soldiers to become far stronger and persistent against extreme conditions, something many of them didn't realize. It also served to improve their reflexes due to the difficulty of attempting to think with clarity under those harsh circumstances, whilst trying to avoid defeat by their opponents.
Ahrz knew beforehand that the training to join the ranks of Ilstram's army was tough. But, when several months ago – in the now idyllic Antaria – he expressed his intentions to his former boss, he was already decided to go until the end, no matter the consequences. After visiting the recruitment center of the city, he was sent, along with several more recruits from the whole empire, to Modea. There, for one month, he had fully focused on developing his body. He had developed musculature, agility, and above all, perspicacity. After his physical training was complete, he learned, for the next thirty days, several arts of hand-to-hand combat, armed combat, and simulations of piloting – from which Ahrz tried to learn as much as he could. His passion were battleships, but he was required to go through the same training as everyone else first. He rolled quickly on the ground, avoiding Brian's stomp, which would have rendered him unconscious. Although the fights weren't to the death, the only way to stop them was through loss of conscience, surrender – which was severely punished with a long journey through the harsh cold wasteland outside – and finally, the fights could also be stopped if there was evident risk of death of any of the recruits. Furthermore, to emphasize the pain soldiers could endure, they were only allowed to wear a long pair of trousers.
Although Ahrz wasn't particularly strong, his height – close to two meters – allowed him to have an imposing physical presence which gave him an edge against the more impressionable recruits. His brave character, perhaps even borderline recklessness at times, took care of the rest. But all that wasn't helping him against recruit Brians. As he had mentioned himself, it was the third time he had been destined to Modea, and he was fully dedicated to finally joining Ilstram's military ranks. He was looking fixedly into the antarian's eyes, and didn't notice the swift movement that Ahrz performed with his legs, tripping him, and forcing him to fall down:
Ahrz Torien! Stand up!” his instructor yelled from the side of the room.
Automatically, he stood up, and leaped on Brians. But Ghadea's recruit had been just as swift. Standing up again, he took advantage of his physical superiority, and, after stopping several blows from Ahrz, with his arms, he hit his neck with both hands in a brutal attack, dazing him, followed by a strong kick to his abdomen, which sent the old miner flying through the air. Pained, the antarian stood up as quickly as he could, and walked towards a nearby wall. It was clear he wouldn't take down his rival through an exchange of blows. He needed something that would give him the edge. He quickly glanced around, but didn't see anything at first that could be of help. On a second inspection, however, he saw a rope hanging from the ceiling; they generally used it to climb to the top. He started to taunt Brians openly, in an attempt to distract him:
Come on recruit, I'll make sure you'll have to stay here one more time” he yelled. “There's nothing you can do.”
What are you talking about? I'm winning.” his opponent replied mockingly. “Your mouth may have stopped bleeding, but it won't be for long.”
I'm dying to see you try.”
He placed his arms at his side, relaxed, and laughing mockingly. He was trying to enrage Brians, whilst their instructor looked carefully, watching silently in the distance:
Let's go, it's time to finish what we've started. Staying here a fourth time can't be that bad.” he added.
Out of control, Ghadea's recruit raced towards him, he was willing to put an end to the life of that poor wretch. He was completely mad, frantically racing, aiming to hit his head. Ahrz ran to the wall to his left, jumped against the wall – putting his feet on a small wooden bracket – and jumped to the nearby rope. He held tight to it, and taking advantage of his own inertia, stretched his legs forward, while he rope forced him to turn towards a startled Brians. The impact was violent enough to send the ghadean flying against the wall, crashing into the wooden bracket Ahrz had previously used, and causing his right side to bleed profusely. With his opponent still stunned, the antarian didn't hesitate to pick up the stick from the broken support and use it to attack Brians using all his strength. He raised his arm into the air, while his opponent looked at him terrified. In the distance, he heard what he had been waiting for:
Enough! Stand back recruit Torien!” his instructor yelled.
He observed Brians, dropped the weapon, and left the room as if nothing had happened.

He was happy. That was one of the last trials before formalizing his entry to the army. A reconnaissance mission into enemy territory, and a simulation of space combat were the only things left. If he succeeded in both, he would be invited to enroll the army of Ilstram.
Since he was still in pain, the man visited the infirmary. He found recruit Narval there, a man from Idrilith - one of the colonies of Ilstram furthest from Antaria – with whom he had forged a certain degree of friendship.
Oh well, it looks like you got quite a beating” he said as soon as he saw him.
You should see how I left Brians” Ahrz replied. “I was close to defeat, and I'm sorry for him, because he is not a bad guy, but if he used his head half as well as he uses his fists...”
He'd be an excellent soldier, I know. It's not the first time I heard the instructor saying something like that” his friend said. “I still remember the last time I fought him” he continued, whilst rubbing his left shoulder. “the beast dislocated my shoulder during a training session.”

While they were talking, nurse Adrius walked by, she was a young and beautiful girl from Kharnassos, who took care of the wounds of every single recruit stationed at Modea. As soon as she entered the room, Narval stared at her, and she smiled timidly. After a quick examination, she walked to Ahrz, gifting him with another sweet smile, she then touched his face, which caused the man to scream in pain:
You should stay at the recovery chamber for a while. It seems you have a broken bone in your face. Didn't you notice?”
I hadn't noticed until you touched me.” he replied. Is it empty now?”
No, Brians is using it. He was quite pained after your fight. I guess he'll need to stay there for quite a while until he's fully recovered.”
In that case, I'll come back later.” Ahrz said goodbye politely, and left the room. Right behind him Narval left as well, which prompted the old miner to turn around and look at him startled:
Why are you leaving?”
I'm fine. I'm not in pain” his friend replied, with a surprised look.”
Do you really not see it? She's crazy for you. As soon as she sees you, her face lights up. Her eyes have a different glow. I think the only person on the whole planet that hasn't realized she likes you, is you.” said Ahrz. In fact, that woman must surely have captivated the whole regiment; even he felt an attraction towards her.
I hope...” Narval sighed, “but I think she's just polite and nice with everyone.”
You also like her, you should go after her. There's nothing you can lose. Look at me, I left my job in Antaria to fulfill my dream. Trust me, it's worth it.”
His friend didn't know what to say with such affirmation, which made him change the topic, something the ex-miner respected:
In a few days we'll have the second trial for enrollment” his friend said.
Yes, the ground reconnaissance mission.” he replied, thinking the same.
I'm wondering where they will send us. They say that now, since the marshal is in charge, they could send us on an offensive mission, rather than just reconnaissance.”
Are you talking about conquering a planet?”
Apparently” Narval continued. “Last I heard, he wants Ilstram to expand, and he believes that it's good idea to begin by taking the weakest planets.”
So, are we going to declare war on another empire? Isn't that a little premature?”
Not necessarily, Ahrz. The lomarians have been dwindling for hundreds of years. Their empire disappeared long ago. And the surrounding empires have annexed their planets, and populations, throughout the years. However, Ilstram is the only empire that hasn't reclaimed its part of the cake so far. I guess that, if they send us on a conquest mission, it would be to one of their planets.”
Lomarians... I had never heard that name.” said the antarian, meditatively.
That's normal. Before your arrival here, you only knew, and not in much detail, Ilstram's history. You've already heard of the Tarshtan Empire, and the Grodey Empire, but you won't hear anything about the Empire of Lomaria. Many millennia ago – no one really knows how long ago – perhaps it's been a hundred thousand years, the Empire of Lomaria sprawled most of the most remote regions of the universe. Some of those planets weren't too far from here. They were a smart society, with technology that was quite advanced for the era, and with little interest in wars. If they wanted something they simply traded with the nearby empires until they got it. As the years passed, they possessed so much economic and diplomatic power, that whole societies joined them. Planets that, voluntarily, joined their empire. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the lomarians was to integrate the highest amount of alien species, until the days of our empire.”
So, what happened?”
That's where things get very fuzzy. There are few stories about that event, and most of them have been classified by historians as fantasy or myth. In those tales, the most repeated story says that, one day, a visiting ship came to their capital, Nowarasi, with only one passenger inside. They had never seen that kind of technology anywhere else in the universe. He was one of them, but he didn't act as them. After he landed, he demanded to meet the emperor. After being politely rejected, he walked to one of the soldiers... and snapped his neck with a single blow.
But, lomarians are almost reptilian, aren't they?” Ahrz interrupted.
They have a similar height to ours, dark blue skin, but with an aspect that looks closer to a reptile walking on two feet. They have a very strong body, protected by those weird scales, that makes them almost impervious to physical attacks. Yeah, that's why the story becomes absurd. Those tales say that, after killing the soldier, everyone fired at him. And while that happened, his figure changed, he... transformed. He no longer had the aspect of a lomarian, and became a sort of humanoid silhouette, completely black, and incorporeal. The most fantastic thing is that they say he was made of pure energy. Can you believe that? The thing is, that story continues, saying that the most terrifying storm ever remembered in Nowarasi happened that day. It caused flooding, fires, and many calamities. That silhouette continued to advance, and no matter how much they fired at him, he seemed to absorb all the energy. He headed straight to the palace of the emperor. Once there, he ordered him to surrender immediately, and hand him his empire. After his refusal to do so, that... thing grabbed him with just one hand, and threw him against a nearby column. He did it with so much strength that he smashed that column, and the next three, killing the emperor, and causing the building to collapse. While chaos was taking hold of the city, he abandoned that place, looked to the sky, as if scrutinizing it, looking for something. And he flew...”
Alright, all this is definitely a fantasy. I'm not surprised the historians consider it a legend.” replied the antarian.
Wait, there's more” Narval continued. “They said that, after he disappeared, several days later, a massive comet crashed into Nowarasi, killing the population that had survived the storm. Over the following days, comets crashed into those planets whose populations contained a large number of lomarians. Paired with that, suddenly, lomarian females became sterile. Suddenly, none of them seemed capable of having more children. Not even the females born after the immediate aftermath. For that reason, ever since, their species has been slowly declining, dying out. They were billions in number a hundred thousand years ago. Only a few thousand remain these days. Many believed it to be a permanent curse of sorts, but some of their females eventually managed to give birth to children, a long time after that event, although the new lomarians had a less imposing physical body, and their lifespan was significantly shorter; none reach the longevity of their ancestors.
How long did they live before?” asked the ex-miner, curiously.
The rumor says around ten thousand years, but no one knows for certain.”
I don't buy it. Everything is way too fantastical, too much craziness. A being made of energy, a rain of comets... something else must had happened.”
The official version, and by that I mean what our historians say, claim that the malady of the lomarians is real, it did happen. It was, most likely, the consequence of a failed experiment run by themselves, perhaps in an attempt to increase the fertility of their species. They argue that, out of pure shame, as the years went by, they created this legend to try to get rid of the feeling of guilt, as they had unleashed their very own end upon themselves.”
Now that's something I can believe. An experiment that didn't work, and they made a huge mess out of it.”
Maybe, but there is something that no one has managed to explain so far, Arhz. Do you remember the comets? They smashed the key planets, with just days between the impacts.”
The universe is huge. I'm sure that somewhere, right now, that same thing is happening. They simply pulled the shortest straw in cosmic lottery.”
Perhaps...” Narval said.
Wait, are you telling me you believe that weird story to be true? Are you telling me you think a... something, destroyed the Empire of Lomaria and hurled comets against their planets?”
No. I don't believe it, but... what if it was real?”
You know, as well as I do, that it's not true, my friend.” Ahrz replied, without any hint of doubt. “Over time, our science has evolved to explain everything in this world. And that kind of thing just can't happen in our reality. You know I speak the truth.”
I refuse to accept we have dominated the universe.” Narval replied laconically.

Night had fallen upon Modea. The two friends were sitting on a bench, in one of the halls. In front of them, a large window allowed them to observe the snowstorm that battered, relentlessly, the surrounding steppes. After wishing a good night to each other, they walked to their respective bedrooms. Ahrz couldn't stop wondering what the next trial to join the army would encompass. Although he wasn't worried about taking part in a conquest mission, he preferred the relative security of a reconnaissance mission, even if it happened in enemy territory.
They had to wait several days until they learned where they were going to be sent. In the end, their predictions had become true. They would be dispatched to conquer Nelder, one of the last lomarian bastions in that area of the universe, and where, they had been told, a ferocious resistance force would be waiting to defend every inch of the planet. Ahrz wasn't too pleased; there was a palpable difference between a reconnaissance mission and conquering a lomarian planet, which would be defended by their inhabitants until the very end. He couldn't help but feel some unease as he realized the operation would put them at risk, but he didn't falter. His will to continue and fulfill his dream of becoming a soldier of Ilstram's Empire was stronger than any fear he could feel.
The man from Antaria was immersed in his thoughts when, almost without noticing, he walked next to nurse Adrius. She was a beautiful women, of average height, dark hair, and captivating blue eyes that, even if he refused to openly admit it, he loved to contemplate; after all, the man had always felt she had an incredibly attractive figure, which he loved to see. She welcomed him with her eternal gentle smile, asking him how he felt:
Fine, I'm fine. And you?” the aspiring solder replied. He always felt the same when she was close. It was a magnetism difficult to ignore.
I'm doing well, but I'm a little worried. I've heard you'll go to Nelder in a couple of days, to conquer the planet. I hope everyone will come back fine.” The girl placed her hands on her chest, as if something distressed her. “We already have plenty of work here taking care of your wounds when practicing. I can't imagine how things would be if we have to take care of people wounded by war. “
Ahrz looked at her curiously. He remembered his friend Narval, whom he knew was fully in love with this woman. He couldn't resist the urge to ask what had crossed his mind, hoping that, for the good of his friend, she would feel the same:
But, there's someone that is more important to you than everyone else, right? A special recruit.”
She looked at him pensively, wondering if it was the right moment to do what her body had been asking her for a long, long time:
I thought you hadn't noticed...” Adrius said, thinking out loud, while walking towards him, even if a bit doubtfully:
Of course I have noticed. It's obvious as soon as anyone looks at your behavior...”
He couldn't continue, because the lips of the woman were kissing him. At first, the antarian was incapable of any reaction, he didn't seem capable of assimilating what was happening. It was a dream come true, and at the same time, a nightmare, the betrayal of his best friend. He realized that, to some extent, he had been a complete idiot. Every time he saw her smiling when Narval was around, he was also present. Impulsively, Ahrz embraced the girl whilst sharing the long kiss. Narval was right,  he thought, in his doubts of being the target of the woman's affection. A few seconds later, that felt like wonderful centuries to Ahrz, their lips separated. She lowered her head, almost ashamed:
Sorry... Perhaps I shouldn't have done this...” she said, while slowly walking away.
He didn't give her any room to react. He embraced her once more, and this time, he kissed her. At first, Adrius didn't react, but she eventually gave in to her impulse and responded to the man she loved. After that second kiss, they took seat on a nearby bench, observing the snowy landscape through the windows.
In fact... I wasn't talking about me.” Ahrz said, breaking the silence brought on by the tender moment that they had just shared.
What? Then who were you talking about?”
Well, there's another guy that likes you, a lot.” he continued.
She smiled at him, blushing:
There are many guys here that like me, even if I don't like admitting it.”
It's normal” the ex-miner continued “you're very pretty, smart, and here you're like some kind of mother for many of us. I guess because you take care of all our wounds.”
Maybe you are right. But, then who did you think I liked?”
Is that important anymore? He was right, anyways, he felt you didn't like him, and well... even if he's my friend, and I feel sorry for him, I'm also happy I've been proven wrong. I liked you the very first day... but relationships have never been my strong point...”
Well, you've declared your love like an expert” she said, while wrapping her arms around him, and gently kissing his cheek.
That's the ironic part, I wasn't trying to do something like that, yet that's what I've accomplished...”
He remained silent, looking to the horizon. Ahrz wondered if his friend would feel gravely betrayed; after all, he was now with the woman that Narval had confessed to holding a deep and undeclared love for.
He knew, deep inside him, that he couldn't govern the feelings of the girl, his new, and unexpected, partner. He was now facing a moral dilemma: what was he supposed to do now? Should he tell Narval that the girl of his dreams was his best friend's girlfriend? Should he remain silent to protect their friendship, acting as if nothing had happened, and hoping that his friend didn't learn the truth? The insistence of the loving woman forced him to come back to the real world:
What are you thinking?”
It's nothing...” Ahrz said.
You know you can trust me, right?” she said.
Yes, of course I do. But, that person, the man that loves you, I don't know what to do. I don't know if I should tell him he was right, and that the girl she loves is now with his best friend, or pretend nothing has happened.”
Are you ashamed of me?” Adrius asked.
No. Not at all. That's insane.” he replied emphatically. “Quite the contrary, to have you here by my side, is almost a dream, and so is being able to consider you as something more than just the nurse of the facility.”
If you don't tell him anything, you'd been hiding me... as if you were ashamed. Maybe you already know what the right answer is, and what you need is a gentle push to move forward.”
Maybe you are right. I don't want to hide you, but I don't want to harm him either.”
Inevitably, he will suffer, unless you don't want to be with me, of course. But that won't make me be with him, Ahrz.”
I know, my dear” he replied, whilst caressing her hair tenderly. “You are right, the most logical thing to do is to talk to him and tell him what has happened. He'll have to get over it.”
I'm sure he will” she replied. “Don't blame yourself. Neither of us is guilty. Love has these quirks; some people win, some people lose... But that's how life is, as much as we don't want to think about it.”
She rested her head on the ex-miner's chest. For the first time in many years, she felt comfortable with a man, and she felt protected. It had been a long time since she had first noticed him. She loved his character, his confidence, his ingenuity, and his courage to decide to change his life in a way as radical as he had, leaving aside the millenarian tradition of his family. She wondered if he was as innocent as he seemed when talking about his feelings. In any case, it only added to the romanticism of that incipient love story.
They spent most of the day together, sharing brief moments of love, almost furtively, while she took care of helping the recruits that required medical attention, and he focused on his armed combat training. At night, they had their first dinner together, and slept together in the nurse's bedroom. There, they give into their most primal instincts, making love until the late hours of the night. Ahrz didn't need to worry about Narval, as his friend had been granted permission to visit his family before traveling to the planet Nelder. Most likely, the two friends wouldn't meet until the day of their departure to lomarian soil.




********




Finally, the dreaded day arrived. It had been just two days, but that time had been enough to strengthen the relationship, in every aspect, between Ahrz and Adrius. She had used the opportunity offered by that brief calm to share with him all her thoughts, tell him how she had fallen in love with him, and, generally speaking, do as much as she could to stabilize their new status:
If you finally join the army, what will you do?” she asked.
They were sitting on the bed in her room, it was the morning of the day on which the antarian would travel to Nelder.
What do you mean?” he asked, while embracing her gently, and kissing her neck.
I guess you already had a plan, before all this. Go back to your home, stay here, or whatever else you had chosen.”
Ahrz didn't hesitate at all:
I had planned to go back to Antaria and continue my solitary life.” he replied.
His girlfriend looked at him fondly, and said:
It's probably madness, but, how about you continue with that plan... with me by your side?”
Are you sure about that?” the ex-miner asked doubtingly.
Yes, of course I am. I love you, Ahrz, and I want to be with you. If I stayed here, the distance, and my duties as military nurse, would make it very difficult to see you often. However, if I went back to civil life, I could have a normal routine. I had already considered going back to Kharnassos at some point, but... now I like the idea of traveling to Antaria, and staying there with you. As long as you agree, of course.”
He looked at her, wondering – for a second – if that wasn't too premature, even if he felt that he did, indeed, wish to be with this woman for the rest of his life. The idea of having her go with him, far from the infernal Modea, and living in the far more habitable capital of Ilstram's empire, was something that looked incredibly attractive to him:
Wouldn't you miss this?” he asked Adrius.
At first, sure. But, as I told you just a moment ago, I want to be with you. If you manage to join the army, we wouldn't be able to stay here. I quite like the idea of getting back into civilian medicine if, in exchange, I can live with the man I've dreamed of for so long.
Then... let's hope the mission is a success, my dear. If all goes well, I'll become a real member of the army, we can leave all this behind, and travel together to Antaria.”
We're insane” the nurse said out loud. “It's been just two days since we began dating, and we'll be going to Antaria in a few weeks if everything goes right.”
Wonderful madness” he replied, sweetly. “But for now, I'll focus on today, and hope everything will work.”
Everything will go as planned, you'll see.” the woman from Kharnassos said.
Conquering a planet won't be as easy as a reconnaissance mission...”
If it was a very dangerous mission, they would send the proper army, and not the aspiring soldiers, right?” she asked.
I guess so. Until a few days ago I was worried about this assignment, but I didn't care much about what could happen. Now I have a reason to come back in one piece... you” Ahrz replied.
They stared at each other, and she replied affectionately:
I love you”
I love you too” the antarian replied.
They shared a few more moments together, but Ahrz's mind had already begun, slowly, to digress towards the preparation of what would be, in just a few hours, the closest thing to a war he had ever witnessed.

It wasn't long until he, along with all of the other recruits chosen for the next trial, received the call to report to the transport hangar. He didn't see Narval there, as the teams were leaving at staggered times, and his friend was already traveling to Nelder with the first contingent. Adrius walked with him to the hangar; once there, the new couple bid farewell lovingly, while she begged him to stay safe and to come back in one piece.
Ahrz jumped into the transport ship, as he did, the door closed. The regiment was ready; the ship raised into the air heavily. Through the window, the antarian observed the woman with whom he had spent the most intense days of his life.
He was immersed in those recent memories, while waving his hand at his love, when the captain made him wake up from his absorption:
What a beauty!” he said in a lively way, placing his hand on Ahrz's shoulder. “Don't worry recruit. If you follow your orders, you'll come back to cuddle that knockout for as long as you want. To put it simply, just take care of keeping yourself alive.”
After that conversation, Ahrz walked towards the interior of the main compartment of the transport ship, where a set of ten aspiring soldiers were waiting. He scrutinized their faces. It was easy to realize some of them were nervous, some were scared, others were expectant, and others, perhaps out of fear, seemed absent, as if they were somewhere else entirely. He took a seat with some of the recruits, at one side of the room, whilst the captain continued his harangue.
Gentlemen” the official said, “in four hours we'll arrive at Nelder” he moved his hands emphatically, in front of a screen where a virtual version of the planet was being shown. “Once there, we'll meet with the rest of the battalion sent by the empire. Our mission is simple. We have to take control of the main lomarian settlements, and ensure their leader – whoever he is – agrees to join Ilstram's Empire.”
And if they don't accept?” a recruit asked.
Marshal Ghrast's orders are clear. If we can't convince the governor to accept, we're cleared to kill him, and annex that rock by force. We expect to encounter very little resistance, and for them to be very disorganized, but they'll surely fight until the very end. It's very unlikely they've heard of this mission, and we're ready to face them on any terrain. You'll have all kinds of weapons: plasma guns, hydrogen and plasma rifles, as well as sniper rifles.”
Will we have aerial support from space?” Ahrz asked.
Negative” the captain replied. “One of the reasons we've been tasked with conquering this ball is because of the value of the forests and rivers existing there. Unfortunately, for us, only the lomarians know the locations of the resources. With aerial support, and considering the low amount of resistance we expect, we might end up exterminating all of the inhabitants that can guide us. That would make the process of adaptation and exploitation considerably harder and longer than planned. In the instructions I've received, the marshal mentions his wish to have Nelder as a fully working colony – military speaking – in less than a week.”
I hope the old wreck will retire soon” a recruit said.
The old wreck, soldier” the captain replied, “has taken part in hundreds of battles for Ilstram's empire. I can assure you he has always done so with the best interests of our world in mind. The marshal has served in this army since the days of emperor Borghent, and he has proven to be a great strategist.”
With all due respect, my captain” the recruit continued “marshal Ghrast and emperor Borghent didn't show the care for their people that emperor Brandhal did. Under him, Antaria and the colonies, have seen some of the most spectacular developments in the last thirty years. Thanks to him, today we live far better than a few decades ago.”
Thanks to him, as well” the captain replied, “Ilstram's is the least technologically developed army in the known universe. He has dedicated a considerable amount of money of the empire to improve the quality of life of the citizens. That's laudable, of course, but letting us bathe in gold every morning means nothing if there isn't an army that can suitable respond against an enemy attack.”
I believe in emperor Brandhal” Ahrz replied, “and I agree with him” he said, looking at the other recruit. “Thanks to him, we have lived an era of prosperity. One of the reasons I decided to enroll the army was to serve the empire, and I'll give my life for the emperor if needed, no matter who that person is.”
But the emperor isn't here anymore. It's been almost three months since he disappeared. To talk about what he has done will not help us in the mission at hand.” the officer said. “Remember, you should stay close to the main battalion at all times. Stay together and don't wander. If we have to retreat, we won't be able to wait for the stragglers.”

The hours went by slowly, almost as if they were eternal; it felt like if the ruthless destiny enjoyed torturing Ahrz's mind, whom was being assaulted by his inner fears, and began to question if he was really taking a good step. For the first time, he was about to look, face to face, at a real enemy, one made of flesh and bone, and therefore, he was about to face the possibility of death. He was going to do so much more than mere training. And to make things worse, now he had to make sure he would come back safe and sound, to stay with his beloved Adrius. He couldn't avoid having the presentiment that, whatever was waiting for them at Nelder, wouldn't be as easy as it seemed in theory. His target was a planet in the nearby system of Yeleldas, the fourth planet in a system that had over twenty planets. It received enough heat from the small star that orbited, enough to maintain a tropical climate. The high amount of oxygen was a plus for the humans, as it enhanced their physical condition and allowed them to remain under pressure for a longer time. They hoped to have an edge over the lomarians, whom had the tactical advantage of knowing the land on their side.

The entry into the planet's atmosphere was quick and organized. Almost a hundred ships landed in the ample meadows that could be observed over most of the planet. Far in the distance, on the horizon, the slender lomarian constructions could be discerned. Buildings of, generally, blue color, that raised, into the calm sky of the capital, defyingly. It was evident that species was dying out. There was little activity on the planet, Ahrz thought, and the capital, Ergaran, looked like an abandoned wasteland. The troops converged quickly at the rendezvous point, that the various captains had decided upon. There, finally, the man from Antaria met his friend, Narval, whom waved at him effusively:
Ahrz! Finally, are you ready for action?” he asked, visibly happy.
Narval! Of course I am ready, let's get hold of this rock and travel to Modea as soon as possible. I want to get this done for once.
However, those weren't the words that filled his mind. He didn't know how, but he knew he had to tell him what had happened between Adrius and himself. He didn't want to endure that feeling of unbearable guilt any longer. Mustering all his courage, he decided to follow his girlfriend's advice, and tell his friend the bad news:
There's something I have to tell you.”
What is it about?”
It's Adrius” Ahrz said. “I've been talking with her.”
He looked at him inquisitively, when, suddenly, both men heard the cold whistle of a projectile thrown from the nearby forests. A defense strategy was executed immediately. They were under attack. The lomarians did not only know their position, they also seemed well armed. Quickly, an unmeasurable amount of enemies poured from the forests. There were hundreds, and, by Ahrz's estimation, their number was double or triple that of the human army. The burst of plasma was ferocious. Several dozen of human soldiers fell to the ground before any captain gave the order to open fire.
The order of an officer was no longer necessary. A shrill, anonymous, voice called for the attack, and a mass of enraged, frightened individuals carried it out. Their comrades were perishing in combat, and the rest of recruits weren't willing to share their fate. Ahrz and Narval didn't have the time to continue their conversation.
The army had barely advanced a few meters from the landing point. The lomarians were perfectly prepared, and they seemed to have worked on a master plan to face the onslaught and stop it right there.
I thought these aliens were disorganized!” a recruit yelled.
This is not what we had been prepared for!” another replied.
Keep you composure.” Ahrz's captain yelled. “We're facing an attack far bigger than expected. But we don't have to give up. We're going after them, with everything we have!” he ordered.
The rest of captains gave the same order to their respective soldiers. But it was in vain. Although the army had managed to enter the forest, it was quickly evident that it was a deadly trap. The defenders had climbed to the deep branches of the trees, taking advantage of a powerful natural defense that allowed them to snipe their opponents through a selective, quick, and clean execution method. The human troops were gradually declining in number.
I don't know who warned us, Mogosh, but he has helped us defend Nelder!” Larat, one of the lomarians at the heart of the battle, yelled.
Our guest will have the honors he deserves when we go back to the capital” Mogosh, the leader of the defense, replied.


What none of the members of Ilstram's empire knew, was that their enemy had been warned by someone that knew, firsthand, everything they had been planning to take the capital city of their dying empire.
Those slender creatures, with remarkable reptilian traits, fought with ferocity. They had been encouraged after the arrival of an equal, a lomarian, that, even if he had refused to reveal his identity, was very generous in regards to the amount of details relative to what was going to happen in their empire. Convincing all the lomarians to fight until the end wasn't too difficult, for the strange visitor. They prepared a vast defense, adding every single individual from the surrounding colonies that had managed to arrive at the planet in time. They were used to defending themselves against growing empires, against ruthless governors that wanted to reclaim their part of the decadent kingdom. But, attacking Nelder, attacking the capital, the last bastion of their technology, and their society, was taking it too far. Mogosh didn't understand what pushed Ilstram – a mostly pacific empire – to launch a full assault to conquer one of their planets, let alone the capital planet. He had heard rumors about the disappearance of their ruler, a human that was known for focusing on his society and the well-being of his citizens, putting aside the military advancements that the preceding emperor had focused on. However, the temporary ascension to power of the marshal had apparently put those men back in the footsteps of war.
The field of battle, situated in the surroundings of the huge, lush forest that separated them from the capital, was almost frozen in time, no ground was being conceded by the Lomarians. Ahrz felt immense unease, he had growing doubts about the possibility of emerging victorious from that attack, that should have been, supposedly, nothing short of a triumphal walk, as the lomarians should have failed to put any real resistance. But their enemy was there, and they were well organized. The casualties on the human side continued to rise. The advantage, in number and in strategy, was quickly turning the tide in favor of the natives.
Captain, if we continue like this, no one will make it out alive from this hell.” the antarian shouted.
Stay together! Focus on the lomarians on the trees, and don't separate. They won't show any mercy.” his captain yelled.
The assault was relentless, and every inch of ground conquered, was a huge waste of lives. They had probably lost half of the original battalion, and it was becoming increasingly obvious, in Ahrz's opinion, that they would die there if no one gave the order to retreat. Conquering that rock wasn't important anymore, the battle was slowly becoming a constant onslaught, they weren't fighting anymore to conquer anything, they were fighting to survive. Narval and Ahrz were suddenly together, back to back, shooting at the enemies between the trees, who continued to fire plasma bursts. The army was being surrounded; there wouldn't be any escape unless someone took the decision to go back to the ships.
Retreat! Fall back! Go back to your ships! We can not win!” one of the captains yelled.
The battalion turned around, trying to open an escape route towards the vessels that were located a few hundred meters away.
How long have we been here?” Narval asked to his friend.
I don't know” the antarian replied. “But we won't be alive for much longer if we continue like this. We have to run from here. I have to talk to you about Adrius.”
Why do you insist so much in talking about her Ahrz? Why now?” Narval asked.
The ex-miner meditated in silence, while they advanced slowly to the ships, there were only a few hundred recruits lefts, but he couldn't get rid of that feeling of guilt even thought it was a matter of life or death. Maybe, he couldn't because he realized that, if he was to die in battle, his friend would be the person that would have to face the harsh reality of telling Adrius what had happened:
It's about her feelings... You were right, she is not in love with you.”
You're not telling me anything new, my friend. You know I like her, but, even if you tried to see the opposite, it was clear that she didn't have any interest in me. She has thousands of men to choose from, why would she pick me?”
That's the delicate part...” the ex-miner stopped firing, and turned around to look at his friend's face. “Adrius is in love with me.”
Almost automatically, Narval stopped firing, turned around, and looked at him confusedly:
But... do you love her?”
Yes...” his friend said, almost ashamed. “You are right, many men have taken notice of her. I'm no exception.”
Are you two together?”
Yeah. It's been three days... I'm sorry, perhaps I should have told you before. I know this isn't the best moment.
Narval remained silent for a few seconds, then, he began to laugh; much to Ahrz's shock, his friend was happy:
Why are you laughing?” the man from Antaria asked. “I just told you the woman you love, loves your friend...”
Narval placed his hand on Ahrz's shoulder, and smiling, he said:
Because now I have a reason to fight. Because if we make it out of this alive, my friend will be happy with an exceptional woman. Ahrz, that's something worth fighting for, even more than one's own survival.”
He turned around and began to shoot:
Think of all the people you would protect, your loved ones, your friends!” Narval yelled. “If we don't survive, someone will have to tell them what has happened. For our loved ones! For Ilstram!”
The dwindling multitude replied in unison, shooting with even more rage and accuracy than before. The man had made them remember that there was someone valuable in their lives; someone for whom they should fight.
A few minutes later, suddenly, the two men stopped. They heard a noise as of something hitting a branch, which turned out, instead, to be someone sitting down on one. It was a lomarian, he looked defiantly to all the men below him. He shouted something they couldn't understand, and moments later, the enemies who blocked their way, moved aside.”
It can't be this simple” Ahrz said out loud. “They won't let us retreat like this...”
It's not the moment to hesitate, run!” his friend said.
The two soldiers raced downhill, running back to the transport ships. But suddenly, a powerful explosion stopped the recruits in their track. Several dozen had perished in the powerful attack. Everyone turned around at once, and saw several lomarians chasing them, pushing a massive cannon with them. They attempted to continue their advance to the vessels, but a new detonation confirmed that their enemy wasn't willing to let them escape with their lives. What truly disturbed Ahrz, however, what the alien that continued to observe them from the top of the branches of a nearby tree, still defiant, holding on to the trunk with just one hand. He couldn't help but think that, somehow, that individual was the real leader of the whole defensive operation, even if he didn't carry any weapon.
Captain, they won't let us flee as long as they keep the cannon with them!” a recruit yelled.
We can't fight them, recruit. We'll have to try to escape as best we can.” shouted one of the few remaining captains.
He hadn't noticed at first, but the Antarian saw that, as he advanced, some men were straggling behind him. He was almost next to his transport ship when he saw that, among the recruits who had turned around and were walking towards the lomarians, was his friend.
Narval! Where are you going?” he yelled.
His friend turned around, and replied:
The people that are here with me don't have anyone in the empire that will cry over them, neither do I. My parents passed away years ago, and I don't have brothers. You, Ahrz, you have people that will worry about you. We'll give you all a chance to escape. We'll stop them long enough to let you escape with your lives. At least we'll try.” he turned around, to the men that were with him, and asked “am I right?” to which everyone replied in agreement.
You don't have to throw away your lives” a recruit next to the antarian yelled. “We can flee. You don't have to stay here.”
Another man that had remained with the ex-miner's friend, replied to him from the distance:
These aliens won't let us run. If we can at least help you flee, then someone will be able to say what has happened here. Otherwise, no one will manage to do so.”
As proof of what that stranger had said, the first transport ship that had lifted into the air, exploded in thousands of chunks following an impact from the strange lomarian cannon. They were determined to kill them all. Without hesitation, the rest of lomarians began firing at the few humans that remained, and whose only intentions were to survive that deadly trap.

Narval had become the leader of the small resistance group that was ready to sacrifice their lives to allow everyone else to run away. He turned around once more towards his friend, and yelled:
Ahrz! It's time to flee! We'll stop them.”
Narval don't do this! You don't deserve to die like this!” he yelled.
No one does. But if by doing so, I can give you a chance to live, to make her happy, then it won't be in vain. Promise me you'll make her happy. That's the only thing I ask you, to make sure that the woman we both love will be happy, and that she won't have to mourn your death. Allow me to let her have you by her side.”
I won't be able to bear that burden alone, Narval. I won't be able to accept you want to do this for us. For Adrius and me.” Ahrz said, visibly sad.
I know you'll accept it. Now run!” his friend replied, far in the distance.
Turning around to his unexpected contingent, Narval gave the definite order of war. It was the moment that the antarian didn't wish to see. Those men, that handful of brave soldiers that had no family nor loved ones that would mourn their deaths, were about to launch a suicide mission; hoping that those that did have people waiting for them would have a chance to leave the planet.
The battle had harshened considerably while the two men had talked. There were just a few dozen soldiers with Narval, and a few dozen with Ahrz; including his captain, the only officer of the entire battalion that had survived.
On my command” he yelled “we'll jump into the transport ships and we'll flee as quickly as possible.”
Everyone waited expectantly, while those few courageous men walked uphill. The lomarian resistance was ferocious but if they could manage to blow up the support of the cannon, it would at least give them some time. In the tree, that mysterious figure continued to observe them, impassible. He was the mastermind behind the lomarian defense, the unexpected visitor that had given, to a dying race, an opportunity to protect their main planet from a ruthless attack whose original intention was to force them into total submission. That malevolent being, in fact, had his own agenda. He didn't care for the lomarians, but he had focused his gaze on the human that had, apparently, become the improvised leader of the attack. A human that, protected by his kind, had reached the base of the cannon, and had placed a small explosive charge on it. It was enough to stop the defenders from exterminating the remaining humans. The small blast caused the cannon to roll over a numerous group of lomarians that were on the right side of the device. That event enraged the odd visitor, who continued, immobile, on the top of the tree. If he had desired so, he could have crushed those ships with his very own hands, but he knew that the moment to reveal his true identity, and his full potential, had not come yet. That day would come, but certainly, it wouldn't be in favor of a planet that was destined to fall under the oppressing command of another empire; and much less in favor of the species he, on his own, had condemned to death.

Ahrz, who was now at the side of his ship, saw how his friend had achieved his objective. He saw the huge cannon falling on one side. He wanted to shout, with all his strength, hoping Narval and the remaining survivors would turn around and come back with them. But his captain stopped him:
They know they can't come back, recruit. They would die trying to reach us. We have to leave. Don't make the death of your friend and the rest of men be in vain. If we don't retreat, we'll perish here too.”
The antarian looked to the battlefield for the last time. He could see how a wave of lomarians assaulted those poor men. From the inside of the already raising ship, he saw how the resistance was slowly being crushed. One of the last men to die was his friend, who perished under a furious blast of plasma. The ex-miner cried bitterly, as did many in others, in the three ships that had managed to escape. He had lost a friend in that nightmare, and his presentiment about what was truly awaiting them there had become reality. What seemed, at first, an easy and simple conquest mission, had become a merciless butchery of human beings.
The long trip to Modea went by with no news, but everyone on board those ships was crushed. Ahrz couldn't find any comfort even in the fact that, back at the planet, his girlfriend would be waiting for him. He certainly wanted to hug her, and to tell her everything that Narval and the other recruits had done to allow them to stay alive. But in that moment, he didn't care about what the future could be holding for him. The antarian only wanted to cry, and to forget one of the darkest days for his species.




********




Only two weeks had passed since the dark events of Nelder. Marshal Ghrast, still acting emperor of Ilstram, was on the marble balcony. He tried to understand what his father had told him a few days after the humiliating defeat. Gruschal himself confessed that he arranged for the lomarians to be warned about the impending attack ordered by his adopted son. In his own words, Ghrast's decision to conquer Nelder had been reckless. He wasn't Ilstram's emperor, and even if he had the capacity to order something like it, he would only manage to turn the population against him. This devastating loss, however, allowed him to justify, to the population, the election of almost any emperor; even if the new emperor was belligerent, the kingdom was now aware that, once again, they had enemies that would seek their extermination at all costs.
Somehow, the death of a few hundred recruits was a necessary evil, and in Ilstram's best interests. An empire that, in the opinion of the old military, had to extend far beyond its current borders. He knew his life was coming to an end, his days were dwindling, but at least, he would die happily if his plan to place an emperor, who should restore Ilstram's military glory, came to happen; he would erase Han's existence from the collective memory, no one would remember him. He had confidence in Magdrot and Miyana, his choice to become the new emperor and empress, they would stay close to the elder during their first steps as rulers, which would allow him to shape their personalities as governors, to ensure they would follow the military philosophy he had longed for so much. The fact the future empress would, eventually, give birth to a child that wasn't fathered by the emperor wasn't negative, quite the opposite, the fact her former husband had perished in the attack against Antaria's civilians added a dramatic tone, that guaranteed the people would love their new rulers. Days of glory and triumph were coming for his world, and in just a few days, the great announcement, which would start a new era of unparalleled prosperity, would be made.
The couple wasn't really conscious of everything that was about to come to their lives. The marshal had already hinted, amply, that they would be the new emperor and empress. The idea terrorized the woman, although she didn't find it unappealing. After all, it was the, now missing, empress who, a few months ago, rescued her from the streets and, very likely, poverty. She felt that, by succeeding her as empress of Ilstram, she could honor her memory. Everyone had accepted that Hans and Alha had perished during the skirmishes, while chasing the enemy, that had attacked the civilians in the capital.

Miyana was at the palace's gardens, walking on a thin mantle of snow, when, all of a sudden, she heard the voice of a little boy. Just as had happened in the past, she felt transported to a remote place, a distant, yet very familiar setting:
But now, she's the empress once again?” her son, Mijuhn, asked.
The woman, gaining conscience over what was going on, knelt in front of the child. She was completely certain he was eight years old, but she had never imagined how her future son would look. It didn't make any sense that she was, out of the blue, talking to him in the gardens. She felt that, in fact, her body wasn't fully obeying her own orders anymore:
My dear” she said, “where are we?”
What an odd question.” the boy replied. “We are in the gardens of the palace, mom.”
Yes, I know that. I mean, this isn't real. Right?”
Are you alright?” her son asked confusedly.
Yes, yes. Of course I'm alright. I'm just feeling... out of place.”
Why?”
Just a moment ago, I was here, all alone. And now, there you are...”
Mom, I've been with you for hours. What are you talking about?” Mijuhn asked.
No... It's nothing. It doesn't matter, my dear.” she replied, while tenderly hugging her child.
So, she's the empress once again, right?”
Yes. She has been the empress for years now. She's the same woman... well, her personality has changed a lot. She has become even stronger, and has learned to rule in solitude.”
Do you think the others will find the answer?”
I don't know” Miyana said, looking to the sky. “They might find the answer if they find the Earth, but by then it might be too late.”
What will we do if they fail?” the young boy asked.
I have no idea... I hope we don't have to find out. If what they told us is true, then... there won't be a future to worry about...”
My love?” Magdrot asked.
His wife looked like a statue in the garden. She was completely immobile, with her eyes wide open, looking fixedly into the horizon. As she didn't seem to react, he approached her, and embraced her, whispering into her ear:
I'm here, my princess. Where are you?”
Coming out from her absorption, the young woman turned around startled. After identifying the familiar face of her husband, she finally reacted:
Sorry. I was wrapped up in my own thoghts.”
I see. You weren't even moving. Is everything okay?”
Yes. Yes. It's nothing. I was just thinking about my son. That's all.”
You're looking forward to his birth, right?”
Do you think we'll give him a good life?” she asked.
The colonel looked at her confused:
Yes, of course we will. Why wouldn't we? We'll give him the best possible education”
They remained silent for a few moments. Magdrot was thinking about his upcoming rise to emperor of Ilstram. He couldn't avoid feeling unmeasurable pride after being chosen by the marshal. Despite being aware that emperor Brandhal had followed a policy of helping the society, he wished to go back to the path his father had established; to recover the time wasted in weapons research, which other human empires had used to gain an edge over them. It would be his priority. The couple had already been informed of what had happened at Nelder. They had suggested to the marshal that a memorial should be held, in the city, in memory of the recruits that had perished in the planet, he opted to delay it until their ascension to power, so it would be their first public event. It would be a good way to get the reins of the kingdom, with a memorial that would, certainly, earn them popularity among the citizens.

The days passed slowly in Antaria. The marshal, with Gruschal's hidden help, continued to finalize the preparations for the ceremony of ascension. He approached the couple to learn which names they would use as emperor and empress, to inform the people. Much to his delight, they had already decided, and they seemed impatient to begin their reign:
I've been thinking about it during the last days, and I'd like to be known as Namadiel.” Miyana said.
Empress Namadiel” the marshal replied solemnly. “It sounds beautiful. It's a name pleasant to hear.
I would like to be known as Nurandon.”
Emperor Nurandon...” the marshal said pensively. “Empress Namadiel and Emperor Nurandon, the future rulers of Ilstram. Yes, I definitely like those names.” he continued. “As you already know, the new governors need to appoint at least one counselor that will help them with the decision making.”
Miyana interrupted him quickly:
We have already considered it. We would like to keep things as they are right now, to keep everything working just as when Hans and Alha were in charge. We want Dirhel to continue working as our assistant and as boss of the palace staff.”
And we want you to continue with your outstanding work leading Ilstram's army, marshal.” Magdrot continued. “We're certain that, with you at the top, our troops will be ready to face any attack.”
Have you already accepted that you will no longer be a colonel of the army?” the old marshal Ghrast asked,
Yes, I've fully accepted that. We will take care of the future of the empire, and soon, we'll also have to look after a child whom we'll have to help to grow up” he said, while caressing his wife's belly. “We want to be ready when the time comes.”
Without further ceremony, the decrepit military man walked to his bedroom. He was still amazed at the relative ease with which he had managed to convince them to become the new governors of Ilstram. Miyana had hesitated more than Magdrot, without any doubt; but as time went on, slowly, the woman had also learned to appreciate the marshal. The moment of celebrating the rise to power of Empress Namadiel and Emperor Nurandon was imminent. Soon, Ghrast thought to himself, he would reach the end of his long plot to restore the empire back to the glory it deserved. But there was still a worry deep in his mind, even if his adoptive father had told him, in countless occasions, that his fears were absurd. The, still current, rulers of Ilstram were, in fact, incarcerated somewhere in the known universe. Once enough time had passed, and as always, following the instructions of the dictator of the Tarshtan Empire, they would be executed...

Ahrz and Adrius were on Antaria. The couple had finally established themselves in the capital of the empire, at Ahrz's home, which was now also the residence of his beloved partner. The new soldier of Ilstram still felt an overwhelming unease every time he recalled what had happened, just a few weeks ago, on the terrible planet called Nelder. It was the only conquest mission in which recruits ever took part. The next trials were, once again, reconnaissance missions, and resulted in no further casualties. In fact, no single battle, in the history of the empire, ever resulted in a loss of recruits as great in number as was suffered on that dark day. He never took part in the space combat trial, as the casualties among recruits and officers had been so high, that all surviving recruits were immediately promoted to members of the army. Along with them, some formerly discarded recruits also joined the ranks of the army, such as Brians, the soldier that the antarian had defeated in the face-to-face combat trial.
Adrius felt as if she was in her own home. Although the capital of the empire was very different to what she was used to, the fact she was with the man she loved, and the relative ease with which she had found a new job as civil nurse, helped make the transition much smoother than she had initially expected. It also helped, tremendously, that, together with Nelder's survivors, she – and other nurses from Modea – were acclaimed by the population as war heroes after enduring the most terrible event of Ilstram's recent history.
She had left behind many bitter experiences, but also some positive memories. On the icy planet she had found the love of her life, which was how she felt about Ahrz. She also remembered how he had brought her up to speed with everything that had happened, and learned the name of the man that, due to his love for her, gave his life for her boyfriend's. Narval, the inseparable friend of his future husband, hadn't gone unnoticed by her. Even if she couldn't deny feeling some level of attraction towards him, it wasn't, in the end, as powerful as the passion and love she felt for the ex-miner since the first time they met in a routine visit to the infirmary.

That day, just as many other inhabitants of Antaria, they were getting ready to attend to the celebrations of the kingdom. The big day that many citizens had been waiting for, had finally come. It was time to know who would succeed emperor Bradhal. After the announcement, a big festivity would take place in the gardens of the palace, that were, usually, destined to the relaxation of the youngest and the eldest, as Ahrz had explained to her.
The passion of the couple hadn't declined since they began their relationship. When both were back from their respective jobs, they dedicated most of the day to giving in to their passion, mixing it with countless displays of affection. For that reason, they had dedicated little time to visit a city that, now fully rebuilt after the unexpected attack, had a considerable amount of monuments and interesting places to visit.
Adrius wasn't worried about that. She enjoyed their current lifestyle, because that's what her body demanded from her, and the soldier seemed equally happy just sharing the most carnal pleasures with his fiancé. In the end, they both thought, time would take care of putting that passion aside, bringing in a more relaxed life. Although Ahrz was ashamed to recognize it, to make love with her helped him relax and forget everything else, even if it was just for a brief moment of the day. During that time he could forget the images that were still firmly lodged in his brain: the image of Narval, running uphill along with the other recruits, fighting to give a tomorrow to those that had loved ones. It also allowed him to avoid thinking about a question that scared him over anything else, would he be able to act as his friend had, if the day would come in which he was in a similar situation?

His mind kept telling him that he would, indeed, act as a good soldier of Ilstram, and he would give his life for his kind, but his heart told him that what he should really do, was to hug the woman with whom he wished to share the most intimate moments of his life, and forget everything else. Forget that mysterious being that had observed them on Nelder, from the highest branches of a tree. Forget the disappearance of the previous emperor, his old life as miner, and in the end, many other memories he didn't want to carry with him. His life had been hit by a bombshell, and everything was better now; he didn't want nor desire any more changes. His missions, so far, as common soldier, had mostly been limited to escorting commercial ships to their destination, to ensure they wouldn't be assaulted by space pirates. He still remembered, with some irony, a chase through Antaria's streets after a sneak thief that had pick-pocketed something of minimal valor from a woman. Those were, undoubtedly, the happiest days in Ahrz's life, only fogged up by having to recall Narval only as a memory, and not as a friend that had proven a level of valor and loyalty that he wasn't sure he would ever match...




********




Wake up!” Khanam yelled. “Come on, Hans. You have to wake up!”
Please wake up, you have to pull through.” Nahia whispered.
Alha leaned against a nearby wall, she was still recovering her senses, and trying to assimilate what her friend had said. They were in a large circular room, where several beds had been placed. Her husband lay in one of them, unconscious. In the scientist's opinion, he had been in that state for several weeks, like everyone else. Alha wasn't an exception, she was looking at the bed where she had been for an unknown amount of time, but despite her best efforts, she wasn't capable of recalling, in full detail, what had happened following the mercenary attack at the door of her parents' home on Kharnassos.
She only remembered that the group had been captured and jailed on board a ship, and that her husband had been brutally attacked by a narzham. Afterwards, they walked towards Khanam, and without any hesitation, that savage attacked him with the same ruthlessness, knocking him out for the second time that day. With the two men out of the game, the two women, frightened, were at the mercy of that group of men, narzhams, olverians and lomarians that seemed willing to do anything.
It was particularly worrying that they had said, when they were still on the ground, that the two girls would be their bounty. In Alha's opinion, that could only mean they were going to sexually abuse them. Her fears were proven true when the two men assaulted her. She could feel how the hands of those animals touched her breasts under the toga, and she noticed how, despite their efforts to repel them, the two were being stripped of their clothes. They were going to assault them, and no one in the room looked disgusted by the idea. The olverians observed the scene, amused. Nahia, already naked, was silent, kneeling and covering herself with her hands as best she could. Besides her, a man went over her nude body, while whispering something into her ear, which Alha couldn't hear.
All of a sudden, one of the narzham had a twisted idea that caused the two girls to tremble. Rather than force themselves upon the pair immediately, he wanted the two women to have sex with each other. They were thrown together, and were ordered to kiss each other; both girls were frightened. Hans and Khanam remained completely unconscious; they lay on the ground and didn't look like they would be able to get the women out of that dangerous situation. Nahia refused to kiss Alha, and stepped away from her, but a powerful slap from one of the men forced her to reconsider. They were ordered, once more, to kiss each other. Alha timidly approached her lips to the scientist's daughter, fleetingly grazed her lips, and then stepped away. Hoping that would be enough to satisfy their captors. This time, both girls were slapped. That man, who was finding immense fun in the situation, yelled at them, saying they would have to be way more convincing if they wanted to make it out alive. They wanted to see action between the two females, and they were set to get what they wanted, or put an end to their lives right on the spot.
As the empress refused to do anything else, and realizing that the narzham that approached her completely nude figure had the darkest of intentions, Nahia embraced her, almost leaping over her, and kissed her passionately. The empress didn't react at first, but it didn't take her long to figure out what was happening. The daughter of Khanam had imagined that the narzham would render her unconscious, or worse, kill her. He had already knocked out two men, who were relatively strong, therefore putting an end to her life wouldn't be difficult. Without thinking about her actions, she hugged Nahia and shared a long kiss, lying down on the cold ground of the ship. Those savages incited them with their shouts; they wanted more, they wanted them to be far more explicit. They wanted to see them have sex.
At that moment, a third narzham entered the room. It looked like he was the leader of the group, as the rest of mercenaries immediately shut up, observing him expectantly. The two women continued hugging each other in the ground, but no longer kissing. It was as if, by remaining in that pose, they could protect themselves, and they also were expectant, wondering if the stranger would turn out to be a friend, or if he would make their nightmare even worse.
What's this?”
These females” an olverian said “are our reward. We have captured the two men, and these two will stay here to entertain us, just as they were doing” he continued, turning around towards them.
Your reward?” the leader yelled. “These females are part of the deal! If you want females, find them by yourselves. The goods aren't your toy!”
Heavy silence fell upon the room. It was easy to perceive the growing tension between the narzham and the mercenary group. Suddenly, the other narzham walked towards their leader:
You will not tell us what we can do with them! They are ours!”
Those were the last words that Alha and Nahia heard from that wretch. The mercenary boss had snapped his neck with a swift movement, while remaining impassible. He looked at the rest of the group, and openly challenged them:
Someone else wishes to die? It will be better for me, I'll earn your part of the bounty.”
He then looked to the two females, and couldn't restrain an expression of lust and desire. They were certainly attractive, and to have them completely naked and defenseless was something that could bring the worst out of him. But he displayed a great self-control, ordering that they should be provided new clothing, and then rendered unconscious, along with the two other hostages. Talking to them, he said:
It won't hurt you. At least not as much as what they wanted to do to you. When you wake up, you will no longer be here. I'll make sure no one touches your bodies.”
The clothing they received wasn't the most comfortable in the universe, but the two brown jumpsuits, which had probably been designed for human female mercenaries, perfectly fulfilled the function that the two girls wanted. They could cover their nude bodies, even if, much to Alha's disappointment  the tight vestment emphasized their feminine figures. She realized Nahia was a terribly attractive woman, and noticed how the mercenaries were devouring Nahia, and herself, with their eyes. From that moment on, the memories of the empress became blurry, she remembered that someone had injected an unknown substance into her arm, which had probably been the cause of their unconsciousness.
At first, Hans' wife had not noticed that detail, but she had now realized that both Nahia and she were still wearing the same clothing. She approached Khanam and his daughter, both were in front of the bed where Hans lay, still unconscious. The scientist continued to attempt to reanimate him, without success:
When they put him in suspended animation, they made sure to go the extra mile. His suspension is far more careful, and severe, than ours. This place could explode in a thousand pieces, and he wouldn't notice.” he said.
Can you wake him up?” Alha asked.
Yes. But I have to be very careful with how I proceed. If I make a mistake, he could very likely die. I need some time.”
We don't have time, dad.” Nahia said. “It won't be long before they learn what has happened. When they come here, they'll lock us up again”
Lock us up?” the empress asked, still confused about their whereabouts.
Nahia turned around and looked at the empress:
This is a prison, Alha. We think we were brought here after being captured on Kharnassos. We don't yet know how much time has passed since then, but my father estimates it must have been at least three months, perhaps slightly more. And, well, your belly seems to agree. How advanced was your gestation back then?”
Alha looked at her body. Now, it was obvious she was pregnant, and that corroborated Khanam's suspicions. It had been several months, but not enough to give birth to her child:
It had been mere weeks since I learned of it. So, back then, perhaps I had been pregnant for a month, maybe slightly longer.” she said.
Alha, please help me” Khamad said. “Hold your husband's hand. I know this will sound crazy, but talk to him. If he hears a familiar voice, like yours, while I work on his reanimation, we may have a better chance. I don't know who brought us here, but I recognize this medicine, this is olverian.”
Then, can you wake him up?” his daughter asked.
Yes, but I don't know how long he'll need to recover fully.”
Will there be any consequences?” asked the empress.
No” Khanam said. Afterwards, he became silent, whilst Alha caressed her husband's hand and whispered into his ear. In reality, by the scientist instructions, it didn't really matter what she said, the important thing was to make him hear her voice.

Nahia, visibly nervous, walked towards the laboratory door. Tanarum should be somewhere close. He was, from the little information she had understood, a grodian fugitive with a bizarre story. He had been captured by his people inside the limits of the Grodey Empire. Trying to escape, he took a ship from his own empire, only to end up being captured by a group of space mercenaries. Grodians were beings of incredibly tiny stature, barely reaching a human's hip. Their characteristic red skin, and the two small antennae that stood out from their heads, that acted as their ears, made them easily identifiable. Their race had no physical strength, and they would have died out thousands of years ago if it wasn't for the fact that their scientists were, without question, the best. They had the most advanced technology of the known universe, both good and evil. It was rumored that even the most sanguinary empires didn't dare attacking them because, several thousand years before, they had perfected a destroyer ship that had been equipped with a special weapon. A weapon capable of destabilizing the core of any planet, or star, to the point of destruction. No one truly knew how many of these weapons existed in the Grodey Empire, which made the idea of attempting to steal one ludicrous, as it could result in the extinction of the empire that attacked them. Those tiny beings wouldn't hesitate to use their full technological power to defend against any enemy. They had already done so in the past, exterminating an army of several thousand narzhams that had decided the time had come to conquer that weird civilization and steal their scientific research. For that reason, all known empires opted for either not interfering with them, or having them as commercial allies, since their technology was highly appreciated across the whole universe.
In the escape from his cell, Tanarum had come across a room where four people had been locked up. Khanam and Nahia were, initially, also in animated suspension. It was the tiny grodian who woke up Khanam, and in turn, he woke up his daughter afterwards. The scientist and his new friend decided that, whilst he attempted to reanimate Hans and Alha, Tanarum would wait by the door to ensure the guards would not capture them again. Sooner or later they would realize everyone had escaped.
Nahia observed the dark hall, but she couldn't spot their unexpected ally, which made her think that everything was, probably, going well. She walked back to the bed where Hans was. If his father was right, he could wake up at any moment, which was confirmed as she saw the first signs of movement in the emperor's hands, which were reacting to the touch of his wife.


At first, everything was blurry. He wasn't sure what that place was. He sat up and saw Alha, next to her was Khanam and Nahia. Everyone was looking at him expectantly:
Are you alright?” the scientist asked.
Yes... I think so.” he looked around, still disoriented and shocked. “What is this place?”
Alha leaped on him, effusively hugging him and kissing him. A few moments later, she separated slightly from her husband; the scientist and his daughter observed them smiling:
Looks like someone is happier than everyone else to have you, once more, among the living.” the elder said sarcastically. “I'm not sure where we are, but it looks like a prison. I have no idea where in the universe we are either, for that matter, but there's one thing you have to know Hans. Whoever ordered this, wanted to make sure we would be out of the game for a long time. The four of us were in suspended animation, but yours was far stronger than ours. Someone wanted to make sure that you, above all, were unconscious for a really long period of time.
We don't yet know how long it's been since we were captured on Kharnassos.” Nahia added.
The group looked at each other. There were no windows in that room. They were lost in a prison, in the middle of space, and no one really knew why. The only thing that seemed clear was that their captors were particularly interested in Hans:
I think they want to kill us” Khanam said.
If they wanted to kill us, they would have done so already, don't you think?” Hans said.
There's this memory I can't really forget. Someone offers me work as scientist for their empire, I reject it, and I'm told that it is my only choice, besides death. But I have no clue about when that happened, sometimes I believe it was just a bad dream. Except... you don't dream when you are on suspended animation.”
Perhaps you're mixing it with a dream you've had before all this?” Alha asked.
No... I'd remember.”
In any case” the emperor said “we have to figure out how to escape.”
Where's Tanarum?” the scientist asked.
Who?” the emperor and the empress asked in unison.
It was he that allowed us to escape. A grodian that was also imprisoned here. He's gone to ensure no one will see us. It won't be long before they come and check. If we trust his words, the guards are narzham, which means, they are strong and they'll probably won't hesitate to inflict us as much pain as necessary to stop us from leaving this place.”
If this prison is anything remotely similar to ours” Hans said, “then the only reason ships come here is to hand over more convicts. If there's a way out, it's probably heavily guarded. In the end, if we want to leave this cage, we're going to have to find a way through, and to remain unseen for long enough to flee.”

Finally, Tanarum walked towards the group. He looked like a hyperactive creature. He spotted Khanam, and introduced himself to everyone else. He believed he had heard footsteps in a nearby hallway, which meant the guards were patrolling that level, and would eventually find out what had happened. The false sense of security wouldn't last much longer if they saw five convicts that had broken out from their cells. The ship's alert system would warn every single guard, if that happened, then it would be game over for two women, a scientist, an emperor and a grodian.
The group left the room, following the peculiar alien through a hall in the opposite direction. They didn't have a fixed path, but the alarms would go off shortly. They hadn't even stopped to draw up a plan of escape.
Hans” Khanam said, “even if ships only come here to deliver convicts. There must be a rescue system, right? Perhaps not for the prisoners, but if something occurs in a space prison that may risk the lives of the guards, there must be some way to run.”
If it works like human prisons, and they should because every empire is required to follow the interstellar code of security, there should be rescue ships. But there's only a handful of people in every empire that know the codes that override the launch restriction. For example, in Ilstram, only the emperor, or the empress and the highest rank of the army, know the codes. I don't think this will be any different.”
The five were running as quickly as they could, but aimlessly. After turning to the right at the end of the hall, they came to another hall that was full of cells on each side. They could hear the voices of the prisoners begging them for help, to let them escape. However, they could neither help them, nor waste any time and risk being captured. They traversed the hall hastily, towards an elevator. Once there, without asking, Tanarum pressed the button to descend:
I already escaped once” the tiny creature said. “The ships are on the lowest level of the prison. Grodian prisons also work as you described.”
You escaped on your own?” Alha asked.
No, he didn't” Hans said. “Grodian convicts lose all cybernetic implants. Without them, they are inoffensive, and even if you are very intelligent” he continued, looking to the convict, “your physical strength would not be enough to run away without those implants.”
The big guy is right” Tanarum replied, “I had help. A grodian friend helped me, he caused a huge explosion and got me out with his own ship.”
Despite everything, their minute, and unexpected, friend was right. The lowest level of the prison contained the maintenance systems, as well as three small rescue ships. Judging from the model, Khanam realized they weren't close to any planet; those vessels had enough autonomy to cover medium distance trips. The two men were observing the room the group had entered, when all of a sudden, the prison's alarm went off. The moment had come, the guards were aware they had escaped. Every level would be hermetically sealed, although that had little importance, since they were in the key level. The problem was finding a way to escape from the complex:
Khanam could you hack the artificial intelligence of the ship?” Alha asked.
The scientist shook his head, dubious, and said:
I don't think there's enough time. It won't be the only system, there'll be several. If I make a mistake, it's very likely I'll give away our position immediately.”
Well, it's not like we have all the time in the world” Hans said. “What about you?” he continued, looking at the grodian. “Can't you help him? These things are your specie's expertise.”
I can try, but I can't guarantee we'll succeed.”
Does anyone else have a better idea?” the emperor asked.
His question was met with silence, while the room glowed in an intense red tone due to the alarm.
Then let's get to work.” he continued, “Alha, Nahia, we have to buy them as much time as possible. If they manage to hack the system, we may have a chance to escape. If any guard comes down here, we'll have to distract him with anything we can. Go!”
The three left the room. There were several hallways surrounding that control room. Hans knew that wasn't, likely to be the only one on that level. Somewhere, there would be another control room where the temperature, pressure, and perhaps even oxygen levels, were set, . Additionally, there should be another room where the emergency systems were located. Following Ilstram's emperor, the group entered a nearby room. The man needed a few seconds to understand they had found the emergency system. He didn't fully understand those systems, but he knew he could activate signals that would distract their pursuers. Furthermore, and much to the surprise of everyone in the room, they could see where every single guard was on a small control panel. They were sweeping every level, one at a time; the guards were on level fourteen, and it wouldn't be long before they reached level twenty, where the group was. They had, at most, around fifteen minutes. It probably meant that the scientist and the grodian wouldn't have enough time to pirate the system. Hans started to type frenetically on the screen. He attempted to find the fire detection system. It was one of the most delicate systems of the facility, as it forced the ship to divert energy towards the engines, in case moving to a new location was required, as well as to the systems to put out the fire. If he managed to activate it, the energy level of the ship would be reduced, the alarm would stop, and, if he was right, the elevators would be locked.
The two women stared at each other for a few seconds, Nahia was the first to react:
Why don't we search for something we can use to block the stair's gates?” the young woman said.
Good idea” Alha added.
Her husband, that had overheard the discussion, yelled that they should be able to find objects they could use to lock the door, he had checked the plan of the level, and there was only one access point, which was at the end of the hall that was located on their left.
The two girls quickly walked towards the hall, entering every small room, looking for anything that they could use to obstruct the gate. They managed to move, with great effort, a heavy metallic closet that covered most of the door. But for a narzham, it probably wouldn't pose many difficulties. They continued to stack all kind of objects there, ranging from armored vestments of the guards themselves, to metallic cable rollers they had seen in another nearby room.
They continued for several minutes until they leaned on the metallic closet, exhausted. Alha took advantage of the moment to say to Nahia something that she had wanted to say since recovering her consciousness:
Nahia, do you remember what happened before we were rendered unconscious on that ship?”
I'd rather forget it, but yes, I do remember. If it wasn't for that beast, who knows what they would have done.”
I want to thank you for what you did. Your reaction saved my life. When I woke up I remembered that scene, and I also realized I understood your reaction. You acted in that way because you feared that the mercenary would kill me.”
Yes. I didn't know what to do, and I thought that, perhaps, giving those animals what they wanted would allow us to escape with our lives.”
Thank you Nahia, I owe you my life” she said, softly hugging her friend. “If there's anything I can do for you, please tell me.”
There's nothing to thank me for, Alha. I hope you never have to return a favor like that.”
Hopefully...”
Have you seen anything else we can stack here?” the young girl asked.
In that moment, the alarm stopped. It was a sign of Hans making progress with the system.


If luck was on their side, Khanam and Tanarum wouldn't be far from hacking the system and taking control of a rescue ship. The two girls returned to the emergency room as quickly as they could. The emperor was still there, observing the location of the guards on the screen. They were sweeping the eighteenth floor, which meant that, at most, they would have five more minutes. After exchanging a few words, the group walked back towards the control room. Nahia's father, and the grodian, continued to type frenetically:
Tanarum is a genius” Khanam said. “He has forced the system to believe the commands are being entered by a supervisor.”
Then why are we still here?” Hans asked.
There are thousands of commands” the grodian said. “Some don't make any sense, some are related to life support... But there isn't a shiny box in the middle of the screen that says 'Press here to flee from this dump'.”
In a language we can all understand, please?” Alha said.
He has to find out the exact command, the word that grants access to the rescue system. Once there, we have to deactivate the movement restriction, and we'll be able to run away.”
We don't have much time left” Hans said. “The guards will finish sweeping the floor above us at any moment. They'll be here in a few minutes.”
I'm almost there, I'm almost there” the tiny alien said.
I hope you're right.” the emperor said.
Everyone, except the grodian, turned around in unison when they heard the noise of powerful impacts against the gate.”
Someone's knocking on the door” Tanarum said. “Our guests will be mad, very mad...”
Then let's make sure there isn't anyone left here for them to unleash their fury upon.”
I think we almost have it.” Khanam said. “It's almost done.”
The two improvised hackers were typing on the screen at lightning's speed. Suddenly, without any big ceremony or visual signals, their tiny and reddish friend turned around:
It's time. Let's go. The first ship in the hangar is ready.”
Who will pilot it?” Nahia asked.
Hans will” Alha replied. “He has experience piloting space ships.”
The group raced towards the hangar. Behind them, they could hear the furious footsteps of the guards, at an unknown distance. They were looking for them, and time was running against the group. Hans himself was the first person to reach the ship. As quickly as he could, he opened the door, walked towards the cockpit and prepared for departure. The group was already inside the vessel... But there was no movement, the machine wasn't reacting:
Is it still locked?” the emperor asked, incredulously, to his friends.
No, we unlocked it” Khanam said. “There must be something that stops it from reacting to your inputs.”
The tiny Tanarum looked around the cubicle where the five were located.
Sometimes the solution is less technical, less... elegant” he walked to one side of the compartment, and began to hit the control panel that was there.”
Every single panel inside the cubicle lit up, as if the ship was reacting to being beat up. Without hesitation, the emperor headed for the escape gate of the prison, which remained open. The ship abandoned the complex at maximum speed. In the distance, the group saw how the guards began to crowd the hangar. If they had remained, just a few more seconds, their attempt to escape would have been halted. Luckily, they were now wandering through space, without direction, without knowing where they were, stunned and confused, but at least, free:
You haven't said your names.” Tanarum said.
The four humans introduced themselves to the grodian, and the discussion eventually digressed to the unlikeness of a group as strange as theirs – with the rulers of Ilstram, a scientist and her daughter – being jailed in a prison of the Tarshtan empire.
How do you know that prison belongs to the tarshtans?” Hans asked.
The design of the prison is theirs. This complex belongs to them, of that I am sure. Perhaps from the inside it looks like any other, but if you look at the exterior architecture, it's very different.”
Why would the Tarsthan Empire want to capture us?” Nahia said, asking to everyone in the room.
No one could give an answer with certainty, but Hans had begun to put together the pieces of the puzzle:
I guess I owe you an apology. If you have been captured, it must have been my fault.”
Don't be silly. They weren't only after you” Khanam corrected him. “Just think of the mercenaries, they said that they were instructed to capture us all. If what you say is true, if we were prisoners of the tarsthan, then that blurry memory would make sense. You know as well as I do, Hans, that this empire of narzhams and olverians is known for stealing the research, and scientists, of other empires.”
They attempted to blackmail you, to keep you alive as long as you work with them.”
But then, what about Nahia and me?” Alha asked.
My dear, you are Ilstram's empress” her husband said, sweetly. “But why they would have any interest in Nahia is a mystery to me.”
It is for myself” she said out loud. “I haven't stood out in any field of science, unlike my father, neither am I governor of any empire. Why would they want me?”
You're trying to find the answers to too many questions at once” the grodian interrupted. “The truly important thing isn't the why, it is the who, and you already have that. Now the real question is, where are we? And even more important, where do we go from here?”
Hans activated the ship's navigation display. Hundreds of galactic maps covered with the locations of planets and stars, rapidly appeared in front of their eyes. After a few moments of searching, they finally located their ship on one of them.”
We are in the outer area of the Baron system, in the Fenos galaxy...”
Close to one of the borders of the known universe” Khanam added. “Wait... then how long it has been since we were captured in Kharnassos? The distance to cover to in order to get here is massive, several months, at least, if not longer. Our empire is almost at the opposite end of the universe.
If this is true, it's been four months...” Nahia said. “At least if we believe that the date of the logbook is accurate.”
Four months? No, it must have been longer” Khanam replied. “Four months is, probably, the amount of time that the mercenary ship required to transport us to the prison where they jailed us. One of the fastest ships known would need two to three months to cover that same distance. And even then, it still feels like a short time for taking us there and inducing suspended animation.”
What about quantum jumps?” Hans asked.
The technology they stole? It wasn't sufficiently developed, the grodians had advanced a lot, but they were still far away from having ships jumping through space.”
But you saw it on Ghadea. Those ships were, literally, jumping through space.”
All this rings a bell...” Alha said. “That thing about quantum jumps... I've heard it before, somewhere...”
The group remained silent for a few minutes. Tanarum had been observing them without saying a single word. He hadn't formed an opinion on the group, yet, but something was obvious: he was in front of the brilliant and privileged mind of Khanam, and incredibly insecure man as Hans, and two women that, even if they were of opposite philosophies, and personalities, had their own strong traits. He didn't know much about humans, but it didn't take him long to realize he was standing in front of a very special amalgam of individuals:
Alha” Nahia said, “don't you recall to what your father said when we were on Kharnassos?”
Do you also remember that? About my brother, Aruan?”
Yes... I think so, your father said they had news about him. He had succeeded in his research of quantum jumps... but they didn't know where he is living.”
Khanam remained silent for a moment...
It would require a very brilliant mind to be able to put into motion a technology that not even the grodians had managed to understand fully.”
I can assure you my brother would fit in that description perfectly” Alha replied. “Aruan was different right since his childhood. He was very smart. He developed a deep feeling of hatred towards my parents, myself, and the scientists of Antaria, who had rejected his attempt to join the lunar base when he was still a teenager.”
Mix talent and genius with a rebel personality; add an empire that desperately needs brilliant scientists; a stolen technology that hasn't been developed yet, and the result is...” the father of Nahia said.
The Tarshtan Empire” Hans replied. “I think that, after all, we have given a face to our enemy, Khanam”.
What do we do now? Isn't there any planet nearby from which we can travel to Ilstram?” Nahia asked.
The nearest planet of Ilstram is several weeks away, and it is a minor colony. We wouldn't advance much by traveling there...”
I know this will sound crazy. But we're relatively close to Naarad, the capital of the Grodey Empire. Around a week of travel, or so. With a human emperor onboard, I'm sure my people would make an exception and would allow us to land...”
Your kind would never work with extraterrestrials.” the emperor replied.
Do you have a better idea? You don't even know what the current situation in your empire is. You have said you have been unconscious for, at least, four months. Do you honestly think that, during all this time, nothing has changed? If I had to bet, I would say that if there was a need to get rid of the emperor for such a long time, and Khanam was offered to work with them or die, then whoever is leading this attack is playing the big cards. This isn't a kidnap, not even an assassination attempt. It's something far bigger...” Tanarum said.
Perhaps he's right” Alha said. “If we travel to Ilstram, the tarshtans will surely be waiting to capture us again. We wouldn't gain anything. Perhaps, in his empire, we have a chance, no matter how small, of attempting to approach Antaria with the certainty we might manage to go back. We don't even know exactly what we are fighting yet, my dear.” she said to her husband.
Does everyone agree?” Hans asked.
The group replied in unison:
Then we will travel to Naraad. I only hope we will actually find help there, Tanarum.”
The emperor observed the group, and saw in their faces how exhausted they were, even in the face of the tiny grodian that accompanied them, despite the obvious morphologic differences between both species:
You should rest, we are very far from our destination. The trip will be long, and who knows when we will enjoy this peace again.”
Are we safe now?”
These ships don't have a location system, they weren't designed with standard navigation in mind” Khanam replied. “So, to all effects, we're almost invisible to our enemies. In any case, I don't know any nearby planet to which we could request help. I guess we will be alright.”
Following the advice of the emperor, his friends opted to sleep for several hours. After that, Nahia relieved him at the control of the ship, although, in reality, the automatic navigation system was taking care of the stability and direction of the transport.

The days went by incredibly slowly, there was little to do in the minuscule surface of the vessel, and they still had a long journey through space in front of them. Just as the scientist had predicted, they never found any signs of chase from the tarshtans. At the start of what would be, by the human calendar, the eighth day of travel, they finally arrived at the surroundings of Naarad. Nahia and Alha were together, looking through a tiny window in the door, observing the sphere of reddish and greenish tones.
My father has told me that this is Naarad. The capital of the Grodey Empire... our next stop.”
It is gorgeous” Alha said. “I have never seen a planet like this.”
Despite being the second-to-last planet in the system, as the star it orbits is so huge and powerful, it receives plenty of heat and has a temperature that is higher than that of Ghadea or Kharnassos. It has a big mass of water; although it barely had any vegetation hundreds of years ago, its inhabitants have repopulated the areas around the megalopolis, which has the same name as the planet. The reddish tone comes from the strong winds that dominate the southern hemisphere, which throws terrestrial dust into the air, causing the sky to look as if it was in eternal dusk, even in the middle of the day.”
I still find it fascinating” the empress said.
It's even more fascinating when you see the city from within” Tanarum interrupted them “but few foreign visitors have had the honor to see it. You will be among the first aliens in several decades to visit the capital of our empire without commercial or warlike intentions...”
Do you think we'll find help down there?” Nahia asked.
I hope so. It will all depend on your friend, the emperor.”
He walked away, solemnly, from the two beautiful women. Before crossing the door towards the bridge deck, he turned around for a second:
Oh, I almost forget. Don't let the people of the city leave an impression. They might seem crazy, but they are inoffensive.”
The two ladies looked at him confusedly for a few seconds, and then resumed their contemplation of the planet. Hans had said that they would be on the ground in around an hour, as long as they were granted permission to enter the planet's atmosphere. If that wasn't the case, things could get very difficult, as the ship's fuel was in short supply – despite having used the minimum amount necessary to escape from the gravitational force of the biggest gas planets they had come across during their trip.
In fact, the only guarantee they had of that plan having any possible success, was the belief of a fugitive grodian that they would enter the capital of his world if Hans used his political influence. Furthermore, taking advantage of that influence, Tanarum would ask for immunity as he had helped an emperor who was in a very dangerous situation.
The ship received specific instructions about where it should land. Once within the atmosphere of the planet, the two women observed the landscape that opened before their eyes; they couldn't stop admiring the city that extended as far as their eyes could see. Their buildings were very different to those of Ilstram, these were mostly circular, and of little height, but what truly captured the attention of the two girls wasn't the shapes of the grodian buildings, but rather, the massive amount of machines, of all imaginable types, that they could see everywhere in the metropolis.


Once on the ground, everyone abandoned the ship, led by Hans, Alha was a few steps behind, Nahia and Khanam a bit farther, with Tanarum following at the back.
A tiny red creature approached; physically, he looked very similar to the fugitive, but his overall appearance was completely different. His body was covered by cybernetic implants, including some kind of monocle that he seemingly used to identify other creatures:
Our systems do not recognize you, humans” the tiny grodian said. “Identify yourselves or leave this planet.”
I am emperor Brandhal, of Ilstram; this is my wife, empress of Ilstram; they are Khanam, scientist of the kingdom, and Nahia, his daughter. Behind us is...”
Nogg Tanarum, fugitive of the Grodey Empire, missing as of four and a half months ago. He will be delivered to the city's authorities once our meeting has finished. Why is a human emperor visiting Naarad?”
We're not on a visit, we've been forced to come here. Our group was captured in one of our colonies in Ilstram, and we have managed to escape from the prison thanks to the help of Tanarum. We've come to seek help to return to our empire” Hans said. “Our intentions are completely peaceful. We only wish to find a more appropriate method of transport to travel back to our home.”
No alien can depart the Grodey empire without The Magnanimous' permission. He will judge what to do with you.”
The Magnanimous?” Nahia asked.
Our governor” Tanarum replied. “He decides and evaluates everything that happens in the empire. He also coordinates with others of his kind to decide matters, such as the punishment that awaits those that violate the laws of our world.”
Others like him? They aren't grodians like you?” Alha asked.
They're machines” Hans replied. “The Grodey Empire is a technocracy. Their technology is so advanced, and they trust their creations so much, that they have allowed them to dictate their lives for a very long time.”
Their emperor is a machine?”
Technically it's a huge number of machines. But yes, he's not organic, if that's what you mean” Khanam said.
Isn't that... crazy?” Nahia asked.
What are you talking about?” her father asked.
I don't know. I don't think I would be able to let a machine to dictate my life. I like to think I'm in control of my own life, and to think that an intelligent, organic, creature takes the best decisions for our people. In the end, a machine is just... probabilities and numbers, right?”
Our technology” the grodian sentinel that had approached them replied “is far superior to what you would encounter in your worlds, mistress. After you have met with The Magnanimous, you'll be free to visit the city. You will not be imprisoned, as you're not considered enemies of our world. I would advise you to walk through our streets. It's been a long time since we have entertained visitors from other areas of the universe. The only species that interact with us do so exclusively for matters of commerce, and they don't visit any of the planets of our empire.”
The tiny creature looked to the group, and then made a gesture, pointing to a huge building that could be seen on the horizon, which was different to everything else:
That is The Magnanimous' palace, he's waiting for you. Go there immediately to be evaluated” and turning towards Tanarum, he added “You, however, will be incarcerated once more for the crimes you've committed, and you'll be put on trial.”
If I may” Hans said, “this citizen of the Grodey Empire has proved to be a great ally. Not only did he reanimate us, he also helped us escape, and he suggested this planet as our destination, despite being conscious he would, probably, face the grodian justice system. I understand my authority here means nothing, but I would be thankful to your governors, and your people, if his good will could be considered a mitigating circumstance.”
The tiny convict looked at him slowly:
Would you accept me as counselor of your empire?” he asked.
Counselor?” Alha asked, surprised.
A grodian that obtains the forgiveness of an alien governor may obtain his freedom as long as he hasn't committed a blood crime. His cybernetic implants will be restored, but he will be under permanent control of the security systems, supervised by The Magnanimous” the sentinel replied.
What does that mean?” Nahia asked.
If he attempted to betray the empire, or the new leader he served, he'd be remotely executed.”
Hans looked surprisedly at the tiny creature that had helped them escape:
Why would you want to have that kind of life?”
I don't have anything to keep me on this planet. I accept and understand the gravity of the crime I made.”
Export of scientific research of the empire to sell it to the highest alien bidder” the sentinel clarified.
Yes... exactly” Tanarum replied. “During our journey, you mentioned the quantum jump technology. I was the person that exported it from the empire. I sold it to a lomarian trader, and then lost trace of it...”
It ended up in our enemy's hands” Hans said.
I guess so” the convict continued. “For that reason, I think I can amend my wrong if I help you return to your empire. Once there, I'll stay at your disposal to help you and Khanam in everything I can. Of course, my loyalty will remain with the Grodey Empire, but I will also be loyal to your empire... Ilstream.
Ilstram” Nahia corrected him, smiling.
Yeah, Ilstrom.” Tanarum said once again.
No, no, Ilstram” Alha said.
Ilstrum?” the sentinel asked.
Khanam looked at them curiously:
Apparently you can't pronounce names that have many consonants and few vowels... how interesting.”
Nonsense, of course we can” the sentinel said. “Ilstrem's Empire”
The human group laughed cheerfully after the vain attempts of the Grodians to pronounce the name of their world correctly.
It doesn't matter, really!” Hans said. Looking at the sentinel, he asked “Is there any impediment to stop Kanarum from becoming my counselor?”
Permission can only be granted by The Magnanimous. Tanarum will have accompany you on your visit to learn his fate.”
In that case, so be it” Ilstram's emperor said.

The group left the hangar behind, and the rescue ship in which they had spent the last few days. It was nice to breathe fresh air once more. Even if the reddish tone of the sky gave the planet a look very different to what they were used to, it was far better than being in the transport that they had considered their home after they escaped the prison. Behind them, at a considerable distance, the sentinel followed them, to ensure they went straight to visit their leader.
This is my world” a reflexive Tanarum said. “I've lived here for the past twenty years of my life”
How did you end up becoming a criminal” Khanam asked.
As time went on, I lost my family. My wife passed away five years ago, my parents a decade ago, and my daughter died in an accident two years ago. The rest of my family lives on other planets of the empire. That made me lose my path, particularly the death of my daughter. Nothing made sense to me anymore. I lost my job and fell into a deep depression. Due to my age I couldn't find new employment.”
How old are you?” Alha asked.
Forty three years old” he replied, with his eyes looking to the horizon.”
Is that a lot?” Nahia said.
It is for the grodians. Their life expectancy barely exceeds sixty years” Hans said. “In their society, Tanarum is almost an elder.”
You don't look old” the young girl continued, looking at him “in the prison you were running, just like us, and you appear to be in good shape.”
Our physical qualities don't deteriorate much throughout the years” the grodian said. “But our mind does. For that reason, even towards the end of our lives we're still agile and have a good physical disposition.”
Everyone remained silent whilst entering the spacious streets of the city. They saw machines everywhere, some of them were unidentifiable even to Khanam. It was evident that Tanarum and the sentinel had told them the truth regarding alien visits to the planet. Every grodian that came across stopped to observe them. Hans wasn't able to tell if they were males or females, but all of them scrutinized them with those flashy monocles, as if there was something strange about the humans. The group was rather peculiar. At the front, Hans walked, flanked by both women, while Khanam remained a few steps behind them, alongside Tanarum.
All of a sudden, a grodian stopped and looked at them inquisitively. With firm voice, he said:
How interesting. The body temperature of the female humans is high.”
What does that mean?” Nahia asked curiously.
Both of you feel attraction towards the male human that stands in the middle” Tanarum replied.
Nahia!” Alha said surprisedly “Do you like my husband?”
No” she replied, startled “no, not at all.”
Her body temperature is going up. She's almost completely red” the tiny grodian said. The daughter of the scientist felt he was now very impertinent. “I think that reaction is a confirmation.”
Nahia!” Alha said once again. “I will have to keep an eye on you!”
No, Alha. I'm sorry. I don't like your husband.”
I'm not attractive to you?” Hans said, mockingly.
No, no. It's not that.” she said, even more startled. “I think you are very handsome.”
So you do like him” the empress said.
No. It's just, I feel very comfortable with you two.”
Alright, you like him” her friend continued. “Don't deny it. It's normal, but he is my husband, and I saw him first!”
I think I will just shut up” Khanam's daughter said, which was met by resounding laughter from the whole group, while she blushed.
But the body temperature of the male human is also high...” continued the grodian, who was also amused by the conversation.
Emperor, is there something you want to admit regarding my daughter?” Khanam said, while laughing.
Yes. To be in the company of my wonderful wife” he replied with a mocking, ample smile, “and your fantastic daughter is like being in paradise. Two incredibly beautiful ladies just for me. What else could I ask for after everything we have suffered during the last days?”
I will charge against you as I did against that mercenary if I have to” the scientist replied.
I would knock you out, just as he did.”
And I would knock you out too, hubby.” Alha reproached him happily.
The couple had been married for a long time, and the trust they had developed was absolute, which meant that the comments from the grodian were nothing more than an amusing distraction.
Why? I haven't said anything. It would be an act of self defense! He was the first to say he would attack me.” her husband said.
And with me knocked out, who knows what you would do...” Nahia's father replied.
Absolutely nothing. I am the governor of Ilstram, I owe to my wife, and my people.”
So you don't like me?” Nahia said sarcastically.
Yes, of course I like you. You are a very beautiful girl...”
Hans!” Alha said, pretending to be shocked “Is there something you have to confess?”
Afterwards, the empress turned around, and while trying to avoid laughing, she asked Tanarum:
To commit an assassination of an important human on this planet would be a felony?”
Most likely. However, a human female killing her husband because he's a womanizer, is probably not a felony. In fact, I think we have a weapon that would be perfect for that objective...”
What kind of counselor would advise that?” Hans said.
The grodian, as solemnly as he could, approached Alha, lowered his tiny head, and with the most serious voice he had, he replied:
I serve the empire... and my lady.”
That's it,” Alha said, whilst bursting out in laughter “I want him to be your counselor.”
And I approve!” Khanam added.
But my word must mean something!” Ilstram's emperor replied.
Nahia, laughing, looked to the citizen of the megalopolis, who was still observing them, happily, and asked him:
Does that machine of yours tell you because of whom is his temperature so high?”
No, it only shows your body temperatures. Although the female humans' has descended, his is still very high.” he said, while looking to the group amusedly.
Because this is the worst moment of my life!” he replied.
That comment might be correct” the stranger said.
See? I don't have anything to hide. Can we go now? The Magnanimous is waiting.”
You can always tell him what has happened” Nahia replied. “I'm sure an artificial intelligence would understand.”
I'd prefer for the leader of this world to have a more serious impression of us. No matter how artificial he might be.”


The group continued on its way to the palace where the giant artificial intelligence, known as The Magnanimous, awaited them. The recent scene had served to relax and cheer up the group after days of stress and worry. They had finally confirmed that the Tarshtan Empire was the enemy behind everything that had happened since the attack on Kharnassos, if not earlier, although they couldn't figure out the intentions of the belligerent empire and their ruthless governor.
After a few more minutes of walking through the long avenue, they eventually reached the entrance of the temple. That was the word that came to Khanam's mind to define the place where they were standing. It wasn't a palace, like those of human rulers or other species. It looked more like a place of cult and admiration, and that wasn't in vain; after all, the grodians had entrusted their lives, and the functioning of their empire, to the machines they had created. It wasn't too difficult to understand that, obviously, as the centuries went by, those little beings had started to worship their leaders. The scientist wondered what level of autonomy the intelligence of those constructs possessed. Were they helping their brilliant scientists in their countless projects? Humans themselves, and other races just as intelligent, had also managed to develop artificial intelligences that looked alive and were, at least in appearance, autonomous and independent. However, unlike the Grodey Empire's creations, those were limited to the day-to-day tasks and to helping the citizens in several aspects: public transport, simplification of complicated works, and even acting as artificial maids and butlers.
There were even rumors saying that, in the suburbs of the worst kind, one could find artificial intelligences that looked human in appearance, with which users could satisfy their most carnal desires; it had effectively eradicated prostitution from Humanity's history millennia ago, at least that's what the rumor said. The scientist had never seen one of those creations, although it wasn't difficult for him to for a hypothesis about how such an intelligence could be designed and programmed. In his opinion, the story was definitely real.
But those menial topics were buried when they finally crossed the doorstep. The temple, which looked like a giant sphere from the outside, was nothing short of majestic on the inside. There was an ample hall, guarded by androids on both sides, most likely guards. There were other rooms, but one of them, at the end of the hall, captured the attention of Khanam. Without any doubt, it would be the area where the central core of The Magnanimous was located. They were watched over during that short trip by a group of cybernetic watchers. It didn't look like they were armed, but it was evident that, if required, those machines would be capable of defending themselves under any situation.
This is... The Magnanimous?” Nahia said, after entering the big circular room.
She saw metallic structures along the walls and the dome, as well as some robust conduits, which were probably part of the systems of that construct.
I thought he would look like them.” she continued, whilst observing the androids.
Most of us, here in Naarad, have seen The Magnanimous at some point. Few of us have talked with him, though” Tanarum said, “but it's a place that can be accessed with minimal restrictions.”
Hans was the first to approach the center of the room, with everyone else following behind. All of a sudden, the cybernetic guards surrounded them, forming a tight circle. A voice, indefinable, neither human nor grodian, talked to them:
Identify yourselves” the entity said.
What's the meaning of this?” Khanam asked. “We have already identified ourselves when we landed on the planet.”
Khanam, renowned scientist, known on Ilstram for the research he carries on behalf of his people.” the voice continued, in a slightly metallic tone. “Nahia, daughter of the aforementioned.”
That's us” the young girl replied.
Emperor Brandhal and his wife, governors of Ilstram's Empire. The Magnanimous can't confirm their identity.” the voice continued to say, resounding in the whole room.
Don't you know who the governors of other empires are?” Nahia asked.
We know all governors of the known universe. Current rulers of Ilstram: Empress Namadiel, regent, Emperor Nurandon, consort. Emperor Brandhal, predecessor of the actual governor; declared missing by Ilstram's empire, alongside his wife and two humans, six months ago. Ilstram's Empire considers them at this point officially deceased under unknown circumstances.”
Missing?” Alha asked. “Deceased? No, that's nonsense. We're here. My husband is the regent emperor of Ilstram, and I am the consort of the Empire.”
The current governors of Ilstram are Empress Namadiel and Emperor Nurandon. Their ascension to the throne was celebrated in the capital of their world, Antaria, almost three months ago.”
Then we can't identify ourselves” Hans said. “Our common names aren't registered in any database. But, with all due respect, I am Emperor Brandhal, perhaps I'm no longer the current ruler of Ilstram, but I am who I claim to be.”
Wait...” Khanam said. “Did he say six months? It's been six months since we disappeared on Kharnassos, Magnanimous” he continued, speaking to the artificial intelligence. “Is there any proof of my daughter and me disappearing on Kharnassos with Hans and Alha? I mean, with the emperor and the empress.”
There is no proof. The only report sent by Ilstram's Empire indicated that the emperor had gone missing with his wife and two citizens, whose names were never specified.
That implies several things” the scientist continued, looking to the group. “First, we've been in suspended animation for longer than we initially thought. It's been six months since Kharnassos. Second, we have to go back to Ilstram as quickly as possible, the pregnancy of your wife is far more progressed than we were led to believe. And third, what's happening in the empire, Hans?”
I don't have the slightest of clues” he replied.
The Magnanimous can ensure that the woman, called Alha, and her offspring are in good shape, based in our databases about human development and physiognomy.”
Can you see how my baby is?” she asked.
Yes, we can see many things. What has brought you here Hans, Alha, Khanam and Nahia of Ilstram?”
We're being chased by the Tarsthan Empire, we believe. We were incarcerated in a jail, eight days travel from this planet, and placed in suspended animation. We hoped the Grodey Empire could be of assistance to help us go back to Ilstram and guarantee the stability of our kingdom.” Hans replied.
Your empire has new heads of state, and the population is stable” the gigantic machine replied.
Who are Namadiel and Nurandon?” Alha asked. “Do you have images of them?”
Searching...” The Magnanimous said.
A few seconds later, a picture of the new governors of Ilstram was projected in front of them:
That woman...” Alha said, isn't she... Miyana? And that man... the colonel?”
I can't remember her, but that man is definitely colonel Magdrot” her husband said.
How have they managed to take your positions?” Nahia asked.
There's a law in our empire” Hans replied, pensively, “which says that, in case of death or extended disappearance of an emperor without family that may continue the regency line, the highest ranking military officer can name a new governor, restoring imperial control in the kingdom, and guaranteeing the continuation of the line of emperors.”
Had that happened before?” the young girl asked.
Yes, a long time ago. One of my ancestors, very distant, was proclaimed Ilstram's emperor after the preceding ruler perished in combat when he was nothing more than a teenager. Other than that, it's a law known to only a few.”
The Magnanimous” Tanarum interrupted, “has said that the new emperor and empress were proclaimed three months ago. Who was the ruler in the meantime?”
Marshal Ghrast, war veteran, he served under the leadership of Emperor Borghent, Emperor Brandhal, and now Empress Namadiel” the artificial intelligence replied.
The marshal... That man never appreciated me. He abhorred my government; he preferred my father's style by far. A style more belligerent and inconsiderate towards Ilstram's citizens. He always gave preference to military advancements rather than benefits for the people...” Hans said.
Don't you see it, then?” Khanam asked.
What do you mean?”
What if everything is connected? What if we weren't captured by a random group of mercenaries? What if the Tarsthan Empire and the marshal are the minds behind all this?”
The marshal has spent his whole life in Ilstram. Why would he be in contact with the tarsthans?”
That statement is false.” the grodian governor replied. “Marshal Ghrast spend a long chunk of his youth on Darnae. There he was formed and grew under the teachings of the Tarsthan Empire, backed by Emperor Gruschal, who acted as his adoptive father after the death of his progenitors.”
Where did you get that information from?” Hans asked. “There's nothing like that in his history on Antaria.”
This information was given to The Magnanimous over eighty years ago. It was transmitted by a grodian trader at that time.”
And you share it with us despite knowing we're no longer the governors of Ilstram?” Alha wondered.
The Magnanimous knows” the entity continued, “that the technology of cloning doesn't exist in the universe. Therefore, the information regarding the death of the rulers of Ilstram is wrong. The Magnanimous is willing to offer the information that might be needed. However, the Grodey Empire will not participate in any other way.”
In which situation does that leave us?” Khanam asked.
Gruschal... I don't know him, but I remember the teachings of my father” Hans said. “He has been the dictator of the Tarshtans for centuries. If the Tarshtan Empire is chasing us, he gave the order. I have no doubts about that. He probably ordered the first attack on Antaria, too...”
Add to all that an operation to overthrow the emperor...” Nahia said. “Magnanimous, do you have data about the type of government of the current rulers of Ilstram?”
The first political measures of Empress Namadiel have been clearly belligerent. Ilstram's Empire is considering the conquest of planet Nelder, lomarian bastion, after losing hundreds of recruits four months ago.”
Which means we have, once again, an emperor, or rather, an empress, who is belligerent and is married to a colonel...” the scientist said.
Ex-colonel” the ex-governor corrected him. “The emperor can't also have a position of power in the army at the same time. But, in this case, it isn't relevant anyways. I think I see where Nahia is going.”
Everything, right since the first attack on Antaria, has been an operation to overthrow you, and put someone compatible with the marshal's ideology into power.” the young woman said.
Perhaps it's better this way...”
Hans...?” Alha said, visibly confused. “What are you talking about?”
You know I've never felt comfortable in my function as emperor. I would have been happier being just another citizen of the city. Now, that opportunity is in front of me... my chance to be a normal man, with a normal life. The chance to live a life where numbers and politics don't dictate my decisions...”
You're speaking nonsense” Nahia said. “If you attempted to return to the empire, do you think they would let you in? The Magnanimous has said we are officially dead. All four. Which means, if we even dare to come anywhere near the planet, they can kill us without causing a stir, because for them, we're already dead... Think of all those people, are you not worried by what may happen to them? You've already heard, that Namadiel, or whatever her name is, is going to conquer Nelder. How many years have passed since the last time our empire attempted to conquer another planet?”
A long time... none of my ancestors ever dared to acquire new domains for Ilstram.”
Yet, you're going to stand here with your arms crossed?” she asked.
Maybe this is how things must be” Hans replied. “Perhaps, after all this, I should have never ascended to power in the first place. My father, my grandfather, all my ancestors have always focused more on developing the army than helping the society. I have been the exception, and even then, my people has never really known me. Not even your father. I still remember the things he thought of me when we stepped into the ship to Ghadea.”
That was a long time ago... I don't have the same opinion.” Khanam said.
But that opinion, my friend” the former governor said, “is shared by many on Ilstram.”
You also had your backers” Nahia said. “They probably were the same people criticizing your father because he wasn't like you.”
Maybe... but now that we are here, what I ask myself is... does it make sense to keep going? You said it yourself, if we go to Ilstram, they will most likely kill us. I don't have an army to support me in an attempt to enter the Empire. Even if I managed to do so, what would I do once there? If the Tarshtan Empire is involved in all this, I refuse to think they haven't considered that possibility. They probably have something prepared to capture us again...”
The Magnanimous believes that Hans and his companions must rest. His judgment is clearly clouded by the fatigue of the escape that brought them here.” the artificial intelligence said.

The androids had left the area long ago. Hans could see that, although the sky continued to have that reddish tone, everything was darker. Several hours must had passed since they had started to talk with the extravagant governor of that world, and night was settling over the huge metropolis.
I think I agree with him.” Khanam said. “We should rest. Perhaps tomorrow we'll see things in a different way.”
The Magnanimous needs to talk to Nogg Tanarum” he said.
The tiny being, who had remained attentive throughout the whole discussion, talked to the entity that governed him and his fellow citizens.
I'm at your disposal, Emperor.”
The Mangnanimous wishes to know why you fled from the prison where you were originally incarcerated, and how you ended up returning back accompanied by these four humans.”
The fugitive explained the story to the artificial intelligence. He had escaped with the help of a friend. In his attempt to find a new home, his ship was captured by a mercenary group that was wandering through space. He was handed over to the tarshtans, who decided to imprison him in that jail after hearing his words. He had behaved as a simple thief and was incarcerated as such, even if he had helped them indirectly – since they had acquired the early quantum jump technology thanks to him. Once there, he managed to escape due to his reduced height and a bit of inventiveness. In his escape, he came across the room where the four humans were placed in suspended animation. He decided to help them, as he realized their condition was special, because every other convict was conscious, and in a normal cell.
After explaining the details of that story, as demanded by The Magnanimous, Tanarum explained the agreement he hoped to reach with his governor and Hans to avoid being imprisoned once more. However, the person to whom he had offered himself as counselor was devoid of any political relevance at that time, as the artificial intelligence had revealed to them a few hours before.
However” The Magnanimous said, “we're willing to allow you to travel with them if they finally decide to attempt to return to Ilstram. If they fail in their mission, you will die with them, if they are successful, you'll remain there. This is conditional on the human, Hans, accepting you as his counselor if he retakes the seat of power.”
Hans had listened the whole discussion just as attentively as Tanarum had done before. Although his mood, and his body, asked him to send everything to hell and forget that outlandish scene, his sense of honor brought the best out in him:
If I return to Ilstram and become emperor once again, which I haven't decided on yet, I will gladly accept Tanarum as one of my counselors.”
Then so be it.” the artificial intelligence replied. “Tomorrow his cybernetic implants will be restored, and the system of vital control will be added. In regards to you” he said, speaking to the human group, “The Magnanimous has prepared accommodation for you at the center of the city.”
How did you do that?” Nahia asked innocently. “You've been talking to us constantly...”
This entity” the governor replied “is made of an ample multitude of programs and platforms. This entity is made of several unique personalities that take care of the various aspects of the day-to-day grodian life.”
And you do all that from this room?” she asked.
No, The Magnanimous extends around a big area of the city. This is only the place where anyone can speak directly to us.”
Which means, if you were attacked, and this place destroyed, your leader would still be intact, correct?” Khanam asked.
That observation is correct” - Tanarum said.
The Magnanimous suggests the humans leave to rest. We want this to be the first assignment of the ex-convict Tanarum. We wish our guests are taken to their new lodging by him.”
I will do so, Magnanimous” the grodian replied in the most solemn tone.”
The group abandoned the room. In one way or the other, they had all changed. Hans seemed to have lost that layer of impermeability that made him look like an emperor with a weak personality. He had shown that, in fact, and as Alha had suspected for quite some time, he had been the governor of Ilstram for all those years because it was imposed upon him. Nahia, although still marveled at everything she had come across since their arrival at the red planet, had begun to understand the true dimension of the evil they were facing. For a long time, she felt that journey was no longer an amusing adventure with her father: It had obviously become much more. It was becoming a battle for their own survival. For Khanam, witnessing, first hand, an empire completely run by machines, was a bombshell for him. Although he understood their reasoning, it still felt like a temerity to leave every decision in the hands of those programs. At the same time, although he wasn't fully aware of the true potential of the Tarshtan Empire, he understood that, without trying, he was now involved in something far bigger than he could have ever imagined. Alha, a woman who was usually always confident of herself, had begun to feel insecure. She had learned that, apparently, her brother Aruan had a direct link to the quantum jump technology, and that her pregnancy was far more advanced than she had previously thought. Tanarum was simply thankful for having a second chance. Although he was, by grodian standards, almost an elder, he felt reinvigorated; he couldn't wait for the day when he could go to Ilstram and help his new found friends retake control of their kingdom. He only hoped Hans would continue to push on.
The group went to rest, knowing that a tunnel without an apparent end was everything they had before them.





Chapter IV
An unexpected ally




The new day arrived without any big surprises for Hans and Alha. The Magnanimous had prepared three rooms for his guests, one for Alha and Hans, one for Khanam, and one for his daughter. The level of privacy and isolation afforded them a degree of comfort that they couldn't recall experiencing recently. The new dawn brought the opportunity to relax, whilst Tanarum received the grodian implants. Khanam traveled to the temple. He hoped to have, at some point in the day, a conversation with the artificial intelligence that ruled over the Grodey Empire. Nahia decided to visit the city, and satiate her immense curiosity about the countless surprises the city could have in store for her. Alha, however, was fully focused on trying to cheer up her husband, who seemed to be depressed after discovering that Ilstram had new governors.
The couple had walked through the city streets for several hours. They had encountered plenty of grodians, who continued to react with surprise at the sight of the strange visitors. Since they couldn't find a place to sit, they continued to walk down the alley, while she listened to her husband:
Do you think I'm a coward because I don't want to retake my place as emperor?” he asked.
I don't think you're a coward, my dear” she said. “But I do think you owe it to your people, you can't use this situation for your own benefit and disappear.”
I've always longed for the opportunity to be inconsequential, just another anonymous person. Now I'm in that position.”
You have been forced to be there, you didn't opt for it of your own free will” his wife reproached. “If it had been up to you, would have abdicated? You haven't done so in thirty years.”
I didn't choose to be, either, this is how I was raised. I lost my friends in a battle due to the errors of emperors like my father. Due to the politics, the economy, the wars... I lost the only thing I had in my youth.”
There are other things now, aren't there?” she hugged him sweetly, placing her arms on top of his shoulders, which was met by him placing his arms around her waist.
Yes, of course. I have you, and our child will be born soon, too. That's the only thing that worries me.”
Our child?”
Yes, your pregnancy. You should be in Ilstram to have all the attention you may need.”
We can't return, at least not like common people.”
Why do I have to follow the legacy of my father?” Hans said. “If we are here, it's because I didn't follow in his footsteps. I was too blind to realize the marshal was two-faced.”
Even if you don't want to believe it, my love, the people appreciate who you are.”
There are many who don't, and who would rather have someone closer to my father's philosophy. You already heard The Magnaninmous yesterday, there haven't been any revolts.”
Because we have been declared missing, and the official record considers us dead, don't forget that. How would they react if they knew you are alive?” she asked.
He remained silent for a few seconds:
I don't know what I should do. Even if we wanted to go back, we don't have a combat unit to help us. The surrounding empires wouldn't assist us out of fear of entering a direct conflict against the Tarshtan Empire” he continued, looking to the sky of the planet. “I doubt the citizens of this world will be willing to lend us their help, either. Furthermore... where would that leave me? I would be, again, that emperor that would rather be in a different position.”
You'd be fulfilling your responsibility as emperor. Would you prefer for Ilstram to be annexed by the Tarshtan Empire?”
Her husband was pensive for a few moments:
You are right about that... I know I haven't shown much lucidity since yesterday, but I've asked myself several times, why would they allow a human emperor to be there? Wouldn't it make more sense to put a narzham or an olverian in my place?”
I don't know...” Alha replied doubtfully.
Silence fell upon the couple once more, whilst they continued walking down the streets. They were at a large avenue that run through the whole city from side to side. They saw the popular grodian urban transport ships that they had exported to other empires, as well as androids, which were tasked with regulating the lives of their people; the grodians had an astounding variety of gadgets. They didn't just have those monocles, that apparently were used to analyze other living creatures, their vestments, which were usually single piece uniforms, had cybernetic parts that helped control their body temperature and their vital functions. Those creations had entered their very lives, becoming part of them:
This world is so different...” Hans' wife said.
Every world is. Every empire, as the centuries have gone by, has developed their own identity... Their own culture.”
Aren't you worried that Ilstram's culture might disappear? You're the only person with the capacity to stop our world from losing its identity...”
I am just a man, Alha. I've been just another emperor. There's another after me, and others will succeed him.”
Sooner or later, if we don't stop them, the Tarshtan Empire and that Gruschal will conquer our kingdom. When that comes to pass, our identity, the very culture your ancestors have fought to protect and develop for millennia, will be lost. Aren't you worried about that?”
Of course I am... I know I'm fortunate to belong to this family. There are hundreds of billions of humans in the universe, but only a handful of individuals hold power and influence. I'm part of that minority.”
Alha observed him pensively. She knew that the battle in which his friends perished had left an indelible mark on him. Perhaps, that was the real problem:
Do you believe you will forgive your father some day?”
What do you mean?” Hans asked.
You blame him for the loss of all your friends. Do you still hate him?”
He remained silent, observing the horizon. He couldn't deny he felt rancor towards his father due to his actions. Perhaps hate was too strong of a word, too severe, but without any doubt, Hans did not have good memories of the final days of his father's existence:
I think I may never forgive him.”
My love... Maybe you need to free yourself of your father's shadow and assume your responsibility. You have an empire to look after. A throne from which you've been overthrown. You can't just limit yourself to sitting down here and letting the days pass by. What future do you want to give to our child? A future where we are constantly fleeing from planet to planet, in an attempt to stop the tarshtans from killing us? You know they are already aware we've fled. If we don't go back to Ilstram and fix this mess, the only thing left for us is a fugitive life.” she said in a firm tone of voice.
Her husband looked at her eyes fixedly. Without trying, his wife was reminding him why he loved her so much. She had always shown a strong character, and she had become his support on countless occasions, just as she was doing at that precise moment. He knew she was right, he couldn't act as if he had never been emperor of Ilstram, and pretend he was just another citizen. After all, another empire had overthrown them, and it seemed likely to be their own marshal, the most loyal servant his father ever had, who was behind that plan.
You are right...” he finally said. “We have to go back to Ilstram, and we have to retake the empire. For our future and for our own sake, not just ours, but also Khanam and Nahia's. They've been dragged into this despite having no relation to us.”
Are you sure?”
My opinion hasn't changed. I still think I would rather be just another citizen. But it's true, I can't turn my back on the legacy of my ancestors, neither to our child, nor I can leave our friends stranded. It wouldn't be fair to any of you.”
After a few moments of silence, they resumed the conversation:
What do we do now?” Alha asked.
I don't know. If we want to enter Antaria, we will need an army to back us up, but we don't have it, and there isn't anyone wanting to help. Officially, Ilstram has new rulers...”
What about The Magnanimous?”
The grodians haven't taken part in a war for many years. Their army is made of immensely skilled space pilots, but like any other empire, they have no reason to attack.”
Well, they do have a reason....” the girl replied.
Which one?”
Quantum jump technology” she said, looking fixedly at her husband. “Do you remember Tanarum's words? He sold that technology to a merchant. Khanam and you had the suspicion the tarshtans may have completed it and are now using it.”
Which would be the same technology your brother Aruan completed?”
Yes... That must be the case, it makes sense Tanarum sells it, a trader hands it over to the tarshtans – who are known for focusing on stealing research from other empires – and my brother, who as far as we know works with them, completes the technology...”
Gaining an edge over the grodians, because their research had been stagnating for some time...”
Don't you think The Magnanimous would like to recover that technology if offered the chance?”
And go to war with the Tarshtan Empire?” Hans asked. “Because that's what we would have to do after retaking Ilstram if we want to have a shot at getting it back.”
We are already at war with them, my dear. They may have not declared it officially, but they are, at least with us four.”
Her husband meditated for a few seconds. He knew that, in the worst possible scenario, they didn't have anything to lose. Perhaps it was worth paying a new visit to the artificial intelligence that dictated the actions of that world.




********




Nahia figured it was, most probably, noon. She had dedicated the whole morning to exploring the city, first accompanied by her father, and later on her own. The grodians were polite enough to not make her fear for her safety. Some of them had observed her with surprise, and even one of them went as far as admiring the beauty of “that human female”. The walk was filled with discovery after discovery regarding the habits and traditions of the inhabitants of the planet. The universe knew them for their great talent as traders and scientists, but few had the privilege of watching them in their daily lives. She hadn't forgotten that she was one of the few aliens that was allowed to walk among them like any other citizen. In her journey through the streets, she learned that the Grodey Empire was heavily focused on trade.
Technology was heavily linked into their lives, as well. The monocles were used to analyze other creatures, including other grodians. Their automatic vestments were also accompanied by a small glove, seeming made of metal, which was employed in a wide variety of tasks, ranging from measuring the quality of the product they were about to acquire, to controlling their transport ships. Just as humans and narzhams, they also used footwear, which in their case had been enhanced to improve their limited bodies and improve their agility. There was something in those creatures that outshined everything else: their ability to talk at a maddening fast speed; Nahia noticed that it wasn't a trait common to every grodian, because the sentinel and Tanarum spoke at a much slower pace.
Too many things to do. Too little time, little time” a tiny grodian said, whilst hastily walking towards Nahia.
Although the young lady tried, she couldn't move out of his way quickly enough, causing both of them to fall down:
What are you? Human? What a strange creature. Very strange. I have never seen one like this, never.” he continued.
Aren't you going to apologize?” Nahia asked curiously.
There is no time to waste. No time to waste. Trading and working, and paying attention to the Magnanimous. Trading and working.”
Did you hear me?” she asked again.
Yes of course. I have heard you, huh... human.”
So?”
I'm sorry for the fall, of course I am sorry.” the creature continued talking, quickly. “But there is no time to waste, soon I'll have to work. Work without stop.”
What were you buying?”
Grodians buy many things, many things. Some are useful, others are not. But all are interesting, all interesting.”
What do you mean?” Nahia asked.
Of course, of course, the human can't understand. She isn't one of us, not one of us.” the grodian continued, whilst adjusting his monocle and looking around him, as if he was searching for something.
He raised his head, looking at the girl's eyes, and continued:
Grodians are very curious, very analytical. We grodians have to explore, we always have to explore. Here we buy, we buy things on which we will work and explore. If we discover something one day, The Magnanimous will reward us. Yes, he will.”
Discover something such as what?”
I don't know. No one knows. Science doesn't have any limits, none. We may discover a new transportation method, or a new way to extend the grodian lifespan, or an improved artificial intelligence. Grodians are very ingenious, very ingenious.”
Have you discovered anything?”
No, not me. Not me” he raised his head once more to observe her; Nahia could see in those eyes the characteristic glow of someone that was proud of his people, “My ancestors, my ancestors helped develop the transport systems we use on the planet, and they also helped at the lunar bases. Yes, the lunar bases were also the work of my ancestors.”
Then discovering something is the best thing that can happen to your people?” the scientist's daughter asked.
Yes, yes, the best, the best. We prove we are brilliant and positive. We prove our society advances thanks to the grodians of a particular family.”
No one opts for fighting in the army? Do you even have one?”
Only the failed go to the army, only those that aren't fit for discoveries.”
The girl stared at him, as if that creature had made an unimaginable confession.
But... there isn't a selection process to join the army?”
No. No selection. No selection. There's a learning plan to pilot ships, everyone does it, and everyone learns it, of course. We are grodians, we learn, we don't need tests, we don't need them.”
I think I understand...”
The tiny creature apologized clumsily to Nahia, he had to continue with his tight schedule. For that reason, without encouraging any further discussion, he left the area just as quickly as he had arrived.

The young woman continued her journey for a few more minutes. Finally, she decided to go back to the temple, where her father was with The Magnanimous. There, as they had agreed, the four humans and Tanarum would meet. The girl wondered what Hans would have decided regarding their overthrow from the throne of Ilstram. After all, now they were fugitives, chased by their very own empire, and she could not find much comfort in the prospect of living like that for the rest of her life. She loved this planet, but she was fully aware it wouldn't be long before she felt the need to go back to her home. How were they going to achieve that, considering the emperor and the empress were officially dead? She couldn't help but feel that even if they had experienced plenty of adventures so far, and that Kharnassos had been a sweet and bitter experience, the worst was still to come. That feeling caused an immense sensation of insecurity within her... What could be worse than what they had endured so far?
Are you the person?” a voice suddenly said.
The young girl looked around her, but to her surprise, no one was to be seen. She was completely alone, yet she was completely sure she had heard that voice, seemingly human, but undefined. A voice of someone, most likely, younger than Nahia.
Is someone here?” she asked into the air.
There was no answer. She attributed the strange question she believed she had heard to fatigue, and her own imagination, and resumed her journey to the temple without giving second thoughts to the event.




********




How old are you?” Khanam asked The Magnanimous.
We don't have a definite age, but the first date registered is sixteen thousand years ago, we assume it as the date of our creation.”
You have been the governor of the Grodey Empire ever since?” the scientist continued.
We have, but there is nothing left of that primitive artificial intelligence. We have evolved throughout the years, becoming what we are today.”
Why do you sometimes speak in plural for to refer to yourself, and at other times in singular form?”
It depends on which program has taken control at each moment. Most of them acknowledge the existence of the whole system, but there are a few that keep a strong identity, very distinct from all the others. In the end, we are a global entity.”
The veteran scientist had inspected the temple for hours. He was fascinated by a system so complex – by its own words, it sprawled half of the city – that was capable of taking every decision for the empire.
How do you keep an eye on everything that happens on other planets?”
We have a communication system, we are there through other programs.”
They are... counselors?”
We don't have counselors” the metallic voice replied. “Our program can process and calculate the possibilities with the data we collect. We also take decisions that affect other planets of the empire.”
You have said you are made of several programs... How do you reach an agreement on what to do at each step?”
Each part of us is specialized in different fields. That particular part is responsible for making the final choice in their respective areas.”
There isn't a program that is more important than the others?”
No, we are all equal. Even the most basic programs, such as those that control the city traffic, or the growth of the forest that surrounds us.”
Khanam believed he was beginning to understand how the grodians had created that artificial intelligence. It made sense, by his understanding, that they wouldn't leave the full empire under the control of a single program. The idea still seemed insane to him, but somehow, it worked for them. The huge scientific potential, and therefore military capability, of that world, caused other species of the universe to develop indifference towards the grodians as the years had gone by; either they traded with them, or they ignored them, and vice versa.
The scientist continued his reflections, when, all of a sudden, he heard the familiar voice of his daughter:
I didn't know if you would be still here” she said.
Hello, my dear. Our host has been kind enough to allow me further knowledge of its inner workings. It's a very instructive experience.”
This world is so different to ours. I've spent several hours in the city, and I've learned many things about the citizens” she said. “If I hadn't come, I would have never imagined how distinct other civilizations are.”
A few seconds later, Hans and Alha also entered the room:
So, everyone is here. It seems.” the scientist said when his friends arrived.
Not everyone. Tanarum is still missing” the ex-empress said.
True. Which implants do grodians receive?” Nahia asked the artificial intelligence. “And why are those so important for them?”
Without their implants, the physical and cognitive capabilities of the grodians would be far more limited. Their lifespan would also be considerably shorter. A grodian that never receives an implant after his birth would only live twenty years” The Magnanimous replied. “We discovered, at some point, how we could improve the lives of our people.”
You created their implants?” Khanam asked.
We developed them by using the prototypes, which grodian engineers of that time had been working on, as a base. They are so prolific and technologically advanced because they can work on many more projects during their lives.”
Which means that, effectively, even their leader has given them a new life, far longer than what they had before.”
In that case” Alha said, “doesn't removing them from a convict, like Tanarum, shorten their life?”
That is correct” The Magnanimous replied. “Depending on the age at which grodians are incarcerated, their life might have already been extended. They may lose a year of life, but they don't go back, not even close, to the lifespans they had millennia ago. Their own biological systems have strengthened throughout the years. By our calculations, we estimate they would live forty years without any implants at present.”
That's the only thing I've never fully understood” Hans said. “They call you The Magnanimous, yet you don't hesitate to punish harshly those that violate the law.
Control is key to maintain order. You, as the former emperor of Ilstram, should know that better than anyone else in this room.”
I know. We, obviously, have delinquency on Ilstram, but we don't turn our own convicts into ticking time bombs, as you are doing with Tanarum at this very moment.
The benefits of this system for our people are immense. It's necessary to have equally harsh punishments for those that decide to act outside the law. We don't expect a human, nor any other species, to understand it.
What if a grodian decides to go to a different empire? Would he also lose the implants?” Nahia asked.
Some of them stop working as there aren't any systems they can rely on, but the gadgets that extend their lives continue to be fully operational.”

The group remained silent for several minutes. Hans wondered about how he could introduce The Magnanimous to the topic of bringing military support to retake Ilstram's government.
Are you the person?” a slightly metallic voice boomed in Alha's head. She looked around confusedly, but no one else looked startled.
Didn't you hear?” She asked.
Hear what?” Khanam said.
That voice... I'd swear I heard someone talking to me.”
Hans looked at her surprised:
We didn't hear anything... Are you alright, my dear?”
It may be due to the pregnancy” the scientist suggested.
Alha's physical condition is excellent” The Magnanimous replied “Her pregnancy is, as far as our knowledge of the human species goes, progressing fine. She should seek human medical advice soon, however, in order to receive the appropriate assistance. We can't help her.”
That's what I wanted to talk about with you” Hans said. “I've meditated about this” he continued, while gently holding his wife's hand, “I think we should try to return to Ilstram. But we need military support.”
The Magnanimous” the artificial intelligence replied, “considers the Grodey Empire must not interfere in human matters.”
What if we told you that the people that kicked us from the empire, and still pursue us, are the same that have developed and perfected your quantum jump technology?” he asked.
We can't corroborate the veracity of that information.”
The Tarshtan Empire” the ex-emperor said, “obtained your technology. They have finished and improved it, and now they have an edge over you.”
The Magnanimous remained silent for several minutes.
Our judgment has not changed. We don't consider it necessary to start a conflict against the Tarshtan Empire to help Hans and Alha to retake Ilstram's Empire.”
For a few moments, an uncomfortable silence fell upon the room:
Allow me to put things differently” Khanam said. “It's always been rumored that the Grodey Empire has armament capable of destroying enemy planets. I don't know how accurate that theory is, but what I've heard very often is that no empire has attacked you for centuries out of fear that those weapons might be real. If one of those weapons were stolen from you, you would probably be able to destroy their planets before they even get to use it. However, the tarshtans can now use this quantum jump technology and turn the tables against you, attacking you before you can react.”
In that case” the artificial intelligence said, “we should be at war with them, not helping you.”
With our help” Hans said, “after retaking our place as emperors, we'd declare war on the Tarshtan Empire. After all, we're already in conflict with them. With our help, the two empires together could recover the lost technology. You would recover your scientific advantage, and we'd bring stability back to Ilstram's Empire. The people there might be alright now, but we suspect that sooner or later, the Tarshtan Empire will cause the extermination of our world.”
Silence fell upon the room once more; it was long enough to make everyone feel uncomfortable:
We need time to consider this information” The Magnanimous said “Years have passed since the last time the grodians gave military support to other empires.”
How much time do you need” Alha's husband asked.
Several hours” inviting them to abandon the room, he added “we need to evaluate this in silence.”

The group abandoned the temple. They hadn't walked for long when, suddenly, another human approached them. They looked at him surprisedly. He was a man far taller than Hans and Khanam, easily exceeding two meters of height; he had pale skin, and both his hair and his eyes were totally black, of an almost artificial appearance. He looked at them slowly, and finally, with a voice that wasn't completely human, said:
Are you Khanam?” he pointed to the scientist. That man was observing him slowly, scrutinizing his face, trying to determine if that person was the human being he had been looking for so long.
Do you know me?” he asked.
Not yet. I have been looking for you for a long time. I've contacted several humans on my way. Now I understand where I was going wrong.”
Who are you?” Hans asked.
I am Jacob Emilson, citizen of the Dintare Empire.”
Dintare Empire? How comes I've never heard anything about it?” he insisted.
It's a barely known empire. It's located near the edge of the known universe. My ancestors traveled for years to settle there.
The ex-emperor wasn't fully satisfied with the reply, there was something amiss about their unexpected visitor. He was human in appearance, but his pronunciation, his gestures, and above all, his strange eyes, hinted at something else they couldn't fully figure out.
How have you found us?” Khanam said. “No one knows we're here.”
I have traveled a long way to find you. Let's just say I have my own methods.” he looked at them nervously for several seconds. “We don't have much time. I know you won't understand this, not yet. But, know that I'm aware of what has happened in Ilstram, and also that you've been overthrown from the empire. If you don't act quickly, it'll be too late.”
Too late for what?” Nahia asked.
The time will come soon. And when that happens, you'll have to be ready.” Staring at Khanam, he added “you are the only one who could stop what's about to happen.”
You mean, the conquest of Ilstram by the Tarhstan Empire, right?” Alha said.
That is child's play. It's far bigger than that. It will only be the first step, but Gruschal's wrath won't stop there. He'll go after you, after your people. And at the end of the way, when that moment comes, the only thing that awaits, for those that still live, is eternal darkness. The destruction of everything you hold dear.”
What the hell are you talking about?” Hans said, visibly annoyed.
Come. I'll show you. I won't have time for explanations. You'll have to follow my instructions closely. But there might still be a chance to protect the wonders of creation.”
The group followed the man. They didn't know him, but an invisible force pushed them to accompany him.
Where are we going?”
To my ship. Once there, I'll show you something. Afterwards, you will have to decide, by yourselves. I can't force you to follow me blindly, but, if I'm not mistaken, you'll see the gravity of what's about to unfold. All of you are too young, but I must trust you. You are my only hope.”
To prevent what?” Nahia asked.
I'll answer the essential things in my ship. Then, I'll have to leave, with or without you.”
After several minutes of walking through the streets of the city, they eventually arrived to a hangar. Jacob stopped in front of a gigantic ship that didn't look, even remotely, like anything they had ever seen before. It wasn't of human or grodian construction, and, to Khanam's knowledge, it didn't resemble the design of any other known species.
Hans, are you seeing what I'm seeing?”
Of course he is” a voice boomed in their heads. “You'll understand soon.”
That voice...” Alha said. “It's the same voice I heard when we were with The Magnanimous.”
Did everyone hear it?” Khanam asked.
Yes, all of you.” Jacob replied. Without moving his lips, he continued “It was me. This is how I've been looking for you over the last few months.”
The voice boomed in their heads. However, it wasn't unsettling; quite the contrary, it caused a pleasant sensation in them.
They entered the ship. The interior was spacious, and few machines were visible. There could be more, Nahia's father thought to himself, but he couldn't identify them.
You're talking into our heads...” Nahia said. “How?”
You and your father will understand soon.”
You aren't human” the scientist replied.
That's the most obvious answer” Jacob replied. “You are right, I'm not human. I know you have heard the name of my kind in myths, legends, and forbidden studies. This isn't my real form. But my intentions are pure.”
Then, what are you?” Hans asked.
The strange figure walked a few steps away from them, and said warmly in their heads:
Do not fear what you are about to see.”
The four looked at him expectantly. All of a sudden, the body of that man began to glow with an intense golden tone. That light, that energy, filled the whole room where they were located. They felt bathed by the vital force that surrounded them, and caused a pleasant feeling Nahia extended her arms, marveled by the show she was witnessing.
What's happening?” she said, entranced.
Suddenly, the powerful golden light that had engulfed Jacob's body, began to retreat on itself, giving form to a humanoid shape, of similar height to Hans and Khanam, smaller than that of the man they had seen moments before. The group wasn't capable of defining that figure. It was, without any doubt, similar to all the other species that populated the universe, but unlike any living creature, his body seemed to be made of energy; the same energy that had given them an overwhelming feeling of comfort.


They saw a pair of small pale blue orbs on his head, which appeared to be, undoubtedly, his eyes. The creature didn't seem to have ears or a nose, although there was something resembling a mouth, which had the same pale blue tone of his eyes. His oval shaped head was crowned by a white, luminous, ribbon, with a long lace at the end that floated constantly in the air, as if it was being hit by an invisible stream that no one else in the room perceived. His hands were similar to those of a human, but the body of the strange being was far more stylized. With the exception of the white ribbon at the top of his head, the rest of his body was entirely golden in tone. The creature as a whole glowed faintly. It didn't seem he had any physical strength, but the whole group felt they were in front of a being of immense power. After a few seconds, the stranger raised his right hand above his head, prompting the materialization of a large yellow staff, made of pure energy. He lowered his arm, allowing the weapon to rest against the ground.
What the...” Khanam said.
I am Ur'daar” the being said in a melodic, pleasant, voice. “Your people call my kind Ur'daeralman.”
Are you kidding me?” Hans asked. “I know those legends, that... mythology. I always believed them to be little else than stories made up by weak-minded individuals that couldn't accept that science explains everything in our world.”
That notion should have not changed. But some of my people have gone astray, and they are now interfering with the universe's plans.”
Wait... there are more like you?” Alha asked.
Compared to your kind, we're very few, but yes, I'm not alone.”
If the tales are certain, your power goes well beyond measure” Khanam said. “You live for thousands of years, and no one truly knows how far your abilities go.”
You already know one of the talents my people possess.”
Telepathy...” the scientist said. “The ability to talk through someone's mind. What kind of device do you use to achieve it?”
None. There isn't science behind many of the things we do. That's why you have to come with me.”
All four?” the ex-emperor asked.
No, Hans. Alha and you have to continue with what you have already started. You must reach llstram before it's too late. If he arrives and ascends to power before you do, it will be very hard to stop him from completing his plan.”
How do you know our names?” Alha asked.
I saw them in your minds.”
What plan are you talking about?” the scientist asked.
The enslavement of the human species. The subjugation, and domination, of one of the biggest populations of the universe.”
Couldn't you do that anyway, with your telepathic abilities?” Nahia questioned.
The creature looked at her, and made a gesture similar to a smile:
The reach of our skills isn't limitless. We can't manipulate your minds.”
Why do you need us anyways? Why don't you meet with your people and stop them?” Hans asked.
Not everyone among my people shares my creed. A long time ago, our species was neutral. We were ordered to not interfere with any event, we should limit ourselves to only setting things in motion.”
I think I barely understood anything since the beginning.” the ex-empress said.
Ur'daar looked at her eyes, in a way that felt as if he was peeking into her very essence:
Originally” he began, “for billions of years, our entire species was called Daeralman. We don't remember what or who gave them to us; perhaps, we developed them on our own... We received two gifts that were known as the seed of life, and the seed of chaos. Our task was to spread these seeds on the planets we considered apt, and allow the flow of time to continue. As the years passed, life spawned on some of those planets, and along with it, so did chaos. We weren't judges of what happened at any point. If the seed didn't create life on a planet, we simply continued our path, looking for the next.”
What about the chaos?” Nahia asked.
Just as life, chaos did not always flourish. Sometimes, it did violently, leading the inhabitants of those planets to mutual extinction, or leading a single species to dominate the rest. That's what happened on your natal planet, for instance.”
Are you talking about The Earth?” Alha asked.
Indeed.” the warrior replied. “We were also there. Although, like on any other planet, we didn't take part in what happened. As the years went by, your species, Humanity, became the dominant one. From there, you expanded to the rest of the universe.”
The process was the same for other species?” Nahia asked.
No. On some planets, life flourished, but it disappeared because their inhabitants exterminated each other. In other cases, the species coexisted peacefully. In any case, no matter the events, we were ordered to not participate in them.”
But...” Hans added.
The agreement was short-lived. Our ancestors divided in two groups. Those that believed that only the seed of life should be sown, and those that believed the seed of chaos should be sown on the planets where it hadn't worked initially. That's how my people appeared, defenders of the seed of life. The Ur'daeralman.
And the defenders of the seed of chaos?” Nahia asked.
They called themselves Tor'daeralman. Over time, we evolved differently. Some of us lost our neutrality. We moved to defend that in which we believed. Some of the Ur'daeralman, like myself, defended life. We won't violate our commitment, nor will we attempt to recreate life where it failed. But we will protect it as long as possible. Just like us” he continued, “some of the Tor'daeralman lost their neutrality and began to favor chaos. If chaos didn't work, they would bring it on by themselves. Their cruelty is unparalleled. The most dangerous of them all, Tor'ganil, has extinguished species, and destroyed planets. He was the cause of the near extinction of the lomarians... and other species you have never heard of.”
That isn't true” Khanam finally said, visibly shocked by everything he had witnessed and heard. “The lomarians destroyed themselves. They carried out an experiment that failed, which took away their ability to breed, and on top of that, they had bad luck, as they were affected by a cosmic cataclysm that ravaged their planets. Don't expect me to believe that story of yours.”
It is the truth” Ur'daar sad. “For that reason I need you, and your daughter, to come with me. There are many things I need to show you. You won't understand a lot of them, but time is of the essence. After all, the decision to accept and believe what you will see, remains yours.”
Why my daughter?” the scientist asked.
She will help you in the difficult moments. The things she will witness will help her with what is about to happen.”
What if I don't accept?”
Then I'll leave you alone. I will try to stop Tor'ganil without your help. My chances of success will be far less, but I won't stop trying.”
What do I get of all this?” Khanam wondered. “You're asking me to follow you somewhere, because, by your own words, I'm the only one that can help you to stop him.”
You will learn many things you would have never discovered through any other means. Furthermore, as long as you remain with me, you'll be safe from your enemies. You won't have to worry about Nahia's safety. To you” he said, looking at Hans and Alha, “however, I can't offer that security. It's essential that you travel to Antaria as quickly as possible: don't let Gruschal reach the throne. The current situation on Ilstram is temporary. I have seen where that path goes, and you really don't want to see it come true.”
The alien looked at the whole group, realizing he needed to give them time to decide how they should proceed:
We don't have much time, but I'll wait a few minutes to allow you to decide what to do.”
I want to go” Nahia said.
My daughter?” Khanam asked, confused.
What? We can't help Hans retake Ilstram, we aren't soldiers. Perhaps we can help him. I know you are curious about all this, even if you don't want to admit it.” she said to her father.
For many years, I have devoted my life to science. Thanks to it, we have explained everything that happens in the universe. Everything. I don't think I'm prepared to understand whatever he wants to show us.”
Does science explain telepathy?” Nahia asked.
Her father remained silent for a few seconds:
No. It doesn't, because we didn't know any species that had such a gift. But I'm sure that, if we could analyze it, we would be able to explain it. Just as anything else they can do.”
You can explain even the seeds of life and chaos?” his daughter replied.
Khanam was silent once more. Deep within him, he doubted science was truly capable of explaining everything. It was a feeling that made him uncomfortable. What if science wasn't really the key to answering everything. He had dedicated his whole life to it, and to think he had failed to accomplish his goal, to think that they didn't really understand the universe as well as they believed, was something deeply disheartening.

Hans and Alha understood they were mere observers to what was happening there. Both had seen Jacob transform into Ur'daar with the same surprise and sense of marvel as Nahia and Khanam. They were before a being that seemed, considering his comments, far older than anything they could imagine. Owner of unlimited wisdom. If they could have such a powerful ally by their side, recovering the throne, and restoring order in the empire, should be an easy task.
So?” the Ur'daeralman asked once more. “Have you made a decision?”
The ex-emperor talked to Khanam:
I think you should go. Your daughter is right. At this point, you can't help me. You have the chance to learn stuff your scientist colleagues can't even imagine. There's nothing for you to lose by listening to whatever he has to tell you, and you will still be free to act as you consider appropriate.”
Will you be alright?” he asked.
Alha and me will return with The Magnanimous. If everything goes according to plan, we will have an army to support us when we return to Ilstram. We'll attempt to enter Antaria. If we manage to do so, we will be waiting for you there.” Looking at Ur'daar, he added “Will that be enough to stop Tor'ganil?”
Yes. At least for some time. He won't stop until we destroy him, or until he succeeds.”
Why don't you kill him?” Khanam asked.
Although we are experts in hand-to-hand combat. It's incredibly rare for a Daeralman to manage to vanquish another, and absorb his vital strength, his energy. However, you might understand my species well enough to find a way to destroy him for good. I wouldn't involve the species our ancestors created if it wasn't entirely necessary.”
The scientist looked at the group once more. It seemed that everyone else was willing to collaborate with that strange creature made of energy. Everyone but himself. For that reason, he realized that, either for the best, or for the worst, his decision was simple:
We'll go with you. Once we're done, how will we travel back to Antaria?”
I will take you there myself” Ur'daar looked around him, and then, he approached Alha. “Before we leave, I have to apologize. I'm sorry. Due to my mistake, there's now a difficult path ahead of you. But you need to remain strong, and to know this. When the day comes, your son will need your full support. If you stay with him, nothing bad will happen.”
What do you mean?” she asked.
I'm only telling you what might happen one day. Don't be alarmed. Maybe nothing will occur in the end. But if it does come to pass, you will know how to react” he placed his hand softly over the woman's face. The touch of that golden hand was warm and pleasant for Alha. She felt completely comforted.
The group split quickly. Ur'daar, Khanam and Nahia had to leave the planet; they would travel to the mother ship, where other Ur'daeralman like him awaited them. Hans and Alha would meet with Tanarum once again, while they waited for the decision of The Magnanimous.





********




Khanam and Nahia remained just where Ur'daar left them since their arrival aboard the ship. Although they didn't notice, the vessel was already traveling at high speed, in open space. Naarad was behind them, shrinking in size as they traveled away.
The scientist approached their strange host once more:
I understand this ship is prepared for someone of your kind, but if we are going to stay here, we need a pace to rest.”
I've kept everything in mind.” Ur'daar said.
A wall of golden energy appeared at the end of the room, following a gesture of his hand. After a few seconds, bedrooms, furniture, beds and chairs materialized in front of them. Everything was perfectly placed, as if it had been built with the ship during its design.
Fascinating...” Nahia said. “How did you do that?”
We are creatures of energy. We have learned to control it, and to modify it to adjust it for our needs. In some ways, we are its artisans. We shape the very essence of our existence.”
Then, why the staff?” she said, looking at the weapon that had accompanied him since he had revealed his true form.
We can control how energy affects us. But, just as any other species of the universe, we are living beings. We feel pain in combat. The staff is my weapon of choice in those situations. We rarely fight, but when we do so, we go into hand-to-hand range. That is the only area where our individual skills differ and shine; we are all equally proficient at using energy.”
Could you use any other weapon if you wished so?” the young girl asked curiously.
No. When the moment to step into adulthood comes, we must choose our weapon. From that moment, that manifestation of energy becomes our identity sign. Some use sabers, others opt for spears... but all of us have our own weapon. It's one of the things that allow us to differentiate from each other.”
The ribbon on your head is real? Is... clothing?”
No. It's just another manifestation of energy, another distinctive sign. Others opted to distinguish themselves by creating boots, gloves or waistcoats. It allows us to conserve and further express our individuality.”
How old are you?” Khanam asked.
I am young among my people. I am merely one hundred and fourteen thousand years old.”
Young?” Nahia said. “You're far older than any living creature of any other species.”
I know, but I am still a young adult within my kind. Some of them have surpassed half a million years of existence.”
Then it's true...” the scientist said. “That is the age mentioned in the legends. They said that you could live over half a million years. I wonder if someone encountered you during the past...”
Millions of years ago someone found us. Indeed. It isn't relevant anymore, but it was one of the few occasions on which a species created by us established contact. For that reason we have always avoided staying inside the known areas of the universe for long. Over the years, your stories have become legends. Your brief lives have also contributed to the arrival at a point where no one would be able to recognize us.”
That... metamorphosis. Is it real?” Khanam asked once more. “Can you copy any appearance?”
Yes. As long as I replicate it correctly, you wouldn't be able to spot any differences between someone of your species and me.”
It was easy to see the differences in you, though.” Nahia said. “Your eyes were pitch black. Human eyes aren't like that.” She approached him, allowing to see her beautiful green eyes. “See?”
I hadn't perceived that detail” Ur'daar apologized. “It's caused by my lack of experience.”
Where are we headed?” Khanam asked.
To a place beyond what you call the known universe. We'll move into a bigger ship. There, I'll be able to show you the things you need to understand.”
How far away are we?” the girl asked.
Very far. You should rest.” he replied.
The two humans walked to the bedrooms that Ur'daar had prepared. Nahia was moved. She was about to become the first woman to discover a species that was only known in dark legends. She had already seen a glimpse of their potential, and wondered how far the abilities of those creatures could go. If the words of the ur'daeralman were true, those beings were their cosmic fathers. Those creatures were responsible for the creation of life on Earth, and many other planets. Therefore, they were the cause for the universe to be so varied.
Meanwhile, Khanam felt destabilized. On most occasions, he could only listen and attempt to assimilate everything he was being told. It was obvious that there were things he couldn't understand. He wasn't capable of explaining the mere existence of beings made of pure energy. Let alone the fact they could manipulate it at their own will for any purpose they desired. To make matters worse, they claimed to be the creators of all life in the universe. How could anyone absorb all that? It was true that science had failed to explain, satisfactorily, how life had appeared, but they weren't trying to create it. They didn't have any need to worry about those questions to make their species advance in the various fields of science.
The journey was calm. By Khanam's assumption, two days must have passed since their departure. They hadn't perceived any signs of vibration or movement within the ship; not even when they finally docked in the main ship.
Ur'daar himself guided them through the giant facility. Although it was a ship, it was far bigger than any other construction he could have ever conceived. However, he only spotted a pair of Ur'daeralmán around them.
Most of them are gone” his friend said, reading his mind. “They are searching for new planets that may be candidates to receive the seed.”
Aren't they worried by what may happen to Humanity?” Nahia asked, while they walked through a long hall.
As I explained on Naarad, we were originally neutral. Most of them still are, despite knowing that some Tor'daeralman are willing to destroy our creations.”
They don't have anything to say about that?”
They do. They believe that whatever must happen, will happen. That is our philosophy: to not interfere with anything, not even other individuals of our own species.”
The neutrality of the maker...” Khanam said.
What do you mean?” his daughter asked.
I heard that there were many legends, on Earth, about our ancestors. Many tales of creatures of fantasy which possessed divine powers. Those creatures were, in the words of those that described them, benevolent with anyone that worshiped them, and ruthless with anyone that dared challenge them. Which means, in essence, they could be considered neutral, as they had no issue bestowing good or evil as they saw fit. But” he said, looking at Ur'daar, “you are telling me that you are truly neutral. And that among your people, some have turned towards good, and others towards evil. I feel like, all of a sudden, I have to believe those stories unquestioningly, and kneel before some of those gods” the scientist finished with an evident tone of rejection.
We are no... gods. Neither do we pretend to be. My kind is focused on fulfilling the mission we were tasked with when your worlds were young. We don't aspire to reign over anyone or anything.”
However, some of you act as if you were deities. If I buy your stories, that Tor'ganil would be the god of evil, and you would be of good.”
I am, above all, a warrior of my people. I was ordered to protect the seed of life and spread its gift throughout the universe. That's what I'm doing.” Ur'daar said.
They finally arrived at a square room, smaller than the gigantic areas they had walked through. It was completely devoid of any ornament, and the walls presented a dark grayish tone.
We have arrived, Khanam.” he said.
What now?” the scientist asked.
I know hundreds of questions are flooding into your mind. Let's get rid, first, of those that might cloud your judgment. But first...” he turned to Nahia “I have something special for you. It will be useful to help you make the right decision when your time comes.”.
My time?”
I can't say much more, but if everything goes as I plan, one day, you will realize you have a very important choice in your hands. I can only hope that what you will learn here in the following days, will help you.”
After a few seconds, they spotted another alien, who looked similar in appearance to Ur'daar, approaching from the opposite end of the room. He held two small staves in his hands, and his distinctive vestment was a pair of white bracelets.
This is Ur'nodel. Just like me, he has abandoned his neutrality. Those of us that share this line of thoughts are known as Tarandún.”
Which means Guardians of the Holy in our language” the new visitor added.
Do your names have any meaning?” the young girl asked.
Mine” Ur'daar said, “means Guardian of Lost Stars. His, means Guardian of an Uncertain Tomorrow.”
And... Tor'ganil?”
The two creatures remained silent. Finally, Ur'nodel replied:
It means Harbinger of the Final Destruction.”
He has proclaimed himself a champion of chaos. He's willing to take it to the very last confine of the universe” Ur'daar said.
Are there others that think like him?” Nahia asked.
Yes... they are known as Yerandil. They believe chaos, in the end, must reign supreme across the whole universe.”
Silence fell upon them during several, unpleasant, minutes. Afterwards, Ur'nodel talked to Nahia:
Follow me, there's much you still have to learn.”
Khanam saw his daughter walk away, escorted by that humanoid figure:
Do not worry, she will be fine. She's stronger than she looks.”
What are you going to do with her?” he asked.
The same thing we are going to do with you. We'll help her understand the world that surround us. Is there something you want to ask?”
The man meditated in silence for a moment. Afterwards, he decided to share his thoughts:
Can you see the future?”
We can see every future” his improvised mentor replied.
Every future?”
Yes. The future isn't a straight, predefined line... It's like a massive tree, with its trunk being the present moment. Each branch is a possibility, a choice. I can see all those ramifications in time, but I can't know which of them will become true, as those decisions don't belong to me.”
Then, the next question is evident. What is time?”
It's the consequence of the choices of every living creature in the universe. We are here, in this room, because this is the place where the choices we have made throughout our lives have brought us. If you hadn't abandoned Antaria, perhaps I would have never found you. That was a possible future.” Ur'daar said.
How would it have ended?”
It would have ended in utter defeat. The victory of Tor'ganil, and the end of many sentient species.”
And this one?”
I don't know, because you haven't made a choice” he replied.
How many possible outcomes there are?” Khanam asked once more.
Many. Almost infinite. In a nutshell, I could describe five different possibilities of the millions that open up before us: First, you accept what I present as a reality unknown to you. Second, you reject what you see and attempt to escape this ship by your own means. Third, your denial angers you to the point of engaging me in physical combat. Fourth, your taunts provoke me to the point of forcing me to attack you. Fifth, as absurd as it may seem to you, your daughter dies as a consequence of a battle between us. But I won't know which of those possibilities, or any other, will become true until you have made a decision.” anticipating his next question, he added, “of course, some of them are less likely than the others.”
What if I don't choose anything?”
Then you are making a choice. The lack of choice is one on its own. It leads to the same path... to the triumph of Tor'ganil.”
Khanam remained silent for a few seconds:
I can't accept that. You're asking me to believe that your species can see every possible future. That you have brought us here only because you believe that some of those choices would result in the control of the human race by a creature that – by your own words – is evil, but whose name is unheard of. How do you explain that?”
Ur'daar remained silent. The golden glow of his body disappeared; he changed shape once more. This time, before the scientist, there was a man of his age. In fact, he realized he was staring at himself.
Do you think this explains it?”
Metamorphosis, telepathy and something similar to precognition” Khanam said. “All those things are physically impossible; however, here you are, using them as if they were child's play...”
Our skills can escape the understanding of most species, but they are all focused around the same thing; our ability to manipulate the energy around us.”
After a moment, Khanam saw his host return to his normal aspect:
What other skills do you have?”
Many.”
For example?”
Ur'daar made a gesture with one of his hands. In front of them, not too far, a golden energy sphere materialized. In mere seconds, it had become a staff, identical to the one he was holding in his right hand. He opened the palm of his left hand, and, much to Khanam's surprise, the object flew through the room to the ur'daeralman's hand.
How do you do that?” Khanam asked.
We manipulate the energy that surrounds the objects.”
My people call that telekinesis. The power to move objects with one's mind.”
Ur'daar looked at him confusedly:
You haven't understood” he said. “Our skills don't originate in our minds. We only use and manipulate the energy that surrounds our world. That very energy is what allows us to see the many paths time can flow through. We are one with the energy of the universe. For that reason, it's so difficult for us to destroy one of our kind.”
Then, why am I here?”
Many of the paths I saw led to the utter domination of the human race” turning his head to Nahia, who was happily smiling to Ur'nodel, he added, “and her death. You would also die, but I don't think that part surprises you as much.”
Life must flow and continue its cycle. I know my end will come soon. After all, some among my species would already consider me an old man.” Khanam said.
I know, but besides her death, and that of many other humans, most of the paths continued even further. Many species would fall due to the submission of yours.”
Your people wouldn't take part in any of those paths?”
Ur'daeralman and Tor'daeralman are mainly neutral. Despite knowing that one of our own kind is directly interfering with what's happening in the universe, they won't act. In some other paths, the entire situation was halted, but only temporarily.” Ur'daar continued. “Finally, I saw some paths where Tor'ganil was destroyed, thanks to the research of a human...”
That human might not be me” Khanam said.
It is you, of that much I'm certain. I've gone through a long way to find out. With the help of mental communication, or telepathy as you call it, I contacted human minds. It took me a lot of effort to reach you.”
You said your skills have limits. Which limits?”
We cannot alter time, nor can we travel through it. We can't teleport between two places. We can't manipulate the minds of living creatures, for example, but we can use the energy that surrounds massive objects to move them. That's how Tor'ganil destroyed the lomarian planets.”
Are you trying to tell me he used telekinesis to throw comets against the planets?”
Yes. However, he wouldn't be able to pull a planet out of its orbit, or destroy a star. They are too big.”
That sounds like just a crazy myth... Two days ago I didn't even know you exist, and now I'm trying to accept that most of the laws of the universe don't apply to your species.”
Take as much time as you need” Ur'daar replied.

At the other end of the room, Nahia talked animatedly with Ur'nodel:
Which planet do you come from?”
We don't have a planet we can call home. For billions of years, we have wandered through space in ships like this. We are nomads. This is our home.”
So, don't you have a governor or something like that?” the young girl asked.
No. We don't have a governor, nor laws. Although most species birthed by the seed of life do have some form of government.”
How do you decide which planet may host life?”
We don't. We only discard gas planets. We use the seed on every other, even if the conditions of the planet wouldn't be suited to allow for a species like yours to live there. We can't know which kind of life will appear.” her friend said.
Have you ever acted against a species that could have been a threat to the variety of life of the universe?”
No. It's not part of our function. That' what the seed of chaos, to some degree, is supposed to do. No living creature should be able to decide who lives or dies.”
That's what To'rganil does, right?”
For thousands of years, he has focused on the destruction of species. Always looking at the most advanced.”
And now we are their target...” she sighed.
Yes. Something is different this time, though. He won't resign himself to destroying you, he'll use you first.”
I still can't see which role I'm supposed to play in all this.”
Your moment hasn't come yet. Many paths are open before you, but for now, your main role is helping your father. He'll need a lot of support to accept some of the things Ur'daar is showing him. And you, Nahia, you are the pillar that will support him.”
What is awaiting me?”
I can't tell you. It could influence your choice when the time comes.”
How will I know what's the right thing to do?”
Because it will be whatever you decide.”
Then, if my father decided right now that he wants to leave and not help you. Would he be making the right decision?”
He would be listening to what his spirit dictates. In that aspect, it would be the right thing. But that choice would take us to a very grim future for all of us. That's why we hope to help him understand he still has a role to fulfill.”
I find all this so fascinating...” the scientist's daughter said, whilst they walked towards a small window.
There's something you must know, Nahia” Ur'nodel said, approaching her back, and placing his hands upon the shoulders of the young girl. “A harsh future awaits you. There are few paths where you will find happiness. You'll have to discover strengths you haven't found yet. The day will come when your father won't be here to protect you, and you will have to stand on your own feet. It's very likely that, at the end of your road, nothing will be left of the woman that is now staring at me.”
That would be a bad thing?”
You won't destroy the universe. If that's what you mean.” her mentor said. “But it might change the way you see the world, and yourself, in ways you aren't yet ready to understand.”
She turned around, looking fixedly into his eyes, as if she wasn't concerned by what she had heard:
I will accept whatever is to come.” she said, without displaying the slightest glimpse of doubt.




********




Meanwhile, Hans and Alha were in Naarad. After many deliberations, The Magnanimous had finally decided to lend his support to the overthrown emperors. Hans would act as commander of a group of soldiers recruited by the leader of the Grodey Empire. Tanarum, would accompany them as their counselor. The next step would be to decide the best course of action to ensure they reach Antaria. Without any doubt, the marshal would be already aware and would do everything he could to remove them from the picture. They were expecting to encounter a ruthless opposition, and the fact they would travel in grodian ships would make it even harder to reveal their true identity to the soldiers of their world:
If we go all out, in a frontal attack” the ex-emperor said, talking to Alha and Tanarum, “it will be a slaughter. We'll have plenty of losses and we won't make it to the planet.”
That marshal” Tanarum, who was now fully equipped with his cybernetic implants, said, “if he did betray your trust to oust you... He won't worry about enduring as many casualties as required; as long as he can maintain the current situation. We need a more subtle approach.”
What do you mean?” the girl asked.
A vessel that will act as advance party. Most of our forces should remain farther. Enough to not see them as a threat, but close enough to give us cover if needed.”
An emissary...” Hans said.
Indeed. A transport ship, with no weapons, that can show our intentions aren't bad.”
The marshal already knows what our message will be” Alha said. “And it doesn't look like we can expect any help from Miyana and Magdrot...”
That reminds me, you said you knew them” their tiny counselor said.
Yes” the ex-emperor replied. “Magdrot was the colonel of the army, he accompanied us on our journey to Ghadea. I sent him back before we departed to Kharnassos. Miyana... is a citizen of Antaria. Alha rescued her during the attack on the civilians, and offered her shelter at the palace after learning she had lost her husband, and that she was pregnant.”
So, she owes you her life, and he is a man that is loyal to both the marshal and the empire...”
I think Magdrot is more loyal to the empire than to the marshal. But, since he has been his superior, I guess he may feel some sympathy for the old man.” Hans continued.
The colonel and Miyana are now married” his wife said. “It's a precept of Ilstram's laws. The governor must have a formal partner, who must be known by the Empire.”
If we could let them know you are alive” Tanarum said, “isn't there any possibility they might listen?”
Perhaps” the ex-emperor said. “In any case, once we prove we're alive, we'll retake our position as governors of Ilstram. That's why they needed to get rid of us, jailing us in that prison. If Khanam's memories are true, they were planning to kill us, perhaps after some time had passed, in order to ensure no one in Ilstram would remember us. A civil revolt wouldn't let them accomplish their goals as easily. After all, the disappearance of an emperor, the death of a governor, is something tragic but not unlikely. Assassinating the leader of an empire to impose a new order when their inhabitants aren't unhappy with the current... That's more complicated.”
So, do we go with that plan?” his wife asked.
Hans remained silent for a few seconds. They were in the middle of a small room, in a building close to the temple. The Magnanimous had opted to not interfere in the decisions they had to make. He had only requested that they promise to recover the lost technology in their war against the Tarshtan Empire.”
If we can't come up with a better plan in the next three days, we'll have to go with this. But if we're to send an emissary before everyone else, I won't let any grodians risk their lives for us. We'll go in that ship.”
Then you'd be handing the marshal what he wants on a silver plate. No, Hans, the emissary should be a grodian soldier. After all, they come with us to help us triumph, not to be witnesses to our deaths” Tanarum said. “You can trust my people.”
I can't let anyone die because of me!” Alha's husband yelled unexpectedly.
His wife and his counselor looked at him surprisedly. For the first time, in a long while, he had lost his temper, and he had done so in front of his wife and an alien he barely knew:
I... I am sorry” he said, with a voice slightly bathed in guilt.
So, that's why?” Alha asked. “You hate your father because your friends died due to the orders he gave?”
A good leader, a... human being, wouldn't send his men to a certain death. I won't repeat the mistakes of my father. We will retake Ilstram, but we will do it my way.”
The grodian looked at him shocked:
A soldier becomes a soldier because he has sworn to defend his empire with his life, if that is required. I don't know the history of your world, but if you lost friends or relatives, they died defending that which they had sworn to protect.”
With a leader that didn't care only for himself, like my father. With one that cared about something more than the reputation of the empire, my friends would be alive.” Without being able to restrain it, anger faded, letting sorrow come to take its place. Hans lowered his head, visibly impacted, and added, “most of them were very young. They had long lives to live... They didn't deserve to perish like that. Yahfrad, Ereid and everyone else didn't deserve to die. They were destined to do something bigger.”
Silence fell upon the group. His wife and his new counselor understood that a pain, deeper than what he was willing to recognize, flew inside him.




********




Dictator Gruschal was on one of the highest floors of his imperial building. From there, he could almost reach the leaves of the Tree of Eternity with his own hands. He felt unease for once, since time immemorial. One of his plans, that he had crafted carefully, had failed. Two weeks had passed since his adoptive son, marshal Ghrast, notified him that the emperor and empress of Ilstram, as well as the scientist and his daughter, had managed to escape from the Xaltharam prison. They were assisted by a grodian fugitive, if he was to believe the words of his guards. The same guards that he, whilst furious, had ordered executed, along with every single guard in the jail; they had shown their ineptitude to keep four human beings under watch, despite the fact they had been in suspended animation for months. Narzhams were well known for their simian aspect, and their remarkable strength, which exceeded that of most species; perhaps only equaled by the lomarians. His guards hadn't taken advantage of that fact to ensure their targets wouldn't flee.
Now, his plans were hurried. He still had time to take over Ilstram's Empire as he wanted. It would allow an easier succession when the time came. Both marshal Ghrast and he were expectant. They had lost track of the four when they fled from the prison, but they knew that sooner than later, they would try to retake their world. If that day ever came, Gruschal himself would reclaim that wretched empire if needed. He was willing to travel to Antaria with an army capable of exterminating every single civilian, even if he preferred to be more subtle.
The new governors had proved to be far more easily manipulated than initially expected. Under the command of his adoptive son, they had doubled their military production, building an army that, in a few years, would equal in number that of the Tarshtan Empire. Furthermore, after he had warned the lomarians about the attack on Nelder, he had encouraged Ghrast to suggest to the new rulers that they repeat the conquest of the lomarian capital, as a demonstration of the new strength of Ilstram's Empire. A movement of that kind would be seen, without any doubt, as a warning to the other human empires. With his advice, Ilstram would be able to annex the four planets of the dying kingdom to its own, as well as most of the lomarian population that still existed in the universe.
Soon, Gruschal thought, the death of his adoptive son would come. Although his mind was still agile, his physical condition, and his weak human body was quickly deteriorating. He didn't have much time left. When that happened, and following what Gruschal had planned months before, he would kill the current emperor and empress and would proclaim himself as the new leader of the biggest empire ever known, combining the planets of the Tarshtan Empire, Ilstram's Empire, and the leftovers of the Empire of Lomaria. But in order to manage to do so, it was vital to prevent the despicable Hans, and his allies, from reaching Ilstram. If the population ever found out that their original leaders had survived, the whole plot would be revealed.
Eternal darkness will cover everything... soon” he said, while walking back to his room.

The body of marshal Ghrast had deteriorated notably during the last few months. His cane was now beside him at all times, walking with great difficulty, completely stooped. The decrepit old man realized that his days were coming to an end. After so many years, he had achieved the peace with himself that he had longed for. He had fulfilled his dream. Ilstram was now ruled by Namadiel and Nurandon, and with his advice, they had become worthy successors to Donan, the emperor he had served faithfully.
His difficult steps took him to the marble balcony. There, as always, Magdrot observed the city under his feet. Night had already fallen upon Antaria several hours before, but the constant flurry of lights showed that the activity hadn't stopped in the city. Summer had come to the planet. It was the only season of the year in which, for several weeks, snow was replaced by rain. Which was a consequence of the fact the founders had decided to build the metropolis on the equator of the planet.
Magdrot heard the heavy walking of the marshal. Despite not being able to participate in hand-to-hand combat anymore, and the fact that any other man of his age would have retired already, the elder continued to offer his advice to the new rulers, much to Magdrot's admiration.
Nelder has fallen” the emperor said. “At this moment, their soldiers are being captured or killed. Their citizens swear their allegiance to Ilstram. The Empire of Lomaria will officially end. With this conquest” he turned around, looking to the old man, “we'll avenge all the recruits that perished there.”
That's fantastic news” Ghrast said whilst smiling. “The ascent to power of Empress Namadiel expands the domains of Ilstram as it had never happened before... By the way, where is she?”
She is in her bedroom, the doctors that are supervising her pregnancy are running some checks.”
Oh, of course. How could I forget? She will give birth soon” and for the first time, the old Ghrast felt sorrow.
He knew that, most likely, he wouldn't live to see the birth of that child. Despite the early confrontations he had with Miyana, the girl had proved to have a great heart, temperance, and ingenuity when using the power she had been granted. He was genuinely happy that she would become a mother soon. He had seen her mature firsthand, how she longed to take care of the child of her first husband, who had perished in the attack against the civilians on Antaria. He was one of the many required casualties that Gruschal and he had to assume in order to set the plan in motion that had, eventually, led them to success.
Has she decided what her child will be called?” he asked.
Yes” Magdrot replied. “Ever since she knew it would be a boy, she has wanted to call him Mijuhn.”
Nice name, undoubtedly” the old marshal replied solemnly. “However, I had come to talk to you about less joyful matters.”
What is it about?”
You know that other empires won't hesitate to counter this maneuver of our kingdom. The army should be ready to react to any attack from other worlds.”
The Empire of Lomaria has endured plenty of casualties throughout the years” the emperor said. “We have conquered their capital, and their three remaining planets. But other empires have also conquered some minor territories. We're just taking our own part of the cake.”
Maybe someone else wants that very same part of the cake.”
Perhaps. If that's the case, the army will be ready to act. Most of our fleet is stationed on Antaria and the main colonies. The transport ships are carrying the first structures to Nelder, in order to establish the commercial network with Modea, and the rest of colonies, as soon as possible.”
And the lomarians?” Ghrast asked.
They will join our worlds. If my calculations are correct, they will become the third most numerous species of Ilstram.”
Understanding that the conversation had come to an end, Magdrot turned around once more to contemplate the landscape, just as the first drops of rain began to fall over the city.

Miyana was in her room. The medical team and Dirhel had left minutes before. Luckily, everything was going fine, and Mijuhn was in a healthy state. Despite the fact she was now empress Namadiel, and the population was interested in her state of health, she had avoided saying anything about the strange visions that plagued her mind with increasing frequency. The last had been particularly disturbing. What was the meaning of all that? Why was she having those visions? She remembered every detail of the last as if it was happening at that very moment.
They were walking down the streets of Antaria. In front of her, Mijuhn, who was nine years old, uprooted a patch of grass that had grown under the shadow of one of the massive buildings of the city.
It will arrive soon...” the young boy said.
His mother was very near, just a few steps behind. She looked at him inquisitively:
What will arrive soon, Mijuhn?”
Darkness... We will try, but we won't be able to prevent it. We won't be able to stop it from engulfing us whole. We'll have to look for a new home.”
What are you talking about, honey?” his mother asked.
There isn't much time left. If Hans and the others can't find what they're looking for, we won't be able to do anything”
We have to trust them. They left a long time ago. Hopefully they are doing alright.”
Have you talked with the empress?”
No, my dear. It's been several days since last time I saw her. Haven't you been with Narun?” she asked.
Yes. But he won't tell me anything about what's going on in the palace. We just play.”
What won't we be able to prevent?”
The destruction of Antaria...” he replied enigmatically.
The woman had no clue about the source of those visions. They assaulted her without previous warning, and abandoned her in the same way. She knew they weren't dreams. Was she hallucinating? The doctors would have noticed if something abnormal was going on, she thought to herself. But everything in her body, including her son, was absolutely normal. There wasn't anything external that could affect her emotional state, either. Her husband proved to be a huge pillar of support in the difficult moments, and he had shown that he was thrilled with the idea of seeing her child grow up.
Being an empress wasn't as unapproachable as she had believed at first. The announcement was initially received with skepticism by the people, as Miyana – under the name of Empress Namadiel – had become the first woman to take control of the kingdom in all of Ilstram's history, therefore relegating the man to a function of consort, breaking with the traditions of the past.
While her husband was far more interested in the military development of the empire, she had attempted to keep some of the social developments that her predecessor, Emperor Brandhal, had made for his people. Some time had passed since they ascended to power. At first, they had to avail themselves of marshal Ghrast's experiences when making decisions, but step by step, she felt she was beginning to understand the many intricacies of leading a world as vast as that. And soon enough, she would also have to combine her duty as a mother with her duties as empress.
She walked to the small window of her room, which was being hit by the incessant drops of rain, and, just as she had done on countless occasions, she placed her hand on her belly. She wondered if she would be able to face whatever the future had in store for her.




********




Khanam and Nahia were sitting in a small room, inside the massive mother ship of the Ur'daeralman. Father and daughter had been talking for a long while about everything they had learned regarding their strange hosts. Before them was a large window, through which they could see the immense universe. The ship was approaching an unknown solar system. They were close to the orbit of a planet that was dominated by blue and green colors. The atmosphere was also defined by the presence of white clouds, which were a common feature of most inhabited planets.
Which planet is this?” Nahia asked.
It doesn't have a name yet” Khanam replied. “The Ur'daeralman have come to place the seed of life. Afterwards, the Tor'daeralman will come to add the seed of chaos.”
Will we see how life is created?” she asked innocently.
Her father looked at her pleasantly:
None of us will see it. In fact, it is unlikely that any of the creatures in this ship will ever know. Life is a slow process. But, if everything goes as they plan, one day new species and life forms will appear here, adding to the rich variety of the universe.
His daughter looked at him fixedly, she had perceived the change in the tone of her father's voice. It was the voice of someone overcome by skepticism:
How many days have we been in this ship?” she asked.
I've lost track. It's hard to know, since we've always been in space.”
And how do you feel, father?”
I don't know” he replied with a serious tone. “I've seen many things in my life. But I had never seen so many that were unexplainable and difficult to accept as I have here. Science... Nahia, science can't even start to explain many of the things these entities can do. And worst of all, we knew about their existence!”
But we only knew about them from our legends...” the girl said.
Now all those stories are real... They can manipulate the energy in ways I can't understand. If we compare them to what they can do, our inventions are just toys for children. I've dedicated my whole life to understanding the universe. I firmly believed that science was the way. Now I realize I was wrong. So much effort... wasted.”
Don't say that” his daughter reprimanded. “You have participated in much research that has been key for our species. Everything you have done throughout your life is an achievement. Perhaps our error, as species, was to believe that we could fully understand something as vast as the universe. Thanks to your dedication, and that of your colleagues, our lives are far better than what any of our ancestors ever had.”
You may be right, my child. But I can't avoid feeling I'm no longer in control of my life. Instead, I feel they can take control of my existence if they wish so.”
Thanks to their ancestors we're here. In a way... they created us.”
That's not entirely true” Khanam said. “Ur'daar explained it to me. The life of each planet is the product of that planet alone. They only add the primordial mix that allows life to appear. We are the product of The Earth. That planet created us, and from there, we have expanded to many other worlds. We are what we are. They didn't intervene in any way to shape us, nor to shape any other species. I mean... we have our own identity. We are the children of the Blue Planet.”
Then, why not help them take advantage of this opportunity to discover all those things you can't understand? You should be thrilled to be here, and not the opposite. After all, you have a ton of questions that need to be answered”
Khanam looked at his daughter lovingly. She was a grown up woman, of incredible beauty, who had inherited the traits of her mother, not just physically, but also emotionally.
For a few minutes, he sank into the memories of a time long gone. The memories of his own youth, when his beloved wife encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming a scientist of Ilstram. She almost had to force him, and was amused by the skepticism Khanam had in his own abilities. That was the beginning of his long career in the fields of science, and his ascension to become one of the best human scientists the universe had seen for many years.
He was completely lost in thought when, suddenly, Ur'daar and Ur'nodel made him come back to reality:
We want to show you two something” the first ur'daeralman said.
What is it?” Nahia asked.
A combat between two individuals of our kind. Perhaps, you may find a weak spot that we just can't see.” Ur'daar said to Khanam,
The two humans nodded in agreement, and followed their hosts, once again, to the room where they had been for the last few days. It was entirely empty. Both beings wielded their weapons. They walked to the center of the room, Ur'daar brandished his staff, in front of his opponent, holding it with both hands. Ur'nodel brandished two small rods, one in each hand, standing sideways.
Ready?” Ur'daar asked.
Ready when you are.” his friend replied.

The two walked a few steps away from each other. Without any prompting, they both leaped on their opponent. Ur'nodel took the lead with a quick exchange of blows, with both hands, that Ur'daar repelled skillfully whilst holding his staff with one hand. He took advantage of his free left hand to manipulate the energy around his rival, throwing him through the air to one end of the room. Moments before touching the wall, Ur'nodel saw his rival attacking him. He straightened quickly, resting his feet against the wall, while using his hands to deflect the blows that his enemy attempted to deliver. After an exchange of attacks, Nahia's guardian used his skills to send his opponent flying through the air. However, unlike Ur'daar, he kept control of the energy, and with a gesture of his hands, suspended him in the air, completely immobile. His weapons had vanished, allowing him to fully focus in keeping his enemy at bay. Ur'daar also forced his staff to vanish. A few seconds later, the weapon appeared behind Ur'nodel, and through the use of his skill, he quickly hit his legs, unsettling his balance and breaking free from his grasp. The staff quickly disappeared and returned to the hands of Khanam's guardian. Giving no rest to his opponent, he leaped once again, delivering a flurry of impacts, so fast that the humans could barely follow them. However, they could perceive how Ur'nodel was repelling every attack from Ur'daar. They continued for several minutes trading physical and energy attacks. Suddenly, a quick succession of blows from Ur'nodel enabled him to throw his opponent against the wall. Leaving no room for recovery, he pushed against Ur'daar, placing both rods over his neck. Ur'daar smiled... and vanished. He appeared behind Ur'nodel, pushing him with immense strength against the wall. In an attempt to counterattack, Nahia's guardian forced his weapons to disappear and appear around Ur'daar's body. However, his greater expertise in combat allowed him to stop both weapons with a single hand.
I win.” Ur'daar said.
Nahia stood up, clapping after the impressive exhibition that the two guardians had offered.
You told me you can't teleport” Khanam said.
I haven't teleported” his guardian replied. “What we can do is travel at the speed of light for short distances.”
Travel?” Nahia asked.
Yes. We can transform into a beam of light, similar to how we change forms. We can travel at the speed of light for a short period of time, enough to travel a few hundred thousand kilometers, at most; but not enough to travel between, say, planets.”
You can only use telekinesis in combat?” Khanam asked. “It's the only skill I've seen you use.”
No. We can also focus our energy and throw it against our opponent. But that doesn't work in a fight between us, it doesn't have any effect” Ur'daar turned around, nodding to Ur'nodel. The warrior understood immediately, hurling an energy ball against Ur'daar.
We are energy, therefore, we absorb it without any difficulty” Ur'nodel added.
What if you used it against someone of a different species?”
It would depend on the intensity” Nahia's guardian continued. “We could kill several individuals of most species with a single projectile.
If I had to take a wild guess” Ur'daar said, “I'd wager that the narzham, despite being almost as fragile, have enough strength to withstand an energy ball between several of them without dying.”
So... it's a devastating power...” Khanam's daughter said.
Only if we used it against other species. And it's a useless power against our own people. We have never engaged in combat against a different creature.”
Have you observed something special, Khanam?” Ur'daar asked.
I have noticed you are experts in hand-to-hand combat. You mix your skills in an attempt to gain an edge over your opponent. But I haven't found an answer to how can we destroy a Daeralman, if that's what you were asking.”
His guardian lowered his head, which caused his ribbon to be visible, showing that it continued to wave as if it was being hit by a powerful wind:
It was worth a try.”
A path of the future?” Nahia asked. “Have you done it because my father could have discovered something?”
Yes” Ur'nodel said, “but that option hasn't worked. At least not for now.”
The group remained silent for a few minutes. Khanam had never seen a physical combat like that. Of course, he had seen the occasional street fight between citizens of Antaria, but this was in a completely different league. Nahia, meanwhile, continued to marvel at the magnificence of that species. She felt their combat style was beautiful, as if it was a perfect choreography.
Your friends will travel to Antaria at any moment.” Ur'daar said. “We will have to depart soon.”
Are you going to help them?” Nahia asked.
If it's required, we'll try to assist as much as possible, but I fear we won't be able to use our abilities. In fact, we'll be under human guises there” the warrior continued. After glancing quickly at his colleague, he looked at Khanam, and added, “there's something you still have to know. Follow me.”
The two walked away, while Nahia remained in the same room with Ur'nodel, in the seat she had been for the last few hours:
I hope we will manage to stop them” the young girl said.
For everyone's sake, I hope so too.” her friend said.

Ur'daar and Khanam were at the opposite end of the room. The energy creature looked at him fixedly, as if trying to understand if that was the right moment, and said:
I know you don't believe in everything I have shown to you.”
I am reluctant to accept you can see the future, or the futures, as you call them” the scientist said.
For that reason I want you to know some of the things that may or may not happen. If you know about them now, you will eventually see that my words are true. In some of those things, you will be able to intervene, and your decision will be vital to make that path become real. In others, you will only be a mere spectator.”
The man remained silent for a few minutes, thinking about what was going to happen:
I'm listening” he finally replied.
There are many things before us. These are seven of them. Whether they become real may or may not depend on you.” Ur'daar stopped for a second, and continued. “The first, and most obvious, which you already know, a dark force will attempt to dominate your world.”
Gruschal and Ilstram.” Khanam replied.
His colleague nodded.
The second... victory will unveil a terrible truth.”
What's that supposed to mean?”
You will know in due time. The future is surrounded by uncertainty, I can't be more specific.”
Continue...” the man said.
The third... Two kindred souls will split, and follow opposite paths. The fourth... the survival of your people lies beyond the stars; if you are to understand the future, you must look into your past. The fifth... Someone beloved to you will have, in her hands, the future of a whole species of the universe.”
Khanam looked at his daughter, who was talking animatedly with Ur'nodel:
Nahia?”
Ur'daar remained silent, and continued:
The sixth... your biggest victory will be your biggest sacrifice.”
And the last?”
For a tomorrow to exist, you will have to let go of the past.”
The seven prophecies...” Khanam said.
Prophecies?” his colleague asked, confused.
That's what the old inhabitants of Earth called the predictions, which some humans made about what the future held for them.”
Did those become true?”
The texts don't mention it. The information that we have preserved about our planet is just partial data, and filled with large gaps. We don't even know its original location, or if it still exists. Some legends say it was destroyed shortly after our ancestors abandoned it.”
I see...” Ur'daar said.
What you have said is, in essence, just like those prophecies.”
The scientist and his guardian joined Nahia and Ur'nodel once more.
You should rest. We will travel to Antaria soon. Ur'nodel and I will take care of the preparations.” Khanam's guardian said.
What will happen when we arrive there?” Nahia asked.
That depends on your own people. But even if we triumph, Tor'ganil will not give up.” Ur'daar replied.




********




Ahrz arrived home after a long day. He had finished a seemingly unending day at the beautiful colony of Ghadea. He had been tasked with supervising the security of the commercial network of the empire. Like every other soldier, he had heard the news about Nelder's conquest. His feelings were split; on one hand, he felt joy, as he considered that, in the end, the death of his good friend Narval, and the rest of recruits, hadn't been worthless. However, on the other hand, the soldier realized he didn't have enough courage to go back to that wretched planet, where he would, surely, relive the terrible memories of a battle in which he only escaped alive because a handful of good men sacrificed themselves. He was still disturbed by the image of that lomarian that had been observing them from the top of a nearby tree. Something was amiss with him; in the end, he decided to share his concerns with his superiors, only to see them diminished, arguing that it was, without any doubt, a blurry vision caused by the logical fatigue of a combat that put his very life at risk.
He was sitting on the couch in his main hall, when he heard the noise of the door opening. It was his adorable girlfriend, Adrius, Modea's nurse to who he had fallen in love during his time as recruit. Now, the couple was happily living in Antaria. Their relationship had strengthened over time. Generally speaking, Ahrz felt he couldn't really ask for anything else. Life as a soldier was far more peaceful than he had initially expected. Even if he didn't need to engage in combat with his ship, he enjoyed, hugely, the pleasure of piloting it to reach distant worlds.
You look tired” he said to Adrius. “How was your day?”
She approached the couch, placed her arms over his shoulders, and gently kissed his cheek while sitting on his lap. The thin rain, which had been falling upon Antaria during most of the day, gave her long hair a beautiful glow.
It's been alright. We had to assist several elders and children that aren't doing well with all this rain. Besides that, everything has been perfect. One of my colleagues was in the palace a few days ago. She said that the medical team concluded the empress's pregnancy is going better than expected. She might even come to the hospital when the time comes. Can you imagine that? I may have to assist in the birth of the future emperor of Ilstram...
That cheers you up, my love?” Ahrz asked.
Yes, of course. Watching another human being come to this world is so beautiful...”
Don't you want to be a mother some day?” he asked.
Of course. But, I don't think it's the time yet. I'm young. I do hope one day I'll see my own child grow up.”
I hope I'll be by your side to see it.” he said, while sweetly kissing her lips.
How was your day?” the girl asked.
It's been quite calm. Ghadea is a wonderful place, very peaceful. It's been a monotonous watch, but I've heard rumors...”
Rumors? About what”
About a possible attack on Antaria. They said the emperor and the empress expect a retaliation attack following the conquest of Nelder. Other empires are, apparently, planning to attack our kingdom to stop us from expanding too much.”
We lived better with emperor Brandhal...” Adrius said.
Maybe. Some people enjoyed his social politics. Particularly the most disadvantaged. But I think his father managed the military side far better. We were better prepared to defend ourselves from enemy attacks.”
If they finally attack... would you have to fight?” she asked.
If they order me to do so, yes. That's why I enrolled in the army. To help defend us from the enemies of the empire. If the rumors are true, that day may come sooner than any of us may believe.”
Promise me you will not let anything bad happen” she said, while seeking, once more, the lips of the man she loved.




********




Hans was at the hangar to which the Magnanimous had had sent them so they could leave Naarad. Before him, there was a true legion of grodian soldiers. Over three thousand, as their governor had mentioned. They were ready to carry out his commands.
We'll need several days to reach Antarian space” Hans said, in front of the silent multitude.
Twenty days, to be more precise.” Tanarum added.
Once we arrive... The only thing we know is that they'll receive us with hostility. Before we leave, I want to thank you” the ex-emperor continued. “I know some of you have offered to help us retake Ilstram's empire and enable us to launch a counter attack on the Tarsthan Empire. Others have decided to join us hoping to correct the mistakes you made in the past” he remained silent for a few seconds, and then resumed his speech. “I can't pretend I understand your people, even if my wife and I have been here for some time, surrounded by your species. However, I can assure you I'll do everything I can to ensure you come back to your homes, safe and sound, when all this is over. Many years ago, a battle marked me for the rest of my life. My father made the wrong decisions. I will not repeat his mistakes. I will not allow grodian blood to be spilled in vain. With your help, we'll recover what's been snatched from us” he paused for a moment, observing them. “Go now, visit your families. Enjoy the company of your loved ones, the city, or whatever it is that makes you remember that there are things in this universe that are worth fighting for. Tomorrow, with dawn, we'll begin our journey to the biggest battle the Grodey Empire has been part of in recent years... and we'll triumph.”
Hans walked away, to a nearby room. Behind his back, he could hear three thousand souls that were moved, keen to start the fight.
That was a brilliant speech” Tanarum said after entering the room.
Very emotional” Hans's beloved wife added. “It's been a long time since last I heard you talking like this.”
Taking importance away from it, the ex-governor replied:
I've only allowed my feelings to talk. I've remembered how I felt in the days following the Battle of Antaria. I've told them what I believe my friends would have wanted to hear before joining that fight.”
In any case, you have done the right thing, my dear” Alha replied.
I hope it still is the right thing when we attempt to enter Antaria.”

As he had told his army, they departed at dawn. Twenty days of tense calm were awaiting them. During those days, they would have to define the strategies that would help them ensure the success of the mission. For the first time in several days, Hans wondered how Khanam and Nahia would be doing with that enigmatic being that had visited them.
Ur'daar had tasked him with following his plan and returning back to Antaria. He knew that, if he was to trust him, he would have to face and overcome the threat of the Tarshtan Empire. But that's as far as his clues went. Far away were the days in which they were chasing a elusive missing fleet. Now, the puzzle had become far more complex than he would have ever ventured to guess at the time. In fact, he said to himself, it made sense that the marshal had his own plans. After all, his admiration towards his deceased father was well known by everyone. However, what he didn't know until their arrival to the Grodey Empire, was the existence of a period of the man's life that happened in Darnae, the capital of his now enemy empire. Had Ghrast planned everything right from the beginning? Or had it emerged due to his own faults? And, something that was eating him away... To which degree was the Tarshtan Empire involved?
Suddenly, Hans burst into laughter, much to the shock of his wife. They were inside a private room located aboard their own battleship.
Why are you laughing?” Alha asked.
Because I've just realized how absurd all this is” her husband replied ironically. “For years, I have detested my father for focusing on the military aspect of the empire. And now, so much time after, here I am, thinking just as he probably did, trying to guess the best course of action. Evaluating threats and assuming risks... Now I understand I should have paid more attention when he was trying to teach me all those things during my adolescence.”
Life can take unexpected turns...” she said. “Look at my brother, Aruan. He confronted me for years, because he thought our parents gave me more attention. Now, we know that he has helped finish the quantum jump technology, and he's allied with our enemy.”
I agree” he replied. “Who would have told us that we'd be at this point when we arrived to Ghadea that day...?”




********




Marshal Ghrast's health had worsened considerably over the last few days. He spent increasingly longer periods of time locked up in his room, conversing less and less with the governors. To make matters worse, he thought to himself, his adoptive father – dictator Gruschal – had informed him of the departure of a considerable amount of ships from the capital of the Grodey Empire. It was foreseeable that their target would be Antaria, and that Hans would be among them:
His death is key to avoid setbacks” Gruschal had told him.
But despite everything that was going on, the fatigued old man couldn't avoid perceiving the crude reality he was facing. His days were coming to an end, he was fully aware of that fact; and even if he had managed to finish his plan with success, now there was a looming shadow that he was hoping he would stop before abandoning that world forever. He had to alert the emperor and the empress, without revealing the true identity of their enemy. Luckily for him, the massive presence of grodian ships allowed him to disguise it as an obvious attack on the kingdom, as retaliation for the conquest of Nelder, and the remaining planets of the, now extinct, Empire of Lomaria.
He woke up that morning, when – by his own calculations – only seven days were left before the arrival of the fleet, and went to find the couple that he had appointed as new rulers of Ilstram. He found them in the huge dining room of the palace, taking breakfast and chatting lively about topics that, at that moment, seemed completely banal to the decrepit man.
Marshal, your aspect is bad today” Magdrot said. “Are you feeling alright?”
It's just the malady of my age” he replied with fatigued voice. The strain on his steady hand betrayed him, making it overly complicated to hide his need to rest the weight of his body on his cane. “I feel a bit better than my facade seems.”
Shouldn't you be resting?” the empress asked. “With this rainy weather, you may get sick.”
The old man thanked Miyana for her friendliness, but, trying to keep his mind clear, he went to the matter at hand directly:
I've come to ask if you are aware of the movements of the Grodey Empire.”
The couple looked at each other confusedly. The emperor asked Ghrast:
Which movements?”
They have sent an army. We believe the target is Antaria. They want to punish us for having conquered the Empire of Lomaria's leftovers.”
Can't they be heading to a different place?” Miyana asked.
Grodians haven't been at war with any other empire for years. Ours, because of Hans, never really had any commercial bonds with them. We are complete foreigners to that world. It doesn't take a big leap of imagination to realize they wouldn't have any trouble in executing us and setting us back due to what we have done. After all, they don't lose anything if they destroy our forces.”
How many ships are coming?” Magdrot asked.
We don't know yet, but hundreds, at least. They will need a week to arrive. There should be more than enough time to mobilize the entire army and prepare our defense.”
What if it's a distraction to free Nelder?” the empress asked.
Their path would've been different.” Ghrast said.
Furthermore, the lomarians have been deprived of their weapons and forced into labor, as they have refused to join the ranks of Ilstram in a civilized way. They wouldn't be able to help from the ground. Definitely not as they did the first time we attempted to conquer them.” the ex-colonel added.
Will you prepare the army?”
Yes, we'll prepare the defense of the empire. At the first sign of enemy fire. We will attack.” The emperor said.
I wouldn't give that advantage to the grodians” the marshal said, realizing that, most likely, their enemy wouldn't seek direct confrontation. “If they can fire first, and knowing the technology they possess, they could ravage our fleet. We should take the lead on the battlefield.”
We'll have time to set up everything we may need, marshal, but now, you should retire and take a rest. You won't be of help if you are like this when they arrive” Miyana said, in the most polite tone.
The old man, feeling satisfied, bid farewell cordially and walked back to his bedroom. The girl was right, he felt heavier with every passing moment. He required a great deal of effort to reach his bed. After several hours prostrated there, and realizing no one would disturb him, he activated the small intercom, in an attempt to establish contact with his adoptive father in Darnae.
After a few minutes, the familiar face of his adoptive progenitor appeared on the screen:
I have warned the emperor and the empress of the grodian attack. It looks like they have bought the idea that they should open fire first. With some luck, we won't ever hear again from that damned Hans:
You have done well, my son” his adoptive father replied. “How are you feeling?”
Very exhausted. I have the feeling I don't have much time left.”
I'm sure you are wrong.” Gruschal said.
Perhaps, but I'm not so sure” the marshal replied.
After the brief conversation, he closed the intercom, and readied himself to rest. Meanwhile, dictator Gruschal, in Darnae, was well aware that Ghrast's life would come to an end very soon.
I only hope he will live long enough to repel the attack from Naarad. If that's not the case... I'll travel to Antaria myself. I will resolve this matter for once and for all with my own hands.” he said to himself. “One way or the other, Humanity will kneel before me.”
With heavy steps, the old dictator walked to his bedchamber. The time to draft the master plan to assassinate the governors of Ilstram, following Ghrast's impending death, had come. He didn't even care about the precautions he had taken over so many years. He was so close to reaching his goal, to ending the charade, that he had found difficult to keep his mind focused. He wanted to have the honor of assassinating those two miserable humans. It had been way too long since the last time he had experimented with that perverse pleasure... When he ended the life of that miserable lomarian that had crossed his path.
The day will come soon...” he said, enigmatically.





Chapter V
Broken dreams




The dawn of the new day had been, at the very least, weird. Although Ahrz was already on his way to the general quarters of Antaria, he wasn't capable of keeping his nerves under control. Every soldier had been ordered to go there immediately. They hadn't received any more information, but he understood that it was something important enough as to mobilize the whole regiment stationed on the planet. Usually, only a handful of soldiers were summoned to take care of routine work, or to help solving small conflicts between the citizens. He arrived at the huge black building – colored in that way to help absorb as much sunlight as possible from the binary system that lit up the planet, making easier to keep a warm temperature on the inside during the harshest days of winter.
After his arrival, he was ordered to head to the lobby as quickly as possible. Without hesitation, and following what he had learned during his training at Modea, Ahrz walked to the huge room. Several hundred soldiers were already there, and surely a few more soldiers were still on their way. After several minutes of conversation with his friends, in which he only concluded that everyone was extremely confused, the commanders of the army appeared. Although Ahrz didn't see the old marshal, he did spot his commander and other high ranked officers among the group. After a few seconds of pause, and to the shock of everyone, emperor Nurandon also appeared.
What's happening?” he asked himself.
The multitude clamored. It wasn't the first time they saw Magdrot at the command center, but it was the first time he had assisted since he had been appointed as emperor by the marshal. He rose his hands, requesting silence, and after a moment, he said:
Soldiers! Dark days are coming to our empire. The Grodey Empire has sent its fleet to attack us. They want to punish us for conquering the Empire of Lomaria” he said in a defiant tone.
He observed the men and women, who were staring at him expectantly, for a few seconds:
I tell you this. We will defend what is ours, until our dying breath. Eight months ago, I could see fear in many of you, when those ships attacked our beloved planet. Some of you lost your loved ones, your brothers, fathers, mothers or friends” he took a long breath before resuming, hoping to give some time to his words to cause an impact among the crowd. “Five months ago, we suffered an irreparable loss at Nelder, when the lomarians lured us into a trap that killed many of our recruits.”
Ahrz couldn't avoid remembering, once more, his friend Narval, who had given his life to allow him, and the rest of survivors, to flee from that deadly trap. He was fully conscious that thanks to him, he had been able to begin a new life with his loved one, Adrius. After the brief absorption, he paid attention to the emperor:
This time, we won't wait until they hit at us first. This time, we will open fire.” Magdrot yelled. “We will send a clear message to the universe. We are here and we're not going to surrender easily. We will fight for what belongs to us!”
The emperor contemplated, with satisfaction, how his soldiers reacted in a burst of cheers. He rose his hands once more, asking for silence, and continued:
Three days from now, the grodian ships will arrive. Get ready to fight and defend your people! We will not give them the chance to take the lead. For the Empire!”
For the Empire!” the men and women at Magdrot's feet replied.

The emperor walked away, silently; he had to return to the palace hastily. They had already planned the attack strategy during the previous days, with the assistance of Ghrast. But that day had begun in the most worrying way. The old marshal was having difficulties breathing. The doctors, who had come following Miyana's request, told them that the marshal didn't have much time left. The man that had transformed them into governors could die at any moment. Out of respect towards who had been, first his superior within the chain of command, and then his elector to become emperor of Ilstram, and now his counselor, Magdrot felt he had to stay by his side until the end.
The journey to the palace only took a few minutes. He entered through the front door, after walking quickly through the gardens, where children were already playing, despite the thin rain that was falling upon the city. The relationship between Antaria's citizens and the new rulers wasn't too different from that with their predecessors. Following the initial shock of the first days, when the citizens were constantly stopping them to greet them, or making a request every time they walked through the gardens, now they were able to walk around just as any other person, causing, at worst, a few risen eyebrows.
He let the palace's guards take care of closing the doors behind him, and went looking for Dirhel. He couldn't find her anywhere. For that reason, assuming that the situation had worsened, he walked upstairs, to the third floor of the palace. At the end, he could see the marble balcony, where he had been so many times since his first visit with Hans, his predecessor. To his left, a long hall opened, covered with paintings and ornaments, which led to the chambers of the palace's personnel. To his right, an identical hall opened, in which his own chamber was located, as well as the marshal's. The door was open. He walked hastily. After entering the room, he saw Dirhel, who was observing the decrepit body of the old man with a preoccupied look. When she spotted the emperor, the woman walked discreetly towards him, and whispered into his ear:
The doctors say it's imminent. His passing might happen at any time” she said in the most solemn tone. “It's so sad. I've always had some respect for him... Knowing that his life is waning... that a human being is dying... that saddens me enormously.” the maid said.
The emperor held the arm of the woman comfortingly, in an attempt to comfort her, and said:
It's the cycle of life, Dirhel. You don't have to be here if you don't want to. Thanks for your help.”
If you don't mind, emperor, I would prefer to stay here with everyone.” Magdrot nodded, and walked further into the room. Miyana was sitting in a chair next to the marshal's bed. Although her belly showed the advanced stage of her pregnancy, and the imminence of her son's birth, she had wanted to be there to bid farewell to the man that made her believe in herself and, in the end, proclaimed her empress of Ilstram.
The couple exchanged a saddened look; the ex-colonel gently pressed the hands of his wife, whilst Miyana talked:
He has barely said anything for the last few hours.”
He looks very fatigued. Is he in pain?” Magdrot asked.
The doctors gave him a sedative” his wife replied. “It seems it has worked, but it also masks his true condition... Perhaps that's better for us. I can't bear seeing another human being suffering.”
Empe...ror...” the marshal said with noticeable difficulty. “How... did... it... go?”
Magdrot made a gesture, asking Dirhel and the three doctors, who remained in the room, to abandon it for a few moments. When the last person exited and closed the door, he continued:
The soldiers have been informed. We'll be ready to defend ourselves from the grodian attack. We have brought every soldier from Antaria, Ghadea, Kharnassos, and some of the better prepared recruits from Modea. The people will surely realize something is happening. Something that no one has explained to them.
It's better... this... way...” Ghrast said.
Marshal, you shouldn't make the effort to talk” Miyana said.
It is... Now... At last... I understand” the old man replied. “This is my deathbed... I see it. I know... soon will be the moment to say... goodbye.”
He went quiet, thinking for a second about everything he had achieved throughout his life. Although he was there, now, as an old man that was feeling the cold grasp of death, he still managed to remember some of his greatest feats.
He remembered days long gone, when, still young, he lived in Darnae under the protective wing of his adoptive father. There, he grew up as a military officer. After many years of service on Antaria, with emperor Borghent, where he took part in numerous battles, the dark decades of emperor Brandhal – or Hans, as he was really called – arrived. And in the last years of his life, he had made a decision to bring Antaria, and Ilstram, to the greatness the empire had seen before him. It was at that time when, with the help of his adoptive father, he had set in motion a plan that eventually led to the overthrow of Hans and Alha, their imprisonment, and several years later would lead to their execution, when the people would no longer remember them, avoiding the possibility of an uprising. Despite the fact the last part hadn't become reality, he felt satisfied. In front of him were the two people he had designated to become the new emperor and empress of Ilstram. Two persons whom he had attempted to show the magnificence of Donan. The old man smiled, he was happy because his plan had worked. The last push was missing, now that the coward had decided to step from the shadows and travel back to Antaria with the Grodey Empire. It was time to put him to death and bury, once and for all, that destabilizing factor. Ilstram was already on a good path, he couldn't allow that terrible man to rule again, ever.
The old marshal felt how his body was fighting with increasing ferocity to keep himself alive. He was going to die, and despite all the satisfaction about everything he had done during his life, he was going to perish with a regret, the sorrow of not seeing the culmination of his brilliant plan in the battle that would take place in three days. He gave in to the embrace of the cold mantle that would make him leave the world, and, before exhaling his last breath, he looked for the last time at Miyana and Magdrot. She was crying inconsolably, he kept that indifference that was natural to those that, like Ghrast, had been formed in the martiality of the army.
Mustering the little strength that he still conserved, he said:
Do... not... let... him... enter... the planet. Do not.. let him...”
Marshal!” Miyana yelled.
Dirhel and the doctors entered once again following that shout. But, the only thing they could do was to verify what Magdrot already knew. Ghrast had passed away.
After several minutes in the room, the emperor himself suggested everyone take a rest, whilst the medical team would take care of moving the lifeless corpse of the old man. As they were walking to their bedroom, visibly affected, Miyana turned to Magdrot and asked confusedly:
Who was he talking about when he told us to not let him enter the planet?”
It probably wasn't anything else but the delirium of the poor man, my dear. He was dying. I don't think there was any real meaning to what he was saying.”
It sounded like a warning to me. But... Who could be it?”
I don't think it's anyone. Just delirium.” he insisted.
We'll have to prepare his funeral...”
And announce his passing to the people, you are right” Magdrot said.
He kissed his wife's lips, and added:
I'll take care of it. You stay here and rest. You won't want Mijuhn to suffer, right?”
His wife looked at him, with a timid smile that could be seen between her tears:
I know I shouldn't move too much, but, despite that, I would like to assist with the funeral tomorrow. Thanks to him we are here today. Thanks to him we are the rulers of Ilstram.”
I would also like to have you by my side tomorrow.”
After those words, he walked towards the office of the palace:
The world must know that a good man has passed away.” he said to himself.

Dictator Gruschal was at his palace, in Darnae, when one of his counselors gave him the news he had been waiting to hear:
Emperor... Your son, Ghrast, has passed away” he said solemnly.
The narzham, without even turning around, replied:
I already knew. You can leave.” To which the counselor reacted by fleeing from there, as if he had been granted a new chance to live.
The old dictator observed Darnae's horizon. His adoptive son had died, and now he was free to execute the final part of his master plan. After so many years of planning, he was close to reaching his goal. The pathetic attempt by the Grodey Empire to ruin his plans was irrelevant. He would exterminate the whole army by himself. For the first time since the start of those events, he wondered if the Ur'daeralman would finally deign to give him a good battle. With the submission of the human race, he would bring chaos to every confine of the universe, ensuring his absolute triumph, and the destruction of everything that lives. By doing so, he would accomplish what his people had been ordered countless millions of years ago. To sow the seed of chaos wherever they go.
For the first time in many years, he stopped thinking as the, apparent, governor of the Tarshan Empire, to instead retake the identity he had abandoned for the last centuries.
Tor'ganil was back:
Soon the moment will come to leave this clumsy body behind” he said, with a deep and terrifying voice.
For a few seconds, he observed how he was leaving the aspect of that narzham who was known as Gruschal - and the form that had allowed his ascent to power – to give pass to his true form.
The body of a tor'daeralman, a silhouette that glowed with a deep black tone, pulling the energy that surrounded him to himself. Unlike the ur'daeralman, his eyes and mouth were of gray color. As his distinctive vestment, he wore a waistcoat, shorts and bracers, all colored red by his energy. For a brief moment, he summoned his precious weapons. He extended his arms to both sides, causing two swords to appear. Although they were completely dark, and made entirely of energy, they were sharp enough to cut through anything...
The deceitful creature was delighting in the contemplation of his true self. He heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and, for a few seconds he hesitated. He felt so full of power, so triumphal, that he considered the possibility of killing all his counselors, the whole population of the planet, and even destroying the planet itself if necessary. It wouldn't be the first time he had done something like that. But, recovering his senses, and using the good judgment he had briefly lost, Tor'ganil opted to go back to the aspect of dictator Gruschal.
My lord” the counselor said. “Will you attend the funeral? It will be held tomorrow on Antaria, and we should inform their governors to help them find a lodging suitable for you.”
I won't attend” he replied, without turning around. “Go away.”
On the next day, he put the final touches to his plan. He would travel to Antaria on the morning of the next day, alone. Once there, he would kill the emperor and the empress, and spread chaos throughout the empire. After making sure that the humans that had fled from Xaltharam's prison were also dead, he would return with his army to conquer Ilstram's Empire, becoming their master. The biggest force of destruction ever witnessed was about to be created, and he would be leading it.




********




Ahrz felt very nervous. He had spent most of the night sleepless, next to his girlfriend, without managing to get some rest. Every time it seemed he was about to fall asleep, the lucidity went back to him, startling him, forcing him to remember scenes of the battle had fought on Nelder. He remembered his friend Narval, wondering what was in store for the impeding battle that was about to happen on Antaria. For some reason, and despite having enrolled in the army because that was his true passion, he couldn't avoid having a bad omen about the imminent grodian attack. To make matters worse, his beloved Adrius had also expressed her concerns. She feared that something bad would happen to him during the battle, because, if that was the case, she would never see him again. When he first heard that concern, he replied that she already knew it was a possibility for anyone dating a soldier. Only two days were left until the arrival of the massive fleet. The next night wouldn't be spent in the comfort and warmth of his home, but instead, he would already be at the facilities of the army. There, together with the rest of soldiers, he would receive the instructions concerning the battle plan. Unable to sleep, and trying to not wake up Adrius, the ex-miner left the bed, picked a housecoat, and walked to the balcony of the house. Dawn was just breaking, and there were still a couple of hours left until Garaia and Hnaws – the two stars that adorned the antarian sky – would reach full luminosity. The megalopolis was already showing the first signs of activity. He could see the first transport ships moving around, carrying passengers to their jobs, as well as people walking through the streets. For a second, he believed he had begun to understand the true dimension of his new job. Allowing the people to continue living their lives, with their routines, was his responsibility, and that of any soldier that had sworn to protect Ilstram's Empire with their lives, if needed. He knew, deep within, that he didn't wish for anyone else to endure what he had seen at Nelder, nor see a repeat of the first attack on Antaria that had happened just several months before.
Not even a year has passed yet...” he said.
It felt as if an eternity had passed since that incident, since the day on which, looking face to face at that destroyer, he had decided that it was the time to listen to his heart, and leave behind his family's tradition of working at the mine. Since that moment, he had experienced many different feelings and situations in his life, and everything around him was so different, that he felt as if he was living someone else's life.
You haven't slept at all?” Adrius said, walking towards the balcony.
He was startled. After turning around and seeing her, he embraced her and kissed her sweetly:
No. It's been a horrible night” he replied.
It's normal, soon you will have to fight. I guess that anyone in your place would feel the same.” she replied.
Not really. I know some guys that would manage to sleep even if the world was literally breaking apart beneath their feet...” he said, in an attempt to find some of the good mood that had left him since he knew what was about to happen.
What's worrying you so much?”
Failure, I think” Ahrz said. “Not knowing against what we are truly fighting. Some say the grodians haven't attacked anyone for years, and that they are very advanced, technologically speaking. What if we are just walking to our deaths?”
I don't want to lose you” she said. “But I think you must trust the good judgment of the emperor. They wouldn't send you to a battle just to die. Don't you agree?”
Then what about Nelder?” he said, pensively. “They sent us to conquer a planet that the empire didn't need, just to show off our strength. We escaped that place alive thanks to everyone that sacrificed themselves there, just to allow a handful of us to survive. If Narval and the others hadn't done so, no one would have made it off that rock.”
When you traveled to Nelder as recruits, the acting governor was the marshal” Adrius replied. “I think the emperors act in a different way, and know you'll be capable of withstanding the enemy assault.”
I can only hope you are right, my dear” Ahrz said, whilst hugging her with all his strength, fearing that could be one of the last occasions on which he could do so.

Khanam and Nahia were inside the transport ship that Ur'daar and Ur'nodel had prepared. They had told them that only two more days were left before reaching Antaria, and that it was likely they would arrive at the planet shortly after Hans, who would be there with his army trying to get back to the surface.
Will you take part in the battle if we arrive there before it starts?” Nahia asked Ur'daar.
If we were to interfere, we'd be altering the possible futures. We must act with extreme caution.”
What would happen if you take part?” Khanam asked.
It's very likely Tor'ganil would succeed.”
Dictator Gruschal...” Nahia said reflexively. “Does no one know that he is, in fact, Tor'ganil?”
His people don't know” Ur'nodel replied. “They believe he is just another narzham, extremely long-lived, but one of their kind, never the less.”
Why don't you reveal it?” she asked.
How could we do it?” Ur'daar replied. “Just try to imagine the reaction of your species if they discovered that, all of a sudden, there's a tor'daeralman ruling over an empire, and possessing skills that go far beyond anything you can imagine.”
Furthermore, by revealing his true nature we'd be giving him the opportunity to openly use his powers. He wants to spread chaos wherever it hasn't triumphed, and, in essence, he wants to destroy everything. But that doesn't mean he has stopped reasoning with logic.” Ur'nodel added.
The group went quiet. Khanam had endured tough days trying to understand everything in that ship. He had already accepted that, much to his disappointment, human science wasn't capable of explaining everything in the universe, no matter how much he wanted it to be true. What unsettled him the most, perhaps, wasn't the fact he had found beings made of energy, nor that they could do things that were very difficult to explain to anyone who had let science rule their life. What truly unsettled him, and made him feel out of place, was knowing that those beings were responsible for the existence of life and conflicts. He could understand the first to some degree. They weren't gods, nor did they attempt to act as them, neither had they molded life to their image and likeness, but he couldn't understand the latter. Without the seed of chaos, would conflict cease to exist? And if that was the case, why bother sowing it at all? The only answer he had received to those questions was that the daeralman were a neutral species. They weren't ordered to judge what happened around them, they were only told to execute the task at hand.
In some ways, he understood he was looking at an exception; two of those beings whose neutrality was corrupted. They defended life, and to some extent, good, even if they couldn't grasp that idea. They didn't detest the seed of chaos, but hated the notion that Tor'ganil had; he wanted destruction to reach every place where life had appeared.
They all were the incarnation of good and evil. For the veteran scientist, that whole situation meant putting aside the concepts of science, and basing it on almost religion beliefs to justify their actions.
Nahia, for her part, didn't seem to have any of those doubts. It could also be due to the fact that her stay had been calmer than her father's. The girl had been shown the beauty of the many species that inhabit the universe, some of them were totally unknown to the woman. Her mentors also attempted to help her understand the principle of neutrality that governed the daeralman life. They had told her that all that knowledge would help her when the moment to make her decision arrived. Other than that, she had been shown the same things as her father, excluding the details of the risk that Tor'ganil posed, nor the need to find a way to destroy him. The young woman had been, unknowingly, a fundamental pillar of support to prevent her father falling into the deepest insanity imaginable.
And now, there they were, accompanied by two ur'daeralman, about to reach Antaria...






Chapter VI
Eternal Darkness




Hans felt extremely nervous. The fleet was approaching the solar system of Antaria. The planet was just hours away. He couldn't avoid a shiver down his spine after thinking about commanding all those ships against his own empire. What worried him the most was not knowing how to avoid an absurd massacre on both sides. After several days of lucubrations about what could be awaiting them, he understood the marshal would not retreat, and he would prepare a formidable defense to repel the enemy. Although he didn't want to admit it openly before his wife and Tanarum, Hans knew he wasn't the best strategist. Unlike his father... Always his father.
Do you think we'll make it?” Alha asked, whilst both looked through a big window in the compartment of the ship.
I hope so. But you know what will be awaiting us when we arrive at the planet...”
They aren't going to receive us with open, welcoming arms” his wife replied. “The marshal wouldn't allow that.”
Yeah, but Miyana and Magdrot are now the empress and the emperor. I don't know her, but she doesn't look like the kind of woman who would give the order to open fire against an attacking army before asking first...”
What kind of woman would do that?” Alha asked ironically.
Hans looked at her for a few seconds, confused, and realized his words didn't make any sense:
You're right, I don't really know what she would do.”
Tanarum approached the couple; they weren't startled by his presence. They were already used to the constant movement of the small grodian, who had learned, during those days, what the best moments to interrupt them were, and when it was wise to disappear. He had displayed great tact and ease to understand humans, generally speaking:
Soon we'll be able to see the fleet they have prepared to confront us, if there's one. You said there is a sensor on the moon” he continued, looking to Hans. “They'll probably know by now that we are here, and how many ships we have. Do you want to continue with the same plan? To not do anything until they open fire?”
Yes... Perhaps we may avoid conflict if they see we don't come with a will to fight.” he said.
With all due respect, I think that's insane” Tanarum said.
What do you want me to do?” Hans asked. “Do you want me to start destroying the ships of our empire, giving a reason to llstram's citizens to hate us? Yeah, that's brilliant” he continued, ironically. “If the soldiers don't kill us, then their families will. Quite an improvement.”
But Tanarum may be right” Alha said. “If the marshal is commanding the fleet, surely they'll have already decided the best course of action to attack and inflict upon us as much damage as possible, so we become an empty threat. Right?”
That's what I meant.” the grodian said.
Hans went quiet for a few seconds. That was the kind of situation where he could feel the responsibility of being Ilstram's emperor, and its weight resting upon his shoulders. He felt forced to make decisions he didn't want to, or decisions he wasn't sure of. However, he had made that choice long ago, when they were still at Naarad, even if it was much to the disappointment of his wife and his counselor.
We won't attack unless they do first. If that happens... we will have to react and counterattack, of course.”
So be it” Tanarum replied solemnly.
In fact, he wasn't mad at Hans, although it wasn't difficult for him to see the obvious issues of a tactic that would look like suicide to absolutely anyone, except the ex-emperor. The grodian was smart enough to understand that, deep inside the human there were other worries and irrational reasons that could only be dealt with by Hans himself. He had to overcome the ghosts of his past in order to make the appropriate decisions, and Tanarum could only hope Hans would vanquish those ghosts before it was too late, before everyone ended up dying in that cold, distant rock that was now visible far in the distance.
The grodian was walking away from the room, when he suddenly heard a moan. He turned around, and saw Alha visibly in pain:
My love?” Hans asked.
His wife looked at him worryingly, placing her hand on her belly. The woman was reaching the final stage of her pregnancy:
It's the baby. Suddenly, I felt a bit of pain, now it's over, but it was intense. I guess it's the first sign...”
First sign of what?” her husband asked innocently.
His birth, my dear” his wife replied lovingly.
Tanarum approached Alha, examining her with that monocle that gave so much information to the grodians:
It looks like the two are okay, both you and the baby. But, perhaps you should rest?” he said.
Hans needs me” she replied. “I can't go to rest.”
My love, Tanarum is right, you have to get some rest. The last thing we need is to have our son being born in a ship, before we reach Antaria.”
I'll help her” his counselor said, looking at the girl. “If you allow me to, of course.”-
Yes...”
The ex-emperor accompanied his wife to the small compartment they were using as their improvised bedroom, then helped her lay down on the bed they had prepared for the long journey from Naarad.

Just a few hours had gone by, when Tanarum approached Hans once more. The time had come:
How is Alha doing?” the counselor asked, after seeing the woman sleeping.
It seems she feels better, but she has moaned a few more times.” Hans replied.
The fleet of your planet is already visible in the distance...”
The two abandoned the room, walking towards the command center of the grodian vessel. Hans approached the instruments that were at the center of that area: a small panel that had a massive amount of text, which he realized he couldn't read quickly enough.
Hans, here” Tanarum said, next to a small window in one of the sides of the room. “There they are.”
In the distance, looking like little more than dots in the space, and with Antaria behind them, Hans spotted hundreds of Ilstram's ships.
How many are there?” he asked his counselor.
A lot, around two thousand ships or so. They match our numbers, perhaps even exceed them slightly. I can't recognize all your ships, but I'd swear there are, at least, destroyers, battleships, combat cruisers...”
For that amount of ships to be here... they must have brought the fleets from Ghadea and Kharnassos...”
Or built them. Remember it's been months since you left.” Tanarum said.
Yeah, but even then, they wouldn't be able to build so many in so little time. They must have brought them from the colonies to help with the defense.”
I know you want to continue with your plan of not attacking unless they do first, but to be honest... If that's a welcoming committee, you humans have an odd way of welcoming your guests” he said, ironically.
Hans sighed deeply. The long shadow of his father loomed upon him in an increasingly ominous way. Without any doubt, his progenitor would have already dispatched a myriad of orders, explaining how to position the fleet for an effective defense. He meditated for several minutes, in absolute silence, under the attentive scrutiny of Tanarum. Deep within, he knew the grodian was right; it was obvious they would be attacked with everything at their disposal as soon as they entered their range.
The ex-emperor felt a shiver, a cold sweat that made him feel uncomfortable. How easy it was, he said to himself, to give orders that could be very negative, to creatures of other species. But now, he was about to cross the line he had sworn to himself he would never cross:
Tell everyone to open fire as soon as we get in range.” he said in a very serious tone of voice.
Tanarum observed him contemplatively. For the tiny grodian, it wasn't difficult to imagine what his friend was going through. He walked away, ready to communicate his order.
In the solitude of the area where he was now, Hans cried. It wasn't tears of anger, or impotence, but of sorrow. Thirty years before, a battle that, probably was very similar to the one about to happen on Antaria, put an end to the life of his friends, and the lives of many citizens of Ilstram. Now, there he was, ready to become – against his own will – the culprit of another bloodbath, one he wouldn't be able to stop. How could that be justified? In the end, he would have been happy living just as a random, anonymous person on the planet. He didn't want to follow that path, to follow in his father's footsteps, repeating the mistakes he had made. He didn't want to become a man devoid of all feelings, to whom everyone surrounding him becomes just another number to administer. But, at the same time, he knew he had to push through that imminent battle. It was vital in order to reach Antaria, to ensure that his beloved wife would be able to give birth to their son in the adequate place, and with the attention that only the empire itself could give her. They could have gone to another human empire, of course, and she would have received, surely, the appropriate treatment. However, since all human emperors were relatively known in the other worlds of their species, it wouldn't have been long before their pursuers would have found them, and killed them:
What am I doing? I am a monster...” he said to himself, out loud.




********




Ahrz felt so nervous that he could barely keep his grip tight. He was piloting a battleship, the destroyers were assigned to soldiers far more experienced than him, and, although the idea of finally defending the empire thrilled him, he was equally terrified of experiencing something similar to what he had seen at Nelder. There he was, along with thousands of soldiers, ready to defend the emperor and the empress of Ilstram with their very own lives, if that was needed:
Contact with the enemy will be imminent” he heard the voice of his colonel through the interface. “To all ships, open fire as soon as they enter your range. Do not wait for any order, open fire as soon as possible. If we give them the advantage of attacking first, they could inflict great harm upon us.”
He felt his heart rate accelerating. Both armies moved closer and closer to each other, almost close enough to attack. Luckily for the antarian, he wasn't on the front line, but rather, he had been assigned to the rearguard, from where he should provide cover fire and help to ensure the destroyers would inflict as much damage as possible, while the quick combat ships would raid the enemy fleet, trying to destroy important objectives. In all directions, he saw a sea of white ships, those of Antaria; in front of them, he saw the ships, of reddish tones, of the Grodey Empire.
For several seconds, he thought about his friend Narval, he promised to himself he would honor his memory and the opportunity he had given him to live again. After that, he threw into the fight, while the ships ahead of him began to shoot at their enemies. He didn't care to see who the first to attack was, he didn't know if an ally ship, or an enemy ship, had started the conflict. There was now a hell before his eyes, explosions and plasma shots constantly going off from both armies. With his hands still shaking, he locked target on a front line grodian ship, and shot...
The plasma burst impacted fully on the ship, damaging it severely. Ahrz's body shook as a whole. It wasn't the first time he had fired a weapon, nor it was the first time he had killed another living being; he had experienced that feeling already at Nelder. But this was different, there was no room for escape here, only victory was good enough. Defeat wasn't an option that would allow him to flee with his life. He readied himself to activate the armament of his ship once more, but before he could even fire, he saw the grodian ship explode into pieces under the bursts of plasma of several ships. Shortly after, he saw a ship approaching in the distance, and another ship farther away. In the same way, his fellow soldiers were also trespassing the grodian lines, meeting a similar fate. For that reason, he felt thankful for having been assigned to the rearguard. As the fight went on, both armies were slowly mixing. The homogeneity of each army was slowly becoming diluted, with more and more individual fights appearing. His colonel had stopped giving orders since the beginning of the battle, most likely because he was fighting along with everyone else.


What's your command, Hans?” Tanarum asked. “If you don't do something, who comes out of this alive will be a mere question of luck.”

I'm trying to think” he replied curtly.
The two were back at the command center of the vessel. Hans had recovered his composure, but he didn't have even the slightest clue about the best course of action to follow in that battle. After remaining quiet for a few seconds, he finally had to content himself and asked:
What kind of ships do we have? I can't remember.”
Tanarum replied efficiently:
War hounds, those are quick ships, capable of inflicting noticeable damage to heavily armored ships. Iron fists, those are slower than war hounds, but their specialty is destroying large amounts of lightly armored ships. Space tanks, those are very slow ships, but they can destroy pretty much anything with a single shot, and lizards.”
Lizards?”
Transport ships that have been fitted with weaponry, like this vessel. They can't attack heavily armored targets, but can defend reasonably well against light armored targets” Tanarum said. “You know your empire's fleet, Hans. With this information you must be able to find our strong areas.”
The ex-emperor went quiet for a moment. Deep within, the same conflict that had assaulted him for days, was raging once again:
I can't do this, Tanarum” Hans said.
Do what?” his counselor asked.
I'm not a leader of war, I have always detested my father for what he did, and I never paid much attention when he attempted to teach me how to manage an army. I can't bear the burden of knowing that, if I make a mistake, I'll have to assume the guilt of hundreds of deaths.”
The grodian looked at him silently, and finally replied:
If you don't make any decision, then you'll have to bear the burden of being guilty of deaths that you could have avoided if you had done the right thing. But if you prefer, we can just wait until they kill us. In this situation there aren't half solutions, either we live... or we die.”
Hans looked at him surprisedly. It was, most likely, the first time anyone had talked to him with such frankness. He remained silent for a few seconds, which felt eternal to both, and finally replied:
I see now I did the right thing accepting you as my counselor. You are right, we have to do something... even if I don't like it.”
The ex-emperor observed the scene that opened before his eyes, trying to remember the offensive abilities of the Ilstram ships, trying to find the adequate match for each vessel:
War hounds have to focus on destroyers, the largest ships we have. Iron fist must focus on the quick incursion ships, those are the smallest. Space tanks should focus on battleships, which is the most common vessel in the army. And lizards should also assist against them.”
Understood” Tanarum said. “I'll communicate the orders.”
He didn't feel satisfied. He didn't want to become a war chief, he didn't want to be the strategist that moved his piece, waiting for the reaction of the opponent. He observed, silently, the progress of the battle. There should be something else he could do. But what?
He approached the intercom that his counselor was using, and, after the grodian finished, he asked:
Do you think you can tweak it, so we can speak to the ships of Antaria?”
Tanarum looked at him confused:
Have you gone mad?” he replied brusquely. “How do you expect us to keep pushing forward if we can't communicate with our army?”
Look around, Tanarum. Does it look like we're advancing? The only thing I see is death and destruction. How many ships have we lost? And them? Do you want to continue until there's only one ship left?” Hans said.
The grodian looked at him silently. Finally, he decided to give it a shot:
I'll need your help, but I'll try. As soon as you have done whatever you want to do, I'll change it back so we can speak with my people.” Tanarum said.
Agreed” the human replied.
Is everything alright?” the ex-empress asked suddenly.
Alha, you woke up!” her husband replied. “Shouldn't you stay in bed?”
While everything around us blows up?” she asked surprisedly. “No, my dear. I'll stay here, with you. If we die, I want to be with you, not alone in my room.”
We're not going to die” Tanarum said. “At least, not as long as I can help you.”
I hope you are right” she said, whilst walking to the window, to observe the destruction that was happening around their ship. “How long has it been since this began?”
Around an hour, perhaps more” Hans said.
There are many ships left” Tanarum replied, “on both sides.”
How are you feeling?” Alha asked Hans.
I guess I'm alright...”




********




Ahrz had been at the heat of the battle for several minutes, completely on his own, although the aspect of the battle around him hadn't changed much in a long while. He saw ships fighting their own battles here and there, he knew that both sides were losing ships, and he had been responsible for destroying several grodian ships. He continued his advance, without being entirely sure about where he was heading, avoiding the biggest ships of the enemy, and focusing his fire on the smallest. He had stopped thinking about Narval and his beloved Adrius. He was fully conscious he was fighting for his own survival, and he needed all his senses ready to react against any threat that could appear in the vicinity.
Suddenly, the intercom of his ship began to emit strange noises. Ahrz pushed its button several times:
Is someone there?” he asked, expecting to hear the voice of his colonel.
But there was no response from the artifact, which seemed to experience interference. Assuming that the intercom was broken, he stopped paying attention, whilst throwing himself against a solitary grodian vessel, which somehow had managed to escape all conflict with enemy ships. Without hesitation, he fired a quick plasma burst that impacted on the enemy ship. The ex-miner saw how other ships accompanied him, after overcoming their own opponents, searching for new targets to destroy. He readied another burst of plasma, which impacted against the hull of the grodian ship.
He had to admit that grodian ships were very resilient, but that one would fall just as all the others, Ahrz thought to himself.
We're under attack!” Hans yelled after the first impact.
The second impact was far more accurate. They didn't have time to react, and the ex-empress took the worst part of the impact. She was thrown against the metallic wall of the ship. As a consequence of the attack, she suffered a serious wound on her head:
Alha!” her husband said, running to her.
Tanarum continued to manipulate the intercom meticulously.
Hans, I'm done” he suddenly said, “whatever you have to do, do it now. I have to focus on our defense.”
I'll be fine, my love, don't worry” Alha told Hans, after recovering from a few seconds of unconsciousness.
I'll be back here in a moment” her husband replied.
The ex-emperor of Ilstram stood up and walked to the intercom. He pressed it, and with desperate voice, he said:
To anyone that can hear me. Emperor Brandhal talking. We aren't here to destroy you. I repeat, Emperor Brandhal talking, we aren't here to destroy you. Can anyone hear me?”
For a moment, there was only silence... but eventually, he heard a human voice at the other side of the intercom:
Emperor Brandhal?” a masculine voice said, faltering. “How is that even possible?”
Soldier, identify yourself” Hans said.
My name is Ahrz Torien, my lord.”
Are you attacking us?”
I think so, my lord.” the ex-miner replied.
We haven't come to destroy you, my wife and I only want to return to Antaria. Can you communicate that to the rest of the army?”
All of a sudden, a long and tense silence fell upon the room. Although Hans couldn't see him, Ahrz was trying to understand the whole situation.
They had been told that Emperor Brandhal went missing, along with his wife, and he was officially considered dead. However, now he was there, in that grodian ship, saying he wanted to come back to the planet. What was going on?
Finally, he replied:
I can't, emperor. I can't communicate with the other ships.”
Hans looked around, and asked:
Can you help us? My wife is pregnant, and she's hurt. She must travel to the planet as soon as possible.
Ahrz couldn't reply immediately, as his ship was under fire from the nearby grodian vessels that had come to help Hans. In the end, he replied:
I'll try, my lord.” he said, in a firm tone of voice.
The soldier moved his ship closer to the one belonging to the former emperor of Ilstram. Time was of the essence, the new wave of shots, from both sides, would happen at any moment. Ahrz's mind was trying to process everything as quickly as he could. Something was escaping him, he kept repeating to himself. Someone must had known that the emperor and his wife were alive. They had been told the grodians had come to attack Antaria, punishing them for conquering the Empire of Lomaria. However, what they were really doing was helping their former ruler to return to his natal planet. If Brandhal needed that huge fleet by his side, it surely was because someone was chasing him. While he docked his ship, as best as he could, with the grodian ship, a new shock threw him against the ground. His colleagues were focusing on the ship where the emperor and the empress were. Without hesitation, he walked quickly towards the disembarking room of the ship. He activated the pressurization system and opened the door as quickly as possible. In front of him, he saw the figure of a tiny grodian, he seemed wounded, but Ahrz wasn't entirely sure that was the case:
With dubious voice, Tanarum said:
Can you help Hans? His wife is badly hurt.”
The antarian entered the grodian ship, he saw his former emperor at the back of the ship, next to his wife, who was bleeding profusely. The two men didn't even greet each other, there was no time.
Help me” Hans begged. “The impact caused her to collide with the wall again.”
Arhz raised his head, and saw that the ship was severely damaged:
I don't think this ship can't take much more.”
The two men carried Alha to the soldier's ship. Once there, Hans said:
Let's return to Antaria. We have to leave this hellish place immediately.”
A new shock caused everyone to stumble, Tanarum reacted quickly:
Not everyone will be able to return, Hans.”
What are you talking about?” he asked.
Our ships won't let us escape. They don't know we're here, on an antarian vessel. Someone has to go back and use the intercom to tell them.
The three looked at each other briefly. A moment later, Tanarum approached Alha:
She won't survive these wounds for much longer. Her vital signs are failing.”
Is she dying?” Ahrz asked.
Not yet, but if she doesn't receive medical assistance soon, she will.... and so will the baby.”
Can't you help her with those gizmos?” the soldier asked.
Yes, I can try to stabilize her, temporarily. But if we don't return to Antaria, it won't fix anything.”


Ahrz analyzed their situation silently, considering what was happening. He understood his time had come. Thanks to Narval, he was given an opportunity to continue his life; thanks to that man's personality, and the oath that every soldier had made to protect the governors and the empire above anything else. Now he realized it was time to meet his fate. He had to act as any soldier of Ilstram would, and save his emperor:
If I go back” Ahrz said, “will I be able to use the intercom of your ship?”
Tanarum replied without turning around, whilst manipulating his implants above Alha's body:
Yes. It's a standard communication system.”
I can't let you do that...” Hans said.
Remember that my name is Ahrz, emperor.” the antarian said.
I can't allow you to stay behind. I can't let you sacrifice your life to save us.”
Sacrifice?” Tanarum asked, turning around confusedly. “Can't we use the intercom of this ship to speak to the human army?”
Hans went silent, unable to answer:
No, the communication systems of our ships are designed in such a way that we can only use them to speak with our colonel's ship, or to another ship, one by one, but not the whole fleet. Only colonels have systems that allow them to communicate to everyone. The people around us are my colleagues, soldiers, just as me, and they won't stop attacking unless they're told otherwise. Your ship is badly damaged, if it explodes while we're docked, we would die.” the soldier replied.
I can't let you do that, Ahrz. Thirty years ago I lost my friends in a battle that happened here” Hans said, visibly affected. “I can't bear also the burden of your death.”
The ex-miner smiled, and replied calmly:
I will do the same thing they did. They protected Ilstram's Empire, and the emperor, with their lives. Now it's my turn.”
The soldier walked back to the grodian ship.
Are you really going to throw your life away for me? Hans asked.
Ahrz sighed, and answered:
A good friend taught me a lesson before sacrificing himself at Nelder.”
Which lesson?”
The life of a soldier is only worthwhile if he can fulfill his objective. He did it that day, he helped us escape alive from that deadly trap. Now I'm doing the same. You have to go back to Antaria; I don't know what has happened, but I'm smart enough to understand someone wants to harm you. My loyalty is with Ilstram's Empire, and its emperor” he corrected his own words, “its true emperor, you. Flee, go now, and live the life they want to take away from you.”
Ahrz saw Alha for the last time, she breathed heavily:
May your child live to see the beauty of our world.” he added.
Hans was completely blocked, unable to respond. That man was willing to sacrifice his own life in order for the others to reach Antaria alive. But, weeks before, he, in all his selfishness, had gone as far as saying he would be happy living as just another anonymous person.
Only one more thing.” Ahrz said.
Yes?” Hans asked.
There's a woman on Antaria. Adrius Nuoran, she's my girlfriend. She's alone, and it won't be long before someone tells her what has happened. Could you do something for her?
We... we'll take her to the palace with us. Don't worry about her, we'll help with anything she needs. We'll make her feel proud of you.”
A new jolt made them aware of how dire their situation was. Ahrz looked at the new guests of his battleship, and finally, said goodbye:
Good luck, Emperor.”
The door closed behind them. Although Ahrz couldn't see it, Tanarum walked hastily to the pilot's cabin, ready to travel to Antaria.

Meanwhile, the ex-miner walked around the grodian ship. He finally found the communication system. His mind was being overrun by a multitude of different feelings. He thought of Adrius, his adorable Adrius, with whom he had made love many times, and realized he would never see her again. He thought of Narval, his good friend whom he hadn't forgotten since his sacrifice at Nelder. Now, there he was, in the same situation his friend had been back then. Crying, and with his voice shaking, he activated the intercom and said:
To all ships, do not attack the human ship that is retreating. The emperor, his wife and your colleague are aboard. I repeat, do not attack!”
He rested on the wall, thinking about what to do, when he suddenly heard a voice through the intercom:
Human, retreat to the back of the fleet. We'll give you cover fire.”
Ahrz looked around him. There were systems in flames, and the structural damage was more than obvious:
I don't think I can flee, the ship is severely damaged.”
At least try!” the unknown voice yelled.
Without hesitation, he jumped into the pilot's seat. He wasn't even sure he would manage to actually pilot it anywhere. He bid farewell, in his mind, to his beloved girl, to everyone he had ever met, and felt thankful for the life he had been granted. Even if his end was imminent, he was proud for having made his dream, becoming a soldier, a reality, as well as for having saved the emperor's life. He knew we would, most likely, die in that ship, and the only thing he truly regretted was not knowing how his life would have been with Adrius. He wondered how they would have aged together...
Unfortunately, the escape was brief for the former miner. Although he had managed to maneuver towards the back of the fleet, a powerful blast of plasma, from several nearby ships of Ilstram, brought an end to the ship that had been the transport of Hans, Alha and Tanarum. That's how Ahrz's final moment came. He died without big ceremony, in an explosion in the space. He became, therefore, just another statistic, another number to add to the terrible war, which the marshal had orchestrated in an attempt to stop the true emperor of Ilstram, and his people, from returning to the planet.
Hans saw it far in the distance. That man had given his life for them. He cried disconsolately, leaning on his wife, whose condition seemed to have improved.
My love?” she said with weak voice.
Alha, don't talk. Don't make any efforts. You were hit badly.”
Where are we?” she said, looking around. “And... why are you crying?”
He held his wife's hands:
We are in a human battleship. The soldier that found us, Ahrz, stayed in the grodian ship to warn the grodians and ensure they wouldn't attack us....” he cried once more. “Alha... That man has died for us. So that we could go back to Antaria and retake the Empire...”
My dear...” she said, whilst caressing her husband's face...
I can't help but feel responsible for his death. If we hadn't come here, this wouldn't have happened. That man didn't have to die for me, Alha. It's not fair, this is not how it should be.”
Life isn't fair, Hans” Tanarum said. “But that man has taught you something.”
What?” he asked confusedly, still overcome by his own tears.
That some of us believe in you. I want to see the emperor of Ilstram that I saw on Naarad. The man that had his mind clear. The man to whom I offered my assistance as counselor. I want to see the real Hans, the one buried under emotions and laments of guiltiness. You have an empire, and a wife, to take care of. You can't fail us, not now.”
For several minutes, silence fell upon the room. The ex-governor was trying to process everything that had happened. Even if he never managed to perceive it before, he had seen now that there were people on Antaria, in Ilstram, who were willing to give their lives for him. What kind of emperor could he be, if he only wanted to pretend to be just another anonymous person?
I won't do it... I won't be just another face.” he said, trying to contain his tears.
He stood up, and walked to the small window. They were very close to Antaria:
I think... I finally understand.” he added after a brief silence, now more calmed.
What, my dear?” Alha asked. She was lying down on one of the chairs that Ahrz had in the ship.
Not what, who. My father. Why did he act the way he did in that battle so long ago.”
Why do you think he did it?” Tanarum asked, from the pilot's chair.
I think... he was defending all the anonymous people that live down there. That soldier, Ahrz, he mentioned how a friend sacrificed his life to help him, and others, flee from Nelder... That courage, that bravery... You have to be made of something very special to assume you're going to die, and allow others to live by doing so. Now I understand...”
I honestly have no idea what are you trying to say” the grodian replied.
He means he has achieved the inner peace he has needed so much over the years” Alha said. “Right?”
Hans turned around, looking at his wife and his counselor, and said:
Yes... My friends, Yahfrad, Ereid... they weren't taken to their deaths. They went to fight for Antaria, for Ilstram, and for that in which they believed, just like Ahrz did for us. They were heroes, like him. Without all of them... who knows what could have happened.”
Alright, you have forgiven him, haven't you?” Tanarum asked.
Forgive? Who?” the man asked confusedly.
Your father, of course.”
Hans remained silent for a few seconds:
I hadn't looked at it from that perspective. But I guess you are right, finally, I am starting to understand him... No, my father wasn't responsible for that. I still think he cared more about the glory of Ilstram than the people. But I believe now that I see he only tried to do as best as he could. Just as I have tried... and I have failed.”
You haven't failed, my love” Alha said. “We are here, we are alive, and we'll reach the capital. Everything will be easier when we reach the ground, and we'll be able to bring this battle to a close.”
Your wife is right. We're very close to reaching our goal. To achieving what we wanted.”
I didn't want it to be this way. With so many deaths, so many losses...” he replied.
No one said it would be easy” his counselor replied.
I know” Hans replied.
Looking at his natal planet, he realized that the time to set things in motion was near:
We will arrive soon...”




********




Ur'daar felt something wasn't going entirely as expected. He couldn't grasp what exactly, but he knew something was amiss:
We will arrive at Antaria any moment now” Ur'nodel said to Khanam and Nahia, who were next to a big window where they could observe the countless stars and planets around them, at light-years away.
Hans and Alha will already be there, right?” Nahia asked.
They should” Ur'daar said; he was sitting a few meters behind the group, “but apparently they aren't there yet...”
What do you mean?” the young girl asked. “Have they failed?”
I can't know for certain” he replied. “But something happened that should not have happened...”
We will find out soon enough...” Khanam said, contemplating the space horizon.
I hope everyone is alright” his daughter added, visibly serious.
They went quiet for several minutes, expectant for what could be awaiting them once at Antaria. They were getting closer and closer to their beloved planet. It wasn't long before Khanam understood what was happening:
They're fighting...”
Who?” Nahia asked.
Hans and the grodians. Look” her father said, pointing to a side of the ship. “Do you see the explosions, in the distance?”
I think I see them... You are right.”
Ur'daar stood up, observed the scene that Khanam had just described, and put together the pieces of the puzzle that had unsettled him:
It cannot be. It shouldn't be like this.” he said, enigmatically.
What do you mean?” Khanam asked.
We should have arrived at Antaria after the battle, not while it was happening.”
What's the big deal?” Nahia asked. “The only thing it means is that we have arrived earlier than you thought we would.”
No, Nahia” Ur'nodel replied “it means we were wrong. It means the future we believed to be the most likely, hasn't become a reality. They are still fighting. If we were right, they would have landed already, and the conflict would have finished...”
Then why is it happening?” Khanam asked. “What has changed?”
It's Tor'ganil...” Ur'daar replied.
Tor'ganil?” the girl asked confusedly.
In the futures where we saw that we arrived during the conflict, it was always due to Tor'ganil's attempt to enter Antaria.”
Are you trying to say that lunatic is out there, trying to land on our world?” Nahia asked.
Yes... This changes everything. Hans and Alha will have to find their way on their own. We can't allow Tor'ganil to reach the ground. If he does, he will kill the emperor and the empress, and he will proclaim himself as the new governor of Ilstram.” Ur'daar said.
What probability is there for that to become reality?” Khanam asked.
Every.” Ur'daar replied. “If he enters Antaria, we're doomed.”
How are we going to stop him? My father doesn't yet know how to destroy him.” Nahia said.
The group remained silent for a moment. Finally, Ur'nodel spoke:
There is a way. I can prevent Tor'ganil from reaching Antaria. I can help you accomplish your objecive.”
Ur'nodel, don't.” his friend told him.
But he wasn't listening anymore. The cold and cerebral mind of the Ur'daeralman had already made the right decision for the benefit of the group, and for ensuring that the future would continue to be free from the grasp of the brutal Tor'daeralman.
I have to do it, Ur'daar.” he replied. “You are still young. You'll understand when the time comes. This is my chance to allow the future to be different. To stop him from getting what he wants.”
He'll destroy you” Ur'daar replied harshly.
And my demise will give you more time to find the way to stop him, for good.” Ur'nodel said.
He turned around to the humans, and bid them farewell solemnly:
Nahia, Khanam, accompanying you in this journey has been a pleasure. Now it is time to say goodbye, perhaps forever. If that's the case, remember you're still the masters of your own destiny.”
After saying those words, he transformed into a beam of light and disappeared. He was ready to explore Antaria's surroundings and find Tor'ganil's ship.
I don't think I understood what that was about.” Nahia said.
We saw the immediate futures that could happen, given the current situation. In several of them, Ur'nodel fought Tor'ganil long enough to stop him from reaching Antaria.” Ur'daar replied.
And...” Khanam added.
In most of them, despite Ur'nodel's success, Tor'ganil overpowers him”
So that's why he left, to attempt to turn that future into reality.” Khanam said. “Doesn't he have any chance to vanquish his opponent?”
Tor'ganil is very skilled in hand-to-hand combat, far more experienced than any of us. He has a fighting style that makes it very difficult to overcome him.”
Which means, Ur'nodel has decided that, if he has to die in order to help us advance, he will die.” the scientist said.
You are correct” Ur'daar replied, with a slightly sorrowful tone of voice.
Nahia had listened in silence. She realized she was surprised by the reaction of their ur'daeralman ally. He was experiencing feelings that weren't unknown to humans, but which, for some reason she couldn't fully grasp, were completely strange to beings like him. Trying to cheer him up, she said:
Don't worry. I'm sure he will come back.”
It's very unlikely that will happen...”

To reach Antaria. That was, apparently, the goal of several beings that were around the planet. Hans' ship wasn't the only one traveling towards the surface of Ilstram's capital. Several hours before, from Darnae – the capital of the Tarshtan Empire – a ship had departed with a single passenger. It was no other than dictator Grushal, or Tor'ganil, as he had begun to think of himself once again. Thanks to his eccentric character as leader of that world, he was in a position where he could do whatever he wanted, without raising any eyebrows among the people he had manipulated for centuries.
His objective was clear. He had to arrive at the human planet before Hans did. Once there, he would kill Magdrot and Miyana, the current governors, and would claim the throne for himself. In the end, he would be in command, at last, of the civilization he had longed to control for so many centuries, after he had realized that the Tarshtan Empire wouldn't be enough to accomplish his goal.
Since he was traveling alone, Tor'ganil took the opportunity to reveal his true self once again. Furthermore, he used the journey to summon his weapons and practice, in order to ensure he hadn't lost any of his expertise in hand-to-hand combat. Surely, he wouldn't need to go that far, but in the event that he did, he wanted to know that he would be able to face the one crazy enough to confront him.
There was a reason for worry, though. Besides the possibility of Hans arriving first, Tor'ganil had seen some futures where his equals, the Ur'daeralman, faced him. He couldn't know how likely that was to happen, but believed that, considering the weaknesses of his kind, it wasn't too likely.
He walked to the control center of his ship, observing his surroundings. It wouldn't be long until he arrived at Antaria. Once there, he would have to act quickly, and most importantly, efficiently. After finding the current rulers, killing them would be extremely simple. He had done that kind of thing in the past, and he enjoyed it perversely when he saw all those recruits of Ilstram falling, like flies, in the ambush that the lomarians on Nelder prepared with his help. He only had to pretend he was another lomarian, everyone followed him, and he saw the show from the highest branches of a near tree. Without any doubt, he said to himself, humans would be just as simple to manipulate.

Suddenly, he felt his ship slowing down, until it reached a full stop. That wasn't possible. The ships were powered by the daeralman themselves, who channeled the energy that surrounded them towards the ship. The fact it had stopped moving could only mean one thing: another daeralman was close, and knew he was there.
He looked around, trying to find the presence that had decided to interfere with his plans. The mystery didn't last for long. A beam of light crossed the ship, stopping in front of him. A few steps in front, he could see the golden figure of an ur'daeralman. It had been countless years since the last time he had seen one:
Who are you?” the cruel tor'daeralman asked.
I am Ur'nodel” the stranger said. “I have come to stop you from reaching Antaria.”
Tor'ganil laughed:
Stop me? You? You're just a boy...” he said in a confident tone of voice, whilst walking around his unexpected rival. “Allow me to offer you a deal. You can come with me to that despicable human planet. I'll let you watch me kill the emperor and the empress, and how I transform that species into the biggest force of destruction this universe has ever known. You could be my partner... together we would bring chaos everywhere. Just as we were ordered millions of years ago.”
You will not manipulate the plans of the universe. I won't let you do that.” Ur'nodel said, whilst summoning his loyal wands of combat to his hands.
Oh, I see. So you want to play... Very well, it's been a long time since I killed an ur'deralman. This will be fun.” the tor'daeralman said.
Tor'ganil extended his hands behind him, summoning his two blades. Ur'nodel wasn't impressed, and took the initiative of the fight. He leaped on his opponent, trying to hit him with his weapons, in an attempt to distract his attention long enough to move the ship away from Antaria.
But his opponent was quicker, more experienced, and more expert in those matters. With his blades, he repelled the attack, and then quickly hit Ur'nodel's chest with a powerful kick. While he was in the air, he leaped on him, trying to ensure the ur'daeralman would not stand up again.
Ur'nodel reacted quickly, transporting himself to the middle of the room, leaving his opponent alone on his way to the wall. Whilst preparing for the imminent attack, he realized that the speed of thought and reaction of the tor'daeralman wasn't something that could be ignored. Before he reached the wall, Tor'ganil had already positioned himself to leap and go after his rival. They began an exchange of blows, where every impact of a blade was met by one of the wands that Ur'nodel held.
You know how this is going to end” the evil creature said. “Don't try to resist, give up and die. The end result will be the same.”
Never!” Ur'nodel yelled. “You won't defeat me.”
Remembering some of the tricks and tips that Ur'daar ha taught him, one of his wands disappeared from his hands. Tor'ganil took advantage of the situation to throw a quick burst of hits that the ur'daeralman repelled with his remaining weapon. He summoned the other wand behind his enemy, and threw it against his torso, using all the strength of the energy he had focused. The impact threw Tor'ganill off balance, forcing him to fall down.
And his only reaction was... laughter. A thundering and terrifying laughter:
I have to admit it. You have guts.” he said. “It's a pity you can't see what the final fate of this universe is, so you would join our people. We could do so many things together...”
Which fate are you talking about?”
The destruction of all life! That's what the seed of chaos will accomplish.” Tor'ganil said.
There will always be life. And as long as there is life, there will be someone to fight you.” Ur'nodel replied.
No, you haven't understood. With the new life, we will create new chaos. Your creations have been designed to be destroyed. Therefore, you have already lost the war. It's only a matter of time until you understand that, and you accept it. Chaos is the answer.”
You are insane.” Ur'nodel said.
The two beings exchanged a new wave of hits. This time, Tor'ganil showed how far his skills could go. He let go of his weapons, and using the energy around them, he lifted Ur'nodel into the air, throwing him with immense force against one of the walls of the ship. Ur'daeralman didn't feel pain in the same way that humans experienced physical suffering, theirs was different, but nonetheless, equally uncomfortable. Ur'nodel attempted to recover. He knew that if he lost control, he would succumb to the ruthless creature.
Just a little longer...”
His enemy had not noticed that the weapons had vanished from the hands of the ur'daeralman. He used them, once again, to hit Tor'ganil and break the energy link with which he was manipulating him at will.
This is tremendously amusing.” the tor'daeralman said. “Can't you really see where this takes you? You can't win. Leave, I'll spare your life. You are nothing but an entertainment for me. You can't harm me.”
Due to those words, and the disdain shown towards him, Ur'nodel felt filled with fury for the first time in his life. He pointed his hands towards Tor'ganil, creating something akin to an energy rope around his opponent, and compressed it with all his might. His enemy attempted to break free, in vain; he couldn't break the strange binding. Ur'nodel grasped his weapons, which appeared from thin air, and leaped on Tor'ganil. In the meantime, the ship had begun to move away from Antaria:
I won't let you reach your objective!” he yelled to the tor'daeralman.
You're irritating.” he replied.
Before Ur'nodel could hit him, Tor'ganil transformed into a beam of light, breaking free from the grasp of his trap, and avoiding the impact.
Immediately recovering his true form, he continued to move around the room, in an attempt to avoid the attacks from Ur'nodel, who constantly missed him. Tor'ganil created his blades quickly, and performed a movement he had not executed in a very long time. He joined both swords by the handle, creating a huge double-edged sword with a handle in the middle. He held it with both hands, and jumped at the ur'daeralman, moving the weapon in long, big circles.
It was a fighting style similar to that of Ur'daar with his staff, but far more deceptive. The constant spin of the blade made it very difficult to know when he could hit him, and also made his defense easier. Ur'nodel attempted to summon his wands behind Tor'ganil, in an attempt to hit him and throw him off balance, as he had done twice previously, but the tor'daeralman turned around, attacking the two weapons that were floating in the air.
You can't play the same trick over and over and pretend I won't learn it” he said to Ur'nodel.
The ship continued to move, at an increasingly faster speed, away from Antaria. Tor'ganil was fully focused on the fight, and in overcoming his opponent. The cruel creature knew he was superior to him, but he was proving to be a tough rival. Ur'nodel, for his part, tried to keep his mind clear. His primordial goal was not to destroy Tor'ganil, that wasn't what the universe had prepared for him. His role, as he had chosen, was to delay him long enough to allow Hans, Alha, Khanam, Nahia and Ur'daar to reach Antaria. Once there, his friend would have the advantage. In order to dominate humanity, Tor'ganil would not reveal his true self, or no one would accept him as governor.
The ur'daeralman felt that the big moment was coming. Hans' ship, if his reading of the futures wasn't wrong, was already on the ground. And Ur'daar wouldn't need much longer to arrive.
He looked confidently at his opponent, dropped his weapons, and extending his arms, said:
I have won.”
You're not even close to vanquishing me” Tor'ganil replied.
I have. They have reached Antaria. While you were focusing on trying to destroy me, you didn't notice how I've been moving the ship far away from the planet. You can't land before they do. I have won.”
Tor'ganil stopped for a moment, diverting his attention from Ur'nodel and looking around him. The mind of a tor'daeralman was far more analytical than that of any other species. He understood his opponent was right. The young and inexperienced ur'daeralman had managed to manipulate the energy around the ship, moving it away from Antaria, and he hadn't noticed.
Enraged, he leaped towards his enemy. But Ur'nodel wasn't willing to just be killed, he wouldn't die so easily. His weapons appeared once more, battling Tor'ganil:
Whatever must happen, will happen” the ur'daeralman said to his enemy.”
You haven't prevented my great triumph. If I can't enter Antaria now, I'll come back, I'll find another way. Another human to manipulate, just as I did with the marshal for so many years. You won't stop me, you never will. I'm the guardian of destruction!”
Empty words that vanish into the immensity of time. The time to which you will also succumb eventually, bastard.” Ur'nodel said.
It's a pity you won't be here to see what's to come next” his enemy replied.
Tor'ganil divided his blades once more, forced one of them to disappear, and began to fight single-handedly. He fought with a vigor that the ur'daeralman had not seen previously. Ur'nodel found it increasingly difficult to stand his ground against his opponent. Suddenly, he felt how the Tor'daeralman manipulated energy around him, lifting him into the air. Tor'ganil threw him against the wall, but this time, Ur'nodel knew something was going to be different. Although he tried to avoid it, he couldn't. Tor'ganil's missing blade appeared within the wall, like a sudden, deadly stake. The dark weapon pierced his torso. Tor'ganil had achieved his goal. Ur'nodel wasn't able to break free from the grasp of the energy his enemy was using to keep him under check. The blade that had gone through his body was a testimony to the power of that cruel creature. Tor'daeralman weapons, just as those of the ur'daeralman, were made of energy. In most cases, they could only harm an enemy, without causing fatal damage. But Tor'ganil's expertise in manipulating energy was so advanced, and powerful, that he had gone one step farther than anyone else.
He walked towards the young being. Ur'nodel could feel how his own energy was slowly vanishing. It was the equivalent to death for his people:
You may have stopped me” Tor'ganil said. “But you won't survive our encounter.”
I won't let you absorb my knowledge” Ur'nodel replied. “You won't find anything of use in my mind.”
Oh, how cute. Agitator even in your own demise.” Tor'ganil said. “How moving...”
Slowly, Ur'nodel began to vanish. The tor'daeralman placed one hand over the forehead of the being, trying to trap some of the knowledge he had gathered during his life. Although it was exceedingly rare for two Daeralman to fight to the death, it was something that had already happened in the past. Ever since, it was known that they were capable of retaining some of the memories of the vanquished foe. Tor'ganil tried, but even at the very end, Ur'nodel proved to be far more resilient than he would have expected. He managed to keep a mental shield until the very end of his existence.
The only thing the deceitful creature retained was one word...
Mijuhn...” he said pensively.




********




Hans felt an odd sensation. The battleship was landing at the command center of the army. They hadn't had any trouble entering the atmosphere of the planet. Particularly, after he indicated that they had a wounded person on board, they didn't need to reveal their identities.
It's the time” Tanarum said, as soon as the ship had fully touched the ground. “You have an empire to retake.”
First we have to ensure Alha is alright.”
She will be, do not worry” his counselor said. “I've managed to keep her stable, and it's been a while since she stopped bleeding.”
He's right, my dear. Don't worry about me” His wife said, with her voice weakened.
Hans carried his wife in his arms. Although she was conscious, she didn't feel strong enough to walk. When the group was stepping off the ship, a thundering voice greeted them:
Soldier Torien! What's the meaning of...” the man went quiet abruptly.
Ahrz is dead” Hans said. “He has sacrificed himself for the future of Ilstram, and his emperor.”
Emperor Brandhal...” the colonel, who had greeted them so rudely, said. “How is this possible? They told us you were dead. And... the empress...” he continued, turning around towards the soldiers that accompanied him. “What are you waiting for? The empress needs medical attention. Now!”
What's your name?” Hans asked.
I'm colonel Garadok, my lord. I was appointed as the replacement colonel... of emperor Nurandon.”
Order the troops in space to retreat and come back. Prepare the hangars, so that the surviving grodian ships can land. I want you to prepare medical assistance for everyone. Quick.”
Colonel Garadok turned around to the remaining soldiers, who were still behind him:
You heard him! Get moving!” Looking to the trio once again, he asked, “My lord, what's going to happen with the current emperor?”
He is no longer your emperor. We aren't dead. I have come to retake the throne that was snatched from me illegitimately. I want you to arrest marshal Ghrast. He will be judged for the war crimes he has committed against this empire.”
My lord...” the man said, “marshal Ghrast passed away three days ago. Natural death.”
How inconvenient...” Tanarum said. “Now we won't be able to hear what that old wreck had to say.”
But Hans didn't give it any importance. What mattered, he thought to himself, was that the poor devil was gone, even if his desire for revenge towards him made him think he should have deserved a far less pleasant death; just like the one the decrepit man wanted for his wife, his friends, and himself.
His friends... that made Hans remember the words of the strange creature that was known as Ur'daar, who they had met in Naarad:
One last thing” he said to the colonel. “There's a ship. It won't be long before it arrives. There's three people on board. They probably won't know how to ask permission to enter the planet. I want you to direct them to his hangar. They are my friends.”
Yes, my lord” he replied.
What now?” Tanarum asked, after the medical services of the Empire took Alha, and reassured Hans that he had no reason to worry.
Now we go to the palace. We have to talk to Magdrot and Miyana.
The emperor and the empress?” his counselor asked.
Ex-emperor and ex-empress” Hans corrected him. “They aren't governors any longer, although they'll enjoy a more comfortable life than they would have had, for their service to the empire during this time... I wonder how they will react when they see me.”

Meanwhile, close to the planet, Khanam, Nahia and Ur'daar were readying to, finally, plant their feet on the ground after countless days of space travel. The ur'daeralman contemplated the landscape that opened before his eyes:
So this is Antaria...” he said.
Pretty, isn't it?” Nahia asked.
I guess so... In fact, Ur'daeralman don't understand beauty in the same way humans do. What I was really thinking, was that this world has been the reason for so many events...”
And in the end, it's just another planet in this gigantic universe” Khanam replied.
It's also our home” Nahia said. Looking to Ur'daar, she asked. “What are we going to do now?”
That depends on you. Ur'nodel has achieved his part... there isn't a future for him. Now, only you can give meaning to his choice, by deciding what you want to do with your lives. If you decided to not stop Tor'ganil, then all this will have been in vain, and he will win. But, if we work together, we can stop him, and give Ur'nodel's sacrifice, and that of many others, meaning.”
I still have no idea about how we can destroy him” Khanam said. “Hell, I'm not even sure I have accepted all this. My world was better before...”
The answers will come, don't force it. It's in your possible future. You'll figure out how to do it. Don't worry if that moment hasn't happened yet” the ur'daeralman replied.
I only fear it might be too late when I discover how. And that's assuming there is an actual way to do it.”
I will take care of protecting you. Not just you, but Antaria itself. I will be your guardian. The citizens of this empire may be the only hope we have to defeat Tor'ganil, and to stop him from dominating everything. Which reminds me of something...”
Walking a few steps away, the golden body of Ur'daar began to glow. His aspect changed slowly, until acquiring a shape that was familiar to them, from their days in Naarad. Ur'daar wasn't in front of them anymore, now he was Jacob Emilson.
Looking towards Nahia, he smiled and asked:
Do I look human?”
The young girl observed him carefully, and replied:
No... Your eyes, remember? They are completely black, but ours aren't like that. Look at my eyes, and my father's.”
Ur'daar walked towards the woman, looked at her eyes, and then at Khanam's. He understood the small error he had made, and corrected it, without his friends realizing the change had happened:
And now?” he asked.
The girl smiled happily, and replied:
No one would be able to doubt you”
Good... From this moment, don't call me Ur'daar, instead call me Jacob. My stay here won't be short... And the sooner I integrate into your society, the easier it will be for me to do my job.”
After several minutes, the ship finally landed at the hangar that Hans had designated. Khanam was responsible for establishing contact with the surface. He was surprised to see that there were no complaints, despite his inability to use the correct military terms. Furthermore, the emperor himself had prepared everything for their arrival.
After descending, father and daughter felt thrilled by the gentle breeze of the planet. The weather was very pleasant during those days, and although there weren't any signs of rain, the humidity was easily perceivable.
Please, follow me. You'll be taken to the palace to meet emperor Brandhal” colonel Garadok said.
The group walked silently to the transport that would take them there.


Hans and Tanarum were in the gardens of Antaria's palace. The emperor couldn't help but feel a shiver whilst walking through the emblematic area. He had never paid much attention to the gardens, but now, he felt they were the most beautiful place on Antaria, or even in the whole universe.
At the entrance to the building, two guards stopped them from advancing:
Don't you recognize your emperor?” Hans asked.
The guards looked at him inquisitively; they were two young men, but surely, they should realize who they were staring at. In the end, one of them reacted, expressing his surprise, and allowing them to enter the palace.
Hans didn't have to walk much longer before meeting the familiar face of Dirhel:
Dirhel! Do you recognize me?”
The woman paled, as if she was looking at a ghost:
Hans? I mean, emperor... But... it can't be... the marshal said you were dead...”
Well, unfortunately for him, we aren't.” Tanarum said.
The emperor walked to his loyal servant, placed his hands on the woman's shoulder, and said:
It was a trick to overthrow me, they wanted to kill us. But thanks to the help of good friends, we have returned. Where are Magdrot and Miyana...?”
Magdrot is in his room, in the upper floor, just where yours was...”
Okay, Dirhel. Thank you.”
The two walked upstairs hastily, towards the bedroom that the maid had indicated. The former colonel was there, preparing a small bag with clothing and other utensils. It looked like he hadn't realized he had visitor:
Are you leaving?” Hans said.
The man was startled, he turned around, ready to answer. However, completely surprised, he took several steps backwards:
Emperor...? What is going on here? We thought you were dead...”
No, I'm not. The marshal manipulated you to get rid of me. He had planned to kill Alha, Khanam, Nahia and me. We managed to escape with the help of Tanarum” he said, looking at the grodian.
The ex-soldier didn't know how to react. Suddenly, he felt very stupid. He had always believed everything the marshal had told him about what had happened to their true governor, but there he was, standing right before him.
At no point did I wish to impersonate you...” Magdrot said. “The marshal chose us after being with us for quite some time.”
He went quiet for a few seconds:
How stupid I have been...” he continued. “He made us believe you would have designated us as governors.”
You don't have to apologize. I don't think you have acted with ill-intent. But it's not difficult to understand the marshal was far less trustworthy than I thought. I always believed he just felt animosity towards me because I didn't decide to follow the footsteps of my father. Now I understand the old man was rotten; he wanted to appoint someone that could become a worthy successor to my father.”
I was about to travel to the hospital. Miyana is about to give birth. I would like to be there when that moment happens.”
Magdrot looked at the grodian and Hans. Realizing someone was missing, he asked:
And the empress? Don't tell me that she...”
No, you don't have to worry. She is in the hospital. We've suffered a lot to enter Antaria, and she was wounded. She has been taken to the medical center, and now she is recovering.”
I guess that now... you are the new emperor of Ilstram?”
Yes. Everything the marshal did to make you become emperor and empress is now invalidated because, as you can see, I'm alive.”
Then, what are you going to do with Nelder?”
Nelder?” Hans asked, confused. “Oh, of course, you conquered it, along the other planets of the Empire of Lomaria...”
The marshal suggested it would be a good idea, military speaking, to get a strategic enclave in that area of the universe.”
And their citizens? Where are they? Dead?”
No. We tried to convince them to become part of Ilstram, but they rejected our offer, opting instead for violence whenever we tried to approach them. Therefore, we have enslaved them. Many of them work in the mines of Antaria.”
You have done what?” Hans said surprisedly. “But, what were you thinking? You can't subjugate a whole species just because they don't want to join the empire. Ilstram has never acted like this. Never!”
I'm very sorry. Emperor” Magdrot said, visibly affected.
Hans observed him, asking himself how it was possible to go to the extreme of enslaving all the citizens of the new colonies that Ilstram had annexed. To what end? It didn't make any sense, he said to himself. Allowing his benevolence to take over, he said:
We'll fix it. Don't worry. Now go, your wife is waiting.”
Magdrot nodded, picked up the bag that he had continued to fill throughout the conversation, and quickly left for the hospital.
What do you want to do with the lomarians?” Tanarum asked.
The same thing I will do with your people” he replied. “I'll hold a meeting tomorrow with all of them. I'll offer them citizenship, with full rights, of Ilstram's Empire. Just as it should have been done since the beginning.”

The two abandoned the room, and walked downstairs. During the walk, Dirhel interrupted them:
Hans... there are three people at the doors, insisting they must be allowed to enter. They claim they come here as you have ordered.”
It must be Khanam and the others” he muttered. “Let them come in.”
The woman walked away. A few minutes later, the emperor joined his friends Khanam; Nahia; and Ur’daar, the strange creature that had intercepted them in Naarad, looking for their help.
Hans!” Nahia said. “Are you alright? Where's Alha?”
We're alright” he replied. “Alha is at the hospital. She was wounded, but she's being taken care of. The battle was very tough.”
We saw it” the scientist replied. “We arrived earlier than expected.”
What do you mean?”
It's a very long story. Do you remember Jacob? From Naarad?”
Yes... although I can't remember your real name...” he said, looking at the ur'daeralman.
My name is Ur'daar.”
Hans looked around at him, confused:
Don't worry” Khanam replied. “I'll update you as soon as you have time. We've learned many things you must know.”
There is no rush. We aren't in danger” the emperor said. “The marshal passed away several days ago.”
We are. It's more tangible than it seems” the ur'daeralman corrected him. “But, since we have just arrived to Antaria after a long time away, you first need time to get your lives in order. The situation will be even tougher than what you have already seen... eventually.”
I was preparing to go to the hospital and visit my wife. Tomorrow, I'll talk to the grodians and the lomarians. Perhaps you should also take some rest. I don't know what big danger awaits us out there, but I'm sure we can take a few days off...”
Time is against us” Ur'daar replied. “You are right, you need to rest. And you need to ensure the empire is still working as it should...”
We'll meet here in five days” Hans said. Looking to Khanam, he added, “if you want, you and your daughter can stay here. The palace has more than enough rooms for everyone.”
Thanks for the offer. But, I'd like to go back to my home, and try to assimilate everything that has happened.” Khanam replied.
I'll go with you” Nahia said. “I want to see if that family we took in is still there. Do you remember them?”
Khanam went quiet for a few seconds:
No... I had completely forgotten all that. I've been so absorbed by everything that has happened...”
And you?” the emperor said, looking to Ur'daar. “I assume you don't have a place to go. I would like you to stay here, in the palace. It will be an opportunity to get to know each other better, and to also update me on what Khanam says I've missed.”
I thank you for your hospitality” the ur'daeralman replied.
Tanarum, you will stay here. Besides being my counselor, I have another plan for you.”
Which?” the grodian asked, curious.
You will take care of helping settle the grodians that wish to stay in Antaria. You will be their ambassador. Will you not?”
With pleasure, emperor” he replied solemnly.
After a brief silence, Hans continued:
Now I have to go. There's a promise I have to fulfill...”
Ahrz?” Tanarum asked.
Yes. His wife must know what has happened. What he did for us.”
What are you talking about?” Nahia asked.
They talk about the man who had to give his life to help them reach Antaria” Ur'daar said.
You knew about that?” Khanam asked.
In almost all of Hans' futures, it was what happened in order for them to reach the planet. That was the goal of his life. When the time came, he made the decision that he believed was right.”
And it was... I guess.” the governor said.
Indeed. He changed you in ways you might not have fully understood yet. He made you see things from a perspective you had never attempted to understand before” the ur'daeralman added.
My father's perspective... I think I'm beginning to understand why some of the things I experienced so many years ago happened the way they did.”

After the brief conversation. The emperor bid farewell to the group. He wanted to visit Adrius alone. He felt he had to honor the memory of that man by doing what he had requested. Once his employees gave him the address of the young girl, he traveled there. The trip was very calm. He entered the building, and, at the apartment's doorstep, he felt shivers down his spine. He was about to deliver devastating news to a woman that was still unaware of what had happened. He pressed the bell of the metallic door. After a few seconds, he saw a girl that, in his opinion, was extremely attractive. With his voice shaking, he asked:
Are you Adrius?”
Yes... Have we met?” she asked with curiosity. “Your face rings a bell...”
I am Emperor Brandhal... but you can call me Hans.”
The girl put her hands on her face, trying to hide her surprise:
I know, I know. You were told we were dead” he continued. “That's not true, but only because we managed to flee thanks to the sacrifice of a good man...”
Ahrz...?” she asked, quickly tying the loose ends.
Hans went quiet, visibly uncomfortable:
I'm so sorry... Your husband sacrificed himself to allow us to reach the planet. Without his help... we would have never made it. He asked me to come and see you when I got back. He said you would need help.”
But she had stopped listening a long while before. Adrius felt devastated. She began to cry disconsolately. Her beloved Ahrz, the man that had made her go crazy since they met on Modea, had passed away in the battle that had caused him to be sleepless for days. He was gone, and he was not coming back, she said to herself, over and over. She hugged Hans, and let her tears flow while resting her head in the stranger's chest:
I wish I knew what to say...” the emperor said, trying to keep his own tears under check, affected by the devastation she displayed. “I can’t even imagine what it must be like to hear news of this nature... Your husband was a good man...”
We weren't married yet...” she said in tears. “I was going to propose to him when he returned after the battle.”
He loved you intensely. As I mentioned, his last words were to request that I see to it that you are taken care of. If you'll allow me, that's what my wife and I will do. It's the least we can do to honor his memory.” Hans said, visibly moved.
What am I going to do now?” she asked, with teary eyes. “I came here for him, because I wanted to live with him. This was his home until I arrived. I'm not sure I'll be able to find the strength to move on...”
You will. I'm sure you will find the strength to do so...” Hans said. “Come with me. I'll take you to the hospital, so you can meet my wife. She's alive thanks to Ahrz. Afterwards, we'll go to the palace. I'll make sure you have lodgings there. You'll have anything you need. Ilstram's Empire owes it to you.”
Thanks” she said.
You don't have to thank me.”
I mean... Thanks for coming here, personally. You could have sent a messenger and avoided all this. However, you have come to tell me the person I love sacrificed himself, so you and your wife could make it to the planet.” Adrius said, whilst trying to compose herself.
As I said, it's the least I could do for someone that gave his life for me...”
After those words, the two walked to the hospital. It had been a long day. Hans had barely had any time to rest, let alone think about the health of his wife. They hadn't even announced, to the population, that they were safe and sound. They had been away from the empire for many months. Surely, the population could wait one more day to find out. 


Once at the medical facilities, the emperor headed to Alha's room. She looked better, the doctors had told him that, despite her delicate state of health when she arrived, she had been properly stabilized by Tanarum. What caught the couple by surprise, however, was finding out that the pregnancy was far more advanced than they both thought; therefore she was advised to stay in the hospital for a few days:
How are you doing?” he asked.
I'm fine... Just having a little headache, but the doctors have been very kind. Everyone was very surprised to see me here, from what I've gathered.”
Yeah, I know what you mean. Everyone thought we were dead.”
The doctors said that the pregnancy is in the final stage. Neither Narun or I are at risk, but they won't let me go.”
Narun? Is that what you'd like to name him?” Hans asked.
Yes... I know I should have discussed it with you, but with all this mess, I forgot to ask you.”
It doesn't matter, my love. I like that name.”
Really? I decided when we were traveling to Kharnassos. It's my great-great-grandfather's name...”
Hans hugged her lovingly. In the end, the thing that worried him the least, at that moment, was which name his wife wanted to give to their firstborn:
When will you give birth?” he asked.
At any moment. That's what they said, at least.” the empress answered.
That's great! We're going to become parents” Hans said, softly kissing Alha's lips.
After all this time, it seems like things are finally sorting themselves.”
Yeah... There's still a lot of work to do. Khanam and the guy that met us in Naarad told me we are still in danger. We'll be ready to fight against anything that comes our way.”
His wife looked at him pensively:
Something has definitely changed” she said. “The Hans I knew would have never said that.”
The emperor went quiet for several seconds.
I guess all this has changed me. We were in danger, we had involved Khanam and Nahia in something that wasn't related to them. Ahrz... made me realize that, as much as I would like to be just another person in the city... I have to assume the responsibility of my position. I am Ilstram's emperor, I can't ignore my duties, especially when now I'm finally understanding what my father did in that battle. Today we have lost many human and grodian lives, but luckily not as many as thirty years ago. I can't feel guilty for the casualties. The grodians came because they wanted to help, and the humans because they were defending that in which they believed... Sometimes it isn't as simple as black and white.” he said reflectively.
I don't care what you are going to do now. I'll be by your side, just as always.” Alha said.
Silence fell upon the room for a moment, whilst Hans caressed his wife's hands. Suddenly, he said:
Oh, I almost forgot. There is someone I want you to meet.”
Who?”
Hans indicated to the girl, who had been waiting patiently outside, that she should enter the room:
This is Adrius, Ahrz's girlfriend, the man that helped us so we could return to Antaria. Thanks to his actions, we're alive. He asked me to promise we would take care of her. And we will do so.”
The two women stared at each other for several seconds. Suddenly, Hans saw Alha crying, for the first time in a long while, causing Adrius to cry disconsolately. They both hugged, overrun by their tears:
I'm sorry, I'm so sorry” the empress said.
I miss him so much...” the young nurse replied.
I wish things would have been different. Your husband seemed like a good man.”
He was the best. I had never known someone like him.”
If it wasn't for him, we would have perished up there, in the space.”
Ahrz will receive all the merits and decorations he deserves. This I promise” Hans answered. “Ilstram's Empire won't forget its heroes.”
Adrius was sitting on one of the sides of the bed; next to Alha, and staring at the wall, as if she was alone in the room, she said:
Not even all the awards in the world will return him to me...”
However, they will bring Ahrz's sacrifice for the empire to the attention of those that have never heard of him” the emperor said. “I know I can't bring your husband back to life. He believed in us and sacrificed his life, as the good soldier he was. Thirty years ago, I lost my friends in the battle that happened here. None of them were honored, nor did they receive any special distinctions. For my father, they were just more casualties of the war, just business. I will not repeat that same mistake with Ahrz. He isn't just another casualty.”
The whole group remained silent for several seconds.
I think we should go back to the palace” the man said. “You have to visit your lodgings there and set up your home with us” he added, looking to the girlfriend of the deceased soldier, “and I have to get ready for tomorrow.”
Tomorrow?” Alha asked.
Yes. I'm going to talk to the grodians and the lomarians. I'll explain later. I'm taking Adrius to the palace, and then I'll come back to stay with you until the morning.”
The two bid farewell, the emperor and the girl – who was still visibly affected – headed to the palace.




********




The night was already settling on the planet. It had been a long day of emotions and shocks, in which everyone had lost far more than they could have imagined before it all began. But, in the end, the most important goal had been achieved: retaking Ilstram's Empire before it fell under control of the Tarshtan. Once they arrived at the magnificent building, Hans ordered Dirhel to find a room suitable for Adrius. After asking where everyone else was, the loyal servant explained that Tanarum was already in the room that had been prepared for him, and Jacob – the name that Ur'daar was using whilst in his human guise – had gone out for a walk:
Please, make sure Adrius has everything she may need” he said to the chief of personnel.
Do not worry, sir, we will.”
You're not calling me Hans anymore, Dirhel?” he asked, amused.
I'm very sorry for my mistake, I let my joy take over my words. I won't repeat that attitude.”
You haven't understood... You've been working here for years. You've always done what has been expected of you. I think that, at least, you have earned the right to treat us with the same closeness you use with any other person.”
Thanks... Hans” the thankful woman said.
It was very uncommon for the citizens of Ilstram to address their emperors by their true names. For that reason, allowing someone to do so was considered a sign of great respect, or friendship, between the people involved.
The rest of the night went without any surprises. Hans met Tanarum, who had taken the liberty of organizing the meetings with both species, the following day, with the help of Dirhel. The grodians would meet Hans during the morning, at the hangar where they had landed. The lomarians living on Antaria had agreed to meet him, although some individuals were very reluctant, and distanced:
I would act just as they have if I was enslaved” Hans said. “In fact, I'm amazed they want to listen to me.”
They probably think you'll offer them something different.”
I guess...”
After checking that everything had been carefully planned, the emperor returned to the hospital, where he would spend the rest of the night with his wife.

Khanam and Nahia had been in their apartment for several hours. The sensations, after entering the house, were very strange after so much time away. There wasn't any trace of the family they had taken in, and the stuffy air was a testament to the fact the house had been uninhabited for a long time. However, they did find a small note, covered by dust, on a table that took up most of the room. The scientist picked it up, and read:
We want to thank you for your hospitality. I would have preferred to bid farewell in person. It's been three months since the attack on Antaria and, without your help, I don't know how I would have survived with my children. We're traveling to Tempere, the family of my deceased husband has offered to help, and there I'll be able to work. Again, thank you. I hope we can meet someday. Don't hesitate to come visit us. Fondly, Ilíara.”
So they were here for a time, and then they left” Nahia said.
Yes... Tempere... one of the least known colonies of our empire.”
Realizing his daughter was going to ask, he continued:
It's a planet with a climate slightly colder than Antaria. Snow is present throughout the whole year, even in the cities. The poles of the planet are so cold that some scientists have settled there to study how we could survive such low temperatures in solar systems with a single star. Don't worry, they'll be fine. The cities are on the equator, where the climate is very similar to ours, just a little colder.”
Nahia looked around, and saw that it was raining, once more, in the capital:
Here we are again... However, so many things have passed that I feel as if we are in a completely different place.”
We have changed...” Khanam said. “Neither of us knew what we would endure when we left for Ghadea.”
Do you regret it?”
Khanam remained silent for a few seconds:
I admit all this story about the ur'daeralman and the tor'daeralman... All that about them being made of energy, how they use it, their skills, Tor'ganil... it did overwhelm me back then. I couldn't accept that the science, to which I had devoted my whole life, wasn't capable of explaining these things... yet, now, I'm happy that science can't...”
His daughter observed him, as if he had gone entirely mad:
Dad... Are you alright?”
Khanam smiled gently:
That curiosity of yours for the stars, for the world in general... You didn't inherit it from your mother... Many years ago, I was exactly like you. I wanted to know other places, I wanted to understand why things happen around us the way they do. I wanted to see how far humanity could go. Over the years, I was sinking deep into science, leaving that curiosity aside, and replacing it with answers... Now I realize I never really lost that curiosity in the first place.”
You can't help but wonder how you could help destroy Tor'ganil, and you want to know how far this can go...” Nahia said.
Yes... I'm going to help Ur'daar, even if I don't yet know how to go about it.”
When you do, I'll be by your side. I want to see how you do it...”
It'll probably be very dangerous, Nahia. I don't want to see you in danger.”
His daughter stood with her arms akimbo, and asked:
Do you really think you can stop me?”
No” he replied jokingly. “In that regard, you did inherit your mother's stubbornness.”




********




The following morning, Hans and Tanarum headed to the hangar where they had decided to meet with the surviving grodian soldiers. A fine rain was falling over the city, and the gray tone of the sky didn't seem to want to allow the citizens of Antaria to improve their mood. Once at the facilities, colonel Garadok greeted them:
Emperor” he said, “the grodians have spent the whole night here. They're tending the wounded and calculating the casualties on their side. We have helped them as much as possible, but I must admit it's very difficult for our doctors, as they don't know their physiology nor they culture.”
You've done a good job, colonel” Hans said. “Let's go see them.”
The three walked to the command room. In Naarad, Hans had seen so many grodians that he could have described them as a red tide, now there were only a few hundred.
Our soldiers are here too?” the emperor asked Garadok.
Yes, sir.”
Tell them to come here.”
A few minutes later, the soldiers from Ilstram, who had survived the battle, entered the room. Hans wasn't sure about how many had taken part originally, but, together with Tanarum, they had guessed their number was slightly above two thousand, a similar number to that of the grodians. The tiny red creatures looked at him expectantly. The humans, meanwhile, were gathering at the back of the room. Some had small wounds on their faces, or used crutches to walk, but generally speaking, everyone seemed to be in a good state of health. Such was the cruelty of space combat; in case of defeat, most of the time the only result was death, escape, even with severe wounds, was extremely rare.
I want to thank you all for coming here” Hans said. “Yesterday, too much blood was spilled unnecessarily. During these months, we have been manipulated. You've been led to believe that my wife and I were dead. Under the orders of our replacements, Ilstram's Empire has committed acts that, as the emperor of this kingdom, I am ashamed of. But this is my fault. You, soldiers of Ilstram, did yesterday what you believed it was the right thing. You thought you were fighting against the Grodey Empire to avoid punishment. You didn't know that you were fighting to stop your emperor before he could land. I don't blame you. Marshal Ghrast was a great man during the time of my father's reign” he continued. “He admired him, and dedicated his life to try to push Ilstram to continue the military path that brought them pride and glory. For that reason, as the years went by, he became corrupted, and began to consider the idea of killing us. By doing so, he would be able to appoint an emperor who saw the world in a similar way as my father did. That's why the only thing you are guilty of, is giving your best to defend the empire. And if it hadn't been for the noble sacrifice of Ahrz Torien, you would have succeeded.” he said, lowering the tone of his voice.
Along with you, our grodian allies, and their leader, the Magnanimous, have proved to be powerful partner during these dark times. As I told you in Naarad,” he continued, looking to the grodians, “I didn't know if we would manage to retake Ilstram's throne. With your help, we have done it, and as I promised back then, on your planet, now you are free to go back there, or to stay her with us. In any case, you, the grodian survivors to whom I'm deeply grateful, will always be welcome here. You will be considered, for all intents and purposes, Ilstram's citizens. You will be allowed to travel through our empire freely.”
Someone of your own species, an individual who has accompanied me ever since we escaped from that prison, will look after your comfort here on Antaria” he said, whilst his counselor walked towards the atrium.
Tanarum will provide you everything you need, either to allow you to go back, or to stay here and find out how life is among humans, grodians and lomarians on the same planet.”
I want to stay!” a grodian yelled.
And I!” another replied.
And I! We came here because the Magnanimous asked us to do so. I want to stay. I want to fight for the Grodey Empire... and for Ilstram!”
That anonymous voice was joined by others. Hans raised his hand, asking everyone to calm down:
I haven't forgotten my commitment to your leader. Ilstram's Empire will go to war against the Tarshtan Empire, we will fulfill our part of the deal and we'll recover the stolen technology.”
He went quiet for a few seconds, to recover his breath, and continued:
I would like to have the magic words that could give peace to those that have lost friends or loved ones. Thirty years ago, I was in the same situation. I have understood that a life lived by one's own wishes, no matter how brief it is, is better than a long life controlled by others. You are the masters of your destiny, don't allow anyone to snatch it from your hands, don't allow anyone to decide, on your behalf, that you aren't worthy of being alive. And...” he continued, “if you have lost someone close to you. Don't cry tears of sorrow. Cry tears of pride, because they gave their lives fighting for what they believed. I can't promise I'll be the best emperor Ilstram has ever seen. That will be something you will have to judge when my days have come to an end. I can promise I will do everything I can to give meaning to the lives we have been given.”
The emperor raised his hands, gesturing to the crowd to let them know he had finished his speech:
I'll be honest, you have moved me” his counselor said. “I'm glad I decided to follow you.”
We aren't done yet, Tanarum. I have the feeling the lomarians won't be this receptive...”
I'm sure you will do fine.”
Maybe...”

A few hours later, Hans had to talk to the lomarians. He was alone this time, with the exception of the guards that accompanied him. He walked to the ample room of a building that the lomarians themselves had built near one of the mines located south of the city. Only a few dozen of those strange beings were before him. The rest, he had been told, rejected to listen anything from any human. The emperor refused to learn the details of how they were forced to work in the mines. He could figure it on his own. Before him was Mogosh, the lomarian that had led the first defense of Nelder. A veteran of war who, despite everything he had endured, was willing to listen what the human had to say:
I know I can't ask for forgiveness” Hans said, “for what my people have done, but you must know that I wouldn't have allowed this. You were attacked and conquered after my wife and I were ousted from the empire. I've come to tell you that you're no longer slaves. You are free to do whatever you want, free to carry on with your lives. It shouldn't have been like this.”
You are the first human that seems to possess some common sense” the lomarian said. “We have suffered greatly at the hands of your kind. We can no longer return to Nelder.”
Why?” the emperor asked.
It's been so profoundly altered, that it's no longer a lomarian planet. You, humans, are very invasive. You have set up bases there. Even if you gave us the planet back, we wouldn't want it. It is no longer a pure planet.”
Truth be told, I came here to offer you something more than just total freedom. I want to correct the errors my predecessor made.”
Some of the lomarians that were at the back of the room walked towards the emperor:
I want to give you the opportunity to become part of Ilstram. I want you to be citizens with the same rights and obligations as everyone else, and that you carry on with your lives here. The Empire of Lomaria is no more, and even if you could found it once more, I know your species is destined to extinction.”
We would rather die with dignity on our own world than live as slaves here. Our time is long gone. The lomarians will become extinct soon.” Mogosh replied.
There's still hope.”
What hope can there be? For millennia, the ability of our species to give birth has continued to decline. There aren't any females left that can procreate. Our fate was sealed very long ago.”
In all those years, you have never approached other species seeking help” Hans replied. “Your science might have been very advanced back then, but nowadays, other empires had progressed even more. Our science has evolved enormously. Maybe we can still find a way to ensure your survival. Not everything is lost. It won't be until the very last lomarian dies.”
So what?” Mogosh said, furious. “We stay here and we become test subjects rather than slaves?”
No! What I'm offering is that you live your lives as citizens of Ilstram, that you integrate with the society, and that you allow our scientists to work with your people. Because there are lomarian scientists out there, right?”
My people abandoned the research of science many years ago. There might still be some, but I can't say for certain.”
I am” one of the lomarians, who had walked towards Hans to listen his speech, said.
Then, what do you say?” The emperor asked of everyone in the room. “You can either leave and die alone, if that's what you want, or you can stay here in Ilstram, become part of the society, and work together with us to ensure your species will not go extinct. My predecessor made an unforgivable mistake. Allow me to be the person that helps you try to find a new opportunity.”
Mogosh and the rest of lomarians gathered at some distance from Hans. They wanted to talk without the emperor listening. After several minutes, the lomarian leader approached him:
There is no hope left among my people. Our days are flying past... I can't even understand why we should trust a human, when you enslaved us with so much alacrity... But I am not the leader of my people, I'm just another voice. They want to accept your offer. We will remain in Ilstram, but we want Nelder to become, once again, primarily lomarian. At least some of the human facilities should be removed. Will you allow that? You conquered another three planets of the empire, you can use them for whatever Ilstram needs. However, if you snatch Nelder... you'd destroy what's left of our identity.”
Then, so be it” Hans said. “All of you that wish to do so, go back to Nelder. We'll probably won't be able to destroy everything there. I guess at this point we already have even human settlements, and the commercial network must reach the planet, too.”
We're not asking you to remove the humans that live there. We only want some of the human facilities destroyed, and that the soldiers that keep the population under check leave.”
They will, you have my word.”
Thanks... Emperor” Mogosh said, kneeling before Hans in a display of respect. Automatically, the other lomarians knelt as well.
Please, stand up.” Hans said. “I don't deserve this.”
You are the first alien to take interest in our people” the lomarian leader said. “For that, we are grateful. My kind hopes that, with your help, we'll find a way to revert the extinction process.”




********




The following day, in Antaria's hospital, Miyana and Magdrot couldn't hide their impatience any longer. Gone were the shocks of previous days. They weren't the emperor and empress of Ilstram, and they had already learned they had been manipulated by Marshal Ghrast to become the new leaders of the kingdom. But that wasn't of importance in that moment. Miyana was about to give birth. It wouldn't be long before, finally, Mijuhn was in her arms. What the woman didn't want to say, however, was the odd experience she had a few nights before.
She was with her son, who was probably fourteen or fifteen years old, in the middle of a big forest, covered by the snow.
It's about to begin” he said.
What are you talking about, my dear?”
If he can't dominate us, he will destroy Antaria. I will resist for as long as I can, but... if I do, there will be no hope left for anyone.”
Who are you talking about?” Miyana asked, visibly worried.
Tor'ganil... He's coming after us, once more. Don't you remember Ur'daar's words? He hasn't surrendered. Fifteen years ago, he planned to kill you, but he failed. Now he is coming back...”
After you?”
After everyone. He still has the same objective. He wants to dominate Humanity.”
What will happen if he can't?”
Her son stared at her, very worried:
He will destroy us all. Unless dad and the others can arrive in time...”
And Narun? Can't you two do something?”
We can't, mom. We are humans, even if we have been affected by the Daeralman...”
The brief scene was just another to be added to a long list of experiences she had suffered during the last few months, and their frequency was increasing. She couldn't understand what was going on. The most disconcerting aspect was the fact that she didn't know any of those names. She didn't know of anyone named Tor'ganil, Ur'daar or Narun, yet, during those visions, she felt as if they were individuals she had known for a long time.
Suddenly, the woman felt slight abdominal pain:
Are you alright?” her husband asked. He had been next to her bed throughout the night.
I think he's coming...” she said. “Call the doctors, please.”
Magdrot left the room quickly, looking for help. Much to his surprise, his wife was right, she had begun to give birth. He witnessed the process, next to Miyana, whilst the doctors took care of everything she needed. Despite knowing that the child wasn't his, he had become so attached that he wanted to see him grow up with Miyana. He considered Mijuhn his own child.

A mere two hours later, the couple were alone in the room... with their firstborn.
He's so beautiful” she said, crying out of sheer emotion, whilst resting her son's head against her chest.
Yes... I can't believe it, we have become parents, my love” Magdrot said, visibly happy. “After so long, he's finally here.”
Do you think we'll be good parents?”
I don't have any doubts. We won't be emperor and empress anymore, and we'll probably never have those luxuries ever again, but despite that, we'll give him the best possible life.”
They kissed sweetly. After some minutes, Magdrot left the room, looking for something to eat, as it had been a full day since the last time.
Miyana looked at her son happily. She remembered her first husband, the biological father of Mijuhn, and, although she felt sorrow because he wasn't there, she knew that wound was finally closed, after nine months. Now she had a new husband, with whom she wanted to move forward, and see the child that was in her arms grow up. Satisfied for having made it so far, she closed her eyes:
This is just the beginning of the path.”
The young woman looked around her, startled:
Hello?” she asked. “My love, is that you?”
Many things are yet to happen, but I know you will do well.”
Miyana stood up with difficulty. She assumed that the person talking was Magdrot, but neither her husband nor anyone else was anywhere to be found.
Unfortunately, there's still a lot of suffering awaiting us. In the end... it will be worth it. We'll make it to the end of this mess together. I know you will protect me, even with your lives, if it comes to that. But... everything will come.”
Who's there? What do you want from me?” Miyana said, talking to the empty room.
I've shown you some of the moments that are yet to come, just as I believe they will happen... Maybe you can help me.”
Tell me who are you!” the woman yelled desperately.
It's me, mom. I'm your son, Mijuhn” replied the infantile voice that boomed in her head...








Epilogue
A troubling future




Five years had passed. Ur'daar was accustomed to life among humans. Although five years was a considerable time for humans, and many others species, for U'rdaar it felt as if it had been mere days. He hadn't seen any signs of Tor'ganil since his attempt to assassinate Miyana and Magdrot, whilst Hans was fighting to return to Antaria. The malevolent being was no longer under the guise of dictator Gruschal, he had vanished.
Although Hans wanted to reveal the threat that they were fighting, Ur’daar judged it best to keep that Pandora’s Box closed until the appropriate moment. The last few years had been relatively calm; Hans and Alha were completely dedicated to taking care of their son, Narun; whilst Magdrot and Miyana had done the same with Mijuhn. The two families were having trouble adapting to the special traits of their children. The two had somehow developed the strange ability of discerning some details of possible futures; they also showed the potential to develop some of the abilities exclusive to Ur’daar’s kind, though lacking the same degree of control. Furthermore, their inferior human minds, and particularly that of the youngest, were incapable of seeing the countless paths that opened after each possible future.
Ur'daar felt guilty. In his accelerated search to find Khanam, his mental contact with some human beings led Ur'daar to the minds of Alha and Miyana whilst they were pregnant:
That was your first blunder” Ur'madanel said. “Reaching into their minds, you left a primordial trace in their descendants. You left a minimal hint of energy, imperceptible to humans, but strong enough to allow them to develop that ability, and they can develop others. They will never be like us, and perhaps, they will never feel entirely human, either.”
I am so sorry, Master” Ur'daar replied solemnly.
Although Ur'daeralman didn't have a governor, Ur'madanel was the eldest and most experienced of all those who had abandoned the neutrality of their species. Those seeking advice during difficult times, such as the young ur'daeralman several millennia before, turned to him. He was, in effect, a spiritual leader for those willing to defend the seed of life to their dying breath. Ur'madanel was almost half a million years old; his eyes had been witness to many events during that time. As the centuries went past, he became a mentor of sorts for Ur'daar, Ur'nodel, and many others. They had to stop Tor'ganil, and his kind, before they could put more lives at risk.
Now I understand, I apologized to the wrong woman” Ur'daar said.
He was in a massive ur'daeralman ship, near the edge of the known universe. Before him, sitting on something resembling a throne, was his mentor:
I apologized to Alha for what will happen to her son, I should have apologized to Miyana instead” he added.
We can still stop Tor'ganil from dominating the whole species” Ur'madanel said.
I have reached the limit of how much I am able to guide Khanam's steps, Master.”
Give him time. He will find the answer when you less expect it.”
And then?” the young ur'daeralman asked.
You'll have to help them. If we manage to stop Tor'ganil, we'll restore peace, at least for a time.”
For a time?” Ur'daar said, annoyed. “I thought Tor'ganil was the only threat.”
No. Evil walks on many paths. All species evolve, ours isn't any different. In the beginning, we were all equal, and we called ourselves Daeralman. Over time, we began to lose our neutrality. First, we isolated the seeds of chaos and life, and called ourselves Tor'daeralman and Ur'daeralman. You know the story. Later, some of us decided to abandon our neutrality, and we call ourselves Tarandun; some Tor'daeralman, like Tor'ganil, also decided to abandon neutrality, and call themselves Yerandil. As the time goes by, there will be less and less neutrals.”
Will we fight them?”
It's part of our duty. And theirs to fight us, too. We must preserve the balance at any cost. The answer to keep that balance” the venerable Ur'madanel continued, “was neutrality. Without good and evil, there wasn't a need to compensate forces. Now that this is happening, soon the rest of our kind will have to pick a side. We must continue to maintain the balance. If we don't, we would lose the reason of our existence, the reason that pushes every one of us to move forward. We must safeguard the order of the Universe's forces.”

That discussion had happened several days ago. Now, Ur'daar was at the highest point of Antaria's palace, on the roof of a tower. On occasion, he traveled up there to reveal his true self for a few minutes. Just as every time he went up there to relax his mind, he scrutinized the futures that opened before him:
I can only see death and destruction” he said to himself. “We thought we had won when we defeated Tor'ganil five years ago... But we have strengthened him. Sooner or later, he will return, trying to dominate Humanity. If he doesn't manage to, he will exterminate them... What am I really dealing with?”
After several minutes, the Ur'daeralman returned to the palace, once more under the guise of Jacob Emilson; once more under the human guise that allowed him to stay among humans unnoticed.
So many years later, the feeling of unease was present once again. The war against the Tarshtan Empire was ruthless. They hadn't yet recovered the quantum jump technology, which the tarshtans had stolen from the Grodey Empire. It was something that frustrated Ur'daar to no end. As long as the attention of the humans was focused in the conflict and not Tor'ganil – the real threat – the vile tor'daeralman would be free to act as he pleased...
Finally I find you!” Khanam said. He had walked hastily to the Imperial Palace.
What's up?” Ur'daar asked.
Do you remember what you said? That I would find a way to destroy Tor'ganil?”
Of course I remember.”
I don't yet know how to do it. I've barely progressed over the years, I wasn't sure where to start... Do you remember the prophecies you told me?”
Yes, why?” the Ur'daeralman asked.
One of them said that, in order to find the answers, we would have to travel beyond the stars. I think I finally know where we must go to find those answers, to learn how to stop Tor'ganil.”
Where?” he asked.
I believe you weren't being metaphorical when you said those words. For humans, there's only thing beyond the stars, in an unknown place... if it still exists. Ur'daar, we have to find The Earth...”

1 comentario:

  1. Heyo ;o this is Silv from the twitterverse!

    So far i've read the prologue and the first two chapters with the intend to read more.

    So. I've got to say this is a very interesting read, you can see you've put a lot of thought in this creating a whole new planetary solar system, as for what i think of the things i've read so far (i'll be splitting this up between prologue, chapter 1 & chapter 2

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    Prologue:

    Well, here we are on Antaria, and we read about the thoughts of our young heir of the emperor, and that of his friends i like how you touch upon the death of his mother (the empress) and then the emporer dies of the same way, the cynical part of me wants to think this is not just some "rare disease" but rather a curse/poison of some kind as they both died in the same way yet several years apart.

    And then our young heir's friends, i was thinking they'd be great for some chapter's in the perspective of them to see how they felt the upcoming trouble from the army's point of view which would have been interesting.

    And then you kill them, which came as a surprise to me which is always good to have unexpected twists (even in the prologue! ) i like how you touched upon how a single thing can change one's life so drastically, even in one night the young prince learned of tragedy, of sadness & regret, you wrote that beautifully in my experience as a reader as it really showed us what he was thinking and feeling.

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    Chapter I : A Dark Dawn

    So here we are, suddenly the young prince in now the emperor! i had hoped to see more of the father of hans to see why he acted like he did?

    What drove him? why did hans think he was hell bent on war? (maybe this will be achieved by the form of flashback's later on in the book i do not know yet)

    Also what i'd like to know how he met the now empress, was it a marriage contract? a regular meeting per by chance? i hope to find this out later on :)

    Also i like the way you let us see how far the ramifications of the events of the prologue go into the main story for example how the emporer was still troubled by the events of 30 years ago

    i won't go into detail for this chapter anymore as i don't want to spoil too much :) needlessly to say i enjoyed it quite a lot and it left me with quite some question's too.

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    Chapter II: The Great Journey

    What stood out for me in this chapter is how the people see their emperor still as a sort ish coward, they do realize he has a heart, which seemed not to be so in the previous chapters and you captured that brilliantly.

    The emperor seems to be wracked with guilt once again though - he seems to be very controlled by his emotions, is that a good thing? or a bad thing? i don't know but i'm sure i'll find out in later chapter's ^^

    to be fair i'm ending it here, i feel like i've rambled enough and i want to read abit further before i have to go so i'll just go on with my ending thoughts.


    So far i love this book, it's full of mysteries and things that make it seem like there's more to it, it's a great read and looking forward to reading more, thank you for writing this and i hope this will get published in a hard cover (English of course :P )

    *Waves* - Silv from Twitterverse

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