As Queen Nor’s head scientist entered the range, every soldier snapped to attention.
And how could they not? Lira thought, watching Aclisia march across the oil-stained concrete floor. It was like being in the presence of a legend, albeit a strange one. Aclisia possessed two heads—one of the few left of her race in Mirabel. They both worked in tandem, yet had personalities of their own.
Lira gazed upon her in awe. This was the woman who’d taken a single drop of blood and transformed it into the cure for ignorance. A single shot from one of the silver bullets Aclisia had created, and the victim’s eyes would be opened. They’d see Queen Nor for who she truly was: a goddess, worthy of their worship.
Aclisia ordered the soldiers to gather in the bleachers. The sea of black uniforms obeyed, moving as one to find seats. Two soldiers in the bloodred uniforms of Queen Nor’s personal guard hauled in a pair of struggling, hooded prisoners, glowing magnacuffs binding their wrists, the molten metal swirling around them like a trapped snake.
“This is going to be wicked,” Gilly whispered. Breck shushed her with a wave of her hand. The other soldiers were a thick wall behind Lira, every one of them watching with bated breath.
“Today, we prove to you the power that Her Majesty’s weapon has over her enemies!” Aclisia’s right head addressed the soldiers, her voice ringing out across the warehouse. “The galaxy belongs to Queen Nor. And yet some still fight against her reign. Her Majesty thanks you for your service, and wishes to inspire you.”
The soldiers roared in response. Lira joined them, Breck and Gilly shouting, too.
When they’d quieted down, Aclisia removed the hoods from the captives. The first was a young woman, red-faced from screaming, sweat plastering her white hair to her forehead. For a moment, the woman’s pale locks reminded Lira of Androma Racella, seated behind the dash of the Marauder, scratching tallies into a sword.
If only she’d been here. If only she’d been brave enough to serve Nor, too.
The second captive was a man, round and well-fed, with powder-blue skin. An Adhiran, like Lira.
“We must ask each person we encounter a vital question, in order to determine who they truly serve,” Aclisia said. She nodded to the guards, and they removed the gags from each captive’s mouth. “Who is your queen?”
The prisoners gasped for air, gulping in weighty breaths. The woman sat still, her eyes wide and roving over the group, but the man began to curse in Adhiran.
“Nor’s a demon!” His voice was ragged, as if his vocal cords were tearing in two. “She’s turned you all against what’s right! That monster is not your queen, damn it! Why can’t you see that? Why can’t you see what she’s done to you?”
Beside him, the woman simply shook as silent tears streamed down her cheeks.
The word from soldiers already out on the front was that all the Unaffecteds said similar things, but Lira had not yet seen it with her own eyes. The audacity of the man’s words made Lira’s blood boil with rage.
“Who is your queen?” Aclisia asked again.
“She’s brainwashed you all!” the man howled, veins popping out from his neck. “SHE’S TURNED YOU INTO—”
A guard stuffed the gag back into the man’s mouth, and his cries were cut off short.
“Pathetic,” Aclisia’s left head said.
Her right head nodded. “This is what our enemies believe. That we are all beneath a spell, following a queen who has wrongfully stolen her throne.”
Behind Lira, the soldiers cursed and spit at the captives. She joined in with eager haste.
“We have peace in Mirabel for the first time in decades. We have a queen who wishes to treat us all equally, and all she asks in return is that we serve her. That we continue to spread her vision across the galaxy, so that everyone will believe. Time is of the essence now, in the building of Nexus. And when it is completed, Phase Two will begin.”
Murmurs of agreement sounded down the line. Lira felt the truth of it in her heart, felt it beside that ever-constant whisper that seemed to ring out in her soul, keeping her eyes open and her loyalty true.
Nor is your queen, your goddess, your savior.
“A gift from your queen,” Aclisia said, lifting the rifle handed to her by one of the guards in red. The crowd roared in anticipation, eager to see another join their ranks. “Let’s show him the true power of the woman he claims is not his queen.”
When Aclisia squeezed the trigger, the round was silent. It slammed against the man’s forehead, knocking him back with the intensity of it. His eyes closed, as if he were dead. But in the center of his forehead, instead of a hole, instead of blood and brains...
Silver liquid swam against the man’s pastel skin, like a gentle caress of liquid moonlight. Then it began to fade, sinking beneath the surface until the liquid disappeared entirely. Lira waited for the change to take effect. For the man to finally see and believe the truth, to fully understand what light Nor could bring to his life.
His eyes fluttered open, his head bobbing slightly on his shoulders, chin dipping before a guard helped to lift his gaze to Aclisia.
“Who is your queen?” Aclisia’s two heads asked softly, the words as delicate as a kiss.
The man’s blue eyes lost their fog.
“Queen...” He seemed to fumble for the words, as if he were listening to the voice in his head. As if he were a child, learning the truth at last. “Queen Nor.”
Then he wept tears of joy, whispering Nor’s name over and over like a song, the words pouring from his very soul. Lira leaped to her feet, cheering alongside the other soldiers.
But beside him, the female captive began to scream. It broke through the power of the moment, through the joy of the man’s transition into the light.
“Enough!” Aclisia shouted. She lifted her rifle, set the woman in her sights and fired.
The scene was the same as before...and yet the effect was not.
For the woman did not lose consciousness. The liquid spread against her skin, but her eyes never closed. She kept screaming. “Let me go! Please, Godstars, let me go!”
The room should have felt frozen, a horror scene unfolding in rapid time. But Lira only felt calm as the woman began to howl and writhe against her bindings. Blood dripped from her wrists as she fought, shaking like a demon was clawing at her from the inside out. “LET ME GO!”
“Unaffected!” one soldier shouted. The others joined in, beating their fists and stomping their boots against the bleachers.
But Aclisia held up a hand. “Inject her.”
At once, the guards sank a tranq needle into the woman’s neck. Immediately, she fell silent.
“Do you see?” Aclisia asked, turning to the crowd of soldiers, now quiet, as well. Lira chanced a look at Breck and Gilly, their expressions stony as they looked forward. “This is what happens to those who do not believe.”
The guards cut the woman’s bindings loose, and Lira watched as they hauled her away, the woman’s pale hair dragging against the ground as they disappeared through the double doors. Lira continued to stare after the woman, even as the crowd came to life again.
She never wanted to return to that state of desperation. Never wanted to return to that place of feeling, of running and wishing to hide from the truth.
When she left the warehouse with the rest of her unit, Lira’s heart beat steadily in her chest as she stared out across the silver city all around her, as she saw the glorious banners, the Solis crest displayed for all to see.
I will always serve Nor Solis, Lira thought, saluting the symbol of her queen.
She turned her eyes to the sky, the ghost of a smile kissing her lips as she stared up at the distant floating mountain that housed her one true queen.
Beside it, the Nexus satellite winked beneath the starlight.
And all was well in Lira’s soul.
CHAPTER 7 (#u01e82320-9dc3-59cd-94d1-d05dea2c1138)