Nor could already taste her victory.
She could almost see Nexus working already, channeling Valen’s compulsion to the farthest corners of the galaxy. Transmitting the command for all the other capital planets to launch their missiles toward the Void that hovered in space just beyond the outer reaches of the Phelexos System.
To everyone else in Mirabel, the Void was just a swath of darkness, a place where the light of the stars couldn’t reach. But Nor knew better. She knew what lay beyond that Void, just waiting for her to open the door. To blast a hole through that darkness to reveal what was hidden on the other side; the very thing Nor’s mother had spent her entire life failing to reach.
Exonia, Nor thought, the word like a balm to her soul. The galaxy Klaren truly hailed from, a galaxy of people who had spent years suffering the same fate as those on Xen Ptera, trapped in a dying world with no hope of escape.
She would follow in Klaren’s footsteps, but she would not fail like her mother had. With Valen at her side, no matter the cost...they would succeed.
Nor took a deep breath and continued her speech. “I urge you not to falter—”
The screen across from her flickered, then filled with a static so thick that for a moment, Nor lost sight of herself. She paused, waiting impatiently as the newscaster droids scrambled to fix the connection, the producer commanding them about. But the static only worsened. It had never been an issue before, even when they were filming aboard Nor’s ship, hurtling through hyperspace toward Arcardius.
“A momentary lapse in the connection,” the producer said, his four hands worrying at each other. “I’m certain we’ll resolve it shortly, Majesty.”
Annoyance flickered to life in Nor’s chest, a little flash of heat she forced herself to ignore. Then, almost as suddenly as it had begun, the static faded. Nor rolled back her shoulders and smiled once more, ready to continue her speech.
But as the image sharpened, Nor realized it wasn’t her on the screen any longer. Her blood went cold at the sight of a massive, shadowed figure emerging from a cloud of darkness.
“What in the hell is that?” The producer’s voice squeaked from behind the bright lights. Nor could hear a commotion, the sound of stomping feet as he shuffled around to get a better look at the main screen, but Nor remained frozen, fixated by the image before her.
Someone had hacked into the live feed.
It should have been impossible, with all the firewalls and security measures they’d put into place just this morning, in light of the Unaffected attacks. Nor’s skin prickled, her body rooted to the spot as she stared at the screen, wishing she could release the command to shut it all down, to banish the beastly figure from her sight.
But when a single blue light illuminated the massive figure’s suit of armor, the words failed her, as if she’d swallowed them whole, along with the lump in her throat.
Nor knew that bloodred armor well.
She’d seen it in her nightmares for years. The spikes protruding from the shoulders, the crimson electric shield covering the soldier’s body. A shield that sent out impassable currents, melting bullets in their tracks and preventing enemy blades from piercing a fatal vein.
This armor had been crafted for the soldiers from New Veda, the fierce giants who’d taken up arms with the Unified Systems against Xen Ptera so many years ago. An ancient and dented red helmet, with smoke stains marring the metal, concealed the soldier’s face from view. Black designs were etched into the armor, a network of lines that looked like a spider’s web.
“What is this?” Darai hissed. All around him, droids scrambled to regain control of the live feed. “Contain this situation, right now, before I...”
His voice trailed off as the soldier spoke.
“This message is for those whose minds still belong to them.”
Sweat moistened Nor’s palms as fear wrapped itself around her throat. Valen, she thought. Valen, where are you?
But the doorway was still empty, her brother beyond her reach.
The soldier’s words sounded robotic. Horrific. They were spoken in a deep male voice that came not from Arachnid himself, but from a spiderlike droid perched upon his shoulder. The droid’s twelve legs, silver and jagged as knives, dug into Arachnid’s armor. Four red lights shone on the center of its body like unblinking eyes.
“You are not alone,” Arachnid said. With each word, the droid’s red eyes flashed and the video feed flickered. Arachnid and the droid turned to pixels, then formed fully again. “Much of the galaxy has fallen to a false queen, but there are still many who have not. To the strong, to those who continue to fight for freedom—I am Arachnid. And I stand as leader for all those who refuse to bow to anyone’s will but our own.”
The droid’s knifelike legs clicked as it flexed and dug deeper into the armor. The entire time, Arachnid stood still. A broad-shouldered demon hidden beneath the color of blood.
“Find me. Together, we will build an army. Together, we will destroy the false queen.”
Arachnid took a step toward the camera, red armor clanking like a battle ax hitting bone, and Nor felt the weight of his invisible stare land on her.
“You cannot compel me, Nor Solis. I know what you plan to do. I know the horrors you will unleash, and I will stop you before it’s too late. Even if I have to drive the killing blade into your chest myself.”
The screen flickered a final time.
Then it faded to black.
CHAPTER 5 (#u01e82320-9dc3-59cd-94d1-d05dea2c1138)
“You know, carrying out this mission seemed a whole lot easier when we first started planning it,” Andi commented, staring at the holograms of various rescue plans that hovered above the varillium coffee table. They lit up the main deck of the Marauder, casting shadows against the walls adorned with Gilly’s drawings.
Morbid as the drawings were—most of them were made up of stick figures missing limbs or, Gilly’s favorite artistic choice, stick figures missing their heads—looking at them made Andi’s chest ache.
And not just because of the still-healing wound from Valen.
She missed her crew more than ever before. She missed seeing Breck in the kitchen with Alfie, talking about the latest and greatest recipes from around Mirabel. She longed to see Lira seated at the table in the corner of the main deck, working on homemade Sparks. Gilly would have been peering over her shoulder, eager to learn any way to wreak havoc on the world.
And speaking of Havoc...
Andi’s gaze fell on a pair of jagged orange claws that just barely poked out from beneath the sofa, ready to ensnare an ankle. Gilly’s bloodthirsty puffball of a feline had grown increasingly problematic in the weeks without its owner, destroying cables, gnawing through the foot of Dex’s cot and leaving piles of stinking waste all over the engine room.
She was beginning to wish that the Fellibrag had been left behind on Arcardius, but naturally, Gilly had made sure Havoc was safely tucked aboard the ship before assuming her guard duties at the Ucatoria Ball. And now it was up to Andi to make sure Gilly’s beloved pet somehow survived the next few weeks, until they could come up with a plan to rescue her and the other girls.
“Getting the mission done is always the hard part,” Lon said, drawing Andi back into the conversation at hand, smiling morosely as their eyes met. His fingertips trailed dangerously close to the edge of the Adhiran cowhide couch, where Havoc swatted and missed.
Andi leaned back into the cushions, sighing deeply. The wound on her chest no longer hurt when she breathed, which was the only positive progress she seemed to have made in the three weeks since she’d awoken.
Andi knew she was being overly dramatic, and that they weren’t completely at a dead end. A few days ago, they’d finally had their first breakthrough. Dex had managed to secure a connection to the galactic feed, which was essential to their plans.
Unfortunately, that connection had only confirmed their worst fears.
The world they once knew was far gone. Endless propaganda now littered the feeds, Nor Solis the figurehead of this new world. Her reign of compulsive power had spread to every system, from Phelexos to the farthest reaches of Tavina. Hiding out in the nebula may have kept them safe from the virus, but that protection also made Andi feel incredibly alone.
But she would not accept defeat. Not when the lives of her girls were at risk.
“Okay, let’s lay out what we know already,” Andi said, needing everything clarified once more before they did...who knows what, she thought. They couldn’t move forward with any of the plans they’d concocted thus far without more information.
Lon tapped a command into the holoscreen on the coffee table and pulled up a picture of a young man with green hair and dark skin. He would have looked like any other person she might pass on the streets of any city in the galaxy—if it weren’t for the network of silver veins glowing beneath the surface of his skin.
Andi had seen this photo before. They all had. The first time she saw it, the sight had puzzled her to the core. She was very familiar with body modification, but had never seen anything like this in all her travels across Mirabel.
“People infected with the virus are left with a visible marker of the compulsion—those silver veins,” Dex said wearily, as Lon pulled up other photos of people with a similar mod. “Which makes things more than a bit difficult for us. We can’t just waltz into Arcardius and get the girls back. It would be obvious that we’re not under Nor’s mind control.”