Four months ago
The city was a mess.
Ever since those cybernetic monstrosities started showing up, everything had gone straight to hell. People ran to the furthest corners of Long Island; creatures out of some B-movie roamed the streets, and the cops were too busy dealing with the sci-fi freak show to worry about small-time dealers like Nate. That meant the business was good!
Most of Queens had been evacuated a few days ago, but the folks who had stayed behind would still need their fix. Lots of opportunities for an enterprising young man to make a quick buck, assuming you had clients who actually paid what they owed you.
He threw Sheila up against the wall.
She slammed into the house's gray aluminum siding with a groan, thin ringlets of platinum blonde hair falling over her face. “Stop, stop!” she protested, raising both hands defensively. “I don't have it.”
Nate clicked his tongue.
A tall, skinny string-bean of a man in beige pants and a denim vest with frayed arm holes, he pointed the knife at Sheila. “Not the answer I was looking for,” he said. “You've been stiffing me for months.”
His pasty-white, hollow-cheeked face was marked by acne, and his brown hair was kept short in a mushroom cut. “Last month at Jimmy's party,” he said. “Two weeks ago at McGinty's. Over and over, it's the same thing with you.”
Sheila closed her eyes, head hanging. A lock of white hair fell over one eye. “Okay, okay,” she said. “Look, I can get you eighty.”
“Which doesn't mean shit when you bought two hundred bucks worth of coke.” He pressed the knife-blade to her cheek, and she winced at the touch of steel. “Did you think I was gonna run just because this city's burning?”
Gunfire in the distance punctuated his question.
He squeezed Sheila's face with his free hand, thumb and fingers digging into her cheeks. “Don't listen to that,” he said, turning her head toward the noise. “You focus on me. I want my god damn money, Sheila.”
“I don't have it.”
“Well, that's a shame.”
He dug the knife into Sheila's cheek and cut a thin line from the corner of her mouth to her ear. She squealed at the pain, thrashing against the wall. Ordinarily, that would have made him try to silence her, but there was no one around to care. Unless you counted those weird silver-eyed freaks. Still, those guys seemed more eager to kill cops than men like Nate.
“Pretty little whore like you,” Nate said. “Stupid, go-nowhere high school dropout. Really, your only shot at some kind of future is to open your legs for the right guy. Looks are your bread and butter, honey. And I'm gonna take 'em from you.”
He bared his teeth like a snarling animal, shaking his head in disgust. “This time, it's just one little cut,” he said. “Next time, it's a bigger one. Then I start breaking fingers. Then I start gouging eyes.”
Nate grabbed a fistful of her hair and flung her to the ground. She landed sprawled out on her side in the space between two houses, sobbing and shaking with every breath. “Get me my fucking money,” he said. “I don't wanna-”
Turning his back on her, Nate marched out of the alley with the knife clutched in one hand, growling under his breath. “Stupid bitch,” he whispered. “When are people gonna learn that nothing's free.”
He’d made it to the foot of the driveway when something caught his attention. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something so bizarre that he had to pause and look just to make sure he wasn't going crazy.
At the end of this quiet suburban street was an intersection, and on the far side of that intersection, a ten-story apartment building rose up to tower over the houses there. His eyes weren't perfect, but they didn't lie.
A woman and a man locked in a tight grapple fell off the roof of that building and tumbled toward the street below. The woman pulled herself free, and then suddenly, she was yanked back toward the rooftop like she was caught on some invisible fishing line.
The man, however, dropped like a stone to land in the street, shattering his legs on impact and screaming like a banshee. He was just sitting there in the middle of the road, crying. Damn it, the guy should have been dead.
Creeping closer with the knife in hand, Nate smiled down at himself. “Idiot,” he said, shaking his head. “You fight one of those space cops, and you should expect to get your ass dumped off a building.”
Of course, Keepers had a rep for not wanting to kill, but it was war out there. He'd always been the kind of guy who knew when to make exceptions. Why should the Justice Keepers be any different?
He made it to the intersection, pausing to watch the wounded man. The guy didn't seem to be aware of Nate's presence. He was too focused on his broken legs and probably the internal bleeding.
Nate crouched behind a mailbox, taking stock of the situation. Just when he thought the guy was weak enough to make easy pickings, something caught his attention. So he waited. Smart men knew when to wait.
The woman came around the side of the building, hobbling as if she had just run one of those five-mile marathons. She was tall, kind of hot in that brown trench coat, but her hair was too short. It wasn't so different from his own haircut: boyishly short and parted in the middle. He hated short hair on girls.
The woman stepped into the street, doubled over and gasping for breath. “You just don't know when to die, do you?” she asked, shaking her head. “Some people just stick around long past the point when you want them to leave.”
The wounded man looked up at her, blinking. “I thought I was done for,” he said, wheezing with laughter. “Leave it to a Keeper to save her worst enemy.”
Keepers were idiots.
The woman pulled her pistol.
“What are you doing?”
She thrust her arm out and pointed the gun right at the wounded man's forehead, cocking her head to one side. “Sorry, friend,” she said. “There are already too many evil pieces of shit like you in the world.”
Nate felt his eyebrows rise.
Maybe Keepers weren't so dumb.
“But you can't!”
The gun buzzed as it went off, and the man's head jerked backward. Blood and gore splattered on the road before he fell backward to stare up at the sky with dead eyes.
The woman stood over him for a very long moment, maybe trying to decide what she would do with his body. Nate could see the calculation in her eyes. She was thinking about the pros and cons.
The woman turned around, holstering her pistol and walking away.
He waited a good two minutes for her to get out of sight; Keepers were stupid, but not so stupid that they would ignore him while he went fishing through a dead man's pockets for a wallet or some stray cash.
When she was gone, Nate ran out into the street and dropped to his knees next to the corpse. He started pawing over the guy's pants, looking for anything that might be of value. Some people would be squeamish at the thought of doing that. Some people were too stupid to live.
He took the dead man's hand, lifting it so he could get a look at the guy's vest, and when he did, something that felt like an electric jolt went through his body. Nate wanted to let go, but he couldn't.
The corpse's skin began to glow, white light exploding from every pore. Was this guy some kind of angel? Nate had never believed in such things, but nothing else could glow like that.
The halo transferred, spreading over Nate's hand and then up his arm, a creeping wave of light that made his skin tingle. It flowed over his face and made him throw his head back, screaming as something sank into his flesh.
Suddenly, it felt as though he had run one of those five-k marathons himself. His every muscle felt watery, and he wanted to curl up in a ball and sleep. First, he had to get out of the street.
Crawling on all fours, he made it to the sidewalk and then he collapsed there. It was only then that Nate realized he wasn't alone. Something else was with him.
And it was powerful.
(Three Months Ago)
Admiral Telixa Ethran stepped onto the ship's bridge.
In her fine gray uniform with red epaulettes on the shoulders, she was very imposing despite being barely five feet tall. Her thin, dark-skinned face was framed by a short bob of black hair. “Report.”
The bridge was a simple room with a large, empty chair in the middle and people at computer stations along the wall. The screen along the front wall displayed a large, bluish star that seemed to pulse, sending waves of light into the blackness of space.
Lieutenant Janis – a tall man in a gray uniform who stood with his back turned at one of the starboard-side stations – stiffened at the sound of her voice. “The Class 2 Gate is active and broadcasting.”
Crossing her arms with a grunt, Telixa stepped forward to stand behind her chair. Her mouth twisted as she studied the screen. “Let's see it,” she said. “You do know the old saying, don't you?”
Janis twisted partway around to look over his shoulder. He was handsome enough, with pale skin and short brown hair. “Ma'am?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “Just what old saying would that be?”
Telixa smiled, bowing her head to stare down at herself. “When the Overseers give you a present,” she said, tapping the back of the Captain's Chair. “Make damn sure that it isn't going to explode.”
“I don't believe that is an old saying, ma'am.”
“I'm sure I heard it somewhere.”
In truth, she had made it up right there on the spot, but it was good to be the sort of captain who was always referencing old sayings that supposedly came from the military commanders of past generations. That fact was no less true now that she was an admiral. “Put the Gate on the screen, Mr. Janis,” she said. “Let's get a good look at the thing.”
The image on the screen shifted, zooming in to give a close-up of something that looked very much like a diamond of sleek, shiny metal with blue sunlight glinting off its surface. Just looking at the damn thing made her feel a sense of awe. “The Gate is over five kilometers long,” Janis said.
Pressing her lips into a tight frown, Telixa narrowed her eyes. “And we're sure that it can send a ship across the galaxy?” she asked in a flat tone that consistently made her subordinates hop. “We've tested it?”
Janis spun to face her, standing by his station with his hands clasped in front of himself. “We sent a probe through this morning,” he said. “The probe's telemetry said it reached a system designated on our charts as S475AD. What little we know of that side of the galaxy has the system in a neutral area between Leyrian and Antauran space.”
Telixa stepped around her chair.
Dropping into it with a sigh, she crossed one leg over the other and gripped the armrests for all she was worth. “Well then,” she murmured. “It seems that the Overseers have granted us the ability to travel across the galaxy.”
Squeezing her eyes shut, Telixa sucked in a deep breath. “Signal the fleet captains immediately,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “I want twenty ships stationed in this system within ten days. The Gate is to be guarded at all times against possible Leyrian incursions.”
That was only the beginning, of course. In too many wars, she who struck first also struck last, and war was all too likely now that the Leyrians had the ability to encroach on Ragnosian territory. A defensive posture was inadequate. If her people wanted to prevent any violations of their borders, it would be necessary to establish a foothold on the far side of the galaxy, to keep the other major powers in this galaxy off balance.
“Open a channel to the Assembly of Generals,” Telixa said. “And put it through to my office. We have much to discuss.”
Sunlight through stained-glass windows broke into streams of bright colours that fell upon wooden pews on either side of an aisle that ran through the church. Those pews were filled with people, young and old, who sat with their heads down.
At the altar, an older man in a simple pair of gray pants and a blue shirt with a high collar that almost touched his chin looked out at his flock. He was copper-skinned with a thick gray beard and a receding hairline. “Thus do I walk in the light of the Companion,” he said. “For he walks at my side in all things...”
Brinton listened to the sermon.
A younger man in black pants and a matching shirt, he stood at the side of the dais with his arms folded. He was tall and slim, and he wore his blonde hair cut short, as was proper for an acolyte of the faith. Watching the reverent speak always left him feeling a little...hollow inside. The man was just so pompous.
Reverend Vanorel spread his arms wide as if he intended to soar over the crowd as proof of some divine miracle. “The Companion is with me in all things,” he said. “And thus I do not fear.”
Brinton shut his eyes tight, sucking in a deep breath. Yes, Reverend, you've made your point, he thought, shaking his head. Honestly, if these sermons of yours went on any longer, half the congregation would fall asleep.
It was an unholy thought, one unworthy of an acolyte, but he didn't chastise himself for having it. He had given up trying to purge his mind of impure thoughts after the first month of enduring this...nonsense. The Companion loved all his children and wished to be a force for good in their lives. He was utterly uninterested in the endless praise that so many devotees of the faith insisted on giving.
“Our service today is ended,” the Reverend said. “Go forth in the light of the Holy Companion and be well.”
The congregation rose from their pews and immediately began talking quietly with one another. In seconds, the church was filled with the soft buzz of several dozen voices speaking at a low volume.
Brinton started through the crowd.
“Where are you going?”
He grimaced at the sound of Reverend Vanorel's shrill voice, pressing a palm to his forehead. “I wish to greet members of the congregation,” he explained. “There are some I did not see before the start of the service.”
When he turned, Haran Vanorel stood at the altar with his hands clasped behind himself, his chest puffed up as if he intended to begin yet another sermon. “Your duty is to begin cleaning up.”
A blush singed Brinton's cheeks, and he bowed his head to the other man. “A duty I cannot perform to completion until the church is empty,” he replied. “What harm is there in letting me say my hellos.”
He hoped the other man didn't notice his apprehension. It wouldn't do to allow the good reverend to begin suspecting that Brinton might have ulterior motives.
Vanorel's face twisted so fiercely you might have thought he'd been slapped. “Your attitude is unbecoming, Brinton,” he said in clipped tones. “We will discuss this again in my office, after you have completed your duties.”
Brinton hurried along.