Chapter 1

Desolation.

As far as the eye could see.

Steven looked into the sky at the malevolent swath of brilliance that had obliterated night. The Maelstrom was coming. Soon it would consume everything. The entire universe.

But Steven expected it. Welcomed it. The clean slate it brought. His antagonist was right. She told him he would reinvent reality. He was born for that purpose. For this universe, he was the Destroyer. For the next, the Savior. All he had to do was to accept it. Embrace it. Become it.

He returned his attention to the rubble around him. Cities blasted to dust and ashes. Now nothing more than little islands in a roiling ocean of magma. Their occupants had ruthlessly tested his compassion and tempted his wrath. He in turn had visited upon them the recompense for the torments he was forced to endure at their hands. Not just this world. All of them.

The throne belonged to him. The rights to existence was his. And he was claiming it.

He knelt down and plunged his hand into the lava that lapped on the shore of his little island, then pulled it back, letting the liquid pass through his chromed fingers. Justice.

They had hunted him like an animal. Chased him across the universe in their bloodlust. Now their ashes mingled with the molten remains of this planet, soon to be utterly obliterated by the unraveling of the fabric of space.

Steven was determined to witness the final moments of existence there. To see the Maelstrom wash over the planet, wiping away the devastation into oblivion. Time and space would cease to exist. Physics would be erased. The universe would be ripe for a phase change into a new reality, one according to his own design.

“Who is Asherah?”

Steven spun around, startled and ready to destroy again. But it was her. The goddess who had opened his eyes. Aliya. All life had forsaken him, betrayed him, but she never turned her back on him.

She sauntered over to him, walking across the lava as her hips swayed with each footstep, a stark contrast to the death and destruction around her. “Who is she?”

The question was irrelevant. Steven scowled and returned his attention to the results of his handiwork. His countenance chromed over briefly and he glanced at his hands. He was no longer beholden to the physics of this reality. He was beyond it. Like the Elder. Like the Younger. Of what importance was anything else? Anyone else?

“Steven?”

“An Elf.” Steven glanced at Aliya. “No one.”

Did he just lie to her? For what purpose? He was the Destroyer. He owed no one.

“I found her.” Aliya put her arm around his waist and pulled him close. “I was going to give her to you. Your Eve.”

Steven glanced at her. He could tell she was attempting to woo him. Lull him into complacency with her seductive presence. Her beauty and power were intoxicating. A luminescent goddess who glowed with the brilliance of a thousand stars, and yet he was still able to admire her, touch her, savor her touch.

However, there was only one thing he wanted from her. “Where are my parents?”

~ ~ ~

The scream seemed to penetrate his consciousness both from within and from without. Steven opened his eyes to see a frantic Asherah shaking him. He put his hands up to ward her off but she batted them away and lay on him, sobbing.

Blinking, he pushed her off and rolled over, retching. His head throbbed and the tree house shuddered under his knees. Asherah tried to grab him again and Steven intercepted her hand, holding her wrist as he glared at her. He rose to a crouch, lifting her arm up as he struggled to control an overwhelming rage.

“Steven,” Asherah whispered as she wept.

He was angry at her. He had lied to his goddess about her and he didn’t know why.

Asherah gasped, glancing at his grip on her wrist. “It’s a dream, Steven. Please.”

Dream? Steven let go of her wrist as he looked around. He was in the common room of Asherah’s family tree house. On Syagria. The Elves that had been asleep were now all awake and on their feet, staring at him and appearing more than a little terrified. He looked at Asherah and squinted. Then he shook his head. “No. It wasn’t a dream.”

“Steven,” Asherah cried, then she caught her breath, seeing his thoughts.

He sat back down on the floor heavily and put his head in his hands as reality flooded back in. He cried out loudly as he tried to fend off the tendrils of resentment and fury. The monster within that terrified him, that threatened to consume him. After a moment, he looked at his hands. Fur. Skin. Normal.

“She’s trying to reach me.” He took in a shuddering breath. The anger was real. His life had been pure agony at the hands of both Terrans and the Cooperative. His loved ones tormented. Innocents murdered. He shook his head as he tried to quell it. “She knows about what has happened to me. It’s like she’s trying to feed it. Magnify it.”

He looked up, alarmed. “She knows about you.”

Asherah nodded, wiping her nose. “I saw.”

“You saw? I didn’t see you.”

“I couldn’t dreamscape with you. But I watched.” Asherah shivered. “I thought, I thought…”

“She cannot inspire an incident from me, Asherah.” Steven put his hand on hers. “No more earthquakes. No more burning.”

“But, the Maelstrom?” Asherah turned her hand over and grabbed his.

Steven thought for a moment. “She doesn’t know about Vanessa.” He looked up. “Who else would be powerful enough but me?”

Asherah cried furiously. “You wouldn’t. Please tell me. You were so cold, so…”

Steven pursed his lips as he regarded her solemnly. “Am I cold now?”

Asherah shook her head, trying to stem the tears. “You scared me. What you did. The death. The…you, you enjoyed it.”

“I lied to her. I took over. Even in the deepest dreams she cannot overpower me.”

Steven looked around at the nervous Elves in the room and slumped. “I want to go home.”

Asherah followed his gaze around the room. “Steven. This is your home. Here. On Syagria.”

“Not yet.” Steven looked at her sadly as he reached up and wiped the moist fur on her cheeks. “Not even close.”

~ ~ ~

She opened her eyes and looked around. It seemed like she had just lain down to go to sleep.

It had been a long day of classes and teeth. But it was a fulfilling day. Her dental Guildmaster was extremely proud of her. Of course, Angela couldn’t tell if that was coming from a perspective of condescension, proud that a Terran could actually hold a drill correctly, or if it was genuine. The Ordan were notoriously difficult to read. But for her, any non-human was hard to read, especially since their context was still such a mystery to her.

Angela rubbed her eyes and sighed. Her mind was racing. She wasn’t surprised she was still awake.

As she rolled over, she realized that she was on Syagria. But she couldn’t remember going there. She thought she had returned to Endard. Tessa and Ryan had celebrated Lisa’s birthday, and it seemed like the whole village attended their private little party. Angela smiled, remembering the Williams’s exasperation since Tessa had prepared just enough dinner for them. But true to form in the Cooperative, no one lacked for food. They never do.

Angela looked around, confused. She was so sure she went to sleep on Endard. The party was dragging on and she had to get up early so she left them and lay down in the common room. Sleeping mats had already been laid out.

But she couldn’t deny that she was now in a common room of a treehouse on Syagria. She sometimes visited Ted’rel there. He was a bit immature for her tastes, but there was something about him that she found irresistible. Even so, he was still not eating out of her hand, though he continuously tried. While everyone’s plates were common to those at the table and eaten from by anyone, only lovers ate out of each other’s hands.

Angela sat up, not tired anymore. It was actually pretty bright outside. Double full moons. She stood up and walked out of the common room onto the deck. But, something didn’t seem to fit. Angela turned around and looked back into the common room. There were numerous sleeping mats on the floor, but she was the only one there.

Scratching her head, she walked around the deck, looking at the other tree houses in the Syagrian village. No one was out there that evening. Even the neighboring tree houses were silent.

“Hello?” Angela called out. Things were starting to feel creepy to her. She would often walk out in the cool of the night and even then there was always some activity happening. Elves were constantly coming and going. To them, night was just a slightly dimmer version of day. But now there was no activity at all.

“I used to imagine people. But, they just weren’t real,” a voice behind her said.

Angela spun around, startled, then gaped.

Vanessa stood on the deck looking at the Temple in the distance. “They looked real, and felt real. Like the tree we’re standing on. But they just had no soul.”

“Vanessa? Are you out?” Angela stopped. She slumped a little. “I’m in, aren’t I?”

She looked around again. It all felt so real. But it was the Maelstrom and she was in a vision again, visiting Steven and Asherah’s daughter who had been imprisoned there for eons. Angela sighed and looked back at her. Asherah had not even delivered her daughter yet. She was several months away even. But there she was, standing before her, a grown woman who was immensely ancient, far older even than her own parents, or anyone else in the Cooperative for that matter.

“You’re the first real person I’ve seen in a very long time,” Vanessa smiled.

“The Younger?” Angela looked around.

“She left about a thousand years ago. Perhaps longer,” Vanessa said sadly. “I loved her so much. She was like a child to me. My little Selkie daughter.”

Angela grimaced. Time was a bit wonky in the Maelstrom. Flexible even. But this was a vision. She wasn’t there. This was happening in real time for her. “Where did she go?” Angela asked looking around.

“The beginning,” Vanessa said. “She had no anchor for any other point.” She walked over to Angela and caressed her cheek in the traditional Elvish greeting, blessing her with memories of her days before the Maelstrom. Then she gently grabbed her hand and looked at it. Even with her extreme age, she still moved with all the determined grace of a young Elf, and her touch was soft and warm. Her fur tickled Angela’s hand a little and she looked down at it as Vanessa seemed to be transfixed by her fingers. She didn’t look old. But Elves never did. For that matter, no one in the Cooperative looked their age.

Still, a thousand years without someone to talk to and with no physical contact, it was torture to an Elf since they were characteristically extremely gregarious. Angela sighed, feeling sorry for Vanessa. Vanessa grinned, shaking her head. “Don’t feel sorry for me, Angela. I made a choice and I’m living with it.”

Angela nodded, then knitted her eyebrows, quizzical. “The beginning?”

“She witnessed the Cataclysm. When all of the gates died. And she rebuilt them as well as she could. Without her, there would be no Cooperative. But, it just wasn’t the same.” Vanessa glanced at Angela, remembering where she was from. “And she was excluded from Terra, too. The Forbidden Planet.”

Angela gulped. She never understood why Earth was considered the Forbidden Planet by the Cooperative. She suspected few if any of her new, exotic friends remembered why either.

Vanessa sighed. “We used to not need Gatekeepers or Temples before the Cataclysm. We would just go wherever we wanted to.” She hooked Angela’s arm and walked over to the edge of the deck and looked down at the ground far below. “At least, that’s what she told me.” She leaned forward closer to her. “Before then, everyone was a Gatekeeper. But more. Like me. There were no fractures.”

“How did she know? She’s been, she was here all of her life.” Angela looked around. There was no connection to the real universe there. Everything she saw and touched was a product of Vanessa’s memories and imagination, and perhaps some of her own too.

Vanessa looked at her blankly for a moment. “Oh, no. She told me before I got here.”

Angela frowned. Time was weird in the Maelstrom. “Steven and Asherah have only been back a few of days. I saw the Younger with you then, too. How can it be a thousand years already?”

“There’s no time in the Maelstrom. No space. No points of reference. Our perceptions of time are vastly different,” Vanessa said absentmindedly as she looked down. “You’re new.”

“What?” Angela looked around then back at her.

Vanessa turned to look at her. “I don’t remember you. I remember everyone else. But not you. I have Mom and Dad’s memories from before. I was over a hundred years old before this. But in all that time, there was no you. Not in their memories and not…I never knew you. You’re new. And yet, you were in their memories when they were here, a couple of days ago.” Vanessa smiled sadly, wishing it had truly only been a couple of days.

Angela looked at her, confused. Vanessa sighed then looked back down at the ground far below. Angela followed her gaze. What she saw dazzled her. The ground had melted away, revealing a vast web made of light. She looked up and around, suddenly surrounded by it as the deck seemed to fade away. It was organic and seemed to be alive, pulsing and throbbing all around her. It reminded Angela of a vast cluster of neurons. She smiled. She had to learn that little tidbit of physiology for her work too, even though she was just carving on teeth.

It was different, however, and she finally recognized it. It was the fracture they were looking at, through which all gates were formed. Vanessa was a deviant Gatekeeper like her father, and that was how they saw the universe when they closed their eyes and reached out.

Vanessa nodded, confirming her musings, and Angela realized she was still holding her hand, still seeing her memories and thoughts. Vanessa reached up and poked one of the neurons and it went dark all of a sudden. Then those around it went dark and the effect cascaded. She cocked her head and looked at Angela curiously. “Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you had never been born?

~ ~ ~

“Sir. We have progress on Shawn’s team.”

Jacob pulled his head out of the hatch of a drone and looked at the technician expectantly.

“We’re still working out the details on their main language, but we are picking up mention of the prisoners in their communications.”

“Just what mention?” Jacob wiped his hands off with a rag and pulled himself out from under the drone, his interest piqued.

“Logistics. Sir, from what we’ve been able to gather, they never left Earth.”

“They’re still here?” Jacob raised his eyebrows, holding his hand out.

The technician handed him his tablet. “Requisition requests for food. But with a specific ration for a hundred and twenty men.” He pointed. “And here is a movement schedule. They seem to have been moving them every few weeks.”

“Where on Earth could they keep a contingent of soldiers captive?” Jacob scrolled through the report.

“We’re just getting bits and pieces sir. But we think they may be sequestered in a cargo ship.” The technician scrolled the report up a little. “Past movements seem to land on port cities.”

“What would an advanced alien civilization be doing using cargo ships?” Jacob gaped. He glanced at his drone. “They have spectacular technology that we’re just barely reverse engineering.”

“Did you get it to hover yet?”

Jacob nodded. “Way past that. We’re working on propulsion now.”

The technician nodded. “Closing the gap.”

Jacob sighed. “Has Laurence completed the concordance yet?”

“Yes, sir. We’re revising it now. Their language is interesting. But, without it, this would be useless.” He pointed at the tablet.

“They don’t even encrypt their data?”

“Some seems to be. Actually, most. This stuff appears to be like a laundry list or something. Non-critical.”

“Moving prisoners of war is non-critical?” Jacob blinked. “I’d hate to see what they deem critical.”

“Critical?”

Jacob looked over his shoulder, and sighed. A bouncy redhead was strolling towards them and Jacob immediately felt a flush of hormones as he watched her body move with her steps. Blinking, he held his arm up and looked at his dermal-patch. “This isn’t working.”

“You only thought you had it beat.” Katy giggled as she walked past him and put a hand on the fuselage of the drone. “You got news?”

“We’re narrowing down on Shawn’s team.” Jacob’s eyes watered. Katy was stunning to look at to begin with, but with her judicious and malicious use of pheromones, it was nearly impossible to keep his thoughts organized as her dress stretched seductively over her body while she bent over to inspect the underside of the drone. “I asked you to stop using that.”

“And I told you to beat it.” Katy stood up and adjusted her dress, making Jacob’s heart jump. “Your patch isn’t working, is it?”

Jacob shook his head, trying to keep his eyes away from her bodacious bosom.

“Have you tried picturing George Washington in a thong?” Katy smirked.

“Funny. Why?”

“You’re my favorite guinea pig.” Katy raised her eyebrows. “No one has control like you do.”

“Not working out so well right now. You do know constant exposure to that is hazardous, right?”

“Then beat it.” Katy smiled. “Shawn?”

“We’re cracking further into their communications. Laurence’s stolen technology has allowed us to jump forward spectacularly.” He handed the tablet to Katy, who pursed her lips as she perused the data. Jacob had to tear his eyes away from those succulent lips. He stared at wires hanging out of a hatch on the drone and tried to catalog the steps he had to complete.

“You might want to send your technician away before he has a cardiac arrest.”

Jacob glanced over. “Dismissed.” The technician was likewise doing his best to avoid looking at her and was sweating profusely. “I said, dismissed.”

“Of course, sir,” the technician croaked, then almost ran off.

“See? You have better control.” Katy winked at Jacob. He rolled his eyes.

“We have not figured out their cerebral stimulation user interface yet. Still depending on Laurence’s alien computer for everything. Nor have we figured out their distributed, quantum computing.” Jacob scowled, trying to geek his way through his throbbing hormones. “Their network appears to be based on quantum entanglement. Very advanced stuff.”

“Cerebral Stimulation. Sounds kinky,” Katy giggled.

Jacob scowled. “That’s what the white alien that visited us called it. We have figured out how to use it. But not replicate it.”

“I know you’ll figure it out. You always do.” Katy batted her eyes at him.

“I need more manpower to locate Shawn’s men.” Jacob wiped his brow. He was starting to sweat now. “Katy, this is too much. Please dial it back.”

Katy pouted. Instantly Jacob felt better and he almost fell over. Katy grabbed him and held him on his feet. “I am going to want to look at the tech you have managing that. It’s potent.”

“Of course it is.” Katy smirked. “I need you to at least narrow down the side of the globe where his team may be located.”

“You saw the cargo ship sequestration theory?” Jacob took his tablet back from her. Katy nodded. He shook his head. “I’ve seen the giant ships they have over there. Laurence brought back a treasure trove of intelligence, and it is just terrifying. Why would they limit themselves by keeping our men here, on a boat?”

“They probably feared contamination.” Katy looked at him, serious. “That is a question we will have to answer when we recover our men.”

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