Hear the audiobook version of this chapter.
A place exists between slumber and waking where reality floats about in dreams. It was perfect. Or so Vespa believed.
The gentle sounds of water lapping the shore washed over her, whispering enticements to stay within the dreamscape. She was warm and comfortable. Safe. Happy memories of camaraderie and a joyous evening merged in her consciousness with the lilting morning calls of a shore crane in search of its first meal.
A light breeze rustled the sheers, then whisked a cooling breath across her drowsy face. Eyes still shut, resisting the morning, Vespa sniffed the aromas of the ocean – salt mixed with life-giving water, dune jasmine, and the oily scent of aquatic life. The wind gusted; her skin tingled into prickly fleshbumps. Vespa’s eyes shot open.
Her oceanside cabana was still dark, with the hints of pinks and purplish-blues peeking through the partially drawn shades. The planet Kavil hovered somewhere above, hidden from view by the roof. Just beyond the shades, Kavil’s blurred reflection glinted off the placid undulations of the moon’s ocean. A quick check at the chrono assured Vespa that it was indeed slightly before dawn.
She rolled on her side, wrapping an arm around an extra pillow. Her eyes drifted closed. A loud pop-bang propelled them open, and her body bolted upright. The resort was a couple klicks from the port. Probably just a Fleet exercise. Those service types couldn’t resist niggling the Primean tourists from their slumber.
Her legs plopped off the side of the bed. Bare feet against wood grain, she padded to the glass sliders, which had been open all night. The water glimmered an angrier hue now. Kavil’s reflection on the seas appeared swathed in blood.
Vespa gazed upward. A sizzle met her ears and flares raced across the pastel sky. A flash of white erupted into a multitude of blazing descents. Successive booms shook the air from her lungs.
Instinct told her drop. She did, arms clutched over her head.
The sky splintered. Air burned with the fierceness of a star. Her lungs ached. Her skin pierced with hundreds of needles. The floor bucked and dumped her in a heap. She gasped for breath. Ears ringing, she felt more than heard the continuous train of explosions. She didn’t dare move. As suddenly as it had erupted, the world fell into a gripping silence.
First Vespa heard her heart, still beating. Then her lungs, panting. Her fingers dug into the wood below, and it bit back in return. Slowly lifting her head, she smelled smoke and heard the crackle of fire. The bed, where she had lain only moments before, no longer existed. Lapped by flames, the headboard was all that remained. The rest had been replaced by a crater that opened up all the way to the water below.
The cabana, like all the structures in this sheltered bay, stood on stilts. The timbers groaned. The floor beneath Vespa shifted as if preparing to slide into the encompassing embrace of the sea. Somehow she had survived the fireball that had torn through her cabana – she wasn’t about to be crushed in its collapse. Vespa scrambled out onto the deck. Before she reached the ladder, something caught her attention. A pair of shoes, gold-flecked feathers racing across their sides, still sitting where they had been forgotten next to the reclining sunchair. She belly-crawled over, fumbled to tie the laces together, then dangled them around her neck.
Crawling back through the sliders, she spotted her slingbag draped around the back of a chair now toppled sideways on the floor. Vespa cautiously crept toward it. The cabana structure again mewed its integrity-threatening damage.
A familiar ripping pop caused her blood to run cold. She froze in place, knees grinding into the floorboards, one hand outstretched for the slingbag, the other splaying fingers to hold her weight. Her breath inhaled; she held it desperately, like it was her last. Vespa prayed that her lungs’ resistance could hold back the hands of time. Even in her frozen pose, the growing tremors of her panic-stricken body knew the next chain of events was unavoidable. From the corner of her eye, while sweat dripped over her eyelashes, she watched Kavil’s reflection on the water. Red splayed out from its center, insidious evil tendrils imbued with raw energy. The sizzle next, so hot and choleric Vespa wouldn’t have been surprised if the seas had begun to boil.
The fury of hot-white erupted everywhere. Her world, though, went black. Arms and legs failing, she found herself flattened. Eyes scrunched shut, hands over her ears, her cries of terror drowned out by the thunderous booms of one explosion after another. Hell lasted for an eternal agonizing moment. Then it was over, and again all that remained was a deafening silence. Afraid to open her eyes, she patted the floor hesitantly until the leather strap of the slingbag rested beneath her fingers.
She grabbed it and clambered toward where the deck ought to be. With the railing now gone and the boards cocked at a perilous angle, she took her chances and rolled. The flesh of her upper arm raked along the deck’s edge and tore. Water hit her legs, then waist, as she dropped clumsily into the shallows. Her knees collided with a clump of shells. Somehow she managed to hold the slingbag overhead.
The water, which had held her in a warm embrace in yesterday’s sunshine, chilled her in the darkness. Flames licked at the cabana, and she backed away carefully. A hundred other blazes littered the horizon. Indiscernible from one another in the dim light, they were everywhere – near and far, north and south. They blended into a crimson glow, muted by hundreds of smoke plumes.
Vespa coughed out air laden with the pang of singed wood and layered with the stench of manufactured fuel. But it was the subtlest smell that triggered the paths to long-forgotten memories. Years ago she had been by her father’s side when one of his training airblades had crashed near the hangar. No one had realized that Vespa had followed. By the time they did, it had been too late. She recalled in vivid detail the scorched body, the scent of burning flesh, and finally her own screams. The memories roared back.
“Terraq! Terraq! Terraq!”
She wasn’t sure when her screams had turned into terror-filled shrieks for her brother. The smoke leached around her, and Vespa couldn’t shake the horrific smell of death. Flailing through the seawater away from the cabana, she shoved a burning slab-board.
The entire moon was ablaze, but right now that wasn’t what caused the knot of fear inside her. Ahead, where her brother’s cabana had stood, all that remained was a smoldering bonfire.
Vespa ran toward it, slowed by the water. Again and again she called his name. Tripping over debris beneath the churning waves, she barely managed to escape plunging face first into the water. Between the haze and the treacherous footing, her sense of direction betrayed her. It felt like she had run the length of an airblade track already. Terraq’s name blazed in her mind, but she could hardly catch her breath, let alone shout. She flipped over flame-licked slab-boards, trying to pull the bonfire apart piece by piece. The fire roared to life, forcing her to retreat.
Vespa offered up a silent request to Fayti. Please, please. I will do anything.
Like an answer to her prayers, a shadowy figure coalesced before her eyes.
Her excitement welled and faded as quickly as the thrill of an aerial roll. He was too tall, too broad in the shoulders.
“Zephyr,” she gasped, finding some small bit of relief in seeing her childhood friend safe.
Tall, dark and imposing, he moved through the water effortlessly.
“Come on!” She waved frantically at the toppled remnants of her brother’s cabana. “We need to move this –”
A huge hand stifled her cry. Vespa batted it away. “What the –”
When she rounded on Zephyr, he raised a finger to his lips and hissed, “Be quiet.”
“Help me.” She yanked at a dresser resting perilously against a section of fallen wall.
Instead of helping, Zephyr pulled her away. “Terraq’s not here.”
“What? How do you know that?”
Zephyr’s eyes avoided hers. “He left with someone last night. He never came back.”
Vespa staggered away from the pile. Probably that blonde Aquarian, Cali, who’d been flirting with him earlier in the day on the beach. “For once I’m actually glad my brother stayed true to form. Now we just have to figure out where –”
“We don’t know who’s out there.”
She glanced around, pondering her next move. “What’s happening?”
“Best guess? Something like fragment bombs.”
Remembering the footage in her history seminar made her skin crawl. “But those were outlawed years ago.”
“Someone obviously doesn’t care.”
Maybe he was right. Was this the horror schoolchildren read about but couldn’t imagine? What if Terraq wasn’t so lucky? Vespa had already endured the pain of losing one brother. Her eyes could only stare straight down into the water. Instead of the usual captivating aquamarine, with fish flitting about in the sunlight, a veil had been drawn and the world had gone black. The seawater absorbed the light like a ravenous sponge.
A hand touched her shoulder, reminding Vespa she wasn’t alone. She reached up and grabbed it. Suddenly everything became all too real. She tightened her grip on Zephyr’s fingers, trying to offer him some comfort even when she knew none of her own. “I’m glad you found me.”
“You are?” he asked as she backed away.
“Of course. You can help me find Terraq. He’ll know what to do.”
“We need to get out of here.” He glanced sideways, into the smoke that obscured the truth about what lay beyond. As dark as the waters, his eyes reflected a blossoming sadness, tragedy born in the moment, but no fear. “You know your brother would want you to get somewhere safe.”
She motioned her arm out in a broad arc. “Safe? Where exactly would that be?”
“The port.” He grabbed her elbow forcefully and started walking with her in tow. “We’ll get someplace secure, then send out –”
Vespa dug her bare feet into the silky mud. “I’m not going anywhere without Terraq. And Gemini, too.”
“What about this doesn’t compute?” Still clutching her arm, he bounced the index finger of his free hand against his temple. “The moon has been attacked, and everything within eyesight has been set ablaze like the resurrection of the Hells. We need to get out of here. Now.”
Although he scored points for a reasonable assessment of an incomprehensible situation, Vespa’s path pointed in only one direction. “I’m not leaving them.”
She jerked her arm free. He spat a curse. Turning on her heel, Vespa began marching toward the main concierge building. On one level, anyway, she was grateful for Zephyr’s obstinate streak. It made her angry. Any emotion was better than fear.
“Don’t make me do something drastic,” he called after her, rooted like a tree in his indecision.
“You’re welcome to try.”