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Ryner,” I growled. My eyes narrowed to focus on the sinister man before me. His gaunt features were outlined with an orange glow from the light panels that lined the sphere. My finger rested against the trigger of my pistol, which I aimed squarely at his heart. The air down here smelled at once musty and electrified.

Ryner remained seated for the moment, smiling casually at me. He had a reservedness to him that felt somehow all the more unsettling. He didn’t appear armed, though I suspected he hid a weapon beneath his long black coat. He was motionless, and we stared each other down from either end of the thin catwalk.

He began to speak. “There’s no reason why we can’t-”

Give me one good reason I shouldn’t shoot you in the heart, right now!” I hissed. The generator hummed in the absence of our voices. I was dead serious, and to make sure he understood, I began charging a bolt of energy. My weapon began to glow brighter, its whine rising in pitch.

At this, he raised his hands, and his smile disappeared. “Wait!” Even his yell was quiet, almost meek sounding. “I thought you and I could talk!”

My mandibles twitched. The barrel of my gun began to spit sparks. I hesitated for a moment...

Pain shot from my leg, and I collapsed to the metal grating. Something had kicked the back of my knee, forcing my leg to buckle. My E-pistol discharged harmlessly against the far wall, and the weapon clattered from my hands, bouncing off the catwalk to the bottom of the room, far out of reach.

I struggled to my feet and turned to face my attacker, but there was nothing there. I heard Ryner’s voice behind me, roaring with laughter. Then a flicker of movement-

The wind was knocked out of me, and I stumbled backwards, coughing, fumbling for the railings of the catwalk.

Oh my,” said Ryner, softly. “It’s sad that you fell for that.”

With my back to Ryner, I took a combat stance, ready to defend. Then I swung a fist forward and hit something tangible. I yelped as my arm was grabbed, twisted, and slammed against the railing by a shimmering invisible force. The catwalk rang from the impact, and the side of my hand tingled.

Turn him around so he can see me,” said Ryner over the hum of the generator.

Fear gripped me. I was forced to my knees. My arms were held helplessly behind my back, and I was positioned in front of Ryner. I struggled against my invisible captor.

How’s that?” said a chillingly familiar voice from behind my ear.

My skin seemed to prickle with rage. “Duhrnan!” I twisted my neck around, and his body uncloaked into view behind me. He survived the battle of Earth- He must have been saved by one of the valicorr ships.

He grinned at me hungrily. I could feel the heat of his breath on my face. His hands squeezed my arms together behind my back.

Well done, Duhrnan,” said Ryner, cutting through my thoughts.. “You were finally able to stop him.” He stood from his seat, casually brushing his gloved hands together. He took a few steps along the catwalk toward us. “Talcorosax is an elusive one, isn’t he?”

Just lucky,” said Duhrnan, his tone mocking. “I almost killed him above Earth... He should have died in the explosion of my ship above Astraloth-”

Well he didn’t, and he’s been a nuisance ever since,” snapped Ryner. Then he turned his back to me and Duhrnan. He sighed, almost as if he was disappointed. “It’s time. Kill him,” he said, coldly.

My heart skipped a beat.

I should have died?” I said, trying to distract them. I twisted my hands, reaching my fingers toward the handle of the molecular sword at my waist... Keep talking, Osax!

I fixed Ryner with my most arrogant gaze, and seemed to catch his attention. “You should have died above Astraloth, not me. We ripped your ship apart!”

Ryner’s eyes landed on me with a look of disgust. “I wasn’t on the Silencer during that battle.”

Then where were you?” I asked, my voice accusing.

He rolled his eyes and scoffed. He had no answer. “Duhrnan. Kill him. Now.”

The tips of my fingers grazed the hilt of my sword, but slipped off. I couldn’t grab hold. My heart was pounding, and I struggled against Duhrnan’s grip.

No.” Duhrnan’s voice was calm. Eerily calm.

What-” Ryner began.

Not yet. I’m not done with him,” said Duhrnan, ominously. “I want to enjoy my revenge.” He pulled his face close to mine as he said this, and I struggled to stay focused, grasping at the handle...

Ryner turned to us, and stood completely still. He looked unamused, silhouetted against the power regulator that pulsed in the center of the room. “This is not a request,” said Ryner. “I compel you to kill him!” He thrust his arm toward Duhrnan and a flickering set of holographic symbols appeared in front of his hand. Just like the symbols Jonathan used to activate K.

I froze. Suddenly it all made sense. The Brotherhood hadn’t just stumbled across the last living loro and made an alliance with him. There were no loro left. They were extinct, just like the research suggested. But Duhrnan was clearly alive.

...The only way it could work was if the “Sheep’s Clothing” was integrated during the early phase of accelerated learning… I remembered Jonathan’s words. If Ryner was using the “Sheep’s Clothing” on Duhrnan, then it meant that Duhrnan was a pawn, created by the Brotherhood from the beginning. He was a sleeper agent. He must have been cloned using DNA from some loro remains the Brotherhood had discovered... That explained how he was even alive in our time, and why he was so unlike the loro I had studied. He was raised by the Brotherhood to be their weapon. Come to think of it, I had never heard him speak the loro language. His fascination with music only explored human genres. He had no connection to loro culture. His starships and technology must have just been relics the Brotherhood had found and given to him.

The blood drained from my face as I stared at the symbols in front of Ryner’s hand. Duhrnan was being activated. Which meant that he would have to obey Ryner. Which meant he was about to kill me.

Except he didn’t. Instead, he laughed, which somehow felt even more horrifying than I could have imagined. Ryner lowered his hand, staring at Duhrnan in confusion.

I-” he muttered. “I don’t understand.” Fear crept into his voice, and the gaunt man stepped backwards, away from Duhrnan and I, staring at the wickedly sharp grin hovering next to my shoulder.

How charming,” said Duhrnan. “But I believe you’ve got our dynamic a little confused, dear Ryner.” Then he lifted one of his four hands from my arms. His own set of symbols began to display in front of his hand, and confusingly, Ryner’s eyes glazed over when he saw them. The black-clad man lost all tension in his body, standing completely neutral. His face became blank. He was Duhrnan’s puppet. Duhrnan began to whistle some kind of cheerful melody.

Never mind that, I thought. My blood burned, and with only one of Duhrnan’s hands restraining my arm, I wrenched my hand free, and pulled it to the hilt of my sword. Now was my chance!

Metal screeched into a solid blade, and Duhrnan let out a howl. I sliced the blade up and backwards, cutting him clean across the torso, blue blood trickling from his wound to the bottom of the room below. Now free from his grasp, I whirled around, sword in hand, crouching low. Ryner waited behind me like a zombie, and Duhrnan clutched at his wounds with his four hands, grimacing. He stared at me through wide eye slits.

I panted. I held the thin, curved sword in both of my hands. My eyes narrowed on my nemesis. “You-” I said, gathering my thoughts. “You’re not a real loro.”

Duhrnan braced himself on the railing with two of his arms. His other two covered the bleeding line I had slashed across his chest. Despite the apparent pain he was in, he raised his head up to the ceiling, and laughed.

Oh, how astute,” he coughed.

I grimaced, gazing at him in the orange glow of the room. The power regulator hummed. We stood in silence, staring at each other. Duhrnan eyed me with a pained, yet amused expression.

You were created by the Brotherhood,” I mused. “All this time, you were just a pawn...”

Duhrnan grinned at this. “Oh, that’s what they intended, yes,” he said, his voice like a snake’s. Then he turned to Ryner. “But Ryner didn’t know if the ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ project would work on a loro. He’d never met one, after all.”

My eyes narrowed, my mind racing. “Ryner created you with the intent to brainwash you so you would follow his orders... but it didn’t work?”

Duhrnan clapped lazily with two of his hands, smiling strangely. “Oh, Talcorosax, you genius. You figured it out.” He chuckled. “Of course it didn’t work,” he snapped. “But I knew what they were trying to do to me... The experiments were agony. I was all too aware... so I played along.”

You pretended to be under Ryner’s control?”

Yes,” he said, immense pride in his voice. “I did what I could to survive!” He clutched the railing with his hands, and began to pull himself closer to me. I took a step back without thinking. “The Brotherhood taught me about life. About control. That’s what it all is, after all,” he said. “A struggle for control.” He sounded desperate.

I stepped back, and startled myself when I backed up into something. I whirled around, and glanced down at Ryner, standing motionless. A chill ran down my spine.

Ryner wanted me because I’m a loro. That’s all. He wanted a way to control the valicorr, and he knew that they would listen to a loro...” I turned back to face Duhrnan, and he frowned, his eye twitching. He continued, “He had plans, too many to count, all convoluted, all with the goal of giving him the most power, the most control. Like his plan to build the Shade Beam.” Duhrnan giggled. “Oh, yes. Even in the beginning, at the colony on Rose, Ryner was twisting the TAU’s arm to construct the Shade Beam. But when the valicorr attacked it threw off his plans, and he knew he would have to start over, and find some protection from the valicorr.” Duhrnan pointed at himself. Then he bared his teeth in a horrifying smile. “You did kill him, you know. The third or fourth Ryner, I can’t remember. He was aboard the Silencer when you destroyed it.” He inhaled through the slits of his nostrils. “And he still has all those plans in his head. Only, now they’re mine.”

You,” I declared. “You’ve been controlling Ryner. You’re the leader of the Brotherhood!”

I told you,” he sneered wickedly. “I’m the Emperor of this galaxy.”

Adrenaline jolted my body. I’d heard enough. I pressed my feet into the cold grating and rushed for Duhrnan, with the curved point of my sword angled toward his head. He was responsible for everything. The valicorr, the Brotherhood, the Shade Beam. Everything. I screamed with rage. I thrust my sword toward his throat.

I saw him push off the railings, and begin to flip himself over me just as his cloaking device re-engaged and his image disappeared. He was invisible again; I narrowly missed my lunge.

I spun around, swinging the sword wide. Something fizzled in the air in front of my sword, and a few drops of blue blood shot to the side of the blade. I’d cut him, but only barely.

I panted, listening to the hum of the power core. His footsteps echoed through the catwalks, but I couldn’t quite figure out where he was.

My ears shot forward in aggression. Then my mandibles twitched. He was stalling me. I needed to stop Duhrnan, but I also needed to destroy the base.

I turned to the power regulator, and started toward it, sword raised.

Durhnan yelled, “Shoot him!”

My ears recoiled. Ryner sprang into action, withdrawing a slender pistol from his coat. He flashed his gun toward me, and I flinched.

The energy bolt hit me in the leg. My mind was overcome with pain. Smoke rising from the wound, I crashed onto my side. I held onto the sword with all my strength.

I landed right next to Ryner, and the central pillar. Having followed his order, he now stood over me with an empty expression. I tried to stand, but my leg seared with pain. Then Ryner’s chair lifted off the ground, and flew straight at my face.

Blood streamed from my nose, and I blinked, trying to reorient myself. My face hurt, and I tried to sit up. My heart was racing.

Duhrnan’s invisible foot stomped down on my hand, pinning my sword to the ground. I screamed in pain. He raised the chair up, getting reading for another strike.

I should have killed you back on my ship!” he screeched. Then he slammed me once more.

Pain rippled out from my face, and I tasted blood. My ears trailed against the cool metal grating. Sweat dotted my face and arms. My eyes were watering, and I couldn’t focus them. I struggled to move my arm, my legs kicking limply.

No,” I gurgled. “I won’t let you...”

Won’t let me what?!” Duhrnan shouted. “I’m in control! I’m in control!” He smashed me once more.

This time, I managed to block the swing with my free arm, but it sent pain up through my shoulder where I had been shot the day before, and I bit my mandibles together to fight the shaking. The world went spinning.

I won’t let you hurt anyone anymore!” I yelled with a white-hot rage. I mustered all my strength, yelling through the pain in my muscles.

I grabbed onto the chair with one hand and started pushing it back against him, sitting up despite his invisible weight. My body was shaking, but I kept rising. Pain pulsed through my arm. Then I wrenched my right hand out from under his foot, and swung my sword wildly toward his body. I cut deep.

He cried, and stumbled back. A severed arm appeared and fell to the floor with a thud. Then he breathlessly shrieked.

Kill him!

I tried to roll myself up to my feet, but Ryner was on me in the blink of an eye. My back smacked against the floor. He pinned my shoulders to the ground, straddling me, and stared at me blankly. My heart stuttered. Then he raised his gun and pressed it into my chest. I was too shocked to even close my eyes. In just a moment, my heart would explode.

Then with a searing burst of heat and light, Ryner was blasted off me.

I sat up, and glanced at Ryner’s corpse which lay smouldering beside me. He had been pierced in the side by an E-gun. My ears shot up and I turned my bloody head. It can’t be!

Tears welled in my eyes. I didn’t know how, but standing on the far side of the room, gun still smoking, was Joëlle. Her tattooed face wore an expression of intense concentration beneath her helmet. She wore her silver-blue armour, and held an E-rifle in her hands. But my heart nearly skipped a beat when I saw who stood behind her.

K-” I said. My eyes were wide with tears, my ears lifting. Everything fell away in that moment. All the pain was gone. She stepped into the room, wearing a grey cloak over her spiked shoulders, her combat boots and vest. Her horns faced my way. Her skin looked so blue, vibrant like the sky of Astraloth. Her muscles looked so strong. She looked so alive. Jonathan must have found a way to revive her! Her lips frowned with concern. But her orange eyes met mine, and lit up like a glowing ember.

Osax!” She yelled. Her voice! Her voice! In that moment, it was the best sound in the galaxy.

Then, Jonathan stepped into view from behind K. His holo-gauntlet displayed a local scanner. He must have gotten my message, contacted Joëlle, and tracked my eyepiece here with her and K! His coat trailed behind him as he moved. He lifted an E-pistol to his robotic eye, which glowed a deep crimson. He closed his other eye, his lip twitched into a straight line, and he pulled back on the trigger without hesitation.

Red energy arced through the room from his gun, electrifying the air, and impacting against something invisible. Duhrnan bellowed with pain. Then Jonathan fired again, and again, until Duhrnan’s cloaking device was too damaged to function, and he appeared before us. He collapsed to his knees, resting on his three remaining arms, struggling with each breath, utter despair on his face.

K rushed into the room, followed by Jonathan and Joëlle.

Osax!” K said, panic stricken. “Shit, are you okay?” She knelt down beside me, and wrapped her arm under my back, helping me sit up. I gazed into her eyes.

K...” I murmured. I lifted a hand up to her face, and gently stroked her cheek. I was too overwhelmed. She smiled at me, and her eyes welled with tears. “You’re alive...”

Her eyes squinted with joy. “Yeah,” she said, softly. “Jonathan cured me. He couldn’t have done it without your scans...”

It’s true,” said Jonathan, smiling as he approached, spiking his hair with his fingers. The aperture of his robotic eye twisted and blinked.

Hey, Osax,” said Joëlle, softly. She removed her helmet, dark brown locks of hair spilling out, and met my eyes with a shallow smile. Then her eyes landed on the sword I gripped in my hands. She smirked. “So you could hold onto your sword, just not mine.” Her eyes seemed to glimmer, teasingly.

I was overwhelmed with emotion, and barely knew what to say. All I could manage was, “You’re here, Joëlle...”

Why?” Duhrnan cut in, grabbing our attention, chuckling even as he coughed up blood, barely holding himself up. “Why bother coming to save him?”

K shot him a disgusted look, wiping her eyes. “Do I really need to explain it to you?” Letting go of me, she stood up and stared him down. She snorted, and cracked her knuckles, ready to pulverize him.

He rolled over onto his back, and the four of us gazed at him. “But, nothing in this world matters,” he said, wheezing. “In the end, nothing matters. Nothing matters...”

You’re wrong,” I said. I struggled to my feet.

K bared her teeth. “It’s time you payed for everything you’ve done, Duhrnan!” She growled and took a step toward him, clenching her fists.

Suddenly compelled by something within me, I lunged forward and grabbed her arm with both hands, pulling her back. She stopped and stared at me, anger burning in her eyes, confusion on her face. I felt Jonathan and Joëlle’s puzzled eyes on my back.

Osax,” she said. “What are you doing? Why are you stopping me?”

Let me speak to him,” I pleaded. I gazed into K’s orange eyes, which softened a little. Her expression was concerned. Her lips parted to speak, but seeing the intensity in my stare, she hesitated.

Okay,” she said. Her lips twitched, then her face hardened. She stepped aside, making a path for me on the catwalk.

Careful, Osax...” said Joëlle, eyeing me, her gun ready.

Jonathan simply stared, blinking. He kept his gun armed and raised toward Duhrnan.

K held onto my arm, and I gently pulled away from her. I nodded to her for reassurance. Then I limped over toward Duhrnan, who lay on his back in the middle of the catwalk, barely alive, missing an arm. My ears drooped. The sheer loneliness of the station seemed suffocating. I knew, with my friends at my side, that we had already won. But Duhrnan still clung to life by a thread.

The world isn’t meaningless. I refuse to believe that.”

He laughed, though it was barely audible.

You,” I began, “must have been so tormented. Created by the Brotherhood, treated like an object, like a weapon. Your first experiences of the world were so distorted, and violent. You never had a companion, a friend...” I wiped away the tears from my eyes, breathing shakily as I stood on a wounded leg.

He stopped laughing, staring up at me with an open mouth.

Joëlle’s voice cut through the air. “Osax, we should kill him, now!”

My ears drooped.

We can’t trust him,” said Jonathan, frowning gravely.

I glanced back at them. K was frozen in place, her expression solemn. Her skin glowed with the orange light of the room. I still could hardly believe she was here, but seeing her gave me strength.

I shut my eyes. Then I turned back to Duhrnan. He looked so pitiful sprawled on the floor, bleeding, breathing shallowly. I glanced at my bloody sword. Then I deactivated it, and it slid back into the handle which I placed on my belt.

I continued, the power regulator thrumming behind me. “All your life, you’ve been fighting in a struggle for control... But the truth is, no one can control everything. But that’s okay. You can let go. You can learn. You can grow. You could even love.”

Duhrnan shuffled, eyeing me. “What do you mean?” He croaked. His pale snout twitched with apprehension.

I knelt down next to him. “We are all made up of stars and cycles,” I said, finally understanding the words of my mother. A warm glow seemed to radiate from me. “Energy. That’s what connects us. We are the energy of life; each one of us. Even if you were made, and not born. It takes courage to live, but the courage is there, in the very fibers of our being. The audacity of our cells to take in energy and multiply, to communicate, to die and multiply again. The boldness of our lungs to expand and fill with air and extract the oxygen as part of the ecosystem that is each of our bodies. The bravery that is the very nature of existence; a fearlessness embedded in our atoms, in the stars, and in every space between. You can tap into it. You don’t have to be bound to the obsession of your creators.”

He simply stared at me. “I don’t understand.”

I lifted my ears, weakly. “I just mean... the Brotherhood has to end. But maybe, this can be your beginning.”

Osax...” said K, nervously.

I looked into Duhrnan’s eyes, and felt the eyes of my friends on my back. He stared back at me. I couldn’t read his expression. But I felt a deep serenity coming from my heart. This was the end. My enemy’s fate in my hands. My final test. The fire in my heart began to cool.

I reached out my right hand to him. “What do you say?” I asked gently. “Maybe I can save you, too.” I waited there for a brief moment.

Slowly he lifted his right hand, and the space between our hands grew smaller. Our fingers touched. We clasped hands.

Then his face morphed into a twisted snarl, and with another hand, he reached down to his belt.

He screamed, “I hate you!” A plasma knife ignited in his hands, and he cut straight through my bicep.

Searing pain blinded me, and I fell backwards with a cry. The world was a haze. My companions yelled, and sprang into action. K grabbed me under my shoulders, and dragged me away from Duhrnan, who stood up with startling speed. He raised his hand, ready to throw the dagger into Jonathan’s chest, but Joëlle blasted his arm, and he dropped the weapon. Then Jonathan and Joëlle each shot him in the chest, and he stopped breathing. At once, Duhrnan fell to the floor with a thud. The life left his body.

Then I looked down at my arm... or where it should have been.

My right arm was severed just below the shoulder. Luckily, I wasn’t bleeding, because the plasma had cauterized the wound. But I was reeling in shock, struggling to stay conscious and present.

My companions surrounded me. I was vaguely aware of each of their faces.

Oh my god, Osax!” Joëlle cried, shock plastering her face. “Your arm!”

Jonathan stared at me with a straightened lip. “You’ll be alright,” he said, warily. “You’ll be alright.”

I’m fine,” I said, though I clearly wasn’t.

K knelt down beside me, and clutched my other hand with her fingers. Tears trickled down her azure cheeks. “Why did you do that, Osax? Why?”

I closed my eyes. “I had to,” I smiled. “I had to give him a chance. I had to try to save him.”

K sobbed, and pulled me into her arms, careful not to crush me. “I could have stopped him,” she lamented.

Don’t blame yourself,” I replied, my head spinning. “It was my choice. I had to try.”

K shut her eyes tightly, and she held me close.

I was enveloped in her warmth. I could hear her beating heart. I wondered then if I would survive my wounds, but I wasn’t afraid of dying in that moment. Joëlle and Jonathan knelt down beside me, and wrapped their arms around in a group hug. We were united again. Warmth radiated from us, and despite the shock and pain, I felt a swelling hope in my chest, as though I was floating on a white cloud.

I think I’m going to be okay,” I mumbled.

We- We need to destroy this base,” said Joëlle, trying to regain her composure as she pulled away from the hug. “K?”

K let go of me, draping me in Jonathan’s arms for a moment. She stood powerfully and wiped her eyes. “On it.”

I shut my eyes. The room rumbled, and I was vaguely aware of an alarm, warning of the cloning facility’s imminent destruction. I thought about Duhrnan. About the valicorr. About the Brotherhood. The base itself seemed to groan and howl from deep within, struggling to keep itself alive, to keep the Brotherhood alive, to keep the valicorr alive even as its own power began to spread out from the generator and overload everything with energy. But this was the end, here at the edge of the galaxy. The end of the journey. The dark deceit was over. And I felt my consciousness slipping away...

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About the author

Seb Woodland

Bio: I'm a writer, game developer, artist, and musician. Just a creative guy working on art and trying to make his way in the world.

-There is always hope-

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