Defending the Galaxy

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DEFENDING THE GALAXY


WARNING!! Spoiler Alert for Navigating the Stars!! and Chasing the Shadows


CHAPTER ONE
2522:247




The term "mind-blown" is one of those expressions that doesn't really mean anything. People say it all the time, but it's just an exaggeration. No heads actually explode because a person is confronted with a new concept or an unbelievable revelation. Brain matter and blood doesn't splash on the walls.

Yet, as I sit cross-legged on my bed and scrunch my blanket in tight fists, I'm scrambling for coherent thought. And I fear, if I let go, I will blow apart and be scattered throughout the Milky Way Galaxy.

What revelation, you ask, has reduced me to this state? The Q-net, also known as the Quantum Net, a technological advancement that has allowed us to travel well beyond our solar system, has told me that it is an alien consciousness.

The Q-net said it wasn't invented, but discovered by our Earth scientists in 2066, and used to perform the ultra-complex calculations needed to build special engines that can cross vast interstellar distances.

And. Yes, there's an and. Bear with me please. With five simple words, the Q-net has blown my mind: I AM THE MILKY WAY.

It claims to encompass the Milky Way Galaxy, meaning all the matter, dark matter, and energy contained within its boundaries has a consciousness, or soul if you prefer.

This...being...has been tasked with protecting us humans from the hostile life forms (HoLFs), which look like shadow-blobs, that we inadvertently allowed back into our dimension. 'We' being Jarren, the murdering looter, and his nefarious collaborators. To think, Jarren and I were once good friends. His looters have been destroying a number of the Terracotta Warriors that were discovered on exoplanets throughout the Galaxy--long story. However, the short version is, that by breaking the Warriors, Jarren inadvertently made the Q-net's task to keep us safe almost impossible.

Since the Q-net can no longer protect us without our help, it has chosen me--yes, me, Ara Yinhexi Lawrence, Junior Security Officer on Planet Yulin, age seventeen Actual years old--to be its...voice. I guess.

Why me, you ask? Good question. It seems my activities and actions in the Q-net have drawn its attention. I'm good at worming through the gaps in the security programs, getting into places I shouldn't. Of course now I wonder about all the data clusters and files that humans have placed in the Q-net. The Department of Explored Space (DES) has pretty much moved in and set up house in the Q-net. And the star roads, the deepest, most complex layer of the Q-net, are what we use to navigate through the Galaxy and crinkle space.

So now you know why I'm grappling with all this brand-new information, and bandying about the term "mind blown", because I'm thinking I've a pretty good example going on inside my head. Right now.

The standard response is 'I'm going insane' and the conversation with the Q-net was all a delusion or figment of my imagination. That's a fair point and I can't prove otherwise. Although, my imagination just isn't on that level of creative. And, from the various things the Q-net has done, it being sentient explains a lot. Like removing my image from the security feed so Jarren wouldn't learn I'd survived his attempt to murder me. Also I've encountered other questionable strangeness--shadow-blobs and Warrior hearts, and they turned out to be very real. So that's a hard no on being crazy.

What's next? There's the possibility I'm mistaken. That I'm anthropomorphizing the Q-net, like I did with the Terracotta Warriors when I was younger. Perhaps I've reached an overly helpful Q-cluster that provides data quicker than any others. And the fact I can entangle with the Q-net without entanglers, or without being close to a terminal, is just a glitch and not a gift from a sentient Q-net. I'm more than willing to go with that explanation.

A light tap on my door sends me three meters into the air. A startled cry escapes my lips, which the tapper translates to "come in."

Niall pokes his head inside. "Dinner's ready."

I stare at him as if I've never seen him before. His black hair is a little longer than regulation--but not enough to warrant a comment from his father who is the Chief of Security--and is still wet from his shower and slicked back. Piercing blue-green eyes and sharp features, he's handsome and all mine. Normally pale due to eighteen years spent living on space ships, he's currently almost ghost white. It's because he's recovering from almost dying from blood loss and brain trauma, which the Q-net claims to have healed because I asked.

"Mouse?" Alarmed, he steps into my room, grabbing for a weapon that's not there because he's wearing jeans and a T-shirt and not his security uniform. "What's wrong?" Niall scans the small space as if searching for intruders. "HoLFs?"

Wow. I must look terrified. Shaking my head, I say, "No. I..."

"You?"

"I was in the Q-net." Which is true.

"Something scare you?" He sits on the bed next to me.

I breathe in the scent of his shampoo--sage grass--and scooch closer. He wraps an arm around my shoulder and pulls me to him.

Melting against him, I relax for the first time since the Q-net's big confession. "I was trying to find information on the sensors and brain damage to see if there's a reason why you can't entangle with the Q-net." Again, all true.

"From your expression, I gather the prognosis is dire," he teases. "Please, don't worry about it. If I can never entangle with the Q-net again, I'll be perfectly happy. I'd rather have a heartbeat."

I can't argue with that.

He squeezes me a little tighter. "Are you sure it doesn't have to do with your encounter with Jarren?"

Unable to stop, I shudder. The murdering looter and his minions attacked our base after tying to destroy it with a missile. A missile! Jarren had then taken me hostage and attached an explosive device to my back. An explosive device! The four healing gouges in my skin ignite with pain at the memory. He told everyone he'd disarm the device once he was safely away, but I knew better. So to keep him from setting it off and killing me and everyone near me I ended up clinging for my life to the landing gear of his shuttle.

Niall loops his other arm around me, hugging me. "You're safe now."

Best boyfriend ever. "I know." My team rescued me and Jarren is currently locked in detention. "It's just...a lot has happened."

"No kidding."

And I can't deal with the Q-net right now, so I push it to the back of my mind to be ruminated on later. Much later. Yes, it's denial. No surprise, I'm the queen of denial after all. Besides, I need more information about the Q-net before I can make an intelligent decision.

"I'm sure my dad will let you have a few days off." Niall puts a finger on my lips, stopping my protest. "Coincidently, I also have a few days off to heal. And I'm thinking the best way to recover is to take you on another proper date. What do you think?"

"I think it's an excellent idea." I smile up at him and am rewarded with a sweet kiss.

"Dinner's getting cold," Radcliff says from the threshold.

We jump apart as Tace Radcliff, Niall's dad, gives us a pointed look. Not only is he our boss, but also our self-appointed chaperone. Since I'm not eighteen A-years old, I've been living in his unit. I guess I could return to my parents' housing unit since everyone in the base knows I'm alive, but it would be too far from my job and Niall. Did I tell you I'm going to be eighteen in sixty-seven days?

I. Can't. Wait.

Niall and I break apart and follow Radcliff to the kitchen. My parents are already there. One of the best things about this living situation are the family meals. Before we were all too busy--my parents, the archeological Experts on the Terracotta Warriors, are in charge of the research base on Planet Yulin. But with the looter base located on the other side of the planet, at the moment they're more focused on survival than on research. We all are.

The lovely scent of roasted beef causes my stomach to roar. It's Niall's favorite and I wonder if Radcliff cooked it on purpose. The man may be a gigantic pain in the butt, but he sure can cook, making amazing dishes with the limited and artificial quality of the ingredients. It's not like we can get fresh supplies. We are fifty thousand light years from Earth and a supply ship is not due for another three A-years.

My parents, Ming and Spencer Daniels--yes, they have a different last name than me due to the fact I had to change mine to play dead, and well...Ara suits me better--eye me with their parental X-ray vision turned to maximum. No doubt assessing how freaked I am about Jarren. I tuck into my meal and ignore them. See? My appetite hasn't been affected.

"What's the status with the scientists?" Radcliff asks my dad.

"I'm working on a schedule to get all the base's personnel trained with pulse guns and to learn the basics of guard duty," Dad says, between mouthfuls.

"We've run out of beds for the prisoners," Mom says. "If our base had been fully staffed, we wouldn't have any. Of course, they're not happy with sleeping on the hard ground." Mom shrugs. "I find that I don't care."

Not when they invaded our base with the intention to kill us all. "How many prisoners do we have now?" I ask.

"Sixty-seven plus Jarren," Radcliff says.

"And they're all in Pit 1?"

"They have access to all four pits. Except no one wants to go into Pit 2." Radcliff's smile is cold.

No surprise. The shadow-blob rift is in Pit 2, and while we have defenses to keep the HoLFs out, that's ground zero if they return. Unlikely, but they could develop some type of armor to block the radio waves we used to destroy them. They're intelligent. Another shudder rips through me.

"And we're going to put them to work," Mom says, stabbing a fork in the air. "We're requiring them to help reconstruct the Warriors they destroyed, starting with Pit 1."

Nice. "Jarren, too?"

"No. Jarren will remain in detention until he answers our questions," Radcliff says. Then he turns to me.

Oh no.

"Too soon," Mom says, giving Radcliff one of her warning glares.

However, Radcliff is immune. In fact, I don't think the man is afraid of anything. But then I remember Radcliff when Niall was unconscious and his prognosis wasn't good. I guess no one is that fearless.

"We don't have the luxury of time," Radcliff says to my mom. "They're on the other side of our planet and can attack us at any time. They have shuttles and soldiers and missiles. There's no need for them to even leave their base to kill us."

"And we have sixty-eight of their people," Mom counters.

"It didn't seem to matter when they sent the missile before. When we had sixteen of them."

Good point. But my mother doesn't give up and I've had seventeen years of reading her body language to know she isn't about to back down.

"What do you need me to do?" I ask Radcliff, stopping the battle to come.

Radcliff faces me. "Our escape hatch through the blockade has been compromised. We need to reestablish another secure connection with DES. Even though we have Jarren, the blockade is still up."

I remember that there was a redirect worm on our tunnel, sending all our messages straight to the looters instead of DES. Before that, we were able to contact DES long enough for them to help us design the null-wave emitters, which proved invaluable against the HoLFs. "I can work on it right after dinner."

"Dorey is off duty," Radcliff says. "He tried to breach it all day."

Without me? His partner? I'd be hurt, but I'm sure my mother insisted Radcliff give me some time off. "Is Officer Morgan on duty?"

"Yes."

"Then she can help me and talk with DES."

Radcliff raises an eyebrow. "You're that confident? Jarren wasn't working alone when he put up the blockades. You said so yourself, telling me there had to be other wormers involved."

"And there are, but they might be struggling to regroup now that Jarren's gone." And before he or my mother can counter that, I add, "It won't hurt to try."

"Unless they decide that you're too big a threat," Niall says. "And send a missile to stop you."

Argh. He's right. "Then I won't let them know what I'm doing."

"Too risky," Radcliff says. "You can go in with Officer Dorey tomorrow morning."

I consider arguing. There is no reason to wait, we've already wasted so much time. Then I realize everyone's staring at me. "All right, I won't worm into the Q-net and try to contact DES tonight. I'll wait for Beau."

A general sense of relief rings the table. Niall, though, gives me a contemplative half-squint. The conversation returns to the many items on the To-Do list for the base. Eventually, my parents leave and Radcliff retreats to his room, giving Niall and me some semblance of privacy.

We sit on the couch in the living room. Niall automatically tucks me under his arm. I pull my legs up and snuggle against him.

"You agreed too easily. What are you up to?" he asks.

"Nothing. You made a good point."

"Uh huh. I'm the sensible one, remember?"

"Doesn't mean I can't be sensible, too."

"Oh, I'm sure you can. You just chose not to."

"Ha ha." I need to change the subject. "Are you upset because I'm not getting time off for our proper date?"

"It would be rather selfish of me if that was the case. We're still not safe." He leans forward. "However, if you don't overexert yourself tomorrow and have a horrible headache, then after dinner, we'll have a modified proper date."

"Like an improper date?" I grin lustily.

He groans. "You're killing me, Mouse."

And then I remember that he'd flatlined when in surgery and that sours my teasing mood. I think about what he said about overexerting myself. "That was pretty smart."

"What?" He gives me an innocent look that I don't fall for.

"How you gave me an incentive not to use all my energy finding a way to contact DES. Not that I'm complaining."

"I think people should be rewarded for reaching their goals. You did promise not to exhaust yourself again."

"I did."

He peers at me. "Now I'm worried that you found some clever loophole."

"Not a loophole, but..."

"But?"

"Sometimes I go flying with the Q-net when I'm asleep. Sometimes, I can do things while flying, like when I contacted Chief Vasily and fixed the worms in the satellite. What if I create another escape hatch while I'm sleeping?"

Niall is quiet for a few heartbeats. "That's why you promised not to worm. I thought you were hedging."

I huff. "Hedging. I guess that's accurate. My interactions with the Q-net are not... Actually I've no idea what they are since no one's ever had this..." I press my hands to my head, tangling my fingers in my hair. "Connection. It's scary."

Niall grasps my wrists, and gently pulls my hands down, holding them. "I can only imagine what you're going through, but your connection has given us a chance to survive this. Without you, we'd have been killed way back when the shadow-blobs first appeared." He squeezes my hands. "Maybe it's the opposite of what happened to me."

"What do you mean?"

"My sensors were fried when I lost all that blood and now I can't connect to the Q-net. Perhaps yours were amplified by your injuries." He frowns--no doubt remembering all the times I've been injured or knocked unconscious. "It fits the timing of when your abilities improved."

That made more sense than a sentient Q-net. It would also mean I imagined the conversation with the Q-net, but I'm willing to accept that. I experienced a traumatic abduction that I'm still recovering from. Yet... "What if it's not a result of my injuries, but the Q-net did something to me?" Once I said it aloud, it sounded ridiculous.

Niall tries to hide his smile. "I know you have a unique way of looking at things. But that's just ridiculous."

"You're right." I relax against him.

"Besides, no one can say you didn't keep your promise if you were asleep when it happened."

And I keep my promises. Unless it's to a murdering looter, then there's no guilt when I break it. Not wanting to think of Jarren, I say, "True. In fact, I promise to kiss you until you're breathless."

A spark of delight flares in Niall's eyes. "Now that's a great promise."

Once I claim his lips, he doesn't say anything more as I'm true to my word.

#


After Niall returns to his unit, I lie in bed, thinking about our conversation. He's right that all my new abilities arrived after a trauma. Yes, I'm better at worming, but I'm also able to use the Q-net without tangs or a terminal. My link to the Q-net is never severed. It's always in the back of my mind. I just need to turn my full attention to the Q-net and I'm there. It gives me an advantage, which we desperately need.

The other unique thing that happens to me and no one else is flying with the Q-net. But that only occurs when I'm unconscious and never when I am awake. So in order to prove Niall's theory, then all I need to do is try and then fail to fly while I'm awake. And there's no time like the present.

I close my eyes and imagine lifting my arms up. Let's fly.

A strange floating sensation rushes through me. It's as if my consciousness has been yanked from my physical body and I'm suddenly untethered. Then the entire Milky Way Galaxy spreads out before me. My fear soon turns to joy as I fly, looping and twirling and spinning and dipping and soaring. There are no barriers. No limitations. No need for permission. No need to worm. There's nothing to prevent me from going anywhere. It's a feeling like no other.

A feeling I can access at any time. Does that mean Niall's theory is wrong? Or perhaps it means my enhanced abilities include unlimited flying.

IT MEANS YOU ASKED. I COMPLIED.

And Niall's theory of my injuries causing my amplified abilities?

I CHOSE YOU. NO OTHER REASON.

And you're the Milky Way Galaxy and also the Q-net?

I AM.

And you have the ability to connect with a human being?

OBVIOUSLY.

Along with the ability to be sarcastic. Lovely. So now I'm convinced, but will anyone else believe it? Is this a secret?

YOUR CHOICE.

Why is it my choice? Do you want others to know or not?

YOU WILL KNOW IF IT BECOMES NECESSARY.

Great just great. I consider. No one is going to believe me. Well maybe eventually. They've believed me before. But would they accept yet another wild theory from me? Or have I reached my limit? At this point I've no idea. So I decide to trust the Q-net and wait until it becomes necessary. After all, nothing's going to change. Right?



Worldwide Release Date: November 16, 2020
Australian/New Zealand Release Date: December 2, 2020

You can pre-order DEFENDING THE GALAXY online at these Australian retailers: For all other International purchases go HERE

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