The black sea of the Xian Warrior’s eyes engulfed me. For a moment, I forgot how to breathe as I drowned in their depths. A sharp pain in my hand snapped me out of my trance.
“Go on, child! He’s calling you!” my mother whispered urgently with a tinge of embarrassment in her voice.
I blinked, my head jerking right to look at her, the way one does when still dazed after suddenly waking up.
“Right. Wish me luck,” I said, rubbing the side of my hand she had pinched.
I cast a nervous glance at my younger brother Levy on my left, who winked at me in encouragement. Under the mocking stares of the other Aspirants and the amused one of the Warrior, I approached the testing cabin he stood beside, the other four cabins currently occupied by other Aspirants.
It made no sense for me to make such a spectacle of myself. I’d been preparing for this for years. My psychic evaluations were off the charts which meant, unless my brain imploded somehow, I was guaranteed to get through. I wouldn’t qualify for the Soulcatcher program of the Vanguard—no black or Asian Aspirant ever did—but at least I’d make it as an Operator at either the Coalition HQ or better yet, at the Vanguard HQ.
My throat felt utterly dry as I stopped before the Xian Warrior. I’d fantasized about finally meeting one in the flesh from the first time I’d heard of them, but they far exceeded my expectations. Nearly seven feet tall, his skin-tight, sleeveless, black Vanguard shirt hid nothing of his rippling muscles. The dark uniform complemented the Xian’s yellowish-gold skin and gave a nice glimpse of the burnished-gold scales around his neck and down the curve of his shoulders.
“Greetings, Ayana Antoine,” the Warrior said with a deep, purring voice. “I am Hares of the Vanguard. It is my pleasure to administer the test to you today.”
“Hello, Hares. Pleased to meet you,” I said, glad my voice didn’t betray the chaos of emotions inside me.
His generous lips stretched into a friendly smile, and I tried not to stare at his features, mostly human if not for his larger-than-human eyes devoid of any white, and the scales around his cheeks and forehead.
He pointed at the cabin, the size of an outdoor shed. Dark as sin, it looked ominous in the big hall of the conference center used for the event.
“Your test will take place within this chamber,” Hares said. “As was explained to you during the registration process, you will be asked a number of questions that will escalate in difficulty. Sometimes you will hear a voice, other times you will see things. We will continue as long as you are able to perceive what is thrown at you or until you request a stop.”
His finger pointed at five symbols above the door of the chamber. I already knew what they meant—everyone did—but let him finish his spiel anyway.
“These will light based on your progress. You need at least two to qualify for a position within one of our outlying psychic divisions, four to join the Coalition HQ, and five to train for the Vanguard. Do you have any questions?” he asked.
“So, I just walk in and start talking out loud when I see or hear things?”
He chuckled. “Yes. Although there is a seat waiting for you within.” Hares waved his hand in front of the door, and it slid open. “I hope you’re not afraid of the dark,” he added with a teasing tone.
I wasn’t, but I also didn’t relish it. The trickle of light from the open door allowed me to see a black stool looking miserable and lonely in the middle of the rectangular space, maybe four meters long by three meters wide. During our ESP training, teachers often blindfolded us, but this took things to another level.
Not wanting to show the extent of my distress, I walked in with a false air of confidence, which earned me an approving look. I settled on the stool, almost expecting Hares to wish me happy nightmares before slamming the door shut with an evil laugh. Instead, he followed me in. Standing before me, he showed me three glow-in-the-dark nodes sitting in his palm.
I had forgotten about those.
He placed one on each of my temples and the last on my chest, right above my heart.
“You’re all set,” he said with a smile.
“Thank you,” I said, wishing I could come up with some other excuse to delay the inevitable.
Hares turned around to leave but paused and gave me an intense look. “Do not let all of this intimidate you, Ayana. Your ESP scores are the highest I’ve seen in a long time. Your training reports all come with high recommendations for your constancy, dedication, and hard work. You have this.”
My eyes widened at the unexpected, but most welcome pep talk. “Thanks. That’s very kind of you.”
He chuckled. “I don’t think it is so much kind as it is selfish. I like your aura,” he clarified in response to my confused expression. “You have the skills to get four lights. Get them, and we’ll have the opportunity to work together.”
He winked at me then left without another word. I stared at his receding back, slack-jawed.
Was he flirting with me?
As much as I wanted to dwell on the question, the door closing and the darkness swallowing me reminded me of the reason I had trained hard to get to this moment.
Thirty-two years ago, humanity had made first contact… or rather, some very nasty aliens had paid us a visit. We weren’t prepared for what hit us and didn’t have the technology to fight them. Millions died during battle or mass suicides, millions more were taken by the Kryptids, the insectoid invaders. When all seemed lost, the Xian Vanguard came to our rescue; a handful of Xian Warriors facing off against hundreds of Kryptids.
I was born during the Great Reconstruction, seven years after first contact, two years after the Kryptids finally gave up on conquering Earth. By then, our governments had signed an accord with the Galactic Coalition which united over a hundred worlds and countless species in an effort to eradicate the threat. As part of that accord, humans were to contribute troops and resources to the war efforts.
But they didn’t want soldiers, they wanted psychics. Our genetics gave us natural predispositions that could be enhanced by introducing an alien enzyme into our diet. With the assistance of the Coalition, it was included in our water and all organic products we consumed.
In the years that followed, a large percentage of the population began displaying extra-sensory powers, especially women. Contrary to our governments’ fears, conscription never became necessary. ESP Training centers overflowed with willing candidates. Only the most powerful made it in, and from those who completed the program, only a handful passed this test.
I intended to be among the handful that would succeed today.
The hall contained four other chambers like mine. Of the sixty candidates that had already gone through the test, more than half had gotten the minimum two lights, but only six had made it to four lights, and a single girl had qualified for the Vanguard. I prayed I would be the seventh at four lights.
The voice startled a gasp out of me. It hadn’t come through any speaker but within my head, masculine, and somewhat gravelly. I tried not to dwell on the fact that he had been able to flat out read my mind.
“I am black. We’re unable to soulcatch. So I can only aim for four,” I said, feeling odd speaking out loud to a voice in my head.
“We found no genetic explanation for it. You could be the first.”
I shrugged, even though he couldn’t see it in the darkness or wherever he was talking to me from. “I would obviously love that, but seeing how not a single other black or Asian candidate has succeeded in over twenty-five years, I’d rather set realistic expectations, and then be pleasantly surprised if they are exceeded.”
“Why do you wish to enroll?”
“Because I want to fight back. After what the Kryptids have done to Earth, let alone what would have happened without your intervention, I want to keep other worlds from going through what mine did.”
“Why do you care? While the Kryptids are busy with them, your people are safe.”
“That safety is an illusion. Sooner or later, they will be back. Except, this time, they will have beefed up their numbers from all those other worlds they will have assimilated. They need to be beaten back severely enough to cure them of their need for conquest.”
“Beat them back? Why not eradicate them?”
“Genocide is never the right solution,” I said, disturbed that he would even ask. “We don’t know that their civilians are on board with what their military is doing. Exterminating an entire species is wrong, even those bastards.”
Seconds ticked by with no response. My throat tightened and my stomach knotted. It couldn’t already be over. These questions would barely get me past the first light. I replayed my last answer in my head and found no fault with it. I shifted on my seat, each silent second exponentially increasing my anxiety levels.
I was about to call out when an image suddenly took form before me. It wasn’t so much an image as a 3D representation of a Xian ship. Tears of relief almost burst from my eyes.
“I see a Chaser Class 4,” I said out loud.
The male voice didn’t reply, but the image morphed into a different ship model each time I named it. By the fifth ship, my tension had all but disappeared. Finally in my element, I breezed through the images which cycled through both Xian and Kryptid ships, survival gear, weapons, and then various inhabited planets and some of the major capitals.
As an aspiring Operator, I needed to prove myself able to receive and then relay mental messages, be they words—like in the first stage of the test—or imagery. The latter was the most important as, in the midst of battle, the warriors couldn’t launch into long explanations to convey their messages. A rank four Operator—the position I coveted—also needed to be able to interpret a scene with 99.5% accuracy over a distance of ten million kilometers.
The images started coming faster, making it hard to keep up. In the end, the images cycled through scenes of battle fields on different planets before settling on the Great Hall of Koto Tsi, decimated a few months back by a sudden Kryptid attack. The entire testing chamber had turned into the Great Hall, its gleaming glass and metal walls enclosing the room. Political figures and the elite of the planet mingled all around me, but seemed unaware of my presence.
We’re right before the attack…
I turned towards the main entrance guarded by a couple of Kotan warriors who were clueless about the impending raid. As if summoned by my thoughts the door exploded, revealing a swarm of Kryptids. They rushed into the room, easily overwhelming the handful of guards within, the two by the door having died instantly from the explosion.
People ran for exits, pushing, shoving, and trampling each other. They didn’t realize yet that all escape routes had already been cut off. The Kryptids shot indiscriminately through the crowd. Bodies flopped to the ground. I couldn’t tell if they were dead or stunned. Some of the Kotan started fighting back. The screams of the fleeing guests soon drowned beneath the clash of swords and the detonations of shots fired.
“What are they looking for?”
I nearly jumped out of my skin hearing the voice in my head again. Even though I knew all of this to be an illusion, I was freaking out and fighting the urge to run. I inhaled deeply then breathed out slowly, willing my pounding heart to settle down. What could he possibly mean by that question, anyway? The Kryptids only ever cared about two things; killing and conquering. Those they didn’t kill here would be used as breeders. Still, he wouldn’t have asked without a valid reason.
My eyes flicked this way and that, looking for signs of concerted efforts over a goal other than subduing the attendees. A group of bodyguards surrounded the Primarch and his mate—the equivalent of king and queen of Koto Tsi. I would have expected the Kryptids to converge on them but they seemed more focused on getting to the back left side of the room where a few retired military dignitaries and the general of the Kotan army were battling with impressive fierceness.
“They want to capture General Jenin to get as much intelligence from him as possible.”
On reflex, I turned around just in time to see one of the Kryptids raise his sword and bring it down on me. I instinctively dodged. To my shock, I felt a biting pain where the sword grazed my arm.
What the hell?!
This was an illusion! I shouldn’t feel real pain. Unlike the other people, my attacker could clearly see me and seemed determined to relieve me of a few limbs. Running out of reach, I looked around for a weapon I could use. Once more, as if summoned by my thoughts, a gleaming sword sat on the bar a few meters in front of me. I dashed for it, barely avoiding another vicious swipe of the Kryptid’s blade.
I lunged for the weapon then turned around, raising it in a defensive stance just in time to block another attack. My arms shook from the force of the impact. At five foot ten, I wasn’t small or scrawny, but the Kryptid towered over me by a full head. Although I couldn’t see his muscles beneath his chitin armor, the great width of his shoulders hinted at the extent of his strength. Going head to head with him would be a death warrant. Dodging what I could, and deflecting the rest quickly weakened me. I couldn’t even seek to join forces with the Kotans as they couldn’t see me.
In a desperate move, I pretended to fall while evading another attack. Rolling onto my back with the momentum, I thrust my sword upwards as he came looming over me. For a brief second, I feared having poorly aimed, but my blade slipped under one of the dark brown chitin plates covering his chest and found its mark in his vital organs.
With a screeching sound, the Kryptid jerked backwards, the three segments of his two legs folding as he fell to one knee. Midnight-blue blood poured out of his wound, staining his plated-chitin armor and dropping in big splotches on the floor. A look of pure hatred burned in his large, black, oily eyes that could have belonged to a spider. The plating on his throat shifted like he was trying to swallow—but more likely, regurgitate—something. I scrambled to my feet as his mandibles opened. His lips parted slightly, enough to reveal a giant dart dripping with a substance that I just knew would not be good for me.
A spitting sound preceded the dart flying towards me. I jumped out of its path, but it came at me too fast. Just as it would have found its way into my flesh, a golden hand swiped it out of the way, sending it crashing into a toppled over table nearby.
Eyes wide with shock I turned to look at my rescuer, and my brain ceased to function.
“Legion…” I whispered, my terror from seconds ago almost completely forgotten.
Koto Tsi’s Great Hall faded, and I found myself standing in the far right corner of the test chamber. Legion smiled, looking both pleased and surprised that I’d recognized him. How could he even wonder about that? He was the face of the Vanguard. Even though the Xian Warriors didn’t have hierarchy like traditional military organizations, the other Warriors all deferred to him as their leader.
“Thanks for saving me,” I said, rubbing the now absent cut where the Kryptid’s sword had grazed it. “I don’t want to think how badly that dart would have hurt.”
Legion raised an eyebrow at me. “You felt pain during the simulation?”
“Yes,” I said with a nod. “Isn’t that normal?”
Legion smiled and stared quietly at me. For a moment, I thought he wouldn’t answer.
“Few experience pain,” he said at last, his dark eyes stripping me bare.
I had fantasized about this man from the first time I’d seen the commercials for enrolling in one of the psychic programs. To have him standing here before me, even as part of an illusion, overwhelmed my senses. Like Hares, he towered over me by more than a head. His skin-tight, sleeveless, black Vanguard shirt showed every line of his eight pack. My fingers itched to run over the golden scales covering his neck and shoulders, and then to trace the thick veins along his muscular arms.
Swallowing hard, I forced my eyes back up to his, refusing to look at his sensual lips.
“Despite seeing what they’ve done and continue to do, you still stand against eradicating them?”
“Yes,” I said with unwavering conviction.
I didn’t know what reaction I’d expected from him, but not this amused smile.
“Tell me, Ayana, if you were my Soulcatcher, and I needed you to follow me onto a warring planet, would you?”
“Yes,” I said without hesitation, even though that would never happen.
“Would you follow me onto the battlefield?”
I frowned. “Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?”
“Yes or no?”
Uncertain how to answer, I chewed my bottom lip. It felt like a trap. He frowned at my silence.
Oh, fuck it! I’ll just say what I think is right.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
The small scales shaping his eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“You would disobey my orders?”
I tried to swallow despite my throat suddenly drying up. “I would disobey to protect you. If anything happened to you and I got myself killed on the field, you would be lost forever.”
“So you would risk facing a court-martial to protect me?”
His smile broadened, and I wondered if it meant I had answered correctly. He took a couple of steps closer, invading my personal space. His proximity acted like a magnet, pulling me towards him. I struggled to stand straight instead of falling into him.
“Would you die for me, Ayana?”
A shiver ran through me at the way he all but whispered my name. My instinctive reaction was to answer in the affirmative, but I thankfully managed to hold my tongue. The things this man could make me do just by talking in that husky, gravelly tone. However, I was here to pass a test I’d spent years preparing for. No infatuation, however powerful, would ruin this for me. Reining in my emotions, I focused on the question.
“For you, Legion? No, I would not.”
He recoiled at my answer, a troubled expression descending upon his exotic features.
“I don’t know you and have no strong bond of affection for you to consider doing such a thing. However, for you, the Xian Warrior, and even more so the Vanguard leader, yes, I would die willingly.”
“Why for the Warrior and not the man?”
“For the same reason the Warrior goes regularly on suicide missions; to protect the Coalition and our way of life.”
“Ah, altruism then.”
I shrugged. “It’s one way to put it.”
“How would you put it?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.
I inhaled deeply while gathering my thoughts. The first time I had shared my philosophy on altruism with my mother, she had called me a cynic.
“I don’t believe in true altruism and selflessness. To me, they are both driven by a form of selfishness.”
Legion snorted and gave me a dubious look. “Do go on. I can’t wait to hear your logic.”
Although used to that reaction, coming from him, it annoyed me more than usual.
“If the Kryptids had never come to Earth, the Coalition would have continued to ignore humans as too primitive a species.”
He shrugged. “Standard directive for any species that hasn’t achieved warp travel.”
“True,” I conceded with a nod, “yet, you came once they did and shared the technology you otherwise never would have. It wasn’t out of any kindness or to spare humanity from extinction. You defended us and repelled the invasion because, had Earth fallen, the Kryptids would have had billions of new breeders to expand their army. The Coalition didn’t save us out of compassion, but out of self-preservation. And I’m here to make sure another planet doesn’t fall because I never want to see those Kryptids threaten my homeworld again.”
Legion pursed his lips while he pondered my answer before smiling. “Fair assessment, but not every act of kindness is laced with personal gain. What of those who give to charity?”
I shrugged again. “Tax deductions, or building up karma for their own potential time of need. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It always comes back to self.”
Legion burst out laughing, and I couldn’t help grinning. It was powerful and beautiful, like everything about him. I didn’t want him to stop.
“Such cynicism at such a young age,” Legion said, sobering.
“I’m not that young. I’m twenty-five,” I said, feeling irrationally offended.
“I am well aware of that,” he said, mockingly.
My face heated at my little tantrum. Of course, he would know. He probably had a file on me a mile long.
Legion suddenly leaned towards me. I froze and my breath caught in my throat as his lips brushed against my left ear.
“You will want to die for me, the man.”
My stomach did the most delicious backflip. I turned to challenge his bold statement, but he had vanished. Stunned, I looked around the room but couldn’t see anything in the total darkness that surrounded me. It suddenly dawned on me that I shouldn’t have been able to even see him as clearly as I had considering the complete absence of light in the room aside from the three nodes on me.
The chamber’s door opened and blinding light from the hall stabbed my eyes, making them water. I blinked through it and, to my utter shock, realized I wasn’t standing in the back corner where I had been talking with Legion moments ago, but sitting on the stool where Hares had left me at the start of the test.
Hares walked into the room and my anxiety skyrocketed; it dawned on me that I was seconds away from finding out how well, or poorly, I’d performed. With his face in the shadows and the bright light behind him blinding me, I couldn’t see his expression well enough to get a hint.
He extended a hand towards me which I took on instinct. Pulling me to my feet, he led me outside without a word. The glaring lights made me squint, and I could barely make out the outline of the crowd of Aspirants, family, and friends piled up on the temporary bleachers.
The moment I set foot outside, the crowd erupted in a roar followed by a thunder of applause. Startled, I squealed and my hand flew to my chest. I blinked, while my vision adjusted before meeting the gaze of my mother. The outpouring of happy tears left her high cheekbones glistening. Grinning widely, she clapped even more fiercely than my brother did, both of them staring at me with pride.
“I got four lights!” I whispered, my heart soaring.
Spinning on my heels, I looked at the symbols in front of the chamber for confirmation. My jaw dropped and my knees nearly buckled.
“No, sweetheart,” Hares said, inches from my face. “You got five. Welcome to the Vanguard.”