Star Crossed: Genesis by KAM

Star Crossed: Genesis - KAM

Prologue

Eons ago, the inhabitants of two great star systems stumbled upon each other as they began their exploration of the stars.

The smaller of the two systems consisted of eleven planets orbiting a single sun. Of the eleven planets, three were inhabited. Of those three, Lupine was by far the largest. The other two, Rainier and Tacoma, were colony worlds, having been settled by the inhabitants of Lupine centuries ago. Lupine and its colony worlds were caste planets; every citizen, from the lowest to the highest, had his or her own place in society.

Rainier was a planet of academics. The brightest and most gifted minds went there for training, taught to hone their skills and talents while also developing their great mental abilities. Some remained after their education was complete, staying to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. Others returned home to Lupine, sharing their knowledge with the rest of their people, offering guidance and counsel to all, especially the ruling class.

Tacoma was settled by the military class – all training and instruction was completed there since its harsher climate was useful for building endurance and stamina in the military personnel. Of the three worlds, it was the most technologically advanced, providing the first line of defense for the rest of the worlds.

****

The larger of the two systems consisted of seven planets orbiting twin suns. Of the seven planets, only one, Pantera, was inhabited. The Panterians were a race steeped in tradition, a people who valued honor above all else. After millennia of civil war and internal turmoil, they had joined together in peace. Their planet greatly ravaged from centuries of conflict, they turned to the stars in an attempt to find planets suitable for colonization.

So far, their search had been fruitless. After their first encounter with the neighboring Lupinards, they had held out hope of joining together, of merging their two civilizations. But that hope quickly faded once they realized that the class-based society on Lupine offered no place for the Panterians, who followed no such pre-set system for assigning a person’s worth. Theirs was a society of choice and free will, allowing people to decide their own fate, their own destiny. Such diametrically opposed civilizations had little chance of blending together, of meshing their varied customs and beliefs into one functioning society.

****

Gradually though, resentment began to build on the part of the Panterians. As their planet continued to deteriorate, with no sign of any worlds suitable for colonization, they grew to resent the Lupinards and their clean, unpolluted worlds. They saw the Lupinards as greedy, hoarding three planets to themselves while the Panterians were forced to live on a single, dying world.

On Lupine, to most people the Panterians were a mystery. The ruling class kept the masses in the dark where the alien race was concerned, only disseminating enough information to instill fear and loathing in the people. The ruling class saw Pantera and its people as a threat to their existence and their way of life. They believed that if all of Lupine knew of the Panterians’ society, then they would want to abolish the castes and live as equals. To live like the Panterians where each man was in charge of his own fate, with no limitations to what they could achieve or become, thus eliminating the need for the ruling caste.

****

For nearly a decade, this tentative truce continued. Then, one day, a Panterian scout suffered mechanical failure, causing the ship to drift into Lupine space. The Lupine military took this as the first sign of an impending attack, possibly an invasion, and destroyed the ship. But not before the pilot managed to send off a distress message. The Panterian response was swift and a fleet of warships descended upon Lupine and its colony worlds.

By this time, the Panterians were desperate, finally deciding to take by force what the Lupinards refused to give voluntarily. At first, the plan was, under the guise of retribution, to inflict just enough damage that the Lupinards would call for a truce and accept the Panterians into their midst and onto their planets. But the ruling class on Lupine was unwilling to submit. And thus the war began.

Two civilizations locked in a seemingly never-ending battle. The Panterians fighting for a place to live, a way to escape their dying world. The ruling class of Lupine fighting to maintain power and control, unwilling to give it up even if it meant the needless death and suffering of their people as well as the Panterians.

Chapter One – Spanning the Vastness

Twin pale moons hovered in a night sky full of stars. Below, a rich landscape lay shrouded in darkness. Rolling hills, lakes of crystal blue water and stretches of rich, fertile land stretched as far as the eye could see.

In the middle of a clearing, a large city stood. Metal skyscrapers and wooden buildings, technology intermittent with its more primitive counterpart, all blended seamlessly together to create an impression of both beauty and efficiency.

In the center, there proudly stood a construction of wood, brick and metal. An ancient castle having lost none of its majesty despite having been modernized over the years. Though not the largest building, it was the most awe-inspiring. Flags of deep crimson and purple, proudly bearing the royal crest, hung from the rooftop, flapping in the night air.

Outside, heavily armed guards patrolled, ensuring that the perimeter was secure. Inside, people hurried back and forth, still busy despite the late hour. A red headed woman ignored the activity surrounding her as she strode down a long corridor. Her lithe body was clad in a flowing gown of emerald green that complemented her fair complexion and fiery hair.

Coming to stand before a door, the image of a wolf etched on its surface, she hesitated for a moment. Turning to the men escorting her, she ordered, “Remain here.“ Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and walked inside.

Not seeing anyone, her eyes automatically sought out the curtained archway even as she pushed back a surge of irritation. Mouth tightening in displeasure, she squared her shoulders and crossed the large room.

Standing on the balcony adjacent to his chambers, the young man smiled and shook his head as a small gust of wind blew his shoulder length, curly, brown hair. Soft footsteps sounded behind him. Without turning, he lowered his barriers and scanned the room. His smile faded when he sensed whom his visitor was. “Hello, Mother.“

Gown trailing behind her, the red headed woman walked out onto the balcony. Her voice conveyed the irritation that she was careful not to let show on her face. “What are you doing out here, Blair? Get back in your chambers this instant. It's not safe for you to be out in the open like this. Where are your guards? I'll have them severely disciplined for this!“

“Mother, please,“ the young man beseeched as he turned to face her, “don't get so upset. I just wanted to get some fresh air and to have a few moments alone.“

“But, Blair –“

“I don’t think that a few moments alone is too much to ask for,“ Blair interrupted, his voice growing loud. “I’ve been studying all day and I just needed a break. As much as you and the others would like for me to do nothing but study and learn and develop my abilities, I can not do it incessantly. I do get tired, you know. I am only human, though you and the others seem to constantly overlook that small detail.“

“I know the past few months have been difficult on you, but you can not –“

“The past few months?“ he repeated as he walked back into his chambers. “You mean the past few years, don't you?“

“Blair –“ his mother began as she followed after him.

“Please just stop, Mother. You know that I don’t like to argue with you.“ Blair sighed. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t take my frustrations out on you. I know that. But sometimes I just can’t take the pressure any longer. You are all so unrelenting.“

“That is because we can not afford not to be.“ Naomi tried to remain patient as she attempted to explain things – for what seemed the thousandth time – to her son. “We can’t let up on you because we can’t take the chance that you’ll fall behind in your studies. There is so much that you have yet to learn; that you have yet to accomplish. So much rests on you, Blair. I know how difficult it is on you.“

Ignoring her son’s scoff, she continued. “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken you to that seer all those years ago. I know that your life would have turned out differently if I hadn’t. But I… I just couldn't ignore how special you were. How special you are. I knew I couldn't deny you your gifts. Or deny our people of you. Blair, you're destined –“

“Please don't, Naomi!“ His plea was filled with pain. “Just for once, could you deal with me just as your son and not as… as some… some…“

“It's what you are, Blair.“ Naomi's soft words seemed unnaturally loud in the quiet room. “You can't deny what you are. You can't turn your back on our people or your destiny. We've been over this so many times. Why can't you just accept it? Why can't you just step into the role that destiny has set for you? Why do you always make everything so difficult?“

“You've been telling me that for as long as I can remember!“ Blair shouted, beginning to frantically pace in front of his mother. “I'm so tired of everyone putting all of this pressure on me! For once, I want everyone to treat me like a normal person. I want to live as a normal person. I'm so tired of being such a… such a freak!“

“Blair Sandburg, don't you ever refer to yourself like that again!“ Her temper flared, knowing that her son’s words were a reflection upon her as well. “You have not, nor will you ever be, a freak!“

“Then what exactly am I, Mother? Should I refer to myself as a fatherless bastard? After all, that applies too, doesn't it?“ In frustration, he ran a hand through his hair. “I can't help the way I feel, Mother.“ Blair came to a stop and faced his mother.

“I know that there are others that are gifted. But even they aren't like me.“ The desperation in his voice a palpable presence in the room, Blair grabbed his hair in frustration and pulled on it. “There's no one else like me on all of Lupine. Since I was little, I've been sequestered here in this… this place, locked away from everything and everyone. I've grown up always knowing that I was different. And I could handle it if that were all, but there's also this so-called great destiny of mine. One that no one will tell me anything about. Tell me something, Mother. How am I supposed to fulfill this destiny when I don't even know what it is?“

“You know the reason behind that, Blair,“ Naomi scolded. “If you knew what your destiny was then –“

“Then I could unknowingly do something to alter it. In order for everything to proceed as the Great Seer has foreseen then I must remain ignorant so that I don't change the natural order of events.“ Blair threw up his hands in disgust. “That's a load of bull, Naomi, and you know it!“

“Blair Sandburg, you will not speak to me in that manner! Do you hear me?“ Naomi's eyes blazed as she reprimanded her son. “I give you leeway because I know you are upset, but I will not tolerate any more insolence from you. I am your mother and you will treat me with the respect that I deserve.“

Blair started to respond but before he could speak, the door to his chambers opened.

One of Naomi's escorts looked in on them. “Is everything all right in here, Madam?“

“Yes, fine,“ came the impatient sounding reply. “Leave us alone and don't disturb us again.“

The man nodded and withdrew from the room.

Once he was gone, Naomi turned on her son again. She kept her voice low, though it trembled with rage. “You forget your place, my son.“

“No, I haven't, Naomi.“ Blair turned his back on his mother, unable to face her when dealing with the emotions raging inside of him. “You and the others see to that. Not a day goes by that you don't constantly throw it in my face. I have never forgotten my place. Nor will I ever forget it. If anyone has forgotten their place, it’s you, Mother.“

A look of pity mixed with loathing passed over Blair’s face. “It shames you, doesn’t it? Knowing what you were, what you’d still be if you hadn’t given birth to me. Me, your son, your way to fame and fortune, assuring your place in history; making sure our people forget that you were once nothing more than a handmaiden, a member of one of the lowest castes, who cleaned up other people’s filth for a few measly coins!“

The sound of a slap echoed in the silence following Blair's declaration. Emotions raging, Blair's control slipped for an instant. Off to the side, sitting on a small table, a large vase exploded, raining debris in all directions.

Mother and son locked gazes.

That will not be tolerated!“ Naomi hissed. “And you wonder why we're so hard on you. That is why we insist on such a demanding training schedule. If you can not control yourself around me, then how do you expect to control yourself around others? After all you've been taught, you've yet to master your abilities. I'm am disappointed, Blair. Very disappointed.“

An expression of shock on his face, Blair reached up and rubbed his stinging cheek. “How do you expect me to maintain control when you do that? I mean, my God, Mother. You hit me!“ His tone was incredulous as he stared at his mother in disbelief.

“You deserved it!“ Naomi retorted. “I warned you that I wouldn't tolerate that kind of disrespect and I meant it.“ Naomi clenched her hands into fists. “How dare you deny me my place. Our people are just in their reverence of me. I gave birth to you, our –“

“Your freak.“ Feeling alone and lost, Blair gave a weary sigh. “Just… let's just drop it, Mother. Okay? I don't want to fight with you anymore. You’re my only family. I want us to get along. I want peace between the two of us.“

“All right. Consider the matter forgotten.“ Instantly forgetting the tension between the two of them, acting as if their recent argument hadn't even occurred, Naomi smiled. “Now for the reason I came to see you in the first place. I've spoken to the Captain and the ship will be ready to leave tomorrow morning.“

“I told you before, Mother, I don't want to leave home! Why do you insist that I go off world? Why can't I stay here?“

“We've already discussed this, Blair.“ A hint of anger crept into Naomi’s tone again as her son challenged her once more.

“And you've yet to give me a satisfactory explanation!“ His expression dark, Blair confronted his mother. “What if I refuse to go?“

“You will go.“ When Blair started to protest again, Naomi held up a hand to silence him. “You've heard the Seer's proclamation, just as I have. This trip is a necessary step in fulfilling your destiny. Though you've received a great deal of training and teaching, you've reached the limits of what you can learn here – as you've just demonstrated. The adepts on Rainier will be able to show you the full extent of your capabilities – and help you master your abilities as well. With their help, there's no limit to what you can achieve, to what you'll be able to accomplish.“

“Aah, this damn destiny!“ Blair threw back his head as he shouted. “Destiny be damned, Mother! I want answers!“

“You'll get the answers you want when you are ready to hear them.“ There was a hint of superiority in Naomi's voice. “And until you are deemed ready, you will continue to study and learn and obey your teachers as well as the seers. That goes for the adepts also. Just because I won't be there to watch over you, I don't want to receive any reports of you shirking your responsibilities.“

Silence descended upon them for several seconds only to be broken by Naomi proclaiming, “Well, I'll be leaving now. There is a late night reception scheduled and my attendance is a must. I won't be seeing you before you depart tomorrow so I'll take my leave now, my son.“

His movements stiff, Blair stepped forward and obligatorily hugged his mother. “Goodnight, Mother. I hope to see you again soon.“

“As I you, my son.“ With that, Naomi released her son. Turning, she swept out of the room, her gown billowing out behind her.

Standing still, Blair watched as the door shut behind his mother. Then, head bowed, he whispered, “I love you, Mother. I'll miss you.“

Hearing the side door open, Blair schooled his face into an emotionless mask and looked up as his personal guard, Lieutenant Henri Brown, entered his chambers.

“Hey, Blair, you all right?“

Blair knew by the other man's soft tone that the lieutenant had heard the heated exchange between himself and his mother. He shrugged. “Same old, same old, Henri. You know how it is.“

“Yeah, I do.“ Henri smiled, hoping to cheer the younger man up. “Hey, I finished reading Beyond the Stars. Want to talk about it?“

“Not tonight, Henri. Okay?“ Blair looked down at the floor. “I'm not in the mood right now.“

“Okay, Blair. Whatever you want.“

When the other man turned to leave, Blair called out, “Henri?“

The Lieutenant turned. “Yeah?“

“You… you are still going with me tomorrow, aren't you?“ There was a hopeful tone to the young man's voice, but also a slight quiver of fear.

“Hey, are you serious? You think I'd actually let you take your scrawny ass off world without me there to keep you in line?“ Henri chuckled, then laughed louder when Blair gave a small smile. His expression turning serious, he promised, “No way would I let you go without me, Blair.“

“Thanks, Henri.“

The Lieutenant nodded. “You just get some rest. We've got to leave early in the morning and I don't want to have to deal with your cranky self before take off.“

Blair's smile grew into a wide grin, lighting up his face. “Hey, you're the one that's cranky in the mornings. Especially before you've had your first cup of coffee.“

Henri gave a rude gesture in response, causing Blair to laugh. He gave the younger man a small salute. “Goodnight, Si –“

“Oh, no, you don't,“ Blair interrupted, a smirk on his face. He wagged his finger at the older man. “Don’t you even think about it.“

Henri laughed. “See you in the morning, Blair.“

“Yeah, goodnight, Henri. And… um… thanks.“

“No problem. Hey, that's what friends are for, right?“

Choked up by this simple show of affection, Blair didn't trust himself to speak and settled for nodding. Then, surreptitiously brushing at his eyes, he turned away from the Lieutenant.

Angered by Blair's actions, not at the younger man himself but at the people who had made him so unaccustomed to even the most basic show of friendship, Henri quietly retreated, leaving the younger man in peace to get his errant emotions under control.

Hearing the older man leave, Blair wiped at his eyes even as he cursed himself for his lack of control. “Oh, man, why do I do this? I've been taught better than this. I should keep control. Never let my emotions cloud my thinking, my judgment. But sometimes, it's just so difficult.“

Sighing deeply, he walked across the room, went through the small archway that led to his bedchamber, and flung himself down on his bed. He clutched his pillow to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut. Within moments, the emotionally exhausted young man was asleep.

Moments later, he began to toss and turn on the bed; sweat beaded on his feverish forehead.

****

The blistering hot sand burned his feet, even through the thick soles of his boots. His parched throat and cracked lips screamed for even a drop of water. Physically at his limit, he stumbled and almost fell but a strong grip on his arm kept him upright.

“Look, Chief,“ a strong, male voice reached his ears. He looked up and saw an oasis shimmering in the distance. “We're almost there. Keep going. You can do it.“

Feeling a renewed sense of strength, Blair raised his head to see who was encouraging him on. The harsh glare of the sun struck his eyes and he blinked. Black dots danced in front of his eyes, obliterating the face of the man holding him up. All he could see was two pale blue eyes alit with love and affection looking down at him.

****

With a gasp, Blair jerked awake. He licked his dry lips, the memory of those eyes still lingering on the edge of his consciousness.

****

After leaving her son, Naomi made her way to the large banquet hall. Pausing outside, she could hear the music, laughter, and murmured voices coming from the large room. For a moment, she smiled to herself as she realized just how far she had come.

Before, she would never have been allowed inside this place – not until the morning after, at least. And then it would only be to clean and scrub. But now, as Blair’s mother, she would be welcomed – attention lavished upon her – the men, and not a few women, vying for a place in her bed that night. She would dine on the finest foods and drink the most exquisite wines.

All because of a drugged, half-forgotten encounter in a dark, dirty alley years ago – the night she had conceived Blair.

What she could remember of that fateful night was a blur of images and sensations. Stumbling back to her hovel of a home after indulging in a binge of liquor and drugs. Seeing a man approach. Being pulled into a smelly alley and pushed against a wall. Lifting her skirt as her legs were wrapped around a strong waist. The feeling of being filled. Pressed into the wall over and over. Moaning and writhing – filled with a sense of ecstasy that she’d never felt before or since that night.

Then she was at home, in her bed.

When she woke the next morning, she was almost convinced that the whole thing had been a dream. Until the sickness started, that is. She’d gone to a healer and he’d pronounced her with child. At first, she’d considered ending the unwanted and unwelcome pregnancy, convinced that the child would bring nothing but hardship.

But as she had lain on the table, her legs spread, and watched the self-proclaimed healer approach, she’d placed her hand on her stomach. For a brief second, she’d felt … something – a slight touch of the life growing within her – and knew, with every fiber of her being, that the child had to be born. She’d screamed at the man to stop and he had. Then she’d fled the foul-smelling, dirty room.

After her son, whom she’d instantly named Blair – the name just seeming to come to her as soon as she saw the small, squirming, yet strangely quiet, child for the first time – was born, things were hard. Often, she’d considered just leaving him on someone’s doorstep. But she’d take one look into those bright blue eyes, wise beyond their years, and knew she couldn’t do it.

Blair had been a bright child – learning to read and write far sooner than any other child – and was forever inquisitive about the world around him. At times, he drove her to distraction with his constant questions and chatter. And often her patience had been lacking. More than once, Blair bore the marks from her anger.

But that changed one day when he reached the age of five. She’d taken him out – a picnic – to celebrate his birthday. He’d been overjoyed. She had enjoyed herself also, however reluctant she was to admit it. But that enjoyment had turned to awe, and a touch of fear, as she watched Blair explore around them – touching the growing flowers with gentle fingers, a smile on his face.

Suddenly, a wolf had emerged from the dense crop of bushes and shrubs. Naomi had screamed in terror – unable to decide if she wanted to risk her own safety to try to rescue her child – as the animal had stalked towards Blair.

However, instead of being afraid, Blair had laughed and clapped his hands together. And then, to Naomi’s horror and dawning amazement, the wolf walked up and licked Blair’s cheek, nuzzling the child. Blair had grabbed two fistfuls of the animal’s fur, not hurting though, and began talking to it. Naomi hadn’t been able to understand her son’s words – she was too far away to hear.

Afraid to move, more so because she didn’t want to break the spell that had fallen over her son and the wolf, she’d watched as the animal tilted its head to the side, as if listening intently. When Blair fell silent, it began yipping and barking. Then, her son had hugged the animal and, after a final sloppy lick, the wolf trotted off, disappearing into the forest.

For several days after that, Naomi had been in shock. She’d tried to question Blair about the strange encounter but he’d only smiled and said that the ‘wolfie’ was his friend. Finally, Naomi had taken the boy to a local seer, hoping for some insight. But she’d gained so much more than that. The old, blind seer had proclaimed her son as being ‘The One’, and had contacted other of his kind to see the boy as well.

The next few days were a whirlwind of activity that Naomi would never forget. She and Blair had been moved from their small, one-room home and relocated to the lavish palace several miles away. It never occurred to her to question why – she’d been too enamored with the new lifestyle she’d been introduced to.

She’d been settled into her own set of chambers, given clothing of the finest silks, and dined on food the likes of which she’d only dreamed of. It was days before she sought out Blair – who’d been placed in rooms separate from hers. When she’d been escorted to him, he’d been with tutors – the seers a watchful presence in the far corner of the room.

The tutors and seers had taken over the education – and raising – of her son. Naomi lived in luxury, only a peripheral presence in Blair’s life. Oh, she did often consult with the seers, but that was just to ensure that her son was doing what was required of him – what was required for her to maintain her new life. And that was how life had been since that day.

Emerging from her memories, Naomi smiled and swept into the banquet room, ensuring that everyone would be aware of her entrance. She nodded to several people – noting which ones she might be interested in taking to her bed that night – as she made her way across the room. The conversation seemed to flow around her – ebbing as she passed, only to rise again in her wake. She was aware of the attention she was receiving. And she reveled in it.

When she reached the throne, situated upon a raised platform at the rear of the room, she kneeled. “My Lord.“

A look of indifference on his handsome face, Lee Brackett glanced down at the kneeling woman. As always when he saw Naomi, his body reacted to her presence. “You may rise.“

“Thank you.“ She stood and waited for him to speak.

Brackett scanned the room, scoffing at the more drunken guests. “Pitiful fools.“ His voice was full of scornful contempt. He turned his attention to Naomi, his eyes raking up and down her body. “So, my dear, which of them will you grant the honor of being in your bed tonight?“ He laughed when she looked down. “Never mind, my dear. There’s no need. You’ll be joining me tonight.“

Though she didn’t look up, Brackett could see her body tense with anticipation. He knew her too well. She could never keep anything from him and had, over the years, turned out to be one of his greatest allies, even though that alliance might lead to her son’s death or imprisonment one day. But he knew she’d never betray him. If she did, he’d subject her to a punishment far worse than death in her eyes. He’d banish her, sending her back to the existence she had known before. And that was something she’d do anything to avoid. He waved his hand, a dismissive motion. “Go wait for me in my chambers. I’ll be there shortly.“

After she left, he turned to face his most trusted advisor and confidant, Garrett Kincaid. “I can’t stand any more of this, my friend. Make my excuses for me and then come meet me in my chambers. We have much to discuss tonight.“

Accompanied by several guards, well aware of the treachery – his own included – that surrounded him, Brackett left his guests to their overindulgence. When he reached his chambers, he ordered the guards to remain outside and went in to find Naomi lying naked in his bed.

He chuckled and quickly crossed to kneel beside her. He trailed a finger down her body – starting at the hollow of her throat and ending just below her navel. “Always so eager, aren’t you, my dear? But I’m afraid that our … festivities … shall be a little delayed tonight.“

Brackett slapped Naomi on the thigh when the door behind them opened and Kincaid entered. When Naomi attempted to cover herself, he stilled her movements. “No need for that. It’s not as if Garrett hasn’t had you for himself.“ He turned to share a smirk with the other man. “I know the first time wasn’t particularly to your liking, but I’m told you quickly changed your thinking.“ The two men laughed. “So, Garrett, tell me how things go.“

“Very well, My Lord.“ Kincaid walked up to the bed, leering at Naomi as he spoke. “Things are already set in motion. After tomorrow, he’ll trouble you no more.“

“Excellent.“

“What are you talking about?“ Naomi sat up and looked between the two men. “Do you mean Blair? He is scheduled to depart tomorrow on the Cascadia. What have you got planned?“

“Nothing to trouble yourself with, my dear.“

“He is still my son, Lee. I demand to know what you intend to do.“

“Your son?“ Brackett scoffed. “Since when has that ever mattered to you before – except for what that entitles you to.“

“Tell me!“

“Very well, but know this – if you breathe so much as a word of this to anyone, you’ll be back scrubbing floors for whatever few measly coins you can beg.“

Naomi bowed her head. “I understand.“ Inwardly, she shuddered, remembering those days. Remembering how her hands had bled and cracked and how her body had ached constantly. She never wanted to go through that again. No matter what the cost.

“Garrett has arranged for a few little surprises for your beloved son.“ Brackett smiled – the expression cold and calculating. “First, he has arranged to withhold some information – vital information – from Banks. When the Cascadia begins its journey tomorrow, its flight plan will take it into some space recently conquered, and now held, by the Panterians. We have some … acquaintances … among the Panterian military that will arrange for one of their scouts to be in the area. I imagine the ensuing battle will be something to behold.“

Brackett took a moment to share a smile with Garrett before continuing. “Since the attacking vessel will be a single ship, it is doubtful that the Cascadia will be destroyed, but it will most likely be crippled, making it difficult, if not impossible, for it to reach Rainier. And by some chance if they survive the battle unscathed, Garrett has arranged for someone … special … to be aboard the ship. Someone who has proven themselves very capable of taking care of … problems … for me.“

“You mean to kill Blair?“

“No, my dear, of course not. I would never take another's life. I am the benevolent ruler of Lupine, loved by all.“ He sneered. “My hands must always remain unbloodied, no matter how much I may wish for it to be otherwise. That’s why I’ve got men like Garrett. And, oh, how I am grateful to have them.“

“But… but he’s my son. I… I…“

“You what? Love him?“ Brackett laughed. “Please. Save it for those clueless, ignorant fools out there. We know better. The only thing you love is the money and status he brings you. And you needn’t worry because that will never change. You will always have a place here. But just think of how our people will adore you. Think of it, Naomi. A whole population grieving for you. All the attention. All the love. The gifts that will be bestowed upon you.“

As Brackett talked, Naomi grew aroused by the images provoked by his words. Of being the sole focus of everyone’s attention – not having to share that place with anyone, her son included, anymore. She trailed her hands downward, spreading her legs and allowing her fingers to enter her body. Moaning, she murmured, “Yes, yes!“

Brackett and Kincaid looked down at her, their expressions growing heated. Then, shedding their clothes, they descended on her.

Outside, the guards exchanged knowing smirks as the screams and low grunts reached them.

Chapter Two – Tentative Connection

Training spurring him to action, the well-built, muscled man instantly emerged from his light doze and readied for attack when he felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder. Two pale blue eyes sprang open, taking in his surroundings, looking for any sign of threat. Lunging to his feet, hands held up to defend himself, he faced the person who had awoken him. “Steven?“ Self-consciously, he lowered his arms and relaxed his stance. “Sorry about that.“

A grin on his face, the younger man, who bore a strong resemblance to the older, held up his hands. “No problem, Jim. You all right?“

“I'm fine.“ Jim ran a hand over his face. “What's going on?“

“Dad sent me to get you. All the guests have arrived. It's time to go meet and greet everyone.“

Jim scowled. “Yeah, gotta put on a big show for the old man. Wouldn't want him to miss out on a chance to impress all his buddies.“

“Jim –“

“I know, I know.“ Releasing a heavy sigh, Jim squared his shoulders. “I'll be good.“

“You really expect me to believe that?“ Steven smirked. “We're not kids anymore, bro. I'm long past the point where I'll believe any line of bull my older brother feeds me. I'm not that gullible little kid anymore.“

“I know that, Stevie.“ There was a touch of melancholy to Jim's tone. “Believe me, I know that.“

Steven looked around the room where he had found his brother. Taking in the ceiling high shelves of books, large fireplace and overstuffed chairs, he asked, “Why do you always come here?“

“I don't know. Maybe because Mom used to spend so much time in here. I remember sitting in here at night, a fire lit in the fireplace; and the sound of her voice as she read out loud from a book. Those are some of my best memories from childhood. I guess… I guess sometimes I just want to recapture a little bit of that.“

Walking over to his brother, Steven slung an arm around Jim's shoulders. “I can understand that. I just wish I had memories like that of her. I envy you that. Envy the time you had with her.“

“I know.“ Jim pulled his brother to him and gave him a quick hug. “C'mon, let's head out. If father came in here and found us hugging like that, we'd never hear the end of it.“

The two brothers shared a laugh. Then, arms slung over each other's shoulders, they walked out of the room.

As they traveled down a long corridor, walls adorned with painted portraits of people bearing a strong resemblance to both of them, Jim asked, “So when do you leave?“

Sobering, Steven answered, “In the morning. Reports indicate that there are signs of Lupinard activity in the northern quadrant. We're going to go check it out. See if there's any truth behind it.“

Coming to a halt, Jim pulled his brother around until they stood face to face. He placed his hands on Steven's shoulders. “You be careful, you hear? I don't want to have to come out there and save your ass. Get yourself and your crew home safe.“

Steven grasped Jim's forearms. “I will, Jim. There's probably nothing to it anyway. You know how those Lupinards are. They don't have the guts to pull anything major. I admit that it's been a hard war, but we knew all along that they don't have what it takes to stand against us for very long. I see an end to this war soon, brother. And we Panterians shall be victorious!“

Increasing the pressure on Steven's shoulders, Jim pulled the younger man forward until their foreheads rested against each other. “You listen to me, little brother, and listen well. I'm all for being patriotic, but you can't go out there thinking like that. You can't go out there overconfident and full of arrogance. You do that and you're sure to get yourself and your crew killed. With that attitude, you're going to end up letting your guard down and that…,“ Jim took one hand off of Steven's shoulder and, before the other man could react, pulled a knife and held it to his brother's stomach, “…is the surest way to let someone sneak under your defenses and gut you where you stand.“ Jim sheathed his knife. “Understand?“

“Yes, all right. I understand.“

Jim moved his hand to the back of Steven's neck and squeezed as he leaned close. “I said, do you understand?“

“Yes, damn it!“ Steven pulled out of his brother's grasp. “I understand.“ Reaching up a hand, he rubbed his neck. “What has gotten into you, Jim?“

Letting out a sigh, Jim rubbed a hand over his face. “I don't know. I just… I just don't want anything to happen to you. And… I've just been having these drea… I've just been feeling a little unsettled lately, is all. It's nothing, I'm sure. Let's go.“

Keeping a close eye on his brother, Steven followed when Jim turned and started down the hallway again.

Well aware of his brother's attention, Jim studiously ignored the other man. His mind distracted by the remnants of the dream he had been awoken from, Jim licked at his dry lips as the image of two ocean blue eyes flashed through his mind for a split second.

He was pulled from his thoughts when they arrived before a set of large ornate doors. “Showtime,“ he muttered to himself. Being the older brother, he knew it was his place to go first. Bracing himself, he reached out and pushed the heavy wooden doors open. Not sparing his brother a glance, he proudly held up his head and strode into the dining room.

In the middle of the large, open room stood a huge table, with intricate designs and familial crests carved into the dark wood. Jim’s eyes flickered to the head of the table where his father sat, an empty place to either side of him. Above the patriarch, their family banner was proudly displayed on the wall.

The heavy material was a light cream color, making the large panther depicted in the center stand out vividly. The animal was poised to strike, its sharp teeth displayed as it roared in victory. Just like when he was a child, Jim felt a surge of kinship towards the animal. Before he could prevent it, he could feel himself slipping away, becoming lost in the intricate weave of the tapestry as his eyes traced the contours of the panther.

A not so subtle nudge from behind brought him out of it. Jaw clenching at his momentary lack of control, Jim schooled his face into an expressionless mask as he pushed aside the feeling of self-disgust and walked to the head of the table. “Father,“ he greeted as he bowed his head.

He had to wait several moments, longer than what was customary, but then his father finally nodded back, granting Jim permission to sit. Keeping his eyes off the banner and the alluring form of the panther, Jim pulled out his chair and sat down as his brother, not having been made to wait, did the same on the opposite side of the table.

Once both men were seated, their father stood and held up a glass. “In honor of my two sons, who’ve both fulfilled their duty and serve our people in this war against those who would deny us a new home.“

Around the table, glasses were lifted and several voices called out, “In honor.“

Taking a tiny sip of the potent wine, Jim surveyed the group gathered around the table. Dignitaries and military leaders sat drinking deeply of the expensive, rare wine; anything less would have been unheard of in his father’s house. Only the best, and most expensive, food and drink would be served tonight; showing that even in these trying times, their family’s wealth and status afforded them privileges unheard of among those of lesser means.

Ignoring the murmurs of conversation from around the table, deliberately dampening his hearing so that he wouldn't be subjected to the idle rumors and misinformed speculations, Jim picked up his knife and cut into the lean piece of meat smothered with a mixture of creamy sauce and mushrooms.

He knew he'd have to be careful or he'd zone on the taste, and was frustrated by his father's insistence on serving something so rich and outright dangerous to his eldest son. Usually, his father allowed him to be served something milder, even when they had guests. But tonight, for some reason, he had insisted that Jim have the same as the other diners.

The first forkful of food was halfway to his mouth when the sensation started. It was mild at first, an almost unnoticeable tingling that started in his gut and slowly spread, increasing to an almost maddening itch that made him want to start clawing at his skin. The fork clattered to the table, drawing the attention of all of his father's guests.

Angered, the growing suspicion confirmed when he looked up and saw the mixed look of guilt and anticipation on his father's face, Jim pushed back from the table. Standing up, he threw his napkin down on the floor. He looked around at the faces gathered around the table. “Which one?“ The question was a barely discernible growl.

When no one spoke up, he turned on his father. “How dare you? I told you I didn't want this. And yet you do it anyway? You would deceive me like this?“

“Jim, what –“

“Stay out of this, Stevie. This is between father and myself.“ He turned his anger back on his father again. “We've discussed this before and I told you no!“

“Calm yourself, James. This isn't the place for your outburst.“ Nervously, William Ellison glanced around at the gathered dignitaries.

“To hell with you and to hell with your guests!“ The words were spat out. He turned to face those sitting around the table, his gaze finally settling on a woman sitting at the farthest end. Immediately, he felt her mind brush up against his and he shoved the unwanted presence away violently, causing her to gasp out loud and clutch at her head. “Don't try to bond with me, woman! You'll find yourself facing my knife if you attempt that again. I don't know what my father told you, but I do not wish a bond with you. Or with anyone for that matter. You know the penalties for attempting to force or coerce a bond with an unwilling mate. Would you risk death? Or worse?“

“I'm sorry, truly I am.“ A small trickle of blood dribbling from her nose, the woman looked up, tears shining in her eyes. “But when your father showed up at my family home, offering money and property, I couldn't refuse. My family is not as well off as yours. We needed those riches. And… and I must admit, you are an appealing mate. I would do you proud if you would accept a bond with me. Despite my family's lesser means, my father made sure that I had proper training. We would work well together. I could be your equal, if given a chance.“

“It's not you, M'Lady.“ Jim's expression softened slightly at her heartfelt plea. “My father and I have spoken of this often and he was wrong to go to you without my knowledge or consent.“ He shot his father an icy glare that spoke volumes to everyone. “You see, I'm not meant for a mate; even one as talented and capable as yourself. That's something I’ve accepted. My father, unfortunately, can't, or won't, accept it as well.“ Nodding to the other diners, Jim begged his pardon. “Please, excuse me.“ Motioning for his brother to stay seated when he started to rise, Jim turned and, back rigid, left the room.

As he always did, Jim sought sanctuary in the library. He stood, hands clasped behind his back, at the large window that dominated one wall of the spacious room. Their family estate was situated atop a small hill, overlooking the once fertile land their ancestors used to farm; their wealth having been built upon the exotic, succulent fruit that they were still renowned for even though no further harvests would ever occur.

Now, only a barren wasteland stretched out before him. The soil had been contaminated; the result of chemical weapons employed during the height of their planet's civil unrest. What vegetation that did manage to grow was yellowed, and its fruit poisonous and rotten. But they had only themselves to blame. Despite the desperate and venomous warnings from their ecologists, each faction had, in desperation, resulted to those damnable weapons.

In the end, neither side had won, defeating themselves in the long run as they made their planet virtually uninhabitable. Subjecting it, as well as their civilization, to a slow, agonizing death. Yes, they had finally established worldwide peace, but had committed genocide in the process.

Tensing as he heard approaching footsteps, Jim only marginally relaxed when the door opened and, in the window's reflection, he watched as his brother entered the room. “So, how pissed off is he this time?“

“Oh, he's beyond pissed this time, bro.“ Steven walked up and slapped his brother on the back, joining him by the window. He knew the last thing Jim wanted to talk about was their father and his deception. Looking out the window, he wondered how his brother saw the decimated landscape; if the damage was any more horrible when viewed through enhanced sight. “I still can't believe how we messed everything up.“

“Yeah. It's hell on the senses sometimes.“

Silence descended between them for several seconds, both of them caught up in their own thoughts as they imagined how the view out the window used to be, oh so long ago.

Finally, Steven spoke, breaking the spell they had both fallen under. “Want to talk about it?“

“What's to talk about?“ Jim sighed, finally turning his back to the window. “I'm not going to bond. Not again. Not after…“ He sighed. “I've accepted that fact. I just wish everyone else would too.“

“Damn it, Jim, stop making it sound like this is easy. It's not, and you know it. We all know that if you don't bond, you'll… you'll…“

“We don't know that, Stevie. I didn't die after… Everyone expected me to. Hell, I expected me to, but I didn't.“ He shrugged. “But even if I do, it's not as if we haven't both seen our fair share of it. We all die. It's how we live until then that matters. I'm happy with my life and my choices.“ Jim turned to face his brother. “I have no regrets. None.“

“But, Jimmy, I…“ Reverting to his brother's childhood name showed how upset Steven truly was at the thought of Jim's death. “I don't want to lose you.“

“Aw, Stevie.“ Jim pulled his brother into a hug. “The day I enlisted, I knew that the next day could be my last. Each mission, each flight, I was prepared for any of them to end with me never coming home again. It's the same with you. Each time your ship goes on patrol, each battle, there's no guarantee that you'll come home from any of them.“

Jim chuckled. “That's why I'd love it if I could still lock you in the closet like I did when we were kids. At least that way I could keep you safe. But I can't. You've got your duty just as I've got mine.“

Steven pulled back enough to look Jim in the eyes. “Yeah, but if you at least tried to bond, then –“

“No more. There's no point. It's just how it is. There's no changing fate, bro.“

This time, it was Steven who chuckled as Jim released him. “Never thought I'd hear you talking about fate.“

“Yeah, well, things are different now. I'm different now.“

“I know. Every since –“

“Don't. I don't want to talk about it. You know that.“

“I know. It's just; you're my big brother, Jim. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you.“

“Hey, I don't plan on going anywhere anytime soon. And don't you either. Be careful, you hear? When you're out on patrol, don't take any chances and don't take any unnecessary risks. Keep safe and come home. That's an order from your big brother as well as from your superior officer.“

Steven snapped a lazy salute. “Sir, yes, sir!“

“Smart ass.“ Jim cuffed him on the side of his head.

“What about you?“ Steven asked. “Have you heard what your next mission is?“

“Scanning mission,“ Jim answered. “Long range.“ A heartbeat later, he added, “Solo.“

“Why in the hell did they give you an assignment like that?“ Steven voice rose in anger. “That's the last thing you need. If you get out there and zone, you could –“

Jim raised a hand, forestalling any further protest. “I asked for the mission, Stevie.“

“You what?“

“I asked for it.“ Jim shrugged. “I'm not that much use anywhere else, so I wanted to do something that mattered. You know that we need to keep searching for inhabitable planets. We can't just do nothing and hope that the Lupinards suddenly change their minds and welcome us into their midst. That's not going to happen. You've seen the reports just like I have.“

“There's still a chance that we could win this war. A very good chance that victory is within our grasp,“ Steven argued. “We're gaining more ground every day. Ten percent of their occupied space is now ours, with more falling under our control all the time. We will defeat them, brother.“

“Forgive me for not being quite as enthusiastic and confident as you. You forget; I've fought them before. You know the outcome of that battle.“

“But I –“

“I leave tomorrow, just as you do. Nothing will change that.“

“If you promise to come back, then I'll do the same.“

Jim hesitated, reproach in his eyes. “Stevie.“

“Just promise, Jim.“

“I promise to try.“

“Then I'll hold you to it. And I'll do the same.“

The two men clasped forearms, sealing their pact.

Jim was the first to break free, clapping his brother on the arm. “Now, go on, get some rest. You'll need it.“

Steven nodded. “We both will. You should turn in too.“

“I'll retire shortly.“

As he watched his brother leave, Jim was struck with a feeling of impending doom. For a moment, he almost gave in to the urge to call Steven back. But then, his mind was filled with an image from the past; a ghostly apparition of his brother as a boy superimposed upon the strong, proud man walking away from him.

By the time he shook his head, clearing away the illusion, his brother had gone. For a split second, he was filled with an almost overwhelming sense of loss and he wondered what it meant. The last time he had experienced such a feeling had led to one of the most painful experiences of his life. His mind shied away from those terrible memories before they could take hold. With one final look around his childhood refuge, Jim walked out of the room as ghosts of the past clutched at him, their tendrils slowing, but not stopping, his stride.

****

The night air was arid and still stifling hot even without the twin suns blazing high in the sky. Pale moonlight cast an eerie light; and though not bright enough for a normal person, it was more than enough for someone with Guardian sight.

He looked down at his Guide … no, his Companion … lying below him, quivering with need and desire. Two dark blue eyes stared up at him, silently beseeching. It was a plea that he couldn't ignore, one that he didn't want to ignore, for his need and desire were just as great.

With a drawn-out moan, he lowered himself, bringing his full weight to bear on the body beneath him. The connection between them flared as their bodies joined, making them both cry out. Unable to stand it, on the verge of becoming lost, he lowered his head and pressed his nose against his Companion's neck.

Scenting deeply, he inhaled the musky, spicy scent that was now imprinted on his soul. As his teeth latched onto the beckoning skin, leaving his mark behind, he shuddered as his completion overcame him; the whispered, 'I love you,' keeping him from losing himself in the approaching void.

****

Biting into his pillow, stifling the shout that threatened to escape, Jim awoke as a rush of wet heat covered his groin. Panting harshly, he lay there, dazed by the force of the dream that had pulled him from sleep. When he recovered slightly, he groaned as he rolled out of bed. Even as he started towards the bathroom, those whispered words from his dream Guide – no Companion – echoed loudly within his heart and soul.

****

With a gasp, Blair bolted upright in bed; barely managing to contain the shout that would bring the guards charging into his room. Shaking, the sensations from his dream still coursing through his body, he got out of bed and padded towards the bathroom, needing to change out of his now wet clothing. As he washed, he shuddered as he remembered the feeling of joining, of being filled. He stared into the mirror, his head tilting to the side to allow his hair to fall back. His fingers traced the red mark standing out vividly on his throat and once again he could feel those teeth latching onto his neck, marking him even as he cried out.

Confused, not knowing what to make of the strange dreams he'd been experiencing for several weeks now, he went into his main chambers and walked out onto the balcony. The cool night air caressed his heated skin, making him shiver.

Standing there, his mind wandered, going back to the day so long ago when Naomi had taken him to see the seer. Even now, all these years later, the memory was still so clear, as if it had only happened yesterday.

****

It was shortly after his fifth birthday and Naomi had woken him early one morning – so early that it was still dark outside. She'd hurried him from bed, getting him dressed and fed in a rush. Then, as he watched on, she'd packed a small bundle of food and a change of clothing. He'd asked her where they were going, but his inquiries were met with silence.

They'd journeyed long and hard – sometimes getting rides from other travelers, but mostly making the trek on foot. He'd been fascinated by the trip – trying to take in everyone and everything they saw. Three days later, they'd reached their destination.

His mother had taken him to the see the Great Seer, the most wise and knowledgeable of them all. He'd been so scared when he was brought before the old man and he'd stood there silently as he was judged. Not knowing what was happening, confused and frightened, he trembled when the seer had approached him, leaning down to place a hand on his head, as if in benediction.

All at once he had felt … something. Images and thoughts passed so rapidly within his mind – some of them too complicated, too adult, for him to comprehend. Suddenly, the old Seer had gasped, almost collapsing, and two attendants had rushed forward to help him back to his seat. “It's him,“ the old man had said, reverence in his voice. “The One.“

The rest was a blur. He'd been dazed by the ordeal with the Seer, his mind clouded. By the time he'd emerged from it, he was lying in a bed – the sheets so soft to the touch, like nothing he'd ever experienced before. And life as he knew it was forever changed from that point forward.

Other Seers came then. And teachers. His days were filled with training – nothing but teaching and studying and trials and tests. All of it to prepare him for his 'destiny', though he knew not what it was. His mother had all but disappeared from his life and he'd been filled with such loneliness – so young and afraid and alone.

And so the years passed, seeming to blend into one another – one almost indistinguishable from the next.

****

Blair emerged from his musing, arms wrapped around himself in an attempt to ward off the chill in the night air – or perhaps to offer some comfort to that scared, lonely child that still lurked deep within his soul. With a final, wistful look at the land below, he turned and went back to bed, knowing that he'd need to be rested to begin the journey to Rainier in the morning.

As he climbed back into bed, his mind flashed back to the dream he'd awoken from. He reached up his hand, his fingers trailing over the mark on his neck – heat emanating from it. Shuddering, he turned over, restless, and tried to relax. However, sleep eluded him and it was long into the night before he finally feel into a fitful slumber.

Chapter Three – Journey’s Beginning

Blair took one last look around the rooms that had been his home for as long as he could remember. After today, it would be a while before he ever set foot in them again, if ever. He was supposed to be excited about this new chapter in his life. Only the most gifted and talented where chosen to make the journey to Rainier to train with the adepts. That he would go was a given, even from an early age his teachers and the seers had been preparing him for this.

Yet all he felt was a sense of loss. Loss for the sense of security these familiar walls gave him. His chambers had always been his sanctuary. None, except a select few, were permitted to enter. No matter what happened, he could always escape here and feel safe. He knew he'd have no such safe haven once he reached Rainier.

His musings were disturbed when the door opened. Turning, expecting to see Henri, he was surprised when Lee Brackett entered instead. Instantly, he bowed his head. “Hello, My Lord.“

Brackett stared at the younger man, once again filled with a mixture of hatred and desire.

Hatred because he knew Blair could bring his reign to an end one day, leading their people in an uprising that would obliterate any traces of his power and position. Although he’d threatened, and even resorted to bribing, none of the seers would tell him of the destiny they’d foreseen for the young man standing before him.

Even Naomi had been kept in the dark, allowing her son to believe that she knew so that she could maintain some measure of control and power over him. So, in his paranoid mind, Brackett assumed that Blair’s destiny involved taking over control of Lupine and its people – something which meant that Brackett himself would be overthrown and robbed of everything. And that was something he would never allow.

Desire because he had longed to take the younger man to his bed for several years now. So far, he’d tempered those desires by taking his pleasure with Naomi – using her body whenever the urge grew too great. But the temptation to claim Blair had been growing harder and harder to resist. So, it was with relief that he heard the seers’ proclamation that it was time for Blair to travel to Rainier to study. The tempting form would be removed – plus it allowed him the perfect opportunity to eliminate his greatest threat. It was everything he could have hoped for.

“Rise, Blair.“ Brackett’s eyes narrowed as he watched Blair straighten. He licked his lips as he allowed his gaze to travel up and down the younger man’s body. “Are you ready to leave?“

“Yes, Sire.“ Blair couldn’t repress the small shudder that wracked his body. As always, he was filled with a sense of revulsion whenever he was in Brackett’s presence. Something about the older man bothered him greatly. In all outward appearances, the man seemed to be a just and kind ruler – beloved by his people. But Blair knew that it was a deception. He could see … feel … the man’s soul. And it was pure evil.

Over the years, he had grown to despise the ruler, wanting nothing more than to rescue his people from Brackett – even though they weren’t even aware they needed rescuing. He’d made a vow to himself long ago that he’d one day see to it that Brackett was removed from power. And that was one vow he intended to keep. Not allowing his disgust to show, he asked, “Was there something you needed?“

“No, not at all. I merely wanted to come and wish you a pleasant … and safe … voyage.“

“Thank you.“

“Well, I must be going. Never any time to rest, you know. There’s always something that requires my attention. Right now, I’m scheduled to meet with some of our military leaders – to discuss the continued Panterian threat.“

“The Panterians?“ Blair inquired. “What about them?“

“You needn't worry yourself about them, Blair,“ Brackett chided. “Such things don’t concern you.“

“But –“

“Again, safe journey.“ Brackett nodded his head and, without another word, left.

With a sigh, Blair picked up his pack containing a few personal items, his computer, some books and a few other odds and ends. Nobody would ever tell him anything much about the Panterians – no matter how much he’d asked. Oh, he’d received a general education in them – just enough to whet his curiosity – but nothing in-depth. Certainly not as much as he wanted to know. But for some reason, no one would ever discuss the enemy with him.

Still pondering the reasons behind this, he left his room for the final time. He wasn't surprised when he found Henri waiting for him. “I guess it's time, huh?“

“Yeah.“ The Lieutenant eyed the younger man in concern, having seen Brackett leave his room earlier. “Are you all right?“

Still disturbed by the visit from Brackett – not to mention the dream he'd experienced last night, how real it had seemed and the reminder, which even now was hidden under the high collar of the tunic he wore, that had been left on his neck – Blair paused before he answered. “It's just I'm not exactly looking forward to this move and then on top of that I've been having these dr… Look, it's not you, okay? It's just… I…“

“It's okay, Blair.“ Henri laid a hand on his shoulder in reassurance. “I understand. The way I figure, I'll give you two days to be an insufferable, grouchy, surly, spoiled brat. But if you keep it up after that, I'll be forced to resort to drastic measures.“

“Oh, and what would that be?“ Blair smiled despite himself.

“A night long marathon of movies and as much junk food as we can eat. A night of just relaxing. No work, no studying, just pure fun.“

“Are you kidding? My ears are still ringing from the last time we did that. That was Naomi's record for the longest, loudest lecture. She kept going on and on about me ignoring my duty, taking attention away from my studies.“ Blair shuddered theatrically. “I thought she'd never get finished yelling at me.“

“Yeah, but you're forgetting something.“ When the younger man gave him a puzzled look, Henri laughed. “Your mother isn't going to be around to find out.“

The two men shared a conspiratorial smile.

Then, Henri clapped Blair on the back. “Time to head out. You have everything?“

“Yeah.“ Blair hefted his bag. “I want to take this with me. They came for everything else earlier. What about you?“

“I'm all set.“ Henri reached to take Blair's bag. “Ah, ah, ah,“ he said when the younger man started to protest. “I'll take it and that's final.“

Blair rolled his eyes but remained silent.

“Our escort detail should be here any moment,“ Henri informed him. “But we can wait for your mother so the two of you can say goodbye before we head for the ship.“

“She's not coming.“ Looking down at the floor, unable to meet the Lieutenant's eyes, Blair shuffled his feet. “Last night, you… um… you know that she came to see me. Well, she wanted to say goodbye then because she wasn't going to be able to stop by this morning. There … um … there was a reception last night. Lots of guests. I assume she figured she'd be too … busy … to see me before we left.“

“Oh.“ Henri shifted his weight, uncertain how to respond. He knew what Blair meant by 'busy'. Naomi's numerous affairs were common knowledge and the basis of much gossip. “I'm sorry, Blair.“

“It's no big deal.“ Despite his words, Blair couldn't hide the hurt in his voice. “I'm sure she'll come to visit me on Rainier. If she doesn't … well … I'll see her when we return to Lupine.“

Having grown very accustomed to the younger man's moods, Henri knew that Blair didn't want to discuss his mother anymore. So, he changed the subject, noting the small, grateful smile Blair directed his way. “Maybe we could continue our game once we're underway. I still think I can beat you.“

“No way, man.“ Blair nudged Henri in the side, once again relieved that his friend knew him so well. “I'm going to beat you in four moves. Just you wait.“

“Care to make a little wager on that?“

Blair gasped, his hand coming to rest against his chest. “I'm shocked, Lieutenant. Are you insinuating that I would stoop so low as to gamble? How dare you?“

Henri smirked. “Save it for someone who hasn't lost a week's pay to you, kid.“

The two men shared a laugh, only turning serious when four heavily armored and armed men walked up to them and saluted. “Sir,“ the tallest, slightly more muscular one, greeted. “We're here to escort you to the Cascadia. If you come with us, I believe Captain Banks wishes to have a word with you before you disembark.“

Nodding at the two men, Henri said, “Very well. Lead on.“

The four men moved into position, one leading Henri and Blair while the other three took up a position behind and to either side of them.

As they left the private hallway leading to Blair's chambers and entered the main corridor leading to the launch area, Henri was very conscious of the stares they received. Several people stopped to look, whispering to anyone around them. A few genuflected, something that always unnerved him for some reason. He angled his walk, bringing him a bit closer to his charge.

Aware of the response he was generating, Blair kept his head bowed, uncomfortable with seeing people's reaction to him. He never could understand why everyone acted so… so reverent. All his life, his mother, teachers, everyone he had been allowed contact with, had told him how special he was.

Yet it was something that he never fully realized until the first time, after that fateful trip to the seer, that he was allowed out in public. People had started shouting, some even outright weeping, when they caught sight of him. He was six at the time and the whole incident had terrified him.

Back then, although he had grown to know better, he had sought his mother's protection. But she had simply pulled him away from her and lifted him up, providing everyone with an even better view. That was the last time he had turned to his mother for solace or protection.

Emerging from the painful memories when he heard someone cry out, Blair jumped and then cringed when a woman broke from the crowd and started running towards him, only to be tackled by one of the patrol guards. The hysterical woman writhed under the large man pinning her to the ground. “Blair, you must let me speak to you! Please, I've come to warn you! I –“

The guard violently slammed the woman's head into the ground, rendering her unconscious. Another guard came over and the two of them hauled her up and started to drag her away.

“Wait, I want to –“ Blair started over towards them only to have one of his escorts move to block his way. “Move out of the way. I want to go see to that woman, make sure she's okay.“

“It's none of your concern, Sire. I'm sure your mother will make arrangements for the young woman. You needn't worry yourself about it.“

“I don't care what my mother does or doesn't do,“ Blair protested. “I want to see that young woman and I want to see her now!“

“Blair.“ Henri tugged on the younger man's arm. “We really don't have time for this. We're scheduled to depart shortly. Captain Banks won't tolerate any delays. You know that.“

Despite his misgivings, Blair allowed himself to be drawn away. All the while, his thoughts centered on the young woman and exactly what she had planned to tell him.

****

When he awoke the next morning, Jim found his brother had gone, his ship already embarked upon its mission. He made a point to avoid his father, not up to dealing with the inevitable confrontation, as he got ready and left.

Once he left the ancestral home, for what he knew could very well be the last time, Jim headed to his base. After going through the delaying, yet necessary, security procedures, he reported to his commander's office.

“Jim, good to see you.“ The older, slightly taller, man with graying hair and a commanding presence extended his hand to Jim. “How was your leave?“

Accepting the other man's hand, Jim gave it a firm shake and then released it. Clasping his hands behind his back, he stood rigidly. “Fine, sir. Thank you.“

“Come off it, Jim. It's me here. Cut the 'sir' bull.“

Relaxing slightly, Jim sighed and ran a hand over his face. “The usual, Jack. You know how it is. My father sprung one of his latest schemes. Tried to surprise me with a Guide. Planted one among the dinner guests last night. She attempted a bond, but I put a stop to it.“

His outrage showing clearly on his face, General Jack Pendergrast exclaimed, “Damn that man!“ Lowering his voice, he walked over to Jim. “Are you all right? Did the bond succeed?“

Jim shrugged. “You know the answer to that, Jack. I'm not capable of bonding. Not anymore. Not since… Ah, damn. I can't believe how much it still hurts even after all this time. Steven tried to get me to talk about it last night but… but I just couldn't.“ He met his friend's worried gaze. “So don't you ask me to.“

Jack held up his hands. “Hey, would I make you do something you didn't want to do?“

“Yes, you would.“ Jim laughed, but then the smile left his face. “You're the one that hooked me up with Carolyn, after all.“

“I thought you said you didn't want to talk about it.“

“I did.“ Jim sighed. “Hell, Jack, all these memories have gotten stirred up. God, I never thought I'd bond. Any Guides I attempted it with were burned out immediately. Do you know how many of them I injured, almost making it impossible for them to bond at all, before you dragged me out that night on that double date?“

A faraway look appeared in Jim's eyes. “Everyone was convinced that I'd never find a Guide that could be a match for me, an equal. But the first time I set eyes on Carolyn… When we shook hands, touched for the first time… The bond we shared, it was something special.“

“I know, Jim. It was a damn shame when she… She was a good woman.“

“She was a good Guide. My mate. She died protecting me.“ Jim's hands balled up into fists. “Why in the hell didn't I die too, Jack? I should have. In all our history, I'm the only Guardian to have outlived their Guide.“

“Jim –“

“Can you tell me why, Jack?“ Jim demanded, turning on his friend. “No one else could. After she… after she died, I was subjected to so many tests. They poked and prodded me. Not to mention all of the constant questions and interrogations. They accused me of not really having a full bond with her! Of allowing her to die! Do you know what that did to me? I had lost her and they blamed me for it!“

“I know, buddy.“ Jack cautiously moved up beside Jim, knowing how volatile he could get when he worked himself up like this. The only one who had even remotely been able to calm him down had been Carolyn. And even she could only barely manage to appease him when he became extremely agitated. “None of us thought that. You have to believe that. Hey, I saw the two of you together. I know how much you loved her. How much she loved you. If you could have done something, you would have. You were injured, almost dead; there was nothing you could do. You have to believe that.“

“I know. It’s just… it’s just hard sometimes.“

Jack eyed his friend. “Yeah, but that’s not all, is it? There’s something else bothering you. Something besides your father and Carolyn. What is it?“

For a second, Jim thought about protesting, but knew the older man would never let him get away with it. Jack knew him too well for that. “Hell, Jack, if I tell you, you’ll probably have me locked up for a psyche evaluation.“

“This is just us talking, Jim. I’m not your superior officer right now; I’m your friend. Talk to me.“

Before answering, Jim walked over to the small bar Jack had set up in the back of the office and poured a glass of water. He took a drink, wetting his suddenly dry mouth. “Just hear me out before you bring in the guys with the restraints, huh?“ He chuckled self-consciously.

Seeing Jack’s impatient look, Jim started to explain. “Lately, I’ve been having these dreams. They’re… There’s something strange about them. They don’t seem like dreams. They seem too real to be just dreams. But I know they’re not memories or anything.“ He looked up to meet Jack’s eyes. “You remember right before I met Carolyn, I started having this feeling like I was about to find my mate, my Guide?“

“Yeah, you said it must have been that precognition thing going on. That all Guardians experience it to a varying degree right before they meet their destined Guide.“

Jim nodded. “But what I didn’t tell you is that… that feeling didn’t entirely go away after I bonded with Carolyn. I still felt it at times, though never as strongly as that first time. I just… I just thought there was something wrong with me. That I had been searching for a Guide for so long that even after I finally found Carolyn, a part of me was still subconsciously looking because I was so used to it.“

Pausing, trying to figure out how to put his feelings into words, Jim stared down at the floor. “Occasionally, I had this dream. Always the same. I’m…“ His cheeks reddened slightly. “I’m with this person … a man … and I can feel that he’s a Guide. My Guide. And we’re… Well, you know, together. All I feel is this overwhelming sense of completeness. Of being whole. Something that, for all that I loved her, I never felt with Carolyn. So what if they’re right? What if I didn’t have a complete bond with her?“ Jim finally voiced his greatest fears.

“And all of these dreams, they’re connected? It’s the same guy in all of them?“

“Yeah, and I'm still having them. But they’re different lately. More detailed.“

“How?“

“We’re on this planet, hostile environment, and we’re heading … someplace … He’s struggling, but he keeps going. I’m amazed by his strength, his determination. And he looks at me and I’m just overwhelmed by my love for him. I know that we’re destined to be together. That we’ll be together until the day we die.“ Jim looked over to see his friend staring at him thoughtfully. “What?“

“I have to admit, Jim, when you and Carolyn bonded, I really didn’t understand it. I didn’t say anything because I could see how happy you were. But, in all honesty, I never thought the two of you would be able to bond,“ Jack confessed, noting Jim’s look of surprise. “I think that maybe, just maybe, when you met Carolyn, you were at a point where you had to bond, even if only partially, to stay sane. Your senses were spiking all over the place and getting more difficult to control. When you met Carolyn, you recognized her as someone who could … could help you. To help you keep control until you found the person you were meant to be with. Until you found your true Guide.“

Angered, Jim slammed down the glass and strode over to grab two fistfuls of Jack’s uniform jacket. “What in the hell are you talking about? You're just like the rest, aren't you? Well, you're wrong. I loved Carolyn. She was my true Gui…“ Trailing off, Jim knew that the words weren’t true even as he struggled to get them out. With a small shove he released Jack and turned his back to his friend, not wanting the other man to see how shaken he was by the revelation that he had, for the most part, been hiding from himself until now.

Jack raised his hand, letting it hover over Jim’s tense shoulder for several long moments, before finally letting it fall back down to his side. “Yes, you loved her. And, yes, she was your Guide. But she wasn’t the one you’re destined to be with, Jim. She wasn’t your… soulmate. But you didn’t cause her a single moment’s doubt or unhappiness. She was close with Emily. Real close. She told Emily all the time how happy you made her. How she enjoyed being with you. Up until the day she died, she never considered herself to be anything but your Guide. And that was a duty she fulfilled with honor and pride. Never doubt that, Jim.“

“But how fair was that to her?“ Jim asked, his voice filled with pain. “What kind of life would she have had if I hadn’t come along? She would still be alive. Bonded to her true mate. Working side-by-side with her Guardian. Instead of dying trying to protect someone that couldn’t even give her what she deserved. Someone who couldn’t equally return her love, dedication and loyalty.“

“As far as she was concerned, you did.“ This time, Jack allowed his hand to come to rest on Jim’s shoulder. “You gave her everything she ever wanted. You made her happy.“

“I hope so, Jack. I really do.“

“You did,“ Jack stressed, squeezing Jim’s shoulder to emphasis his words. “But it’s time for you to let her go and move on. Your true Guide is still waiting for you out there somewhere. You’ve just got to go find him.“

Jim had relaxed slightly but tensed again at Jack’s words. “Him.“ He sighed heavily. “Do you know how my father would react if I brought home a male Guide? He definitely wouldn’t take it very well, knowing that his eldest son wouldn’t be carrying on the Ellison line. Damn, Jack, he’d be so angry. I don’t know if I could handle that.“

“Jim –“

Taking a step forward, moving away from his friend, Jim squared his shoulders and turned sharply to face his superior officer. “I really should be getting underway, sir.“

Jack just shook his head, all too familiar with the other man’s diversionary and avoidance tactics. “Are you sure you still want to go? I could give you some leave time, you’d have a chance to go look for your Guide and –“

“No, sir.“ Jim shook his head. “My dreams … like I said, they’re on an alien world. If I’m going to find my Guide, it won’t be here on Pantera. I don't know where I'll find … him … but it won't be here.“ Jim saluted, holding it until Jack returned it.

“Then go, my friend. And safe journey.“

Jim could sense the uneasiness in his long-time friend. “Jack?“

The General shrugged, once again amazed by how well the younger man could read him at times. “It’s nothing, I’m sure. It’s just…“ Jack paused, taking a deep breath, and began to pace. “I have to tell you, Jim, I really wish you’d let someone else take this assignment.“

“Why? Because of what I just told you?“

“Partly, yes.“ Coming to a halt, Jack stared over at Jim. “I’ve heard some … rumors … lately. Nothing I can substantiate or prove, but disturbing nonetheless.“

“What is it, Jack?“

“I’ve been hearing talk about some officials – high up in the ranks – having formed some kind of pact with Brackett.“

“The Lupine ruler?“ Jim asked, his shock showing on his face.

“Yeah.“ Jack ran a hand over his face. “This mission you’re going on – there’s really no justification for it. All of our preliminary scans show that there are no inhabitable planets in that section of space. Add that to the fact that it’s an area of space recently annexed from Lupine and … well … I just don’t like it. Something seems … off … about the whole thing.“

“But since it’s recently come under our control, we need to map the area. Our long-range scans have been known to be inaccurate before. They might have missed something.“

“Yeah, but if there were a world suitable for colonization in that area, why haven’t the Lupinards already settled there?“ Jack asked. “It doesn’t make sense. I mean, strategically speaking, even if they didn’t want the world for themselves, why wouldn’t they offer it to us – put an end to all of the conflict once and for all. I’ve just… I’ve just got a bad feeling about this, my friend.“

Jim pondered the other man’s words before speaking. “I’ll admit, it does seem … odd. But, I’ve got my orders, Jack. Like it or not, I leave in an hour.“

“I know, I know.“ Jack walked over and clasped Jim’s shoulder. “Just watch your back and get yourself home safely – hopefully, with your Guide by your side.“

Reaching up, Jim wrapped his hand around Jack’s forearm. “Will do.“

Jack nodded and released him. Taking a step back, he snapped a salute to his friend.

Jim returned the salute, turned, and left. Shortly after, he was in his vessel and underway, Pantera growing smaller and smaller until it was indistinguishable from the other stars. And he couldn’t help feeling that it’d be a long time before he saw his home world again.

Chapter Four – In Transit

When they reached the ship, Blair immediately spotted the Captain. Seeing the tall, dark-skinned man, his arms crossed over his chest and a scowl on his face, Blair gulped. “Hey, Simon. Whatcha doing?“

“What I’m doing is waiting on a certain young man to hurry up and get his butt on my ship so we can disembark. Unfortunately, he seems to be running late. As usual!“

Blair held up his hands. “I swear, it wasn’t my fault this time.“ Seeing the Captain scoff, the young man placed one hand on his chest, over his heart. “Honest, Simon. You can ask Henri if you don’t believe me. We were on our way here when some woman started yelling at us.“

Simon looked over at the Lieutenant and received a nod. “It’s true, sir. A woman managed to get past the guards and approached Blair. Thankfully, she was stopped before she could actually reach him.“

“Thankfully,“ Blair repeated. “Yeah, right.“ He turned to face the captain. “She wanted to tell me something, Simon. But those…“ He cast a scornful look at the guards still standing a short distance away “…those goons wouldn’t let her pass. They tackled her, Simon. Knocked her unconscious. She claimed she had something she needed to tell me, that she needed to warn me. Why wouldn’t they let her talk to me?“

“They were only trying to protect you, Blair. You know that.“ Even as Simon tried to reassure the younger man, he couldn’t help the suspicion aroused within him. “Why don’t you go and get on board? We’ll be departing soon and I want you all settled before then. Your belongings have already been placed in your quarters. Take some time and unpack, get everything situated how you want it. This is the first time you’ve ever been off world and we have no idea how you’ll react to space travel. If, God forbid, you get a case of space sickness, you’ll be glad you won’t have to bother with any of that then.“

“Why do I get the feeling you’re trying to keep me busy – get me out of the way?“

A look of innocence appeared on the captain’s face. “Why would I want to do something like that?“

“So that you can go and check out that woman – find out what her story is and why she wanted to warn me.“ Blair smiled up at the taller man. “Admit it, you just can’t help it – you can’t help trying to protect me, keep me safe. Just like Henri.“ Then, he sobered. “But it’s different with the two of you. You do it because you actually care. The others…“ Another meaningful glance was directed at the guards “…they do it because they want to protect their legend, ensure that I survive long enough to fulfill this damn destiny – whatever it may be.“

“Blair –“

“It’s okay, Simon. It’s not like it’s something new. I’m used to it.“ He nodded his head towards the ship. “I’ll just go get everything unpacked.“

“Just go on to the bridge and see Taggart. He’ll direct you to your quarters.“ Simon nodded towards the ship.

After exchanging a helpless look with the captain, Henri followed Blair on board the ship.

As soon as they were gone, Simon turned on the guards. “I want you to tell me exactly what happened and then we will be going to see your supervisor.“

****

Silently, Blair followed behind Henri as the older man led the way to the bridge. Ignoring the looks and stares, he kept his eyes downcast. “After we check in with Taggart and get situated, we need to pay a visit to the ship’s healer.“

“What? Why?“

Henri sighed. “You know why, Blair. We’re going to be on the ship for a while, enclosed with a crew of several hundred personnel. How long do you think you’ll be able to hold up under that kind of pressure?“ Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “Your mother personally oversaw the preparations for this trip. And that included making sure that there are plenty of dampeners on board in case you overload.“

Blair snorted. “Yeah, trying to protect her status symbol.“ He almost collided with Henri when the older man came to an abrupt halt.

Spinning around, Henri laid a hand on Blair’s shoulder. Leaning close, he kept his voice low so they wouldn’t be overheard. “Your mother’s intentions aside, you know that it’s a possibility. Your contact with other people has always been strictly monitored and only been permitted in moderated amounts before now. And you were always able to retreat to your quarters if an overload threatened to occur. You’ve never been around such a large group of people in such close quarters for such an extended period of time before. We have no way of knowing how you’ll react or what the consequences of such exposure will be. This is for your protection, Blair, and I completely agree with your mother’s actions in this matter.“

“I understand.“ Blair’s voice was soft, almost too low for Henri to hear. “I just don’t want this guy treating me like some kind of… of lab rat or something. You know how most of them are. It’s why I can’t stand any kind of medical treatment. They all ask so many questions, want to poke and prod me.“ He shuddered.

“Well, I don’t think it will be like that this time. You know the captain. You know that he’d never allow someone like that anywhere near you. Whoever this guy is, I know it will be someone who’ll treat you right. If not, he’ll not only have to answer to the captain, but to me as well.“ Henri smiled, hoping to ease Blair’s discomfort.

“Okay," Blair shrugged, still feeling uneasy, "whatever you say.“

He clapped Blair’s shoulder once before releasing it. “All right then. Now let’s go see what kind of quarters the captain set us up in.“

“Hey, as long as you’re nearby, I know it’ll be fine.“

****

Simon strode down the dimly lit corridor, heading for the lone cell at the end. He could see the guard standing outside and knew he’d likely have trouble getting access to the small room’s occupant. “Step aside,“ he ordered as he drew near the thick steel door.

The guard snapped to attention and saluted. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t allow you inside. I’ve got strict orders not to –“

“Now you listen to me…“ Simon stepped forward, getting into the man’s face “…I don’t care what your orders are, you will let me pass. Now!“

“But, sir –“

“Excuse me, is there a problem here?“

Simon cringed, recognizing the voice instantly. Carefully schooling his expression, he turned. “Hello, Naomi,“ he greeted with a nod of his head. “How are you?“

“Fine, Simon.“ Naomi extended her hand, an ugly smile twisting her beautiful features as she watched the captain hesitate for a second and then lightly clasp her hand, kissing the back of it.

Lips twisted in distaste, Simon straightened. “Blair is safely aboard Cascadia and we will disembark soon.“

“Well, then why are you here, Simon?“ It was said with just the right mixture of puzzlement and confusion. But though it might have fooled everyone else, it didn’t fool the captain.

“Blair told me of the woman that accosted him,“ he informed the young man’s mother. “I just thought I’d check on it before we left. If there’s some threat against Blair, I need to be made aware of it, wouldn’t you agree? After all, I’ll be responsible for his safety during the trip to Rainier and we don’t want anything to happen to him.“

“Yes, but I trust you implicitly, Captain. I know Blair will be safe with you and as for your crew, I know that you’ve investigated each of them thoroughly. So I’m satisfied they are all above reproach.“

“Yes, well, I’m honored by your faith in me, My Lady. But being as that may, I’d still like to talk to the prisoner. Blair said she mentioned something about a warning. I’d like to hear about it for myself.“

Naomi averted her eyes, seemingly to straighten the non-existent wrinkles in her dress. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. I’ve already conducted my own investigation and … interview … of the prisoner. She’s merely a deranged woman with an infatuation with my son – not the first and surely not the last. It’s the kind of thing one must endure when the populace holds you in such regard. Unfortunately, it’s but one of the many burdens we must bear.“

“Riiiight.“ Simon didn’t bother to hide his sarcasm and watched in amusement as Naomi’s displeasure quickly passed over her face.

“If that’s all…“

“Well, since I’m here, why don’t I go ahead and have a little chat with this woman. Make sure she understands what she did is wrong and that she won’t attempt something like this again.“

“That won’t be necessary. I’ve already made her see the errors of her ways.“

Simon’s eyes narrowed. “Really? They why are you coming to see her again? I know you, Naomi. You’d never devote any more time than necessary to something like this. Not when there are other … things … to keep you occupied.“

The guards flanking Naomi shifted uneasily, fully aware of the tension between her and the captain.

“I only came back to inform the poor woman that I’ve arranged for her to receive some much needed help. There’s been a place made for her at a nearby sanitarium. They’ll see to it that she’s taken care of.“

“I’m sure they will.“ Simon knew what that meant. Evidently Naomi had been unsuccessful in her attempts to extract any information from the woman. Now, under the pretense of giving her help, she would be interrogated further, drugged and tortured if necessary, to wring every last scrap of information from her. Then, she would be terminated. And Naomi would see to it that the whole matter was buried. He was very accustomed to her ways by now. “If you’ll excuse me, I still have some final preparations to make.“

“By all means. And, Simon, I trust you to watch over my son while he’s entrusted to your care.“

Simon gave another small nod. “Of course, Naomi. Blair will always be safe in my care.“

Naomi bristled, but still smiled brilliantly. “Thank you.“ She gave a small bow.

Wanting nothing more than to wrap his hands around her throat and choke answers from her gasping body, Simon clenched his fists and stalked past Naomi, not looking back when he heard the cell door open and the abruptly cut off scream that followed.

****

Naomi shut the door and leaned against it, eyeing the woman bound to the chair in front of her. A hard expression on her face, she pushed off of the door and stalked forward. “So, you still refuse to tell me what you wanted with my son.“

Slowly, the woman’s head lifted – bruises and cuts marring nearly every inch of her face. But still, defiance shone from her eyes. Serena Chang refused to be beaten – would not break for the likes of the haughty woman standing before her. “I will tell you nothing.“

Naomi’s mouth twisted in displeasure. “Oh, I think you will, my dear.“ She nodded at one of the men standing beside Serena and he moved in front of her – backhanding her across the face.

Serena’s headed whipped backward. This time, when she turned eyes full of loathing upon Naomi, there was fresh blood trickling down her chin – coming from the new cut on her lips. Still, she smiled, unnerving Naomi greatly. “You may have stopped me, but you can’t stop us all. We will protect him, at all costs. Our Ruler will not silence Blair. And neither will you.“ She laughed – a chilling sound. “Those who don’t know you, who haven’t seen your true face, revere you because you gave birth to him. They foolishly think that the son must take after his mother. But they’re wrong. Oh so wrong. And some of us know the truth. We know that you don’t deserve to be his mother. Nobility, graciousness, humility, honor – you possess none of those. You’re nothing but a common whore – trading your son’s life, and your body, for whatever material possessions Brackett wishes to give you.“

“Kill her,“ Naomi screeched, knowing the truth behind the words – remembering last night how Brackett and Kincaid had repeatedly taken her until she’d passed out. During that long night, she’d occasionally roused – sometimes finding one of the men buried in her body, thrusting into her again and again. And sometimes she’d found that they had grown tired of her and were finding pleasure with each other. She remembered hearing Brackett grunting as he came, buried deep in Kincaid.

This morning, she’d awakened to find Brackett lying on his back with Kincaid kneeling between his legs, preparing to enter him. The two men had ignored her as she wrapped a stained sheet around her naked body and fled the room. Even now, her body ached and bore the signs of their passion and hunger. She shuddered as a wave of longing and desire filled her, but quickly drove that from her mind as she heard the woman emit a string of vile curses.

The man in front of Serena had pulled out his knife, preparing to drive it into her heart.

It was then that Naomi saw the look of triumph on the other woman’s face. And Naomi knew that death was what she wanted – for if she were dead then she couldn’t be forced to reveal her secrets. “Halt,“ Naomi cried out just as the knife arched downward.

The man stopped instantly, looking over his shoulder at Naomi.

“This woman still has much to tell us. Brackett would be displeased if we allowed her to goad us into killing her. We’ll transport her to another facility – one more adept at prying information from those reluctant to part with it.“ Naomi smiled – causing a shudder to race through Serena’s battered body. “Once they’ve managed to wring every last scrap of information from her, then you and your men may have her. Enjoy her … repeatedly … and then kill her. Just dispose of her body so that it will never be found.“

Leering, the man sheathed his knife. “Yes, Madam.“

Seeing the look of panic on the other woman’s face, Naomi spun around and left, smiling as she heard the deep chuckling and quiet whimpering.

****

Henri stepped aside, letting Blair enter the quarters that would house him during their trip.

“I like it.“ Blair turned and grinned at the two men standing just inside the doorway. “And Henri will be next door, right?“

Commander Joel Taggart, first officer of the Cascadia, looked at the young man in fond bemusement. He’d accompanied the captain on several of his visits to see Blair and they’d developed a friendship of sorts. Not nearly as close as the ones Blair shared with the Captain and with Henri, his personal guard, but certainly more than the majority of the people in the young man’s life. “That’s right, Blair.“ Joel gestured to a door to the left. “That door even connects your room to his. It can be locked or left unlocked, the choice is yours.“

“Cool.“ Blair began to explore his new surroundings.

Joel chuckled. “Blair, I’m just going to step outside with Henri a minute. There’s some things we need to discuss.“

Blair gave them a distracted wave, his attention already caught by the shelves of books lining one wall of the room. “Fine.“

Joel laughed and led the Lieutenant outside.

“What did you need, Commander?“ Henri asked once the door had shut behind them.

“Nothing much, really,“ Joel answered. “I just wanted to go over some safety protocols with you.“ He held up a hand, forestalling any protest from Henri. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that you’ve have training and I know that you’d protect Blair with your life if need be. But life on a ship is vastly different from life on a planet. There are hazards here that you won’t encounter there and I want to make sure you’re ready for anything that might happen.“

“I’m listening.“

“All right. Now see these compartments…“

****

Frustrated, none of his contacts able to procure any information, Simon returned to his ship. A part of him was relieved to get Blair away from this planet, away from all the plotting and conspiring that took place behind the young man’s back. But another part of him feared it as well. There were just so many things that could go wrong during space travel. Even a well-maintained ship such as his could easily fall victim to sabotage.

Since seeking, and being granted, permission to transport Blair to Rainier, he’d done everything he could to make sure the Cascadia would provide safe passage. Constant patrols and inspections to ensure against any tampering with the ship, thorough screening of all crewmembers, both old and new alike, intense study of their route to make sure they wouldn’t pass anywhere near any Panterian occupied space – he’d done everything he could think to do. He only hoped it was enough.

Doubts still lingering, he made his way to the bridge and prepared to get them underway.

****

“Are you ready?“ Henri asked as he returned to Blair's quarters, finding the younger man perched in a chair and reading a book.

“For what?“ Blair looked up, an innocent expression on his face.

“Don't give me that. Up and at 'em.“

“Henri,“ the young man whined. “Why do we have to go right now? We can wait a little bit.“

In reply, Henri just jerked his thumb towards the doorway behind him.

Sighing, Blair set the book aside and stood up. Marching past Henri, he left his quarters.

Medical was located close by, no doubt arranged by the Captain, and it wasn't long before they were faced with Dan Wolf, the ship's healer. “Hello, Blair,“ the large, dark haired man greeted, a smile on his face. “I'm Dan Wolf. It's an honor to meet you.“

Blair hung close to Henri's side. “Yeah, you, too.“

Sensing the young man's discomfort, he said, “I trust you to know when you need my help. After all, you're more familiar with your abilities than I am. But, if you don't mind, I would like to conduct an examination – nothing invasive or uncomfortable. Just to get to know your general condition. If that's all right with you, of course.“

“I guess so,“ Blair hesitantly agreed, for some reason already comfortable in Dan's presence.

“Great. Then how about you hop up on this table and we'll get started.“

After glancing towards Henri, asking silently if the Lieutenant would stay and receiving an encouraging nod, Blair went over to the table.

For the next several moments, he patiently sat while Dan conducted his examination. Unlike his previous experiences, the healer didn't bombard him with a barrage of questions. Just simply took note of his vital signs and overall physical condition. Before he knew it, the examination was over. “That's it?“ he asked, surprised.

“That's it.“ Dan winked at him. “It wasn't so bad now, was it?“

“No, no, it wasn't.“ He looked at Henri and then back to Dan. “C… can I go now?“

“Yes, you can. Though I would like to meet with you later, discuss a few things. But only if you would like to.“

“I'll… I'll think about it.“

“That's all I can ask.“ Dan gave him a small nod. “Good day, Blair.“

“Bye.“ Unsure what to think of the other man, and their encounter, Blair followed Henri out of Medical and back to his quarters.

****

As the days stretched into weeks, with no activity in sight, Jim began to doubt his decision to request the scanning mission.

He’d been vigilant – keeping a watch out for any inhabitable planets as well as any signs of the possible treachery Jack had warned him about. But out here, alone, with only his thoughts to keep him company, his mind did sometimes wander.

Often, his thoughts focused on Carolyn – his lost Guide. And the memories came rushing back. Even as they did, he was forced to finally admit to himself that he hadn’t had a true bond with her. Not a soulbond. But he’d been so desperate, so wanting, that he hadn’t let himself see that.

When they met, he had thought that all his prayers had been answered. In Carolyn, he had a Guide … a mate … he could be proud of. One to stand by his side as his equal – on the battlefield as well as in life. Even if they didn’t have a true bond, they’d been good together. An effective, efficient team.

But still, there had been a part of him that had realized, however unconsciously, that something had been missing – lacking. He just never admitted it to himself. Looking back, he knew that Carolyn must have sensed it too. But she’d never mentioned it, never sought to break their bond, such as it was. For that he admired her even more.

There had been love there also. Theirs had been a passionate relationship – their bodies joining as their souls never did … or could. All in all, it’d been a good bonding. Just not the one he was destined for. Out there, somewhere, he knew his true Guide, his true bonded soulmate, awaited him.

All he had to do was find the mysterious young man from his dreams. The young man with the captivating blue eyes and dazzling smile. The one whose soul sang to his. Only then would he finally be complete.

But still, an ache remained. The feeling of failing Carolyn. Even now, the memories of her death were fresh in his mind.

They'd been sent out on patrol and picked up a distress signal from a Panterian mining colony in the farthest reaches of their space – near Lupinard occupied territory. The colony had been attacked.

He and Carolyn had responded and found the Lupinard military still on the colony. Carolyn had wanted to wait for support, knowing they'd be going into an unwinable battle. But Jim couldn't sit idly by and not do anything. So, he'd made the decision for them to land – to do whatever they could to repel the Lupinard forces.

For a while, they'd held their own – fighting fiercely against their enemy. But then, he'd taken a hit – been badly wounded. And the Lupinards had overrun them. He could still see Carolyn, bravely holding off the advancing forces and defending her fallen mate – defending him.

But she couldn't hold their position forever and the Lupinards had gotten past her defenses. Her screams … her screams as they had overpowered her and … and violated her.

Despite his wounds, he'd struggled to fight. Tried to go to his mate's side, protect his Guide. But his wounds had been too severe.

As he'd passed out, the last thing he'd heard, the sound that carried him into darkness, had been her choked gasps.

When he'd awoken, he was back home on Pantera, in a medical center. Jack had been the one to come tell him of Carolyn's death – but he'd already known, had sensed her absence as soon as he had regained consciousness.

At the time neither he, nor anyone else, could understand why he was still alive. The guilt had eaten at him constantly. But he had continued to live – vowing to get revenge for Carolyn, to seek vengeance against the Lupinards.

****

Jim adjusted his course, preparing to land at P874 – a Panterian mining colony located on a large asteroid. He needed to stop to refuel. While there, he intended to get a meal – anything was better than the nutritional supplements he’d been having – and try to arrange for a shower. He knew that the latter would cost him a great deal, but he’d spend it gladly. And perhaps, just perhaps, he’d find his Guide as well. He’d been searching every time he stopped to refuel but so far his efforts had been in vain.

After landing his ship, and ensuring that it would receive top priority, he began to do some exploring. All the colonies seemed to be the same – dirty, crowded and hell on his senses. As he walked down the busy corridor, dodging bodies and cargo containers, an intriguing aroma caught his attention. He followed the scent to a small booth and was delighted to find his favorite soup being sold. It’d been a long time – since before his mother’s death – that he’d had it and he quickly bought a bowl.

As he drank down the hot liquid, he scanned the crowd, hoping that he’d be drawn to one of them. But, no. He could feel it. His Guide wasn’t here. However, there was someone who caught his attention. A young woman with red hair who projected an attitude that seemed to fill the very air around her.

She turned, catching his eye, and smiled. Then she started to approach him and for an instant, Jim had the distinct impression that he was being stalked. “Hello,“ she purred as she came to stand in front of him. “You’re new, aren’t you?“

“Um… yes, I am. Major Ellison. I stopped in to refuel.“

“I’m Cassie.“ She pressed up against his side. “How long will you be here?“

Jim shrugged and reached behind him to set his now empty bowl on a bench. “A little while.“

“Long enough for us to have a little bit of fun?“ Smiling, she laid her hand on his chest. “I could show you a really good time.“ Licking her lips, she trailed her fingers down his chest. When she reached his stomach, he grabbed her hand, stilling it.

“Sorry, not interested.“

“A part of you is,“ she persisted, tugging her hand free to caress him through his pants.

Closing his eyes, Jim moaned softly. It’d been a long time since anyone had touched him – a long time since he’d been with anyone. He was tempted to give in, to accept the little bit of physical companionship being offered. But then, the image from his dreams appeared in his mind. The young man with piercing blue eyes and silken strands of curly hair. Shuddering, he opened his eyes and took a step back, separating from Cassie. “I said I’m not interested.“

Lowering her voice, she whispered, “You should be, Jim.“

His eyes widened in shock. “I never told you my first name.“

Frantically looking around, Cassie hissed, “Keep your voice down. I need you to come with me.“

“Why?“ Suspicious, Jim allowed his hand to rest on the weapon strapped to his side.

“No questions – not here, at least. Come with me.“

Using his senses, Jim scanned her – taking note of the rapid beating of her heart. But it didn’t seem to be caused by any deception – more like nervousness. After a moment, he agreed. “All right.“

Cassie took another look around and then smiled. She grabbed Jim’s arm and began leading him down the corridor. “Just go along with whatever I do.“

Senses on alert, Jim gave a terse nod.

After a few minutes had passed, Jim noticed that the corridors they were now traveling down were less crowded. His hand twitched, making an abortive move towards his weapon. He was growing more nervous with each minute that passed. Finally, just when he didn’t think he could stay silent any longer, they seemed to reach their destination.

Stopping in front of an unmarked door, Cassie said, “Go in. He’s waiting for you.“

“Who?“ Jim demanded. “Who’s waiting for me?“

Cassie just smiled enigmatically. “Someone with the answers you seek, Guardian.“

Jaw clenched, Jim pulled out his weapon and slowly opened the door. He paused before going inside and looked towards Cassie – only to find she had disappeared. “This is a stupid move, Ellison,“ he muttered. But then, he took a deep breath and went inside.

“Hello, Guardian,“ a deep male voice greeted.

“Who are you?“ Jim scanned the dark room, but couldn’t see anyone.

Behind him, a man stepped out of the shadows. “I am called Incacha and I’m here to help you find that which you seek.“

Jim spun around. “How did you…“ He hadn’t even been aware of the man’s presence.

Incacha smiled. “There will be time for that later. For now…“ he raised his hand and light filled the room “…please sit. We have much to discuss.“

Seeing the chairs in the room, Jim stumbled over to one and sat down, his knees suddenly weak. He could sense something … some power … emanating from the other man. “Who are you?“ This time, the question was whispered.

Taking a seat facing Jim, Incacha said, “There’s no time for that now, Guardian. Listen and heed my words. I know you seek your Guide – a young man with ancient eyes. His fate and yours are tied together. You’ve a destiny to fulfill together – but you must be careful. The road you face is a hard one and you’ll be forced to endure much hardship. But if you trust in each other – if you give of yourselves to each other freely – you will succeed.“

“I don’t… What destiny? What hardships? What are you talking about? I don’t understand –“

“No, not yet, but you will soon.“ Incacha smiled. “I know you have much confusion, Guardian. But all I can tell you is that you will find that which you seek. So don’t give up or get discouraged. Keep searching.“

“I –“

Suddenly, Incacha leaned forward, his hands reaching out to touch Jim’s face.

Jim arched under the touch, crying out as a blur of images and sensations filled his mind. Throughout it all, he could hear two loud cries – the yowl of a large cat and the howl of a wolf. Then it all just stopped and he gasped, trying to catch his breath. “What… was… t… that?“

“That was all the help I could give you Guardian – any more would not be allowed.“ Incacha stood. “Go now.“ He laid a hand on Jim’s head, murmuring a near silent chant. “Peace be with you, Guardian, until you find your soulmate.“

As Jim continued to sit there in shock, Incacha left and Cassie entered the room.

Crossing to the still man, she knelt. “Major Ellison?“

Shaking himself, Jim came to his senses and glared at the kneeling woman. “Want to tell me what in the hell that was all about?“

Cassie bowed her head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t, Guardian. I don’t know myself. But you must go now. Your ship is ready and soon they will come looking for you. If you’re found here… Well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be good for any of us.“

Still confused, his mind racing, Jim allowed Cassie to pull him to his feet and lead him from the room.

****

Blair paced within the confines of his quarters, studiously ignoring the concerned man standing off to the side. He didn’t know what was wrong with him. At first, he’d been excited, fascinated by space travel and eager to get to know the crew – the interaction with them being his first unmonitored, non-chaperoned contact with other people. Well, except for Henri, of course.

The Lieutenant always hovered in the distance, never interfering with Blair’s visits with the crew, unless he felt the younger man’s safety was in jeopardy. But those occasions had been rare and almost always the result of some misunderstanding. Even his visit to the healer had been bearable.

Dan Wolf had turned out to be a gregarious man who had treated Blair like a person, not something to be examined or studied. The two had struck up a fast friendship and Blair often invited Dan over to his quarters, the two of them engaging in conversations and debates on everything from the Panterians, though Blair’s knowledge was extremely limited in that regard, to local sports teams. And Blair would listen raptly as Dan spun intricate yarns about a myriad of legends and myths regarding Sentinels and Companions, a subject that had always fascinated Blair but one that none of his teachers would ever discuss with him.

But as the voyage continued, he found himself more and more restless. Almost as if he were constantly on edge, in anticipation of something – though he didn’t know what. At first, his behavior had been greeted with fond exasperation. But now, after many sleepless nights, his increasingly erratic behavior was met with concern and worry. He was ignorant of it though.

His mind and thoughts were preoccupied with … something. And the dreams had come back with a vengeance. The few times he did manage to sleep, he tossed and turned, besieged with haunting dreams of the tall stranger with piercing blue eyes. More than once, he’d awoken to wet sheets, something he tried desperately to keep hidden from everyone else, with the unspoken name dying on his lips and the aching sensation of loss and emptiness. Something … someone … was out there, waiting for him. And whatever … whoever … it was, he knew it wouldn’t be found on Rainier.

“Blair!“

“What?“ He came to a stumbling halt, finding Henri blocking his path. “Henri?“ He sounded dazed and confused, his tone causing the Lieutenant to wince.

“I want you to go see Dan, Blair,“ Henri asked, not for the first time. “There’s something up with you and he can help figure out what’s wrong.“

“It’s nothing.“ Blair tried to move past the older man, but Henri grabbed his arms … hard.

“It’s not nothing!“ He gave the younger man a small shake. “Maybe you’re having a reaction to being around so many people for so long – being in such close proximity to them for all this time. Some dampeners should –“

“I don’t want any damn dampeners.“ Blair pulled away from Henri. “Why is it that everyone is always wanting to shove those damn pills down my throat? Why can’t you ever just let me feel? I don’t want to block this out. I don’t want to make it go away. I don’t want him to go away!“

“Him?“ Henri stared at Blair in shock. “Him who, Blair? What are you talking about? Tell me what’s going on!“

“Like I said, it’s nothing.“

“Damn it, Blair, how am I supposed to protect you if you won’t tell me what’s up with you? Talk to me!“

It was the pleading tone that got to the younger man. He sighed, his shoulders slumping in defeat. “I just… There’s just so much that I don’t know. About who I am and who I’m supposed to be. What I’m supposed to do. There’s so much confusion and uncertainty. It’s been that way most of my life. Ever since my mother took me to that damn seer. I just feel that … that all the answers are close, Henri. That they’re within my reach. There’s something waiting for me out there – somewhere. But I don’t know where to look, or even how to begin. It’s so frustrating, knowing that I’m so close yet everything I seek is still just outside of my grasp.“ After a heartbeat, more quietly he added, “And then there’s the dreams.“

“What dreams?“

“Dreams of him.“

“Him who?“

Blair looked up, his eyes seeming to blaze from within as he met Henri’s confused gaze. “My destiny.“

Chapter Five –Journey’s End

“Well, what do you think?“ Simon asked softly as he looked up at his second-in-command.

Joel shrugged. “I just don’t know, Captain. Something is definitely bothering him, but I haven’t a clue as to what. He won’t talk to anyone lately – just stays shut up in his room. I’ve talked to Henri, but he says Blair won’t even talk to him now. I’m worried about him.“

“So am I, my friend, so am I.“ The Captain gave a small smile. “If I thought it’d do any good, I’d go and drag his stubborn butt down to Medical myself. For some reason though, and I don’t know why, I don’t think this is something that Dan can fix. Blair seems almost like he’s searching for … expecting … something. I don’t know. Damn it, I just wish there were something that we could do to help. But no matter what, he’ll have us by his side, to help and to protect him.“

“That he will, sir.“ The smile disappeared from Joel’s face. “For now at least. After we reach Rainier though…“

“Don’t worry, Joel,“ Simon reassured. Winking, he added, “I have it on good authority that this ship will develop some mechanical difficulties after we reach our destination. Ones that will require months and months of repair time. And, of course, you know how difficult it is to get replacement parts shipped to Rainier. Why, if something were to break or malfunction, who knows how long we could be stuck there.“

The two men shared a grin. “I suppose we’ll just have to make the best of it, sir.“

“That we will, Joel.“

“Sir?“ A female voice called, gaining Simon's attention.

“Yes, Connor, what is it?“

“Scanners are picking up a planet nearby.“ From off to the side, a woman with auburn hair turned away from a myriad of consoles, an expression of concern on her face. Megan Connor met the Captain's steady gaze.

“Record what data you can.“

She nodded. “Yes, sir, but it doesn’t appear to be much. It’s large, but with an extremely harsh atmosphere. I’m not picking up any measurable amounts of water at all on the surface.“

“Then I definitely think we won’t be taking any leave there, will we, Conner.“

“No, sir.“ Everyone could hear the smile in her voice. Then she turned serious. “Sir, I think I’m picking up something else as well, but I can’t be certain. Whatever it is, it’s small. I think it’s a… Oh my God!

****

The first few days after his visit to P874, Jim had been in a semi-daze. The images induced by Incacha’s touch had flooded his mind, too fast for him to make sense of them all.

As time passed, he began to process the images, isolating some while others seemed to fade away to nothing. There was a tall, black-skinned man unfamiliar to him, a blonde woman – her beauty masking the ugliness in her heart and soul – and an endless stretch of desert sand.

Then there was him – the one from his dreams. The man with the bright blue eyes and the long, curly brown hair. His face had been prominent amid the myriad of images and Jim had latched onto it, clinging to it like a lifeline.

And during that time, Jim had been filled with a growing sense of anticipation. He knew he was drawing near to … something. But he didn’t know what … or who … he would encounter – only that whatever it was would change his life forever.

Jim shook his head, dispelling the images still lingering in his mind, when his instrument panel beeped.

At first, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He blinked and it was still there. He checked his instruments for any malfunctions and it was still there.

A ship. A Lupinard ship. A very large Lupinard ship in Panterian space.

A small growl escaped his lips as he locked his weapons onto the ship. Instincts took over, reacting to a perceived threat … invasion … of his territory. The prospect of vengeance for Carolyn filled him, lighting his blood on fire.

Then training took over and even as he felt something familiar … and welcome … brush up against his mind, he fired upon the invader.

****

As the ship rocked under the first volley of fire, Lieutenant Megan Connor called out, “Sir, it’s a Panterian ship! It’s firing on us again!“

“Brace for impact,“ Simon ordered, remaining calm despite the circumstances. “Commander,“ he addressed Joel, “order a security detail to Blair’s quarters. Make sure they know he’s to be protected at all costs.“ Silent communication passed between the two long-time friends and Joel nodded.

Joel knew what the Captain meant. There was a small vessel lodged within the bowels of Cascadia – one that Lieutenant Henri Brown was very capable of flying.

If it came down to it, Simon would sacrifice the ship, and everyone aboard, to allow Blair a chance of escape in the small, heavily armored and fortified ship.

But that would be a last resort. Grimly, the Commander contacted security and had two officers, hand picked by the Captain himself, report to Blair’s quarters. They were fully apprised of the situation and would move heaven and earth to get the young man to the vessel should the need arise.

Joel grabbed his console and hung on desperately as another blast shook the ship.

****

“Your what?!“ Henri exclaimed. But before Blair could answer, they were nearly knocked to their feet as the ship shook violently.

“Henri!“

The Lieutenant could hear the alarm and panic in Blair’s voice.

“Stay here,“ Henri ordered. “I’m going to see if I can find out what’s happening.“

“But –“ Unnoticed by the retreating man, Blair’s cry was cut off.

His eyes widened as he felt something familiar … and welcome … brush up against his mind. Then the next jolt flung him to the floor and darkness descended.

****

Jim cursed, the earlier sensation forgotten as he struggled to maintain control of his ship. He’d landed two severe, crippling blows before his luck ran out and the larger ship managed to launch a blow of it’s own.

His instrument panel beeped, and he distractedly noted that a planet was nearby. He was too busy to see if it was inhabitable or not.

Even as his ship spiraled out of control, he managed to get off a distress call and launch a SOS buoy.

****

“We’re going down!“ Joel yelled.

“All hands assume crash positions!“ Simon ordered.

Both men managed to find each other’s eyes. With a nod, they acknowledged their years of service together, each thanking the other for their loyalty and friendship.

Then, with a silent pray that Blair had managed to escape, they could only hold on as the ship spun out of control, plummeting down toward the desolate planet.

****

His ship severely damaged, Jim couldn’t stop its descent.

As they neared the planet, he was caught up in the larger ship’s wake. As he watched its hull glow red-hot as they entered the planet’s atmosphere, he didn’t stop his own descent into the void.

But even as his senses overcame him, he sought out his Guide.

As unconsciousness overcame him, he felt the first, weak connection flare up and his soul was soothed by the balm of the other’s presence.

****

Blair moaned, stirring, and then froze. He could feel it – feel him – the connection weak but there. The other’s presence within his mind – calming him, soothing him.

For a brief moment, he welcomed it. But then, panicked, he pushed it away, flinching as a loud roar – sounding animalistic in nature and clearly not from the ship’s destruction – filled the air.

Then, everything exploded into a fiery ball of light and darkness descended again.

****

Even unconscious, Jim could still sense the rejection. His soul cried out in agony and he surrendered to the death that surely awaited him as his ship impacted against the planet.

****

Within the hull of the wrecked Cascadia, the corridors were bathed in a reddish light. Smoke polluted the air as klaxons started to blare. The creak of protesting, stressed metal could barely be heard above the chaos.

Groaning, Blair started to rouse once more. Groggily, he pushed himself upright from his sprawled position on the floor and struggled to his feet. He coughed as he shoved aside the hair obscuring his face. When his fingers came away wet with blood, he distractedly wiped them across his shirt. Dazed from the impact, he stumbled over to the door and, in frustration, banged his fist against it when nothing happened. He needed to check on the others. Henri, the Captain, Joel, Dan and everyone else. Already, he could sense that the loss of life had been severe. All during the trip, he’d been aware of the multitude of minds – their feelings and emotions – all over the ship. And now, that multitude had been greatly reduced – death silencing the majority of them.

“C'mon! Open!“ he yelled at the door, knowing it would do no good. Then he realized there was something he could do. Something that all those years of study, of teaching, had prepared him for. But he was hesitant. The seers, his mother – everyone had warned him against what he was about to do. Telling him to save his gifts and his abilities until the proper time – even Henri, the person closest to him, didn’t realize or know the full extent of his capabilities.

It had been a struggle, obeying that order. But he’d done it. Now, that discipline was so ingrained, he didn’t know if he’d be able to break it even if he wanted to – even though he needed to. And if he did, then after this was all over, once they were rescued – if they were rescued – there was sure to be repercussions. But he couldn’t let that stop him. Not when there were lives possibly at stake.

Decision made, he took a step back and focused all of his attention on the jammed door. Blocking out everything else, he gathered his will and aimed it outward, lashing out at the obstacle. As soon as he let his control slip, he felt the presence again. For a brief instant, his consciousness touched the other.

Reeling from the contact, he collapsed to his knees, head clutched in his hands. “Ahh!“ His cries of agony were swallowed by the blaring alarms. The once welcoming presence felt different now – colder, more closed off. And that difference tore through his mind, like knives driven through his temples. Bloody tears streaking his cheeks, he struggled to rise once again.

Even shakier than before, he slowly approached the door. This time, he used a physical assault. Hidden strength, strength belied by his slight form, came to the fore. Blair pried his fingers in the small indentation where the door met the wall. Skin ripping and fingernails breaking, he slowly opened it, inch by agonizing inch. Redoubling his efforts, calling from some deep recess of determination, he put every last remaining ounce of strength into his attempt. With one final cry and one last, forceful shove, the door suddenly slid open all the way, sending him sprawling out into the hallway.

Stunned, Blair lay on the floor as aches and pains radiated throughout his body. Slowly, he turned his head to the side and rested his bruised cheek against the metal beneath him. Breath coming in huge gasps, he carefully rolled to his side and cradled his injured hands against his chest.

Not far away, a body lay sprawled facedown in the corridor. Blocking out the pain, he struggled to his knees and crawled over to the other person. He already knew the person was dead. He couldn’t feel anything from the body, no mind or consciousness calling out to his own. Fighting down nausea, he slowly crossed the short distance, the few short feet feeling like an endless stretch of miles. But he continued. It was dark in the corridor and he couldn’t tell… He had to know who it was lying there, dead. Had to know if it was Henri.

Reaching the body, he struggled to turn it over and let out a shocked gasp when he saw the slack face. A shaking hand reached out and bloodied fingers closed the sightless eyes that were staring back accusingly at him. Head bowed; he said a quick prayer for the dead man, unable to forsake his solemn duty even now. But even as he murmured the silent chant, he felt a sense of almost overwhelming relief fill him and he fought back tears. The body wasn’t Henri. His friend could still live.

His head snapped up as he somehow managed to hear a faint moan over the alarms. Frantically, Blair scanned the hallway, hoping to find someone, anyone, still alive. For a second, he considered lowering his barriers again, to try and scan for the mental presence of whoever may still be left. But then, remembering the earlier brush of that other consciousness against his mind and the sudden, blinding pain, he dismissed that idea.

Relying on his physical senses, he felt his way along the hallway. Staying low, barely able to make out anything through the smoke obscuring his sight, he stopped and listened intently for several long moments.

Hearing another moan, louder this time, he thought he’d pinpointed its location and started in that direction. This time, when he stumbled upon another body, he was met by a live person. Leaning down, a smile briefly appeared when he found a familiar face. “Henri!“

“B… Blair.“

“Yeah, it's me.“ Uncertainly, not knowing where the other man's injuries lie, Blair knelt down and helped Henri sit up. “I… I found Dalton. He's dead.“

Henri's eyes flickered over to the dark shape lying several feet away and then returned to the young man crouching beside him. Concerned, he began running his hands over Blair's body. “What about you? Are you hurt?“ Feeling Blair wince, he focused his attention on the younger man's side. “Talk to me, Blair. Tell me something. If you're injured, then –“

Irritably, Blair pushed Henri's hands away. “I'm fine. Just a little banged up is all.“ Shifting his position slightly, Blair hid his hands from the other man's view before Henri could see the extent of the damage done to them. “What do we do now?“

Coughing, Henri scanned up and down the corridor. “We need to get to Command and find the Captain. I'm surprised he hasn't already sent a patrol to escort you to the bridge. Things must be really bad.“ Bracing himself against the wall, Henri climbed to his feet. “I want you to stay behind me. It's my ass if you get yours wasted.“

Despite their seemingly uncaring nature, there was a sense of camaraderie behind the words. Henri grinned when Blair nodded and moved to obey his order. Then, Henri pulled out his weapon and they began to make their way down the corridor.

They had only gone a short distance when they found another of their crewmates. Horrified at the sight of the badly mangled body, Blair turned away, a hand over his mouth. “My God.“ The words were mumbled as he choked back the rising nausea. “What did that?“

Face showing no emotion, Henri bent down and examined the body and then looked up at a still sparking electrical panel on the wall. His explanation was terse. “Explosion. Can't tell who it was.“

Moving to kneel beside Henri, Blair bowed his head and began to chant. He was pulled from his prayer when Henri grabbed his arm and abruptly pulled him to his feet. “What's wrong?“ A confused expression on his face, Blair looked over at Henri. “I need to…“

Grabbing Blair's other arm; Henri spun the younger man around until they were face to face. “We don't have time for this!“ Seeing the panicked look in Blair's eyes, he softened his tone as well as his hold. “Look, I'm sorry. I know that your training dictates you say a prayer for the dead, but we simply can't afford the delay. Right now, our main priority is to get to Command. I need to find out what's going on, Blair. Your mother entrusted me with your safety. With everything riding on –“

Blair pulled away from Henri. “I'm so sick of everyone telling me about how important I am and how I have to fulfill my destiny! I don't want to hear it! Especially not now. Not when we're surrounded by so much death..“

Easily blocking Blair's attempts to evade him, Henri grabbed Blair's arm and began pulling the younger man down the corridor. “Save the tantrum for someone else.“

Angered, intending to yell, Blair took a deep breath. Immediately, he began to cough as smoke filled his lungs. “Y… you know i… it's a lot more satisfying when…“ pausing, he coughed and wiped at the tears gathering in his eyes, “y… you at least pretend to listen to m… me for a little bit b… before you start ig… ignoring me.“

“Sorry,“ Henri apologized, in an amused sounding tone. “Tell you what. When we're safe, I'll let you rant and rave for a whole hour. How does that sound?“

“Patronizing,“ Blair grumbled. “Condescending.“

With a snort, Henri kept dragging his charge behind him.

For a little while the two men traveled in silence. After they had continued down the smoke filled corridor several more feet, Blair came to a stumbling halt as he gasped for air. “Wait a minute, Henri.“ Hands braced on knees, he bent over and began to cough. “This smoke is really getting to me.“

Hurrying back to Blair, Henri put a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “C'mon, you can make it,“ he encouraged. “It's just a little bit further.“

Overcome with smoke, not able to speak, Blair merely shook his head. Tears streaming down his face, he tried to pull in huge gasps of air as he struggled to breathe.

“Shit!“ Eyes frantically scanning the hallway, Henri tried to figure out how close they were to Command. When his eyes landed on the wall, he could barely make out some writing through the now dense smoke. “Damn it, why didn't I think of that sooner?“

Leaving Blair's side, he went over to the wall. Running his hand over the surface, he felt the small catch and quickly released it. “Hang on just a minute, Blair.“ Opening the panel, he pulled out a small, square backpack from the hidden cabinet and then hurried back to the younger man.

“W… what's that?“ Blair gasped out when Henri returned to his side.

“Something I should have thought about before now,“ Henri berated himself. Holding the pack against his chest, Henri opened it up and pulled out a mask. “Here, put this on,“ he ordered as he thrust the mask at Blair.

Accepting the object, Blair slipped it over his head. He felt his head clear when the next breath he took was clean and fresh. “What's this?“ His voice sounded muffled from behind the mask that was now covering his face.

Pulling another mask out, Henri settled it over his face. “Breathing mask. It has built in filters that cleanse the air. We’ll be able to breathe a lot easier now.“ The older man closed the pack and then shrugged it on his back. “When we first came on board, I was briefed about emergency protocol. Commander Taggart told me that these emergency kits are located throughout the ship. I just can't believe I didn't remember it sooner.“ Henri bowed his head. “I failed you, Si –“

“Stop it, Henri.“ Blair didn't allow the other man to finish the apology. “You've done nothing wrong. I think it's understandable that you're a little bit shook up. I know I am.“

Nodding, Henri straightened up and then looked down the hallway. “Let's get going.“ Henri started down the corridor again. “We shouldn’t be that far from Command now.“

“Right behind you,“ Blair replied as he followed after him.

With Henri leading the way, always making sure to keep Blair behind him, the two men continued down the corridor. Their going now easier due to the filtered air being delivered by the masks, their progress was quicker than before and as they continued, the smoke lessened, allowing more visibility.

Within several minutes, they were at their destination. Weapon raised, Henri gestured for Blair to stay back. “Let me go first. We don't know what we're going to find in there.“

Nodding, Blair took several steps away and then flattened himself against the wall. “Ready.“

After making sure the younger man was out of the way, Henri stepped forward, causing the door to slide open. Cautiously, he peered inside and then let out a relieved sigh. Lowering his weapon, he looked back at Blair. “It's clear.“ When the younger man started to go around him, he put out his arm and blocked Blair's way. “But I'm still going in first.“

With a roll of his eyes, Blair stepped back.

Weapon still in hand, Henri stepped into Command with Blair right behind him. Spotting the Captain, he headed towards the older man. Removing the mask covering his face, he asked, “Sir, are you all right?“

Pressing a torn piece of material to the bleeding gash on his head, Captain Simon Banks turned around and let out a relieved sigh when he saw who had addressed him. “What are you two still doing on board? I sent the security team to get you out of here!“

“Security team?“ Henri had a puzzled expression on his face. “We haven't been contacted by any security team, sir.“

“Damn!“ the Captain cursed. “I sent them when the ship first came under attack. After they didn't check in, I tried to contact you but communications are down throughout the ship. I had hoped that you managed to escape before we crashed.“

“We spotted several bodies on our way here, sir, but we couldn't identify most of them.“ For the first time, Henri allowed himself to think about the broken bodies they had found. Swallowing repeatedly, he fought down a surge of nausea. “They were pretty badly burned and the other injuries were pretty severe.“

As Henri described the condition of the dead crewmen, Simon's eyes flickered over to Blair. Seeing the blood covering the side of the younger man's face, he stepped past Henri. Hand reaching out to grasp Blair's chin, he tilted the bloodied face from side to side. “Are you all right? How severe are your injuries?“ Without waiting for an answer, he turned to Henri and asked, “Why haven't you treated him?“

Pulling away from the captain, Blair stepped back and put some distance between them. His mask now dangling from his neck, he reassured, “I'm fine, Captain. It's just a few bumps and bruises. I'm luckier then most. I'm alive.“ Pushing aside his grief over all the lost life aboard the ship, Blair straightened his shoulders and brought his eyes up to meet the other man's. “So how about letting me know what's going on? You said we were attacked?“

Simon nodded. “Yes, we were. A Panterian fighter showed up out of nowhere and attacked us without provocation. I just don’t understand it. We weren’t anywhere near their territory. And the strangest thing of all is, it was only one ship.“ The captain looked confused. “I can't understand why a single fighter was so far from any of their bases, let alone in our territory. Though I guess it's lucky for us. If it had been more, none of us would probably be here right now.“

“And exactly where is here?“ Blair asked.

Looking over his shoulder, Simon glanced at the now darkened viewscreen that dominated the wall behind him. “I wish I knew, Blair.“

“But… but someone will find us, right?“ When the captain didn't answer, Blair felt a sense of dread fill him. “There's more, isn't there? What aren't you telling me?“

“Like I told you, communications are down.“

“Yeah, in the ship. You don't mean…“ When Simon averted his eyes, Blair swallowed nervously. “You mean that all communications are down, don’t you? We can't call for help, can we? Nobody even knows where we are? Or that we were even attacked?“

“When the fighter first attacked, we did manage to send out a distress message,“ Simon explained. “But that son of a bitch knew just where to hit us. On his second attack, he took out communications.“ The captain stared at the young man before him. Taking in the slumped shoulders and bowed head, he placed a hand on Blair's arm. “But I'm sure someone must have heard our first distress message. Someone will find us, Blair. It will be okay.“

Lifting his head, Blair stared at the captain. “You forget who you're talking to, Simon. You don't really believe that. I know you're just saying it to make me feel better.“

Simon pulled his hand back. “I'm sorry, Bl…“

“Don't. Just don't, okay?“ Blair pleaded. “Just tell me everything. I want to know what our situation is and don't leave anything out.“

“All right. Before the attack, sensors picked up a planet – a desert-type planet with no signs of life. As far as we can tell, we've crash-landed on it. It won’t be pleasant, but hopefully we’ll be able to survive here until someone comes to rescue us.“ Simon paused to gauge Blair’s reaction and then continued when the younger man seemed to be taking the news calmly. “Main sensors were disabled in the crash and life support is fading rapidly. All in all, this ship is essentially dying. Right now, our main concern is evacuation. But before that can happen, we need to find out what our numbers are. There's bound to be people trapped and injured all over the ship and we can't get them out until we know where they're located.“

“But how are you going to do that? With the sensors out…“ Blair trailed off as he realized what Simon wanted. Shaking his head, he held up his hands.

The Captain hissed when he saw the condition of the younger man’s hands. “What in the hell did you do to yourself?“

Quickly, Blair brought his hands down and put them behind his back. “It’s nothing, Simon. The door to my room was jammed after the crash and I had to pry it open.“

Simon reached out and grabbed Blair’s arms. With a gentle tug, he brought the hands out from behind the younger man’s back and began to study the extent of the damage. “This looks pretty painful.“

Blair shrugged. “It’s not so bad.“

“Blair –“

Pulling his hands from Simon’s grasp, Blair interrupted, “Now, about finding the other survivors. You want me to try and locate them, don’t you?“

Although he wanted to attend to Blair’s injuries, the Captain knew where his priorities had to lie. “Yes, I do. I know it’ll be hard on you, but it's our only chance of locating everyone,“ Simon reasoned. “You know the layout of the ship. I know you do. You can pinpoint where the survivors are and let us know where to go. You're our only chance of getting everyone off this ship.“

Remembering earlier when he had tried to open the door to his room, Blair shivered as he recalled the touch of the other's mind against his own. “You don't understand, I…“

“What is it?“ Simon asked when Blair fell silent. “Is something wrong? Are you more injured than what you've told me? Is there something wrong other than your hands and your head?“

No matter how much he wanted to, Blair knew he couldn't lie to the other man. “No. Like I said, my injuries aren’t that severe.“ Taking a deep breath, he tried to center himself. “Just give me a minute.“ Despite his misgivings, he knew that he was the only hope for the remaining crewmembers that might be injured and trapped throughout the ship. “Okay, I'll try.“

“Blair.“ Henri stepped close to the younger man, remembering their exchange before the crash. “Are you sure you’re up to this? You’ve been under a lot of strain lately and –“

“Look, I said I’m okay. I'm just kinda shook up right now with the crash and everything. But I'm fine.“ Conscious of all the eyes locked onto him, Blair closed his eyes. Slowing his breathing, he tuned out everyone around him and opened up his mind. Instantly, he felt the survivors. “There's several. I can feel them throughout the ship. I feel… I feel…“ His voice growing weaker, Blair's knees buckled and he started to collapse.

Instantly, Simon and Henri lunged forward and caught the falling man. Gently, they eased him to the floor. Concerned, Simon looked over at Henri. “What's wrong?“

“I don't know,“ Henri answered, feeling helpless. “I've never seen him do this before. Usually, he's always in control.“ He shook his head. “I… I just don't know.“

Turning, Simon yelled, “Connor, get over here!“

Rushing forward, Megan Connor fell to her knees beside the men. “Yes, sir.“

“Do something, Lieutenant!“ Simon gestured towards Blair's unconscious form. “You're the only one here with more than basic medical training. Help him!“

“I don't know what to do!“ Worry in her voice, Megan reached over and laid her hand on Blair's forehead and then pushed aside his hair. “Looks like he’s got a head injury. I'd say that it may be affecting him, but it doesn't appear to be that serious.“ She removed her hand and shrugged. “And if this is somehow related to his abilities, then there's nothing I can do for him. I don’t have the necessary knowledge or training to treat him. He’d need a healer.“

At that point, all three became aware of the low mumbling coming from Blair. Simon leaned closer. “What's he saying?“

Head thrashing from side to side, Blair wasn't aware of the words spilling from his mouth. “Gotta find him… out there… hurt… need… want to…“

****

Stumbling along, lost and alone, Blair could feel something pulling at him. Not knowing where he was going, or what he would find, he allowed the unknown force to guide his steps. Scrambling up a sand dune, he reached the top only to go tumbling down the other side. Reaching the bottom, he lay there dazed for several seconds. But soon, whatever was calling to him couldn't be denied any longer and he struggled to his feet.

Tongue snaking out to lick at dry, cracked lips, he wasn't aware of his thirst. He wasn’t aware of anything. He was consumed by this overwhelming urge, this undeniable force that was pulling at him. Nothing registered except the need to find whatever was calling out to him.

Attention drawn by a shimmering in the distance, he broke into a stumbling run. Coming to a sudden stop, he stared in shock when he finally found what he had been drawn to. Looking over the ruined ship, his paralysis broke when he felt a faint tingling sensation course through his body and his mind.

Racing over to the ship, he began to frantically dig through the wreckage. Mind and hands working together to fling aside the twisted and charred metal, he didn't notice as the jagged metal shards cut deep into his flesh. Finally the last piece was moved aside and he gasped when he saw what was uncovered.

With shaking hands, he reached out and cupped the wounded face. His blood mixed with that of the other man's as he stroked the battered cheeks. One finger lightly traced over dry lips and he let out another small gasp when he felt a tongue brush his fingertip. Eyes moving from the mesmerizing sight, he looked up and found himself pinned by two pale, sky blue eyes. “W… who are you?“

Lowering himself closer to the other man, Blair brought his ear down to the injured man's mouth. He could feel the strong chest beneath him struggling to draw in a deep breath as the lips tried to form a word.

“J… Jim.“

****

JIM!“ The name exploded from Blair's lips as he lunged upward.

Hastily backing away, Simon and the others stared at the young man in shock. The first to recover, the Captain asked, “Blair, are you all right?“

Confused, expecting to find himself by the small, wrecked ship, Blair slowly blinked his eyes as he looked around. “W… what?“ Seeming to finally remember where he was, he looked over at the Captain. “I… I'm fine, Simon.“

“Good.“ A relieved expression appeared on Simon’s face only to quickly vanish. “Then maybe you could tell me something?“

“What?“

“Just who in the hell is Jim?“ he demanded.

Blair's brow furrowed as he rubbed his forehead. “I… I…“ Wincing as the movement reawakened the pain in his hand, he brought his hand down and looked at his injured fingers. The faint echo of a feather-light caress against his fingertip made him shiver. Shaking himself, he looked up at Simon. “Nothing. It's nothing.“ Seeing the skeptical look on the other man's face, Blair knew the Captain wasn't convinced. Not wanting to deal with his vision, he tried to divert the other man's attention. “I was able to pinpoint the location of the survivors.“ Looking downward, he seemed to huddle in on himself. “There … there aren't that many left, Simon.“

“Damn it!“ Simon cursed, angered at the lost of his crew. “If I ever find the son of a bitch that attacked us, I'll…“ The Captain took a moment to get a hold of his emotions. He knew that he couldn’t lose control in front of his crew. Especially not now when they would be looking to him for strength and guidance. “I need you to give us locations and numbers, Blair.“

“Give me something to write on,“ Blair requested, still trying to put the vision out of his mind. But despite his best efforts, he couldn’t stop thinking of that phantom man named Jim. Wondering if he really existed. If he were even now lying injured out there, alone and hurt somewhere in the barren wasteland covering this planet they were now trapped upon.

Before Simon could act, Megan leaned past him and handed a data pad to Blair, pulling the young man from his thoughts. “Here you go.“

With a slight smile and a shake of his head, Blair accepted the small, thin device. Taking out the attached stylus, he ignored the fiery pain in his hands as he began to write. “That's it,“ he announced after a few minutes. “That's everyone I could sense.“

Taking the pad, Simon let out another muffled curse when he saw the small number of survivors. “That's all?“ he asked as he looked up at Blair. “Just twenty?“

“I'm sorry, Simon.“ Blair closed his eyes, the magnitude of the lost lives overcoming him for a brief moment, temporarily blotting out the memories of his vision. “That's it.“

The captain began to look around the room. “Rafe, Lash, Taggart,“ he began, summoning the least injured people.

The three men walked over to stand in front of their Captain.

“Yes, sir.“ Taggart was standing slightly in front of the other two men.

“We've got twenty people scattered throughout the ship.“ Simon began to explain the situation to his men. “I want them rounded up and brought here as soon as possible.“

“They'll need breathing masks,“ Henri spoke up. “The corridors are pretty heavily filled with smoke.“

“That means there's a fire somewhere, probably more than one.“ The young man on Taggart's right took a step forward.

“I already considered that possibility, Rafe,“ Simon replied. “For now, all we can do is assume that the internal fire extinguishers are working. We don't exactly have a lot of options here. My main priority is to get everyone off this ship. After that, we'll assess everyone's condition and treat what injuries that we can. Once we get that done, we'll organize some scavenger missions onto the ship. Hopefully, she'll hold together long enough for us to salvage everything that we'll need to survive here until someone finds us.“

“Yes, sir,“ Taggart answered for the three men.

Standing up, Simon showed the three men the data pad. Once they knew where to go, the men saluted and left. After they were gone, the Captain turned to face those who were still in the room. Seeing only minor injuries on the four remaining crewmembers, he was relieved that command was in a well-protected area of the ship. “Everyone grab what you can,“ he instructed. “We need all the emergency packs that we can carry. There are ten of them located in here. Brown, Connor and I will take two apiece. The rest of you grab one.“ As the Captain watched, his remaining crew went into action. Satisfied that his orders were being carried out, he turned to the other person in the room. Looking down, expecting to find Blair, he was surprised when he didn't see the young man. Alarmed, he began to frantically search the room. “Brown!“ When the officer turned to look at him, Simon demanded, “Where's Blair?“

“He's right…“ Trailing off when he didn't see the younger man, Henri looked shocked. “Oh my God! He was right here!“

“I know that.“ Simon's irritation showed in his voice. “He must have slipped out. Damn it! If he gets himself killed –“

“Don't say that, sir,“ Megan interrupted, looking pale and shaken. “He can't die.“

“I'm well aware of that, Connor,“ Simon growled. The Captain rubbed a hand over his face. “The fate of our whole civilization rests on his safety. And God help us all if something happens to him.“

****

Slowly making his way down the corridor, Blair paused for a moment and closed his eyes. Instantly, he recalled the layout of the ship. Not having much to do on their trip, he had studied and memorized all of the ship's blueprints. In his mind, he traced the mazelike hallways and sought out the nearest exit point. “Yes!“ He opened his eyes. Now sure of his path, he set off again.

It wasn't long before he reached his destination. Hiking the survival kit higher on his shoulders, he released the catch on the hatch in the wall. Stepping backwards, he watched as the hatchway sprung open. Not sure what to expect, he took a moment to center himself and then crawled outside only to be instantly bombarded by the oppressive heat.

For a moment, he simply stood by the side of the wrecked ship. He held a hand over his eyes, attempting to block the glaring light of the twin suns shining down from above. His eyes widened as he took in the surroundings. As far as he could see, sand and barren land stretched out all around him. No vegetation could be seen. Even the air felt dry with no discernable moisture to cool his heated skin. For an instant, he allowed himself to wonder how they could ever possibly manage to survive on this inhospitable world. But then, he felt it; that driving force from his vision. And he knew he couldn’t resist it any longer.

Sweat beading on his forehead, he opened his mind to that force. He allowed his consciousness to seek out that of the person he knew was lying somewhere in this desert, waiting for him to come. Feeling the now familiar presence, Jim’s presence, brush against his mind once more, he locked onto the direction it was emanating from. With a final glance back at the wrecked ship, he set off into the seemingly endless stretch of wasteland.

Chapter Six – First Contact

Relentlessly, Blair kept going despite the harsh suns beating down on him. Stumbling to a halt, he paused to take a drink of water and then wiped his arm across his forehead. Grimacing when his arm came away covered with sweat and blood; he took a look around and surveyed his surroundings once more. Like before, dry, barren land stretched out before him. No signs of life stirred and the only movement was the swirling dirt and sand.

Sighing, he put away his water and started again. With each step, he could feel himself getting closer to what he sought. Getting closer to … Jim. For a moment, he felt a brief stirring of doubt and wondered if he had done the right thing. He knew that Simon would be furious at him for sneaking off. And that the captain would only get angrier after finding out why he had left. Blair knew that the person he sought had to be the one who had attacked them. But despite the fact that the man was their enemy, he felt drawn nonetheless. The need started to overwhelm him again. The need to find … the need to join … with the other.

Legs growing heavy, he struggled up the next hill. Leaning forward, he pressed onward. When he reached the top, he found himself looking down on the scene from his vision. The wrecked craft beckoning to him, he forced himself to run. Falling, he scrambled upward. Ignoring the burning sensation in his legs, he drew breath in huge gasps as he reached the ship and fell to his knees.

****

Simon looked up as Taggart and Rafe approached. “Is that everyone?“

Taggart nodded. “Yes, sir. We've evacuated everyone. Dan is treating what injuries he can, but he needs supplies. Should we start trying to scavenge things from the ship now?“

Turing away from his men, Simon looked out over the land. “You are, Taggart. Rafe, I've got something else for you to do.“

Knowing that he was dismissed, Taggart turned and, after collecting three other crewmembers with relatively minor injuries, started over to their wrecked ship.

Expectantly, Rafe faced his captain. “What are your orders, sir?“

Instead of answering, Simon gestured towards Henri. After he joined them, the Captain ordered, “I want you two to find Blair.“

“How are we going to do that, Captain?“ Rafe asked. “We have no idea which way he went or even why he took off in the first place.“

Simon looked over at Henri. “I know that Blair's mother would never have let him go unless there was some way for you to track him.“

Unable to meet the Captain's eyes, Henri looked down. “I was only following orders.“

“We don't have time for your guilt right now, Lieutenant,“ Simon snapped. “Now what kind of tracking device did she have placed on him?“

Reaching into his shirt, Henri pulled out a small device that was attached to a chain hanging around his neck. Holding it out so that the others could see, he said, “There is a small chip implanted on his forearm, just beneath the skin. With this, I can pinpoint his exact location.“

“Well, where is he?“ Simon demanded when Henri didn't say anything else.

Henri looked down at the small, square device and pushed a button located on its back. Immediately, the device lit up and began to beep. “Looks like he's not that far away from our location.“ Pointing, he added, “He went that way.“

When neither man moved, the Captain yelled, “Don't just stand there! Go find him and drag his ass back here!“

Both men saluted. Then they walked over and grabbed a survival kit apiece. Shrugging them on, they took off after Blair.

As he watched the two men depart, Simon felt someone come up to stand beside him.

“Do you think he's okay?“

“I don't know, Connor.“ He didn’t turn to face her, wanting to keep watch on Rafe and Henri for as long as possible. “I just don't know.“

****

Like in his vision, Blair cleared away the debris to reveal a man pinned in the wreckage. When he had crested the dune and first looked down upon the destroyed ship, he was amazed that anyone could have survived the crash. But he had quickly pushed those thoughts aside as he rushed down to the ship.

Now, as before, he gazed down at the injured man. He let out a startled gasp when those pale blue eyes, eyes that he remembered in vivid detail from his dreams and visions, opened to look up at him. “H… hi.“ Inwardly, he cringed at how weak his voice sounded. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “C… can you tell me where you're hurt? I have to get you out of here but I don't want to risk moving you until I know how badly you're injured.“

A grimace of pain crossed the other man's face as he reached a shaking hand towards Blair. His bloodied fingers stroked Blair's cheek and a faint smile appeared on his face. “I… I w… was waiting for you. K… knew you'd c… come.“

Blair shivered as a tingling sensation started at his cheek and then spread throughout his body. “Who are you?“ he asked, though he already knew.

“Jim,“ the man whispered as his eyes slipped shut and his hand dropped.

Alarmed, Blair leaned forward. “Jim! Can you hear me?“ Without conscious thought, the young man reached down and laid one of his hands on Jim's cheek while the other came to rest on the injured man's chest. Acting on pure instinct, he lowered his head and touched his lips to Jim's. As soon as they touched, the tingling sensation intensified, almost to the point of being painful. Everything faded away and he felt himself being pulled.

Blair was spinning out of control, no idea where he was or what was happening to him. But just when he thought he was lost forever, he felt something grab hold of him. A feeling of warmth and safety filled him at the contact. Surprised, his eyes flew open. No longer kneeling, he was now standing and he found himself securely held by a strong set of arms. Looking up, he again found those pale blue eyes staring at him. Panicked, Blair started to struggle but soon gave up when the other man showed no signs of releasing him.

Tightening his arms around the struggling younger man, Jim patiently held on until Blair stilled. “It's okay,“ he murmured. “I've got you.“

“That's supposed to make me feel better?“

Jim chuckled at the sarcasm in the younger man's voice.

“What's going on?“

“I was hoping you could tell me,“ Jim replied, loosening his grip and allowing Blair to draw away from him slightly. And when he finally got a good look at the younger man, his breath caught in his throat. This was the one from his dreams. For a moment, he let his guard down and allowed his mind to brush up against the other’s – only to be met with resistance. As he watched, Blair’s brow furrowed, as if he felt the tentative contact. Jim cleared his throat. “So what’s your name?“

“B… Blair.“

Jim’s eyes narrowed at he stared down at the young man in his arms. “You’re not one of my people, are you? You’re not Panterian?“

Not trusting himself to speak, Blair shook his head.

Closing his eyes, Jim breathed, “Lupinard.“

“Yeah,“ Blair confirmed in a soft voice.

“We’re enemies then.“ Jim opened his eyes and stared down at Blair. The sensations from his dreams rushed over him – the feel of the younger man body as he moved beneath him, the taste of his lips … his skin, the sound of his voice as he cried out. He shook his head, trying to get a hold of himself. “Or at least we’re supposed to be.“

“I… I don’t...“ Blair looked uncertain.

Taking pity on the younger man, Jim suggested, “Why don’t we just call a temporary truce? That way we can concentrate on figuring out what’s going on. All right?“

“Okay.“ Still held in his enemy’s arms, not wanting to think about how he felt so comfortable and at ease there, Blair turned his head to the side and took in his limited view of their surroundings. “I think we're on the spirit plane.“ After a moment, he added, “Again.“

“Again?“ Understanding dawned on Jim’s face. “I remember. It’s not very clear though. Just flashes of your face as you leaned over me. This is our second meeting here, isn’t it?“ When Blair nodded, Jim sighed. “Aw hell. I thought I was done with this shit.“

Surprised by the other man’s words, Blair asked, “What are you talking about?“

“Nothing, kid,“ Jim replied as he finally allowed Blair to slip away and move out of his arms. “I'm sorry I brought you here,“ he apologized. “I didn't mean to. I didn't even realize I could still do this.“

“You've been to the spirit plane before?“

Jim smiled at Blair's surprised tone. “Yeah, I have.“ He shrugged and looked away. “I'm … I'm a Guardian.“ He looked back at the younger man. “Do you know what that is?“

Excited, Blair bounced up and down. “You’re a Sentinel?“

This time, it was Jim's turn to be puzzled. “Sentinels?“

“That's my people's name for Guardians,“ Blair explained. “This is so cool! We didn't know that your people had them too.“

At the younger man's words, both men were reminded that they were supposed to be enemies.

Expression hardening, Blair glared at Jim. “But with my people, Sentinels are supposed to protect people, not kill them. Guess the same doesn't apply for you, huh?“

Angered, Jim's eyes narrowed. “What in the hell is that supposed to mean?“

You attacked us!“ Blair yelled. “Do you realize how many people you killed? Do you even care?“

“Hold up a minute, Chief. I attacked a ship that invaded our territory,“ Jim explained. “For all I knew, your presence was part of an advance attack. I did what I did to protect my people.“

Blair began to pace in front of Jim. “Attack? Are you out of your mind? We weren't anywhere near your space.“

“How can you be so sure?“ Jim questioned. “Were you flying the ship?“

“No.“ Blair stopped to stare at Jim. “But I know Simon would never violate your territory.“

Jim bristled as he heard Blair say the unknown man's name. “Who's this Simon guy?“

Hearing the odd tone in Jim's voice, Blair paused before answering. “The captain of the ship you attacked.“

“And what's his relationship to you?“

Outraged, Blair exclaimed, “None of your damn business!“

“Yes, it is.“

“Really?“ Defiantly, Blair crossed his arms over his chest. “Why?“

Before Blair could react, Jim rushed forward and grabbed the younger man. Crushing Blair to his chest, Jim growled, “Because you're mine!“ Then, he leaned down and captured Blair's lips in a hard kiss.

****

Coming to a halt, Rafe called out to Henri. “Hold up a minute.“ Pulling out his canteen, he took a drink as Henri walked back to him.

After reaching the other man's side, Henri accepted the canteen that was held out to him. “Thanks.“

Rafe nodded. He watched as Henri took a drink and then accepted the canteen back. “So how well do you know Blair anyway?“

Henri didn't look up as he once again consulted the tracking device. “Pretty well. As well as anyone does, I guess. He really doesn't let people get that close, you know.“

“I can imagine.“

Letting the tracking device drop back against his chest, Henri pointed and said, “That direction. We're getting really close. He's not moving so I guess he found whatever it was that made him take off.“

“Why do you think he took off anyway?“

“I don’t know,“ Henri answered. “He must’ve felt it was pretty important though. But I still can’t believe he took off without telling anyone. He knows better than that.“ Henri sighed and shook his head. “Damn kid always was way too impulsive.“

As the two men started walking again, Rafe said, “So tell me about him.“

“Blair?“

“Yeah.“

“Not much to tell really.“ Henri shrugged. “I got assigned to his protection detail a few years ago. We kinda hit it off and he asked his mother to appoint me as his personal bodyguard.“ He paused for a moment, as if considering whether or not he should say anything else. Then he continued. “Most of the other guys tended to treat him … I don't know … kind of like he was untouchable, you know. They didn't try to talk to him or relate to his as a person. I did. I took the time and got to know him.“

Neither man spoke for several minutes as they trudged up a particularly steep hill. Once they reached the top, Rafe remarked, “Isn't that going against the rules? Shouldn't you have stayed detached, remained impersonal?“

“I tried,“ Henri confessed, “but I just couldn't do it. He just seemed so… so lonely. So removed from everyone and everything. It was like he had his books and nothing else. The only knowledge he had of life was what he read. One day, I noticed he was reading a book that was a favorite of mine. We got to discussing it and before you know it, we were talking about all kinds of things.“ Henri smiled as remembered the time he had spent with Blair. “He kinda came out of his shell. Around me, at least.“

Rafe adjusted the straps of his pack. “He seems to be pretty close to the Captain.“

“I think the Captain and Blair's mother have known each other for a while.“ Henri looked over at Rafe. “He used to come around occasionally. Blair always loved it when the Captain visited.“

“So what about the other stuff?“

Henri gave Rafe a puzzled look. “The other stuff?“

“You know,“ Rafe made a vague gesture with his hand, “the other stuff. Like what he did on the ship earlier.“

Henri came to a halt and threw an arm across the other man's chest, bringing Rafe to a halt as well. “Look, despite all the rumors and speculation, Blair is just a guy. He doesn't want nor need anyone treating him like a freak. I won't stand for anyone hurting him. Ever since I've known him, he's had everyone putting all of this pressure on him. With the worst of it coming from his mother. He doesn't need it from us.“

Rafe held up his hands. “Hey, I didn't mean anything by it. I was just curious. After hearing all of the rumors and legends, it's kinda intimidating meeting the real thing.“

“I can understand that. I have to admit; I was the same way at first. But then I got to know the person behind the legend.“ Henri paused for a moment. “And I discovered that he's just a guy who has a lot of pressure put on him. He's got all of these responsibilities and no one to help him bear the burden. So just forget all the hype.“ Turning to face Rafe, Henri asked, “You really want the truth about Blair Sandburg?“

Rafe nodded; all of his attention focused on the other man.

“Blair is just a lonely guy who, because of who he is, must stay apart from the rest of society. He's a kid who really just, for the first time in his life, needs to find someone to care for him and love him for who he is, not what he is or his so-called destiny.“

“But his mother –“

“Is the worse of all,“ Henri interrupted. “All she's interested in is the fame and fortune she gets because she gave birth to Blair.“

“Sounds like a pretty rough life.“

“Now you're getting it.“

Pondering Henri's words, Rafe silently followed after the other man.

****

When Jim finally released him, Blair was panting wildly. Eyes blazing, he exclaimed, “How dare you!“

The other man looked just as shaken as Blair. “I… I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me.“ Jim sounded confused and dazed.

Blair calmed slightly while Jim was speaking. “It's okay. It just kind of caught me by surprise.“

“Me too, kid.“

An irritated expression appeared on Blair's face. “Don't call me that. I'm not a kid.“

Jim chuckled. “You are compared to me.“

Feelings chaotic, Blair tried not to think about how much the kiss, a kiss from a man who was supposed to be his enemy, had affected him. “So, um, you're a Sentinel … a Guardian … huh?“

Just as affected, and confused, Jim allowed the younger man to divert their attention away from the kiss. “Yeah, I am.“

“What about your Companion?“

“My what?“

“Your Companion,“ Blair repeated. “You know, the person who helps you with your abilities. Helps you to handle your senses and everything.“

“Oh, my Guide. That's what my people call them.“ Jim scowled and turned away from Blair, but not before the younger man caught the expression of pain and loss that passed over his face. “I don't have one. Not anymore, at least.“

Blair was shocked by Jim's statement. “Don't have one? But, I thought… Well, among my people all Sentinels must have a Companion. If not, they … they go insane and eventually die.“

“Well, I guess that's something else our people have in common then.“

“You mean that you… you're going to…“

“Don't worry, kid, you're safe.“ Jim cut off the younger man. “Going by the injuries I got when I crashed, I don't think I'm going to be alive long enough for you to have to worry about me going crazy.“

“Jim –“

“What we need to focus on right now, is getting the hell out of here and back to the real world,“ Jim interrupted, not able to stand the look of pity on Blair’s face.

Hesitantly, Blair approached the other man. “Maybe… maybe we need to figure out why we came here in the first place. Once we do that, then maybe we'll be able to leave.“

Jim stiffened as he felt the younger man come up behind him. “Like I told you, I haven't been able to come here for a while. I don’t know…“ He spun around and glared at the younger man. “Unless you’re the one who brought us here.“

“I did not,“ Blair protested. “All I did was…“ With a murmured “oh no“ and a small gasp, Blair fell silent.

Catching the softly spoken words, Jim demanded, “What is it?“

Nervously, Blair met the older man's eyes. “I touched you and… and I felt something go through my body. A tingling sensation.“

Jim didn't understand the importance of what Blair was saying. “So?“

Blair's head flew back and forth as he took a step backwards. “Nothing. It's nothing.“ Looking downward, Blair took a deep breath. “I … I think I know how we can get back. And, if I'm right, you won't have to worry about your injuries anymore.“

“What are you talking about?“

“Nothing.“

“Why do I get the feeling you know a lot more than what you're saying,“ Jim took a step forward, causing Blair to back up some more, “and that I'm not the only one who has paid this place a visit before?“

Eyes downcast, Blair mumbled, “I may have been here a time or two before.“ Voice even lower, he added, “Of course there's usually a wolf and panther running around.“

Jim gave Blair a sharp look. “What did you say?“ When the younger man didn't answer, he lunged forward and grabbed Blair's arms. “What. Did. You. Say?“

Blair struggled against the larger, stronger man. “Let me go! I swear if you don't stop it, you'll never get out of here!“

“Maybe I was wrong,“ Jim gave Blair a calculating look. “Maybe we should just stay here. I mean, what are my choices anyway? Go back to a broken, dying body on some unknown, godforsaken planet or,“ Jim's eyes raked over Blair's struggling body, “stay here with you. Hell, it may be the spirit plane but it feels real enough. It felt pretty damn real when I kissed you. I wonder if everything else will feel as real.“

Unable to believe what the other man was implying, Blair stilled within Jim’s grasp. “You… you don't mean that.“

With a sigh, Jim released Blair. “Just get yourself out of here, kid.“ A sudden thought struck him and he stared intently at the younger man. “You do have other people with you, don't you? You're not alone, are you?“

“No, I'm not alone.“ A sneer twisted Blair's face as he was forcibly reminded of those who had died during the attack and subsequent crash. Still angered by the other man’s behavior and words, he lashed out. “Sorry to disappoint you, but you didn't manage to kill all of us.“

Before he could stop it, an expression of sadness passed over Jim's face, but he quickly suppressed it. “Like I said, you were invading our space. I had every right to attack you.“

“Keep telling yourself that and maybe you can actually live with all that blood on your hands.“

Immediately, all emotion left Jim's face. Allowing none of his feelings to show past the mask he now had in place, the older man growled, “Don't worry. You'll have your vengeance soon enough. Then you and all your friends can spit on my dead body all you want.“

Despite his anger, despite the fact that the other man was his enemy, Blair's heart clenched at the thought of Jim dying. “I… I don't…“

“Don't what? Don't want me dead? I doubt your crewmates share that feeling, kid. One way or another, I'm going to die on this planet. Might as well be here, on my own terms, than at the hands of my enemies.“ Jim turned his back to Blair. “Go on and get out of here. Leave me alone.“

“I'm not leaving you behind,“ Blair protested. “And I'm not going to let anyone kill you. You… That's just not something I could do. All life is sacred to me. Even yours.“

“Well, I guess that makes you a better person than me, huh?“

Blair winced at the bitterness in the older man’s voice. “Jim –“

“If we're going to get out of here, then let's go.“ Jim cut the younger man off.

“Okay. Um… we need to be touching, I think.“

Jim raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything.

“So … um … let's touch.“ Blair chuckled self-consciously as he walked over to Jim. Coming to a halt when they were chest to chest, Blair stared up at Jim and was once again mesmerized by the two pale blue eyes.

“Breathe, kid.“ Jim smiled down at Blair.

Nodding, his hair brushing against Jim's face and neck, Blair let out a shaky breath. “Okay, I can do that.“ Inwardly, the young man was confused by his conflicting emotions. He knew that he should consider the other man an enemy, yet despite that, he couldn’t help but feel the connection between the two of them. And he knew, knew to the very depths of his soul, that this was the man from his dreams. This man was his destiny. But he was also his enemy. Confused, he didn’t know how to reconcile the two. Despite that, Blair still couldn’t deny the need … the want … that filled him.

“You feel it too, don't you,“ Jim breathed.

In response, Blair moaned softly and lowered his head until it rested against Jim's chest. “What is this? I've never felt anything like this before.“

“I haven't either,“ Jim replied, his voice still soft. “Not to this extent. It was similar to this with Car… I’ve felt something like it before, but not this powerful.“

“What is it then? Tell me, please.“

With a shaking hand, Jim tilted Blair's chin up until their eyes met. “I don't know how or why, but there's a bond growing between us.“ When Blair let out a small gasp, Jim leaned down and captured the younger man's lips again. This time, the caress was soft and when the younger man's lips parted even more, Jim used the opportunity to slip his tongue inside Blair's mouth.

**

On to Part 2