Excerpt for Planetary Wars Rise of an Empire by , available in its entirety at Smashwords












Planetary Wars

Rise of an Empire





Mary Ann Bernal


Published by arrangement with Whispering Legends Press


Copyright © 2018 by Mary Ann Bernal


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.


This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Cover design by Steven Novak



Smashwords Edition License Notes


This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.




For

Alex and Kerry

Alex, Ana, and Addy





Dedicated to the memory of


US Army Sgt. Caryn E. Nouv

and all the fallen

military and civilian heroes

in the ongoing fight against terror






Acknowledgements


My sincerest and heartfelt thanks are extended to my family and friends who have been a part of my writing journey these many years.

The enthusiasm and belief in this project provided by my editor, WeiEn Chen, is truly gratifying.

Diane Boni and Holliday Franger have been by my side from the first day I set the cursor to a blank screen. Thank you for believing in my abilities.

I am grateful to Ngaire Victoria Elder, Maria Jones-Phillips, Elisabeth Marrion and K-Trina Meador for their willingness to read my work, whatever the genre.

To Steven Novak, my talented illustrator, my utmost appreciation for creating such amazing covers.

Finally, I remain forever indebted to Brenda Perlin, not only for her friendship but also for her tireless support and promotion of my work.





Also by Mary Ann Bernal


Novels

The Briton and the Dane: Timeline


The Briton and the Dane: Concordia


The Briton and the Dane Trilogy:

The Briton and the Dane

The Briton and the Dane: Birthright

The Briton and the Dane: Legacy


Short Stories

Scribbler Tales Volumes One – Five

Scribbler Tales Presents: Escape from Berlin






A galactic war was unavoidable once Jayden Henry Shaw rose to power. Although of average build, the charismatic dictator was anything but ordinary. With just a glance, his piercing brown eyes captivated a willing audience yet he instilled fear among his opponents. Shaw was clever and cunning and those traits had earned him a seat on the Planetary Governing Assembly. After two terms, he was elected to the position of Deputy Director.

A leader with a vision was needed to turn the tide of unrest festering throughout the general populace. Sadly, a chasm existed between the classes and the escalating volatility threatened to explode with dire consequences. Promising the return of economic stability and peaceful coexistence gained Shaw the support of ordinary citizens and the military high command. Once Terrene, the home planet, was under Shaw’s domination, the dictator cast his eyes on the hundreds of planets within the known solar system.

Civilizations with inadequate defenses offered little or no resistance and were the first to be integrated into the realm. Technologically advanced nations were ultimately crushed, but not without suffering heavy losses. Barely a handful of territories remained free.

Vesta, a planet that was located on the periphery of the universe had been of little importance to the Empire, until now. Expecting an easy victory, the Imperial Forces were soundly defeated with overwhelming casualties on both sides. Demoralized, Shaw’s warriors retreated but would return in greater numbers. It was only a matter of time before the inhabitants succumbed to the oppressor, yet with tyranny came dissension. In the end, freedom had to prevail, whatever the cost. 






Part One


The Seduction






Chapter One


Jayden Henry Shaw watched the landing spacecraft from his office window. His posture was impeccable as he stood with his hands behind his back. The crystal-clear glass reflected perfection but Jayden was not faultless. Tyranny was a compelling aphrodisiac and that made him dangerous.

Growing up in the capital city of Setares where the Shaw family wielded power long thought extinct in an age of social equality, Jayden Henry Shaw had learned the intricacies of governing, mastering the political game earlier than his counterparts.

Even though egalitarianism had been established after the last world war nearly destroyed the planet, an aristocratic class subtly seized control, and the general public was none the wiser.

A select few held onto their influence while becoming wealthy and were eventually segregated from society as a whole. This group occupied a third of the municipality, creating a sub-city where entry was by written invitation.

After years of exploitation, the lower classes lacked the basic necessities for survival. Tensions were rising, and there was talk of rebellion. How could this have happened? Developing such a hierarchy had to have been pre-meditated. And who was behind this? Could they be stopped? And who are they?

An angry mob stormed the government premises. Its inhabitants barely escaped with their lives. Everyone was safely evacuated to some unknown destination. Everyone that is, except Jayden Henry Shaw.

By age thirty-five, Jayden Henry Shaw became aware of the unrest, after having visited the neighborhoods and developing personal relationships with the lower classes, which gave them hope. He championed the military by providing more than adequate funding to retain a well-trained fighting force. Shaw used his influence while a member of the Planetary Governing Assembly to interact with the armed services of participating members. He provided much-needed financial support for the legions of skilled men, often forgotten when there was peace.

At the onset of the Setares rebellion, Jayden Henry Shaw took control of the city and declared martial law. Within a month, Shaw was the absolute ruler of Terrene, setting his sights on conquering every world in the known universe.

The reign of Jayden Henry Shaw had begun.

***

A firm knock had Jayden turning towards Mason, his second in command, who entered quickly and closed the door. Taking a seat, the executive officer waited until his lifelong friend sat before speaking.

“It’s as we suspected. Vesta maintains a permanent militia whose numbers are swelling with new recruits that are arriving on a daily basis from the outlying planets. The rallying cry is don’t let freedom die, which is now spreading to other occupied territories. We’ve been able to quell the rebels in these locales, except on Vesta. Confirmed intel reports numerous factions reverting to guerrilla tactics with much success. We haven’t been able to penetrate these groups; they appear to be independent of each other. I want to go there myself, but as a traveler, or a merchant, staying a month or longer. Dean is more than capable to handle my responsibilities until I return, but, it’s your call. What do you think?”

Jayden mulled over the idea, foreseeing every outcome before deciding that the plan had merit. Rising, he paced the length of the room while speaking.

“It could work, but I’ll accompany you. I haven’t been down in the trenches, lately, and have lost touch with the people. We need to discover why they’re defiant. The Empire provides what’s needed to survive. Why isn’t that enough?”

Jayden put his hands on Mason’s shoulder and said, “We could use a vacation. How about inviting Dean and Evan? It’ll be the four of us, like old times when we bar-hopped and picked up women. Who knows, I might find the perfect woman to give me an heir.”

***

Vesta was a beautiful planet, sitting at the edge of the universe, alone in the darkness, its nearest neighbor light years away.

The self-sufficient world had evolved naturally and, as the centuries passed, the Vestians became technologically competitive, discovering other life in the vast cosmos.

The populace lived in a lawful society. Their cities beckoned the best and the brightest, but the countryside had its own allure with its laid-back lifestyle that was a far cry from the commotion of a thriving metropolis. The local police kept order in the streets while the military controlled outer space.

Vesta had been compared to a Utopian civilization but war and conquest shattered its innocence and neutrality. The government had not been prepared for such an onslaught when Shaw’s forces appeared out of nowhere, with an ultimatum to surrender or face certain death. The ruling council had refused to capitulate, and Vesta found itself at war with the Empire.

What should have been a straightforward victory for Shaw’s Imperial troops became a humiliating defeat. The commander of the fleet had underestimated the enemy who destroyed half his ships. Ground forces were picked off with precision by an invisible defender blending in with the environment, chameleon-like, and deadly.

Presently, Vesta was safe from annihilation. However, if Vesta fell, enslavement of the survivors was a given, yet if the Vestians were to win the next battle, the victory would be catastrophic to the Empire, threatening Shaw’s control of the galaxy. At the moment, life returned to a semblance of normalcy. The first noticeable change was the strengthening of all fortifications while building new defenses in strategic locations. Another development was the compulsory enlistment of all eligible citizens into the armed forces that included previously exempt vocations, specifically, physicians and surgeons. Recruiting Stations processed hundreds of applications daily, and morale was high.

Being patriots, Doctor Anastasia Dennison and her best friend, Doctor Sophia Loft, were eager to join the Vestian Medical Corps. They specialized in Emergency Medicine and had gained battlefield experience treating the wounded during the first attack. Additionally, both women were researchers, hoping to find a cure for a genetically inherited mutated gene, which plagued five percent of the population that remained incarcerated in a guarded internment camp not far from the city. Living conditions on the unwelcoming part of the planet were shocking. The illegal detainment of citizens was a blight on Vestian society, but this deplorable secret had been kept from the public. Most Vestians believed the riddle of the mutated gene had been solved generations ago, and the anomaly became a mere footnote in the textbooks.

Anastasia and Sophia had been approached by the government to develop a cure, which meant a visit to the hidden site. What they witnessed was appalling. Since the mutated gene affected individuals differently, the degree of intelligence varied as did developmental deformities.

It took a week to document each resident with their specific disorder. The appropriate samples were taken, and a nutritional regimen was to be implemented before the doctors agreed to honor the classified status of the project.

Over the course of a year, Anastasia and Sophia returned to the Rock Bridge facility frequently where they checked on the health of their patients, making sure their dietary requirements were being met. Anastasia built a house close by, which included a medical treatment facility. Chase, her medical robotic A.I., lived on the premises and kept her apprised of the guards’ activities.

“It looks like we’re finally next,” Sophia said. “I hope we get to work in the same place.”

Anastasia nodded in agreement, as she approached the recruiter. A retinal scan confirmed her identification with CLASSIFIED written across the screen. It was the same for Sophia.

“Follow me,” the recruiter said, as he led them to the back of the building. “Wait here.”

“I hope we didn’t do something wrong,” Sophia said. “I guess being employed by the government means we needed permission to sign up?”

“Both of you have already been commissioned,” a Lieutenant said while approaching the women. “There appears to be a communication problem. You should’ve been taken to Control once the enemy was defeated. I apologize for the mix-up. My sergeant can bring you there now.”

“Well, it looks like we’ll be together,” Anastasia said, as the vehicle sped towards the center of the city. “Hope we get decent quarters.”

Within minutes, Anastasia and Sophia were ushered through the check-in and led to the third floor. They were excited as they entered a spacious suite and were seated in front of a large desk facing an officer wearing a Special Forces uniform.

“Sorry for the confusion,” the officer said. “We’re still in the process of finalizing deployments. Both of you have been added to the staff at the Colwich City Medical Center. Your first priority is continuing your research, but you’ll also cover Emergency Medicine. Housing has been arranged in an adjoining apartment complex until the Empire’s threat to conquer Vesta has been neutralized. You report for duty in the morning. Any questions?”

“Can we go home on weekends?” Sophia asked.

“You’re now officially part of the Armed Forces and you must follow orders. If permission is granted, you may leave the premises. Remember, we’re at war.”

“Yes, sir,” Anastasia and Sophia replied in unison before leaving.

The sergeant escorted the women to their respective residences for the evening, returning at dawn to take them to the Colwich City Medical Center. If all went well, their temporary tour of duty would not last very long.






Chapter Two


There were two major facets of Shaw’s personality, a friendly charming persona, which was known to a select few, and conversely, a cruel and ruthless demeanor that was revealed to everyone else.

While growing up, Jayden was given the nurturing love and attention necessary to generate a productive member of society. Setares was a cultural city, a center of knowledge that enticed the learned from all parts of the galaxy.

The planet was experiencing a golden age, a revival of a civilization devoid of status, where every citizen was equal, regardless of their level of education and choice of employment.

Petty crime was practically non-existent since each citizen’s needs were met. The possibilities were endless. If one was born in the country but wished to have a career in the city, there were infinite opportunities to achieve the dream.

Mason and Jayden had been neighbors and were the same age. They were educated at the same schools, played with the same friends, and considered themselves brothers. Jayden and Mason were good children who grew into good men, becoming interested in serving the people in leadership positions.

Jayden’s charming smile attracted women since his teenage years. He had numerous relationships throughout his life, but he had yet to meet the woman, a partner to trust with his innermost confessions.

While attending Setares University, Jayden and Mason met roommates Dean and Evan, and they became close. Life was still good, but the socioeconomic undercurrents were eroding the fabric of stability.

A class system developed, subtly. Yet to the trained eye, the change was really transparent. People in the government began to assert their influence over ordinary citizens. Workers from the outlying fields were looked at with distaste. The cost of goods and services increased, albeit gradually. Salaries stagnated and new employees were hired at a lower wage.

As the four friends finished their education, an elite hierarchy was established, and they reaped the rewards of their parents’ aspirations. The next step was becoming a member of the Planetary Governing Assembly where the future dictator gained extensive knowledge of Terrene’s democratic institutions and learned about the various forms of government practiced on other planets within the solar system. Most worlds were democratic republics, but a few absolute monarchies still existed.

Jayden excelled in statesmanship. Mason, Dean, and Evan preferred serving in the Armed Forces where they surpassed expectations in their respective disciplines.

The tide was beginning to turn on Terrene and Jayden formulated a plan to overthrow the existing leaders. It was not to be a sudden coup d’état, but a calculated takeover, with military support, which included Mason, Dean, and Evan at the helm.

While a member of the Governance Body, Jayden had aligned himself with high-ranking military officers from every represented planet. He was not merely a friend; he was an ally with influence who had secured funding during financial crises and during budgetary negotiations. He kept in contact with every commander after his term in office expired, and he knew he had their support.

Returning to Setares, Jayden walked the streets of the city. He noticed declining neighborhoods and too many homeless people. He was accessible, speaking to groups and individuals alike while promising change. Jayden’s charisma attracted the masses and he became their savior.

Patience was one of Jayden’s virtues. He was cunning, manipulative, and cruel, but he had restrained those traits since childhood, not even Mason had been privy to his true nature, at this point.

When the mob attacked the leadership, Jayden already held the reins. Mason’s forces directed the crowd while Dean’s troops whisked the frightened affluent class to safety. They were never seen again, but then, no one gave them a second thought.

After declaring martial law, Evan’s soldiers patrolled the streets, arresting dissidents as Jayden offered succor to the frightened citizens who had failed to leave the city, housing them in military barracks where they remained until they recognized Jayden as their supreme leader. He had no qualms about executing any who did not sanction his authority.

The transition had not been difficult. Within a month, Jayden’s socialized programs were operational. People were fed, given shelter and medical care. Employers were hiring at a reasonable wage, yet martial law remained in effect.

Mason was not surprised that Terrene had surrendered after one month. Jayden was the brains, Mason, Dean, and Evan were the brawn. Soon, Jayden would be the supreme ruler of the universe but soon took longer than expected, because Shaw had not counted on an organized resistance movement.

***

Colwich City was a thriving metropolis despite the imminent threat shrouding Vesta. Jayden spent much of the day by himself, wandering the streets, eavesdropping on conversations, visiting shops, museums, the financial district, the courts, and medical centers. Military Control was adjacent to the travel port, which had been Jayden’s initial point of entry weeks ago.

The men came across rooms in a vintage boarding house located in an artistically renowned neighborhood. The local inhabitants pointed out architectural landmarks, recommending restaurants and top attractions, which kept Mason, Dean, and Evan busy. It was not difficult to blend in, and unless one was privy to their point of origin, one would swear the visitors were born and bred Vestians.

One afternoon, Jayden was sitting in the courtyard of the Colwich City Medical Center. He chose a bench near a cluster of trees, a welcoming respite from the midday heat. Watching people was an educational pastime. A favorite game was discerning occupations by observing mannerisms and attire. What was intriguing was the lack of class distinction. It was possible labor robotic A.I.’s performed tasks considered menial, which eliminated the caste system altogether.

As Jayden was about to call it a day, he noticed an alluring woman leaving the hospital. Her shoulder-length brown hair billowed in the wind, unruly strands caressing her face. A white lab coat covered blue scrubs, which attested to her profession. She carried a leather briefcase while walking swiftly to the apartment complex located on the premises.

Jayden followed her into the lobby where she waited for the elevator.

“Excuse me, I’m new here, and I was wondering, could you recommend a good restaurant, Miss…?”

“Doctor Anastasia Dennison, and The Bixby, on the next street over, has the best local food, in my opinion.”

The elevator door opened, but Jayden took hold of her wrist.

“Please, join me for coffee, or for something to eat. My name’s Henry, and you’re very attractive.”

Anastasia looked directly into Jayden’s eyes. She knew he was a stranger to the area, but he seemed sincere and for some inexplicable reason, she trusted him.

“I need to change. Wait for me in the courtyard.”

“You’ll not regret it, I promise.”

While Jayden lingered in the courtyard, he messaged Mason.

Met someone. Will be late. Carry on without me.

Anastasia’s smile was unsettling as Jayden watched her heading towards him. There was something special about her, but what? He was feeling protective, but why? He did not know the woman, yet he could not shake the sentiment, and he wanted her in his life.

“Henry, I wasn’t sure if you would still be here. Didn’t mean to be so long. There was a problem with one of my patients.”

“I’m glad you came,” Jayden said. “I dare say I was slightly nervous that you had changed your mind. After all, getting picked up in an apartment lobby isn’t the best way to meet someone.”

“Well, it’s better than the market.”

“Ah, the marketplace, now that’s a thought!” Jayden replied, laughing.

“This way,” Anastasia said as she grabbed Jayden’s hand. “If we hurry, we might get a table before it gets too busy.”

Jayden requested a booth towards the back of the restaurant, out-of-the-way, and quiet. The ambiance was amazing, dim lighting and a flickering candle on every table. After placing their order, Jayden raised his wine glass and said,

“A toast to new beginnings.”

“To new beginnings,” Anastasia replied to the sound of clinking glass.

Jayden was familiar with the antiquated word, smitten, which accurately described his feelings. Again, he asked himself why? Rather than deny the emotion, he relaxed, beginning the conversation to set Anastasia’s mind at ease.

“I guess you know I’m not from around here. Truth be told, I’m on leave. My unit has been in combat, forever, but until there is victory, we fight. I can’t give you any more information. It’s classified.”

“I understand classified,” Anastasia replied. “I am a medical doctor and researcher, and my assignments are classified.”

“Fascinating. So you understand why I won’t always be around, and why I can’t divulge our missions, but there’s more to life than work. Just give me a chance.”

“Be careful, the plates are hot,” the waiter cautioned, as he set down a seafood platter in the center of the table. “Let me know if you want anything else.”

The couple ate quietly but were almost finished with their meal before Jayden spoke. “Wow, guess we were starving, excuse my manners, I wasn’t ignoring you.”

Anastasia laughed, pointed her wine glass in Jayden’s direction and replied, “My apologies, I didn’t mean to be rude, but, as you noticed, I, we were so hungry. I didn’t eat lunch, but, then, that’s not really an excuse.”

The conversation picked up again after the dishes were cleared. Jayden did not reveal very much about himself but pressed Anastasia about her career choices and how she managed to find classified government assignments. Even though Anastasia might furnish accurate intel in the future, Jayden was more interested in her as a partner, a trustworthy confidant, and hoped his instincts were right.

Without compromising anything secretive, Anastasia referred to a second home near the desert where she had built a medical facility that was meant to treat people in outlying areas, such as prospectors, traders, and other travelers, many of which preferred antiquated modes of transportation. She admitted to owning an automobile one drove on the ground, not hovering above in the congested airspace. Naturally, reaching one’s destination would take longer, but there was little traffic. The vehicle remained at the desert house, and Anastasia offered to drive him around the barren countryside.

Discussing family was a different matter. Tears welled up in her eyes as Anastasia’s thoughts were elsewhere. Jayden saw the pain and cursed himself for mentioning the subject.

“I’m sorry,” Jayden said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. My entire family perished during a rebel attack. Have you experienced such a loss?”

“My parents died during the invasion. I was stationed at a bunker hospital and was away from the onslaught. The location was heavily fortified. We were able to treat the wounded in a secure environment. It was horrific, Henry. I never saw such carnage before, and I hope never to see it again, but it can only get worse when they come back. We must persevere.”

Jayden held Anastasia’s hand, wondering aloud about the placement of the bunker, and if it was out of harm’s way.

“The bunker is near the Military Control Center. Its camouflaged entrance is embedded in a rock formation and not clearly visible,” Anastasia replied to the unasked question. “Command is located several stories beneath the medical facilities.”

“Is there a war room?”

Anastasia nodded, but said, “Why do you want to know? I think I have said too much.”

“My concern is for your wellbeing. If you’re so close to Operations, your chances of survival are questionable. That’s the reason I ask. I don’t want you harmed. I’m sorry if I was out of line. Forgive my impertinence. But let’s not talk any more about the war. What are you doing tomorrow? I have two weeks left of leave, and I’d like to spend every hour of the day with you, but the choice is yours.”

“I’d like that very much, and I do have the next few days off. I can show you the city, places tourists don’t get to see.”

“Great. How about an early start? Does eight o’clock work? I can meet you at your apartment building, in the lobby.”

“Sounds good. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

Leaving the restaurant, Jayden offered his arm to Anastasia, a practice belonging to another era when life had been simpler. Holding on with both hands, Anastasia glanced at the moonlit sky. Breathing in the stillness was a relief, a far cry from the recent battles that had caused so much pain and suffering. Her thoughts relived the nightmare; remembering the noise, her body trembled.

“What’s wrong?” Jayden asked. “You’re shaking.”

“I’m sorry. The stillness is such a drastic change after the recent explosions, which dominated the heavens for days. It was horrendous. Does one ever get used to war?”

“If we lose our sensitivity, we lose our humanity. Your feelings are normal, but we do what we must to survive. It doesn’t get any easier, but our inner strength gives us courage, and you’re very courageous.”

“Thank you for understanding,” Anastasia replied as they went into the lobby and waited for the elevator. “I’m looking forward to our date.”

Once the elevator doors closed, Jayden left, messaging Mason he was on the way. He met his friends in a local bar that they had frequented on a daily basis since their arrival. Sitting in the empty chair, Jayden took a drink and started to discuss his evening.

“I’ve learned the location of Vesta’s Command Operations,” Jayden said. “But I must be cautious. The woman is an innocent, and I don’t want to take that from her. Besides, she’s really not in a position to learn State secrets. She’s a doctor, but her research is classified. I doubt she’s creating biological agents.”

“You like her,” Mason told him.

“Admit it,” Dean said.

“What’s her name?” Evan asked, “and will we get to meet her?”

“Anastasia, and maybe, later,” Jayden replied. “I told her my name is Henry since I don’t want her knowing my true identity.”

“That’s wise,” Mason said. “We don’t know how she perceives the Empire. Besides, we would not want our supreme leader captured or worse yet, killed.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, my friend,” Jayden replied as he was about to leave. “I need to get some rest since I have an early date.”

The men sipped their drinks as they watched Jayden leave. A romantic entanglement at this point in time was an unwanted distraction, and Mason, Evan, and Dean wondered about Shaw’s ulterior motive. Jayden had dated many women, but the encounters were brief without any emotional attachment. Jayden’s attitude changed radically when speaking of Anastasia, which made them uneasy. It was too early in the game to raise concern, but that did not stop the speculation. The love of a woman had caused the defeat of many an emperor, so they would be vigilant. The men had come too far to lose it all over some upstart. It was unanimous. To save the Empire, Anastasia would be eliminated if it came to that.






Chapter Three


Anastasia was lounging on the terrace, sipping her coffee as sunlight filtered through her It was first light, when dawn broke on the horizon, amid the colorful hues of sunrise as the planet awakened. As the last vestiges of the darkened sky slipped into oblivion, the rising sun was a majestic entity; its warming rays a welcome relief from the night chill.

apartment. She was enthralled with Henry because she found him to be both intriguing and charismatic. And those traits were a lethal combination if one were pursuing a mate. Anastasia was not interested in marriage, which would complicate her life, not to mention being inconvenient, yet she could not turn away. In the distant future, a very distant future, it might just work. She did admire Henry’s dedication and commitment to free the universe from the dictator’s yoke but realized it was difficult to have a personal life when fighting for one’s country.

Should I meet him? Or not? What could it hurt? He’ll be leaving soon, anyway. It’s just one day.

The intercom ringing interrupted her thoughts.

“It’s not eight already, is it?” Anastasia said to herself as she ran inside and pressed the button. “Henry, is that you?”

“I’m a little early,” Jayden replied. “No rush, I can wait. I’ll be in the courtyard.”

Putting the empty cup on the counter, Anastasia texted a message to Sophia before leaving. Taking one last look in the mirror, she left her apartment with a smile on her face, and she was determined to enjoy the adventure.

“Sorry about the time,” Jayden said. “I confess I was anxious that you’d changed your mind.”

“Well, I didn’t, and here I am, so how about some breakfast? I know a place.”

“I bet you do,” Jayden replied. “Lead the way.”

Jayden was determined to refrain from collecting intel, concentrating on Anastasia’s life in general. There were similarities in their childhood, a loving family, cherished friends, and a passion for learning. Even though it was painful, they discussed how their parents’ deaths had affected them, the anger, the denial, the acceptance.

The conversation shifted to nonsensical chitchat while Anastasia took on the role of tour guide, showing Jayden her beautiful city. He was observant as they moved about the streets. Shaw noticed armed troops were stationed at critical defensive locations. Their presence was accepted by the civilians without fear since safety was the main concern, and battle-ready soldiers were most welcomed.

The Command area was heavily guarded as was the financial and government districts. Jayden was interested in the exact location of the bunker, hoping to find the entrance, but it was successfully camouflaged, and he did not want to spook Anastasia, so he remained quiet.

Hiding his disappointment, Jayden spotted a sandwich shop and reminded Anastasia that it was time for lunch. Keeping the atmosphere light, Jayden discussed studying at the university and even talked about his old flames. He was attentive as Anastasia spoke of her love of medicine and wanting to make a difference in people’s lives. She did not bring up her research, which made Jayden more curious. He would discover the truth, but not this day.

“The city is nice, and it’s fun to play tourist, but I am interested in seeing ordinary everyday activities; what about showing me your desert house? I’d like to meet Chase.”

“We can get there by sunset if we leave now, but there’s really not much to see.”

“Don’t you find the Badlands interesting?”

“Badlands? Whatever name is that?”

“Every planet has a region noted for its inhospitable rugged beauty, and Badlands does fit the description.”

“We’ll have to spend the night.”

“I don’t mind sleeping on the couch if there’s not enough room. I’ll not harm you; besides, you have Chase, who can make sure I keep my word.”

Anastasia stifled her laughter as she lowered her eyes. Once composed, she said, “There’s a shuttle in an hour. I have to contact Chase, but we should pick up some food. We can’t have you fainting from hunger.”

While Anastasia was grocery shopping, Jayden waited outside, messaging Mason.

Everything is fine. Will be staying at the desert house. Should be back tomorrow night. Check out the Command Center. The bunker is located somewhere in that area. The entrance is in the rock façade; see if you can locate it.

“We need to hurry,” Anastasia said as she handed Jayden a shopping bag filled to the brim. “If we miss the transport, we’ll have to wait two hours.”

Jayden spotted more armed soldiers patrolling the station when they arrived. There were fast food vendors, a bar, lockers and a bank. It should not be too difficult to overcome the guards. Simultaneous coordinated attacks would cripple Vesta’s infrastructure. Jayden took one of the station maps before boarding, which he planned on giving to Mason.

The last stop was Rock Bridge, which was the official Badlands name where Chase waited.

“He drove the car!” Jayden said. “I can’t wait to drive it.”

“I will consider it if you promise not to mess up the engine,” Anastasia said as Chase handed her the keys.

Driving over dusty roads was a distinctive experience that Jayden appreciated. He was perceptive, observing his surroundings and noted the desolation. Whatever research project Anastasia was involved in, it was top secret. No one ventured out to these parts. Where were the houses, and the stores, and the people? No, this was not a normal Badlands locale. Chase had the answers, and he would get them, and Anastasia should be none the wiser.

“Here we are,” Anastasia said as they pulled into the spacious driveway.

“I was not expecting any of this. And the architecture is really magnificent. I’m truly impressed.”

“We have all the conveniences of city life,” Anastasia said as she went inside.

***

Although Jayden’s Machiavellian mind was spinning, he suppressed the impulse to reveal his true nature. Instead, he was charming, thoughtful, and very likable. Even Chase enjoyed his company. If Jayden could fool an A.I., he could fool anyone, which was a pleasant thought.

The local news was streaming as Jayden made himself at home. There was not any mention of the recent attacks, but military recruitment trailers were interspersed during the programming. Despite the fact that enlistments were high, generating combat-ready soldiers did not happen overnight and that fact was advantageous for the Imperial Forces.

After the embarrassing defeat, Jayden was in no hurry to launch another attack. An undercover operation was called for, and Dean and Evan were the best choices to infiltrate Command Operations. With their proven skill set, it should not take long for them to be commissioned officers in the Vestian army. Jayden would implement the mission on his return, which put a smile on his face.

“The food’s ready,” Anastasia said from the kitchen. “Hope you’re hungry.”

This time, Anastasia asked the questions, wanting to know more about this mysterious man. Jayden bared his soul, relating a narrative of pure fiction to tug at her heartstrings. He shared his feelings of loneliness while growing up, angry that his parents put their careers before their son at a time when he needed the emotional support. Yes, he was given the best education, and nannies, who kept the monsters at bay, but it was his parents’ love and approval he craved.

One night, there was a fire in the forest, which Jayden could see from his bedroom window. He was frightened, fearing the flames would engulf the house. Running into his parents’ bedroom, he was upset to find himself alone in the dark. Where were they? He did not know.

Another traumatic event occurred months after the forest fire incident. A terrible storm was raging that left a path of destruction in its wake. Jayden had been playing on the beach when suddenly, the wind picked up and the clouds darkened. He did not pay any attention to nature’s wrath as he built his sand castle. A sudden roar caught his interest, and when he looked at the sea, there was a wall of water heading in his direction. Glancing back over his shoulder, Jayden realized there was no one else around. Scrambling to his feet, he ran towards the cliffs, hoping to take shelter in one of the caves, and that decision had saved his life. His mother and father claimed they had been trying to find him, but he did not believe they were telling the truth.

“Henry, I’m so sorry,” Anastasia said while squeezing his hand. “How horrifying.”

“They loved me in their own way but that was not enough. After they died, I felt relief because the pretense had ended. Please don’t think ill of me.”

Anastasia smiled through tearful eyes, wishing to take away the pain. Grabbing Jayden’s hand, she escorted him outside to view a star-studded sky. She leaned against him, pointing out the different constellations known to her world. Her soft voice affected his psyche, intensifying his need to protect her from all that was wrong in the universe.

“If you’re interested, we can visit Snakes End. It’s an old mining settlement, but people still live there. And I’ll let you drive. How does that sound?”

“It sounds delightful, but you are not allowing this because you feel sorry for me, are you? I couldn’t deal with that.”

“Henry, you’re my guest, and I enjoy your company. I’m sorry you had an emotionally difficult childhood, but that’s in your past. You’re a wonderful person, and I’m happy we met. Whatever happens between us, will evolve naturally. Our being here tonight is a beautiful memory that I’ll always cherish.”

Acting on impulse, Jayden kissed Anastasia on the lips with a tenderness he never felt before.

“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s fine. Come with me, there’s something you must see.”

Anastasia guided him towards a hidden cliff. As they approached the base, Jayden thought he heard rushing water. Within minutes, they saw a waterfall, spewing out of a crevice, its color a luminous pink.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Anastasia asked. “It is a natural phenomenon, which is caused by algae. It should be one of our tourists’ attractions, but this venue doesn’t excite most people.”

“Is this why you built your house here, to be close to nature’s miracles?”

“It’s relaxing, being away from the city, as if one is in sync with creation. A simple time when food and shelter were enough, when a family came first, before wanting more changed everything.”

“Do I detect a cynic? Are you unhappy?”

“Henry, you’re so caring. No, I’m not unhappy, but I wish people could get along. Why must there be wars? Why can’t planets co-exist peacefully? Why can’t each world govern their citizens who live in freedom? I think the dictator will enslave Vesta, and the consequences are frightening.”

“It’s late, we best get back,” Jayden said.

Walking in silence, Jayden contemplated Anastasia’s concerns, but instantly, dismissed them. His dominance of the entire universe was for the good of the populace; wars, famine, and poverty should be done away with. Keeping people safe, fed and employed was all that was needed. And without structure, there was chaos. Someone must govern, which was his destiny. The king was dead and in the monarch’s place stood a leader willing to pick up the gauntlet. What was that obsolete saying? Spare the rod and spoil the child. Yes, the vanquished were to be taken care of, but they would not be spoiled. If his laws were broken, the condemned would suffer an appropriate punishment. Yet, he was a benevolent ruler that would execute the penitent mercifully.

Jayden needed an heir, and should he marry Anastasia, his family must be kept away from the political arena. He longed for the day to pass the torch to his son, creating a dynasty to last a thousand years.







Chapter Four


The drive to Snakes End was more than enjoyable. And as she had promised, Anastasia gave Jayden the car keys before sitting in the passenger’s seat. Since the sun was shining, the retractable roof was lowered into the rear storage space as Anastasia made a ponytail using an old-fashioned rubber band.

“It is a pretty straight run, Henry. Turn right once we leave the compound and stay on the main road for twenty miles.”

Jayden nodded while leaving the driveway, savoring every moment as he flawlessly handled the outdated car. It was next to impossible to hold a conversation with the excessive wind, which gave Anastasia time to think.

First, why did she say yes to his invitation? Normally, she would have become better acquainted prior to dating someone or socialize in a group before agreeing to meet. Why did she put herself in such a perilous situation? It was not because he was handsome, most men were. It was not his charm; there was plenty of that to go-around. It had to be something unexplainable, like soul mates in a spiritual sphere reuniting in human form after centuries of separation that was drawing them together; but getting a headache over an inexplicable theory was not worth it. They might become a couple, or might not.

The specific questions about classified projects were alarming. He was too forceful, in her opinion, and she could not help but question his motives. Anastasia was sure the Empire had sent agents to Vesta, and he could be the enemy, but where was the proof? Did he not say he was concerned for her welfare? She was probably overly suspicious, and he had not revisited the topic, so why was she distrustful?

Anastasia remembered his unhappiness as he shared his painful boyhood memories. Not many men, or women for that matter, would dare verbalize their weaknesses to someone they had just met. He was comfortable in her presence and did not hesitate. He trusted her, was open and honest; how could she not be drawn to him? And her doubts began to fade away.

Looking over at the handsome man, Anastasia saw his relaxed stance as he loosely held onto the wheel while focusing on the road. His eyes depicted a sadness, which captured a brief glimpse into his soul. She was not fooled by the bravado, a ploy to keep the truth hidden. He was compassionate but was probably tormented by his actions in combat. Who would not be? Taking a life was never easy, nor was living with that knowledge for one’s entire lifetime. Anastasia wanted to lessen his anguish by doing happy things while leaving the ugliness at the door. He wanted to be with her as much as possible, taking refuge from the evil that surrounded him.

“We are almost there. Do you see the snake-shaped stone ahead?”

After parking the car near the travel port, the young couple held hands while walking along Main Street. Anastasia spoke softly when revealing scandalous stories about the town’s history.

“Lady Doctor,” a young voice shouted from behind. “My mother fell and can’t move. Please, help us.”

“It’s okay. Go with the child,” Jayden told her. “I’ll be fine. Besides, there must be a saloon somewhere, right?”

“Thank you, and yes, there is. Just keep on going straight ahead, towards the mountains,” Anastasia said, kissing him on his cheek before she left.

Personally, Jayden was happy the opportunity arose so he could get in touch with Mason. He explained the undercover mission, instructing Dean and Evan to enlist in Vesta’s Armed Forces over the next few days. He mentioned to Mason that he was extending his visit, but it was up to Mason to either stay or return to Terrene, as originally planned. Jayden was disappointed they had not uncovered the entrance to the bunker, and it was proving difficult to obtain information about Rock Bridge. Jayden had been right, there was a government cover-up. Why else would Anastasia have built such a house? He asked Mason to find out everything about Snakes End and if there were other settlements in the Badlands.

The town was from another era, its buildings made of wood and stone. The rugged appearance of the townsfolk complemented the outmoded façade. Was this a pretense, hiding the truth, or did the people actually live in these conditions? Did they ever travel to Colwich City? What about Rock Bridge? How frequent were the visits? Was Snakes End a part of the conspiracy or was it a town that happened to legitimize Rock Bridge’s existence?

Faint music was heard coming from the only saloon that was up ahead, at the edge of town. Jayden entered the busy room, went to the bar and ordered a beverage. He glanced at the crowd, searching for someone that needed a drink. Near the back was an elderly man, in a drunken stupor, nursing his whiskey. Shaw nodded to the man while setting a full bottle of the house special on the table before sitting down.

“I wonder if there are any stories of interest,” Jayden said as he filled the man’s glass. “I’m writing a book.”

“Are you now? What do you want to know?”

“Who founded the town? How long has it been here? Why hasn’t it embraced change? You all seem to be stuck in a time warp.”

“In the old days, we searched for gold, and find it, we did. But the veins ran dry and people left. It was hard to adjust to the city. We didn’t mind the technology, it was the people. They couldn’t be trusted and neither could the government. This town remains untouched by progress but steer clear of Rock Bridge. There are strange goings-on, and you definitely don’t want to be there at night. A few lads were curious, and too much alcohol gave them the courage to discover the truth. They were never seen again. There’s a lady doctor who has a clinic. She comes here, too. Without her, most of us would be dead by now. Don’t know why she’s this far out. Snakes End is the last town until after you cross the desert. We have a boarding house, if you want to spend the night unless you plan on returning to the city, but heed my warning, and stay away from Rock Bridge,” the old man said as he took the bottle and wandered out the back door.

***

“There you are,” Anastasia said as Jayden was leaving the tavern. “I’ve been trying to find you.”

“I must say, this is the closest thing to time travel,” Jayden replied, as he grabbed her hand and led her back to the car. “It’s like being frozen in another era, this town, and Rock Bridge. I am glad I was able to see these places before leaving.”

“I thought you had a few weeks?”

“I checked in with my unit while waiting for you. We have orders to ship out soon, which means I report in on Thursday.”

“If we hurry back to Rock Bridge, we can catch the last transport to the city. You are welcome to stay at my place, and we’ll have all day.”

“No need to rush. Show me Rock Bridge tonight, and we can leave first thing in the morning. How does that sound?”

Anastasia nodded as she walked towards the passenger seat, but Jayden handed her the car keys, which she took reluctantly.

“I want to enjoy the scenery, and you can’t do much of that while speeding along the open road.”

While the landscape showcased nature’s beauty, the uninviting terrain was a natural deterrent for prospective settlers. Having Rock Bridge and Snakes End in such close proximity and thriving, despite the hardships, said a lot about the early pioneers’ resolve to succeed. Rock Bridge appeared to have the advantage of government support, but why? What was so special about the place? Jayden had to discern the truth this evening and began devising a plan to gain access to Anastasia’s server room. He needed a pretext to be alone in the house, maybe, having Chase take Anastasia somewhere. Treating a sick patient was a good ploy, but how to arrange a diversion?

As they came upon Rock Bridge, a lengthy barrier disappeared as fast as it had appeared. Jayden wanted to discover what was on the other side of the fence, which prompted him to ask,

“What’s over there? I thought I saw an enclosed area? Can we drive by?”

“It protects a hospital,” Anastasia replied. “You need clearance to get on the premises. I am sorry but I can’t say anything more.”

“I understand. Hope you’re not angry with me.”

“Never! We’ll be in town shortly, and there happens to be a saloon along the way. Would you want to stop?”

“I’ve had my share of drinking establishments for the day. I want to spend whatever time we have left together, just you and I. What about a candlelight dinner beneath the stars? Should we stop for food?”

“Need to see what’s in the kitchen first. Chase can pick up whatever we need.”

There was no talking for the remainder of the drive, as Jayden recalled the layout of the house. The main servers would be in the basement, but he had not been shown the lower levels. It was not necessary to take any chances since he planned on returning.

There was nothing more spectacular than a beautiful sunset, and Jayden was not disappointed as he watched the sun disappear beneath the horizon. The night sky sparkled with a brilliance not seen in the city, and the heavens appeared close enough to touch.

The moment lingered for Jayden as he walked into the house. He was in an amorous mood as he embraced the woman he claimed to love and said, “How about a picnic by the pink waterfalls? The weather’s perfect, and we’ll not have any distractions.”

“It sounds delightful, but let me check with Chase, in case there are any medical problems that must be dealt with. Be right back.”

It would be very convenient if she were called away, Jayden thought.

It was difficult to see the exact location of the hospital from Anastasia’s compound. If one did not know another building existed, one would think her house and clinic was a solitary edifice, a perfect hideaway for a tryst, or something more sinister?

Stepping onto the terrace, Jayden peered over the railing, but the darkness made it difficult to see anything. He did make out a rocky trail, which meant there was a doorway below and a path that had to lead somewhere. Perhaps, to an unofficial entry to the guarded hospital?

A slight wind carried voices from afar, and Jayden strained to hear the words but was unsuccessful. It was a shame Mason was not with him, he could have explored the region and answered any of his questions. Once Dean and Evan were entrenched in Vesta’s army, they might get the information easily, which reminded him not to do anything to endanger the mission.

Leaving the kitchen, Anastasia handed Jayden a drink.

“I presume it’s a rain check for the picnic?” Jayden asked as he took the wine glass.

“I’m sorry, but there’s an emergency. Chase is with him already, it’s a surgical procedure, but it’ll take a few hours.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. Take care of your patient. I’m not going anywhere.”

Once Anastasia left, Jayden called Mason. Dean and Evan had enlisted and were on their way to the training facility, and he found the entrance to the bunker. Mason agreed to meet Jayden at the landing pad on Thursday.

Jayden descended the patio stairs cautiously, searching for cameras and any other precautions seen by a trained eye. The last thing he wanted was to be observed on a monitor.

Instead of following the walkway leaving the house, Jayden checked the terrace entrance that was not locked. Holding his breath, he cautiously entered the darkened foyer. No alarms sounded, as Jayden proceeded to the first room, which appeared to be a waiting area. Next was storage for medical supplies and drugs. Words could be heard in the fourth room, which Jayden presumed to be the operating theater. Finding himself standing before the fifth doorway, he turned the knob and went inside. He saw the server he needed to access, and within minutes, Jayden was able to hack into the system, and quickly completed his mission, and left the way he came.

Anastasia met him outside where he was staring at the stars, with a half-filled glass on the table.

“I apologize for taking so long. You must be hungry. Chase is making us something now. Come inside. It gets very cold at night. And I appreciate your patience.”

“Anastasia, please, never apologize for your service to others. You save lives, which is important. I’ll always be here. Remember that.”






Chapter Five


The young couple made the most of the twenty-four hours allotted them, learning more about each other and whether or not to cultivate the relationship. Long distance affairs were difficult in the best of circumstances, but military deployments placed an additional strain on both parties. Was there a connection? Was it worth the effort? Would it last?

Chase had driven Anastasia and Jayden to the station at sunrise where they caught the first transport back to civilization. Arriving at Colwich City before the start of the workday was prudent. The streets were not crowded and the coffee shops were mostly empty.

Anastasia pulled a surprised Jayden inside The Flavia since she could not resist having breakfast at her favorite café. She gave the manager their order before leading Jayden towards the rear of the building. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee permeated the air, and Anastasia was pleased when the waiter set two cups of the house blend on the table.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I ordered for you, us. Today’s special happens to be a smorgasbord of authentic Vestian dishes, and you can’t leave without savoring our cuisine. You may not want to return to see me, but I bet you’ll come back for the food,” Anastasia said, winking as she sipped her beverage. “And I thought we might visit Laeken Palace, it’s a museum now, but it was once the residence of Vesta’s ruling family. We did have kings and queens back in the day before the revolution and the creation of our democracy. It is a few hours away, but worth the trip, unless you prefer to stay in the city.”

“If it’s anything as beautiful as your pink waterfalls, how can I resist?” Jayden replied. “Oh, good, here comes our food. I’m starving.”

There was an assortment of egg dishes, porridges, and meats. Warm bread, toast, and waffles complemented the selection. Condiments included a variety of spices, butter, cream, jellies, and jams.

This is a feast truly set for a king, Jayden thought as he sampled every item set before him.

“And if we’re being honest, Henry, I must confess my cooking skills are lacking, so don’t expect any of this, when I serve you breakfast.”

“I’m also not a cook, but since we’re speaking truths, I do find history fascinating, so you needn’t break my arm. I’m a willing participant to visit the museum.”

Laughter echoed throughout the otherwise quiet room since the majority of the clientele’s orders were takeout. Both Anastasia and Jayden were more relaxed, settling into a comfortable familiarity that was quite unexpected but embraced. There was something between them as if they had known each other from the beginning of time. Their discussions were open and honest, and neither of them feared reprisal, judgment, or regret.

Jayden was pleased with himself upon leaving The Flavia since he decided that Anastasia was definitely the woman he had been searching for. He wanted to marry her today, at this moment, but it was too soon. He could come back, disappearing for a while, trusting Mason with Command. The one foreseeable problem was persuading Anastasia to leave before the occupation began. Vesta’s defeat was inevitable, but he decided the when. A few skirmishes to keep them on their toes should suffice until the final onslaught, which would begin once Anastasia was aboard his ship. Jayden was not in a hurry to claim victory. Vesta was already his, but Anastasia had yet to be convinced.

Anastasia was lost in her own thoughts, trying to make sense of what was happening, because she could feel it, the chemistry between them. It was said that eyes were a window to one’s soul, and Anastasia knew there was truth in those words. She saw the raw emotion when she caught him staring at her. Their passion was real, albeit restrained, but once released, Anastasia could hardly fathom what happened next. Being a realist, it was also feasible they might never meet again. He was returning to his unit tomorrow, and his next deployment could be his last. Each mission was perilous with no assurances. There were no guarantees in war, but if he died, at least, they had this day.

Words were not necessary as they gazed upon each other. Their happiness was quite obvious, acquiescing to a veiled contentment, two beings becoming one. It was a strange phenomenon, which was difficult to explain but whatever was happening between them was real, and neither of them would fight it.

“Henry, I’m really glad we met. You’re a good person, and I’m so lucky to have you in my life.”

“It is I who am lucky, my dearest, Anastasia. I’d given up long ago, never believing I’d find my soul mate, and here you are! I am sorry I have to leave tomorrow but know this; I’ll see you whenever I’m able to get away, even if for a day. We can make a go of it, and when the war is over, we’ll live a wonderful life.”

“I’d love that,” Anastasia said. “We’re both up to the challenge, but let’s just enjoy today. I’m excited to show you the gardens and the impressive Palace. Thank you for agreeing to come.”


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