Travel to nowhere: Eneya and Ring

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Dear reader, I’m Alexander Krasnyuk, I live in the northern Russian city Surgut, which is located in Siberia. This is my first book, and it’s also my first book on English. You’ll probably encounter errors in my text, but I’ll definitely improve my knowledge of English and correct them in the future. Thanks for your understanding, and pleasant reading.


Light and Dark

Drops of rainwater crashed against the frontal window of the space shuttle, which, gaining altitude, rushed to the upper atmosphere. The surface of the planet was occupied by many mountain ranges of different heights and sizes, forming the complex lay, conveying the nature of the Dark Empire and her difficult path.

The thunderstorm raging in the distance was accompanied by loud lightning strikes, the light from which, for a moment, distinguished the night landscape from the general darkness, and the cloud-covered sky was highlighted in white, reflecting flashes from electrical discharges.

The lights of Ancient-Prime, the capital and the center of the Dark Empire, were receding behind. The city built on evil nature by people, who survived in harsh outskirts of the galaxy.

«Ion, what will become of them? With Aaron?» a young girl asked, looking with her gray-green eyes at a woman in a dark green closed dress, who was sitting opposite her.

She herself was wearing a similar white tight-fitting long dress with open back and arms. Bare parts of her body were decorated with ritual drawings, which made with a special blue paint, that were two thin rings on her shoulders, jagged patterns on her hands and image of a large semicircle with a sphere inside on her upper back. The right half of her face was hidden by the dark-blonde lock of her hair, which she fixed, when asking a questions.

«As I said, Lana, they’re facing the trial, and over him too. This situation is very difficult,» Ion replied with a sigh. The woman looked almost the same age, despite the fact, that she was older, than the dark-blonde-girl. Like her companion, her hair was dark in color, but longer in length. Her brown eyes were looking at the dark-blonde-girl, and her face expressed tension. «I’ll insist on saving their life, at least for him, but they’re too valuable prisoners. Lord Sanctus, if he survives today, will not allow them to rot in captivity. Therefore, most likely, the Council will prefer to extract all useful information from them and get rid of them, hiding them in the most remote sectors of the Light Empire, where they’ll disappear,» she emphasized on the last word.

«Is there no other way out?» Lana’s voice sounded irritated, but at the same time, she understood the difficulty of her husband’s position, into which he drove himself, committing rash acts. «Aaron helped us, without him this day wouldn’t have come,» the dark-blonde-girl knew, where everything was going, but she hoped, that Ion would be able to convince the Council of the Light Emperor to justify Aaron.

«One action will not correct, what he did before. It was the mistake for him to accept the patronage of Commander Read and Lord Sanctus,» Lana immediately recalled the first time, when she saw on the news feed her husband, about whom no one had heard anything for several months, and Dana was standing next to him then. «Aaron has become their symbol, and now it’ll be difficult for him to clear his reputation,» the woman continued to speak, feeling Lana’s displeasure. «And don’t forget about the problem of the idea of the Light and Dark,» Ion reminded of another problem, that arose within the Light Empire.

«Then why did we come after them?» with a tinge of growing anger in her voice Lana asked, trying to control and restrain her emotions. «To be tried him, as a war criminal?» she understood, that Aaron wouldn’t be able to come to terms with imprisonment, so he would fight. And no matter, how strong her husband was, he would end up being killed. «You understand, that Aaron was just playing the role, trying to help us, as best he could. Is the Council stupid enough not to realize this?» Lana asked, already knowing the answer to her question.

«Nobody asked him about it. The Council was always biased towards him. You know it. I’ll try to settle everything peacefully, Lana,» Ion really would like to do it without violence, but she understood, that the union of Aaron and Commander Read poses a greater threat, than her interlocutor can imagine: «For both sides of the conflict, even though Lord Sanctus doesn’t understand this, trying to use the Light and Dark to him advantage.» «I may be able to convince the Council not to touch him, but in this case my words will mean nothing. Atem must have his say, they can listen to him. I’ll talk to him, but for now, your Aaron is in the same boat with Dana,» Ion knew with, what negative attitude her son and the main Guardian of the Light Empire at first treated Aaron, but recent events changed his position: «And the growing idea of the Light and Dark only added fuel to the fire. Only one thing remained clear, that’s the Emperor and his Council didn’t need the living Aaron and Dana, and the fact that I’d bring them now would only delay their inevitable fate.» «Understand, only we know the details, for the rest everything looks more obvious, and our words have no power.»

Lana didn’t answer, turning away to the side, where the young guy was sitting unconscious, wearing black armor with the symbol of an iron hand on its shoulders.

The symbol personified the rulers of the Dark Empire, who replaced their human body with a mechanical skeleton, leaving only a brain, which supported by the special life support system and, possibly, Energy. So they were able to cheat death in order to survive and carry their rage through the centuries to commit bloody revenge for the forced expulsion of their people five hundred years ago.

The Darkers gave Aaron the new name, as Warrior, personifying in him the legacy of the Empire of the ancient King Kang and his attachment to one of the powerful artifacts of Energy, namely the Dark Sword, which accidentally fell into Aaron’s hands.

At the time of the formation of the two empires, only the Light Sword was found, which became the main argument in the conflict between the two young states at the dawn of their development. The Lighers considered themselves full-fledged heirs of the ancient civilization, trying to crush as many inhabited planets as possible, expanding their influence on the galactic world map. But the Darkers didn’t agree with the aggressive foreign policy of the Light Empire, responding to it with the tough ultimatum. After that, the war of extermination began, in which the forces of the Light Empire won the victory, driving their enemy into the unexplored outskirts of the galaxy. But the Light Emperor, like his Council, pursued completely different goals in his bloody war, which directly related to Energy and its capabilities, which open up incredible abilities in people.

The Dark Empire bided her time for centuries, amassing her forces for revenge. The Darkers developed technology by developing perfect murder weapons. Each military officer possessed the abilities, that Energy gave. But there were also special elite units, consisting of talented adepts, who could change the course of battle by their presence on the battlefield.

The trigger for the start of the invasion was the appearance of a small unidentified reconnaissance ship in the Darkers’ outer space, which Admiral Lord Sanctus spotted during the next patrol of the new borders of the Dark Empire. Deciding, that it were scouts of the Lighters, the Dark Emperor gave the order to start the invasion so as not to lose the effect of surprise. On that day, the Light Empire, which had long forgotten about her longtime enemy, considering her dead, was hit by the massive blow from hundreds of thousands of ships of the Darkers’ offensive forces, capturing farm planets one after another.

For five hundred years, the Lighers relaxed and weren’t ready for the high aggression, that the Darkers radiated, so they quickly surrendered their territories. After a few months, they still managed to slow down the advance of the forces of the Dark Empire.

Resources were required to continue the war, so its both sides began recruiting developing planets, that were just entering outer space. Aaron, Lana and Dana ended up on a such planet at that moment, but then their paths parted.

Opposite Aaron, next to the dark-blonde-girl, sat Commander Read in a black officer’s uniform, whose shirt was half unbuttoned. The last time Lana saw her was on Earth, before they were drawn into the war between the Light and Dark Empires. Their paths then parted ways under not the most pleasant circumstances.

«Since the first meeting on Eneya, Dana Read has become our constant companion. Especially after Aaron saved her from death in the Illusion,» Lana recalled the events of previously times. «And after a while, when we met Ion and learned about the phenomenon of Energy, it turned out that there is an invisible connection between Aaron and Dana, the destruction of which would entail her death.» her attitude to Dana was initially unfriendly, but a logical explanation for this for she couldn’t find. «Aaron tried to understand Dana and showed a friendly concern for her, which greatly infuriated me. Until today and now she infuriates me,» but Dana also caused inner jealousy, so when fate threw them on different sides of the barricades of one war, Lana was delighted. But Dana turned out to be stubborn and was able to become not just a commander of the Dark Empire, but she took the post of the right hand of Lord Sanctus, while remaining the strong Energy adept, like Aaron.

Her husband began to fight on the side of the Light Empire, and Lana gained experience as a student Ion. In parallel, she studied military science, wishing to take the place of the commander of a warships.

But the next battle for a farm planet was complicated by the arrival of two heavy cruisers, that were the Impetuous and the Flame. The first warship belonged to Admiral Lord Sanctus, and the second one was under the command of Commander Read. The Lighters won the victory, so Atem, who was in charge of the defense forces, ordered to storm the cruisers. He and Ion went after Lord Sanctus, while Aaron and Lana went after Dana. But everything went awry, and as a result, the dark-blonde-girl almost died, and the guy ended up with the Darkers.

«Aaron tries to be on his own, does what he wants, doesn’t think about the consequences,» Lana mused, looking her gray-green eyes at the Dana’s thin face in the dark uniform. «And she’s the same. They’ve become detached from the System and ignore the general rules. Dana became the important officer of the Dark Empire, and he was appointed the Guardian of the Light Empire. But they don’t care much about the war, and what will happen next,» she always noticed their similarity, and the more time passed, the more this manifested itself. «Previously, Aaron was different, when we lived together in the Northern State, and then the Expedition changed him, making him free. He no longer obeys anyone, only if he himself wants to. And Dana somehow influenced him in the Illusion or already in Edem, increasing his alienation from the outside world. The changes in him are noticeable, especially for me, the one, who knows him for half of myself life and his one.»

Lana understood, what Ion was trying to tell her, and she knew, why the Council was against him: «It was because of the fear of the threat, which Aaron posed. And Dana,» the frank conversation with Ion surfaced in her memory, when the woman explained the goals and motivation of the government of the Light Empire, and how the Light Emperor and his Council see the owners of the Energy capabilities. «Thanks to it, they can destroy space cruisers. Still fresh is the memory of the Firestorm arranged by Dana, when she burned the warship of the Lighters. And in order to save my life, Aaron devastated the power core of the Flame, pulling me out of the embrace of death. But his capture by the Darkers became valuable, which had the strong political influence, skillfully beaten by Lord Sanctus,» Lana again recalled the official news video, in where Aaron and Dana appeared together, especially how they were presented by the media. «But this is only one side of the problem. The other was that everyone was tired of this mad war, and in Commander Read and Warrior, people saw the way out, that’s Peace, which is so necessary for everyone. The Union of the Lighters and the Darkers. But Aaron isn’t the Lighter, because he’s on his own,» she turned her gaze to her husband, examining his new armor with the symbols of the Dark Empire. Beside him, fixed under the couch, the same Dark Sword lay, he had found on Eneya. «Then we couldn’t imagine, how far from our home planet it would take us. At that time, other planets and space seemed to be something unreal, all attention was focused on Ring and Edem,» the dark-blonde-girl stopped her eyes on his face, then she’s looking at her left wrist, which encircled by the wedding tattoo with the unique pattern in black, applied her Aaron for a very long time ago. Then they were only part of the Gray Cycle of Life, getting up from day to day and heading to monotonous and meaningless work and waiting for weekends and vacations. «Now he’s with me again, months or more later. When you don’t get old, counting time becomes a meaningless exercise. And I still love him and believe him, but I need to know, that he remained faithful to our love.»

Lana closed her eyes, and then she tried to feel the Energy coming from the sleeping Aaron and Dana.

Two powerful streams, originating from both him and her, mixed into something single, creating the Bond known to Lana. The vortex of sky-blue color, which sparkling from the inside with electric discharges, came from her husband and intertwined with the fiery stream of the green-eyed-girl, then it formed two connected spirals. Then lightnings enveloped Dana and tied together the islets of flame, which surrounded her body. Light thin sparkling threads held together the cracked shell of the soul of Commander Read. Lana knew, that Dana’s mind had almost collapsed, and Aaron somehow brought it together, not letting her die. Now the dark-blonde-girl could see for herself exactly, how he did it. In the end, all the threads converge in one place, namely in her head, closing the Bond. Dana’s consciousness or soul was constantly fed from Aaron, her life depended on it. And, as Lana was knew, the distance, no matter, how great it was, doesn’t affect or break the Bond. She grabbed the common root of the fiery blue filaments with her brush and saw the various shared memories of Commander Read and her husband. Among them, Lana saw those, that couldn’t have happened, and she knew it for sure. The dark-blonde-girl looked at Dana, and then at Aaron. Now she understood a lot: «Aaron was wrong, thinking, that her life depends on him, because it works both ways.»

Then her gaze fell on the barely noticeable thread connecting her with her husband. She let go of the spiral and tried to grab their thread, but she was immediately burned. If only heat came from the electric-fiery stream, then heat came from their connection, as if Lana was touching a red-hot iron. Enduring the pain, she nevertheless grabbed their thread again and saw their memories, his thoughts, which made her feel calm and pleasant in her soul.


Ion watched, as Lana was in meditation: «The special state, when a person doesn’t just merge with Energy, but he becomes a single whole, allowing him to see the world differently, than it’s,» then she turned her gaze to cockpit, returning her thoughts to the current operations. «But it’s time to begin the invasion of the Darkers’ star system and deliver the first serious blow to our enemy. Lana was right, that without Aaron, it would take a long time for us to discover the new mother planet of the Dark Empire. His accidental capture, in addition, saved many lives of the Light soldiers, whom he only stunned, but he didn’t kill them, allowing us the exchange of prisoners. However, Aaron once couldn’t avoid bloodshed, violating his principles,» she recalled to her mind the video, where Warrior, emitting purple lightnings from his hands, burned alive the detachment of the Lighter Guardians, who was going to kill Dana, wanting to take revenge on her for the Firestorm. «But this didn’t affect the birth of revolutionary ideas within the Light Empire,» the woman thought of her son. «Atem didn’t trust Aaron and didn’t want him to study with them. But Warrior was able not only to change his attitude towards himself, but he also to enlist the support of my son, who is the main symbol of the Light Empire and wears the Light Sword of King Kang. The Darkers don’t want to exterminate us physically, as we tried to do five hundred years ago, but they’re going to destroy us politically, and the idea of the Light and Dark is ideal for these purposes. But there is the big but,» Ion saw all possible ways the development of the conflict, therefore, she clearly understood the consequences of the union of Aaron and Commander Read. «They’re able to lead people along. Citizens of the both empires can stand under their banner, if they decide to carry out a large-scale coup, which will not only end the war, but it also become the beginning for the emergence of a new state.»

The woman brought her left wrist, with hand terminal attached to it, to her face and sent the audio message to the invasion fleet.

«We have them. Start the operation,» Ion commanded, glancing again at Lana, who had already returned to reality and looked intently at the woman.


In the near planetary space, above its atmosphere, warships began to appear, from which the fires of fighters flew out like a swarm of bees. The fleet of the Light Empire has arrived, embarking on the aggressive invasion. On the surface of the harsh planet, ground-based anti-aircraft installations began to work. In space the Darkers’ heavy cruisers took up a defensive position, preparing to take the blow of enemy warships. A few seconds later, the first fires of loss flashed, gradually filling the space around the planet.

The shuttle wasn’t allowed to leave the planet, because the forces of the Dark Empire attacked it already in the upper atmosphere, when there was very little left to find itself in a safe zone under the cover of allied troops. Several neat attacks of enemy fighters put the engines of the spaceship out of order. The Darkers wasn’t going to be destroyed the shuttle, but they were going only to shoot down it, so that the prisoners remained alive.

The spaceship began a sharp descent, inside it the red emergency light turned on. The pilots tried their best to soften the landing by releasing the landing parachute system, but despite all their efforts, the landing was hard. A brutal blow to the ground followed, with the bulk of its force hitting the front of the shuttle. It crashed into a forested area, uprooting several tall trees and leaving behind a strip of loose earth.


After the extreme landing, Dana was the first to recover. Through hanging her dark locks of hair, she saw the Darker fighters in front of her with the same symbols of the iron hand, like on her. One of them immediately reported on his hand terminal to his commander, while unbuckling her seat belts.

«We found Commander Read and Warrior, they’re alive,» came the Darker fighter’s clear speech, muffled by his protective helmet. «What to do with the rest?» he asked a question, checking the reaction of pupils of Dana, who looked at him with her green eyes, squinting from the light directed from the bright helmet-mounted flashlight.

But further instructions didn’t manage to sound, because the enemy landing force of the invasion forces opened fire on the crash site, which had been illuminating by beams from the searchlights, that installed on board the arriving landing ships of the Light Empire. Two others Darker fighters, whom standing outside the entrance, were killed immediately. Having finished freeing Dana and Aaron, the Darker fighters prepared to transport them towards the defensive positions, where the Darkers’ forces had landed.

Commander Read tried to take a few steps, but she felt dizzy.

«Can you walk on your own, Commander?» one of the Darker fighters asked her, holding the green-eyed-girl by her hand.

«Yes, I’ll can. Better help Warrior,» Dana replied, nodding her head towards Aaron.

The crash of the shuttle didn’t remain without consequences for Commander Read. She ran her hand over her face, finding, that her blood was flowing from her nose. Her head was torn apart by severe pain, as if thousands of sharp needles were piercing her brain, while it was felt, that gagging was coming up to her throat, caused by concussion.

Dana looked around and saw Lana, who was sitting to her right. The dark-blonde-girl was still unconscious, as she herself was a few minutes ago. Commander Read had an unpleasant feeling inside, but thoughts of Aaron made her check, that Lana was alive.

«She needs to be taken,» Dana thought, placing four her fingers on Lana’s neck. Feeling faint pulsations, she sighed with relief. «Aaron will not forgive, if something happens to her.»

Commander Read unbuckled the seat belts, which held Lana down, and looked back at her rescuers: «There are only two fighters, so one for Aaron, the other will cover us,» she assessed the situation, mentally considering options for evacuating Lana. «If I could help, but I’m weakened,» Dana realized in disappointment, trying to light her hands with Energy, but instead of the usual flame, nothing happened. «We’ll have to leave without her and hope, that the Lighters will take her.»

Commander Read looked at the face of the dark-blonde-girl for the last time, and then she turned towards the exit.

One of the Darker fighters took Warrior, throwing him over his shoulders, another one handed a plasma pistol to Dana and prepared his rifle for firing, then they began to move towards the positions of the Darkers.

Dirt underfoot flew in different directions, when heavy boots hit the ground, leaving a trail from the ribbed sole, which immediately filled with rainwater and disappeared.

The fierce battle was going on around the wreckage, filled with the sounds of firing plasma guns and the operation of the engines of landing ships. On either side of the crashed space shuttle, two defensive points have formed, trying to gain control of the crash site. The victory was won by the forces of the Light Empire, slowly pushing back the Darkers.

The enemy soldiers in white armor had already taken control of the crashed shuttle, and halfway through, the Darker fighter carrying Aaron was shot down by one of the Lighters. The Darker fighter fell dead with the cargo into the mud. Another one tried to take Warrior’s body, but the Lighters fighters running towards him prevented him by shooting him.

Dana, realizing, that she couldn’t help Aaron, continued to run to the Darkers. The green-eyed-girl cried, because she knew, that the Lighters would take him away: «And I’ll be left alone again,» a feeling of annoyance and resentment seized her, but she couldn’t do anything, continuing to run forward.


The Lighter fighter in white armor took aim at Commander Read and prepared to fire, but another one, senior in rank, with the Sword strapped on his back, put his hand on the barrel of the rifle, lowering the muzzle down. After that, he commanded over his hand terminal on a common frequency.

«Don’t shoot at Commander Read, let her go, we’re not here for that,» the Lighter Guardian brought Dana out of sight of a dozen guns, allowing her to reach the positions of the Darkers.

Then the both Lighters ran up to Aaron. They grabbed him under his arms and ran towards the evacuation shuttle of the Lighters.

At that moment, the remains of the fallen space ship were enveloped in bright flames, and then a shock wave followed. Fortunately, the Lighters managed to endure the unconscious bodies of Lana and Ion, immediately placing them in medical capsules.


Dana ran to the Darkers, then she turned around and saw, how Aaron regained consciousness. Warrior freed himself from the help of the Lighters, then he turned one hundred and eighty degrees and looked in her direction, meeting her green eyes.

Aaron tried to head towards her, but the Lighter Guardian with the Sword on his back pulled him back with his hand and said something to him, pointing with his left hand at the medical capsules. Aaron began to argue with him, trying to convince him, but in the next moment triangular white fighters flew over Dana, firing at the positions of the Darkers.

At the same time, in the sky, one of the cruisers of the invasion forces was enveloped in a bright flash of flame, which immediately extinguished, leaving behind an uncountable amount of debris, like shooting stars, piercing the planet’s atmosphere.


Plasma bomb hits destroyed and ripped everything around. One of the Darker adepts created a protective field around Commander Read. She knew him, because he served on her new cruiser the Flash, and now the officer was doing his duty, protecting his commander. Until the last, until another blast wave killed him, terribly deforming his body and depriving him of limbs. As soon as the protective field was gone, Dana was thrown aside.

At the time of the explosion, Commander Read was far from its source, so she was only touched tangentially. The green-eyed-girl tried to get to her feet, leaning against the metal body of the remains of the landing ship, but painfully burned her hands, still standing up to her full height.

The air around her burned her lungs and nostrils with every breath she took. After taking a few difficult steps through the pain, Dana finally made her way to the scorched earth, that was smoking after the aerial bombardment. It became easier to breathe. She could smell burnt flesh mixed with molten plastic immediately.

Commander Read examined her hands, where the blisters were already swelling on her palms, giving off burning pain in her nervous system. Then she looked down, noticing her left side, which had been stripped to blood. Her shirt at the waist ripped open, revealing skin, and a metal shard protruded from under her ribs on the left side, along which streams of her own blood trickled. Dana tried to pull it out, but using force, she felt a sharp pain and gave up this venture.

Ahead, Commander Read saw, how Aaron boarding the evacuation shuttle. Dana wanted to shout to him, to call him, but she was exhausted, and instead of words, only a soft moan came out of her mouth.

The green-eyed-girl fell to her knees exhausted, immediately falling onto her side. Turning over on her back, she watched, as the number of warships became less and less in the sky. The Darkers managed to protect their home, turning the enemy to flight.

The concussion from the explosion drowned out the surrounding sounds, making the picture blurry and multiplied. Rain was falling into her face, and her body was mixed with mud: «This isn’t, how I planned to die, but nobody can’t choose their death.»

Dana lay alone, her head ached badly, a state, as if she was tired. There was no strength left to move, and her body was torn apart by a wild pain. After a while, comparable to infinity, Commander Read felt heavy and quick steps. Finally, the metal head of Lord Sanctus appeared above her. Then Dana closed her eyes with relief, realizing, that her Admiral wouldn’t let her die.


The Iron Admiral walked through the site of the recent battle, strewn with corpses from both sides of the conflict. But Lord Sanctus didn’t care of it, he arrived here not for count the losses. The Iron Admiral flew to the scene of the recent battle, as soon as he learned of the missing Commander Read and Warrior from their apartment.

Lord Sanctus was looking for a specific person and hoped, that she was still alive: «Her name is Dana Read, a subordinate in the rank of the commander and the most valuable find in my life since the Exodus.»

Her exhausted body lay in the mud, and her clothes were wet with her blood and rain. Dana was left alone again, just like, when they first met on Earth. Her fragile body was ravaged by wounds and burns, but she was able to survive. The nanorobots in her body kept Dana alive.

Lord Sanctus had time to look into her tired eyes before she closed them. After that, the Iron Admiral ordered to put Commander Read in a medical capsule and immediately take her to the hospital.


Several weeks passed, but Dana’s condition didn’t improve, so Lord Sanctus made the decision to put her in a cryo-sleep state.

Realizing, that he couldn’t cope on his own, the Iron Admiral recorded an audio message for the person, who was the only one able to help her.

«Greetings, Aaron. I know you only recently reunited with Lana, but our mutual friend needs your help. Her condition is grave, she’s in a coma, and the nanorobots of Edem only support her life, but they aren’t able to return her to a healthy state. I don’t want to impose guilt on you, but you’ve a lot to do with it. I’ll give you free access to the Impetuous and let you fly back, but no one must know about it.»

Lord Sanctus knew, that Warrior wouldn’t ignore this message: «Because his conscience will not allow him to leave everything in this position, and her fate isn’t indifferent to him.»

A special messenger droid will deliver the message to the addressee in the center of the Light Empire from the heart of the Dark Empire. The miniature insect-like mechanical creature received the command and immediately began to execute it. Having passed a dozen ships of various sizes, the envoy secretly reached his destination. The journey took one standard week.

Aaron was alone with his thoughts in one of the halls of the ancient temple of the Kang’s civilization, when the incoming message appeared on his armor’s hand terminal, from Lord Sanctus…

Aaron and Lana Martson

The rumble of a passing train broke the evening silence of a dense coniferous forest, frightening its inhabitants with its noise. The bright light beam from the main locomotive accelerated the evening twilight, making the autumn snow shine, which lay in a thin layer on the ground and rails.

Already in the morning the train will reach the final station of its route, namely Commander-City, that’s the capital of the Northern State, the large and beautiful city of the planet Eneya, the only one that has preserved the style of the past world before the Catastrophe, that was tragic events, that led to the decline of human civilization, erased everything that was built from the surface of the planet people, poisoned the air and drove the remnants of humanity underground into shelters. In the end, people returned to the surface, neutralized the deadly virus, and began to rebuild, and after building a new world on the ruins of the old.

The true reasons for the exodus to refuge and the death of civilization are still silent. The official version told by the government is simple, that was a leak of a dangerous virus developed and synthesized in one of the laboratories in the western part of the Northern State. The substance was developed as a biological weapon in case of war with the Union of Northern Republics. On top of that, there was a failure of the artificial intelligence control program installed before the incident. Artificial intelligence for unknown reasons initiated the bombardment of the planet’s surface. At the same time, he somehow managed to take control of not only the defense systems of the Northern State, but also the Union of Northern Republics. The surviving population of the planet accepted the truth set forth by the government, but a lot of but remained, which hung in the air without answers.

Currently, the western part of the Northern State is closed to free passage and is considered dangerous due to the high probability of infection. Of course, this doesn’t stop people, and for several decades desperate extremals and just curious tourists have illegally crossed the Border in search of answers. They were called the Seekers. People with a clear head have long realized that the government’s version of the events of two hundred years ago is full of inconsistencies and absolutely illogical, but what is the true cause of the Catastrophe, none of ordinary mortals knows.


In the passenger reserved seat railway carriage of the train, people were getting ready for bed, while the warm yellowish light emitted by the LED main lighting lamps was still lighting. Near the washrooms at both ends of the railway carriage queues of passengers gathered for their evening washings.

In the central part, a guy and a girl were sitting on the side seats. They drank tea and ate biscuits and watched the evening scenery, which flashing outside the window. The two were in conversation and knew each other well. In her eyes, tenderness was read, she smiled. His eyes were more puzzled, he also smiled, but a hurricane of thoughts raged inside him.

Her slender body was hidden by a light pink T-shirt, and her chest was tightly fitted with a dark top, which was visible through thin fabric. She pulled her beautiful strong legs to her, placing them on the seat. From the glances of people passing by, her legs were covered only by sweatpants to the knees, revealing her calves and ankles. The girl gathered her dark-blonde hair in a bun and fastened it with a black elastic band, which twisted in a spiral.

The guy was wearing a white T-shirt with diamond patterns and gray fabric pants with a bow at the waist.

«Why was it impossible to place the application online?» she asked a question, which was no longer meaningful. «What if they don’t approve of us, and we come so far?» the dark-blonde-girl took a sip from her mug, waiting for his answer.

«Because they need people, who aren’t afraid to leave everything, that they’ve on this side of the Border, because we’ll either return famous and rich, or we’ll not return at all,» the guy answered her, putting his glass on the table, looking at her gray-green eyes.

«Are you sure we need this, Aaron?»

He himself became the initiator of everything, having read in the news about the recruitment for participation in the Expedition. Already in the evening of the same day, after work, Aaron told his soul mate about the need to sign up for this trip. The dark-blonde-girl, under the pressure of her husband, agreed, because it really seemed tempting, but now the realization of where they were going to go began to come. A week ago, the young couple just lived a calm life, and now they’re going towards the unknown. And the dark-blonde-girl didn’t like to do rash and impulsive actions, unlike the gray-eyed-guy.

«Yes, we need a sharp jump, Lana. Otherwise we’ll just live a good, but ordinary life. And so, imagine, we’ll be present at the launch of the famous AC&DC, we’ll visit the other side of the Border, we’ll see dead lands, perhaps we’ll visit the epicenter, we’ll finally find out the truth,» his eyes were burning with excitement, he really wanted to go there to get there, and it’s no wonder, because during the entire existence of the forbidden zone, many fantastic stories have been written for books, films and TV series have been filmed, and even video games on the same topic have been released. Whole generations have grown up on the legends of Ring and its central mysterious part, namely Edem.

«This is what I’m afraid, too dangerous,» Lana was frightened by this uncertainty: «Everyone know, that people were crossing the Border, but according to official reports, no one came back.»

«But we’re already on our way, and I decided everything for myself. Especially since this Expedition has been prepared for a long time, even the Empire is involved in it,» Aaron took a sip and continued. «If something goes wrong, then the Black Guard will be with us, and they’re the best fighters on Eneya.»

«The Black Guard isn’t salvation from all troubles,» Lana disagreed with him. «And what if not, what if it…» doubts didn’t leave the dark-blonde-girl. Her intuition kept shouting to her not to go beyond the Border, but her husband remained adamant.

«Stop panicking, let’s better get ready to sleep, tomorrow is a difficult day, we need to sleep and be ready,» Aaron finished the evening conversation.

Lana wanted to say more, but changed her mind, deciding to continue the discussion later, after the applications for participation in the Expedition had been completed. They finished their tea in silence.

Her gaze fell on her left wrist, clinging to the wedding tattoo encircling it. her husband had the same one that Lana had filled him with just two weeks ago, when they formalized their relationship.

The wedding tattoo came from antiquity, but in those days the wedding ritual was more painful, because instead of paints under the skin, the wedding bracelet was burned out with a special metal stencil, which covered the wrist and heated up, leaving the stencil burn pattern. But the cultural and technical development of the peoples of Eneya eventually changed the ancient custom. Now the newlyweds had to come up with a pattern of an wedding bracelet for each other, and on the day of the wedding, apply it to their soul mate. At the same time, only the bride and groom were present at this procedure, being in a special room, alone with each other. The Eniyans didn’t like lavish weddings and unnecessary pathos, treating love as the magical sacrament, that binds two people.

Lana recalled, how she felt the tip of the tattoo machine, and on her wrist, with each touch of a metal needle, the pattern appeared, that were rhombuses alternated with rings filled with small details and lines from the inside.

On her husband wrist, the bracelet consisted of the line, through which two sinusoids of variable amplitude passed in antiphase, and small curved lines, squares and stars were already superimposed on top.

Lana ran her thumb over her wedding tattoo, feeling confident with her choice. She loved Aaron, as he loved Lana for eight years now.


The movement of the train was watched by a female of a large bear-like animal. Its body was covered with coarse fur, and powerful fangs, two on each side, peeped out of its mouth, which easily bit through thick bones. The predator moved, leaning on all four paws, but at the time of the attack it could rise to its full height in order to collapse and crush the enemy under itself. Sharp claws made it possible to tear apart the flesh of prey, inflicting mortal wounds on it.

The predator was slowly followed by its small copies, looking at the world with their bead-black eyes. Four fluffy balls rolled slowly over the fresh snow. The offspring now and then tried to scatter to the sides, but the caring mother, grabbing them by the scruff of the neck, collected its children, who deviated from the given path. The predator wasn’t afraid to walk its offspring, because this was its territory, which other predators didn’t enter.

They were afraid of the male predator, which was twice the size and strength of the female. Its loud growl was heard nearby, frightening off small forest dwellers. Finally, it appeared in front of its family, holding a large cloven-hoofed animal in its teeth. On the body of the prey there was a bloody mark from the blow of a clawed paw, and warm fresh blood flowed from the neck. Coming closer, the predator unhooked its jaws, the carcass of the slaughtered animal fell on fresh snow, staining it bloody. The female went up to the male and licked its forehead, after which it proceeded to the meal. Then children, looking at their mother, joined it. The male stood aside, guarding its family and watching the iron snake hide in the distance.


Who is Lana? Dark-blonde hair below the shoulders, gray-green eyes, a neat straight nose with a slight hump, slender, smart, purposeful. Possesses unusual attractive energy.

Who is Aaron? A slightly taller than average young man, thin but wiry, gray eyes. Thanks to sports, he has muscles expressed on his body. He looks at life with optimism. He’s smart and quick-witted, tries to be creative in all problems and tasks. He differs from other people with his unusual vision and attitude towards life. For everyone around him, he seems a little strange.

What do they know about the Expedition? This is the first official trip to the Western Restricted Area in the last two centuries. The last one ended vaguely, because no one returned, but the government calmed down and closed the western part of the Norhern State for free passage, building the long Border.

The two questions are, why did they go moreover only the military, and why this topic was silenced, and it’s still considered inappropriate to raise it by ear? Indeed, almost the entire army of the Northern State has disappeared or died, and this doesn’t bother anyone.

At the same time, now the media structures are actively shifting the focus to the discussion about the illegality of the actions of the Seekers faction. With money allocated by the government, films are made about the past war with the Union of Northern Republics, thereby increasing the level of patriotism and directing all attention to the rival state, away from the western Border. And only a small percentage of the media product is about the Western Restricted Area. At the same time, any TV series, film or book undergoes strict censorship, but it’s, that receive the greatest response from the masses. No matter, how the government tries to divert attention from the problem of the western Border and what is happening behind it, people are increasingly asking questions, which ultimately resulted in the appearance of the Seekers.

The goal of the current Expedition is to launch the mysterious AC&DC nuclear power plants complex, but why all this is being done remains classified information. For this, volunteers are recruited, who are ready to take the risk and go outside the Border. For participation, the government promise a large cash payment and apartments in the prestigious area of Commander-City.


The capital greeted the young couple with morning coolness and railway station noise. The last time, Aaron and Lana were in this city two years ago on vacation, being in Commander-City as tourists, and now they’re led by the specific goal. The young couple took only the most essential things, that were in their backpacks.

«Everything should be decided in the next two weeks, and then either we’ll return to home or to a new world,» Aaron decided for himself, stepping from the railway carriage onto the concrete platform.

A cloudy sky could be seen through the transparent squares of the station roof. The air was invigorating with its coolness. Aaron and Lana walked up the platform to the main station building, where the young couple ate breakfast with sandwiches, which they bought at a popular fast food outlet. After finishing their meal, the young couple headed for the exit to the city, and then, using the subway, they planned to get to the rental apartment and take a shower after a four-day train ride.

The railway station was located on one of the central streets of Commander-City, therefore, leaving its walls, the young couple found themselves in the middle of a stormy stream of people and a loud hum of cars.


Before the Catastrophe, the Northern State held a leading position in all areas, namely is economics, science, art, and military affairs. It was the state of the future with glass skyscrapers, beautiful fountains, huge green parks, maneuverable electric vehicles, and a large number of various scientific centers. It was this feature of the past world that the central part of the city conveyed, a reminder of the past greatness and achievements, and everything that was built further from the center faded against the background of the architectural beauty and gracefulness of the heart of Commander-City.

The Northerners preserved the system of near-planetary artificial satellites, and due to the fact that the servers of most media resources were stored underground and avoided destruction, a full-fledged Internet network existed on the territory of the Northern State.

The rival of the prosperous Northerners before the Catastrophe was the Union of Northern Republics, but it faced a harsh fate. To date, the level of technology has lagged far behind the capabilities of the Northern State. The difficult food situation led to a change in the state’s political regime, so the UNR became the Northern Empire with her sole ruler. Not everyone liked this, therefore many who disagreed with the new device emigrated to the Wild Southern Continent and founded the Union of Southern Republics. After a while, military clashes began between states, which continue to this day. On top of that, revolutionary sentiments are ripening within the Northern Empire, ready to escalate into an armed uprising.


The snow melted after the night frosts, so there was slush on the street, flowing into puddles, which made it difficult to calmly move along the sidewalk, forcing you to look at your feet so as not to wet your shoes. Despite the fact, that Aaron and Lana dressed warmly, they felt an icy wind.

Nearby, on the other side of the railway station’s road ring, along which many cars were moving, was the entrance to metro station the Square of Lost, named after the military campaign two hundred years ago.

There were parked taxi cars closer to the sidewalks, which drivers persistently offered their services to people leaving the station doors. Other extortionists called for various paid tours of the city and the waterways that run through the center of Commander-City.

Descending subway, the young couple bought tokens at the checkout, then walked down the escalator to the platform. From the left platform, a blue subway train full of people drove off. Having decided on the direction according to the diagram hanging on the wall, Aaron and Lana approached the opposite side, where a crowd of people was already standing, waiting for the train to arrive.

The Commander-City metro had only five lines, which wasn’t that many. Mildrine, that was the former capital of the Northern State, had sixteen underground routes. Now it’s located in the middle of the WRA, hidden by eternal fog, invisible to the artificial satellites of the Northern State and causing a lot of questions.

Soon the sound of an approaching electric train was heard, then beams from two LED lamps appeared in the tunnel, the light from which had been reflecting with a cold white color by the rails and the side wall. The lower part of the train is painted blue, and the upper part was white.

The railway carriages cracked with people congestion, mostly young people. Some listened to music with headphones, others immersed themselves in their electronic devices. Older people sat with newspapers or printed books. People were in a hurry to study, work, or just on business.

Aaron had many thoughts in his head, but they all boiled down to the upcoming Expedition. He wanted to get into it, but not only curiosity drove him: «The words about the jump make sense. The social elevator up,» that’s what he was thinking. «Leave your hometown small town and move to Commander-City. Lana and I have been thinking about this for a long time, and all reflections on this topic in the end always run into housing, namely, its absence. It’ll never be possible to buy an apartment with a worker’s salary, especially in the capital. And the Expedition could open new horizons and opportunities for us, acquaintances and connections.»


During the admissions campaign, the young couple rented a one-room apartment in a remote urban area, next to the terminal station of the red metro line. The way to the building took fifteen minutes on foot. It looked relatively new, seventeen floors high. Each level had access to a common balcony.

Lana rang the intercom, dialing forty.

«Who’s there?» a woman’s voice, belonging to the hostess, asked politely.

«We’re about the apartment,» she replied.

The bell sounded, signaling that it was possible to enter. The young couple walked down the corridor to two adjacent elevators, Aaron pressed the touch-sensitive call button. A few tens of seconds later, the doors opened on the left, from where two local residents came out, hurrying to work. Following them, the young couple entered the elevator car.

Aaron touched the touchpad, covering the area with the number eight with his index finger. The doors closed back and the upward movement began. The lift went up smoothly and quietly, an unobtrusive cold light burned inside. Lana looked at her reflection in the large mirror on the side of the elevator opposite the entrance.

«And here we’re again. In this city you don’t want to go back from. Aaron hopes for the Expedition, but it’s hard to believe, that we’ll be accepted,» the dark-blonde-girl thought, looking at her face, which was clean of makeup. «But he’s so sure. Always indifferent, my husband got the idea. Aaron broke from his familiar place so easily, and he doesn’t seem to have any plans to return back. I’m tired of this, of the boring rhythm of life, too, but we need a plan. You can’t just start all over again, from scratch,» she looked at her husband and sighed with displeasure. «But this one may, he seems to live in another world. And it sometimes makes you angry me. But now I agreed to his adventure, let’s see how he’ll gets out, if nothing works out with the Expedition, which will surely happen,» Lana suggested confidently.

Finally, the upward movement stopped. Leaving the elevator car, the young couple looked around. To the right of them was a staircase, and even further behind it was an exit to the balcony. On the left was a corridor, two apartment doors on the sides and one in the middle at the end.

Approaching the nearest right apartment with number forty, the dark-blonde-girl pressed the bell, the door were immediately opened. The hostess was an adult woman with a long gray braid of hair thrown over her left shoulder and dropping down to the waist belt of her sand-colored pants.

After welcoming them, she took a short tour of the apartment, telling them where and what is located, what and how to use it best. She warned, that they shouldn’t smoke inside, but only on the shared balcony near the stairwell.

The living room had a large area. There stood a sofa near the wall, that wasn’t yet worn out. Also several cupboards was in room and an ordinary cheap TV fixed on the wall.

The kitchen turned out to be no less spacious. In the corner next to a window there was an induction oven, and at the entrance to the kitchen, on the left side, there was a small refrigerator. Opposite the window was a comfortable dining table and two chairs. There were also various cupboards and shelves for dishes and various kitchen utensils.

The bathroom had a shower. In the toilet above the toilet there was a boiler for heating water. The new buildings didn’t provide for hot heating, only electric heaters, but according to the woman’s assurances, they coped with their function.

By the standards of the capital, the price was reasonable. The young couple agreed for a month: «If the Expedition works out, then all this will no longer matter, and if not, then we’ll stay in the city this month, and then it’ll be seen,» Aaron decided, after which he gave the owner the money for rent.

The young couple had already said goodbye to the woman, but she finally asked.

«Have you come to see the city or for work?» she said, putting on her boots.

«Let’s call it on business, but we’ll see the city,» Aaron answered without much desire.

Closing the door, the young couple took turns quickly taking a refreshing hot shower, then they cleared the backpacks of unnecessary things, leaving only the necessary documents. Clean and fresh, the young couple headed back to the center, to the Expedition planning headquarters building, which had been locating in the main city Square of Progress.


When they walked to the building, Aaron and Lana didn’t pay attention to the space surrounding them, but now the young couple walked the same path more carefully to the subway.

Near the entrance to the metro, there was a tram stop with many kiosks on both sides of the tracks. On the shelves were newspapers, lottery tickets and other nonsense, cheap electronics, food, and even clothing. Similar shops were expected inside, accompanying the young couple along the subway corridors.

The air in the metro has always had a specific smell, but pleasant. And the closer to the trains, the more it got stronger.

Upon reaching the required station and ascending back to the surface, one felt the real Commander-City, which had a special atmosphere conducive to art. The city is known for a large number of creative people. Music, dance, theaters, books, paintings, even blogging activities on the Internet, popular for the modern world, competing with television. Everything was here in abundance. Many different events and activities, and, despite not the best weather and almost always cloudy sky, you wanted to live in this city.


Commander-City was the truly large and vibrant metropolis. Its streets were filled with constantly moving masses of people and cars, which became its circulatory system, pumping blood to all parts of the city. In the morning, people rushed to the center, and in the evening after a working day back to the outskirts, repeating the endless Gray Cycle of Life.

Citizens from all over the Northern State came to the capital in search of a better life, increasing its already huge population. Some managed to find themselves and their gold mine, but most settled below average, mired in debt and shattered dreams.

Before the Catastrophe, Commander-City was famous for its shipbuilding. A huge floating cruisers were released into a bay, and from there, along the wide and deep extended channel of the deep river Evyria, they went north into the open sea, and then they were released into the boundless ocean. But that was before, and now the oceans are closed: if a ship goes out into the oceanic space and goes far from the mainland coast, then it’ll not come back. This made it impossible to cross the water border between the continents.

The only available way is by air, but not everything is so smooth here either. The Northern State was able to restore both aircraft flights and had an extensive fleet of rotorcraft. There are almost no civil flights, only routes connecting the central part and the east coast. But the tickets were very expensive, so the population used the rail link. Also, planes became the only way to get into the Northern Empire, which in turn possessed only old models of rotorcraft, and therefore was cut off from the Northern State by the Edenean ocean.

The mainland on which the Northern Empire was located had a connection with the Wild Southern Continent along a narrow strip of land, that became the land border between the Empire and the Union of Southern Republics. None of the parties to the conflict managed to cross this section of the straight road, washed on both sides by the waters of the Edenean and Lersit oceans. Subsequently, the land communications were destroyed, making it impossible for the movement of land transport and equipment. Then the war between the states acquired a trench character.


Now it’s difficult to believe, that two hundred years ago the world built by human civilization was almost destroyed. When the doors of the underground shelters opened, and the restoration of cities and industry began, people lived in hastily built barracks. Although there were more comfortable and warmer rooms underground, the ten-year burial was enough to hate them, because the isolation of space and the absence of natural light of Eligia, cramped conditions, monotonous tasteless food.

But even there, people didn’t remain safe. In the first year, in the underground shelter from where the ancestors of Aaron and Lana came out, an accident occurred, during which the virus penetrated to the upper levels, but global consequences were avoided.

Today, the civilization of Eneya has revived. At least, the way of the past world has returned along with its problems, while science and culture are still lagging behind the high bar set two centuries ago.


Among the crowd, two were walking slowly, who is the gray-eyed-guy and the dark-blonde-girl, whose life is just beginning to gain momentum, pushing them into the frantic whirlpool of future events. They’re accustomed to the slow flow of life, that characterizes their native small working town, which subsists on the extraction of raw materials for fuel, processed and supplied to other regions of the Northern State.

A gray life, repeating itself from day to day in a closed cycle. The goal is one, namely to earn money in order to live and occasionally get out of the town to get new emotions and strength to continue the Gray Cycle of Life. The desire to break the closed chain of events led the young couple to Commander-City. Once again here, they’ve already decided for themselves, that even if they refuse, they’ll stay and try to gain a foothold in the capital. This is how the intoxicating smell of life, real and stormy, influenced, making the heart beat faster and the brain to think better. All they needed was an excuse to get out.

On their way to headquarters, Aaron and Lana stopped by one of the restaurants along the main street. After lunch, they went on.

Finally, the young couple reached the required turn to the right. The road was widened there and had a special laying of road tiles. The straight path led to the square, but Aaron and Lana chose the tourist route, deciding to walk in the arc. The exit to the open space was under the arch connecting the neighboring buildings.

The Square of Progress was kept clean, it was cleared of snow in a timely manner, so there were no puddles and slush. Only a flat surface on which various patterns were depicted, composed of gears, electrical circuits and formulas of chemical reactions. All these elements were harmoniously combined, creating the single image.

The center of the square was decorated with the monument directed upwards, that’s the rocket taking off into space. If not for the Catastrophe, the Northerners began the global exploration of the star system of the local giant Eligia. The spaceships for the first explorers were ready and undergoing final tests, when the world collapsed.

Flags with the coat of arms of the Northern State fluttered along the entire inner ring of the square. The basis for the symbol was a schematic representation of an electric motor, in the center of which, instead of a capital letter M, there was a gear with eight teeth, between which there were circles with alternating plus and minus signs. The inner hole of the gear was covered by a diaphragm, like a camera lens. Two wavy lines from the central circle of the engine image abruptly changed direction. On the left the arrow went up, and on the right down, emitting lightning towards the interdental circles with the minus sign.


The application headquarters was located in a three-story glass building. There were the many Black-Guardsmen around, due to the arrival in the Northern State of the important Imperial officer, who is Colonel Haytem Newer, who dealt with the issue of revolutionaries in the Northern Empire, also invited to oversee the participation of the Black Guard in the Expedition.

Menacing-looking fighters in heavy black armor, which depicted the head of a mythical spiked creature, with its toothy mouth directed towards the neck. The faces of the Black-Guardsmen were hidden by the visor of a protective helmet. They’re armed in different ways from automatic rifles to machine guns.

The Black Guard, despite the fact, that it consisted of soldiers and officers of the Northern Empire, was subordinate only to Colonel Newer, and in fact it was his personal army. The most loyal and true patriots of the Empire. The small group of officers, formed fifteen years ago, now numbered several hundred trained fighters. A small number in comparison with the million-strong army of the Empire, but sufficient to maintain order, both at the front and within the state. The best of Eneya’s warriors, there are many legends about their fearlessness and steadfastness. Even here in the Northern State, far beyond the Edenean ocean from the Empire and her war with the Southern Union. Their martial prowess was one of the reasons, why the Black-Guardsmen were invited to participate in the Expedition, so that they provide reliable protection for the specialists.

A low staircase led to the main entrance to the headquarters, climbing up, which Aaron felt excitement: «The last chance to change the decision and cancel everything,» he thought, and after a second, barely noticeable hesitation, the gray-eyed-guy and the dark-blonde-girl opened the doors.

Many people were already crowding inside, mostly young people. Everyone wants to try their luck and no one is afraid of the possibility of a tragic outcome. It’s not necessary to be part of the Expedition in the role of brains, there are enough vacancies without it. Applications for participation were received on the second floor of the building.

Smiling volunteers were sitting at ordinary office desks, issuing questionnaires, that had typical items to fill out, that’s last name and first name, education level, place of work, presence of children. After accepting the applications, a sweet volunteer girl in a white and blue formal suit told them about the need for an interview and the time of it. Both have tomorrow, Aaron first, after him Lana.

As a result, a decision will be made. The young couple weren’t particularly worried about the result, especially since they worked at a local nuclear power plant, and the purpose of the Expedition was just to launch the complex of two nuclear power plants AC&DC, so they had some technical knowledge about power plants.


After finishing with the organizational arrangements, Aaron and Lana left the headquarters building. As they descended the stairs, they noticed Colonel Newer striding towards them at the other end of the square from the main street. Their paths crossed in the middle of the path near the monument.

Haytem walked past the young couple, lost in thought. He was wearing a dark green uniform and a black cloak over the top, but it not buttoned. His face is clean-shaven, tired brown eyes, smooth dark hair, gradually emerging age-related wrinkles on the forehead and under his eyes. Several gray tufts of hair peeped out from under the officer’s cap. Strong energy and confidence emanated from him, which always corresponds to a leader, who clearly represents what he wants and where he leads people, who trust him with their fate.

Behind him, at a distance of ten meters, a young gay walked cautiously, nothing noticeable at first glance was observed in him. His hands were pulled behind his back, and his gaze was directed downward. When he passed Aaron, the stranger was already pulling out a prepared revolver, placing a firearm in his right hand.

The gray-eyed-guy immediately realized, what would happen now. Letting go of Lana’s hand and giving her the folder with their documents, Aaron began to get closer to the killer. The dark-blonde-girl didn’t immediately understand, what was happening, but realizing, her heart began to beat faster with fear. She wanted to scream, but she fell into a daze watching her husband’s risky actions.

Colonel Newer was already climbing the stairs, step by step, approaching the headquarters entrance. The revolutionary prepared to stretch out his hand for a shot, but instead of his intended, he received a strong blow in his back.

The pistol fell from his hands to the ground, rolling to the side. Undeterred, the assassin pulled out a knife and tried to hit Aaron with it, but only tangentially hooked his right side. The gray-eyed-guy managed to knock edged weapons out of the hands of the revolutionary, after which a fight ensued.

The Black-Guardsmen immediately began to run towards them from all sides. Colonel Newer turned back to the source of the noise, seeing what was happening, he almost ran towards Aaron and the revolutionary.

Running up to them, Lana, without hesitation, instinctively grabbed the pistol and the knife from the ground, and then she ran to the side, where she was already met by the Black-Guardsman, who arrived in time and took the weapon from her hands.

Aaron felt strong, strong hands pull him to his feet. To the left and to the right of him were two fighters in black armor, holding him by his shoulders. His heart was beating intensely due to the adrenaline in his blood. His fists ached and were smeared with blood, it’s difficult to understand whether it’s blood or an attacking revolutionary, but more likely both. The right side tingled a little.

Colonel Newer’s face showed genuine surprise at what had happened, and he smiled.

«I knew, Mikey, that you would come,» Haytem turned to the failed assassin, who was also held tightly by the two Black-Guardsmen. Blood ran down his bruised face and his jacket was soiled with mud. The revolutionary’s gaze conveyed his inner anger and rage directed at the hated Colonel Newer. «My guys were ready and waiting, I guessed, that you want to get rid of me and interfere with our common cause, but the intervention of the Northerner…» he turned towards Aaron. «I definitely didn’t expect. You’re lucky, that he didn’t foresee this either. Our Mikey is the killer with experience. Take him away, I’ll talk to him later.

«We’ve nothing to talk about,» the revolutionary interrupted him, spitting blood.

«Not quite,» Haytem replied rudely. «You don’t know, that your friends tried to kill your sister, so they also wanted to throw it on the officers of the Imperial Army?»

Confusion appeared on his face, he couldn’t immediately answer.

«You’re lying,» his look was replaced by deep puzzlement, the revolutionary was bewildered. «Yozef wouldn’t do that,» he said uncertainly, quelling his violent ardor.

«Well, yes, he wouldn’t suck up the ass of the Union either?» then Colonel Newer waved his hand to take the prisoner away. «Okay, we’ll talk later,» he saw the wound received by Aaron on his side, and turned to the Black-Guardsman. «And bring something to treat the scratch,» Haytem finally turned his attention to the young couple. «So the Northerners aren’t as stupid as rumors go?» he tried to defuse the tense situation.

«What have you heard about us?» Aaron knew the attitude of the outside world to the Northern State: «Everyone blames us for the fatal Catastrophe, and when almost the entire army disappeared in the WRA, then from the Union of Northern Republics, then also the independent Wild Southern Continent, we were separated only by the ocean and their technological devastation. But when the regime changed in the UNR, the Emperor set the new course in foreign policy aimed at rapprochement with the Northern State.»

«You’re good at thinking, but the fighters of you’re so-so. Even you called us to help you on your damned Expeditions,» Colonel Newer specifically emphasized the plural. «What is your name, boy?» he held out his right hand for greeting.

«Aaron Martson, are you Haytem Newer?» for the sake of politeness, he clarified, accepting a friendly handshake.

«Yes, he’s,» Colonel Newer nodded positively. «You, as I understand it, are suicides?» he asked with some disappointment.

«Why is this?»

«Probably, that’s why I rushed at this revolutionary,» Aaron answered himself.

Haytem pointed to the folder with the documents and answered aloud.

«Apparently, you and your companion signed up for the Expedition, right?» he spoke in a stern voice, but without undue pressure.

«That’s right,» Aaron answered him, and in his thoughts he thought: «This is what the Colonel is talking about suicide

«I wouldn’t advise her to go there,» Haytem pointed with a glance at Lana. «What about you? People like you might do. It’s dangerous there, you know?» then he paused. «Think it over again.»

«My husband will not go there without me,» Lana firmly declared, until that moment silent.

«What is your name, Mrs?» Colonel Newer turned his attention to her.

«Lana Lauer, oh,» she corrected quickly, «already Martson.»

«Recently married…» Haytem concluded. «You’ve chosen an interesting honeymoon.»

«To be remembered for a lifetime,» Aaron tried to joke, realizing, that it didn’t work out very well.

«You don’t have a good sense of humor, but thanks again for your assistance in catching the dangerous state criminal,» Colonel Newer was about to leave, but suddenly offered. «I’d like to talk to you at another time and in another place, do you mind?» both nodded positively. «Then I’ll call you, and now I’ve to go, a lot of old and new cases.»

Haytem once again shook hands with Aaron, and, turning towards the headquarters, went back, and the young couple in the opposite direction.

They had already begun to move, when someone called out to them from behind. The Black-Guardsman brought a bandage and alcohol. Aaron hastily cleaned the wound and wrapped it in a white cloth. Thanking the black armored fighter for his help, the young couple continued on their way. There wasn’t much to do, only a long wait for tomorrow, when their fate will be decided.


Lana was still in shock from what had happened, and Aaron felt an adrenaline rush of cheerfulness. He had never before in his life fought with an armed man, therefore, replaying the incident in his mind, he was amazed at his active actions. Finally, the dark-blonde-girl broke the silence.

«Did you hear he said on the Expeditions, as if there were many?» Lana expressed her observation, looking inquiringly at her husband.

«Maybe he just made a reservation or something grandiose is planned,» Aaron suggested. «We’ll find out ourselves soon. But acquaintance with Haytem can play into our hands. The Colonel was appointed one of the Expedition’s curators, and he also represents the Northern Empire and he should have some influence.»

«Maybe so, but why did you get into this?» her voice sounded a reproach with growing irritation. She understood, that her husband did the right thing: «But he risked himself, his life.»

«In terms of?» Aaron didn’t immediately understand, what his wife was talking about, but then he realized. She looked at him with her characteristic gaze the way she does when she’s unhappy with him.

«He was armed and could have killed you. Are you tired of living?» Lana pressed him morally with all seriousness. But it wasn’t this, that infuriated her more, but the fact that there would really be a threat beyond the Border, and she didn’t want to die for the sake of getting an apartment or money.

«And you just had to watch, how he would kill him?» Aaron tried to justify himself, realizing all the stupidity of his answer.

«There was guard there, they would have figured it out themselves,» she retorted verbally. «Haytem said he was expecting him. And if he killed him, he killed him, I don’t feel sorry for him, unlike you.»

«Scared, that I could die?» Aaron concretized the problem, understanding the essence of her concern.

«Yes,» Lana replied sincerely, looking away.

«If we’re approved, then something similar may happen on the Expedition,» he decided to finish the problem to the end.

«There, as you said, the Black Guard will be,» in her heart Lana already hoped, that they would be denied participation, all this really scared her. «And that will be their job, you don’t need to risk your life, we’re techies, not soldiers.

She had already started to move away from the incident, her nerves were calming down. Lana was only now able to fully appreciate everything, that happened to them in the Square of Progress, and she was frightened by Aaron’s stupid fearlessness, complemented by recklessness. The gray-eyed-guy hugged his wife tightly. Standing like, that for about a minute, they continued on their way.


In the evening, Aaron received a call from an unfamiliar number. He accepted the incoming call on his mobile phone, hearing the familiar male voice from the speaker.

«Good evening, this is Haytem Newer,» he greeted Aaron, whose face showed a strong surprise, immediately noticed by the dark-blonde-girl. «Have you already moved away from the daytime incident?» the Imperial officer asked him.

«More or less,» Aaron replied honestly, trying to gather his thoughts together.

«This is good, tomorrow you can’t go to the interview, because I’ll conduct it for you myself,» Haytem got down to business. Lana had already sat down next to her husband, trying to hear the officer’s words. «Meet me the day after tomorrow at six in the evening at the Daikon restaurant.»

«Okay, we’ll come on time, thanks,» Aaron said, not believing, what he had heard, and there was a boom in his head, this he definitely couldn’t expect, his heart beat faster.

«And yet,» Colonel Newer added. «I pay for everything. Let’s just say it’s gratitude for your help.»

«Okay, I understand, so the day after tomorrow at the Daikon,» Aaron repeated, catching his wife’s curious look.

«See you, then, and have a good evening,» the Imperial officer politely wished him.

«Thank you, you too,» Aaron replied, after which the call ended with frequent beeps.

Lana immediately asked him excitedly.

«Who was that?» the dark-blonde-girl managed to hear part of the conversation, but she didn’t fully understand the essence of its content.

«Colonel Newer,» the grsy-eyed-guy replied in confusion, looking dumbfounded at his wife. «Tomorrow we’re not going anywhere, but the day after tomorrow we’ll meet with him, and he’ll personally conduct our interview,» he recounted the telephone conversation.

«Really?» Lana didn’t immediately believe, trying to find a reasonable explanation for the attention from the Imperial officer. «At the Daikon? It’s not a cheap place,» she said, guessing, that Haytem had his own interest: «But which one?» the dark-blonde-girl thought, trying to figure out the intentions of Colonel Newer. «How can we be useful to him? Me and Aaron are ordinary people, and important bigwigs, like Haytem, don’t do anything just like that, which means he has the goal,» but the lack of more information prevented her from finding answers to her questions.

«He said that everything is at his expense,» Aaron was still digesting the recent call, not noticing the catch. For him, Colonel Newer was the standard of a man of honor, unquestioningly following his principles and moral code.

«Wow, where did you get us?» Lana asked with a smile, guessing, that the interview in the restaurant might just be a formality, and the Imperial officer had already agreed for them: «But I could be wrong. One way or another, this meeting will lead to something, that will undoubtedly change our lives.»

«I hope to a new better world,» he replied, hoping that it’ll be really so, and not otherwise.

The young couple spent the rest of the evening planning their sudden free day. And the nerves about the interview calmed down. They understood, that Colonel Newer wouldn’t ask them about the technical aspect, but what the conversation would be about, Aaron and Lana could only guess.

As a result, for tomorrow they decided to just walk around the city from their metro station to the end of some other metro line. Doing something more conscious would still not work, since the ambiguity and anticipation of the meeting made it difficult to focus on something specific.


The young couple was already getting ready for bed, lying on the unfolded sofa. They were watching TV, when they suddenly heard a strange shuffle in the kitchen. Aaron went to check, but the sound stopped immediately. He looked around carefully and saw a bitten apple on the kitchen table.

«Lana, we’ve guests here,» the gray-eyed-guy commented with a grin.

«What?» she didn’t immediately understand, what he was talking about. «What guests?» she asked, getting up from the couch.

«Shumik,» Aaron replied, naming the evening visitor. «He tried to get the apple, but he only bit it.»

«Where? Do you see him?» asked the approached dark-blonde-girl, trying to make out the silhouette of the animal in the twilight.

«Nope, but he didn’t have time to hide, you just need to take a good look,» Aaron focused his attention on the floor, trying to notice two lights.

Shumiks lived in houses and buildings, spending most of their time in basements and ventilation shafts. Small gray animals, which didn’t grow fur, and four tentacles hid their toothy mouth. They moved like people, but they hunched over a little. Shumiks knew, how to take on the color of the space around them, becoming invisible to the untrained eye of man, which was a distinctive ability of this type of animal. Only two bright orange eyes, which, like fire, shone from nowhere, betrayed the animals.

Noticing the desired lights, Aaron cautiously walked to the table and carefully took out the apple, watching as two bright orange balls of fire move away to the side. The gray-eyed-guy slowly extended his hand with the fruit, squatting down. But the shumik was in no hurry to take the treat, fearing a trap, because often residents of houses and buildings, where the animals lived, caught them and sold them, like exotic pets.

After a few minutes of waiting, the shumik was able to trust and remove his disguise, showing Aaron and Lana his true body. He approached the outstretched hand and grabbed the apple with his small paws, immediately sucking on it with his tentacles.

«Wow,» said the dark-blonde-girl enthusiastically, carefully observing the food intake of the animal. «So unusual.»

«Yeah,» the gray-eyed-guy agreed, trying not to move so as not to frighten off the evening guest. «Interesting animals.»

Having finished eating, the animal deftly climbed up the kitchen cupboard and, opening the grill of the ventilation shaft, disappeared behind it.

«The hostess didn’t say, that there are noises in the building,» Lana was surprised, that they weren’t warned about such an interesting detail.

«Maybe she didn’t know herself,» Aaron suggested, standing up to his full height. «Moreover, if she only rents the apartment and doesn’t live here, then she may well not know about him.»

«Well, yes,» his wife agreed with him, returning to the room.

After watching some more TV, the young couple went to bed. Due to an eventful day, it was hard for them to believe, that they were on the train yesterday. Only severe physical and mental fatigue proved, that only the first day in Commander-City had passed.


Walking around the city the next day, Lana decided to address the vital issue of their spontaneous decision to stay in the capital in case of refusal.

«What are we going to do, if Haytem doesn’t let us on the Expedition, but calls us, just to meet?» she asked. The tone of her voice was deeply puzzled, suggesting an important conversation.

«We’ll quit our job and look for a way out of this damn Gray Cycle,» Aaron answered easily, realizing, that this wasn’t what Lana wanted to hear.

His wife, in contrast to him, was more serious and responsible, with an appropriate mindset, so she treated everything like this: «Any action should be deliberate, all possible outcomes of events should be considered, positive and negative consequences are weighed. It’s always necessary to be prepared for the worst and to know how to act in a given situation in advance,» this was the opinion Lana always held, when she making decisions.

It was harder for Aaron, because he can easily solve complex problems, even logical ones, but his approach to life can be described as follows: «First I do, then I think, what I did and how to fix it.» He has no plan, only improvisation, which sometimes gives results, but it can also be harmful. Lana never understood this, and often his simplicity became a reason for quarrels.

«This is all lyrics, and specifically, what are we going to do?» she asked expectedly, her face frowning. Lana understood, that his frivolity was often a problem. And she got used to thinking about everything herself, but nevertheless she continued to ask such questions in order to evoke in him at least some thoughts about real problems. «We’ve savings, but they’ll not last for a long time,» Lana said with growing irritation in her voice, expecting at least some kind of answer from her husband.

«We’ll find a temporary job, and then we’ll look at the situation,» Aaron tried to form a rough plan, but he gave out a banality, which his wife immediately criticized.

«That’s, you want to change the paid job in our town for an average, and possibly below the average earnings here, and again work for someone in an attempt to simply survive?» Lana unhappily stated his position.

«Well, I didn’t expect to hear anything else from you,» she thought in disappointment, rolling her eyes to the side.

«But it’ll be here, and not God knows where,» he objected, mentally returning to reality, where the Expedition is still in question. «There are more opportunities to get out of the Gray Cycle.»

«I don’t like to do something incomprehensible, for the sake of an unknown result,» Lana expressed her position, letting go of his hand, which was the bad sign.

Aaron, realizing, that now he couldn’t come up with something more specific, decided to move the topic, wanting to get away from an unpleasant conversation.

«I’ll think about it the day after tomorrow, but now we consider the Expedition as the main one,» Aaron said angrily out loud, starting to get angry.

«It would be nice, if we were hired,» Lana agreed with him, but even then she expressed her skepticism. «But everything is also vague. Why include ancient stations, especially atomic ones? Can they really be in working order for so many years?»

«Apparently yes, it’s not easy to send people out like that,» Aaron replied soothingly. «It’s clear, that it’s not so simple, but all the more interesting,» he tried to take his wife’s hand again, but Lana only allowed to grab her fingertips.

«Is it interesting to you?» she looked displeasedly at her husband. «Will it be interesting for you to die too, when the local creatures tear you apart and devour you? Or be exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, when the hair begins to fall out in clumps and the skin becomes covered with terrible sores?»

«I can’t believe, that such a reward is given for a simple business trip, even if to the WRA. So, there are certain risks, for example, radiation to begin with,» Lana spoke in such a tone, as if she was talking to a fool. «But this is already there, near the power plants, and you still need to get to them,» she thought aloud, gesturing with her free hand.

«Everything will be fine,» Aaron wasn’t afraid of possible threats: «If the government going to send the Expedition, then all the nuances will be taken into account.» «They’re not stupid to spend so much money and resources to make it all go into the void. Apparently, there are some guarantees of success and a good reason,» he expressed his thoughts.

«You’re right here,» the young couple walked past the local pancake chain, which was popular with the city’s population because of its democratic prices and profitable promotions. «It’s already lunch time, can we go in and eat?» Lana suggested him. Her inner tension eased. She postponed solving the problems until the day after tomorrow: «Let the issue with your Expedition be resolved, and then we’ll talk again. Let’s see, what your vaunted Haytem has to say to us.»

«Yeap,» Aaron supported her idea. Noticing that his wife had calmed down, he sighed with relief. Aaron didn’t like to argue with Lana and always, whenever possible, tried not to bring conflicts to a quarrel, which immediately reflected on his well-being. The appetite disappeared from the nerves, a headache began, and sometimes abdominal pains occurred. So when his wife’s annoyed tone changed to a calm voice, the gray-eyed-guy really breathed a sigh of relief.

A young couple ordered cheese soup for the first course and a pancake with cottage cheese for dessert. Having finished with lunch, they continued to walk around the city.


One of the problems with the central streets of Commander-City was their narrow sidewalks. So much, so that it became cramped for two people to walk along them at the same time. This is due to the reconstruction carried out even before the Catastrophe, and it not only in the capital, but it also in other cities.

Developing technologies in those days made it possible to reduce to a minimum the human factor on the roads, replacing the human driver with an automated smart driving system. Cars began to be controlled by artificial intelligence, which, based on a variety of sensors installed in vehicles, could safely deliver a person or cargo to any available point on the map.

Also, to solve the problem with traffic jams, the government began to exclude personal transport through the introduction of cargo drones. At that time, when you bought things in the store, there was no need to carry the purchases yourself, and all that remained was to call your personal drone, and it would already deliver the purchased goods directly home.

By the time of the Catastrophe, only twenty percent of the population of the initial number of its owners had preserved personal transport. For those, who like to drive themselves, the government built autodromes, where a person could rent any car, even a sports car and very expensive, and ride along the track.

But significant difficulties also arose, because the driver’s profession was no longer needed, at least in the number of personnel that was available at that time. Meeting began immediately, disgruntled drivers were offered free retraining for another profession, and during unemployment they were paid a sufficient amount to cover a monthly salary. Despite the understanding and efforts on the part of the government to smooth out these transformations, few of the former drivers agreed to the program of changing specialties proposed by the government.

Technologies equipped with artificial intelligence have increasingly penetrated into many areas of industry and services, gradually replacing humans.

The topic of the need for people in this world was raised more and more sharply. Supporters of progress said, that science and art couldn’t exist without a person, and again, someone needed to maintain complex devices. And if the intelligentsia was able to accept the inevitable consequences caused by progress, then the ordinary people didn’t, and they didn’t want to, expressing their categorical disagreement.

The crisis was brewing in the state, but the big boom didn’t happen, because the Catastrophe decided everything for the people. At the same time, in addition to hostility to artificial intelligence, fear was sown in the brain of the population, so deep that even now everything hasn’t completely calmed down, and the propaganda from the government only reinforced these ideas.


For the evening, the young couple ordered food delivery for themselves. When they put packages of rice and seafood rolls together on two chairs that were put together, the rustle of a plastic bag was heard in the kitchen again. Already guessing, who it might be, Aaron and Lana cheerfully went to the source of the sound.

At the kitchen table, trying to get an apple out of the bag, the shumik was working. Seeing, that they were looking at him, he stopped for a second, but then continued to take the apple out of the bag.

Aaron decided to help him. Cautiously approaching the table, he took out the coveted fruit from the package. The animal watched him all this time, and after that he took the delicacy out of his hands, starting to absorb it right there.

«Here is an impudent face,» Aaron commented with a smile, «Once you treat it, and it’ll begin. Not even afraid of us already.»

Lana went to the table and stroked the shumik. His skin was rough and a little rough to the touch.

«So small and human-like,» she said, watching him curiously.

«Yeah, but the tentacles aren’t ours at all,» Aaron agreed with her. «Nature could come up with it. And by the way, he doesn’t struggle with gravity like we do,» the animal moved hunched over to reduce the load from his small spine.

Close up, Lana had the opportunity to make out the sinewy body of the Shumik, which was tightly wrapped around strong muscles. On the tentacles, small suction cups were visible, with which he consumed liquid, and his toothy mouth served for taking solid food. His ears were located on the left and right side of his head. The animal himself didn’t seem cute, but the presence of such a life form aroused interest in itself.

Having finished eating, the shumik, like last evening, again disappeared into the ventilation shaft, carefully closing the grate behind him.


The next day, Aaron and Lana arrived at the appointed time and place. They left their outerwear in the wardrobe, after which the restaurant administrator took them to the ordered table for four, where Colonel Newer with his wife were already waiting for the young couple. Seeing them approaching, Haytem got up from the comfortable leather sofa and shook hands with Aaron, bowing his head towards Lana.

«Greetings, my wife’s name is Inoma,» he gestured with his right hand at the woman in a dark green officer’s uniform of the Northern Empire, and judging by the marks, she had the rank of captain. «And this is Aaron and Lana, our young conquerors of Ring,» Colonel Newer introduced them to his wife, sitting back in his chair.

«Glad to meet you,» Inoma smiled prepossessingly. She had a pleasant voice, in harmony with her sweet female face. If it weren’t for the military uniform and the well-known her prehistory, then no one would have been able to guess in her the active counter-revolutionary. Inoma fought the inner enemy of the Northern Empire on a par with her husband, putting herself in mortal danger every day. She, like Haytem, became prime targets for the assassins of the revolutionary faction, namely the New World. They were repeatedly subjected to assassination attempts, in one of which, so recently, Aaron and Lana managed to attend and participate.

The gray-eyed-guy noticed, that Inoma was worried about something, and this had been reflecting in her mood. Discontent, that had mixed with puzzlement, directly read on her face. The woman sat tensely, but she sometimes smiled, looking at the young couple with tired gaze of brown eyes, the color of which has become a characteristic feature of the people of the Northern Empire. Her dark, thick brown hair fell to shoulder level, covering her ears, but it didn’t hide her fragile shoulders and the officer’s shoulder straps shining with silver. On her face was the trace of the blow with something sharp, the pink scar, standing out on the pale sunken cheek on the left side. A straight and thin nose gave her even more delicacy. There were brownish bags under her lower eyelids, caused by a difficult and nervous life, but there were no age wrinkles, thereby visually underestimating her real age. From cosmetics, Inoma summed up only the contours of the eyes with a black pencil and slightly tinted her thin lips with a shiny, slightly pink lipstick. Her hands looked well-groomed, but there were traces of calluses, showing rough skin. On her hands were blue thin veins. The knuckles of her hands stood in sharp heaps, and her fingers folded on the table ended in short-cropped, unpainted nails.

«So, let’s order something and talk about you,» Haytem got down to business, beckoning the waiter with his hand.

The young couple chose vegetable paste and a glass of berry juice from the main dishes, Colonel Newer and his wife each took a steak, a salad of fresh vegetables and a glass of aged whiskey.

«What do you want to know?» Aaron asked him ahead of schedule, after the waiter took the order and went to the kitchen.

«What the hell are you doing on this Expedition?» Haytem replied him in a simple way. A question was rhetorical, but the answer to it could reveal the goals and thoughts of the young couple.

«I need to understand, if I can give you a more important role,» Colonel Newer thought in his head, noticing the faint signs of excitement in Aaron. His gaze was familiar to Haytem. «This is how Guardsmen look at me, but you’re not a citizen of the Empire, but knowing how your government distorts information about us, it’s even strange not to observe in you the disdain, that your compatriots are rich in,» he recalled the recent skirmish with Mikey Fraizon, where a resident of the Northern States showed his conscience and tried to prevent the assassination of the Imperial officer. «You decided to risk yourself for the sake of a potential enemy, as your propaganda assures you. But you think differently, having your own view and position, and this is what I need.»

«Curiosity and, of course, participation bonuses,» Aaron replied honestly, tapping his left fingers on the countertop.

«Do you think money is happiness?» Colonel Newer asked him, crossing his fingers into the lock, while at the top was the thumb of his left hand.

«Freedom is what we want,» the gray-eyed-guy said firmly. It was unusual for him to conduct a conversation with Haytem, especially in an informal setting.

«Freedom from what? Is someone in captivity in your democracy?» Colonel Newer asked with a smirk on his face, knowin, what Aaron was talking about: «Social status determines your position in the world and your freedom of action. Possessing power and connections, a person can move as he wants, so long as not to interfere with others like him. But if you were born in an ordinary family, you’ll probably live the same way. The course of your life’s development will become predictable, namely you’ll graduate from school, you’ll study at the university, and then you’ll work for someone all your life. Of course, if something goes wrong, and thanks to talent or the will of Destiny, you’ll not make the leap. And you want this. But your choice to achieve your goals isn’t entirely correct. Although Aaron may play the certain role in the future, but now I need to create the story for you, that sets him apart from the rest, enhancing the uniqueness of him and outlining the vector of his movement.»

«A question is rhetorical, right?» the gray-eyed-guy assumed, that the conversation would be on everyday topics, so he didn’t feel a sense of confusion, and at the same time Aaron couldn’t believe every time he realized, that Haytem and Inoma Newers were sitting opposite him and Lana.

«Aren’t there safer ways to get free?» Colonel Newer didn’t retreat, probing Aaron.

«Yes,» he agreed, realizing, what Haytem was hinting about: «Of course, there were options and opportunities. Mass and large quantities. But for this you need to have knowledge and a sense, but I can’t boast of it,» «But I don’t have enough brains to use them,» Aaron reluctantly admitted, feeling an unpleasant prick in his self-esteem. «Do you want to dissuade us?» he asked bluntly, directing his gaze into the brown eyes of Colonel Newer, who was sitting with a calm expression on his face.

«It’s interesting to see the behavior of another Northerner at the moment, when you fought with Mikey. Something seems to me, few people will rush at a man with a weapon, especially to protect an Imperial officer. You played on his surprises,» Haytem made a departure from the topic, then he abruptly continued the main conversation. «You hope to use the Expedition as a springboard. I managed to get acquainted with your personal affairs, so a question is more for Lana, than for you,» Colonel Newer seriously looked at the dark-blonde-girl, who had been silent until that moment. «This event is designed for lonely people, who have nothing to keep in this world. I note right away, that the stakes are high, the probability of a return is less than half. And so,» he continued the thought, straightening his left sleeve, for a second exposing his wedding tattoo. «You together, all the more recently, have officially formalized your relationship. And yet you decide to take this step? Do you really need this jump?» Haytem looked back at the gray-eyed-guy. «Aaron is okay, young, stupid and perhaps wants a thrill, but you’re the girl, who is more reasonable, than your husband. So what do you say?»

Colonel Newer was interested in Lana’s position no less, than Aaron: «A wife or a girlfriend isn’t just a person, her role and opinion should be taken into account on an equal footing. Inoma doesn’t always agree with me, but her criticism allows me to look at things from the other side and see the flaws and mistakes, that are invisible to me.»

At this point, the waiter brought cutlery and drinks, carefully placing everything on the table.

«I know, that we’ll move in giant armored vehicles, and your Black Guards will guard us, so what are we afraid of?» the dark-blonde-girl reasoned, repeating the words of her husband, with which he always answered her concerns about safety. Lana understood the essence of Haytem’s question, and she knew, that for herself she had decided to go all the way: «I want to see the WRA and just as much want to get reward for this trip, but the excitement, of course, is present.»

«In total, even we don’t know what, and most importantly who to expect outside the Border. It’s not just that you need my people,» Colonel Newer pressed on her, trying to test the steadfastness of her decision.

Lana thought for a minute, then she began to reason aloud.

«Radiation, harsh environment, unknown viruses and diseases, possibly anomalies or something else,» the dark-blonde-girl listed the likely threats, taking the time to answer the main question.

«This refers to the what,» Inoma entered the conversation. «But there is still the who, think, Lana,» the woman looked at her sternly.

«Stop, stop, stop,» Aaron interrupted, guessing in which direction the conversation was flowing. «We’ll have protective suits, armor and weapons,» he tried to fend off Inoma’s verbal attacks, understanding, what she wanted to achieve. «I’d say, that we’ll figure it out ourselves, but this isn’t ethical,» the gray-eyed-guy thought with displeasure, not wanting to refuse to participate in the Expedition.

«You rely too much on technologies, but it can be damaged, not work correctly, and you’re the young family and must make children, be a unit of society. Am I right, Haytem?» the woman turned with a question to her husband, hoping for his support.

«Yes,» he agreed. «But they make this choice themselves,» Colonel Newer looked reproachfully at his wife. Inoma wrinkled her face in displeasure and turned away, then she turned sharply and looked him straight in his eyes, saying roughly.

«Admit, Haytem, you want them to go there,» then the woman picked up the glass and took a long gulp. Her face didn’t even wince, when she gulped down the strong alcohol.

«So, the answer to a question, is it necessary or not?» Colonel Newer repeated his question, ignoring his wife’s statement.

Lana looked into his brown eyes, then she looked at her husband, for whom the answer seemed obvious: «You want to be on the other side of the Border, but are we ready for the accompanying risk?» the dark-blonde-girl thought about why it was necessary to invite them with Aaron. «But at the same time try to dissuade me from participating, because the fact that I’m here is already my answer. And what about Aaron, he would like to go there without me?» Lana could clearly imagine the upcoming journey, realizing with all the colors, how far they would be from the safe zone. «We’ll be in the middle of a wild world, where, apart from the armored off-road vehicle, nothing will protect us from the harsh world of the Ringworld,» the dark-blonde-girl understood the risk and all the possible consequences. «We don’t know anything about that world, we only speculate, but the government knows more for sure,» she understood, that not everyone gets such a chance. Lana glanced at the woman. «You want to dissuade me, Inoma, but you yourself once agreed to your husband’s risky venture, and now you’re one of those, who make Eneya’s story.»

Looking again at Aaron, Lana replied.

«I’ll be on the Expedition,» she said confidently. «I need it and it’s interesting, otherwise I’ll continue to live in ordinary mediocrity,» the image of their rented apartment, in which they lived in their small town, immediately appeared in her head: «The same alarm clock and early getting up in the morning, to get to work, and so on, and again, but for what?»

«Well, I understand you, you’re accepted, since you really need it,» Colonel Newer summed up, pleased, that Lana supported her husband: «If you survive this Expedition, you can really change your idea of this world.» «And yet,» he handed the young couple two bracelets with the symbols of the Black Guard, «you must put them on and not take them off. They’ll tightly fit your hand and will not interfere with wearing clothes.»

«What is this for?» Lana asked him, carefully examining the gift.

«Monitor your condition and track your position,» Haytem explained. «Thanks for helping to capture the valuable state criminal,» then, after he took a drink from his glass, he added. «And if something happens, the Black-Guardsmen will protect you first of all, this is something like the special status.»

«So, after all, there are people and not the Seekers, right?» she asked, putting the bracelet on her right wrist.

«They’ll tell you everything, but you keep in mind, that none of those, who wish will be included in the Expedition, because its members have long been identified and are preparing for it. And why all this clowning with volunteers, I don’t know, this is your government’s business,» Colonel Newer revealed his cards.

«So we wouldn’t have got into it?» Aaron clarified, and then he realized. «Never?»

«This is the serious event, and people from the street aren’t taken for this, especially young ones,» Haytem reasonably remarked, surprised by Aaron’s naivety: «But this is the kind of person I need. Naive, kind and sincere, otherwise people will not believe.»

«Then why did you help us?» the gray-eyed-guy asked him, puzzled, fastening the bracelet on his wrist.

«Curiosity, I decided to experiment,» the Imperial officer didn’t want to tell him his plan and initiate him into future world political movements: «Soon you’ll find out everything, it’s too early.»

«What kind of the experiment?» Aaron wondered, not understanding, what Haytem was talking about.

«Tell you everything, and put it on a plate,» Colonel Newer left the answer: «It’s early, everything has its time, guy.»

«And they agreed to take us?» Lana asked with a doubt in her voice: «We weren’t just taken, you somehow agreed, but what is the price?»

«They need my people very badly,» Haytem hinted to her. «You’ll be told the details later, but you must think about the number twelve, this is how many attempts ended in failure to find out how your army’s campaign ended,» he shared the information with the young couple: «This is for you to think about where you climbed.»

«Fuck, we’re thirteenths,» Aaron thought, now realizing everything, that was happening.

«But don’t worry too much,» the Imperial officer continued, deciding to reassure the young couple a little. «Before that, small groups were sent, without special transport and equipment, so, perhaps, the answers will appear right now.»

Now Aaron and Lana felt how serious everything was, and a bright light lit up in the eyes of the dark-blonde-girl: «Soon, one way or another, the truth will be revealed, and the world will change again. And I don’t want to stay on this side of the Border anymore. I want to participate in this and find out the truth, because everything will be silenced again, and if we find ourselves there personally, we’ll find out everything ourselves. Even if a signature on non-disclosure is later taken from us, we’ll touch the truth in any case,» she reflected, feeling the adrenaline rush from the anticipation of a new branch of history.

«Why do you give your people, when you need them in your Empire, because the revolution may begin soon?» Lana asked him aloud, calculating in her mind the number of the Black-Guardsmen, who should go with the Expedition.

«That’s enough for us,» Colonel Newer reassured her with a smile. «You shouldn’t think that the Northern Empire is keeping herself from collapse and disorder only thanks to the Black Guard. We catch revolutionaries and do what other citizens of our state can’t and shouldn’t do,» he explained the role of his counter-revolutionary organization. «Most of the youth sympathize with the instigators of the coup. They’re cowardly and stupid. They don’t understand, what is happening and they’re unable to consider events globally, not with a glance at the consequences of their actions.»

Aaron understood, what Haytem was talking about, so while the topic was still warm, he asked the Imperial officer.

«What will happen, if the Revolution does start, when people take to the streets? What measures are you planning to take?» a sharp urgent question sounded, forcing the Newer’s family to exchange glances.

«First, tell me what you think?» Haytem believed: «If a somebody asks a difficult moral question, then he himself must represent and have a position on this topic, otherwise it turns into a stupid concussion.»

«In terms of? I don’t understand a question,» Aaron didn’t expect to have to answer himself. He had the opinion, but how much the experienced counter-revolutionary would appreciate him, scared him.

«What would you do in this case yourself?» Colonel Newer concretized his question, knowing for what reason there was a hitch.

«Brutally suppressed the rebellion, are there any alternatives?» Aaron quickly replied, realizing, that the idea was terrible, but he didn’t see any other way: «In books on the history of the uprisings, they always followed two paths, either the power showed weakness and it was replaced by the rebels, or there were pillars with the hanged and shot people, who opposed their state.»

«And what does it mean, would hang all the revolutionaries?»

«It’s easy to talk when your hands are clean about what to do,» Haytem thought.

«I don’t know,» Aaron mused, trying to imagine himself in the place of Colonel Newer. «But letting them go or putting them in jail is dangerous. If someone decides to raise the rebellion again, they’ll help again, and more likely, they’ll become the cause themselves,» the gray-eyed-guy spread his arms to the sides, experiencing nervous tension and feeling, that he had touched the serious issue.

«And you’re suggesting mass murder?» Colonel Newer looked at him with displeasure. «The bulk of the protesters are the same as you’re young people and younger. You can’t solve the problem, boy,» he shook his head.

«But as?» Aaron really didn’t see any other solution to the conflict, so he decided to push the topic to the end in order to hear the opinion of the experienced officer. «You’ve the war with the Republic, but a coup d’etat is brewing inside. You’re already in a precarious position. The revolutionaries have recently gone berserk, they even tried to kill you.»

«Fear will not keep people in check, there will always be dissenters, but the true ruler must find a way to keep the balance,» Haytem said. «And it’s not up to you to decide about the precariousness of our position,» he added sternly at the end.

«Then you’ve the scales already stretching to the side,» Aaron never knew how to shut up in time, crushing his thought to the last.

«For a long time somebody didn’t argue with me.» Colonel Newer liked his stamina, because this gray-eyed-guy wasn’t afraid to contradict him, despite his status. «I’ll tell you this, Aaron, it’s our business, what we do, our Empire, our problems,» Haytem said, emphasizing the word our. «At least we didn’t destroy the world,» he eventually reasoned with the gray-eyed-guy with the problems of his own state.

Aaron had no answer to that: «The Colonel is right. All the devastation, ten years underground, is the fault of the Northern State.» He took his glass in his hand and took a sip of berry juice.

Haytem waited for the necessary pause, then he decided to defuse this situation.

«I don’t blame you. It’s unlikely that you’re the descendants of the people, who are responsible for this. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been sitting here, and you knew everything, that I know about this Expedition. But your government is hiding a lot from its people, not to mention the outside world.»

Just at that moment, the waiter finally brought hot dishes. The couples spent the next part of the evening talking on others topics, no longer raising the Expedition and the Revolution by ear.


The personal meeting with Colonel Haytem Newer and his wife Capitan Inoma Newer left the bright emotional mark in the memory of Aaron and Lana Martson.

«It’s one thing to see them on the TV screen, and personal communication with them is perceived completely differently,» the dark-blonde-girl reflected. «And, apparently, my husband is interested in something Imperial officer. He always attracts unusual people, and the Colonel was no exception.»

«We were lucky to meet Haytem, now we’re already on the Expedition, without the interview and this stupid competition, which we wouldn’t even have passed,» Aaron felt a surge of strength and experienced a pleasant nervous excitement, realizing, that their life has now radically changed and no longer will become the same.

«Didn’t you notice, that Inoma wanted to dissuade us?» Lana expressed her observation, trying to view events globally.

«I noticed,» he agreed, not attaching much importance to it. «So what? We’ve already decided everything. If we’ll die so together, but let’s hope, that it won’t come to that.»

«Let’s hope?» she thought discontentedly. «How can you say that? These are our own lives, and you treats them like something simple. Aaron doesn’t assess the risks for us at all.»

«You know? Now I understand more, that this Expedition is your call, but not our,» the dark-blonde-girl felt her strong desire to cross the Border with the Western Restricted Area. but at the same time she was intimidated by such the strong determination of her husband.

«He always showed indifference, and this Expedition seemed to awaken something in him. Aaron persistently and relentlessly pushed this trip to Commander-City, as if it was his life’s work. But maybe it really matters to him? Therefore, even death doesn’t frighten him?» Lana suddenly thought about the motivation, that drives her husband.

«Is that so?» Aaron understood his wife: «All this is really too risky. It’ll be easier for me to go alone.» But even before leaving their home, Lana firmly declared: «Either together, or none.» «We discussed this, and more, than once.»

«It’s interesting for me to be there too,» she agreed. «The more time passes, the more I’m convinced of this,» the dark-blonde-girl found it difficult to believe, that people had already been sent so many times, but she didn’t manage to find out everything to the end.

«At least they managed to find out about Ring, Edem and the AC&DC. I wonder, what is the purpose of including them?» he involuntarily tried to move away from the topic, but Lana didn’t fall for it.

«Have you ever thought, that somebody can wait for us? I don’t believe that they’ll just let us launch the power plants,» she expressed her thoughts. «And in general, this whole story with the AC&DC is strange,» common sense told her, that everything isn’t so simple, and they still don’t know a lot: «Perhaps they’ll clarify everything for us at the training base, but now everything sounds threatening,» Lana looked at her husband.

«For this, we’ll have the Black-Guardsmen and the Monsters with the specialists,» Aaron is already tired of repeating the same thing to calm himself and his wife. Despite his light attitude to the Expedition, he assessed the possible risks and outcomes, but the desire to touch the secret of Ring, and ideally to its central area called Edem, attract him. Aaron understood more and more, that money and the apartment are just the excuse for himself: «And for Lana.»

«You find the answer to everything, nothing scares you,» she said, then thought: «But the choice has already been made, and we’ll go outside the Border, as we wanted.»

«Because I’ve already made the decision. If you’re afraid, then stay,» his look became serious, and his face frowned. The dark-blonde-girl decided to just trust her husband, leaving doubts behind.

«Enough already offer me to stay, I’m with you,» Lana firmly declared, playfully hitting his chest with her little fists. «It’ll change our lives, perhaps even us, our worldview, for sure.»

«So, together to the end, and enough doubts, everything will be fine,» Aaron assured her, pulling his wife to him.

«Yes,» she answered shortly with a smile on her face.

The gray-eyed-guy kissed her on the lips, wrapping one arm around her waist and the other around her head. The dark-blonde-girl trusted him, realizing: «There is no other way to change the current situation at the moment, and it’s not foreseen soon.»


They didn’t want to go home, so the young couple decided to take a walk in the evening city. Eligia has already gone beyond the horizon, giving way to Gidon and its younger brother Ilam, which today completely reflected the light from the celestial star, creating the effect, that an unknown giant is watching the life of the little Eniyans. The names of Eligia and Eneya’s satellite were invented thousands of years ago, but no one remembered the content of the original legend.

Evening Commander-City amazed with its beauty no less, than its daytime version. Musicians performed along the main street, gathering onlookers around them. Dexterous girls with hats in their hands ran around the audience, collecting donations. Stores were decorated with glowing signs, attracting customers. There were almost no free places in restaurants and cafes due to the influx of visitors. Crowds of people walked on the street, who were curious tourists, young people on vacation, and just walking people. The city lived a tumultuous life, even after Eligia’s sunset.

The water in the canals of the central part of the city reflected light from the buildings along the waterways. Tourist boats and boats sailed occasionally. Soon the canals will freeze, and during the winter the movement of water transport will become impossible.

Now the air warmed up, and the slush of the previous days was gone, only wet snow moistened the street roads, reflecting the light from street lamps and car headlights.

Now, until the end of the admissions campaign, Aaron and Lana will have been freeing from worries and uncertainties, which temporarily gone, and in return the clear understanding, where they are going, has been slowly emerging.

Soon there will be a conversation with parents and goodbye. There will certainly be tears and nervous anticipation of their return. The entrance to a new life is never easy, you’ve to pay for everything. In their case, it’s the risk not to return. Aaron was happy with this outcome, Lana hoped for a positive option.

Trying to distract herself from gloomy thoughts, she imagined a new large apartment with good repair. The dark-blonde-girl fantasized, how she would no longer have to get up early in the morning for an unloved job, and their life would become free of responsibilities to someone other than themselves.

And if Lana would have preferred not to initially contact the Ringworld at all, then Aaron’s thoughts were only occupied with this. He imagined, what this territory would be like. In his imagination, a dull, ruined world was pictured, where people dressed in rags and gas masks live, who have to survive in a harsh aggressive environment. The gray-eyed-guy imagined, what the buildings of the AC&DC power plants might look like.

He didn’t think at all about what would happen after the Expedition. Aaron never looked far into the future, that was his thinking. It’s easier for him to improvise, than to have a plan and strictly follow the points. Lana understood all the danger, unlike her husband, who treated this as an interesting journey, not thinking about the seriousness of the Expedition.


The leaders of the government of the Northern State, and now the Empire, knew that there was no the Catastrophe. Stupidity happened, because people with money didn’t keep track of the scientists, who, in turn, lost control of the risky experiment, and what happened happened.

Something destroyed everything, that humanity had built, and they themselves were driven into underground shelters, deep underground, poisoning the air with the virus aimed only at people, without touching the animals. This something has become artificial intelligence. The scientist, who created it died on the surface next to his creation, trying to dissuade it from the insane cleansing of humanity to the last moment, when the virus was sprayed.

Ten years later, the talented young virologist managed to correct the researcher’s mistake by creating the antivirus. Together with the military of the Northern State, he left for Mildrine two hundred years ago. They knew the whole truth about the Catastrophe, but no one ever returned.

After that, the Western Restricted Area appeared, most of which had been hiding by eternal fog, and the foggy Wall blocked the way to the very sky. For some reason, the locals called this territory Edem, and the surrounding area of this was named Ring. The air was poisoned, and wildlife died or transformed into something terrible and dangerous. The Ringworld consists of ruined cities, dead wastelands and poisonous forests and swamps.

The fate of the underground shelters located in the Western Restricted Area is still not known. Some people could come to the surface and populate the Ringworld. But questions arose: «Why did they not leave it, or at least tried to contact the government? And what happens in Edem itself?»

These and many other questions, to which there are no clear answers, prompted the rulers of the Northern State and the Empire to organize the joint operation deep into the Ringworld.

The main goal of the future Expedition was to study the AC&DC power plants complex, which is the most protected place in the Ringworld, which means that it’s directly related to Edem and the ability to get behind its Wall.

An attempt to get to the complex has already been made, even if it wasn’t covered in the media, because its result turned out to be more, than negative in cause with the death of this group.

In this operation, the scouts of the Northern State were assisted by the Seekers, the paramilitary faction consisting exclusively of citizens of the Northern State. Interestingly, all of them were able not only to penetrate the Western Restricted Area, but they also survive there, and, possibly, establish a permanent camp or even a full-fledged base.

With all this, the group still managed to get results, namely they reached the AC&DC complex, and through the Seekers transmitted graphic data, which captured images of the territory of the power plants and pictures of the Tower, controling them. The photographs and videos show, that the AC&DC complex are in acceptable condition, and there are also new buildings, that don’t correspond to the technical level of the available Ring. Also, notes were made about some military faction, which based on the western half-arc of Ring.

The composition of the upcoming Expedition has long been determined and preparations are already in full swing, but for ordinary people the government have invented the story, that everyone can participate in it. It’s enough to submit an application and have the necessary knowledge, then perhaps you’ll become a member of the Expedition.

All this, of course, Aaron and Lana Martson didn’t know, who want to make money, get their own apartment and just go outside the Border and see the ruins of the old world. They, like many other residents of the Northern State, filled out the application for participation, and they had to go through the interview, where it was necessary to convince the commission of their necessity. After that expect a positive decision, which will undoubtedly become a negative. The chance encounter with Colonel Haytem Newer changed this flow of events, and the boundaries of their world expanded. They had to travel the new and unfamiliar path for them.


The next day, the young couple came to the headquarters and filled out all the necessary paperwork. They took signatures on non-disclosure of any information related to the Expedition. Aaron and Lana were allowed to keep their smartphones with them until they left for the Western Restricted Area. They were also told the date of departure from Commander-City to the training base, from which station their train would depart, and were informed that they were attached to the Black-Guardsmen during the journey to the place.

The days passed quickly. Aaron and Lana tried to enjoy this time, walking the streets of Commander-City. They watched, how ordinary people live, and this added inspiration and confidence in the right choice. Having felt the taste of true freedom, the young couple could no longer imagine returning to their past looped life.

Finally, the last evening came in normal life, like ordinary people. Aaron and Lana were sitting on the couch, both flipping through the news feed on their smartphones. The Shumik sat on the chair and ate his favorite apples. The backpacks are already prepared and assembled.

During their time in Commander-City, the young couple had already gotten used to this apartment and the animal, so tomorrow’s departure brought sadness. They felt exactly the same, when they left their hometown.

«But without moving forward, there will be no progress,» Aaron thought. «In a year or even earlier, we’ll come back, and a new life will begin. Yes, Lana is right, we’ll become different, but this is called development. A person must always move, strive and develop. New experiences will allow us to look at things from a different angle in order to see something new or realize something important. The grayness has powdered our brains, and the Expedition will allow us to break away from the Gray Cycle for a while, to break free and evaluate our life with a different look. Money and things are nonsense invented by the Gray Cycle, but people…» he looked up from his smartphone and looked at his wife, then turned his gaze to the Shumik. «People, animals, their soul is true. A living entity, unlike material things, can’t be replaced. And love. There will be no merging of souls, an invisible connection that penetrates into consciousness itself. We’re taught to fear losing wealth, status and monetary wealth, but how important is it?» the gray-eyed-guy looked at Lana again. «Only the rules are dictated by the world, so you’ve to play by its laws. Even if you get some independence, the System will immediately notice it and try to get you back into the grayness. Anyway.»

The commercial break ended on TV and the next release of the evening TV show continued. The presenter of the program, standing between two stands with signs For and Against, addressed the audience.

«I remind you that the theme of our program is Artificial Intelligence: the Stage of Progress or the Road to Death?» then he approached the defenders and asked a question. «Before the start of advertising, we focused on the fact, that AI allows to facilitate control and achieve the high level of optimization in various industrial sectors, but how reasonable is it to give the program access to all this?» then the presenter moved to the opposition. «We all remember the sad experience of introducing AI into the defense system.»

«As you said yourself,» one of member from the For rostrum began to answer, adjusting his glasses, «this is just the program, the set of algorithms, the binary code, that’sn’t dangerous in itself. Humanity’s negligence is to blame for the Catastrophe. We should have calibrated everything first, and only then use the AI in the military system.»

«There were a lot of tests and so,» the opposing side Against didn’t agree with his position. «AI has already been used in industry and in everyday life. He managed until he got access to the important defense system.»

«Don’t talk about him as if it was alive,» one of the defenders said indignantly. «AI is inanimate and doesn’t possess self-awareness, it has no desires and goals, except for those that a human gives.»

«Oh, really?» interrupted her opponent. «Before the Catastrophe, scientists were working with the new version of the AI, they were trying to train him. He even had his own body, he had the name.»

«These are all rumors, but no evidence has survived, only stories that have come down to us through the centuries, and in a distorted form,» the defender retorted.

«Let’s say, but there is no smoke without fire. For a reason, after the Catastrophe, the government introduced a ban on the creation and use of AI.»

«This isn’t entirely true,» the defender disagreed, «Only in the defense industry. Understand, you can’t give up something, just because we’ve not figured it out to the end.»

«Catastrophe and the WRA aren’t enough for you?» the opponent asked sarcastically. «AI didn’t just try to exterminate us, he warned us, gave us time to hide under the ground. He made us choose, who to stay and die, and who to survive. The program doesn’t act like that, he understood, what he was doing.»

«But this is nonsense,» the defender categorically disagreed. «AI is code processed by a supercomputer. It has no emotions, it has no soul, needs and instincts.»

«But history proves the opposite, doesn’t it?» arrogantly, looking at her with a victorious look, said the man from the podium Against.

«You know, I’ll probably agree that a criminal organization that sabotaged the defense system is to blame for the Catastrophe, rather than the fact that the AI did it at will.»

«You can argue on this topic forever,» the presenter began to sum up the results, «But the program time is coming to the end. As we can see, the topic of artificial intelligence is still controversial. Therefore, we would like to thank our guests for the productive dialogue,» the sounds of clapping of hands were heard. «And that’s all for us, we’ll meet tomorrow and discuss the problem of the Northern Empire: the causes of revolutionary moods and possible outcomes. We’ll continue with the evening news release.»

As usual, the war between the Empire and the Union was covered, another attempt by the revolutionaries, but then the announcer turned to internal events.

After announcing the completion of the formation of the future Expedition, he began to list the names and surnames of the lucky ones, who managed to get on this grandiose journey. The list ended with Aaron and Lana Martson.

Now the whole Northern State knows them. It was strange for them to hear their names, it meant the end of a past life. Mixed feelings gripped them, consciousness didn’t know how to react to changes.

«The human essence always opposes the movement, stability is simpler, you always know what will happen next,» the thought flashed through Lana’s head.

They didn’t manage to fall asleep that night. The body was overwhelmed with nervousness, and their heads were torn apart by many thoughts. After drinking a cup of coffee in the early morning, the young couple went to the station.

Before leaving the apartment, the Shumik approached them and hugged them in turn by their legs. After stroking him, Aaron turned to him.

«Don’t miss us, when we return, we’ll take you to our place, and you’ll eat apples as much as you want.»

«And we’ll make you a crib,» added the dark-blonde-girl, touching her hand to the little head of the Shumik. «And we’ll also buy you toys so that you don’t get bored.»

Sadly, they opened the door and then turned the key in the keyhole for the last time. Before leaving the entrance, Aaron threw the key into mailbox number forty.

It was still dark outside, only lanterns illuminated the road to the metro. Fresh snow crunched underfoot, and the morning air froze their faces. There was no wind.


The subway trains had just begun to move along their routes, but the railway carriages were already overflowing with people, that surprised the young couple. They’re not fully familiar with the rhythm and way of a big metropolis. If in their hometown everything was located close enough, then in Commander-City there were completely different distances. A person could live in one end of the city and work in the opposite part of it. People are forced to adapt to this routine. In this form, the Gray Cycle of Life increasingly manifested itself, sucking the life force from a person.

The monotony and similarity of actions leads to degradation of consciousness, scarcity of imagination and limited perception. Even your favorite activity turns into a routine if you repeat it every day. The same is true for work, where, in addition, pressure is added related to timing and quality, spurred on by endless checks. The human mind is always in tension and over time people don’t even notice it. The pain from the slave collar is dulled, while the invisible grip continues to grip the victim. People break down invisibly, forced to accept the rules of the System.

Entering the station building, a group of fighters in recognizable black armor was already standing in the hall. Aaron counted a little over twenty people. The Black-Guardsmen held heavy large bags in their hands. Now their faces weren’t hidden by protective helmets. They all have short hair and look about forty years old. A hard look that conveys the complexity of their life. The gray-eyed-guy went to greet them. Approaching the group, he introduced himself to them.

«I’m Aaron, and she’s Lana,» he pointed to his wife. «We were told, that we would go together to the training base.»

«Yes, Haytem was talking about you,» one of the fighters, the only young guardsmam, blond-guy with green eyes, answered him, holding out his hand in greeting. «Aiden Nergman, Captain of the Northern Empire Army.»

«Has the train arrived yet?» Lana asked, taking off her pink hat from her head.

«Yes, we were only waiting for you, so we can go to our railway carriage,» the young Guardsman said kindly.

«You don’t know, will there be someone else?» Aaron asked, along with Lana following the group of the Black-Guardsmen.

«Shift service personnel will also go with us, and there will be freight carriages with provisions and equipment,» the blond-guy answered him.

They went out to the trains, their train was standing on the last railroad track. Around there were many security guards with dogs with strong sinewy paws and sharp fangs. The color of the animals was different, but it always had a base of white, which added with black, brown, red and even in some cases dark blue. Large triangular ears looked up, and blue eyes looked around. The pink nose was intensely drawing in and out air. The tail is forked at the end, twirling from side to side. Nobody wanted uninvited passengers.

The group passed civil railway carriages, inside of which people in casual clothes were already sitting. Men and women of different ages, closely watching the group of figthers in black armor and the young couple following them. For the Black-Guardsmen, the separate railway carriage was allocated, immediately behind which cargo platforms with huge blue containers and white vertical stripes began to go, and at the very end was the head locomotive.

Before boarding, their documents and belongings were checked. Aaron and Lana were the last to go inside. In the railway carriage, the Black-Guardsmen settled in empty seats. The young couple went further, closer to the middle, they saw unoccupied seats on the side. Throwing their backpacks on the upper bunk, the young couple sat down on the lower seat, putting their hands on the table, which was folded into working position.

A few minutes later, the train set off, moving farther and farther from Commander-City and leaving the railway station grounds behind. Consciousness has finally come to terms, that the past life is over, as well as with the old Aaron and Lana.

The cityscape flashed before their eyes, and an emptiness arose in their soul. «Thinking and doing in reality aren’t the same thing. I urgently need to switch to something,» the gray-eyed-guy thought, turning his head towards the Black-Guardsmen.

Aaron was always tormented by a question: «How did Colonel Haytem Newer manage to assemble the personal professional army, which unquestioningly obeys one person. Even the Emperor has no power over them. Their goal is to fight the internal enemy.»

According to rumors, that the gray-eyed-guy knew, it all started fifteen years ago, with an attempt to rape a young girl, but everything worked out. Haytem was on vacation, and he heard screams, when he walked back from the bar. The officer shot one rapist on the spot, the second managed to escape. Later, at the police station, Captain Haytem Newer, he learned, that this wasn’t the first case, and the murdered man belonged to the then still starting activity of the revolutionary organization the New World.

And so, out of the desire to maintain internal order, over time, the Black Guard arose, as a response to the radical opposition of the current regime. They were called so for their armor, which has become the distinctive symbol of the Black-Guardsmen. Aaron didn’t know more, and a feeling of curiosity made him talk to the original source on this topic.

Opposite the young couple were four fighters, who were laying containers of food on the table. The gray-eyed-guy already knew one of them, who was the green-eyed blond, namely Aiden Nergman.

«Is it really so dangerous there?» Aaron began the conversation from afar, turning to the Black-Guardsmen. «Behind the Border,» he added.

«Your intelligence believes, that in the WRA there is the military faction with its own equipment and weapons, the local fauna isn’t very friendly, and there are enough problems in North-City itself,» the young Guardsman answered him.

«Exactly, North-City, it’s in this city that the AC&DC complex is located, the our final destination. And according to rumors, there is some kind of laboratory under the city, for which at one time nuclear power plants were built,» Aaron remembered the purpose of the city.

«You’re sent to be reinforced, right?» he continued the conversation.

«To solve the problem,» the imperial captain replied seriously, while the older fighter sitting next to him grinned. «Twelve of your groups have already been destroyed.»

«I see,» then Aaron moved on to the main question. «How did you become the Black Guard? I’ve heard stories, but I doubt they’re true.»

«There is nothing to tell,» the adult Black-Guardsman answered him, «We just try to maintain internal order.»

Aaron was hoping to hear a more detailed answer, so he decided to clarify his question.

«Fight revolutionaries and the like, I know that, but how did Colonel Newer or another officer recruit you? How does this happen?»

«Wanted to and came, like many of us,» he answered shortly.

«Come on, Rinos,» Aiden smiled, «The guy is just interested in us. And what about your question,» he turned to Aaron, «Then any soldier can come to any of the senior officers, who are in the ranks of the Black Guard, and after the interview you join. Without signing any papers and other solemn nonsense.»

«Anyone?» the gray-eyed-guy was surprised. «I thought only the best were selected. You’re considered elite fighters, even here.»

«Not the best, but the faithful and adequate,» Rinos replied again. «We’re the best, not because we fight the best, but because we do it according to our conscience.»

«We train a lot, have been in real battles with the republicans more, than once,» Aiden explained. «We’re not trying to be the best, but simply doing our duty, no matter how pretentious it sounds.»

«And if it’s not a secret,» Lana entered the conversation, who wasn’t interested in this topic. «What do you know about the Expedition?» she turned the conversation into the mainstream of pressing problems. «They just haven’t told us anything, just general information.»

«Our rulers want to go to the place called Edem. The AC&DC is the key, they believe. We’ll accompany the specialists to the object, that’s all, we don’t know more ourselves,» then the blond-guy remembered and added. «As we understood, there will be three groups, each with its own goal.»

«And, what are their goals?» Aaron asked with interest.

«One will go to North-City, the other, if successful, to Edem, and the third isn’t yet clear, but it seems Colonel Newer said something about the west coast.»

«An interesting path is planned,» the gray-eyed-guy thought aloud.

«Don’t worry, you’ll have the safest route,» Rinos said.

«But also the most boring, apparently,» Aaron replied, not thinking about his words.

«Guy,» the adult Guardsman sternly snapped him, changing his expression from neutral to gloomy, «There are no boring and funny ways. All this is associated with risks to life. I understand, that you’re still young and don’t fully understand everything, that’s happening, for this the Colonel Newer allowed you to participate, so that first of all you would grow wiser in the field.»

Aaron said nothing. Aiden decided to break the awkward pause.

«Haytem didn’t have time to tell us, who you are,» he said to the young couple. «So where are you from?»

«We came from the north, closer to the east coast of the continent,» Lana replied, seeing, that her husband wasn’t yet ready to continue the conversation. «We worked at a nuclear power plant. I’m a computational engineer, and Aaron was maintaining the equipment.»

«Wasn’t it scary to work?» asked the young Guardsman with interest. «It’s almost an atomic bomb after all.»

«An accident just won’t happen, especially to a critical scale,» Aaron returned to the conversation. «There are so many protections and automation, that there is nothing to be afraid of, while everything is mutually reserved.»

«It’s interesting, probably, to understand this?» Aiden asked.

«Yes,» Aaron agreed, «If only it could brings a lot of income.»

«Small salary?» the blond-guy asked the expected question.

«It’s normal, but you’ll save for your housing all your life, and you’ll have to save a lot,» the gray-eyed-guy shared the everyday problems of young people.

«For that, loans were invented,» Rinos said sternly. «Have you tried it?»

«Nonsense, why should I overpay someone?» Lana disagreed with him.

«That’s it,» Aaron said.

The young couple had a clear position on this topic, its essence was that they had a negative attitude towards loans. Even for the purchase of their own home, presenting the amount of percent overpaid to the state bank.

«You’re interesting people,» the adult Guardsman grinned, «Do you think to cheat the System? That’s why you’re here, looking for workarounds.»

«What?» Aaron asked him with a challenge. «How do we need to do? Working all our life, almost living at work, and for what? Apartments, cars, other symbols of financial security?»

«I understand you, guy,» Rinos replied calmly. «But you also understand, that this is how the world works. You’re lucky, but no more,» the adult Guardsman immediately guessed, how Aaron attracted Haytem’s attention: «You can feel the maximalism inherent in young people. You still sees this world as free, being on the border with the normal life and the so-called free. But You’re driven out and reject the System, not realizing, that rejection of its rules will not get any easier. It’ll only be more difficult for you, like a beast in a locked cage. You see boundaries and try to go beyond them, regardless of their position in society. You think, you can change your status. But you succeed it,» he agreed with himself. «You’ve already succeeded it,» Rinos recalled his conversation with Colonel Newer, especially his wishes for Aaron. «Haytem hates politics, but he plays this game skillfully. Now he’s betting on this guy, hoping to get more out of him in the future. Well, let’s see, how you meet the Colonel’s expectations.»

«Everything is correct, we’re lucky, but the world is continuous chaos,» Aaron answered him, suddenly coming to the conclusion: «There is no stability and constancy in the world, it’s moving and you need to be ready for its transformations.»

«So you believe in Fate?»

«So he’s not just naive, but completely divorced from reality. How do you live, guy?» Rinos made his conclusions, understanding more and more, what Haytem was guided by when he made the decision about Aaron.

«Not really, I don’t believe, that there are predetermined actions and events,» the gray-eyed-guy disagreed with the adult Guardsman, explaining his position to him.

«And we’ve a philosophical debate here,» the young Guardsman commented on the dialogue between Aaron and Rinos. «So what? How then does the world work, in your opinion?» Aiden asked him directly.

«A man creates his own destiny and does everything for himself,» he tried to formulate an idea, unwinding the ball of his confused thoughts.

«Let’s say,» Rinos agreed, continuing to look sternly at him. «But this is the answer to another question, you’re moving away from the topic,» he shook his head.

«There are actions and their consequences, and nothing else. Something like that,» Aaron replied after a short pause.

«Weak, but I count, I’ll make a discount for your age,» the adult Guardsman accepted his answer. «You speak in general phrases, because you haven’t yet become imbued with life. Think about it at your leisure.»

For Lana, these conversations seemed devoid of meaning, from which there was no practical benefit, so the dark-blonde-girl decided to change the topic of conversation again.

«How did your families react to the trip?» she asked the interesting question for her.

«No way,» Aiden answered her. «No family, no problem,» he said a little sadly.

«You see,» Rinos decided to explain his words. «Haytem allowed only singles and only men to participate in this event. Everyone understands the risks, and he’s not going to take on the burden of responsibility, if someone’s husband or father dies on the other side of the Border.»

«Do you volunteer here?» Lana asked him.

«Of course, yes,» the adult Guardsman answered her. «Nobody was driven here by force. At least Haytem wouldn’t allow that. Voluntary participation was one of the main conditions on which Haytem agreed to participate,» then he asked the young couple. «Why do you think, you’re traveling in the same railway carriage with us, and not with your citizens?»

«I don’t know,» Aaron looked at him questioningly. Lana also nodded her head. «Maybe because Haytem recruited us?» the gray-eyed-guy suggested.

«The right direction of thought, but specifically why?» Rinos didn’t retreat.

«I’ve no idea,» Aaron threw up his hands.

«So that your citizens don’t touch you. It’s clear, that no one will use physical force, but there will be moral pressure. Be prepared for this in the future,» the adult Guardsman explained. «You’ll see for yourself, we’ve already encountered this. The consequences of your stupid propaganda.»

«Not everyone treats you badly,» Aaron disagreed.

«And I didn’t say, that everything, but the majority. You’ve internal problems in your State, and the damn Imperials are to blame.» Rinos didn’t hide his irritation, but he spoke calmly. «Isn’t that what most of your population thinks? You support the Revolutionaries and the Southerners.»

Aaron and Lana had nothing to answer in defense of their State, because all the words spoken by Rinos were true.

«Our Emperor,» the adult Guardsman continued. «The first, Isaac Langord, back in the time of my great-grandfather, immediately stopped it from us. And we don’t see you as enemies. Yes, we blame you for the Catastrophe, but we also blame ourselves. Everyone is to blame. If we had your technology, our ancestors did the same and made the same mistakes. But we accepted the truth, and you, as you were arrogant, remained. No, you even degraded, becoming only the shadow of the former Northern State, which was pushing science and progress forward in leaps and bounds, trying to reach space and new star systems. The Expedition doesn’t have the goal to study or understand, your government only wants to put an end to the issue with Edem and with artificial intelligence. Because they’re afraid of him, because he can take power from them and shake the world again. Have you heard of the Seekers? So why do they still exist?» he looked inquiringly at everyone. «Because it’s beneficial to your government. Volunteer explorers of Ring don’t take funds from the treasury, and there is no responsibility for their death. They just declared them criminals and that’s it, make it work. And now they’re almost full members of the Expedition. And all the laurels to whom? And when our war with the Union began, what did you do?» Rinos asked with obvious irritation in his voice turning into anger. «That’s right, our government supplied weapons to the Southerners. And now you need the alliance with us? Fatbags will say this is politics and nothing personal, but this is hypocrisy and inhumanity.

«Enough, Rinos,» the young Guardsman said. «You’re telling this for not those.»

«Just for those, who need it. Those bastard will not understand, and even spit in the face. And they,» he pointed with his hand at Aaron and Lana, «will someday be able to send the right thoughts to their citizens.»

«He’s right about everything,» Aaron agreed with his speech. «So, war is brewing?» he concluded. «For this, our government wants the alliance with your? Are we preparing for the second crusade?»

«If you’ll know a lot, you’ll soon grow old. But yes, the Expedition can stir up the hive, and what will happen after now is difficult to imagine, so our rulers are considering all options, including the darkest,» Rinos shared his thoughts.

«Haytem is a good person and does the right thing, so that no one speaks in our State. Lana and I are your friends, even if the others put bayonets against us,» Aaron said firmly, looking seriously at the adult Guardsman.

«Nobody doubts about you, otherwise you wouldn’t be here, at least in the same railway carriage with us,» Aiden said with a smile.


Once upon a time, several tens of centuries ago, the world of Eneya consisted of many peoples and languages. And each unique nation had its own territory, symbol, army, and political regime. But the inevitable globalization erased the boundaries between nationalities, because smaller states united into larger ones, mixing different cultures and customs with each other. And this happened until the whole continent acquired one coat of arms and language.

As a result, two states arose, on different continents, which were already fighting for influence over the whole planet, and the oceans separating them only strengthened the confrontation, preventing open collisions. The state of the cold war was escalating.

The names of states have been simplified to simple names, tied to the poles of the planet. Cities, the names of regions and counties were also renamed in order to completely erase national differences and history. There are no more winners and losers, two strong nations have emerged with the goal of building the future.

They planned space exploration, but couldn’t divide their home planet. With each new leap, relations between the Northern State and the Union of Northern Republics intensified. The governments of this states didn’t want to share space wealth with anyone. Silly greed in carving up the skin of an uncaught beast increasingly pitted the interests of the two rivals.

The first serious conflict was one of Eneya’s space satellites, namely Gidon. The Northern State sent a cargo spacecraft to its surface to begin mining iron ore. The UNR lagged behind in the development of space engineering, so it couldn’t afford a high-tech operation. But the UNR couldn’t accept its defeat, putting forward an ultimatum.

The Northerners weren’t scared and for several days put out of action all defense control systems of the hostile state. The UNR didn’t expect this, and it have already resigned themselves to failure, but the warning about the imminent bombing and the subsequent spread of the virus, that’s fatal to humans, sounded from all the speakers throughout the UNR. People were urgently forced into underground shelters located throughout the UNR. The Northern State failed to hide the cause of the outbreak of the Catastrophe, but its government had the courage to tell the recent enemy part of the truth.

After the day of the Catastrophe, relations between the states didn’t improve, but it only worsened. The UNR tried to distract the people from food problems and the inability to begin restoring a past world. And the surviving government of the Northern State distracted its citizens from the problem of the emerging Western Restricted Area and the true cause of the Catastrophe. Both states turned their citizens against the imaginary enemy overseas.

The peoples of the two human civilizations hated each other, and daily propaganda didn’t let the hostility cool down. And if the Northerners were gradually restoring the destroyed world, then the UNR was sinking deeper and deeper into problems.

Finally, the uprising broke out and its government changed. Not only did its governing government change, but its regime changed, and the first Emperor of the new state, Isaac Langord, ascended the Throne. He was the intelligent person, who understood everything and immediately began to solve pressing problems. The newborn Northern Empire confidently rose from the bottom, from which she began her journey. With skilful management, the economy recovered, supplies improved, factories and power plants were rebuilt.

As for the source of all problems, that same ill-fated living mind, his fate is still unknown.

In those days, science was actively developing, and the possibility of creating a full-fledged artificial intelligence arose on the horizon. The winner of this race wasn’t happy for long, success turned into the collapse. Human’s new creation took a lot from him. Having studied the structure of the human world, the newborn consciousness made his own conclusions and set his goals. Guided by good intentions, he wanted to build a new world, better for all living on Eneya. To implement the plan, it was necessary to agree with people, but attempts to find a common language didn’t give any result. The humans looked down on him as the program, not realizing, that he was the living Digital Life. And then the artificial life decided to do everything in his own way. Having outwitted his creators, he took control of their technologies. Then he purged them, starting to embody his plan. Until people came again, but this time not everyone ignored him as the person, so everything went differently.


Immediately behind the railway carriage, in which the Black-Guardsmen and Aaron and Lana were, was a dining railway carriage, which served as a dining room on the way. Sometimes the young couple saw passengers from other railway carriages while eating. Their looks were unfriendly, full of disdain for the guests from the Empire and Aaron and Lana as well.

Days passed by talking with the Black-Guardsmen. The gray-eyed-guy managed to become friends with Aiden. And Lana was engaged in a detailed study of the nuclear power plant, remembering and studying new information.

A few days later, the train finally arrived at its destination. Far ahead, the Border with the Western Restricted Area was already visible. The green coniferous forest was abruptly replaced by dark deciduous trees, and the fortified wall towered at the place of separation. Some ruins loomed in the distance. Aaron couldn’t see any more from this distance, but what he had already seen really impressed him.

The rest of the Black-Guardsmen watched with equal interest. The view of the western border was amazing, because it not only divided the Northern State, but it divided two different worlds. The device of one was known to everyone for a long time, while the other was a black box, and its secrets only had to be learned.

The proximity to the Border caused unusual sensations, namely anxiety and some excitement.

The training base

A few hours later, in the late afternoon, the lights of the training base appeared outside the railway carriage window. It was located in the lowland near the very walls of the Border. As the train approached its destination, hangars, civil buildings, various sites, military equipment, radio tower antennas became distinguishable. Even the Imperial rotorcrafts stood with folded air blades at the airfield, covered with a waterproof canopy. All this occupied a significant area, comparable to a small town.

The training base was located on the border with the mysterious Ring. Part of its territory lay on the other side of the Border, and it fenced off from the harsh environment by thick concrete walls equipped with automatic machine-gun turrets.

The Border was the high reinforced concrete wall rising twenty meters in height. Its construction began eighty years ago. In the same years, the military of the Northern State began to purge the Border territories, which forced the Seekers faction to go further north, leaving their original base in the abandoned city of Engord. They moved further northwest, away from patrols and closer to the Northern Ocean.

The training base was surrounded by dense forest, but this part was dominated by deciduous trees, now devoid of their green clothing. There was already a thin layer of snow on the ground. Nature was preparing for winter.

«Wow,» Lana expressed her surprise at what she saw, «It looks cool, I can’t even believe that we’ll be there,» the dark-blonde-girl carefully examined the training base, noticing more and more various objects.

«Yeah, our State is seriously preparing, but it scares more that in six months we’ll find ourselves on the other side of the Border,» Aaron fixed his gaze beyond the Border, but from this distance he couldn’t see much. As it approached the Border, the train moved out ever lower, until the protective Border wall hid the territory of Ring from the view of the train passengers.

«Before,» Aiden said aloud suddenly, sitting closer to the young couple. «Before the start there will be training and outside the Border too. At least with us,» he explained.


The train gradually slowed down, slowly approaching the loading and unloading station, which serves as the railway station. Overhead n-shaped industrial yellow cranes, which could move along several parallel tracks, stood motionless, one at one end of the station, the other on the opposite side. There was no special platform for passenger railway carriages.

The sound of the braking system was heard, a metallic rattle ringing in ears. When the train came to a complete stop, the conductor threw down the stairs, along which passengers began to descend carefully, carefully lowering their bags with their belongings.

Jumping to the ground, Aaron looked around. There were more arriving workers providing training for the Expedition, than he expected to see. As well as during the journey, people looked with suspicion towards the Black-Guardsmen.

As soon as all the passengers left the railway carriages, the meeting staff held a roll call. Workers in blue and white suits, holding tablets and a pen, called the surname and first name, after the person responded, they put a mark.

After making sure, that everything was in place, all arriving people were taken to the dining room, where the laid tables with a ready-made dinner were already waiting. After eating, all the newcomers were divided into two groups, one consisted of men, the other consisted only of women. But there was also the third, separated from the rest by state belonging to the Northern Empire.

On the territory of the training base there were several buildings to accommodate personnel. Part of the dorm houses were intended for women, the other half for men, and the separate building for the Black Guard fighters. Aaron, for some reason, ended up in the same group with the latters.

The young couple didn’t even have time to say good night to each other, when the three groups began to disperse in different directions. Seeing his wife among women and girls, Aaron waved his hand. Noticing him, Lana smiled back, looking warmly at her husband with her tired gray-green eyes.


The dorm house allocated for the Black-Guardsmen wasn’t such. The first floor was equipped with training rooms. The second floor served as a living area. Wooden doors to the living rooms ran along the corridor. Separate rooms with showers and toilets were provided at both ends of the corridor.

Climbing the stairs, Aaron found himself in the hall, which divided the floor into two equal parts. Leather sofas stood near walls, and beside which were set up dark gray wooden tables. Panoramic windows overlooked a small park area located near the dorm house. Smoking was allowed on the balcony, and there were special urns for cigarette butts.

Aaron walked past, turning left. He didn’t want to go too far, so the gray-eyed-guy opened the door second room from the hall. It turned out to be empty inside, no one had occupied the room yet. Two bunk beds were neatly assembled and tucked in, awaiting new dwellers. He chose the lowest spot near the window. Aaron put his backpack next to the front headboard. At first glance, the sleeping places seemed comfortable to him.

Then the door to the room opened, and the Black-Guardsman, namely Captain Aiden Nergman, already familiar to Aaron entered. He greeted and took the second floor of the same bed, that the gray-eyed-guy had chosen, and he began to take out and put his things on the shelves. It was clear, that for him frequent moving is a common thing in life. A few minutes later, two more approached. Rinos and a man of the same age, who introduced himself as Nathan Rose.

«So, Aaron,» Aiden began the evening conversation, climbing onto his bunk, «are you going to live with us?»

«So far with you,» Aaron agreed, flipping through the news feed on his smartphone. «It’s even amazing.»

«This is for the best, it’ll be more fun with us, than with the specialists,» the tired young voice of Aiden said cheerfully.

«I have no doubt,» the gray-eyed-guy replied distantly. He didn’t like meaningless conversations, preferring to stay in his thoughts or reading books, but now Aaron wasn’t at home with Lana, so without much desire, he still participated in the conversation.

«Did you notice how many cameras there are?» the young Guardsman continued the dialogue.

«No, but a lot?» Aaron tried to remember, but realized he hadn’t paid attention to it.

«Enough, on the street almost on every corner. I counted eight in the dining room,» Aiden shared his observations.

«An important object after all,» the gray-eyed-guy noticed.

«It’s understandable,» he agreed, «It’s just not customary that you’re constantly being watched.»

«This is how humanity lived in the world before the Catastrophe,» Aaron said, sending his wife the message: «Already settled? I’ll live with Aiden and Rinos and another guardsman. Who did you live with?»

«Yes,» the young Guardsman agreed, «I don’t understand, how it was possible to live like this?»

«They lived normally,» Rinos kept up the conversation. «Over time you get used to everything, especially if you live like that since childhood. Here a question is different, where to cuddle with the girl, so that the cameras don’t see?» he smiled maliciously.

«This is the important question,» Aiden agreed. «But will they give us?» he chuckled, sitting on the edge of the bed and hanging his legs down. «They’re pretending to be, the devil knows whom, and they also look as if we are invaders.»

«Boy, don’t worry about it,» Nathan answered him, «The more she builds herself, the more pleasant it’ll be to squeeze her. They’re all so patriotic in public, but take them aside, talk to her like a girl, and you’ll have everything.»

«You’re right,» Rinos agreed with him. «The main attention, well, and not to be sloppy…»

Aaron didn’t participate in the conversation, this topic didn’t arouse interest in him: «I have my beloved girlfriend, who, even now, in the status of my wife. And also she’s with me, here at this base,» it’s important for Aaron that Lana is with him.

The smartphone vibrated about the receipt of the message: «They settled me in with two local workers. I didn’t see any of the members of the Expedition. The girls say, that the specialists live in the separate building.» Then followed by the second message: «I’m already falling asleep, good night,» there was a kissing smiley at the end.

Aaron sent the reply: «Okay, good night, Darling,» ending the message smiley with a love heart.


The women’s dorm house was nine stories high. Immediately at the entrance to the lobby, an administrator was on duty, who distributed workers to rooms. After checking Lana’s pass, she indicated the room in a loud and monotonous manner.

«Six hundred and six, sixth floor. You can use the elevator, just attach your pass,» the administrator prompted, immediately switching to the next woman.

«Thank you,» Lana thanked her and headed for the elevators, which located on the left and right sides of the hall. Taking advantage of one of them, she went up to her floor.

Her room was in the middle of the right corridor. The dark-blonde-girl looked around with curiosity, peering into the ajar doors, from which unintelligible sounds from other women’s conversations came.

Finally, she went to her future room. Opening the door, Lana saw two girls. One walked around the room in blue pants with vertical white stripes, her top was open, and her chest was hidden from view by a pink bra with black flowers. Her another future neighbor was sitting on the bed, still dressed in civilian clothes. She held the smartphone in her hands and looked through the news feed, while conducting the conversation with the dressing friend. Both were familiar and had the friendly conversation about life and everyday things. Hearing the sound of the door opening, they turned towards the stranger.

They appeared to be about thirty years old. One had long dark-red hair, diluted with black strands. A accurate and upturned nose, blue eyes, freckles on her face, that was clean from makeup, and plump pinkish lips with red stripes of skin cracked from chapping.

The face of the other girl seemed to Lana rough, with a straight nose, but no hump. The dark roots of the hair turned into a light-blond. Acne was visible on her face. Wide, almost black eyes carefully studied the new neighbor, and thin lips, almost imperceptible, portrayed a strained, friendly smile.

«I’m Eliza, you can just Eli,» the red-haired-girl introduced herself, then gestured at her neighbor. «And her Milari, or simply Mila,» shifting her gaze to Lana, she asked a question. «So you’re the new girl everyone is talking about?» Eliza smiled, flirtingly looking at the stranger.

«You still have the guy with you, right?» Milary clarified, who, unlike the first girl, didn’t really want to share the room with someone else. This was indicated by her frown and indifferent voice, not at all like the sonorous and good-natured one like Eliza’s.

«Yes, his name is Aaron, but he left with the Guardsmen,» Lana replied. «Have you been here for a long time?» she asked, catching herself thinking, that she was interested in watching the red-haired-girl.

«We came with you, but this isn’t the first trip,» Eliza explained to her. «We’ve been working for two years, for three months, then we change.»

«And do tou earn a lot?» Lana was immediately curious, going over to the free bed.

«Decently, in the Commander-City you’ll not find such a job,» the red-haired-girl answered her. «My husband arranged for me here, he also works here, is engaged in the preparation of the Monsters.»

«And my father sent me. What about you?» Milary asked. «I heard, that your husband helped an Imperial officer, and for that you were sent here. Is it true or is everything much simpler?» she asked sincerely, replacing her displeased neutrality with a weak greeting.

«True,» Lana answered honestly, deciding not to darken, realizing, that the people, who are here, know everything: «At least, almost everything.» «Aaron prevented the assassination attempt on Haytem Newer,» the dark-blonde-girl explained to them, catching herself thinking, that she doesn’t know, how to relate to it: «I be proud of his deed or I still be more careful, because our people aren’t particularly fond of the Black-Guardsmen, perhaps even here.»

Noticing the embarrassment of the new neighbor, Eliza took Lana’s hand, reassuring her.

«Don’t worry, we’re not interested in politics, we’re ordinary hard workers, like you and your husband. I’m doing communications, and Milary is setting up the software.» Then the red-haired-girl turned her back and unbuttoned her bra, taking it off and throwing it aside. Then she put on a blue T-shirt with the emblem of the Northern State over her naked body.

«Wow,» Lana was surprised at their professions. «You have an interesting job.»

«You can’t say, that you worked as an engineer at a nuclear power plant either,» Eliza showed her awareness, taking off her pants at the same time, under which there were pink panties, and climbed onto the second tier of the bed, hanging her legs down, continuing to carefully study the stranger.

«Wow,» Lana assumed, that people would know something, but not everything and not in such detail. «And what else is known about us?» she decided to get rid of ambiguities.

The dark-blonde-girl also didn’t waste time in vain and during the conversation she distributed her things on the shelves of the vacant locker. As in Aaron’s room, there were two bunk beds in their room. One was already occupied by the girls, and Lana chose the empty bunk below.

«Not much, actually, but enough,» Eliza replied vaguely. «Mila and I don’t care, but those who are on the Expedition can treat you with apprehension, as well as the Black-Guardsmen. Nobody planned you and them, but the government imposed, one might say, at the last moment.»

«I understand this and I’m ready for problems,» Lana replied seriously, changing clothes for sleep. She took off her plaid shirt and put on the red and green fruit T-shirt. Then she got rid of the skirt with pantyhose, exposing her strong and toned legs.

Eliza watched Lana’s actions closely, smiling at the dark-blonde-girl, when their gazes crossed. «This Eli is obviously flirting with me, but does she have the husband?»

«They’ll not be,» Milary reassured her. «One of the curators and members of the Expedition is Greyman, he’s good and will not allow aggression regardless of connections and status,» she said the words in a gentle voice, which inspired Lana to certain thoughts.

«And where are they, in the sense, the other Expedition’s members?» she became interested, assuming, that she and Aaron would be immediately live with them, and not with ordinary workers. «Although Aaron left in the company of the Black-Guardsmen,» the dark-blonde-girl recalled. Picking up her smartphone, she noticed a purple light blinking in the right corner, signaling the unread message.

«They live in the separate building, and we rarely see them,» Eliza explained to her.

Looking towards the window, Lana noticed, how the air conditioner was hanging on the wall nearby. Just below it was located a stand for the control panel, which lay on the table, showing on a small square screen the temperature of two hundred ninety-three Elvin — 293E. The power cord of the air conditioner has been disconnected from electrical socket.

The dark-blonde-girl went to the window, behind which she saw the neighboring buildings and buildings. In other windows the light was still lighting. A snowstorm, that had risen on the street, greatly reduced visibility, so Lana was unable to see the area closest to her dorm house. The electronic clock built into the air conditioner control was already shining at half past nine in the evening.

«And what will happen tomorrow?» the dark-blonde-girl asked, feeling, how she was beginning to be overcome by sleep. «Will I be given the same uniform as yours?» Lana looked at Eliza, hovering for a second in her clear blue eyes.

«I don’t know,» the red-haired-girl answered, smiling at her. «The members of the Expedition wear ordinary civilian clothes, but the morning will begin with exercises. Usually they gather near their building and start jogging, but I think you can’t go tomorrow, because you still haven’t been officially introduced to them.

«What will you do?» Lana clarified, pouring water from a transparent jug into a clean glass. Then she went back to bed and took out the contraceptive pill plate from her backpack. The dark-blonde-girl took out one capsule and washed it down with water.

«By seven o’clock in the dining room for breakfast, and from eight to five in the evening, work, like everyone else. Dinner at six, and lunch at twelve,» Eliza explained the daily routine, studying the actions of Lana.

«Do you have a weekend?» she asked, neatly folded, scattered on the bed, clothes on the back.

«Yes, Sunday,» Milary told her. «Usually on Saturday evenings after work, the local club opens. There is good music and atmosphere, and pour alcohol as much as you like, almost like in a southern resort.»

«And you just have a drink and dance,» Eliza chided her with a smile. «You’d have found a guy already, otherwise it’s not serious.»

«I myself will decide, how it’ll be better,» Milary snorted displeased. «You were able to get married successfully, but you don’t need to rush me, I’ll figure it out myself.»

«Well, look,» the red-haired-girl didn’t accept her answer. «Just don’t cry, when it’s late and you’re an old maid.»

Then the girls continued to discuss their topics. At the time, Lana decided to go take a hot shower and wash, while she had the strength to do so.

Having passed to the end of the corridor, the dark-blonde-girl found herself in a spacious room, where individual cabins with a shower were located on the left and right. She closed the cabin door, undressed and hung her clothes on blue plastic hooks. To control the shower, a touch panel was used, through which it was possible to select the pressure force and the temperature of the supplied water. Setting comfortable settings, Lana closed her eyes, letting warm streams of water flow through her body, pleasantly relaxing her muscles. After enjoying the shower, she squeezed a cream-gel onto a washcloth and began to rub her body, getting rid of sweat and dirt. Having washed off the white foam, Lana dried herself off with her towel, feeling the pleasure of clean skin. The dark-blonde-girl completed the bath procedures by brushing her teeth.

Returning back to her room, Lana went to bed, looked at the message and, having answered it, she herself didn’t notice, how she fell asleep, even with the lights on and the sound of the two girls talking.

Aaron and Lana fell asleep quickly that night, although they were separated by different buildings and separate beds. The final countdown to the start of the Expedition began for them. The last six months of peaceful life, which should prepare them for the difficult journey through the danger Ringworld to the guarded dead city.


Aaron was awakened at six in the morning, it was still dark outside the window. A few weeks in Commander-City relaxed him, so getting up early was hard for him. His eyes refused to open, and his body didn’t want to leave the warm bed. But Aiden was persistent in his desire to wake up Aaron.

«Get up, fighter,» he pushed him in the shoulder. «It’s time to go to exercise.»

Reluctantly opening his eyes, a bright light hit them at once. Then a shiver ran through his body, as Aaron kicked off the covers. He quickly dressed and went out with everyone, feeling the morning frost on him.

There was no particular desire to do something, but too much too lazy, Aaron began to run along with the Guardsmen. They made several circles around the park area next to the Black Guard building. The air outside was moderately cold and actively invigorated the sleepy body. After their morning run, the Black-Guardsmen went to breakfast.

It wasn’t so easy to find Lana in the dining room, where already were many people. It only helped, that they hadn’t yet been given work clothes, so the newcomers distinguished themselves from the local blue-and-white suits. The dark-blonde-girl was waiting for her husband at the beginning of one of the distribution lines, looking at the news feed on her smartphone.

Approaching Lana, Aaron kissed her on the lips and hugged her tightly, wrapping his arms around his wife’s slender waist. The dark-blonde-girl was wearing the plaid shirt with dark red and black squares, that peeked out from under her pink down jacket. Below he could see the familiar skirt and warm tights. Her hair was loose and curled slightly, dropping evenly on either side of her face, revealing her forehead. Lana wasn’t wearing makeup, her natural slight blush and pinkish, blood-filled lips, giving her appearance a slight childishness and innocence. The backpack hung on her back. The dark-blonde-girl looked attractive, attracting the attention of not only male looks, but also female ones, both envious and just curious.

In the dinning room was no wardrobe for outerwear, so people stood along the distribution in unbuttoned jackets and down jackets, which, like all other clothes, had a basic blue color and vertical white stripes, and the coat of arms of the Northern State flaunted on the shoulders and back.

The dining room occupied a fairly large area with a capacity of up to five hundred people. There were six distribution lines for servicing workers, which made it possible to prevent large queues. Later, Aaron learned that this wasn’t the only dining room, because there were several in different parts of the training base.

«Have you been jogging?» Lana asked her husband, noticing his slightly out of breath from exercise.

«Yeah,» he answered her. «I had to run a little with the Guardsmen.»

«And I decided to skip the first day,» she admitted, looking at Aaron with a sleepy look. «But why should I go to them? First, we’ll officially meet, and then everything else.»

«After breakfast we’ll do this, and now let’s go to eat,» he made a gesture with his hands, letting Lana go ahead to the beginning of the distribution.

Taking orange food trays and cutlery, the young couple walked to the first stop, where the chefs were putting milk porridge on the plates. Further there were toasters, and next to them lay neatly cut pieces of white and black bread in a basket. Next was plates with sausage and cheese.

After waiting for the toast to be prepared, the young couple moved on. At the very end there were large thermal pots with hot water. Boxes of tea and cans of coffee lay nearby. Aaron poured dark powder into his glass and added two tablespoons of white sugar, then he poured boiling water over it all. Lana repeated after him. Having made themselves a sandwich, they started looking for free places.

The young couple took a cozy place away from the kitchen and the crowd of people. After wishing each other bon appetite, they set to work on the contents of the plates with food.

«How did you sleep?» Aaron asked his wife, having eaten half of the portion.

«Not bad, I expected worse conditions. Have you been with the Black-Guardsmen?» Lana asked him back.

«Yes, I myself haven’t yet understood why. By the way, you didn’t hear anything to whom to approach, and what to do next?» he asked, in parallel moving on to coffee and toast.

«No, in my room there’re only the workers of the base, no one from the Expedition,» the dark-blonde-girl shook her head negatively.

«Then now let’s go look for someone. And by the way, let’s wait for each other at the entrance, like you do today, and if something doesn’t work, we’ll send each other messages so as not to wait in vain, okay?»

«Yes,» Lana agreed. «I wanted to suggest that too.»

After they finished their invigorating drink and were about to get up from the table, an unfamiliar officer of the Black Guard approached the young couple from nowhere. Sitting on a chair next to Aaron, he began the conversation.

«Greetings, I’m Major Andrew Sinclair,» Guardsman introduced himself. «I’m responsible for the participation of the Black-Guardsmen in this Expedition. Colonel Newer warned about you. As you already understood, you don’t quite fit into this situation, but Haytem insisted on your participation. So, Aaron,» he first turned to the gray-eyed-guy, looking at him with his dark brown eyes, «you’ll undergo training with our fighters, we’ll teach you what we can. And you, Lana,» Major Sinclair shifted his gaze to the dark-blonde-girl, «are attached to the specialists, you’ll be brought up to date about the future operation.»

«So I’ll be a soldier?» Aaron asked in surprise: «By whom, but as a fighter of the Black Guard, I definitely couldn’t imagine myself. Now it’s clear, why I’m in the same building with the Guardsmen. Only a question arises, are they really planning to make me a more or less adequate fighter?»

«Do you understand, that your level of knowledge is lower, than that required to launch the power plants? Let the girl know everything better from the technical side, but it’ll be more useful for you to learn self-defense and survival. Anything can happen in the Ringworld, and it’s better if you know what to do in a critical situation.» he looked sternly at Aaron, then he added for him. «I’m serious.»

«Major Sinclair was telling the truth, because we really happened to be here by accident and not prepared, so we should listen. Haytem is the experienced tactician, he knows better what is best,» the gray-eyed-guy thought.

«If you’re done,» Andrew pointed to the empty plates, «then take the trays and I’ll take you, Lana, to the specialists, and then, Aaron will come with me, you’ll have intense training.»


After leaving the dining room, they walked for about ten minutes between low buildings and various structures. The workers of the training base passed by all the time, carrying various equipment and spare parts in their hands. Occasionally, a truck was passing by, in the distance there was the noise of working cranes, welding machines and constant negotiations between workers, a rumble coming from afar.

Like the downtown area of Commander-City, the surrounding buildings didn’t have concrete walls, but were fenced off from the street with transparent glass, that reflected the bright blue sky and the flickering silhouettes of people passing by them.

Fresh snow crunched underfoot, and warm steam came from the mouth. Aaron didn’t like winter for its cold, preferring the southern regions of the Northern State. But he and Lana were born in that part of the state where, with the arrival of winter, severe cold coming, then summer suddenly will melt the snow and will choke you with its heat, but also it will cool you with icy rains.

There was no pronounced spring and autumn, when several days of slush and mud underfoot flowed either into severe frosts with snowdrifts and ice, or into warm air and clean asphalt, sometimes moistened by heavenly precipitation.

Major Sinclair led the young couple to a large administrative building, located almost at the very border with the Western Restricted Area. The first three floors were occupied by office and laboratory premises, and from its very center a transparent elevator shaft went into the sky, leading to the observation point above.

«Lana, here for you,» Major Sinclair said, as they reached the stairs, which leading to the entrance to the building. «They’re waiting for you.»

«Good luck,» Aaron said goodbye to his wife. «We’ll meet in the lunch.»

«Thank you, I’ll go to join the team,» the dark-blonde-girl answered not very confidently and began to climb the stairs.

Inside she was met by a spacious hall, and the security guard at the entrance immediately indignantly called out to Lana.

«Girl,» he said loudly to her, assuming, that she had entered the Expedition headquarters by mistake, «where are you going?» the man blocked the way, standing near the turnstile and looking at her with displeasure.

«Lana Martson,» she called herself, taking out her pass. «I was sent to the specialists, I just arrived at the base yesterday.»

«I’ll check it now,» the security guard replied incredulously, taking her card. He pressed several virtual keys on the tablet, and, making sure that the dark-blonde-girl wasn’t lying, cleared her way, returning her pass. «That’s right, you can go. Smart ass sit on the second floor today, office two hundred and five.»

«Thank you,» Lana thanked politely and walked quickly through the turnstile.

Having risen to the second floor of the building, the dark-blonde-girl had already managed to unbutton her jacket and, having found the necessary office. Lana gathered her thoughts, after which she opened the door. In the room there were eight people, who sat at ordinary single tables, resembling school desks in appearance. Some of them were holding tablets in their hands, others who were present were writing something down with pencils in notebooks. The specialists immediately turned towards the stranger, casting curious glances at her. The dark-blonde-girl took a step forward, confidently crossing the threshold, then she smiled sweetly.

«Lana Martson?» a guy asked, who looked a little over thirty years old, standing near a white board, on which various electrical circuits were depicted in multi-colored markers.

Nearby was a white projector screen, which was now blank. The guy was wearing a white scientific coat, from under which a striped sweater with alternating white and blue horizontal stripes could be seen. On his feet he wore white sneakers and light-colored jeans. Also, the guy saw poorly, so he wore glasses in black frames with small rectangular lenses.

«Yes,» Lana was worried, because she understood: «These people are real experts, and I came here not for my knowledge, but because Aaron managed to drag us on this Expedition.» And this caused a certain uncertainty in her. «Major Sinclair said to come here,» the dark-blonde-girl clarified, expecting the reaction of those present to the mention of the Black Guard officer.

«That’s right,» then he turned to the group. «This beautiful girl’s name is Lana Martson, she’ll be in the Center team,» then the guy looked back at Lana. «I’m Greyman Antor, I’m one of the curators of the Expedition, you’ll get to know the rest in the process. Now you can take an empty seat,» he pointed to an unoccupied table in the extreme row from the side of the entrance, «and slowly get involved in the topic.»

The dark-blonde-girl settled herself at the free desk and exhaled with relief, taking her notebook and pencils from her backpack.

«The Seekers will also take part in our operation to launch the power plants,» Greyman continued. «They’re interested in a positive result no less, than we. Let me remind you, that last time they also provided assistance, and without their help, we wouldn’t have been able to obtain the following data,» using the remote control, he turned on the projector, and, interacting with his tablet, Greyman displayed images of photographs of the AC&DC power plants complex on the white screen. «And so, as we can see, the complex have gone through an unknown reconstruction. The scale of the alterations at the moment is difficult to assess, it’ll be seen already in place.»

Lana carefully studied the photographs, feeling the inspiration of participating in a grand event for history, that could change its course. Sometimes she looked around, trying to make out at least a little the other members of the Expedition. No one paid much attention to her, but Lana caught one strange look of dark-green eyes, but she didn’t attach much importance.

«The Seekers’ team will move to North-City as soon as we’re ready. Also, Skil,» he turned to a guy sitting across two tables from the dark-blonde-girl, to the very one, who looked at her suspiciously. His appearance didn’t arouse interest, that was an ordinary male face, short hair, a straight big nose and dark-green eyes. But the look of the wary guy exuded arrogance and superiority, the reason for which Lana couldn’t understand at the moment, «another the Seekers’ team will meet with the your Monster and will show the way to the Ring Army.»

«I know, what my team has to do, namely meet with the certain Juna, and then go to the territory of the mythical Ring Army, right?» he said the words monotonously, repeating them for the hundredth or, perhaps, the thousandth time.

«Right, don’t forget, that at the moment we don’t know how to relate to the Ring Army. How about possible allies? Or as enemies? What the Seekers are persistently trying to convince us of.»

«What about the South team?» Skil asked a poignant question. «Why haven’t we seen them yet? They won’t prepare with us?»

«No,» Greyman told him. «I don’t know anything myself, but I found out that their operation is even more secret, than what we’re doing.»

«What are we doing?» Skil asked with displeasure. «We prepare conditions for them, but at the same time, information about Edem is hidden from us.»

«This is a higher level of secrecy, than ours,» Antor explained, but his answer clearly didn’t suit the wary guy, and Lana’s presence increased his displeasure.

«Will they be guarded by the Imperials too?» Skil asked sarcastically, casting an irritated glance at the dark-blonde-girl.

«Is it important for you?» Greyman tired of silly questions.

«This is probably not the first time you’ve discussed the controversial involvement of the Black Guard,» Lana concluded. «And why is Aaron so fanatic about Haytem and his organization?» she suddenly thought.

«Of course, how not to worry when the former enemy is involved in our business,» Skil said with irony.

«Apparently this guy doesn’t really like the Empire, but what is Greyman’s position?» she looked from Skil to Antor.

«Exactly, that ex,» Greyman replied, looking at him irritably. «All this is in the past, there is nothing political in it. We all want to reveal the secret of Edem and let’s stop there.»

«At least neutral. It pleases, at least not a stupid propaganda fanatic.»

Skil shook his head in displeasure, but he calmed down for a while, pacifying his displeasure, continuing to follow Lana with his eyes, which made the dark-blonde-girl feel uncomfortable.

«Now I need to join the team, so let he looking at me, if he’s so interested. Although it’s so clear, that he’s worried, that Colonel Newer agreed on Aaron and me. And, unlike my husband, Skil clearly doesn’t like the Imperial and considers their as enemy.»

«So, back to the main topic,» Antor continued, noticing, how Skil was watching the new Expedition’s member. «The Seekers will have to occupy the complex and prepare it for launching. Our task is to reach the control Tower and initiate the launch process. According to preliminary estimates, the algorithm is as follows,» Greyman took a black marker in his hands and began to draw a flowchart on a free area of the board, commenting on his actions aloud. «We activate the digital touch console in the Tower, which generates two confirmation codes. Then the Seekers, being at similar consoles in the administrative buildings of power plants, must enter these codes, after which the system must synchronize and transfer control to us, and then we’ll send the command to launch the power generators. All clear?» he turned to those present, sharpening his gaze at Lana, whose gray-green eyes sparkled with curiosity, but at the same time Greyman saw understanding in them.

Lana didn’t have any difficulties in perceiving and processing the information received, but two questions appeared at once: «Who made these consoles? And what will happen next?» Realizing that the first question was unlikely to be answered, she asked the second.

«Okay, we’ll start the power plants, but where will this lead? Where will the generated electricity go? Who is the final consumer?» she formulated her thought more accurately, referring not only to the curator, but also to the rest of those present.

«An intelligent person is immediately visible,» Greyman smiled, «but I can’t answer this question, if anyone knows, it’s the members of the South team.

«And what is their task?» Lana clarified, tapping the tip of her pencil on a notebook sheet.

«Get to Edem,» Greyman replied shortly, placing the marker on the special shelf under the board.

«What is Edem?» the dark-blonde-girl continued to be interested. «I’ve heard a lot about this place, but everything is at the level of rumors and what is said on TV or on the Internet.»

«The central part of the Western Restricted Area, which is surrounded by Ring. According to data received at different times and information transmitted by the Seekers, Edem is closed from the outside world by the wall, that rises to the sky itself, and there is also radiation of the unknown psychotropic effect nearby,» Antor told her, telling her information, which known to the Northern State.

«Radiation?» Lana inquiringly looked at the curator, making the note in her notebook.

«Coming closer to the Wall, a person falls into a state of trance, then cerebral bleeding and death occurs,» Greyman explained to her, noting the activity of the dark-blonde-girl, who competently asked questions, filling in the gaps in her knowledge.

«What about the Wall?» Lana continued to clarify the details, realizing: «Everyone else has more than once spoke known information. And everyone knows, but this is the first time for me, so it’s necessary to get involved as quickly as possible.» «It seemed to me, that you don’t think the Wall is like that?»

«Right,» the curator was surprised at her insight. «The Wall is the energy field. The similar field separates our world from Ring.»

«Field?» lost in thought, the dark-blonde-girl asked. «We had such developments before the Catastrophe?»

«There were, there were a lot of things,» Skil answered her, tired of watching the dialogue from the sidelines. «And now it would be. Only someone removed all the drawings and documentation, leaving only a little.»

«Scientists, who survived the Catastrophe managed to recover some of the data, but not all,» Greyman added with a touch of regret.

«So Edem is a huge treasure?» Lana made an unexpected conclusion for herself. «I correctly think, that everything is there, and the AI wasn’t destroyed. Is it because of this such secrecy?» she tied all the details of the chain together, marveling at her analytical skills.

«Now it becomes clear to me the motivation of Colonel Newer,» Greyman was surprised, how the new member of the Expedition clearly asked questions and the course of her thoughts. «I’m glad you’re with us,» he said sincerely, «And as for your question, yes, but it’s not that simple.»

«How bad is it?» the dark-blonde-girl understood his doubts.

«There’re a lot of ideas, I’ll not waste time listing them, but the essence is one, that the AI is alive and continue to exist, and as we believe, it’s planning something. He managed to deceive us two hundred years ago by sending the false message about the success of our army, which we sent to destroy him. All this time, he was waiting and preparing, but for what and why we don’t know. Therefore we asked for help from the Northern Empire. Even if not everyone thinks this is the right decision,» he sternly looked at Skil. «But if a war starts, then we can’t cope without the Empire, and our government realizes this.»

Lana didn’t expect to learn so many new things in the first day. Her head needs rest and time to digest everything. And also she wanted to share everything with Aaron. The time on her smartphone was already showing at twenty to twelve, which meant, that lunch was coming soon.


While Lana was joining the new collective, Major Sinclair and Aaron returned to the Black Guard building. Andrew, having gathered all the fighters, officially introduced the gray-eyed-guy to his people and future associates of Aaron.

«Meet, Aaron Martson, the same civilian, who kicked Mikey Fraizon’s ass, and that’s why he ended up here with us,» Major Sinclair briefly told his story. «About you,» he turned to the gray-eyed-guy, «there will be no concessions. I understand, that as far as weapons and hand-to-hand combat are concerned, you’re not trained, but your general physical training should be at a level. So get ready for the loads, and we’ll teach the rest of the things. Our team is friendly, but get ready for black humor.»

Major Sinclair gave him thw set of individual underwear and armor of the Black-Guardsman, commenting it.

«Like your size, you’ll wear it all the time except for free hours. It’ll seem heavy, but over time you’ll not even notice it.»

Aaron went to the locker room to change into his new uniform. The armor really turned out to be weighty, and the load on the muscles was felt.

The gray-eyed-guy returned to the main hall, where the Guardsmen had already begun to warm up. Starting with a warm-up of the cervical spine, he smoothly moved to the shoulder girdle, arms, hands, then returned to the lower back and ended with exercises on the legs. When everyone was done, Major Sinclair commanded.

«Line up, one-two…»

After a short run through the large hall, the Guardsmen were divided into four groups and dispersed into the quadrants, where, using various exercise machine, they began physical exercises to maintain muscle tone. The fighters didn’t have a goal to gain mass and strength, endurance was important to them, so they practiced until exhaustion. Repeating monotonous movements, the Guardsmen changed their exercise machine and increased the load.

In ordinary life, Aaron went to the gym, so the training didn’t cause any particular difficulties, but having the armor on made the process a little complicated. At the same time, his body felt a load, and with it came a feeling of fit and a surge of vivacity. During the lesson, the Guardsmen didn’t speak, completely immersed in their work.

Aaron felt excited about the opportunity to be on the same team with the Guardsmen and the future result of training with them. Gaining combat experience from real fighters participating in the real war will allow him to feel confident on the Expedition without being afraid of unforeseen situations, and the acquired skills will help protect Lana in case of a threat. So the Aaron gave himself a clear instruction to fully learn everything, that the Guardsmen will show and will tell.

But most importantly, he wanted not only to wear the armor of the Black Guard, because Colonel Newer ordered this: «And really have the right to do so. Of course, I’ll never be equal to the Imperial fighters, but I’ll try to get as close to their level as possible, as far as I can.»

Half a day passed quickly. Having taken a hot shower, the Guardsmen set off for lunch in a friendly formation.


Once in the dining room, Aaron immediately found Lana in the agreed place. She was standing alone, unbuttoning her down jacket, and her hat peeking out of its pocket.

Seeing her husband, the dark-blonde-girl didn’t immediately recognize him, because of the armor of the Black Guard he was wearing now. She smiled and went to meet him. Instead of greeting, the young couple kissed on the lips, then they headed for one of the distribution lines.

«Are you the Guardsman now?» Lana asked him. She liked the way her husband looked in black-guards armor, standing out against the general background of the blue and white suits of local workers, who casting wary glances in their direction.

«Something like that,» Aaron couldn’t count himself among them, realizing, that he still didn’t reach their level. «To be honest, I myself haven’t yet understood how to relate to this, but I like everything.»

A couple of minutes later, the rest of the Guardsmen came up, causing a lot of displeased and curious looks from the staff. The fighters radiated peaceful strength, but not frantic aggression, as it liked to say on TV. They were ordinary people, like the rest of the citizens of the Northern State, doing their hard work.

«Why weren’t they there in the morning?» Lana unexpectedly asked her husband.

«I don’t know, maybe they had breakfast in another dining room,» Aaron thought, watching the Guardsmen who, like everyone else, stood in the general queue, conducting a lively conversation, but not loudly, so as not to disturb the surrounding workers of the base.

After taking a plate of fish soup, some rice with vegetables and a glass of berry fruit juice, the young couple found empty seats and began to eat. Lana briefly told her husband everything she had learned in the first half day spent in the team of specialists.

«So,» Aaron summed up, «the AI, that drove us underground, is alive, and we must provide the path for the second team to destroy him?»

«Looks like it,» Lana agreed. «And they’re afraid of it.»

«I said, it will be interesting,» «So, everything is much more serious, than anyone could have guessed…» the gray-eyed-guy began to think, but the dark-blonde-girl interrupted him.

«What the hell is interesting?» Lana protested furiously, frowning. «I said that it’s dangerous,» then she thought: «It’s one thing to launch the AC&DC, and quite another, to get involved in the war with the AI, so also on its territory.»

«Judging from your words, we’re still in a complete ass if the South team doesn’t cope with its task,» Aaron answered sharply.

His wife shook her head in displeasure, looking away. «Bad sign,» he thought, and then they were suddenly distracted from their lunch.

They were disturbed by one of the Expedition members. Approaching the table, at which Aaron and Lana had already started their second course, he began by running over.

«Who you are? I haven’t seen or heard you before, and then suddenly we learn about you on the news,» the stranger rested his fists on the table, directing an angry glance at Aaron. «And then you arrive in the same railway carriage with the Imperials,» he nodded towards the tables, where the Guardsmen were sitting, who at that moment turned their faces to the unknown aggressor. «She turns out to be in our group,» he pointed with his hand at the dark-blonde-girl, and then transferred to the gray-eyed-guy, «and you’re sitting in the armor of the Imperial. So what the hell?» the stranger asked with even stronger pressure.

By the way he emphasized the word Empire, Aaron guessed, that the conflict was political in nature, and in front of him, probably, one of the extreme patriots, who, even two hundred years later, hate the rival continent and the state existing on it, regardless of the regime power, the government and its policy course. Lana immediately recognized Skil in him, she wanted to say her word, but the guys had already grappled.

«So what?» her husband answered with a challenge. «What do you care about us?» he grinned.

«I want to clarify this situation, so what?» the look of the aggressor was arrogant, filled with anger, the reasons for which Aaron couldn’t understand, because he himself never considered the Northern Empire an enemy. For him, the long-standing conflict of states is just a relic of the past: «No more and no less.»

«We’re on the recommendation of Haytem…» the gray-eyed-guy decided to honestly answer, and he immediately regretted it, when the stranger caught on.

«I thought so,» Skil said contemptuously, then he continued with poison in his voice. «The Imperials. And what does your fucking Emperor want? Why is he sticking his nose into something else?»

«You idiot?» Aaron got up from the table and rudely answered him, that weren’t left without attention of the Guardsmen, whose gazes were noticeably strained. «We need their help, so they’re here, and if we’re the same Northerners as you,» the gray-eyed-guy already understood, that this conflict will not be resolved peacefully.

«No,» he spat in his face, looking at him like at garbage, «you’re a Imperial litter,» Skil said clearly with the utmost contempt.

«No, enough,» Aaron couldn’t resist, clenched his right hand into a fist and hit him in the face.

Skil immediately grabbed his palm in the area of his nose, clearly not expecting such a development of events. He already clenched his hand for a retaliatory blow, but the guy in the white scientific coat and glasses came up and didn’t let him continue the conflict, holding his hand. Lana recognized Greyman immediately.

The Guardsmen got up from their seats for a moment, but when noticing Antor’s appearance, they sat back down, continuing to observe the conflict from the sidelines.

Sighing and glaring at first at Aaron, and then at Antor, Skil threatened the gray-eyed-guy.

«We’re not finished yet and your friends, the Black-Guardsmen, will not help you,» he poked Aaron in the chest with his index finger, trying to mentally break him, pressing his dark-green eyes with a menacing look.

«Not enough for you? Add?» Aaron snapped back, but Greyman sharply and forcefully pushed them away from each other.

«No, you finished, otherwise, Skil,» Antor turned to him, «you’ll fly out of here. Leave your silly grudge against the Empire to yourself, in fact, it has long gone out of fashion.»

«What?» he didn’t like the answer. «Gray, they don’t belong here, nor do the Imperials, because you know this is complete crap.»

«You can’t make such decisions,» Antor replied calmly. «You don’t see the whole picture, therefore you’re not right, and it’s not for you to decide, who is here and who is not.»

«Okay, so be it,» he wiped the blood from under his nose, turning, walked away from them, sticking out his middle finger. «See you in class,» Skil said at last.

Then the curator turned to Aaron and Lana.

«I’m Greyman Antor,» he introduced himself to the gray-eyed-guy, holding out his hand to greet, «and this was Henry Skilford. You don’t need to pay attention to him, he’s the son of one of the influential families of the true patriots, as they call themselves, and therefore hates the Empire, still considering them enemies,» the curator clarified the situation.

«Only the world is, we cracked, not them,» Aaron recalled the painful remark made by Colonel Newer.

«It’s a pity that few people understand this, but you’re right. And yet there was no need to be led to his provocation,» Greyman said with disappointment in his voice.

«He crossed the border,» Aaron tried to justify himself, realizing, that he had gone too far, given his position and the delicacy of this situation. «Will we or I be punished for this?» the gray-eyed-guy asked about the possible consequences of his rash act.

«No, we’re not in kindergarten to punish someone. We’re here for a different purpose. Okay, let’s not talk about it,» Greyman decided to change the topic. «Is it true about Mikey Fraizon?» at first glance, Aaron didn’t seem to him a person capable of such active actions: «Although their failed fight with Skil suggests otherwise. The guy only seems calm and comfortable, but inside of him is still that rebel.»

Aaron knew, that there would be many questions related to their presence here: «Moreover, Colonel Newer himself vouched for us. Probably, all of them are interested to know, how ordinary people broke the System and, bypassing several social and professional levels, ended up on the Expedition. And not just as support staff, but as direct members.»

«Yes,» Aaron replied. «You know a lot about us, and others are also aware?» he asked.

«Enough, but I’m not your enemy, I don’t care about politics, only knowledge and the launching of power plants. And don’t forget, the people present here aren’t simple, every master in their field, even Skil, and everyone has connections at different levels of power, so be careful when communicating with them,» Greyman warned the young couple.

«And you?» Aaron asked him sternly. «Should I be careful with you too?»

«I’m here solely for my brains, so outside the rules,» Antor replied.

«Why did Skil obey you?» Lana asked, surprised at how relatively easy it was for Greyman to subdue the violent specialist.

«Because I’m one of the Expedition curators, and he’s just a cogwheel,» he answered, but the dark-blonde-girl didn’t accept his answer: «You’re friends, not just colleagues, and he may owe you something, or simply respects you, that’s why I listened,» she made her conclusion.

«Are you preparing for the Expedition together, right?» Aaron turned with a question to Greyman and Lana.

«Yes,» his wife replied. «I didn’t like that idiot right away. I thought he was staring at me like that all the time? And he turns out to be a bloody patriot.»

«Don’t worry, you won’t have to ride with him in the Monster,» Greyman reassured them. «He’ll be in the North team and in four months will leave for his starting point. As a man, Henry is complex and not always right, but not stupid, just with his cockroaches in his head.»

«Exactly, you’re friends, otherwise why are you trying to justify him?» Lana found confirmation of her thoughts.

«What team will we be in?» Aaron knew that their Monster would go to the power plants, but he still didn’t know the name of their team, and Lana didn’t have time to tell it.

«And you with me, the Center team. We’ll go by Malysh, that’s the first of three off-road vehicles. Already tested and ready, I saw it in action myself,» Greyman replied proudly, as if he had assembled the armored vehicle himself.»

«And the rest, not yet on the move?» the dark-blonde-girl was surprised.

«They’re going through the last tests, namely checking weapons, setting up auxiliary electronics,» then Antor turned to Aaron. «I didn’t see you in class, why?»

«I’m here more in the role of a soldier, than a specialist, if you’re talking about that,» «Yes, you all know, why these stupid questions?» he thought scornfully. «Only for the sake of keeping up the conversation, maybe,» Aaron answered himself.

«So Colonel Newer decided to make a Guardsman out of you. But you know what we want to do, right?» Greyman would like to get to know Aaron better, realizing that he’s not an ordinary person capable of joining the unique team of specialists.

«In general, what Lana managed to tell me, but as I understand it, you yourself still don’t know what you’ll face?» he looked at the cooling plates of food, but his appetite, because of the incident, completely disappeared, but Lana slowly finished eating vegetables.

«It’ll be seen on the spot, there’re just suspicions that everything isn’t so simple,» Antor avoided a direct answer.

«It was clear from the beginning. Do you think they still work? Someone has to serve them in this case,» Aaron felt his throat dry, picking up the glass of fruit drink, he took a long gulp.

«We didn’t just ask for help from the Empire, because inside Ring it’s dangerous, there’re settlements, military groups and something else,» Greyman ignored his question.

«You mean the Wall, but it’s not even a wall.»

«Yeah, so you don’t want to talk about the complex.»

«True, this is a huge cap, but what it hides, no one here knows.»

«Well, yes, why don’t you know? The AI is sitting there, and you’re worried, that he wouldn’t start the second sweep, like two hundred years ago.»

«What makes everyone think, that the AC&DC is somehow connected with what is behind the Wall?»

«After all, you didn’t know about the power plants and about the possibility of launching them. So someone had to poke your nose, because you’re too sure of the success of this operation.»

«Because this is the only high protected place on the Ringworld, and it’s guarded not by people, but by machines, and this leads to another conclusion, that the military campaign two hundred years ago ended in nothing, and the one who staged the Catastrophe is still there, and we don’t know what he wants.»

«So, You decided to reveal a little of the truth, thanks for that too.»

«That’s, he fenced off from us, and Ring is a kind of buffer between him and our territory. But why did he not try to destroy us again?» Aaron mused aloud, suddenly realizing, that these are not just couch discussions, but serious questions, that directly concern everyone present.

Greyman never ceased to be amazed at the way of thinking of the Martson family, and he liked it: «They were really interested in the Expedition and are trying to think with their own heads, noticing the connections between all the links.»

«Probably, he needs us for something,» Antor unexpectedly concluded. «As I said, no one knows anything, but your thoughts led me to certain thoughts.»

«Wait, you thought, that he isn’t, but only later you realized that he’s alive, I don’t understand the logic?»

«You don’t speak, or you yourself don’t know the truth.»

«Two hundred years ago there was the signal, the last from General William Kreiton. He reported, that they had reached Mildrine. At that time, there were less, than two dozen of them. That’s all. The territory was closed, and no one tried to attack the people, who left the underground shelters. The top decided, that the enemy had been defeated, but no one managed to survive.»

«But this is something new, ordinary people don’t know anything about it.»

«Yah? It even sounds silly, there were no guarantees?» Aaron looked at the curator, as if he had said complete nonsense.

«There was probably something else, but I don’t know that,» Greyman lied bluntly, that the young couple didn’t go unnoticed.

«You know, but you don’t want to talk, or rather you can’t. Perhaps the government managed to somehow reach the agreement, but now something has gone wrong. Stop,» it suddenly dawned on Aaron, «but if the AI is alive and possesses all the achievements of science and high technologies of the times before the Catastrophe, then he should know about our Expedition. But you’ve probably already banned this opportunity, so what are we hoping for then?» he was puzzled.

«Myths and legends, we’ll see soon, how things really are,» the gray-eyed-guy said aloud, deciding not to share his thoughts. Greyman tried to sound friendly, but Aaron didn’t want to trust him, unlike the Guardsmen, whose expressed great openness and sincerity and were clearly not associated with dark government affairs.


After lunch, the Guardsmen turned to hone hand-to-hand combat, breaking into pairs. Aiden immediately called Aaron to him.

«Aaron, come with me, we’re just about the same build,» seeing the confusion in his eyes, he calmed him. «Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.»

Learning the combat techniques was hard for Aaron. The main problem was his inattention, because he missed punches and didn’t follow his opponent. Wearing the armor of the Black-Guardsman on him also made itself felt, which constrained his movements, which prevented him from reacting in time to the attacks of his partner.

Aiden moved easily in the armor, as if he was born in it. Years of experience gave him an edge. The blond-guy didn’t try to succumb to Aaron, because he understood the seriousness of the training: «Perhaps the life of this weird guy will depend on it. Let it be better for Aaron to get a lot of bumps now, than it’ll happen outside the Border,» the young Guardsman reasoned, making another sweep, followed by a blow and capture.

So many times in a day, Aaron had never fallen to the ground, but he didn’t manage to successfully counterattack Aiden. As soon as Aaron managed to repel the attacking reception, the young Guardsman quickly inflicted another one, unbalancing him, giving himself up in severe pain at the place of the blow.

Finally, Major Sinclair announced the end of the sparring, and the Guardsmen went to the shooting range, which located in the adjacent building. After passing through the hall, the Black Guard fighters, along with Aaron, found themselves in a room, that served as an armory. Inside, on numerous racks, being in an upright position, a variety of firearms were located.

«Take your rifles and into position,» Major Sinclair commanded, opening the door to the next room, where the target tracks were located.

Aaron didn’t know which weapon to take. He had an idea of its types, but he wasn’t sure, so he repeated after others. The gun, which Aaron took from the rack, had a wooden rectangular stock with two large holes, separated by a not wide partition, behind which the weapon could be carried. The stock smoothly passed into the warhead of the rifle, one of its vertical walls served as a handle. The trigger and other parts are made of metal. Immediately behind it was the compartment for the magazine with cartridges. The barrel was long and cylindrical, under which a flashlight was located using a special fastening system. At the top of the weapon there was an optical sight, judging by the markings, it had a fourfold increase.

For shooting, fifteen tracks with targets were provided. The soldiers split into groups.

When it was Aaron’s turn, he gripped the automatic rifle tighter in his hands, and then he aimed at the target, which, as is customary, had a human silhouette, with multi-colored rings painted on the chest. Each color corresponds to a certain number of points. In the center was a white circle worth ten points, the so-called bull’s-eye.

After pulling the trigger, the gun fired a deadly projectile. Having flown through the entire length of the shooting range, the bullet hit the target, but past its colored part, hitting only the edge of the improvised hand of the wooden man. Aaron fired more shots before trying to aim more accurately at the center of the target’s chest. Having emptied the clip, he only managed to hit the red five-point ring and the blue nine-point ring only twice.

«For the first time it’ll do,» Aaron thought, inwardly unhappy. «But, like in hand-to-hand combat, there is a lot of work to do to improve my fighting skills,» the process of teaching the gray-eyed-guy in his thoughts seemed easier and faster, but in reality, as usual, everything goes differently, which didn’t affect his enthusiasm and desire to learn something.

After several more attempts, the Guardsmen proceeded to clean up their weapons, which had to be disassembled into separate parts before that. Major Sinclair noticed, how Aaron tried to independently understand the structure of his weapon. But Andrew, knowing, that it wouldn’t work out the first time, went to help him. After demonstrating the disassembly process, Major Sinclair reassembled the rifle back to its original state. Then he handed it over to Aaron for him to repeat. While it took Major Sinclair no more than ten minutes, it took Aaron half an hour, but in the end he was able to both disassemble and reassemble.

On this, the first day in the role of a fighter of the Black Guard for Aaron ended: «Now I can go to the dining room for dinner and meet with Lana again. And then we’ll spend your free time in the evening together, telling each other the impressions of the first day. Then we’ll disperse to our dorm houses and the cycle will begin anew, but not the Gray, but the different one, promising a better life and freedom from any dependence on someone.»


In the afternoon, Lana managed to get to know all the members of the Expedition better during classes in the gym. Like the Black-Guardsmen, the specialists must be in good physical condition to be prepared for unforeseen situations. She made contact with both teams.

The North team consisted of four specialists. Amelia Lancaster, trained in the art of negotiation. In appearance, she looked forty years old, black long hair, light brown eyes, an upturned nose like Eliza’s. Age-related wrinkles were already visible on the face. In ordinary life, the woman was involved in a diplomatic mission in the Northern Empire, but after achieving a positive result, she was transferred to the Expedition. Due to her profession, she didn’t have a family, so she easily agreed to participate.

Edgar Lixter became another member of the northern direction. The man of pre-retirement age engaged in military analytics. There were pronounced wrinkles on his face, and his gaze expressed intense weariness from life. Lana couldn’t remember more.

And also the North team included two scouts. A bunch of the same Henry Skilford and Milhard Emyriston. Both looked over thirty. They looked strong and well-coordinated. They repeatedly visited the Border, studying the nearest territory for the government, and even they reached the extreme eastern point of Edem. This explained where Skilford’s arrogance came from. In addition, he was appointed chief in the northern direction of the Expedition.

As for the Center team, in addition to Greyman and the dark-blonde-girl, there were three more members.

Allicia Umber, high-class programmer. She was the same age as Lana. She had neat features, a thin body and thin long fingers. Platinum blonde hair fell to the shoulders along the edges of the face, revealing the forehead. She was dressed in a black shirt with rolled up sleeves, her thin legs were tighted in black sweatpants with pink vertical stripes, and light white sneakers were visible below. On her wrist, Allicia wore two metal bracelets made in the form of a weaving of unusual patterns. A pendant in the form of an infinity sign hung around her neck. And blue eyes focused their attention on the small tablet, from which she was almost not distracted, only occasionally glancing around. But now, while exercising, Allicia was forced to put away her favorite electronic device, focusing on the lesson. Lana thought the blonde-thin-girl was strange, not causing a desire to start a conversation with her.

The last two members of the Expedition, with whom the dark-blonde-girl immediately found a common language, were Robert Landsor and Norman Lacore. The specialists in the field of nuclear power plants and in the general energy field. Their rich experience came from long-term work in the adjustment of nuclear power plants, which gave them the great knowledge of the equipment and arrangement of power plants. They told interesting life stories related to energy.

Both adult men in their forties, and as she found out, they’re trying to get the attention of Allicia, who showed coldness to their courtship. And as Lana noted, the blonde-thin-girl was closed in herself, preferring to isolate herself from people. There was little, that could make her participate in the conversation.

In general, the acquaintance went well, which made Lana happy. No one showed any negative attitude towards her, even Skilford tempered his ardor. The feeling, that she was a stranger among these people weakened a little, allowing the dark-blonde-girl to relax and concentrate on the business.

In addition to the specialists and the Black-Guardsmen, the crew will be allocated for each of the three Monsters, who will provide control of the armored off-road vehicles and will consist of four people. Later, when the Monsters pass the final tests, for both teams will conduct a detailed acquaintance with the mobile fortresses, then they’ll get acquainted with their crews.


The next six months passed according to the following schedule, namely getting up at six in the morning, then exercising, followed by breakfast.

Then Lana went to classes with the specialists, studying the goals and action plan of the upcoming Expedition deeper and deeper, and after lunch physical exercises followed.

Aaron went to training with the Black Guard. Then there was a break for lunch, after classes continued until six in the evening. Everything ended with dinner and free time began, and at eleven there was a lights out, and everything was started anew.

On the evening of the last working day at the local club, employees could drink alcohol and dance to their fill, relieving fatigue and stress of working days. As a rule, it never came to sex, which the local security guards carefully tried to follow. This was also facilitated by hundreds of cameras installed at every corner, covering the entire territory of the training base, every floor of dormitories, every auditorium and office, hangars of workshops and technical rooms. Only one building was deprived of their control, and it belonged to the Black Guard, this became one of the conditions of Colonel Haytem Newer.

After two weeks of hard work, Aaron and Lana decided to go and relax at the club, even though they weren’t fans of such places.

Having finished earlier and having time to change into civilian clothes, the gray-eyed-guy approached the building of the Expedition headquarters, where the specialists were engaged. Lana was already standing in the street and waiting for him on the porch.

After kissing on the lips, the young couple went to the club, which located not far from the women’s dorm house, in which the dark-blonde-girl lived.

The club building was four stories high. Each level was equipped with enough bar counters and large dance floors to accommodate all the local workers.

Outside, the walls were highlighted with multi-colored lines and circles, which, moving chaotically, created bizarre abstract drawings. All this beauty was enhanced by the mirrored glazing of the walls, forcing the light from the spotlights to stretch and twist, creating even more incredible pictures. The effect of volume appeared, which immersed in a trance, not allowing to turn away, wanted to look further at this beauty.

There was no security at the entrance, and inside the main hall there were several dressing rooms, where you can leave your outerwear. Numbers weren’t given, tying the position to a special personal card, which they were given at the very beginning.

Lana was wearing her checkered black and red shirt and skirt with tights. Today, the dark-blonde-girl did her make-up, highlighting her eyes with black lines, worked with her eyebrows, painted up her eyelashes, a little powder on her face and a shiny natural-colored lipstick on her lips, which, as Lana persuaded, lasts a long time and isn’t so easy to kiss or water wash off. Her hair has been curled a little for volume.

Aaron put on his white T-shirt with patterns and gray pants on his legs. The gray-eyed-guy never really prepared for events, considering it not important, the main thing is that he himself was comfortable.

Rhythmic music was played inside the club. Mainly remixes of popular songs were played, which delighted the young couple. Finding an empty spot at the bar, Aaron and Lana ordered a drink and asked for fish sandwiches for a snack. The gray-eyed-guy was served the glass of whiskey, and the dark-blonde-girl was served the rum-based cocktail.

After drinking another glass, the young couple moved to the dance floor, where they were moving around. Having finished dancing, Aaron and Lana sat for a while, after which the gray-eyed-guy offered to go to the Black Guard’s dorm house.

«We have no cameras, and we have the large hall. It’s now free, it’s dark there, but it won’t hurt us?» he lured her with him, stroking his wife’s wrist.

«Let’s go,» the dark-blonde-girl agreed, looking at Aaron with her eyes, which was sparkled because of alcohol. «I don’t mind.»

It was warm outside for the winter, so, despite the fact that the clock showed already around ten in the evening, they didn’t freeze. Snow fell from the sky in flakes and immediately melted, leaving behind wet traces.

Finally, the young couple approached the Black Guard building. Aaron tried to carefully open the front door, then they quietly walked through the hall and found themselves in the training room. Inside was darkness, only the light from the celestial satellites dimly illuminated the room. But that was enough, especially when the eyes were already accustomed to the gloom.

The young couple settled down against the wall, there was a large wide window on the right, and exercise equipment stood in front of it.

Aaron and Lana already knew, what they were going to do. So as soon as the young-couple were alone, they immediately got down to business, starting with kissing. Lana leaned against the wall, Aaron unbuttoned her jacket, then he took it off and threw it on the floor, repeating the same with his outerwear.

The gray-eyed-guy approached for new kisses, but the dark-blonde-girl dodged, pressing him now against the wall, after which she nevertheless pressed her lips to her husband. Aaron felt, how Lana runs her warm tongue along his neck, how her hot breath excites the nerve endings, that are unaccustomed from caresses, emitting impulses downward.

Then she pressed her hands on his shoulders to make him sit on the floor. He put his back on the wall and sank down. Lana settled down on top, slowly beginning to unbutton the buttons on her shirt. They kissed each other tightly, nibbling each other a little.

The gray-eyed-guy helped his wife with the buttons, giving himself access to her body. But her elastic breast was hidden by her top, which he pulled up, exposing young flesh.

Aaron freed himself from his T-shirt, while Lana took off her shirt and her top, completely exposing her torso, then she immediately felt her husband’s strong hands on her back.

The gray-eyed-guy hugged his wife to him, passing over her shoulders, shoulder blades, vertebrae, ending with the hollow at the buttocks, feeling all the tenderness of her skin. Then he put his hands under her skirt, tightly squeezing her elastic buttocks.

The dark-blonde-girl straightened up, pressing her nails into his shoulders, leaving red marks, that stretched to his chest. Then she unzipped her skirt and stood up for a few seconds. Aaron took off his pants at this time. Left completely without clothes, Lana settled comfortably on her husband, placing her hands on his shoulders, where blood faintly squeezed out of the fresh scratches.

Aaron wrapped one arm around her waist and the other around her right buttock. Lana slowly made forward movements, then accelerating, then slowing it down, feeling her husband’s hands squeezing her breasts.

Aaron felt his wife’s thigh muscles contract more and more intensely, while shel closed her eyes, opening her mouth, from where a restrained moan of pleasure was heard.

Having finished the action of love at the same time, they kissed, the gray-eyed-guy felt her cold lips. Lana leaned back with her hands on the floor and smiled. Aaron grabbed her by her waist and pulled her towards him.

«How long have we not done this?» she asked him, feeling euphoria and lightness.

He carefully examined the naked body of his wife, illuminated by the light from the heavenly satellites of Eneya.

«Last time on the day of departure from Commander-City, so about three weeks,» the gray-eyed-guy replied, kissing her nipples in turn, first left one, then right one.

«Long ago,» Lana concluded, running her hand over the left side of his face. «As if this was the first time I did this.»

«I agree, it’s so good, everywhere, in the whole body,» he pulled her to him, again leaning his back against the wall.

«Yeah,» the dark-blonde-girl got up and ran her hand between her legs, after which she asked. «Do you have something to wipe?» she showed him her wet hand.

Aaron pulled up his trousers and took a handkerchief from its pocket and handed it to his wife.

«That’s all there is,» then he remembered the shower room in the locker room and added. «There is where to shower,» he indicated with his hand to the far part of the hall, where the entrance to the locker room was located.

«Will they not hear us?» Lana doubted, looking in the direction, where her husband was pointing.

«No,» he answered confidently. «Especially since we’re fast.»

The dark-blonde-girl got off her husband and threw her shirt over her naked body, then they grabbed their clothes, leaving only their outerwear and boots, and they walked barefoot to the locker room with a brisk step.

From memory in the dark, Aaron led them into the shower room. A faint light passed through the windows, which was enough to navigate in space as they ran across the hall.

Once in the locker room, Aaron turned on the light, closing the door behind them. Applying a weak pressure of water, the young couple rinsed themselves, and then they put clothes on the wet body. Lana didn’t put on her top, and buttoned her shirt only half, planning to still enjoy the privacy with her husband.

Carefully opening the door from the locker room, the young couple went back to their clothes, but they heard an extraneous noise and froze. If they’re caught by Major Sinclair, then Aaron will experience not only shame for the violation of discipline, but also something more.

They quietly walked through the hall and at the other end, where the young couple had recently made love, others were already hugging and kissing. Aaron immediately recognized Aiden by his voice, there was a girl with him. It’s difficult to determine her appearance in the dark.

The new guests were planning to start the same process, that Aaron and Lana had recently done. The girl’s top was already naked, and Aiden greedily kissed her breasts. The stranger laughed and Lana immediately recognized her as Eliza. Aaron decided it would be a bad idea to hide, so he called out to his comrade.

«Aiden?» the gray-eyed-guy said with embarrassment, realizing, that he broke off his night with the girl.

His companion from surprise immediately covered her breast with her hands, her face expressed confusion.

The young Guardsman also recognized Aaron, turned to face him and smiled.

«I see, I’m not the only one, who decided to use this place for prodigal purposes?» he said in a drunken voice, then, taking the bottle from the floor, he got up and wiggled it in his hands. Inside it was probably strong alcohol. «And this is Eli,» the blond-guy introduced his girlfriend. «My love, which captured me at first sight,» Aiden kissed her on the lips. Then he proposed. «Since we’re all gathered here together, so let’s sit in a small friendly company?»

«Lana?» Aiden’s girlfriend asked in surprise, seeing the face of the dark-blonde-girl in the semi-darkness. In surprise, she dropped her hands down, then, remembering that she was half naked, Eliza straightened the straps of her dress, hiding her breasts from prying eyes.

Lana was very surprised, knowing, that her neighbor was married, and her husband also was at the training base: «And she’s having fun not just with another guy, but with the Imperial fighter,» the dark-blonde-girl thought, deciding not to meddle in her own business, so she began a conversation in a different direction, just wanting to relax this evening. «Or is it already night?»

«Yes,» Lana answered Eliza. «Maybe we can find a more comfortable place?» she turned to the guys. «And then the darkness and nothing is visible.»

«We don’t need light for drink from a bottle, but darkness plays into our hands,» Aiden answered her. «We can settle down on the floor, there, in the center of the hall,» the young Guardsman pointed the direction.

Nobody argued, two couples went ahead. Aiden carried the bottle, and Aaron took the small bag of snacks, which the blond-guy and his girlfriend brought with them.

Having settled on the floor, the young people took up a sitting posture with their legs crossed. The girls sat on one side, the guys on the other, while being next to their partners. Eliza noticed Lana’s shirt unbuttoned and asked her.

«You managed to do it themselves, but they didn’t give us,» the red-haired-girl said cheerfully.

«We still have time,» Aiden reassured her, stroking her shoulder with his hand, from which the strap of the dress flew off her forearm, almost exposing her right breast, but Eliza didn’t notice this, continuing to look curiously at Lana. «By the way, do you know why there are no cameras in our building?» the young Guardsman asked.

«So we don’t spy on you?» his girlfriend suggested, turning to face the blond-guy.

«Aaron,» Aiden turned to him, «you live with us, you train with us and study a little military science, so we’ve something to hide?» he asked with a smile on his face.

«No,» Aaron replied, expecting the answer wouldn’t be obvious.

«Then maybe we just don’t follow you, your life?» alcohol prevented Lana from clearly formulating the idea. «How do you live, so that there is no feeling of observation.»

«Closer, but not quite. How are your cameras stopping us?» seeing that no one understands his ideas, he folded the index and thumb of his left hand into a ring, and with the index of his right entered it. «It’s easy.»

«Really?» Aaron disbelieved. «You mean, so that you can have sex

«Of course,» the young Guardsman answered happily. «These are local workers, having worked for a couple of months, will return to their normal life. But we?» Aiden looked inquiringly at everyone. «We’re here until the very end, and then the Expedition and not the fact that we’ll return,» realizing, that the conversation began to acquire a sad tone, the blond-guy turned the topic sharply. «Do you want the interesting fact from the biography of the Newers?»

«Come on,» supported Aaron, taking a sip from the bottle, followed by giving it to his wife.

«When he was young and rode among the recruits to the front, then, as his elders, his peers and friends say, before leaving the station, Haytem met his future wife Inoma. They knew each other from school and, it seems, even had a romantic relationship. So, he gets on the train like that, and hears her swearing with the conductor, trying to get into the railway carriage. And he helped her get into the railway carriage, from that moment on, their teenage love turned into an adult strong and conscious,» Aiden told the personal story of the Newers, which became the symbol of the true love for the Black-Guardsmen.

«A beautiful story,» Lana said, taking a sip of alcohol, handed it to Eliza. «I like.»

Reaching for the bottle, the strap finally slid down to the elbow, exposing her breast, but the red-haired-girl immediately straightened it. Seeing Lana smile, she also faked a smile. Aaron didn’t notice anything, his gaze was directed to Aiden, who went on to say.

«And they were still those rabbits at the front,» he said it with a grin. «Colonel Gerhard, the best friend of Colonel Newer, told how he often caught the bare asses of Haytem and Inoma. It’s not just that they already have two adult children. Inoma got pregnant for the first time at the age of eighteen, two months after they were on the front line.»

«Who she was in the war?» Lana asked, remembering the displeased face of the woman in the restaurant.

«A nurse, but in fact she was always there for him,» he replied, taking the bottle from Eliza’s hands.

«Would you like to be like Haytem?» the red-haired-girl asked him, running her hand over his face.

«No, everyone has their own path, and I want to go my own way of life,» the young Guardsman answered philosophically. «Listen, Aaron, how long have you and Lana been together?»

«Eight years,» the gray-eyed-guy answered him, unexpectedly amazed at how long they’ve been together.

«Wow,» the blond-guy was surprised, «a lot, especially for the young people.»

«I’ve a husband, I told him, if anything,» Eliza suddenly interjected, turning more to Lana, than to the others.

«It makes no difference to me,» the dark-blonde-girl answered. «This is your life, do what you really want and what you see fit.»

«Thank you,» she said sincerely. «I chose my husband because of the money,» the red-haired-girl admitted, «but I love Aidy.»

«Wow, as I understand it, did you meet not today?» Aaron guessed, surprised that Aiden’s girlfriend was married.

«Yes,» the young Guardsman nodded his head positively, «even that week. I saw them with her husband in the dining room, then we crossed paths several times at the base. Today we met in the club seriously,» he took Eliza by the hand and kissed her bare shoulder, looking at the red-haired-girl with loving eyes.

«I’ll file for divorce,» she continued her revelation.

«And after all, I’ll marry you,» Aiden promised her.

«And before that, your wedding tattoo will be removed, which isn’t the most pleasant procedure,» Lana was interested, but at the same time it was funny to watch them.

«And it didn’t stop you, that she has a husband?» Aaron asked, glancing at Eliza’s left wrist.

«You see, if everything was fine with them, then she simply refused me, but Eliza agreed, which means I’ve the right to her,» the blond-guy reasoned in his own way. «When you find yourself on the edge of life or a mortal threat, then all these cultural things and other nonsense crumble and lose their meaning.»

«Interesting thoughts,» in his heart Aaron didn’t agree with him, but now he didn’t want to argue on this topic, so the gray-eyed-guy didn’t start an unnecessary discussion.

«Is there a toilet?» the dark-blonde-girl asked, feeling a little need.

«Yes,» Aaron pointed in the right direction, «in the same place as the locker rooms, there is a separate door inside.»

«Then I’ll go away for a little while,» Lana began to get up.

«I’m with you,» the red-haired-girl volunteered after. «Let’s go to?» she got up with her. Lana nodded her head positively, leading Eliza by the hand.

«How do you like Eliza?» Aiden decided to get Aaron’s opinion, when the guys were alone.

«Pretty, the figure is also nothing, but I don’t really like redheads,» he expressed his opinion.

«Wow, why?» the young Guardsman was surprised.

«I don’t know, I don’t like them and that’s it,» Aaron took a sip from the bottle and handed it to the blond-guy.

«Your Lana is easy-going, she and Eliza gave the heat,» Aiden commented on the recent kissing scene.

«It’s all alcohol and mental fatigue,» Aaron found the explanation.

«I agree. You were lucky with her, because she is unusual, magical and something else,» he took the bottle in his hands, which the gray-eyed-guy held out him.

«Really magical?» Aaron smiled.

«Yes,» the young Guardsman replied seriously, «her face is so unusual and attractive, and some kind of aura, something inexplicable. I noticed it on the train. She knows, how to win over people.»

«Yes, Lana is like that. And what about Eliza, you seriously decided to take her away from her husband?» he asked him.

«Yes, this isn’t just a connection for a while, not a infatuation, but stronger,» Aiden answered firmly.

«Are you sure?» the gray-eyed-guy asked doubtfully, considering his friend’s infatuation only fleeting pampering.

«Completely, this desire doesn’t come from below, but from the heart,» he pointed to his chest with his hand.

«If so, then do as you see fit,» Aaron didn’t argue with him: «Time will show, where your desire came from,» he chuckled to himself.

At that moment, the girls returned from the WC, quite talking about something. When they took their seats, the guys also went to the side of the WC.

About half of the contents remained in the bottle. Lana and Eliza took turns taking a sip of the scalding mixture.

The dark-blonde-girl felt proud of herself and the people around her: “I’m a member of the specialists, this is so honorable. The guys are security guards, and Eliza is a signalman. I wonder if our names will be mentioned on an equal basis with the rest? It would be cool.” The more Lana learned about the details of the Expedition, the more she realized, that it was really dangerous.

«Anyone thought, what would happen after the Expedition?» Lana asked everyone, experiencing a pleasant lightness in her body.

«No, not really,» the young Guardsman answered first. «Some of ours will remain in the Northern State, and now I’ll also stay.»

«We’ll move to Commander-City,» Aaron said.

«I”ll stay with Aidy and have children for him,» Eliza fantasized.

«Do you think we’ll communicate after?» the dark-blonde-girl asked.

«Why not?» the blond-guy answered her. Then he suggested to Aaron. «And you can become a full-fledged Black-Guardsmen, at least here in the branch of the Northern State,» «I think Colonel Newer won’t mind.»

«I can,» Aaron nodded his head in the affirmative.

«And you ladies will sit at home and wait for us from the service, preparing delicious food and taking care of yourself, how do you?» Aiden said believably.

«Not bad,» Lana smiled, imagining a possible life. «I’m satisfied with this development of events, and you?» she turned to Eliza.

«Yeah, we’ll live like people,» the red-haired-girl answered, hugging Aiden by the shoulders.

«Out of the System,» Aaron added, thinking about something of his own.

Having emptied the bottle to the end, the young people cleaned up after themselves. Then we found soft fitness mats and settled down to sleep.

The next morning they washed in the shower, first Aaron and Lana, then Aiden and Eliza. Both couples enjoyed making love during the water procedure.

Then they went to the dining room, where they were going to have breakfast, which was served on the day off until lunch, given that many want to sleep. After eating they split up, Aaron and Lana went for a walk to the Border, and Aiden and Eliza went to the opposite side.


«We got so drunk yesterday,» Lana remembered the past evening and night.

«Well, yes,» Aaron agreed, slapping her on the left buttock, «especially you and Eliza lit.»

“Don’t tell me, how we got drunk. Didn’t I show anything unnecessary there?” on the one hand, she was ashamed for last night, but on the other, she liked everything. She tried something new, which is interesting in its own way.

“Eli yes, but Aiden didn’t see anything,” he asked.

«I didn’t expect, that she would change her husband to Aiden,» Lana didn’t approve of the act of her roommate, considering it frivolous: «But, if Eli is able to break her marriage so simply, then there really is no love, and it would be right to part so as not to torment each other.»

Despite the long period of their relationship, between Aaron and Lana, romantic feelings still remained, that didn’t turn into friendly ones, as is usually the case.

«Well, he’s a Guardsman, strong and heavily armored,» he tried to guess, what might interest for Eliza.

«Like a knight?» her husband has always been a romantic, and it amused, perhaps even his naivety attracted her cold mind, melting love feelings in her.

«Yeah,» Aaron guessed by the expression on his wife’s face, that he had said something stupid, so the gray-eyed-guy decided to move away from the topic. «Let them figure it out themselves.»

The young couple reached the Border wall, beyond which the Western Restricted Area began. On the other side, the base continued, but not everyone had access. It wasn’t possible to see anything through the thick concrete walls, so they turned around and headed back. The observation tower of the Expedition planning building loomed on the horizon.

«Do you have access to the top?» Aaron asked his wife, wanting to look at Ring.

«Actually, yes,» Lana answered with a sense of superiority. «The elevator goes up there, and my pass has the pass there,» she waved in blue rectangular plastic with a white stripe in the center.

«Maybe let’s go?» he suggested, nodding his head towards the observation tower.

«Yes, if they let you through,» Lana agreed.

Having reached the building, the young couple passed the security without any problems. Upon learning, that Aaron was in the Black Guard, the security didn’t detain the young couple.

They climbed up the glass elevator, watching the view of the training base open before their eyes. But they turned their main gaze beyond the Border, namely to the distant dead wasteland, which, oddly enough, had practically no snow cover. This surprised Aaron and Lana very much.

Upstairs they were met by Greyman, who thoughtfully looked towards the Border, sitting on a chair and making notes with a pencil in a notebook. He was alone and didn’t expect anyone else to appear. Seeing the young couple, Antor was distracted from his thoughts.

«Hi,» he waved his hand, «you decided to look at Ring?» the curator guessed about the purpose of their visit.

«Yes,» Aaron replied, «you can’t see anything through the wall.»

«How do you feel with the Guardsmen?» Greyman asked carefully.

«Not bad, I’m gaining experience,» the gray-eyed-guy said shortly, not knowing what else to add. «Why is there little snow?» he pointed with his hand towards the Border.

«Because, it’s warmer there than here,» Antor began his answer, «and we know why,» he said in advance, suggesting the next question from Aaron.

«And why?» Lana asked instead of her husband, walking closer to the wide viewing window.

«The Sphere,» Greyman said, but seeing the incomprehensible looks, he explained to them, «is one of the technologies developed even before the Catastrophe by the N-IntTech Corporation.

«They created that AI, right?» Aaron asked.

After the Catastrophe about the Northern Intelligent Technologies or more simply, the N-IntTech cut out and closed any information related to this Corporation. According to unconfirmed reports, the president and the large group of workers went with the military to Mildrine to destroy the artificial intelligence they created. Before the Catastrophe, the Corporation was responsible for all the scientific and technical achievements of the Northern State, including the construction of a large number of underground shelters comfortable for a huge number of people, thanks to which mankind survived the sweep.

«Yes, it was them, but who knew that everything would turn out like this for us,» as if apologizing for someone else’s mistake, Greyman answered.

«Do you think they’re not to blame?» Aaron continued the topic, feeling, that the curator of the Expedition has something to add.

«They were scientists and were engaged in the development of new technologies and made discoveries. They didn’t put the AI to control the state’s defense systems,» Antor expressed his position.

«So the military is to blame?» Lana concluded, turning to face him.

«Everyone is to blame, completely and absolutely,» then he explained his position. «Some allowed, others didn’t follow, and still others didn’t take during the measure.»

«This place attracts to itself,» Aaron shared his emotions, looking out the window. «Its mystery and knowledge, that somewhere there is he, who plans and thinks, moving his gears.»

«There really is something magic in the WRA,» Greyman supported him. «The desire to get the answer to a question, all of us are led by curiosity, there is no other way.»

«What about money and other bonuses?» practical Lana disagreed with him.

«Really?» Antor looked at her with a grin. «If we all die, then no one will get all this. Don’t forget, that our Expedition wants to find contact with him, but will he want to talk to us? Our active actions can scare him, and he’ll simply get rid of us, like an annoying insect.»

«What happens if we fail?» Aaron asked him, remembering the words about the possible war.

Greyman hesitated, but still answered.

«The government can no longer be in the dark, so we’ll force the AI to make contact at any cost. The underground shelters were already prepared for re-settlement in the event of an escalation of the conflict. Therefore, if the Expedition fails, then we’ll begin military action.»

«We came to an interesting conclusion, and the conversation began with the attractiveness of the WRA,» Aaron announced his observation, «but ended up with the war with her.»

«Such is life, we’re not free travelers looking for answers, like the Seekers, but we’re the instrument of the state. Our actions will affect all of humanity, without exception, and first of all, the unknown western inhabitants of Ring and the Seekers,» Antor answered with pressure.

The more Lana immersed herself in this world, the more she liked everything. The fear of death didn’t frighten her at all, it was replaced by a sense of self-importance: «Maybe I’m not the smartest and most talented girl in the Northern State, but I’m here, among the minds and driving force of history. Aaron in the shadows, the soldier guarding me and the target of the Expedition. But it was thanks to him, that we managed to jump into the last railway carriage of the train, ramming into the future. History will loop, and then it take a new path. Eneya is on the verge of global changes, and it’s we, who will help her take a step forward, overcoming two hundred years of fear. The time for passive actions is over,» Lana mused, looking at the Ringworld, and her lips expressed a bold smile. The euphoria excited her, she wanted to cross the damn Border as soon as possible.

Her gaze shifted to the hangars, which are huge industrial complexes. Three huge factories, where the Monsters grew day after day, preparing to overcome the aggressive nature of the Ringworld.

The head was clear, there were no more unnecessary thoughts about stupid tasks and assignments, being driven and controlled by the Gray Cycle of Life. This name was invented by Aaron, describing the peaceful life around them. And he pushed the young couple into a mad whirlpool. Lana was changing, and so was Aaron.

A lightning bolt appeared on the horizon for a second in the distance. Thunderstorms in the Ringworld were commonplace.


Time flew by and winter was drawing to a close. A period of daytime slush and morning ice set in.

Aaron was still having a hard time in hand-to-hand combat, but he succeeded in shooting, developing its accuracy to an acceptable level. At the same time, the gray-eyed-guy mastered most of the arsenal from pistols to heavy machine guns. The Black Guard armor was no longer felt by his body, and he was so used to it, that he perceived it as a part of himself.

Over time, Aaron felt his detachment from the common cause, he also understood, that he and Lana couldn’t give real help. The gray-eyed-guy tried to unravel Colonel Newer’s secret plan for himself, but he didn’t see the logical idea.

«Why arrange this ostentatiousness with applications and interviews, if the Expedition’s members had long been selected and had really prepared and had knew the details,» Aaron mused, recalling their senseless trip to the application reception headquarters in Commander-City. «But why did Haytem help us? Even if I interfered with the revolutionary, he knew about the attempt. Why did the Colonel Newer give us the green light?» he tried to understand Haytem, but these thoughts rarely arose, but it quickly chased away, as soon as the gray-eyed-guy returned to training with the Guardsmen.

As for the fighters of the Black Guard themselves, they considered him their own, part of their clan. Aaron was embarrassed by this: «After all, the Guardsmen went through the war and ended up here for their fighting skills. And I was from another world, stupid and inherently meaningless. But, oddly enough, I feel more comfortable with themб than with the brains of the Expedition.»

The Martsons continued to spend the weekend with the pair of Aiden and Eliza. In their past life before the Expedition, they never looked for friends, living in their own world, where only Aaron and Lana existed. But now it was perceived differently. They were united by common interests and rhythm of life. They built similar goals, weren’t afraid to act, and were honest with each other.

Eliza really divorced her husband and replaced the rotational work schedule with a permanent one, no longer leaving the training base. In the dining room, two young couples always sat at the same table, heatedly discussing the latest news. And on weekends, they hung out in the club, smoothly passing into the training hall of the Black Guard. They obtained alcohol through an acquaintance of Eliza’s, who could provide the necessary liquid for a small fee.

Sometimes, the red-haired-girl caught Lana to kiss, and the dark-blonde-girl didn’t refuse her. She was pleasant and interested in Eliza’s touch. Something unusual and incomprehensible, helping to shake her head a little with unfamiliar sensations. In ordinary life, Lana didn’t like to let people near her, but here everything was different.

The dark-blonde-girl didn’t try to somehow end her infatuation for Eliza, because she knew that the Expedition would put everything in its place. But they no longer played with each other with their hands, only kisses, sometimes turning into touches, and they experienced all sexual pleasure exclusively with their boyfriends.

If Aaron got tired of physical exertion, then Lana’s head would burst from mental activity. The members of the Expedition at each lesson discussed various unforeseen situations, that may arise during the operation. She absorbed all the information she received like a sponge and learned assistive skills such as programming, chip design, and more. A few months later, The dark-blonde-girl was no longer the engineer of a nuclear power plant, who engaged in calculating modes and accounting for work, but she set out on the road to being a true field technician, able to navigate the field and make instant decisions.


Nature had already passed into spring stage, and along with the warm fresh air, there was a nervous tremor of the imminent start of the Expedition.

Another training session ended earlier, and Aaron headed to the Expedition planning center, where the team of the specialists were currently engaged, to meet Lana. The security guard standing at the entrance let the gray-eyed-guy pass without any questions, without even getting up from his seat, just nodding his head in greeting.

Going up to the second floor, Aaron found the necessary office by the sound of voices, where discussions were going on. he went inside without knocking.

«May I come in?» Aaron asked permission from Greyman, who was giving the lecture.

«Of course, Aaron, have a seat,» the curator replied good-naturedly.

The gray-eyed-guy went into the office to an empty table, taking a place near the entrance, then he together with the others continued to listen to Antor.

Lana was sitting on the opposite side, so she could watch her husband. The dark-blonde-girl realized, how much he had changed and how exactly the black armor of the Guardsman suited him. Aaron merged so strongly with the Imperials, that even her it was difficult to believe in his belonging to the Northern State. His face as before gave off lightness and good nature, but her husband serious look added that zest, that united him with the Black-Guardsmen.

Skilford still looked at Aaron with contempt, while the others looked at him with curiosity. Even indifferent to everything Allicia, who for a while unstuck from her tablet, visually studied him. That didn’t go unnoticed by Robert and Norman, who changed their facial expressions, frowning in the direction of the gray-eyed-guy. Lana found it funny.

Aaron looked around him, catching his wife’s warm gaze. The rest of the Expedition’s members were of little interest to him.

«Previously, it wasn’t possible to transmit data because of the Border, because the protective field suppressed the signal, even the signal didn’t pass through the wires,» Greyman continied. «But knowing the resonant frequency, you can bypass the barrier. The Seekers managed to find it, so now we’ll not remain cut off from the outside world.»

«With all this, the mysterious Ring Army still doesn’t want to contact us,» Skilford was indignant. «Can’t they hear us or don’t want to hear?»

«They ignore us, I agree with that. But, perhaps, they’re afraid, not knowing our goals, which, for obvious reasons, we can’t tell on the general air,» Antor suggested.

«In any case, the Seekers spoke of them as enemies,» Skilford said with disbelief.

«This is the mission of your team, that’s reach the west coast and find them. You’ll have to figure it out and, if possible, convince them to help us.»

«And what is the goal of the Southern team?» Aaron asked. No one expected a question from him, but Greyman wasn’t taken aback and answered immediately.

«The South team will have to penetrate into Edem, if our idea about the AC&DC is correct,» Aaron knew the answer to this question, Lana told him all this, but he wanted to raise this topic in order to get to a question of interest to him.

«The team of negotiators?» Aaron asked doubtfully. «And they agree to go nowhere?» Lana had known her husband for a long time, so any changes in him immediately caught her eye, and now she listened attentively to his voice, how he pronounces the words, noticing completely different intonations, more confident and clear, not at all typical for peaceful Aaron.

«We’re all going to die, if anything,» Skilford replied rudely. «Everyone is ready for this, but if you think, that the task of your team is the safest, then no. Here you’ll definitely find yourself in the very heat, and I hope, that you’ll remain in the memory of people, as a victim of the Expedition.»

«It’s interesting to communicate with you, so much hatred for the war and people, to whom you have nothing to do with this,» Aaron looked at him.

«Really, Skil, you would be silent,» Allicia suddenly spoke out, which made Lana realize, that she almost never heard her voice.

«Nothing has changed for us because their government has changed. Now it’s difficult for them, so they’re ready to cooperate, but when peace comes again, the war will resume,» Henry pretended not to notice Allicia’s words, continuing the dialogue with Aaron. «You don’t understand, how everything works and, most likely, you’re a fool if you were led by Haytem.»

«I think it’s enough to sort things out, if you’ve nothing to say on the topic, then you better close it,» Greyman interrupted the incipient verbal skirmish with irritation. «We’re here to change the world, not to find out who is right and who is wrong.»

«And yet, why is the South team separate from us?» Aaron returned to the topic. «Is it that secret? Or what?»

«Yes, it’s all about secrecy,» Antor agreed. «They were probably disclosed certain governments secrets, concerning the events of those years, that even we can’t know,» he explained.

«Everyone knows exactly as much as he should,» the gray-eyed-guy concluded.

«Yes, that’s right,» Greyman said. «We’ve the specific task, that we must complete, and for this we were provided with all the necessary information.»

«What exactly should happen, when we launch the power plants?» Aaron asked directly, deciding to discredit his words about all-the-necessary-information». «You’re discussing their launch and possible problems, but, as I understand it, that you don’t say, what will happen after. Somewhere there must be a door to Edem, or what? The South team isn’t heading to a random point on the map?» he asked reasonably.

«Really, what will happen, Gray?» Skilford suddenly took his side.

Shaking his head, Greyman sighed and took off his glasses to rub his eyelids, then he replied.

«I don’t know,» Antor threw up his hands, «honestly, I’ve no clearance to this level.»

«So we don’t know, what we’re going to put into action?» Aaron asked seriously.

«Something that will help the South team get there, but not specifically,» Greyman said uncertainly.

Lana was silent, but a question arose in her head, which she kept omitting by: «And really, what will happen?»

A question remained unanswered.


A couple of weeks later, Greyman Antor and Major Andrew Sinclair, instead of routine training, gathered their people together to formally meet the groups. For this they chose the hangars with the Monsters as the meeting place. All members of the Expedition were divided into their teams, namely North, Center and South.

During the day, the huge hangar gates were opened wide for better ventilation of the spacious room. Five specialists and nine Guardsmen entered the hangar of the Center team.

The armored off-road vehicle had grandiose dimensions, the height of one of the eight wheels in diameter exceeded human height several times. Its body gleamed from the Eligian rays falling on it. Powerful hydraulic springs were visible next to the wheels.

It was difficult for Aaron to assess the specific dimensions of the mobile fortresses, but against their background people seemed miserable insects, and the reliability and security was beyond doubt.

Inside the hangar, six more people were waiting for them, dressed in technical clothes of blue and white color with traces of dirt and various oil stains. When they approached them, the eldest of them with long gray hair immediately introduced himself.

«I’m Simmons Archer, senior technician, and this is my team,» he nodded his head towards the other men. «Davidson, Prams, Sital, Linkon and Wamer. And now I think, let’s go to our Malysh,» Simmons pointed with his left hand in the direction of a wide platform located at the rear of the armored vehicle.

When all the members of the Center team stood on the mobile platform, mechanisms were launched, that lifted them up to the main entrance to the Monster. Inside was blocked by a massive door, which opens with a special pull, which is driven by a special motor. Archer placed his access card on the touchpad to the right of the door. The screen lit up green, allowing the group to enter the armored vehicle.

The first interior they found themselves in as soon as they stepped over the threshold was the cargo hold. To the right and to the left were boxes with provisions, ammunition, necessary instruments and devices.

Immediately behind the cargo hold was the galley, where members of the Expedition could prepare their own food and eat it right there at an elongated table, that could accommodate eight people at a time.

Then the living area began, representing two rooms with a capacity of up to twelve people. Bunk beds lined the walls, and in the center of each room were large wardrobes for clothes and personal belongings.

Further along the corridor passed the communication room equipped with various special electronic devices standing along the walls, and also provided for several chairs, sitting on which the technical personnel constantly monitored the main systems of the armored off-road vehicle and kept in touch with the Expedition coordination center.

Finally, the group went out into the spacious cockpit, where the Monster’s control panel was located. For review, two wide armored windows were provided, which in case of danger could be covered with a thick sheet of armor.

«You’ll get comfortable with time,» Simmons summed up the study tour. «I understand, that now we’ll see each other often.»

«Thanks for the tour,» Greyman thanked him. «We were told, that there will be four of you, but I counted six?» he asked the chief technician.

«Recently corrected, for reliability,» Archer explained to him, after which he led the future composition of the Center team to the exit.


Time passed, and the beginning of the Expedition was getting closer. The Monsters passed the last modifications and tests, and were ready to start.

The North team led by Henry Skilford went to the starting point of their branch of the Expedition. And the Monster of the South team left together with the part of the Guardsmen to the place of the meeting with the secret team, which will be supposing to solve the long-standing question of the cause of the Catastrophe.

After the departure of two teams in the Black Guard dorm house, rooms were vacated, two of which were immediately occupied by young couples. One by Aaron and Lana, other by Aiden and Eliza.

It was a busy and measured life, but it couldn’t continue indefinitely. The departure of the two Monsters brought a feeling of emptiness, and a premonition of the imminent beginning of global changes.

When the spring was already over, and the snow had almost melted, the Black Guard fighters were preparing for the last serious training, namely a week-long trial outside the training base into the WRA to the nearest city ruins, that had abandoned by the Seekers, called Engord.

The story of the Fall of Engord

After another training session, Major Andrew Sinclair gathered the remaining Guardsmen to guard the Center team together. When the fighters went up to the hall on the second floor and sat down on the sofas, he, standing near the exit to the balcony, began to say.

«Tomorrow we’re going to the WRA,» Major Sinclair announced unexpectedly. «Training in greenhouse conditions is enough, it’s time to move on to reality,» he stood straight, keeping his back straight, putting his hands behind it. «Let’s conduct a weekly exploration to the nearest settlement. We’ll be given transport and the necessary provisions.»

«And what kind of city?» Aaron immediately asked, trying to remember the map of the Ringworld, which he had learned almost by heart.

«Engord,» Andrew named the destination. «Previously, the Seekers used it as a staging post for those, who had just crossed the Border. But later the Northerners began to strengthen their borders, so they carried out the cleanup in the city, and the Seekers was thrown back to the far north. Now Engord is empty. There are no people or any creatures. An ideal place to continue training and first familiarize yourself with the nature of the Ringworld, but you shouldn’t relax, it’s still Ring,» he warned at the end.

Nobody asked additional questions, Major Sinclair gave the order freely, then the Guardsmen went about their business.

The news of the imminent crossing of the Border on one side made Aaron happy: «I’ll get on the other side of the Border before Lana, but I’ll do it alone, without her. And I wanted so much to share the first impression of being in Ring with her, but let’s omit the romance and return to serious business, we’re still not on a honeymoon trip,» he pulled himself back.

The dial on the watch was already showing half past four, illuminating the blue elements of the numbers against a white background. Aaron decided to walk down the street to digest the information, which he received. There was still enough time before dinner, so his path went in the direction of the observation tower to the building of the Expedition planning headquarters. The gray-eyed-guy wanted to meet Lana after class with the specialists, so that he could go to the dining room together.


Lana stepped out of the doors of the Expedition headquarters, immediately noticing her husband’s puzzled gaze. The dark-blonde-girl was wearing a branded demi-season jacket of the base workers, from under which Aaron could see the familiar skirt and dark tights ending in blue and white sneakers. Instead of greeting, he got down to business.

«Tomorrow I and other Guardsmen will go outside the Border,» the gray-eyed-guy announced the main news. «Nothing serious, just training in a real environment.»

«Really?» Lana was confused for a second by what she heard. «All the Guardsmen?» she asked.

«Yes,» Aaron nodded affirmatively.

Lana exhaled deeply and said with a smile on her face.

«Well, your Expedition is getting closer. I also have news,» he looked questioningly at his wife, waiting for her words. «Greyman named the start date of the operation, namely three weeks.»

«Less than a month,» Aaron concluded. «So soon.»

Again sadness and excitement, the tentacles of constancy and stability didn’t want to let go. There was no fear, only excitement.

«Aren’t you happy?» Lana asked him, noticing his thoughtfulness.

«Glad,» the gray-eyed-guy answered shortly, then he added. «We just waited for this for so long, that it seemed as if it would never start.»

«What time do you leave?» she asked him.

«After breakfast,» Aaron took her hand, continuing to think about the short trip into the Western Restricted Area.

Despite her outward calmness, Lana took the news warily, feeling inner uneasiness: «It’s one thing to move around Ringworld in the armored fortress Monster, and quite another on an ordinary off-road vehicle or even worse on foot.»


The next morning after breakfast, Lana and Eliza escorted their boyfriends to the Border. Before reaching the passage to the Western Restricted Area, the girls said goodbye to their halves.

«I’ll wait for you, darling,» Lana said tenderly, looking with her gray-green eyes at her husband.

They held together with both hands, standing in intimate proximity to each other. Although they parted for a short period of time, this didn’t make it easier. Both experienced inner melancholy, but the stormy whirlpool of impending events, in the center of which they lived for the last six months, distracted them from sadness, shifting the whole focus of attention to the quick start of the Expedition, when historical movements were launched, forever cutting them off from their past life.

«I’ll miss and think about you too,» Aaron promised her, running his hand over her left cheek and feeling the smoothness of her skin. The touch with the frenzied impulse excited the nervous system.

The gray-eyed-guy hugged his wife around the waist, tightly hugging her to him and enjoying the warmth of his half. They touched each other with the tips of their noses, feeling the spark of love discharge. Then their lips closed in a long passionate kiss, after which Lana felt a pleasant boost of vivacity and a little dizziness, as always.

«Do you’ve to go already?» she asked, casting a glance at the group of the Guardsmen, which standing near the passage to the Western Restricted Area.

«Yes, I need to,» Aaron replied, running his fingers through her hair. «I love you, and I’ll see you again soon,» he said goodbye, kissing her tender lips.

The two Guardsmen headed for their main group, leaving their halves behind. Eliza went up to Lana, wiping away the tears running down her cheeks.

«How hard it’ll be for you to let Aiden go on the Expedition, if you’re so worried about a week-long trip,» the dark-blonde-girl thought, looking at her former roommate. «I couldn’t have stayed on this side of the Border, when Aaron was there. Feelings of ignorance and nervousness, aggravated by fear. And most importantly is the lack of opportunity to help him. Or die with him. The point of staying alive, if he dies?»


Aaron looked back at the girls for the last time, and then he and Aiden put on their protective helmet, securing the respirator.

The passage to the territory of the training base, that located on the other side of the Border, passed to the left of the main gate, that intended for the passage of vehicles. The two huge metal doors were now closed together. In the center of each of them was the coat of arms of the Northern State. The gates were blocked by powerful beams, which, when unblocking, parted in different directions.

There was the small electrical substation next to the gate, supplying power not only to the automatic gate control, but also to the Radiopoint. At the same time, the Border defense system in this area was also connected to the substation, but unlike other systems, it had a backup power supply from an independent source.

The passage was guarded by two armed soldiers of the Northern State, who was stand around the clock at their post. After checking the passes, they entered the activation code on the touch panel, then the door opened.

Guardsmen ended up in an intermediate room, where disinfection was carried out. The light changed from bright white to purple, and the sound of a special mixture spraying was heard around. The security measures worked the same for both entry and exit.

On the territory of the Radiopoint, people practically didn’t work, because all equipment and protection systems functioned in automatic mode, allowing a person not to be directly in the Western Restricted Area.

In the center there was the huge satellite dish, and next to it the very radio tower went into the sky. From its base in a protected transparent cable channel, wiring harnesses departed towards the Border.

The light in Ring was refracted differently, as if passing through a filter, changing its usual yellow color to an unnaturally bluish tint. This phenomenon was surprising, but it proved Greyman’s theory about the Sphere.

Ahead, the path was blocked by the second pair of gates, which open the way beyond the Radiopoint into the harsh lands of Ring. Opposite the massive doors was a military truck, in which the Guardsmen were to get to Engord.

Rinos got behind the wheel, and Major Sinclair took the navigator’s place, the rest Guardsmen plunged into the body, the entrance to which located closer to the cockpit, but there were also rear doors.

Inside were comfortable benches wrapped in leather-like material. In total, Aaron counted four rows of two seats on each side, with a total of sixteen seats. In the back of the body were heavy sacks of provisions and racks of weapons.

A warning beep sounded, and then a powerful engine roar was heard, but it didn’t deafen with its volume.

«Probably, the truck is powered not by gasoline or diesel fuel, but from a powerful energy core,» Aaron suggested, recalling the noise level, with which the off-road vehicles moved in their hometown. «These were before the Catastrophe, and now it’s found only on premium cars. And the military, most likely,» he concluded.

The Guardsmen took the empty seats. Aaron sat down by a window in the second row from the entrance on the right. Aiden landed next to him.

The whistle sound was repeated, then the gate began slowly opening, but not completely, only to the width of the truck. When the path was opened, the heavy vehicle started to move, leaving the high Border walls behind.

The view of the dead territory of the Ringworld opened before Aaron’s eyes. The hilly wasteland was occasionally diluted with groves of low, dark trees with brown leaves and shiny purple veins. Tall grass of the unnatural deep blue swayed in the wind. Dense clouds walked across the sky, almost blocking the transformed light from Eligia, that had coated the surrounding world by the blue veils.

The atmosphere of the Ringworld really gave off something impossible, Aaron wanted to call it magic, but it didn’t exist, because all this is a consequence of science and technical achievements.


After the girls escorted their boyfriends to the Border, then Lana suggested to Eliza.

«Come with me to the tower, let’s see, how they leave,» she pointed with her hand to the observation tower not far from them.

«Will the security let me in?» the red-haired-girl doubted, but curiosity arose in her blue eyes. «I’m not the member of the Expedition.»

«Don’t be afraid, I’ll figure it out,» Lana already mentally figured out in her head, how they to get around the security: «The main thing is that Gray should play along.»

She took Eliza’s hand and led her. When they entered the Expedition planning building, Eliza was immediately stopped, but Lana began to speak quickly.

«She’s a signalman, she’s needed to set up communication in the tower, you can ask Greyman Antor,» the dark-blonde-girl confidently lied.

The security guard didn’t believe it, then he immediately called the curator via the tablet.

«Good morning, sorry to bother you, Lana Martson says you need to let the signalman through. It’s true?»

The girls didn’t hear Greyman’s answer, but after a second the security guard cleared the road, letting them go ahead. Lana led Eliza to the glass elevator, using it, they were upstairs.

It turned out to be empty inside, no one bothered the girls to watch, how the lone heavy off-road vehicle was leaving behind the horizon. Lana took the binoculars, that had left by someone, from the panel, then she looked into the distance. Somewhere in the distance there were the ruins of Engord, but from this distance only the tops of the skyscrapers were visible. Then the dark-blonde-girl handed the binoculars to Eliza, who uncertainly took it in her hands and held it to her face.

«Now you’re on the other side of the Border,» Lana thought, looking at the Ringworld. «Soon I’ll be there with you.»


Eighty years ago

Nicholas Rightman observed a group of military scouts, who brought their light off-road vehicle, which was equipped with a movable machine gun turret, to a stop near the walls of Edem. The large cloud of blue dust rose from under the four armored wheels, temporarily reducing visibility to zero.

The Northerners rarely went so deep into the Western Restricted Area, so when the military off-road vehicle drove far enough from the Border under construction, moving deeper and deeper into Ringworld, then the Seekers leadership immediately sent their best scouts to follow the operation of the Northern State.

There were two Seekers, but the number was compensated by rich experience. They followed the scout group from the very border with the Northern State, quietly escorting them along the territory of the Ringworld to the mysterious the Wall of Edem.

Nicholas counted the four northmen scouts, as he watched them leave their transport, as the dust settled, allowing a clear view of the scene.

Nicholas Rightman and Joseph Sizerwood. Childhood friends. After graduating from high school, instead of going to university, they decided to join the Seekers, who were just starting to gain momentum at the time. And for fifteen years now they have been serving the faction devotedly.

Nicholas had recently turned thirty-three, but he already had tufts of gray hair, one near his left temple, and the other on the back of his head, but it hardly stood out among his dark blonde hair. On his right cheek there was the scar mark left by a local wild creature. Brown eyes and thick eyelashes, which his beloved Lyra had always envied.

Together with Joseph, they gained fame after a year’s scouting into the northern arc of Ring, when they managed to reach the Northern Independent Settlements and learn about the separate state in the western arc, that has fortified cities, bases, scientific centers. If the settlers are to be believed, the ruler of the west arc, like the first the inhabitants of Ring, came from Edem.

«Well, what’s there?» a man asked him, who is standing next to him with a patch, on which was depicted, crossed out with a silver electric arrow, a purple ring, on which was coilled a golden spiral. In his hands the Seeker was holding a sniper rifle, which barrel lowered down.

Joseph was the same age as Rightman, only half a year older than his friend. Green eyes looked intently at Nicholas, waiting for an answer. Beneath his lower lip was a scar from the blow of a clawed paw. It became a reminder of their long scouting through the northern lands, that had swarmed with terrible creatures.

«They’re standing, thinking,» Nicholas said, not distracting from his observation. «They’re afraid to come closer.»

The brown-eyed-Seeker turned his gaze to the Wall, shrouded in a white haze, like a fog that went high into the sky and pierced the dark blue clouds.

The Seekers had long known, that there was no physical wall, and even such a scale, but psi-radiation didn’t allow passing through it, because after falling under its influence, a person remained alive for a while, but lost consciousness, and after that profuse cerebral bleeding began, leading to the death of the unfortunate.

Rightman returned to the military scouts, who at that time managed to get a strange helmet with wires, which was connected to it, from their off-road vehicle. One of the Northerners pulled it over his head and headed for the Wall, slowly closing the distance.

«Joseph,» Nicholas called softly to his friend, waving his left hand towards the military scout, «it begins.»

Instead of binoculars, the man put his eye to the optical sight of his rifle, catching in the crosshair the human figure, that walked towards the Wall.

The soldier took several careful steps, stopping after each contact with the sole of his army boots on the ground, but nothing happening, so the military scout continued to move forward. He managed to reach the Wall, coming close to it, when the soldier suddenly fell to the ground, then bloody streams ran from his ears, nostrils, mouth and eyes.

But it didn’t end there, then the howl of predatory creatures was heard, which came out of the white fog and quickly surrounded the remaining military scouts, gradually narrowing the death ring around their position near the off-road vehicle.

The wild creatures moved on all fours, leaning on powerful paws, from which white claws peeped out. Thick black fur with white and gray stripes all over their body. Their eyes glowed with red irises on a white eyeball. The pupils widened wildly, staring at the enemy. Their mouths were closed, but bared, exposing their fangs. Nostrils quivered with intense breathing.

Growling sharply and at once, the predators rushed at the military. One of the soldiers quickly jumped into the off-road vehicle and took control of the rotating turret, which immediately opened all-round fire to kill. But this didn’t save the scouts of the Northern State, because the wild creatures inflicted deep wounds with their powerful claws and gnawing the throats of the soldiers.

The last soldier was literally pulled out of the off-road vehicle, leaving his upper body inside, dumping internal organs to the ground, and gushing blood painted the interior of the off-road vehicle and the ground crimson.

Having finished covering their tracks, the predators returned back to the Wall, leaving behind only traces of a bloody massacre. None of the wild creatures died.

«Ready,» Rightman summed up the result of the fight between people and local fauna, taking a cigarette from his pocket with his free hand. «We can return to the base with the report.»

«Fuck,» Joseph commented on the incident, pulling out a small flask from his inner breast pocket. «You sure don’t want to take a closer look?» he took a sip, wincing at the taste of strong alcohol.

«Fuck them,» Nicholas grimaced, lighting a cigarette. «You saw how these creatures tore apart this soldiers. Everything is clear anyway, they decided to test the device against psi-radiation, for which they were killed,» he spat on the ground after another drag.

«Are we going back to Engord then?» Sizerwood asked, holding out his flask to him.

«Yes,» Rightman nodded his head, taking the flask, and then he took a sip, feeling a burning liquid go down his throat.

They returned to their off-road vehicle, which had been abandoned near the observation point. Joseph got behind the wheel, as usual, and turned the ignition key to start the engine. With a muffled growl, the vehicle began moving east towards the Border.

Nicholas, sitting in the navigator’s place, plunged into reflections on what he saw today: «So the government is trying to resolve the issue with Edem. Their device worked, but not for long. Apparently, the protection increased the power, and the helmet deflated, then the wild creatures covered Edem’s tracks. No, You can’t solve this problem head-on. More information is needed. We need to get to the west coast, but this is too dangerous and a long journey. We don’t have so many provisions, and no one will agree, only the most desperate.» Rightman took out a cigarette again and lit a cigarette. «For some reason, after all, Edem cut us off from the big water. And I’m sure this is related to the western part of Ring. The very name Edem came from there. Someone called the central part by that name, which means, that they may know something. The answers are there, but getting there isn’t easy. So also the military began to actively build their Border, tightened patrols, and will soon approach Engord. But, it seems, there is already the evacuation plan, but where?» he asked the pressing question, that determines the future of the Seekers. «Somewhere north, rumor has it.» then Nocholas thought of his girlfriend. «Lyra is pregnant, and this whole war is so wrong time. But we knew, where we lived, so we ourselves are to blame. In any case, being here is better, than in a stupid peaceful life,» he summed up his reflections, observing the blue-purple landscapes of the dead territory of the Ringworld.


Present time

After a couple of hours, the ruins of Engord were visible on the horizon. The truck neatly moved through the destroyed streets of the city, penetrating deeper and deeper into the long-abandoned ruins of the first Seekers’ settlement.

The rotted remains of cars, which blocked the path, easily flew to the sides, when the armored vehicle rammed them with a strong side, clearing its way.

Engord had over the rich vegetation, that rooted the walls of the buildings, hiding their fossilized remains. Shrubs grew from the road asphalt, widening the centuries-old cracks more and more. All that remained of the high-rise buildings was the bare skeletons of metal beams and concrete slabs, which was enveloped in tangles of climbing plants with glowing yellow fruits, that lit up the gloomy remains of the old city like little bulbs.

The truck drove through the bridge, which also serves as a dam, to the left of which there was a descent to the fountains and park area on both sides of the narrow river bed.

On the right, a wide city pond spilled over. Along its embankment one could see the marinas, and because of the low water level, one could see the sunken remains of pleasure boats.

Immediately after the bridge, the central city square began, in the middle of which the truck stopped. The Guardsmen left the transport and put their automatic rifles into combat mode.

Aaron flicked the safety lever, then he looked at the dark sky, where Eligia had already risen high, trying to break through the thick clouds of Ring.

It was hard for the eyes to get used to the blue heavenly light, causing internal discomfort and rejection of reality by the human body, which accustomed to the yellow Eligian rays, not wanting to settle for the transformed light of Ring.

«Now we’ll go to the old mall twenty minutes from here, and there we’ll discuss the plan of action,» Major Sinclair announced, starting stride to southward.

The Guardsmen began to move along one of the main streets of Engord. On the surviving walls of buildings accompanying the group along the main pedestrian path between low buildings, they could read inscriptions: «Welcome to Ring», «Don’t anger Edem», «Agents are everywhere», «Fear Ring Army».

On the sides came across human remains, they all belonged to the Seekers, as evidenced by their distinctive mark on the shoulders of the sleeves of the jackets, namely the familiar crossed out circle.

«Echoes of the major military sweep,» Aaron guessed, as he walked past human bones. «The Seekers weren’t shaken weakly at that date, but they managed to escape. Most of them. Someone stayed in Engord to buy time,» the gray-eyed-guy recalled the official history summary. «The variety of messages indicated, that not everything is so simple in Ring, despite the first impression of calmness. The deeper into the WRA, the more dangers. This was expected, there is nothing to do near the Border and the mysterious Edem is located in the very center of the closed area. Now the need for the Monsters and the Black Guard became more evident. And the missing twelve Expeditions speak volumes. Ring lives its own life and, apparently, it’s concentrated closer to the center,» he thought, looking with interest at the surrounding ruins.

After passing two wide highways, that passed across their path, the Guardsmen came out to the mall. Once inside its dilapidated building, Major Sinclair removed his respirator, exposing his face to the toxic environment.

«In general, the words about the deadly air are greatly exaggerated,» he began to say, taking off his helmet additionally. «The head will ache, maybe it’ll vomit, but you’ll not die,» other Guardsmen repeated after their commander, unfastening their respirators. «But our eggheads mustn’t know it. Even Lana,» separately Andrew turned to Aaron, to which the gray-eyed-guy nodded his head positively. «We’ll stay here for a couple of days. Get used to the air. Upon arrival back, the readiness time is five days, then everything starts.»

«But Lana said three more weeks?» Aaron wondered aloud, breathing in Ring air, that was different from usual.

«Various impurities were strongly felt in him, and if I knew chemistry, I would probably be able to recognize them,» he thought, trying to better feel the smell of the surrounding space. «But in this building there was definitely a strong fire,» the gray-eyed-guy concluded, looking around, noticing traces of burning on the walls, melted benches, boxes and even equipment, which purpose is now difficult to determine. «This place served the important function. Perhaps the warehouse or something else?»

«Alas, but no,» Major Sinclair nodded his head, interrupting Aaron’s thoughts. «Edem knows about our Expedition, so we’ll start earlier. There are spies among the Northerners, so your government invited us. For the same reason, Colonel Newer personally flew to the Northern State, when the main phase of preparation for the Expedition began. To discuss everything face to face,» he explained, what was happening now.

«So you’re suggesting, that there are traitors among the members of the Expedition or at other levels?» the gray-eyed-guy clarified, realizing, that he hadn’t thought about it.

«Not traitors, but scouts. They weren’t recruited, but sent,» Major Sinclair explained the difference.

«But they still know about the Expedition. How can an early exit help confuse their plans?» Aaron doubted, not understanding the logic.

«No way,» Andrew replied calmly, «but it’ll help create a hitch. Anyway, the Seekers are on their way to North-City,» he summed up, then the Major Sinclair pulled something out of his pocket. «About you, Aaron, keep your pass,» he handed him the black card with his name and surname engraved on it. «We’ve been watching you closely all this time to make the decision. When the Expedition is over, if you want, you can come to the new branch of the Black Guard in Commander-City and become a full-fledged fighter of our organization. This is our opinion and Colonel Haytem Newer,» Andrew passed his hand past the rest of Guardsmen.

Aaron hadn’t expected such a turn of events, and it was confused him.

«Are you sure?» he asked uncertainly, carefully examining his pass to the Black Guard.

«Yes,» Major Sinclair answered clearly. «Initially, I had certain warnings about you,» he admitted honestly, «but you proved Haytem’s words. What he said about you. You’ll not only be the first Northerner in the ranks of the Black Guard, but you’ll also become the symbol of the end of the last war.»

«I hope I’m not part of the political game?» Aaron immediately asked, guessing, that everything isn’t so simple: «It would be a shame, if they took me only as a media person.»

«No,» Andrew shook his head negatively. «Even if Colonel Newer is engaged in clearing up political garbage, his decisions are always connected only with honor and duty. You’re a strong person, morally and physically, you follow the right path, which means you’ve the right to wear our armor and be part of our organization. And most importantly, to represent our interests to our state.»

«Thanks,» the gray-eyed-guy thanked him, slipping the pass into his breast pocket.

«Now our task is simple, namely to survive the acclimatization,» Major Sinclair addressed to everyone. «The first symptom will be a headache, after a few hours, nausea will appear. Then everything will start to decline,» he briefly told stages. «Now everyone is free, but we don’t go far from each other. Control, mutual control, don’t lose our vigilance.»

After that, the Guardsmen divided into three groups of three, that dispersed in different directions. Aaron sat on a bench near the entrance to the mall to consider Major Sinclair’s proposal. He had mixed feelings, becausse on the one hand, Aaron was happy, and on the other, he wondered: «Am I really worthy? And what scouts was Sinclair talking about? After all, if the AI is alive, then he had use robots or did it manage to subdue people?»

His thoughts were interrupted by Aiden approaching with Rinos.

«Well, I can congratulate you on joining the Black Guard,» the blond-guy patted him on the shoulder. «You won’t refuse the offer, will you?»

«Of course, he’ll not refuse,» the adult Guardsman answered for Aaron, lighting a cigarette. «They don’t make such offers every day,» he said intelligently.

«No, I’ll not refuse,» the gray-eyed-guy nodded his head in the affirmative. «Tell me, did you really watch me?»

«Yes, and even rubbed-your-bones. For example, when you once left for Lana, do you remember Sinclair finished training earlier?» Aiden answered him honestly.

«I remember. Do you really think, that I can be one of you?» Aaron treated this as not just a proposal, but perceived it as a great responsibility, realizing his role in the future.

«Absolutely, even if you weren’t in the war, but your test will be the Expedition,» Rinos assured him, smoking the thick cigarette. «Maybe we won’t shoot at people, but we’ll definitely have to at unfamiliar creatures, that are found here,» then he abruptly switched the topic. «Okay, stop sitting around. Let’s go and look for something to light the fire. It’s soon evening, and I’m not going to freeze in these ruins.»

Aaron stood up to his full height, then the three Guardsmen went in search of firewood, exploring the abandoned ruins of Engord along the way.


Eighty years ago

When Nicholas and Joseph returned to Engord, they found themselves in the midst of chaos and confusion. The reason for all this was the speedy raid of the military, the purpose of which will be to cleanse the city and its surrounding area.

«We waited for troubles,» Rightman thought. «So, they must announce the evacuation. So let’s see, what our leaders have prepared for us.»

To who they rushed to report to the main headquarters, that located in the former mall the Greenland. The entrance was guarded by armed Seekers, who’s holding automatic rifles. Nicholas and Joseph showed their crossed out ring on the small metal cards, which they took turns placing on an electronic tablet, that the guard handed them. After the green light flashed on the screen twice, letting the scouts go inside.

The Greenland served as the headquarters of the faction’s leaders, who planning and managing the day-to-day problems of the Seekers’ settlement. Also, the presence of large warehouses made it possible to distribute supplies of provisions, weapons, necessary ammunition, fuel for vehicles and various special electronic devices used in the study of Ring on three floors and two parking levels.

Nicholas didn’t know the sources of funding for their faction, but it became clear from the investments that these weren’t poor people, influential enough if they were able to send trucks from around the Border. Someone believed, that this was some kind of opposition to the government, which interested in getting dirt on the existing regime. But Rightman didn’t believe it, leaning toward the curious rich man with nothing to do.

He had been in Ring long enough to understand: «There is nothing to catch here but ruins and predators. Yes, there is the mysterious Edem, but you can’t get there with all the desire, and money and weapons can’t solve this. There are also stories about settlements on the western coast, but getting there is no less risky adventure, than overcoming the psi-field of Edem,» Nicholas reflected, as he walked along the first floor of the Greenland.

The two scouts climbed to the second level along the fixed escalator, then to the third, where the food court area used to be. In the center, there was an active discussion of current affairs. The three leaders, standing around tables drawn together, on which laid out the cards of the Ringworld, tried to agree among themselves about the future of the Seekers.

«We need to get out of here before it’s too late,» one of them said, known as Isaac. A grown man in his forties, with green-brown eyes. Short hair and coarse stubble on the face. Dark skin and dry chapped lips. «There are several abandoned cities in the north…»

«But what about the creatures?» another leader interrupted him, her name was Renina. A woman, about thirty-five years old. Shoulder-length hair with a blonde yellow color. At the very bottom, the strands were tied in a pigtail and secured with blue elastic bands. Her smooth, wrinkle-free skin made her look younger, than her years. Gray eyes and upturned nose. The woman was wearing a warm brown jacket with a blue T-shirt underneath. «We’ll have to defend the cities. And what about the provisions? How will it be delivered to us?» she asked logical questions.

«We’ve no choice,» the third said, who was known as Kinor. A bearded man in his thirties. Long hair and a large, crooked nose. In his hands he held an electronic tablet, the screen of which was illuminating. «When the government finishes with the Border, we’ll lose supplies from that side. I spoke with the allies from around the Border, and they propose to occupy the port city in the north and promise to deliver everything needed by water.»

«But it’s dangerous,» the woman protested again, rolling her eyes to the side. «Ships sink, when they go out into the ocean.»

«Not quite so,» Kinor disagreed with her, shaking his head negatively. «Only if they’re very far from the shore,» he declared confidently, running his hand over his thick black beard.

«We must to make the decision,» Isaac summed up the discussion. «We’re responsible for people, there are both children and pregnant women,» he looked at those present with a frown.

There was a pause of silence, as the leaders decided, and Rightman and Sizerwood watched from afar.

«I wonder, what you’ll accept,» Nicholas thought with interest, examining the tense faces of his leaders.

«We go north, there is no other way out, we’ll trust our allies,» Isaac announced his decision.

«I agree,» Kinor supported him. «We must begin the evacuation, because the military will come here day after day,» he pointed to the floor.

«So, to the north,» Renina reluctantly agreed, with all her appearance expressing disagreement with the men.

Then something happened, that no one could have foreseen. The four Seekers, who were supposed to guard their leaders, pointed their rifles at Isaac and Kinor, then Renina didn’t hesitate, commanded them.

«Kill them,» there were two low, muffled shots, then more, hitting the other guards not participating in the conspiracy. «Prepare bombs.»

The unknown assassins didn’t notice, hiding in the far part of the food court, Nicholas and Joseph, who immediately went to the exit, carefully leaving the premises. Once on the street, they walked excitedly away from the Greenland, turning left from the entrance towards their home, where the girlfriends were waiting for them.

«Who was that?» Sizerwood asked immediately, trying to digest, what had happened. It immediately came to mind, that it could be the Northern State, but intuition thought otherwise.

«I don’t know, maybe the military, or…» Rightman pondered. «Who else to be?» he knew the answer, but it was hard to believe in it: «Well, there is this damn Edem, so what? What does it care about us?» the Seeker with green-brown eyes asked himself. «Unlike the government, we know little and have never taken open action towards Edem.»

«What do we do?» Joseph turned to him, looking at him with a puzzled look.

«Now we’ll go to Lyra and Annie. We take our girls and dump them on our ORV,» he told his vision of the future, putting his hand on his holster, that hung from his belt on the left side.

«Stop,» Sizerwood paused, clearly in a different position, «but what about the others?» he ran his hands around. «Look at these people, if something isn’t done, then soon this place will become the epicenter of a bloody massacre,» Joseph understood the logic of his comrade’s thoughts: «You think primarily about the family, but we’ll not last long alone, so we need to save the Seekers as the faction.»

«And what do you suggest?» Nicholas asked him frowningly, understanding, where the conversation was going.

«We’ll find Renina, figure out who she works for, then start evacuating to the north,» Sizerwood threw up a rough plan. «But there’s little time, so you’ll start gathering people, especially you’ve the pregnant Lyra, and I’ll deal with…» but he didn’t have time to finish, because his speech was interrupted by the thundering explosion behind them from the direction of the Greenland. «Damn,» Joseph swore, «it’s about to start. That’s it, follow the girls, and I’ll catch the traitors.»

The two Seekers were divided. Nicholas ran towards his girlfriend, who was waiting for him in one of the apartments in the buildings behind the headquarters.

«How am I supposed to organize people?» Rightman didn’t understand what to do. «I must to report the evacuation, give the rough plan and distribute tasks. But first, Lyra and Annie.»

Turning left, he went through the courtyards to their entrance at the corner of the building, quickly climbed to the third floor, ran down the corridor past Joseph’s apartment, banged his fist on the door to notify Arjaya, then he knocked on his apartment.

«It’s me, Niko,» Rightman shouted.

The door immediately opened, and the girl with fair hair and a big belly stood in the aisle. She was wearing a warm, several sizes larger, hoodie, and a green jacket was thrown over it. Loose pants and boots are on her feet.

Arjaya was standing next to her. The right side of her face was almost hidden by a thick black lock of her hair, and from her left temple to the back of her head, her hair was shaved off. On her cheek of the open part of her face was the tattoo in the form of the crossed-out ring of the Seekers. A knotted scarf covered her neck, which could be pulled up to cover her face. In her hand she held a automatic pistol ready to fire.

«What happened?» Lyra asked nervously, looking at Nicholas with frightened gray eyes. «Are the military already in the city?» with every word, panic grew in her voice, adding nervous vibrations when pronouncing words.

«It’s okay, the military is still far away,» Rightman hugged Lyra and tried to calm her down by stroking her hair. «We’ll head north. We need to gather people,» he kissed Lyra on her forehead.

«I’ll help organize, what to do?» Arjaya immediately responded. She spoke clearly and without panic, assuming, what was happening and what to do. «Where is Joe? He’s OK?»

«He’s alive, Annie,» Nicholas didn’t tell her, where Sizerwood was now. «He has the evacuation mission,» he lied, looking away from the blue eyes of the black-haired-seeker. «And I was sent to organize people. Pack your things and go outside,» Rightman commanded them.

He sat Lyra down on an old sofa and quickly assembled two backpacks with everything that needed. In one, Nicholas threw lighter things so as not to burden the pregnant girl, and in the second he threw the heaviest things.

Arjaya at this time ran away to her and Joseph’s apartment to collect their things. When she returned, Rightman and Lyra were ready. The Seeker was holding a rifle in his hands, and the holster hung on his belt, with a pistol in it. The same was hanging from the pregnant girl, and Arjaya herself was holding a shotgun in her hands.

They took everything valuable, namely provisions and weapons. The wild way of life didn’t contribute to the collection of unnecessary things, as people do in a peaceful life, but only those, that help to survive.

Going out into the street, the black-haired-Seeker and Rightman and Lyra began to run around people, gathering them into a heap and dividing them into groups. It was difficult at first, but when the Seekers realized, why they were being organized into separate groups, it became easier.

Not everyone panicked and helped them organize. Having launched a chain of actions, that allowed a large number of people to organize themselves, Nicholas set about solving the new problem.

«Are there drivers here?» he asked the confused Seekers, already thinking over the next stage of the evacuation.

«Organizing people is part of the business, but we still need to get transport and gather provisions, without which the long journey to the north will become impossible, as well as without sufficient fuel for off-road vehicles. Everyone had a weapon, but enough ammunition is already a question. Renina killed Isaac and Kinor, destroyed most of the supplies, but the Greenland wasn’t the only place to store resources. We can forget about the headquarters, for sure all the vehicles in the parking lot have been destroyed. But there weren’t many, only armored cars for the leaders and a few security off-road vehicles. We must go to the central square to the main parking lot,» remembering the recent scene of betrayal, Rightman pondered, trying to understand, who Renina served, who in turn for ten years held the command post, being responsible for deep sorties, including his and Joseph’s campaign in the Northern Independent Settlements. «Was the military able to buy her? No, it can’t be. One reasonable explanation remains, that’s Edem.»

Hanging tis rifle by the strap on his shoulder, he took the girls in both hands and walked briskly past the blazing Greenland. Something was shooting and exploding inside the former mall all the time. One last glance at the Seekers’ main building, they moved on. Now their past is over, and now it’s necessary to hold onto the future.


After Rightman and Sizerwood parted ways, Joseph walked around the mall in a long arc, intending to intercept Renina in the parkland beyond the Greenland.

Reaching a highway, in the middle of which tram rails passed, dividing the oncoming traffic, he turned right, crossing the street, where peaceful Seekers were already crowding, watching the former mall on fire.

Having reached the intersection, Sizerwood crossed it in a straight line. The road passed along the metal fence of the park area, turning left. Then another intersection appeared on the horizon. The path to the right led to a bridge, that passed over a narrow bed of a dried-up river, that used to flow through the city center.

Running out to a bridge, he looked back and noticed Renina, who, surrounded by four others traitors, was moving towards the dam, carefully passing the territory of the square with fountains.

«Well, I almost got them,» Joseph thought glad, that his guess had worked. «Apparently they’re going to the dam,» he suggested, quickening his pace. «There is the entrance to the underground communications,» Sizerwood recalled the underground device of Engord, that endless and dangerous tunnels he and Nicholas had thoroughly explored along and across in their time. «So they don’t want to sail away, but go along the metro tunnels.»

Getting closer to the traitors, Joseph prepared a smoke grenade with the addition of the special mixture. The group of five people was already entering the pedestrian tunnel to the right of the dam, passing under the road through the crossing. Wearing his respirator over his face, the green-eyed-Seeker threw the grenade at the traitors.

If Renina fell immediately on the concrete tile, while coughing violently, but her guards didn’t even feel the effect of the green smoke sprayed from the grenade. The three immediately dispersed to the sides near the entrance, aiming their weapons in the direction of the alleged enemy and looking for a target invisible to them.


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