“I’ll tell them you died a hero.” His fist connected with her face. Cruselle shrieked and scrambled back to her feet. She didn’t want to hurt Sioned. She loved him. He loved her. At least that’s what she thought. It was hard to tell now that he was standing across from her, teeth bared, fists clenched.
“You don’t have to do this,” Cruselle said. “Please, Sioned. This isn’t you!” She was met with another jab at her face. She ducked and swiped a foot across his ankles, hooking her leg behind his knee. He toppled to the ground beside her.
Cruselle crawled tentatively to his side, slowly, carefully wrapping her arms around him and bringing her mouth to his. Willing him, pleading for him to come back to her. He stopped fighting. For a moment they touched and everything was like before.
They pulled apart. His breath tickled her neck as he whispered, “All those people waiting back home. They’re going to miss you.” Her eyes flew open.
“Why?” Her voice was soft. His lips grazed
hers once more.
“Silly girl,” the man said against Cruselle’s mouth. “You didn’t truly think I would let you return in one piece.” She pushed off his chest.
“No, no,” he continued, making his way to his feet. “It just won’t do to share the glory of finding the Artifact.” He circled his companion like a wild cat waiting to pounce on its next meal.
Cruselle reached to pull down her shirt, which had ridden up around her torso. She looked at the man before her, such a far cry from the gentleman she had met that day. The one who had picked her up off the ground and led her toward the bright, new world. The one who had helped her through Expedition training, and become her closest friend. The one who had showered her with compliments and kisses.
Their meeting played over and over in her mind—some kind of sick reminder that this sneering monster who paced the stark, white space pod was not her Sioned.
She sat leaning against a wall in an empty hallway. Her knees were pulled up against her chest and her head rested on her crossed arms. Her body shook with sobs.
Cruselle did not want to be here. She did not want to be an Expoditioneer and she did not want travel the lengths of the universe to hunt for the Artifact.
When it was time to take the test, she hadn’t been worried. She had no interest of going into space, in fact it kind of scared her. She never, ever thought that she would be chosen.
But then the results arrived. One hundred percent compatible. Those had been the words stamped across Cruselle’s test papers. And those had been the words that followed her everywhere.
She barely had time to process what that meant before Government officials came to her home and stole her away to this place.
They had ripped her away from her family and dropped her in this academy with five other young men and women, without any pretense of explanation.
Cruselle had held it together in front of the others while it was explained to them that they were chosen to be Expeditioneers. They would be sent to space to search for the Artifact that would save the Nation from this never-ending war.
She was led by a uniformed guard to her room; it was drab and dull, with a small bed huddled in the corner and a desk collecting dust against the opposite wall. There were no windows.
This was nothing like her room at home. Cruselle had felt the walls pushing in on her, she thought the silence would strangle her, and she had to get out.
The girl felt nothing but an overwhelming sense of panic as she put as much distance between herself and that room as possible.
Now, she felt a presence near her. She looked up to find a pair of boot clad feet shifting in front of her.
“Are you okay?” A handsome man stood with his hands in his pockets, looking down on Cruselle’s pitiful figure.
She pushed white-blond hair out of her face and scrubbed at her eyes. She tried to collect herself, but the reality of the situation pressed upon her, overwhelming her once more. She clamped her eyes shut and a few more tears squeezed out.
“I am completely and utterly lost,” she whispered.
“Oh,” the man replied. “I-I’m sorry.” He paused. “I didn’t necessarily appreciate being dragged here either.” He turned and settled down beside her. There was a slight accent to his words, something sweet and lilting that made Cruselle yearn to hear him go on. She managed a weak smile.
“I think it’ll be alright. I really do.” He toyed with a thick lock of sandy hair. “When you start to think about it, we could be the ones to rebuild this crumbling Nation. We could save the world!” When Cruselle did not return his enthusiasm, the man placed a warm hand on her shoulder and patted awkwardly.
“Let’s go see what’s available in the kitchen, huh? There’s no point being lost on an empty stomach.” Cruselle felt an odd attraction to this charming stranger. In a matter of minutes he had managed to make her feel better. She nodded.
The man held out his hand. “I’m Sioned.”
Cruselle took it gingerly. “Cruselle.”
“Darling Cruselle,” Sioned drawled, stroking a finger down the countless controls of the pod’s dashboard. “My plan worked out so well, you see. Befriend the Expeditioneer with the highest score, dispose of the others, then use her to get the Artifact.”
Cruselle pressed a hand to her mouth as his words sunk in. Abby and Isabelle, Max and Havia, they were all gone because of him.
“Of course I’ll have to kill you before I go home, so I can return and accept full responsibility for saving the Nation and stopping the war. They’ll praise me like a saint. I may even be knighted!”
Sioned turned back to the poor girl weeping on the floor. “No one will remember the girl who got a perfect score on her test. They will be too blinded by my accomplishments to remember a brave Expeditioneer, lost to a terrible accident.”
He spoke so calmly. So sure of himself. In fact, arrogance practically came off him in waves.
Cruselle couldn’t stand this hateful creature who wore Sioned’s face, and she wouldn’t sit here and wait for him to kill her, a tearful wreck. Her training as an Expeditioneer did teach her something. She would not be weak or cowardly or a simpering fool. She would be brave and face the monster her dearest had become.
Cruselle struggled to a standing position and gasped, “Sioned…” Her voice was thick around the lump in her throat. She took a few steps toward him and held out her arms as if to embrace him. He just stood there and smirked. Cruselle savoured the whoosh of his breath escaping him as she charged, ramming her head into Sioned’s stomach.
His eyes grew wide as he fell back against the control panel. Cruselle grabbed him by the front of the shirt and slapped him across the face.
It didn’t take either long to realize that he had fallen into the grav-regulation dial, because in no time the gravity level in the pod dropped very, very low. Cruselle and Sioned drifted to the ceiling.
Her ears popped. She kept fighting.
It was slow and sloppy, but each opponent got in a few blows. The air was tinted with the scent of blood and sweat. The pod air conditioning unit kicked in to stir the hot air. Cruselle wiped a hand across a black eye, bracing herself for another strike.
Then a knife appeared in Sioned’s hand.
“My dear, when will you learn to give up?” he drawled. The world slowed, but Cruselle had to keep fighting. She swung wildly, lashing out with the last of her energy. The adrenaline had kicked in, making her moves jittery and uncontrolled. Sioned shoved her across the room, angled his blade. She could read his face like an open book: hate, resentment, jealousy. Greed.
She was lost without him.
But without the Artifact, the Nation was lost.
The war was lost.
She couldn’t trust the actions that might come from his twisted intentions. She had to make sure that Artifact was put into the right hands.
Sioned’s blade glinted in the dim starlight as he adjusted his grip.
It was him or her.
Suddenly, Cruselle surged, flipping and scrambling through open air and pinning the only man she thought she could trust against the pod door. He tried to push away, but her hands were wrapped around his neck and she had swiped his long knife.
Cruselle’s lovely face was twisted in rage and hurt. She had made up her mind. She pulled an oxygen mask to her mouth and released Sioned, instead closing her iron grip on the safety rail imbedded in the ceiling.
Sioned’s eyes widened and his lips pulled away from his teeth in a snarl. Cruselle slammed her hand down on the OPEN button on the control panel and squeezed her eyes shut.
Sioned was whisked away into the abyss.
Once the door was safely sealed and the oxygen level had returned to normal, Cruselle drifted around the cabin and peeled open her eyes.
She hugged her chest. She sucked in a shuddering breath. Tears gathered on her lashes and Cruselle blinked them away; in the low-grav environment, they simply floated in front of her face.
Looking through the constellation of fat, glittering droplets, Cruselle murmured into the now empty pod, “I am completely and utterly lost.”