by Sharon Best

Graphics by John, original art by Boris Vallejo

Last update: 20-Sep-02


The half-dozen haggard soldiers, several of them injured, all of them cold and hungry, traipsed along southern boundaries of Klam'ath Lake, struggling to lift their weary feet over the rough stones of the sloping shoreline. They'd been fighting a very long time, longer than they could remember, hiding in the cold mountains of Benagar by day, traveling by night as they struggled to cross enemy territory to regain their own lines.

It was now past dawn, and they were searching for cover from the reconnaissance gliders of the enemy, when the Sergeant's ECM module began to beep urgently. He glanced fearfully at the scope, only to see the direction needle steady to point directly across the lake. He looked up to study the far shoreline, but saw nothing.

"No cover here anyway," he mumbled to himself, and kept walking, faster now, fearful that if he stopped his men would collapse onto the stony shore and be unable to rise. He took but a dozen steps before a bright red glow appeared on the far shore. His heart froze and then began to pound wildly in his chest.

He turned to shout to his men. "Run for it, toward the rocks." He pointed toward the safety of a pile of boulders that were two hundred meters ahead of them.

Two hundred meters too far, he knew, for the red glow meant only one thing. A Mark 7 laser was powering up. He knew with cold certainly that his men had only seconds to live, for a Mark 7 had a lethal range of ten miles when used against unprotected humans. The far shore of the lake was less than five miles.

Still, he refused to give up. Forcing his legs to move faster, his bone-deep weariness was momentarily forgotten as he made one last attempt to save the lives of his men, grabbing them to push them ahead of him. He'd taken but a dozen steps toward the rocks when the far shore flashed brighter, the white core of the beam aimed directly at him.

His world exploded in a brilliant ball of reddish-orange light.

A light he knew was his death.

He felt like he was floating, his nose twitching at the horribly familiar stench of burned flesh, that awful smell far, far too familiar to he and his men. He'd seen a hundred men perish in front of the GAR's and Mark 7's of the Empire, only this time it would be their flesh that would melt from their bones, their scant remaining body-fat that would be rendered into a bubbling pool of black smoke filled with bleached white bones.

It was finally his turn to die. His last thought was that he wouldn't be cold anymore.

Yet strangely, instead of his world going black as his eyes melted in their sockets, the prickling heat tearing the flesh from his bones, he felt his eyes merely watering from the brilliant glow. The horrific heat washed over him, yet it only singed his hair, making his damp clothing steam.

He was still alive!

Blinking in astonishment at that impossibility, he looked to the right, and saw a statuesque blonde facing the laser, her upper body bare, her stockings torn, her figure muscular but feminine. Her skin was glowing red-hot.

It was her!

The Protector.

The girl they'd all been fighting beside for these last months. A young woman of the Enlightenment, her stated goal that of opposing the Arions who had landed on his world eight months ago.

Neither he nor any of his men had seen her before. Yet they knew of her from the breathless accounts of the survivors who'd straggled into camp from the battles in the South. Stories of an unbreakable woman, a war-goddess, a protector of humanity. Stories too fantastic to be believed. Stories of a goddess.

Now this goddess was standing only meters away from him, blocking the deadly laser with her perfect body.

Finding himself on his knees, his legs shaking too badly to support him, he was opening his mouth to thank her in worshipful tones, not only for his life but for fighting so hard to save his planet, when she began to walk forward, her feet barely ripping the surface of the water as she walked upon it. She walked faster and faster, slowly breaking into a run, the faint ripples of her glancing contact with the water's surface spreading outward behind her in a long V. She kept her body perfectly aligned between his men and the Mark 7 until she was finally enveloped by the beam.

Seconds later, a tremendous explosion lit the far shore, the glare momentarily reflecting off the rocky summits behind.

Realizing his men's precarious exposure, and certain that the recon birds would be attracted to the flash, the Sergeant struggled to his feet, encouraging his men to theirs, driving them onward toward the rocks. They were soon huddling behind the boulders, searching for a small cave or overhang that would hide them until dark.

For the next hour, the Sergeant peered out from between two rocks, studying the far shoreline and the sky, praying that she'd return, hoping for another sight of the woman who had inspired a million men and women to give up their lives in defense of the billion souls who still lived on Gang'es Three.

Yet he saw nothing. She had either perished, or gone on to fight another battle.

Finally sagging wearily down beside his men, he saw a change in their eyes. No longer exhausted and dull, they were bright, full of the defiant look of hope. He knew his own eyes were singing the same song.

His men once again knew for what they fought.

For freedom.

For the Enlightenment of humanity.

For the million men, women and children who'd been so cruelly slaughtered by the Arions.

They fought for her as well. Beside their golden savior. Standing side by side with their young goddess.

Their Protector.