Chapter 1

Jadon Levine caressed the trigger on his joystick, sending a final high-explosive shell into the base of the airfield's radar array. The massive steel framework shuddered convulsively as spars bent and warped under the blast, finally giving way with a tearing screech that was audible even inside the heavily armoured cockpit of Jadon's Conqueror. He moved his mechanised walker forward, twisting the torso with practiced ease as he visually located and confirmed the positions of his three lancemates and the destruction of their individual targets. The four Conquerors of his lance had been tasked with destroying an enemy airfield, and so far the mission had gone like clockwork. They had come in hard and fast, the rapid-fire 155mm smoothbore cannon and heavy pulse-laser turrets of their 30-foot-tall war machines making short work of the airfield's base defenses and leaving the defenders precious little time to respond.

Jadon supposed he should feel triumph, after the drubbing his side had been given the last few weeks, but instead he just felt unease as he swept his eyes over the mini-map in the corner of his Head-Up Display (HUD) for the fourth time in as many minutes. Something wasn't right. Granted, his lance had moved faster than might be expected and it was possible that they had simply caught a break, attacking when the rest of their opponents' mobile forces happened to be elsewhere on the planet, but even still... It wasn't like the enemy to leave such a valuable asset so poorly defended.

He toggled his comm system. "All right, time to go home. Form on me, but keep your eyes peeled."

"Something bothering you, boss?" asked Miles, Jadon's wingmate, as the lance took up their positions.

"Maybe," replied Jadon. "It just... seems a little too easy, don't you think? Today we managed to take out the entire airfield with hardly a scratch. The last time our side tried something like this they barely managed to get a single walker out intact."

"Oh come on, J!" scoffed Vince, the lance's second-in-command. "We totally took them by surprise! That one walker didn't have a chance, and we brought the roof down on top of his friends before they could even get into the picture. An inspired idea, if you ask me."

Jadon rolled his eyes. It had been Vince who had suggested making the huge docking bay his and Jennifer's primary target, in the hope that they could trap any dormant enemy walkers inside. Jadon had to admit that they had pulled it off beautifully; only one enemy walker had made it outside before the building was reduced to rubble, and the machine hadn't lasted long against the focused fire of his lance.

"They can't chase us without transport of some kind, and I personally destroyed all the APCs on the airfield," continued Vince.

"Not that a piddly little APC can actually do anything against us," put in Jennifer.

"Too right!"

"We caught them napping for once. It was a piece of cake."

Jadon let his lancemates' glee wash over him, and tried to relax. Was he just being paranoid? His shoulders twitched in a shrug. They'd find out soon enough. In the meantime, you could never be too careful...

"Okay guys," he transmitted. "Maintain combat pairings. Vince, you and Jenny fall back a bit. I want-"

"What the hell?!"

Vince voiced Jadon's own thoughts as four blood-red icons flared to life on his HUD, not more than a mile behind his lance. A quick glance at the threat indicator identified the contacts as Matador-class walkers, nasty weapon platforms armed with a trio of heavy lasers backed up by a short-range missile system. Moments later his Conqueror staggeredas heavy enemy fire washed over the big machine, flaying armour from its back. Without conscious thought Jadon steadied his mount with a few deft touches on the joystick, his mind focusing on the sudden appearance of their enemy. Most likely they were powered down with just passive sensors online. We wouldn't have been able to detect them as we passed even if we'd known where to look.

"Our friends have come out to play, after all," observed Miles on his and Jadon's private channel.

"Looks like it," agreed Jadon, as the lance turned to meet its foes. He'd been right; the unusually light defenses at the airbase had been a set-up. And they'd walked right into it.

"Oh hell, there's more of them coming the other way!" spat Vince, as the four threat icons were joined by another three.

Jadon sympathised with his deputy's frustration. It was galling to think that the success of their attack on the airfield had not been due to any cunning or skill on their part, but merely because their enemy had laid a trap they hadn't even suspected until it was too late. But things weren't quite as bad as they could have been. Judging by the relative distances between his lance and the forces behind and in front of them, they had sprung the trap earlier than intended. Instead of catching his lance in a crushing pincer movement, the now-rearward force was still several miles behind.

Which gave Jadon a precious few minutes to even the odds. He opened the command channel.

"Take out as many of them as possible while it's still four-on-four. Concentrate your fire, and cover your wingmate. Vince, you two take the closest walker, we'll go for his partner. Hit them hard and fast." He throttled the Conqueror into a run, letting loose with his main gun as his target drifted into his sights. Miles followed suit, the double impact shattering armour plates and leaving a smoking hole in its wake. Crimson light flared as Jadon and Miles both sighted their laser turrets on the gaping wound, stabbing deep into the Matador's innards and coring out its powerplant. In an eyeblink the walker was no more, as the fusion bottle powering the great machine let go its pent-up energies in a massive blast.

Jadon turned in time to see Vince's Conqueror take a ruby lance in the shoulder, rendering his primary weapon system useless. Vince responded in kind, the pulses of his laser turret chewing into the short-range missile launcher that sat atop the "head" of his foe. Jadon grimaced. Where was Jennifer? He found his deputy's wingmate firing upon another Matador.

"Dammit, Jenny, I said concentrate your fire!" he barked, as he twisted his walker's torso to put another high-explosive round into the chest of the nearest target. His own wingmate followed his lead with a hail of laser fire, and a second Matador died.

"S-sorry, sir!" yelped Jennifer, the adrenaline rush making her voice waver.

"Ignore that one, and help Vince!" ordered Jadon. Like you should have been doing, he didn't add.

"I-Ignore it? But-"

"That's an order! We're covering you, okay?"

Jennifer finally obeyed, her smoothbore cannon belching fire. Too late.

"Arrghh, not again!" The cockpit of Vince's Conqueror blew outwards, an ejection pod rocketing out through the smoke. At least he managed to eject, thought Jadon. He and Miles fired almost as one, laser pulses ripping through the already wounded Matador that had dispatched Vince to send it crashing to the ground. Three down, four to go. We might actually make-

Alarms blared as a fusillade of missiles detonated all over his lance. The second force had caught up with them, and was making its presence known with deadly effect. Jadon swore as Jennifer's walker blew up, targeted simultaneously by all three of the newcomers.

"Stay with me, Miles," he commed. At least his wingmate could be counted on to follow orders. His Conqueror shook as more missiles found their mark, raining armour shards to the ground.

"Yes, boss," replied his wingmate.

Coherent light blazed across the gap between the two Conquerors and their enemies, splashing molten armour across the grassy plain on which they fought. High explosive rounds answered missile salvoes, their detonations sending fountains of smoke and debris into the air. From outside, the jinking walkers looked to be performing some kind of bizarre dance as they manoeuvred for a clear shot while desperately trying to throw off their opponents' aim.

Deftly Jadon spun his walker round, lining up his weapons on the closest Matador. He pulled the trigger, compensating smoothly for the recoil of the big cannon making up his Conqueror's right arm. The round connected solidly with the enemy walker's right hip, twisting it into a mangled ruin and freezing it solid. The Matador stumbled as the sudden lack of movement almost tripped the big machine, and then Jadon's laser turret discharged into the same spot a heartbeat later, its focused energy eating further into the joint and melting away what remained of its internal structure. Weight and inertia did the rest as the Matador's next step demanded more than the joint could give, and the right leg sheared off at the hip, dropping the walker to the ground.

Jadon glanced at the armour readouts for his and Miles' walkers as he sought his next target. I have less than 20 in places, and Miles' walker's in even worse shape. As if on cue, his wingmate's radar icon winked out. Jadon clenched his jaw. He wasn't going to last long now, not against three walkers, but if he was going down he was determined to take at least one more enemy with him.

His threat indicator screamed a warning as all three remaining Matadors targeted him with short-range missiles. Jadon rode out the storm, the stream of explosions shaking him violently in his harness. More alarms blared, clamouring for his attention. He quickly slapped at their shutoff switches, not needing their input to know that his Conqueror wouldn't survive the next salvo. There were but moments to make a telling shot. He stopped jinking the walker altogether, throwing off his opponents' aim long enough for him to drop his crosshair over the most heavily damaged Matador. Linking the fire controls for both weapon systems with the flick of a switch, Jadon mashed the trigger, a savage growl erupting from his throat.

"Say goodnight."

- - - - - - - -

"What the hell do you call that?!" Jadon demanded as he joined his lancemates at a table in the simulator facility's lounge. This was the fourth time in three weeks that they had failed their mission in the gaming phenomenon known as "Peril", a computer game which pitted thousands of players from all over the world against each other in a massive team-based war. While almost anyone with a high-speed Internet connection and the right computer hardware could join in from home, the introduction of pay-to-play simulator facilities such as this one were what had made the game so compelling, and an instant hit. The cockpit pods in which they had been playing were each mounted on a set of hydraulic jacks that created the illusion of movement for the occupant. There was nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of actually being jerked around in your cockpit as your walker took a hit, and there were few who, having experienced it, could go back to playing the game at home. With wraparound high resolution screens, full surround-sound, and high-speed networking capabilities, the pods made for the most realistic gaming experience money could buy.

Money Jadon had no mind to waste by always losing.

"Well?" he pressed, when no-one answered.

Miles regarded him steadily. "We were ambushed by a superior force. We did our best, but got beaten. What else is there to say?"

Jadon shook his head, his mouth set. "No, we didn't do our best, did we?" he countered, addressing the question to his second-in-command. Vince looked up with a hint of challenge in his eyes.

"We're not all as good as you, J."

Jadon held his gaze for a moment. "I don't expect you to be. I do, however, expect you to follow orders." He turned to Jennifer, who appeared to be endlessly fascinated with a spot on the table. "What happened out there, Jenny? Why weren't you assisting Vince?"

"I.. um... we-"

"I told her to take her own target," interrupted Vince.

Jadon couldn't believe his ears. "You what?!"

"I told her to take her own target," Vince repeated, his voice hard-edged. "I thought we could even the odds quicker, stop them from ganging up on us. Seemed like a good idea at the time."

"It wasn't. It was a stupid idea. Like last week, when you–"

"Hey!" cut in Miles, causing both men to face him. "There's no need to be like that."

Jadon glared at his wingmate, ignoring Vince's snicker. "You, of all people, should agree with me here, Miles! How many times have we run comparisons between fighting as individuals and combining fire on single targets? You know how effective it is to work together. That's why we were the only ones who ended up taking down any Matadors. Had Vince and Jenny stayed together and combined their fire like I told them to, we might have had a chance of beating them."

Vince scowled. "Yeah, right. They outnumbered us almost two-to-one. We 'd lost the moment you took us into that ambush."

It took a great deal of control on his part, but Jadon chose to ignore that last comment. "We took down five of them, at the final count. Five! If just one of you had survived a bit longer – which you would have, had you not separated – I think we could have done it. Even if we'd eventually lost, it wouldn't have been due to any fault of ours." He couldn't help adding a barb of his own, "They weren't that good, you know." Well, he reflected angrily, it's true. They weren't.

"Maybe," said Miles. "But you don't have to be so high-and-mighty about it."

Jadon was indignant. "I'm not being high-and-mighty, Mr. Thinks-he-knows-it-all here" - he gestured at his deputy – "is."

"Go to hell," spat Vince, and shoved his chair back, standing to leave. He pointed a finger at Jadon. "Get a life. It's only a game, for goodness sake." Abruptly he turned and strode out the room.

Jadon stared at the lounge doors through which Vince had just exited for a moment, then began to rise from his seat. A hand on his arm stopped him.

"Leave him, J," Jennifer said quietly. "I'll talk to him later. He'll get over it soon enough."

Jadon slumped in his chair, his anger deflating like a burst balloon. He hadn't meant to be quite so... demeaning. "I'm sorry, Jenny," - he looked at each of his friends as he spoke - "Miles. I just... take being your lance leader seriously, and sometimes I wish Vince would too. I know we could be good – really good – if we all pull our weight." He sighed. "I suppose I do forget it's just a game sometimes."

"Sometimes?" said Miles. Jadon looked up sharply, but his wingmate was smiling, and he made an effort to respond in kind.

"Yeah, sometimes." He stood up. "Look, guys, I'm gonna go for a swim." The simulator facility was just a small part of an expansive leisure complex, complete with a 16-screen cinema, numerous restaurants, and even an Olympic-sized swimming pool, the last of which Jadon often used after a sim session. The water always helped him to relax. Hopefully today would be no different.

"Okay, J," replied Miles. He hesitated.

"Just say what's on your mind, Miles," said Jadon wearily. "I probably need to hear it."

Miles nodded. "Just... try to be a little more forgiving of people's mistakes, okay? You came down pretty hard on Vince there."

Jadon took a deep breath, stilling the instinct to defend himself. "Thanks, I'll bear that in mind," he replied. He locked eyes with his friends, grateful for their acceptance. "See you next week," he said, before turning to leave.

"Bye."

- - - - - - - -

Jadon came to a rest at the poolside, relishing the soothing warmth of the water. The pool was unusually empty for this time of day, and for the last twenty minutes he had thought of nothing other than his strokes, his mind and body settling into a relaxing rhythm as he swam length after length unhindered. Now, with his emotions steady and once more under firm control, he began to replay the afternoon's simulator session and its aftermath in his mind.

He couldn't fault his lance's lightning attack on the airfield. They had each destroyed their assigned targets, just as ordered. The light resistance helped, of course, but nonetheless they had worked as the team they were training to be. But then they had walked – or rather, he had led them – into the ambush.

Jadon pushed off from the pool wall into a fluid backstroke, his eyes not focusing on the swimming pool roof above him as he continued to analyse his and his lance's actions. He had been wary after destroying the airfield, and rightfully so. That wariness meant he wasn't as surprised as his friends had been when the Matadors had powered up. But he didn't really blame them for that. He was by far the most experienced member of the lance, and their enemies had never tried to trap them before; they preferred a more direct, in-your-face conflict. He had responded to the threat quickly and decisively, giving his lance orders that were right for the situation and leading by example.

No, there wasn't a lot he could have done differently to effect any other outcome. Oh, one could argue that he shouldn't have assumed that the single walker's lancemates had been in the docking bay when it was pulled down by Vince and Jennifer, but it wouldn't have changed much in the way of his lance's deployment pattern during their egress. They would have been a little more prepared, perhaps, to face the first force. That was about it.

Rather, the primary reason they had been beaten was Vince's inexplicable countermanding of his order for the combat pairs to stay together and concentrate their fire. A lengthy exchange of blows, each whittling away more precious armour, was no good when you were outnumbered. You had to reduce the odds stacked against you, quickly, and the only way to do that was to take down each individual as fast as possible. The sooner that was accomplished, the fresher your armour would be when facing the next foe.

Jadon recalled the defiance he had heard in Vince's voice, and with scathing honesty admitted to himself that he could have handled the confrontation better. His second-in-command didn't like being wrong. Well, neither did Jadon. But Vince screwed up royally this afternoon, and he had to start taking responsibility for his faults. Micro-management was the last thing Jadon wanted to do, but if he couldn't rely on his second-in-command to follow simple orders then it would be difficult to trust him to act wisely if the occasion ever called for leaving the other pair to work on their own initiative.

And it would. Given a bit more cohesion, their lance would soon be moving up the ranks, which in turn would prompt their regional commander to give them more difficult assignments. If they could make it into the top 50 lances in their region, they'd have a chance of being selected for tryouts for the primary strike teams – the Elites. That was where the glory and prestige were to be found. With the introduction of televised Elite missions, "Peril" was beginning to draw a substantial number of spectators, and there was even talk of corporate sponsorship and possible financial reward for the very best lances.

Jadon's jaw tightened. Vince would have to be replaced as second-in-command. He wouldn't like it, but that was tough luck. Simulator time didn't come cheap, and it was unfair to hold Miles and Jennifer back from being part of the team Jadon knew both of them wanted, especially when they were all putting a significant portion of their time and income into the game.

Jadon stopped swimming and closed his eyes, allowing his body to drift in the water while he considered the ramifications. Vince would probably see the demotion as a personal insult on Jadon's part and leave the team outright. That would make it difficult for the three remaining to progress in the game until they found a suitable replacement – with an understrength lance they would soon be relegated to the backwater assignments. But if Miles was made deputy and Jennifer was switched to being Jadon's wingmate, rather than just swapping Vince with Miles, then maybe Vince could be persuaded to stay with them a little longer. Perhaps that would be the key to getting Vince to take the game a little more seriously...

Water filled Jadon's nose and mouth, making him choke, and his body surged to an upright position as he coughed the water from his lungs. Looking round, he spotted the lithe form of a female swimmer executing a flip turn at the nearby end of the pool, and realised that he had come very close to drifting into her path. Her wake had caused the water wave that choked him. She powered towards him, still underwater, and he hastily moved himself out of her way as she surfaced, her arms pulling with powerful strokes. Jadon observed the swimmer appreciatively, noting the apparent effortlessness with which she moved through the water. She sure can swim well. Almost unconsciously he kicked himself into motion, swimming breaststroke so as to keep her in sight, but moments later stopped himself, feeling foolish. Twenty-three years old, and you're stalking a complete stranger like a pubescent teenager with a silly crush. Treading water, he grimaced before flipping onto his back and settling into a steady backstroke, away from the unknown swimmer.

- - - - - - - -

Jadon stepped out of the changing room showers, his towel around his waist, and found his locker. Unlocking it, he pulled out his clothes and quickly changed. He had just bundled his swimwear and towel into his gymsack when his mobile phone chirped. It was a text message from his father, replying to the message Jadon had sent before he entered the pool. Mr Levine's route home from work passed close to the leisure complex, so Jadon had asked for a lift. It would save him the trouble of getting the bus.

He checked the locker and his surroundings for anything he had forgotten, before leaving the changing rooms. On the way out he checked his appearance in a wall mirror, idly wondering whether the female swimmer he had seen earlier was a regular visitor to the pool. Not that you know what she actually looks like, he thought to himself. The only identifying features he had noticed were her dark hair and trim figure. On the other hand, she shouldn't be too hard to spot next time I'm here. There can't be many swimmers as good as she is.

Jadon glanced at his watch as he entered the brightly lit central foyer of the leisure complex. His father would be here in a little over fifteen minutes, time enough to get something to drink. Making his way to the nearest café, a popular open-plan establishment with a good view of the main foyer, he bought a bottle of still fruit juice and settled himself at a suitably placed high bar table to wait.

"Jadon Levine?"

Jadon turned at the unfamiliar voice to see a man about his age standing at his left shoulder. The man's dark brown hair was cut short, and his blue-grey eyes gazed searchingly into Jadon's own. For a moment Jadon wondered whether the man was an employee of the leisure complex, but dismissed the thought as he noted the lack of a logo on the man's navy-blue short-sleeved shirt.

"Yes, I'm Jadon Levine," he replied cautiously. He was sure he'd never seen this man before, so how did he know his name? "Can I help you?"

The man held out his hand. "My name is Arkadiy," he said, without the trace of an accent. Jadon accepted the proffered handshake with a nod, racking his brains for an explanation. Did this man know him from the simulator? Perhaps he was a fellow gamer, or maybe even a recruiter, looking for gamers to add to his regiment. Although, Jadon quickly decided, if that was the case he wouldn't accept unless the others in his lance could join too.

The man gestured behind Jadon. "My... friend would like to meet you," he said.

Jadon frowned, picking up on the tiny hesitation in the man's voice, but before he could voice a question he sensed someone walk up beside him. Twisting in his seat, he caught his breath as he found himself looking at the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She was of medium height, with damp, jet-black, wavy hair falling just past her shoulders and startlingly blue eyes that danced with a hint of what Jadon placed as either amusement or excitement. A smile tugged at the corners of the girl's mouth as she held his gaze silently for a moment before offering her hand in greeting.

"Hello," said the girl, in the same unaccented English as her companion. She shifted the rucksack slung over her shoulder into a more comfortable position. "I'm Sezja. Jadon Levine, I presume?"

"Yeah, that's me." Jadon shook her outstretched hand, watching her intently. Wow, she's stunning, he thought to himself, then felt the heat rise in his cheeks as the man beside him stiffened almost imperceptibly. He mentally kicked himself. Way to go, ogling her like that – she's probably his girlfriend. If so, he's one lucky guy. He gave the man a quick sidelong glance before turning back to the girl. Or maybe she's his sister? He had said "friend", but there were enough similarities in the facial structure, and both had dark hair.

The girl cleared her throat, jolting Jadon out of his thoughts. He blushed, more deeply this time, as he released her hand, and gave her his best smile. "Pleased to meet you," he said. "I'm pretty sure we've never met before, so how do you both know my name?"

"We were-"

"Jadon!"

All three turned at the interruption. A tall, powerfully built man with light brown hair was striding purposefully towards them.

"Oh, hi Dad," said Jadon, as the man reached the café.

"Hey, son," he replied, before looking at Jadon's two companions. "Hello, I'm Avi," he said, reaching out to shake their hands in turn.

"Arkadiy."

"Sezja."

"Pleased to meet you. You're friends of Jadon?"

"Actually, we've only just met, Dad," said Jadon, before either Arkadiy or Sezja replied.

Avi turned to his son. "Oh? Are they gamers too?"

"No, Arkadiy just walked up to me a few minutes ago while I was sitting here, waiting for you. Sezja..." Jadon looked at her, his brow creasing as a sudden thought occurred to him. Damp hair... "Hey, didn't I... um... see you in the swimming pool?"

She just smiled, and Jadon felt himself grinning back. So she's the mystery swimmer.

"Jadon?" asked Avi bemusedly.

Jadon's body twitched, and he hurriedly turned back to his father.

"Oh, um, well, I was in the pool, and Sezja was swimmi-"

Arkadiy broke in with a stream of words in a language Jadon didn't understand. To his great surprise and alarm, his father stiffened in obvious comprehension.

"What–" began Jadon, his eyes flicking between Avi and Arkadiy in confusion. His father compounded Jadon's astonishment by replying to Arkadiy in the same language.

Jadon tried again. "How–"

"Hang on, Jadon," interrupted Avi, before continuing his conversation with Arkadiy. Jadon turned to Sezja, his eyebrows raised, but she just gave him a look of sympathy that only served to unsettle him more. What on earth? She obviously understood what his father was saying to Arkadiy, but didn't appear to want to clue Jadon in.

Recognition suddenly flickered at the edge of Jadon's consciousness, startling him. Eh? He focused on his father's voice. There it was again. He shut his eyes tightly, fighting to grasp the wisp of memory, to solidify it and bring it to full comprehension, but it evaded him. His eyes sprang open as Arkadiy and his father finished their conversation, and he looked up at Avi expectantly.

"Let's go, son," said Avi. "We need to tell your mother the news."

He sounds serious, thought Jadon as he slid from his stool and slung his gymsack over one shoulder. "What news?"

"You're needed at home."

"What? Dad, you're not making any sense."

Avi placed a hand on his son's shoulder. "Come on. I'll explain in the car."

Jadon turned to Sezja. "It was nice-"

"They're coming with us," said Avi.

Jadon shot a confused glance at his father, then shrugged. "Okay, then." There was evidently some kind of link between these two strangers and his father, and perhaps his mother, too. What it was, he couldn't imagine, but for now he'd just have to wait and see.

"Well," said Avi, "let's go, shall we? Follow me."

- - - - - - - -

Jadon, sitting next to his father, was the first to break the silence that had fallen across the car's occupants as they drove towards the Levine's home.

"So what's going on?"

For a long moment Avi said nothing. Jadon watched his father bite his lip, before Avi sighed. Jadon's stomach tightened in anticipation.

"There's no easy way to say this, son. Your Mum and I were going to tell you when you turned 25, but it seems that events have interrupted our nicely laid plans."

Jadon's eyes narrowed. "Dad, don't beat around the bush, please? Just tell me, whatever it is."

His father glanced at him apologetically. "Sorry." He hesitated.

"Dad!"

"Okay, okay. Sorry." He took a deep breath. "Jadon, this planet – Earth – it's not our home."

"What?! Dad, I'm serious!"

"So am I."

Jadon couldn't believe his ears. How could Earth not be their home? "So what are you saying? That we're aliens, extra-terrestrials from another galaxy somewhere in the far reaches of space?"

The barest hint of a smile flickered across Avi's face, and then it was gone. "Something like that, yeah."

"What?! You're kidding, right?"

"No, I'm not kidding."

Jadon leaned back in his seat disbelievingly. His father wasn't making any sense. Jadon gazed at Avi as he drove, watching for any sign of hidden humour that would indicate a big set-up, but there was nothing. If anything, he looked far more serious than usual. His features were outwardly calm, but Jadon could see by the firmly set jaw and eyes staring intently ahead that his father was deep in concentration. He was probably praying too, knowing him, not that Jadon put any weight in prayer. He'd abandoned his parents' faith years ago, seeing religion as more a hindrance than a help to mankind.

What is this all about? Jadon asked himself. And where do Arkadiy and Sezja fit in? He thought back to the leisure centre café; Avi hadn't seemed to recognise them until Arkadiy started speaking in whatever language he used, which would indicate against this being some elaborate pre-planned joke at Jadon's expense. But what other explanation was there? Jadon knew that his father could be a good actor when he wanted to, and the two strangers sitting in the back of the car were obviously involved somehow. A new thought occurred to him. Perhaps this was his parents' way of introducing their son to some new friends; they had always encouraged him to socialise more as he was growing up, but he'd never found any his age with whom he really connected. It was certainly a strange way to go about it, though. Jadon decided to test his theory.

"Dad?"

"Yes, son?"

"How do you know Sezja and Arkadiy?"

"What do you mean? I'd never met them before, until about 10 minutes ago."

"Oh, come on, Dad. This has to be some kind of joke, right?"

Avi shook his head. "No joke."

Jadon could feel his frustration begin to mount. He took a deep breath to steady himself.

"Look, I get it. You or Mum met these two, thought it'd be good for me to make some new friends my age, and set this all up with them. I go to the sim, they 'just happen' to meet me, and then you turn up. Bingo."

Avi sighed heavily. "I'm sorry, Jadon, I'm telling you the truth. Sezja and Arkadiy are friends of a friend, but-"

"Which friend?" interrupted Jadon. Aha! he thought to himself. Now we're getting somewhere. "Anyone I know?"

"No, not yet, anyway. I'll explain later, okay?"

"So you didn't arrange this meeting with them?"

"No, I didn't. Why would I?"

Jadon grimaced, unable to believe his father's reply. I'd like to know that, too, he told Avi silently. He was tiring quickly of this game. How long was his father going to keep it up?

"Look, I know this is all a bit much to take in-"

"A bit much?!" spluttered Jadon. "Too right it's a bit much! Do you know how ludicrous it sounds, to tell me that I'm from another planet? You don't expect me to believe I'm not human, do you?"

"No, I didn't say you weren't human." Avi glanced in his mirror. "One of you can probably explain better than I can."

Sezja nodded. "Jadon, you – we – are from the nation of Elsariy, on the planet Dama," she began, as Jadon twisted in his seat to watch her.

"Yeah, sure," he scoffed.

"Let her finish," grunted Arkadiy. Jadon shot him a dark look, but refrained from making a comment.

"Have you heard of the Day of Confusion?" continued Sezja, ignoring the interruption. Jadon looked at her blankly.

"The Tower of Babel, son," put in Avi.

"Thank you," said Sezja.

Jadon nodded. "Yeah, I know the story. What about it?"

"We trace the history of our planet back to that day. When Elyon-"

"God," offered Avi.

"God, then," Sezja agreed, "when God confused the language of mankind, He also took several families away from Earth, and put them on what we know as Dama. So, you see, we are definitely fully human."

"Well, that's a relief," said Jadon sarcastically.

"It's the truth," stated Sezja, her crystal-blue gaze piercing Jadon's soul. He shifted uncomfortably, slightly unnerved by her sudden intensity, then shook his head. The notion was preposterous, however sincerely she said it.

"You're mad," he laughed, and raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "But I admit, it's a good story. Bravo, whoever came up with that one." He glanced round the car, forcing a smile to his lips. "Good acting, everyone. You can stop now."

Sezja caught him again with her gaze, the tiniest of frowns creasing her lovely features. He stared back for a long moment, and then his face abruptly hardened. "Alright, that's enough!" he snapped. "Whatever game you're all playing, it's not funny anymore, okay?"

"Son, it's not–"

Jadon clenched his jaw, barely stopping himself from swearing at his father. "Stop it, for goodness sake!" he yelled. "I'm fed up of–"

Arkadiy erupted with a single foreign word, his voice cracking like a whip. In the silence that followed Jadon slowly sank back in his seat, his mind whirling. Without thinking, he had understood the command – to be quiet – and had obeyed. He glanced at Arkadiy, who just looked back at him calmly. Was it just the tone of voice that he had responded to? He didn't think so; the phrase itself had triggered his reaction, in the same way but more strongly than his father's voice had earlier at the café. That meant he had heard it before, somehow. But it didn't sound like any language he was able to speak – French, German, Italian, the little Russian he had picked up from a friend at school when he was younger – so how had he recognised it?

Jadon looked round at Arkadiy. "Just then, what did you say?" he asked.

"You know what I said," answered Arkadiy.

"Humour me."

"I told you to be quiet."

Jadon nodded slowly. A lucky guess on my part, or did I actually understand him? "Okay, and what language were you speaking? I've never heard it before."

"Yes you have," said Avi.

Jadon turned to his father. "When?"

"When you were younger. It's Elsariyan, our home language." Sensing Jadon about to protest, he placed a hand on his son's arm, adding quickly, "Look, I know you think I'm having a big joke at your expense, but I'm really not. This is serious. Please just accept it for now-"

"Accept it?!"

"Okay, not accept... um... just try to look at things with the assumption that we're telling you the truth, as fantastic as that sounds. See which makes more sense – that we're just having you on, or that it really is true."

Which makes more sense, thought Jadon, that I'm not really from Earth but from some galaxy far, far away, or that Dad's set up an elaborate prank? The answer seemed a no-brainer. Except that Dad's not one for spinning out a joke for so long, especially when it provokes such a reaction. And, he added to himself, not only are two strangers involved, but I somehow also know something of the language they're speaking. He pondered his father's explanation. It seemed reasonable, and certainly explained why Jadon had reacted to Arkadiy the way he did. I'm sure I was often told to "Be quiet!" as a young child, but it doesn't mean I'm an extra-terrestrial! Maybe I'm just not English. That made a lot more sense, but why would his parents want to hide his identity from him? And why this nonsense about "Elsariy"? He'd never heard of such a place.

His father's voice broke into his thoughts. "Jadon, there's much to explain. But we'll have plenty of time at home. I promise you'll hear everything, okay?"

Jadon nodded tightly, fed up with trying to work out what was going on; it only led to even more questions. He needed some answers.

Avi stopped the car. "We're here now. Everybody out."

- - - - - - - -

"Mum! We're home!" called Jadon, stepping into his house. As he had countless times before, he wondered once again why his family lived in such a large home when he was the only child. The long hallway led to an open-plan kitchen-diner and bathroom at the rear of the building, the front being mostly taken up by a spacious living room. Upstairs there were two generously-sized bedrooms, another big bathroom, and his parents' huge master bedroom. It all seemed a bit excessive, but he was grateful for the space.

"How was the game?" Rachel Levine greeted her son with a smile as she exited the kitchen, a damp plate and tea-towel in her hands. She took a moment to accept Jadon's quick hug before drying the plate.

"Great, until we got ambushed and Vince got himself and Jenny blown up," replied Jadon with a scowl.

"Oh dear."

"Rach, this is Arkadiy and Sezja," said Avi, as they entered the house. He closed the front door behind them.

"Pleased to meet you both," said Rachel, throwing the towel over her shoulder and offering her now free hand in greeting. "Are you friends of Jadon?"

"They have news, love. From home," said Avi, before the visitors could reply.

Rachel looked up sharply at her husband. "From home?" He nodded. "Well," said Rachel after a second's hesitation, "why don't you all go and make yourself comfortable in the living room. Let me put this plate away and I'll join you in a moment. Would you like anything to drink?"

Arkadiy shook his head. "No, thank you."

"Some water would be nice," said Sezja.

"Avi?"

"Tea, please. I won't have much of a chance to drink it again."

Jadon regarded his father with narrowed eyes. What is he going on about? He followed Rachel into the kitchen as Avi led their guests to the living room. Maybe his mother would be more straightforward with him.

"Mum?"

"Hmm?"

"Why is Dad acting so strangely?"

"What do you mean?"

"Just now, the whole 'I'm not going to be able to drink tea again' thing."

"Why don't you ask him?"

Jadon snorted. "Like that's going to get me anywhere."

"What did he tell you?"

"That I'm an alien from the planet Dama," replied Jadon, a look of disgust on his face. "Pah! I can't believe I'm even telling you this, it sounds so ridiculous. And somehow he's roped those two out there" – he gestured in the direction of the living room – "to join him in the big joke. I can't convince any of them to give it up; whatever I say, they just give me a new cock-and-bull story."

Rachel flicked the switch on the kettle and turned to face her son with troubled eyes. "That's because there is no joke, J," she said.

Jadon stared at his mother, his stomach twisting painfully. "Not you too!" he managed, after several seconds.

She reached out to him. "I know it's all very sudden, but you jus-"

"I don't believe it," said Jadon through clenched teeth, shaking his head.

"Jadon, please."

He backed away. "No, Mum. Don't do this. I don't want to hear it, okay? Enough with the charade. It's over."

"Listen to me, J," implored his mother, "I'm serious. We were going to tell you-"

"NO!" exploded Jadon, his eyes flashing with anger and pain. How could his mother keep this up? Didn't she see he was fed up with it? "I'm not going to listen to any more of it," he ground out, fighting for control. "Talk to me when you've decided to stop the make-believe and tell me what the hell is going on, okay?" He turned on his heel and headed for his room.

"What was that about?" Avi asked his wife, as Jadon brushed past him in the hallway.

Rachel turned to Avi, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "He doesn't believe us."

Avi took her in his arms. "It's a lot for him to take in."

"We should have told him years ago, when he was younger," observed his wife sadly, as she relaxed in her husband's embrace.

"I know, love. But he'll come round soon enough, once we get to Elsariy. He'll have no choice."

"Have our guests said much? We weren't expecting anyone for some years yet."

"Not really. Apparently Dueja's been building up its military again. Nothing unusual, the girl said, except that Navon obviously thinks something's different this time. He sent them."

Rachel smiled as she remembered Elsariy's primary religious leader. Navon had been a close friend of Rachel and Avi's families for as long as both could remember. He had been a constant reassuring presence throughout their lives, and particularly during the turmoil of the years that had led to their escape to Earth. The smile faded as she wondered about what could have caused Navon to call Jadon back so much earlier than expected.

"Elyon has all things under control," Avi murmured into his wife's hair, sensing her concern.

"I know," she whispered back. Elyon. The Most High, the Almighty, the Creator of all things. God, as they knew Him here. His Spirit was a flame burning brightly within her soul, steadfast and sure, an unshakeable anchor in the midst of all that life could throw at her. Rachel sent up a brief prayer for strength before easing out of her husband's arms and moving over to the wall cupboard. A minute later she handed Avi a tray with a mug of steaming tea, a glass of water, and a plate of cookies.

"Here, you take these into the living room. I'll go and find Jadon."

"Okay," replied Avi, leaning in to kiss her on the cheek. "See you in a bit."

- - - - - - - -

"Jadon?"

Jadon raised his eyebrows at his mother, standing in the doorway to his room.

"Come down, J." She spoke softly, but her voice was firm. "At least give us the courtesy of listening to what we have to say. And your friends-"

"They're not my friends," snapped Jadon. "I'd never seen them before, until today."

"Well, they're our guests. You're being quite rude, sitting up here."

He shrugged. "They're part of whatever game you and Dad are playing. Why should I listen to them?"

"You really think we'd make this up?"

A pang went through Jadon as he caught the hurt in her voice. He grit his teeth. "You can't expect me to believe it's true."

"But why would we do such a thing? What purpose would carrying it on like this achieve?"

Jadon hesitated, his eyes locking with his mother's. After several seconds he looked away, shrugging again. "You tell me." Inside, he squirmed uncomfortably. He'd asked himself the same question, without coming to a satisfactory answer. In all his years, his parents had never taken a joke this far.

Rachel took a step into her son's room, then thought better of it. "Come down when you're ready," she said, before leaving.

Jadon heard the doorbell ring as his mother descended the stairs. "I'll get it!" she called. Wondering who it was, Jadon left his room and made his way to the top of the staircase. From there he could see their visitor, a man in a business suit who looked to be in his mid-thirties. Jadon strained to hear his mother's voice. He frowned. How odd, she's speaking "Elsariyan". For the first time that afternoon, a flicker of doubt crossed his mind. More friends come to join the game?

He sensed rather than saw the minute change in the visitor's posture. It telegraphed itself to Jadon's mind, sending a surge of adrenaline through his body. The warning that rose in his throat was choked off by his mother's scream as a silenced pistol appeared in the man's hand, spitting death once, twice, three times.

Jadon watched in horror as his mother slumped to the floor, and then his father came barreling out of the living room, a cry of concern on his lips. From his vantage point at the top of the stairs Jadon could see what Avi could not – the gunman turning towards the sound, his weapon raised before him. With the element of surprise on his side, there was no way he would miss.

Jadon made a sudden decision.

"Hey!" he yelled.

The gunman spun towards Jadon, the gun in his hand rising automatically to meet the new threat. Then a powerful arm grabbed the stranger from behind, slamming him sideways into the wall. Human head met solid brick and he collapsed, unconscious.

"Mum!" Jadon flung himself down the stairs and knelt beside Rachel, his stomach lurching sickeningly as his eyes fell on the three dark red blotches slowly staining her cream-coloured blouse. "Oh no, no, please no," he mumbled as he stared at the wounds. Taking a deep breath and willing himself not to panic, he looked round for his father. "Dad! Call 999! Quickly!" Jadon turned back to Rachel, reaching out to brush a lock of hair away from her face. "Hang in there, Mum, we're going to get help," he said, straining to keep his voice steady.

"No, son," urged his mother, reaching up to grasp his arm. "Don't worry about me. You must get to safety, to Elsariy."

Jadon shook his head adamantly. "We can't just leave you!"

Rachel struggled to speak through a sudden tightness in her chest, her voice so soft that Jadon had to bend down close to hear. "Yes, you can! You must. That man... He was..."

Her eyes moved to look past Jadon's shoulder, and he twisted round to see his father crouching beside him. Avi took his wife's hand, their fingers intertwining tightly.

"I love you, Rachel," he said softly, pressing her hand to his lips.

"I love you too," she murmured in reply, her eyelids fluttering as she took a rasping breath. Rachel gazed into her husband's eyes for a long moment, gathering her final reserves of strength. "Jadon's in danger... get him home," she whispered fiercely, and then her eyes closed forever.

Avi leaned over to slowly plant a tender kiss on his wife's forehead. "Goodbye, my love."

Jadon stared at his mother's prone form in disbelief. She couldn't be gone, not just like that. "Mum?" He reached out a hand and gently shook her shoulder. "Mum!" he cried, sudden dread breaking over him in an icy wave. "She's just fainted," he muttered as he hurriedly felt for her pulse. Nothing. "No, this can't be..." He bent his ear over her mouth, searching desperately for some sign of life. "She's not... she can't be... no!"

"Jadon," said Avi heavily, taking hold of his son's arm. Jadon shrugged him off, his vision blurring as he checked Rachel's airway again. Nothing. A keening wail broke from his lips.

"Noooo!"

"Jadon, come on, son." Silent tears were rolling down Avi's cheeks as he reached again for Jadon, who resisted for a moment before allowing himself to be pulled into his father's embrace.

"Why, Dad?" he choked.

"I don't know, J." He hesitated. "But Elyon knows."

Jadon didn't reply, unwilling to start an argument with his father at such a time. But inwardly he sneered at the words. Elyon knows. If that's the case, why didn't He stop it from happening? Why did Mum die?"

"Avi?"

Both men looked up to see Sezja crouching beside them, her expression a mixture of sadness and concern.

"I'm sorry," she said apologetically, "but it's not safe here. Arkadiy found something." She looked over to the living room doorway. "Arkadiy?"

Arkadiy nodded, rising from beside the still-unconscious killer's body. "We must go, right now," he stated. He was met by the impassive gazes of both Levines. He grimaced at their lack of response. "Listen," he said carefully, holding up what looked like a small plastic box in his right hand. "I found this on our attacker. It's the unit for a two-way radio, which means that there are others out there. Whoever these people are, they've already proved their willingness to kill. We must get to safety. Now!"

Avi seemed to shake himself, and then he just nodded, rose silently to his feet, and hurried up the staircase. He returned a moment later with a Benelli M3 and a box of shells in his hands. Jadon's eyes widened at the sight as his father deftly loaded the semi-automatic shotgun before stuffing his trouser pockets with spare shells. The distinctive clunk-click as he cycled the weapon was an ominous reminder of the sudden brutality that had invaded their lives.

"Where did you get that, Dad?" asked Jadon.

"Not important, son," replied Avi. "Arkadiy's right – we need to get out of here." He turned to their guests. "Let's pray, then, shall we?"

Jadon gaped. Pray?! Now?! Arkadiy and Sezja just nodded and joined hands. They bowed their heads.

Before a word could be spoken the front door blew inwards in a cloud of smoke, slamming Avi to the floor. He landed heavily but rolled to bring himself into a kneeling stance, his gun at the ready, just as a black-clothed figure charged into the house. The shotgun roared, firing a heavy slug point-blank into the intruder's chest. A second figure following close behind almost suffered the same fate as Avi pulled the trigger again, the M3's inertia-driven reloading mechanism chambering another round within a fraction of a second. He missed and the figure ducked back, out of sight.

"Move!" yelled Avi, sending another blast out the front doorway.

Jadon stumbled as he rose to his feet, his mind struggling to comprehend the sudden chaos. A strong hand caught his arm before he fell, and he turned to see his father beside him as they scrambled for safety. Avi's face was grim, his jaw set. "Head for the kitchen," he commanded.

"Are you crazy?" protested Jadon. "Where will we go from there?!" Their rear garden had no back entrance and thus no way of escape.

"Elsariy," replied his father, spinning round to loose off another round from the M3.

"What? Bu-" He was interrupted by Avi's yell as someone poked a gun round the front door frame and opened up on full automatic.

"Get down!"

Avi suited action to words, throwing himself at Jadon as Arkadiy and Sezja dropped to the floor ahead of them. He grunted as a bullet grazed his thigh, then, hearing the click as the enemy weapon emptied its magazine, nimbly rolled off his son and stood. Hauling Jadon to his feet with one hand, Avi aimed the shotgun in the direction of their unseen assailants with the other, pulling the trigger repeatedly.

"Go! I'm right behind you," he yelled over the boom of the M3. Together the four of them ran into the kitchen, Avi slamming the door shut. Dropping the shotgun on the counter, he grabbed the nearest chair and jammed it under the door handle before striding over to the big dining table and pushing it in front of the door. He gave the makeshift blockade a long look before scooping up his weapon and fishing in his pockets for more shells to reload the M3.

"To the basement!" he ordered, as he pushed the last round home and cycled the action. "Hurry!" A few long strides took him to the rug in the centre of the dining area, which he pulled away to reveal a long trapdoor set in the floor. He yanked it open, standing aside to let first Arkadiy, then his son, take the steps that led to the basement. As Sezja followed, Avi locked eyes with her for a moment. "That won't hold them long," he said, indicating the kitchen door with a nod of his head. As if on cue, the door shook heavily as someone or something crashed against it. "Make him understand, okay?"

Sezja nodded and hurried down the steep staircase, the trapdoor slamming shut behind her. She heard the clink of the bolt sliding home as the key was turned in the lock and sent up a prayer for the brave man above her, sudden tears pricking her eyes. We will meet again, Avi Levine.

A crash reverberated through the house as Sezja reached the basement, which was lit by a single motion-sensitive lamp. Jadon spun round as the unmistakable sound of the Benelli M3 filtered down to them, its usual bark sounding more like a cough through the thick walls and ceiling. "No!" he gasped, before shoving his way past Sezja and running back up the steps. Reaching the trapdoor, he tried to push it open with his hands. It didn't move. He tried again, crouching with his back and shoulders against the heavy wood and heaving with all his might. "He can't do this!" he screamed, when it refused to open.

Sezja ignored him and turned to her brother, shaking her head at his unspoken question. "Later," she said. Arkadiy nodded curtly, taking her proffered hands. They bowed their heads. Arkadiy opened his mouth to pray, but closed it almost immediately as a door-sized hole appeared in mid-air beside them, emitting a low hum and shimmering with an ethereal blue light.

Sezja smiled faintly. "Before we call, He answers!"

Arkadiy met his sister's eyes, his expression softening for a moment. "Yeah."

Still crouched by the trapdoor, Jadon was startled by the sudden rhythmic booming of the M3 right above his head. It was joined by the chatter of a machine gun, and then the shotgun fell ominously silent.

"Dad!" cried Jadon, his voice tinged with fear.

Arkadiy and Sezja looked up at Jadon's shout. Their ears had picked up the weapon reports, too, and in that moment both instinctively grasped what they meant.

"Jadon!" called Sezja, beckoning urgently to him as he looked round at them, his eyes bulging when he caught sight of the glowing portal.

"What the he-"

His exclamation was cut off by the thump of a bullet burying itself in the other side of the trapdoor.

"Now Jadon!" yelled Arkadiy as the M3 opened up, the heavy shotgun slugs chewing into the wood surrounding the door lock. Jadon remained crouched and unmoving, his eyes wide as Sezja vanished through the portal.

"We've no time for this!" snarled Arkadiy, and leaped up the steps to grab Jadon's arm. With a yank he pulled him off-balance, and as Jadon stumbled down the steps toward him, lent force and direction to Jadon's momentum to send him head-first through the portal. Arkadiy paused as their unknown assailants pounded on the trapdoor, which was beginning to give way under the onslaught.

((Where are you?)) asked a familiar, silent voice in his head.

((One moment,)) he replied, watching the trapdoor bow and finally break, splintering under a heavy boot.

"You're too late!" he yelled triumphantly in Elsariyan, before flinging himself into the shimmering blue.