Chapter One

Hydra Anahi was a water world, or at least it was designated as such. While the world's surface was almost entirely covered in ocean, there were a few small, sparse volcanic islands which dotted its surface, marring its smooth, flawless beauty. At least from space. For the corporation that owned the planet, the islands were a necessary imperfection. They were the foundation where many resorts had been built. All designed to lure in wealthy holidaymakers.

One such wealthy family were currently vacationing on a small lone island, one that they shared only with their employees. These employees dealt with their every need, from catering to security. In some ways, they had become an extension of the family, one that earned not only respect but also a healthy wage for their services.

It was currently around mid-afternoon, local time, and the family of four were relaxing under not only the sun but also the watchful eye of four security personnel. Only the two children could be said to be having fun as they built sandcastles on the beach.

Preia Roma-Karimi, twelve, and her brother Zayden Karimi-Roma, eight, were enjoying their time here. Their parents Astraea and Daniel were having less fun as they laid on the sunbeds, soaking in the rays.

Preia was rather pleased with the elaborate sandcastle she had built. At its tallest, it stood at almost one metre in height with multiple bucket-shaped cylindrical towers. Her brother, Zayden's castle, wasn't nearly as impressive and he knew it. He showed his disapproval of her superior building skills with his usual malice.

He strode up to her, a deep frown on his face. His gaze was on her sandy construction which dwarfed his. Drawing back his leg, he kicked one of her towers, which caused half of her castle to collapse in a cascade of sand.

Preia glared at him as he ran back to his spot on the beach. "What did you do that for?" she demanded.

As expected, Zayden ignored her and continued to build his sandcastle. For a few minutes, she contemplated going over to him and returning the favour with a well-placed kick of her own but decided against it. He would have a hissy fit and go crying to their parents if she did that, and she couldn't be bothered with the fallout that was sure to follow.

"You're just jealous," Preia said instead. "My castle was better than yours."

"Nope," he shouted. "Mine is better. You don't even have a castle."

"Only because you kicked it down," Preia muttered under her breath.

There was no point in getting into an argument about it. Preia considered starting again from scratch as it would be far easier than trying to fix what her brother had destroyed but also didn't want to start again. In the end, she knew she had to.

With a sigh, she began to kick down the rest of her sandcastle, only to stop as her parent's loud voices drew her attention.

Preia looked over to where they were sat and saw that the two of them stood by their loungers, having a heated discussion. Their voices were progressively getting louder and louder until Preia could easily make out what they were saying.

"You're putting this family in danger," her mother said.

"I'm doing no such thing," her father rebuked. "Varris..."

"You care more about Varris your own family, your own children."

"That is absurd," he dismissed. "As someone who holds a seat on the Imperial Senate and has the power to influence the Empress's decisions, I have a duty."

"Your first duty should be to your family." Astraea didn't wait for his response as she stormed up towards the large beach house that sat elevated above the sand and rock on tall, thick stilts.

"Astraea," Daniel called out as he ran after her.

With them disappearing into the beach house, Preia looked over at Zayden who was in his own little world still building his castle.

Wondering what was wrong, Preia stood up and made her way over to the house. As she reached the steps that led to the balcony, Calvin, a close family friend and the head of the Roma family guard stopped her.

"Leave them be, Preia," he said as he made his way down and scooted her back towards the sand. "Your parents are just having a bit of a disagreement."

"What about?" she asked as she tried to get around him.

"That's their business. There's nothing to be worried about, Preia. Go build your sandcastle and have some fun."

Despite not being at all satisfied, she did as she was told and made her way back to her destroyed sandcastle. With a bucket and spade in hand, she slowly began to rebuild it. Though, in truth, she no longer felt invested.

Even without worrying about her parents, she often felt like she was too old to be playing in the sand. Still, she enjoyed constructing elaborate sandcastles, and they often didn't get the chance to come here on vacation, only managing it once a year and often for less than a week at that.

Noticing her little brother eyeing her, Preia decided to flatten what she had started and moved well away from his jealous reach. That was if it was possible to put that much distance between them on the small beach.

Finding a new spot, Preia used her foot to mark out a rough perimeter before she began to gather resources. With her first bucket of dampened sand, she once more began to build her sandcastle. Unlike before, however, her attention was divided. She kept looking towards the beach house for any sign of her parents. There was none, at least for a while. By the time they came back out, she had a solid foundation and had started to build the towers.

Preia watched as they sat back down on their loungers. It was clear that there was tension between them, and it was likely they had continued their argument, whatever it was about, inside.

All she knew for sure was that her mother was worried about something. Something dangerous. As to what that danger was? Preia had no idea other than it had something to do with her father and someone called Varris, a name that seemed familiar somehow. Preia didn't know who that was, but if they were terrible enough to worry her mother, then they had to be bad. She just hoped that her father was able to sort this Varris out. He was a senator after-all, one of the most powerful and influential people in the Empire.

With no more motivation to continue building her sandcastle, Preia pushed herself up off of the sand and made her way over to them. They didn't notice her at first, at least until she opened her mouth.

"Is everything okay?" Preia asked them.

Her parents looked at her in surprise before her mother spoke. "Go back to your castle, dear."

"We want to see what it looks like when it's finished," her father added. "You build impressive sand fortresses. Maybe it's something you could do when you're older."

Preia gave him a quizzical look. "Build sandcastles?" she asked, confused as to what he was trying to say.

He smiled. "No, architecture. I think you'd be good at it."

Her mother concurred. "I believe so, too."

"Finish your castle. We look forward to seeing it when it's all done."

Preia glanced back at her brother, who still wasn't paying them any attention. "I had nearly finished it earlier, but Zayden kicked it down."

Her father looked past her toward her little brother. "A lesson in life, Preia," he said softly. "Even though your fortress was destroyed, you should keep at it. Never give up and never give in, Preia. Put your mind to it, and you can accomplish near anything. I believe that you can build the best sand fortress ever."

"It's a sandcastle, dad," Preia corrected.

Her father smiled again, this time showing his teeth. "Your brother builds sandcastles. You build fortresses. There's a big difference between the two."

Preia smile back, feeling rejuvenated. With renewed vigour, she made her way back to her sandcastle―no, not a castle, a sand fortress―and continued building. She wanted to make it the best she could and show her little brother that he could knock it down all he wanted, but in response, she would rebuild it bigger and better every time he did.

She glanced up at her father as he walked over. He smiled and watched her build, and she smiled back, all of her previous worries forgotten. It proved to be short-lived, unfortunately, as he raised his Personal Holographic Assistant, which wrapped around his wrist like a cuff, and looked at it. Not a moment later, he turned on his heels and rushed back into the beach house, her mother following soon after.

Preia felt uneasy. Something wasn't right. Casting aside her spade and bucket, she sat there and stared up at the beach house. She wanted to know what was going on but knew there was little chance her parents would tell her. She was old enough to know that it was out of a desire to protect her, but not knowing gnawed at her curious nature.

Leaving her sand fortress behind, Preia made her way up to the beach house. As expected, Calvin once more intercepted her, but this time she had a plan that was sure to work.

"I need the toilet," she lied.

There was clear doubt in his eyes, but he let her pass. She made her way straight to the bathroom but veered off as she reached the door, making her way around towards the rear entrance to the living room. There she stood by the open arched doorway just out of sight of anyone inside. It was quiet, almost as though the room was empty. Fearing they weren't in there, Preia peeked around the corner to see both her parents sat on the couch. Her father had his head in his hands while her mother rested a comforting hand on his back.

"This isn't the bathroom," Calvin said from behind her.

Preia froze as her parents turned and stared at her, surprise etched on their faces. She had been discovered, her plan foiled.

Her father stood up sharply. "Why aren't you outside?"

Preia nervously moved further into the room. "What's happened?" she asked. "Is something wrong?"

Her mother stood up and put her arm around her husband's waist. "No, of course not. Everything is fine. Now go back outside and build your sandcastle."

Preia didn't believe them. She wanted to confront them on their lie, to demand to know what was happening, even though it would be pointless. They wouldn't tell her anything. They never did.

Knowing she wouldn't get the answers she sought, Preia left the living room and headed back outside. She made her way back down the steps onto the beach. With tears threatening her eyes, she sat down on the edge of her mother's lounger unsure what to do. Zayden was still building his castle as though nothing had happened, though it was clear that he had taken advantage of her disappearance from the beach. Her second sand fortress had been knocked down, presumably by him. She didn't care, though. Her more immediate concern was whatever had her parents so worried. She wished they trusted her enough to confide in her. She was old enough, she was twelve after-all, and could handle it, whatever it was.

A shadow fell over her, and she looked up to see Calvin stood over her with a sympathetic look. "Daniel and Astraea are going through some tough times," he said, sitting next to her. "They'll deal with it, they always do."

"Deal with what?" she asked. "I don't even know what's happened, or what's going on?"

"That's for them to tell you. I'm only here to keep you safe."

"Why won't they tell me, though?"

"Because they don't want you to worry."

"Well, it isn't working," she muttered under her breath. "I'm old enough to know what's wrong," she said with confidence. "I'm twelve."

He didn't agree. "That's for your parents to decide."

Preia decided on another tactic. "I was always told that keeping secrets was wrong."

"In some circumstances it's necessary," Calvin replied softly. "Sometimes, people keep secrets to protect their loved ones."

"I don't need protecting from the truth," she argued.

"Perhaps not," he conceded. "But your parents don't want to see you scared or upset. You might be mature for your age, but you're still twelve and still a child. Far too young for the weight of the universe."

Preia didn't know how to respond to that. She knew it was true, at least in her mother and father's eyes, but she didn't agree. She was old enough, and she had to prove it to them somehow. Sadly, Preia had no idea how.

Calvin stood up, drawing her attention back to him. "When you have children of your own, then you'll understand."

Preia's face scrunched up. "I'll be old by then," she said.

Calvin chuckled sadly. "That you will." He turned sombre. "Enjoy your childhood, Preia. Don't wish to grow up too quickly. The universe isn't a very nice place."

Preia watched him as he stood up and made his way up to the beach house and headed inside. The moment he was out of sight, Preia stood up off of the lounger and made her way to her brother. He paid her little, at least until she kicked down his sandcastle. His response came in the form of a high pitched squeal.

"That's for kicking mine down, twice," she said, before running back to the beach house.